Located in the far northwest of the country, and covering an expanse of around 22,000 square kilometres, Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premier wildlife-viewing destination, stuffed to zoo-like proportions with a host of large mammals and some spectacular birdlife. In indigenous languages it is variously known as “great white place”, “place of mirages” or “lake of a mother’s tears”, which all refer to the park’s defining feature, Etosha Pan, a vast saline pan that covers a fifth of its surface area. Around 110km long and more than 50km wide in places, it is Africa’s largest salt pan, and is even visible from space. In the dry season it is a seemingly endless expanse of shimmering white, tinged with olive green, which, in years of exceptional rain, briefly morphs into a shallow lake resembling a giant mirror. This transformation harks back to the pan’s origins, millions of years ago, when it was probably a much larger, deeper inland lake fed by northern rivers – including the Kunene. When tectonic shifts altered the lie of the land, forcing the rivers to change course, the lake dried up.

Brief history

The establishment of Etosha as a “game reserve” by the Governor of German South-West Africa in 1907, was as much, if not more, about safeguarding an economic resource for the colony as it was about wildlife conservation. Earlier incursions by European missionaries and traders from the 1950s had opened up trade routes resulting in a major depletion of wildlife, although after years of conflict, the Owambo chief Nehale Mpingana and his followers had succeeded in driving most settlers away. German troops arrived in 1896, initially to control the rinderpest. Three years later they built a fort at Namutoni, which was attacked and destroyed by the Owambo but rebuilt the following year – and still stands today. A second outpost was added at Okaukuejo in 1901.

Initially, an area of almost 100,000 square kilometres was envisaged for the park, stretching down to the coast. Over the years the controversial boundaries have been altered and the area reduced to its present size, though inevitably large numbers of people – specifically Hai||om San, Herero and Owambo – have been dispossessed of their land in the process.

During German colonial times the nomadic Hai||om San population was allowed to stay in the reserve, provided they continued to hunt with bow and arrow, but in 1954, under the South African regime, most were forcibly removed to work on nearby farms; a small percentage have remained as park employees but they, as well as other communities, continue to press government for land and greater benefit from the park’s income.

Flora and fauna

Etosha is a wonderful haven for wildlife, boasting the continent’s largest concentration of black rhino and other large mammals in abundance: elephant, giraffe, lion, leopard, cheetah, wildebeest, kudu, oryx, eland and hartebeest, to name but a few. Round every second corner, you bump into herds of Burchell’s zebra, impala and springbok – the park’s most numerous antelope. The rarer black-faced impala and Hartmann’s mountain zebra are only to be found in the western reaches of the reserve. Birdlife too is prolific: 340 species have been recorded in the park. Large bateleurs and martial eagles wheel above, riding the thermals, while ostriches, kori bustards and secretary birds stride across the plains; rollers, bee-eaters, sunbirds and orioles provide brilliant flashes of colour; and others fascinate with their extraordinary appearance. Two such birds are the marabou stork, a huge, seemingly bald bird with a particularly pendulous gular pouch, and the southern ground hornbill, a turkey-sized creature with distinctive crimson throat and eye patches, whose unearthly booming call can carry for 3km.

Mopane woodland savannah and grassland predominate in the areas surrounding Etosha Pan, with the occasional clump of elegant makalani palms conferring round some of the water sources. Some 30km west of Okaukuejo, however, the ghostly, contorted forms of moringa trees – dubbed the “fairy-tale forest” – form a striking contrast. In the western section of the park, which until recently was closed to the general public, the landscape is markedly different: hillier terrain is covered with a rich reddish brown earth, peppered with rocky dolomite outcrops and covered with smaller mopane shrub.

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