Photo Spot Summary
GPS Latitude: -18.855591
GPS Longitude: 16.329321
Fly into Namibia - the Etosha National Park is very easy to find, and any driver can take you there.
Photo Spot Details
Etosha National Park is a national park that is located in northwestern Namibia. Proclaimed as a game reserve in March of 1907, it has been a very popular spot among many tourists and photographers.
As the wheels of the land rover cracked across the dry crust of the Namibian soil I gazed across the plains ahead. It was July in Namibia and the dry season was in full swing. Arriving from the lush Zambezi river my thoughts were filled with the verdant wetland smell of damp bush and water reeds, Etosha, as I was to discover, is an altogether different beast. Approaching the centerpiece of the park one sees a vast salt pan surrounded by grasslands covered in bone-white sand. The closer you come to the center the farther you can see on all sides, beyond the painted pale shrubbery into the smoky veil of the veld. Etosha does not rise before you, it expands.
Dust rises amidst the vaporous thermals of the sand flats at the slightest whisper of wind, casting shadows across the landscape. The amount of heat generated is astounding, creating haze like I’ve never seen before. At midday the entire salt pan seems a giant unlit bunsen burner, releasing columns of clear shifting gas into our atmosphere. Through the gloaming of the horizons emerges what for me was one of the most impressive spectacles of Etosha, its elephants.
Etosha has plenty of elephants, and being used to the elephants of the denser bushland of Tanzania the Namibian pachyderms seemed larger. As impressive is the way the environment of the salt flats affected their appearance. Elephants habitually toss sand and dust over themselves. In Etosha, this activity paints them white, so much sometimes that their hide resembles the color of their tusks. It can be an unearthly experience to see these white wraiths shifting through the faraway bush, wrapped in the velvet shimmer of the heated earth. Up close they lose their spectral qualities but are no less remarkable, seeming to be massive moving statues, the crunch of their feet a shot of sound in the quiet.
On my second day in the park I spotted a real treat for an East African in the bush, a black rhino. He ambled along with the land rover for at least a kilometer, with little care paid to his excited observers. After allowing for just enough time for a morning photo shoot he vanished back into the bush, surprisingly quiet for such a juggernaut. I was to find out that rhinos in Etosha were more than a once in a lifetime spotting. To my surprise and delight, I would see several more that day, at close range. By the end of my stay, I had seen more than exist in the entire Serengeti. Although recently increased poaching is ramping up pressure on the animals it was still good to see such a thriving population of this ancient strider of the savannah.
A dry and parched plain Etosha provides excellent spotting opportunities as water-seeking fauna congregates upon the scattered watering holes of the park. In most cases the action was never too far away from these small pools, forming the lifeblood of the entire park. The consequence for visitors of the park are useful, leading to significantly reduced search times for those fantastic viewing opportunities. In the early hours of the afternoon, the number of animals approaching popular water holes was in the hundreds. The pools are quickly obscured by the massing herds of elephant, zebra, and the odd greater kudu. Here competition for space was often fierce. A shrill trumpet from the elephant herd would send the antelope and zebra scuttling for safety until the giants had drunk their fill.
As a safari experience, I enjoyed my time in Etosha greatly, but it certainly had its challenges for me as a photographer. I’m quite fond of my 600mm Sigma Sport, and of the advantages, it provides for capturing animals at a distance. In Etosha however, it was a struggle to capture images that met the quality standard I set for sharpness due to the strength of the heat haze and the amount of dust. The best option for me was to adapt and capture scenes that embraced the environment and its hazy sphere.
In terms of gear maintenance, it was a nightmare, with the ultra-thin and light dust getting absolutely everywhere. Even in the land rover sunlight scattered across the millions of particles in the air, swirling at the slightest movement. After just a few lens changes I would start to see artifacts and dust on the images I took. I repeatedly had to give my kit a full cleanup. The Etosha salt pans took the gold, from everywhere I’ve been, for gear cleaning time…
Thankfully, it was not all wiping and dusting however, as Etosha is a well-run park with affordable accommodation and great roads. There is plenty of information available at park headquarters, and there are anti-poaching patrols visible several times a day, which is quite a comfort as many parks lack their presence so keenly. Almost as if to respond to this honor guard energy and zest for life courses through the animals of the park. I noticed many were more playful and active during the dry season, as compared to other parks I have visited. This was particularly a characteristic seen around the waterholes, much akin to the behavior I would expect in the wet season. I would make an uninformed guess that the availability of water (and resulting areas where grasslands remain) lead to less stress and survival drive, and therefore more time for goofing off. Take it with an extra-large grain of salt and hold the fries, as the only experience I have with animal behavior is practical rather than academic.
