Etosha – from Okaukuejo to Owambo

Unwind at the Craft Café – Namibia Craft Cafe
December 21, 2013
Saturday shopping at the Green Market
December 22, 2013

Text and photographs Ron Swilling

Viva la difference! Or is it just generally a thumbs-up to lateral thinking and making the most of a good opportunity?

Most journeys through Etosha are from Okaukuejo via Halali to Namutoni or vice versa, but wanting to do something slightly out of the ordinary, I decided to exit Etosha via the conveniently-situated King Nehale Gate to experience life in the north en route to Rundu. It seemed like an interesting alternative when travelling to the north-eastern reaches of the country – and turned out to be a good choice.

Waterhole at Okaukuejo. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Waterhole at Okaukuejo. Photo ©Ron Swilling

It all began at the bustling Okaukuejo Camp with its superlative waterhole attracting such a diverse selection of wildlife that it makes you wonder if you should simply stay put and not explore the rest of Etosha at all. The downside is that it’s a bustling and popular camp. However, if you can deal with the crowds and the babble of people wafting down to your waterhole show, it’s a must-do overnight stop. It’s also recommended if you’re staying outside the park. Even in the middle of the day, you might see an elephant (or more) coming for a drink.

On that auspicious night though, while I was bundled up in jerseys and jackets and was still cold to the core, I couldn’t have wished for more. (Well… maybe that herd of elephants I missed because I dawdled over supper.) Before long, I heard the clattering of stones as a rhino approached the waterhole.

Elephants in Etosha. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk

Elephants in Etosha. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk

Then – in case I doubted that blessings could be doubled – another one arrived. When they had slaked their thirst and trotted off, there wasn’t a moment to even think of a sleeping bag before the dark form of a lion appeared and sauntered off, roaring, into the distance. Every animal after that was slightly hesitant – for good reason. Eventually, when my heavy eyelids could no longer stay open, I also headed into the darkness to find my tent.

Vital pockets of animal wealth

Etosha is like a magnet that pulls you into the heart of Namibia and doesn’t stop impressing you with its array of awe-inspiring members of the animal kingdom. The chalky white character of the land sets it apart from other national parks. According to Bushman lore, a lake was formed from the tears of a woman mourning the death of her family after her village had been raided. When the lake dried up, the huge white pan appeared. With no disrespect to Bushman fables, I prefer the more popular notion that the pan was an ancient inland lake fed by rivers that dried up naturally in the course of time. It definitely felt like a place of abundance rather than one of sorrow.

Wildlife watching. Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Wildlife watching. Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

These protected places of Earth are vital pockets of animal wealth in a world where wilderness is fast disappearing. When Game Reserve No 2 (the precursor to Etosha National Park) was proclaimed in 1907, no lion were recorded there, neither were there elephant, the last herd having been driven into a marsh in the Namutoni surrounds in 1881 and shot. Things have changed since then and both species are now substantially represented.

I managed to finally meet up with elephants at Halali Camp, located halfway through the park. The waterhole is situated below the platform of craggy rocks studded with moringa trees, which makes an excellent viewing platform.

Elephants in Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Elephants in Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

A family group of elephant appeared silently as if they had just materialised from a different realm. This group had only love in mind and we sat there mesmerised as moms cuddled their young and the young ones flapped ears and chased guineafowl and impala from the waterhole, trumpeting their indignation. I noticed that a man was wiping his eyes unashamedly. I had to drag myself away to climb into my car and reach Namutoni by nightfall. These mighty beasts were giving us humans a lesson in loving care and affection.

Halali waterhole. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Halali waterhole. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Giraffes formed striking silhouettes against the red, sinking Etosha sun outside the Namutoni gates before the camp once again provided a peaceful haven for the night. Approximately 50 km north, with more elephant- and zebra-viewing along the way, I popped out of Etosha at King Nehale gate to find myself in the land of the Owambo people.

Still ruled by kings

Completely different to the rest of Namibia, the north is where the majority of Namibians live. The region is characterised by makalani palms, fields of mahangu (pearl millet), oshanas (depressions that fill up with water in the rainy season), homesteads and shebeen after shebeen, referred to as cuca shops. These informal bars enliven the streets with wacky names and colourful exteriors. Brand-new shopping centres have emerged over the last few years in the towns, while rural life continues as it has done for aeons.

Owambo women weaving baskets. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Owambo women weaving baskets. Photo ©Ron Swilling

This is a place for being introduced to Owambo culture, sampling traditional meals, visiting a homestead, watching people expertly weaving baskets from makalani fronds, and experiencing a culture that relishes mopane worms and is still ruled by kings.

The Kavango Region is just a few hundred kilometres’ drive away from Ondangwa, all on tarred roads. The peaceful water world of the Okavango River delights with birdlife, water lilies and languid crocodiles that sun themselves on the banks. Days of peace and the sounds of birds, frogs and water lapping against the shore intermingle with the muted sound of villagers washing, paddling their bwato (dugout canoes) on the water or singing softly on the opposite bank.

Fisherman on the Okavango river.

