OnSafari: Just Not Etosha

OnSafari: Just Not Etosha

Photo by Stephen Farrand, Namutoni Pan, Etosha
Photo by Stephen Farrand, Namutoni Pan, Etosha

We ended our Namibian trip with two game drives in Etosha National Park. You’ll find it odd that we were not particularly excited that we saw three black rhino, two cheetah, four lion and several families of elephant. My personal exception: real excitement at finding a rare pair of blue cranes.

Why no jubilation? If we see one rhino at 700 yards in the crater we celebrate for days! One of the three rhino we saw in Etosha practically bumped the car. So what’s going on?

Admittedly, that list of the big game headliners I mentioned above exceeds most average East African game drives, so why did we all come to this conclusion? Because you can also see that many headliners in an afternoon in a good zoo. Get my drift?

Etosha National Park is not zoo. It’s technically not even a focused managed rhino reserve like Solio or Lewa Downs in Kenya, for example. But despite its official size, more than 20,000 square miles, there’s actually not much wilderness in which these animals live.

The animal habitats are pretty small areas surrounding the three great pans on the park’s southern edge. And it’s all fenced in.

Neither the animals or the very confined Etosha bush seems wild, and despite the headliner animals there wasn’t a lot else, and no large herds.

We all agreed that for an exclusive Namibian experience Etosha makes an excellent last stop. But we all also agreed that Namibia’s uniqueness and magic has little to do with the completely fenced in Etosha.

Rather, it was our experiences in Sossusvlei, Damaraland and yes, even Swakopmund that were so unique. I’d add to that my previous experiences in the Kunene. These four venues make Namibia an extremely compelling safari destination.

But not for big game wild animals. Ninety percent of Etosha is bare desert or salt pans. The three great pans at its southern end and their multitude of satellite water holes provide year-round water to this otherwise arid environment. That attracts and concentrates all the wildlife in a rather small area.

Because the true “wildlife area” is small and can be adequately fenced and well managed, Etosha has become a very important spot for conserving wild black rhino, for example, despite the fact there have been several poaching incidents already this year.

Before these unusual recent poaching incidents, Etosha would publish the number of its successfully conserved black rhino. We believe there are well over a hundred still thriving in the reserve.

The black rhino we saw were frisky, ornery and irritable, just like I found rhinos everywhere on the continent before the terrible poaching began in the 1980s. Wild black rhinos struggling to survive in places like Ngorongoro Crater or the Serengeti are closely guarded and generally very wary of close encounters with tourists. So if you’re interested in observing what is likely the most original wild behavior of a black rhino, Etosha could be your place.

But the behavior of the other headliners was characterized by a real placidness of the kind you’d expect in a zoo. That doesn’t mean the elephant aren’t dangerous, just not quite as much fun to watch.

Newer tourist properties serving Etosha like Onguma where we stayed on the eastern side and Ongava on the western side, are posh upmarket resorts that have the potential of attracting visitors just for themselves.

This places Etosha squarely with similar small, well-managed reserves like Lewa Downs or Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya, plus a host of similar private reserves in South Africa.

Bottom line: Etosha big game viewing is a wonderful addition to the more important Namibian attractions and it boasts some truly exceptional places to stay. But it falls short of the great wildlife viewing found in many other parts of the continent. It’s typical of the closed and heavily managed reserves that have become essential for the conservation of animals like the rhino.

That’s good. It’s just not exciting “wild” wildlife viewing.

But I don’t want to end my accounts of what turned out to be an incredible Namibian safari with a duh-duh blog like this. Read my previous blogs about Sossusvlei and Damaraland. There’s incredible magic, here, and all of us on this trip were definitely changed by what we learned and saw in this weird and remarkable land.

Just not Etosha.