I left Etosha after a stay I thought far too brief, headed back to the humid waterways of the East. Were I to come again I would choose the wet season, to see the vast difference in the experience, to see the explosion of color rise up from the comparative silence of summer’s muted and dusty palette. It would however be a very different kind of beauty. Etosha to me was the quintessential safari experience. The imagery the park can inspire, the dust, the parched earth scorched by the strength of the white-hot sun, the shimmering savannah from which the animals would emerge to drink, the trumpets and calls carried for miles across the flat plains, the memory seems drawn from the word safari itself. This is no dense bushland or endless plateau, but a theatre where the struggle for survival is distilled and played out in the tradition of life for countless millennia.
This photo spot was submitted by Robert Alexander, a wildlife photographer from Tanzania, currently based out of the Netherlands and working part-time alongside his studies in ecology and the environment.
The 150-600 is certainly a versatile lens for a trip like this but you’d never confuse the photos with those taken with primes in the same range. If money weren’t an issue, it would be a no brainer but for most folks, 150-600 makes a lot of sense.
I think I’d rather rent a couple primes and an extra body (if required).
That was lovely, thank you. Both the photos and the poetic narrative are terrific. Good practical note too – take two bodies, weather-sealed everything, and don’t change lenses!
Very happy to read this article of Etosha. Congratulations for your pictures.
I’m a tour guide based in Namibia for more than seven years and I go to Etosha at least once a month sometimes even more. It is a wonderful place but not the only good one to see wildlife in Namibia. Although the country is mostly arid and desertic it is one of the only place on earth where you can find animals in such environments. Lions, rhinos and elephants (just to name a few) can be found outside the national parks especially in the North-West of the country. On the other side of the country (The Caprivi strip) we find rivers running the whole year through such as the Zambezi, the Kwando and the Okavango and it attracts a huge diversity of animals and birds. I would recommend anyone to visit this part of Namibia too.
A beautifully evocative piece of writing.
Your comments about returning in the wet season strike a particular chord with me. Most people go in the dry season as it’s cooler, insect free and the wildlife, being forced to congregate around the remaining water, is easier to find. However, this is offset by the fact that the animals tend to be in poorer condition, there are relatively few birds (all the migrants, of which there are many, will be absent), there are no young animals (as most animals time their gestation for the start of the rains), the background is dead and leafless, it can be impossibly dusty and the light conditions range from difficult to horrible.
There is no cloud cover so the sky remains relentlessly clear. Other than very early morning and late afternoon the light is harsh, direct and flat. This means a huge tonal range resulting in burned out highlights and blocked shadows. This in turn, leads to eyes with no detail or catchlight, hard shadows breaking the animals outline (when side lit), poor modelling (when front or top lit) and drab, desaturated colour. Unfortunately, this is the typical look of most African wildlife photography.
That’s not a criticism, it’s just the way it is – unless you choose a different time – and there are downsides to that too!
Excellent description of Etosha, and top notch photos. Just in time for my third visit, again it will be April/May. Yes, Etosha does have three distinctive “faces” and while in the winter months wildlife around waterholes is much more productive, the light in April/May, with an occasional downpour, and puffy white clouds, is what impressed me in previous two trips.
Thanks for the great images Mr Hoelman. Next time I would love to see you book a trip with Philip Stander and sgow us some of those desert lions. Aside from the ones in the photos. What other species did u see?
Thank you for sharing your experience. And thank you for remember me beautiful souvenirs. I went to Etosha twice and each time I lived new experiences. My best one is the waterhole of Okaukuejo during the sunset. The light is wonderful and animals, species by species, come for drinking in the silence of the bushveld. Terrific!
Thanks for sharing, Robert.
Thank you, I wonder how much these safari cost ? I’m used to travelling cheap has a backpacker ( I hate that term) , altough africa seems to have a couple of backpacker friendly country when I look at all thoses nature park and reserve and safaris prices, it seems to me that safaris are all made up for rich upper class tourist in most if not all Africa’s park . How easy could it be to get around in namibia without needing an organized trip or having to break the bank?
Namibia is very ‘civilised’ with good roads and infrastructure so from that point of view is user-friendly for getting around safely. Distances are large so flying by small plane is the obvious option unless you are a seasoned traveler and have plenty of time. Namibia is not however, the best place for wildlife viewing unless you are pretty dedicated and know where and when to go. Etosha is a one off kind of place. Most of the country is desert of one kind or another and wildlife is hard to find. It does however, have some spectacular and dramatic scenery which is well worth seeing.
Exquisite work, Robert–and equally engaging commentary that shows intelligence and sensitivity. Your piece allowed me to get a bit of the feel of that very special place. If I do get to go to Africa, that would be the location to choose.