Fisherman on the Okavango river.

The Kavango is the doorway to the Zambezi Region (previously known as the Caprivi), and all its wonders lie to the east for those with more hours at hand. If not, it’s a day’s journey south, through rural Kavango, the Mururani veterinary gate and onwards to Windhoek.

Animal bounty, rural Africa, intriguing cultures and a soothing water world make this a recommended circular route and a life-affirming journey.

The history of the Etosha National Park

Etosha was created towards the end of an era of unfettered hunting when a vast tract of land extending from the Skeleton Coast into the heart of the country was set aside by the far-sighted German Governor Dr Friedrich von Lindequist in 1907.

Springbok. Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Springbok. Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Initially referred to as Game Reserve 2, it was renamed Etosha Game Park in 1958, and received national park status in 1967. Over the years it has shrunk considerably to become the 22 912 km² Etosha National Park we are familiar with today. The park has had a tumultuous history that encapsulated poaching, drought, disease and the forced removal of its indigenous inhabitants, the Hai||om San/Bushmen, from within its boundaries.

Kori bustard in Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Kori bustard in Etosha. Photo ©Ron Swilling

A century after its inception, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has adopted more modern and holistic approach to its management, co-operating with the surrounding communities and relocating surplus animals to restock areas elsewhere. Once reducing and creating corridors for Etosha’s animals such as elephant and lion to improve the carrying capacity of the land, the wildlife multiplied in the park environs. Species such as black rhino and roan antelope were re-introduced and the number of black-faced impala, endemic to the area, slowly increased. Today Etosha is home to a thriving animal population.

The camps in Etosha

The three main camps in the park are Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni, which are evenly spaced through the park. Okaukuejo is reached through Andersson Gate on the C38 from Outjo, and Namutoni through Von Lindequist Gate on the B1 from Tsumeb. The King Nehale Gate in the north-east provides a gateway to the northern reaches of the country.

Okaukuejo accommodation. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Okaukuejo accommodation. Photo ©Ron Swilling

The more exclusive Onkoshi Lodge is located within the park near Stinkwater, north-west of Namutoni. The most recent accommodation establishment is Dolomite Camp in the western section of the park. Guests staying at Dolomite and registered Namibian tour operators are now allowed to access Etosha from Galton Gate in the west.

Namutoni. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Namutoni. Photo ©Ron Swilling

All the camps have restaurants, shops and fuel stations. A plethora of lodges surround the park in close proximity to the gates, giving visitors a wide choice of accommodation options.

Abundance of wildlife

There are 114 species of mammals in Etosha. Four of the ‘Big Five’ are represented here, with buffalo being the exception. These animals are found in the Khaudum and Bwabwata national parks. Keep your eyes open for the black-faced impala, endemic to north-western Namibia and south-western Angola. This subspecies is distinguished by the conspicuous vertical band down its nose, and is the only impala found in the park. The diminutive and endearing Damara dik-dik is a small antelope to look out for in eastern Etosha.

Black-faced impala.

Black-faced impala.

Three hundred and forty bird species have been identified in the park. A third of these are migratory and can be seen only at certain times of the year. Birds commonly seen are the large kori bustard, often observed searching for food in the savannah, and flocks of Namaqua sandgrouse at the waterholes.

Okaukuejo to Owambo to Rundu

Although it might appear from a map that you can drive through Etosha very quickly, this is never the case. Animals sightings and crossings, detours to waterholes and a speed limit of 50 km/hour make this an entire day’s journey, if not more. It is recommended to overnight at an establishment either inside or outside the park before travelling further north, or to break the journey halfway.

Shebeen or 'Cuca shop'. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Shebeen or ‘Cuca shop’. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Once you have exited Etosha via King Nehale Gate, the tarred B1 continues in a north-westerly direction towards Ondangwa. There are several accommodation options in the vicinity, providing good bases from which to explore. The road continues northwards for 43 km before veering eastwards on the B10 for approximately 400 km to Rundu.

For those continuing to the Zambezi (former Caprivi) Region, follow the B8 towards Katima Mulilo, and for those returning to Windhoek, drive in a south-westerly direction on the B8 towards Otavi where it joins the B1. It takes a day to drive the 700 km from Rundu to Windhoek, so unless pressed for time, it is advisable to enjoy an overnight stop along the way.

For a taste of Owambo culture

Nakambale church. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Nakambale church. Photo ©Ron Swilling

  • Visit Nakambale, an old Finnish mission station in Olukonda, just south of Ondangwa. Nakambale has oodles of character and charm, and offers camping and basic tented accommodation. The old mission house, now a museum, is a worthwhile stop to sample a spot of fascinating history. Manager Maggie Kaanante gives village tours and prepares local meals. Phone ahead to pre-book this enriching experience.
  • Ongula Village Homestead Lodge, the more upmarket accommodation option, offers a good serving of Owambo culture. Situated on the edge of the village, the lodge is in an ideal place to be introduced to the food and lifestyle of the people living in this intriguing Namibian region.
TNN Summer 2013/14
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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