Etosha National Park and Damaraland, Namibia: One of the best places to see African wildlife

It's an early winter morning in Etosha National Park, in northern Namibia, and so far it's been all "donkeys in pyjamas", as our Peregrine Adventures tour guide, Johannes Lekoloane, likes to call them.

Otherwise known as Burchell's zebra and named after a 19th century British explorer, these broadly-striped equine types are a vision of serenity, at this time of day. Strolling and munching on tufty vegetation, they have no particular place to go and not much to do except avoid being breakfast for one of Etosha's powerful predators.

We're close to a group of 10, including two little ones, that are approaching a waterhole for a brew. Through the expedition truck's big windows, we can clearly see their markings – as unique to each animal as a fingerprint – and on close inspection, the stripes seem to ripple out to the front and hind of each animal from a point mid-way along their torsos.

Fellow passengers, wise-cracking Melbournian Christine and pun-trotting Sydneysider Claire, have yet to spark into flow and I'm having a moment of quiet contemplation at the sight of these unprepossessing animals.

Suddenly, there's an eruption of movement from the far side of the waterhole.

It's a lioness, quickly into her stride and thumping through the shallow water, with ferocious intent, toward the zebras, 100 metres away.

"Oh no!" murmurs Christine.

Another lioness explodes from beneath nearby bushes and the target, a zebra foal wearing a look of confusion and terror, and its mother, rear, and begin cantering for their lives.

Etosha National Park is the first stop on Peregrine Adventures's 15-day "Classic Namibia" tour, which begins in the capital Windhoek and travels the length of the country, from north to south, before ending, across the South African border, in Cape Town.

Advertisement

Although the tour involves long days of driving, the bum-numbing is leavened by the occasional nerve-jangling drama and by some of Africa's most spectacular scenery.

Today, day three of our adventure, is set aside entirely for a game drive in Etosha, a 22,000-square-kilometre National Park in Namibia's north-east, roughly a quarter of which is covered by a glimmering salt pan – the "great white place" after which it is named.

It may look scrubby and unpromising but Etosha is one of the best places on the planet to see African wildlife.

Some 114 mammal species and 340 types of bird are found here, often in large numbers, and it's as good a location as any to see black rhinos.

After this fortunate start (for us, rather than the donkeys in pyjamas), the day pans out with a panoply (forgive the pans) of less heart-wrenching wildlife encounters, accompanied by Lekoloane's bubbly commentary and excruciating  pun-rallies hit from all sides of the tour vehicle.

We see herds of (who knew?) blue gnu wildebeest lazing around in the morning sun, groups of hartebeest, and Oryx, Namibian desert antelopes that can survive without water, and large numbers of springbok, that in spite of their small size and dainty gait can outrun anything but a cheetah, reaching speeds of up to 88 kilometres per hour.

The birds we spot are of the large and gawky variety, from an ostrich couple –  the male haughty, red-necked and in black body feathers and the female  smaller and lighter in colour – to a northern black korhaan skipping across the plain.

Meanwhile, we are getting closer to what looks like a white sea, the Etosha salt pan, travelling, along its fringes, through increasingly thick mopane woodland.

In the afternoon, we pass several towers of giraffe which, with their gangly necks, thick swivelling hips and uneasy movement seem the animal's kingdom's chiropractic nightmare and an unlikely argument for evolution.

Then, shortly after pausing to allow a mongoose to scurry across the dirt road, we pull up close to a cheetah in mid-kill, its powerful jaws locked onto the neck of a springbok, still gasping for breath.

It's a still, almost tender scene, the female cheetah cradling the springbok in loving caress, her fangs buried in its windpipe, stifling the life out of it.

By the end of this eventful day, we're ready for stiff sunset beverages, on the terrace of Etosha Safari Lodge, at the edge of the park.

The next morning, fortified by a good night's sleep in our cosy bungalows and by pre-dawn coffee at the lodge, we are back into the park.

Although it's a less dramatic morning, we are treated to several sightings of lions, including one typically torpid male zonked out beside the Okandga waterhole, and of two, separate, black rhinos.

When we see the first, a fully-grown female, we are distressed to note its sawn-off horn, but guide Lekoloane  explains that National Park rangers have removed it to save it from poachers.

Losing your most distinctive feature seems a high price to pay for protection from human greed.

However, the signs are that such conservation measures are helping to stabilise numbers of Africa's last free roaming and largest population of black rhino. With Tinder yet to catch on here and these extraordinary creatures, which grow to 1.6 metres tall and 1400 kilograms in weight, blighted by poor eyesight, it hopefully won't dent the promulgation of the species.

In the afternoon, we head south-west towards Namibia's Skeleton Coast, where massive sand dunes rise up beside the Atlantic ocean, driving for several hours through the broad, central plains to Damaraland.

These rubbly flatlands were once home to the San bushmen and their presence here, up to 6000 years ago, is commemorated in southern Africa's largest concentration of rock engravings, at Twyfelfontein, which we visit the next day.

"Welcome to the bushmen Facebook," says our guide Elizabeth Kashikuka, as we tour the World Heritage site, encompassing 2600 rock engravings etched into the surrounding sandstone.

Twyfelfontein means "doubtful spring" and the presence of water here attracted many animals that in turn drew the bushmen hunters.

"People gathered here for ceremonies," says Kashikuka, "and like your own indigenous people, they used rock engravings for spiritual education. They mostly depict animals, including sea lions from the coast, 100 kilometres away, and some show the transformation through death of human to animal spirit.

"Giraffes are depicted as holy creatures as it was believed they could reach the water in the clouds, and this," she says, pointing to a petroglyph of a lion man, "is Twyfelfontein's most significant image, showing a shamanic half man, half lion."

The close connection between human and wild animal was widespread, as we find out during a visit to the Damara Living Museum.

Like the bushmen, the Damara are an ancient hunter-gatherer people and this outdoor museum recreates a traditional village built around a central chief's hut, with locals demonstrating the use of all manner of natural resources as medicine, tools and clothing.

Elephant dung, for instance, had more than one job, including being used dry as a fire accelerant and heated and wet, and covered in cloth to soothe rheumatism and swellings. Springbok skins were used for clothing and their horns fashioned into excellent back scratchers while ostrich eggs and porcupine quills were turned into decorative ornaments and jewellery.

The Damaras' ingenuity didn't stop there, the nomadic culture developing a whole extra raft of communication through tongue clicking, a still living language demonstrated by museum guide, Sharon Tautago. Loud and percussive, it's not easy to twist your lips around.

Leaving Damaraland the following morning, en route for Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast, we still have 10 days of giant rust-coloured sand dunes and the planet's second-largest canyon ahead of us.

However, the early part of Peregrine's "Classic Namibia" tour has proved rich in detail and high in incident. Including, it turns out, a heartwarming tale of "the one that got away" involving a young "donkey in pyjamas" narrowly escaping the claws of two fast  but misfiring lionesses, one early morning in Etosha National Park.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/namibia

Peregrineadventures.com

namibiatourism.com.na

FLY

South African Airways has daily flights from all Australian cities to Namibia. Passengers fly from Perth to Johannesburg and onto Windhoek. Fares from the East Coast from $1720, including taxes. See Flysaa.com

TOUR

Etosha National Park and Damaraland are on the early part of Peregrine Adventures' 15-day "Classic Namibia" trip from Windhoek, with regular departures through 2018. From $6145pp, twin share. See: peregrineadventures.com/namibia/classic-namibia-107738

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures and with assistance from South African Airways.

Comments