Text and photographs Annabelle Venter
It’s August and I can’t wait to ‘see yellow’ – tiny yellow balls of fluff as far as the eye can see and set against an intensely blue sky. Then I know that it’s springtime and I’m on my way to spend a few days at Halali Camp in the middle of the Etosha National Park.
These yellow balls are the inflorescences of Acacia nebrownii, a short and somewhat untidy, many-stemmed acacia tree growing no higher than about three metres, which you’ll find lining the roadsides in Etosha. The common name of this plant is water-thorn acacia, named thus because it’s thought to indicate the presence of water.
So it’s fitting that after entering the Andersson Gate and passing through Okaukuejo Camp, the first waterhole you’ll encounter on the road to Halali bears the name of this plant.
Truth is, we simply cannot drive past Nebrownii Waterhole without making the detour to see which animals are drinking there. There are almost always a couple of the legendary ‘white’ elephant bulls, reinforcing the myth by spraying new layers of white mud over themselves.
Between the legs of these giants you’ll probably catch a glimpse of springbok, gemsbok, zebra and giraffe playing out the usual tense scenarios common to waterholes in the dry season. It’s an image you will have seen many times and is always a favourite among visitors.
This elevated waterhole gives you a good view and it’s quite close to the parking area. If you make your way here in the early morning or late afternoon you might be lucky enough to see lions and hyaenas, and in summer the lions often rest up during the midday heat in the culvert visible back on the main road. Black rhino often come to drink here too.
But today there’s not much happening and after a quick check, we’re on our way again. After lunchtime the traffic to Halali will be subsiding. The game-drive vehicles from lodges outside Andersson Gate must begin to turn homewards as we continue on our way west, to what often feels like the most remote camp in the park. For us this is one of the attractions of Halali – that the roads are somewhat quieter in the early morning and late afternoon, and that and the stunning pan vistas in this area are the backdrop to many a magnificent sighting.
The camp is spacious and set in a woodland of large mopane trees. As we pull through the gates for the third time this year, we joke that we are visiting our weekend cottage, because we come here so often! But this time we’re camping (it’s very booked up in August), so after greeting Noreen at the office and checking the sightings book, we choose our tree and campsite that will be our home for the next four days.
There’s no time to waste, as the light is beginning to take on the afternoon glow, so after setting up camp basics, it’s off for the first game drive. On the way to the gate, we meet our old pals Samuel and Gabriel, the game-drive guides who tell us about their recent cat sightings. Apart from the tour operators who visit regularly with clients, I think we are among the most regular local visitors! We shared a special leopard sighting with Samuel a few trips back (see TNN Winter 2014) and he always knows where the big cats are hanging out.
Halali Camp consists of two- and four-bed chalets and close to 60 camping sites, the latter on the basis of first come first serve, unlike Okaukuejo where you are allocated a stand. This is why it’s good to check in as early as possible if you want a good, quiet spot! But the upside of not being given a number is that the next morning after folks have checked out you can move your campsite! There are lights at most of the campsites as well as electrical points, and some stands have cement tables and stools. Facilities for dishwashing and washing lines for clothes complete the basic offerings. There is even a small bar at the campsite.
There is a large and sparkling swimming pool next to the restaurant for whiling away the hot hours of the day.
The bush chalets were revamped several years ago and all have a braai stand and outside seating. The standard rooms don’t have braai facilities and you’ll need to eat in the restaurant. There is a small fridge in each chalet and room, as well as a kettle, cups and saucers. There are no inside facilities or cookware for preparing food and also minimal utensils, so you’ll need to bring them along. Breakfast is included in the rates for all these types of indoor accommodations.
Eating outside your bungalow at Halali has the exciting possibility that the resident badgers may visit you. But please take note that it is most unwise to leave food out for these animals, because if they become a nuisance they will be eliminated. So just enjoy watching them! They don’t usually pay humans any attention and you’ll hear them knocking the metal bins over as they canter through the camp. We’ve often heard them in the dead of night sniffing near the tent or at a screen door.
If you’re camping, make sure your food is secured inside your vehicle at night, as these incredibly strong creatures have been known to achieve some amazing feats to get to food. Please note that these are wild animals and are known to be extremely aggressive.
Jackals also visit the camps, as all visitors to Etosha know, and have become somewhat of a pest over the years due to feeding by visitors. A special daytime treat is finding the scops-owl in the campsite. Sometimes you may be lucky enough to see a pearl-spotted owlet perched briefly in a tree, calling to its mate across the camp. Ask the camp attendants, as they usually know where to look.
We have two favourite routes for the evening drive and it’s a toss-up whether we turn left or right at the T-junction, 9 km north from the camp gate. Left takes you in the direction of the Salvadora and Rietfontein waterholes, but we often just do the 8-km detour along the edge of the pan – beautiful in the late afternoon light. You really don’t have to drive great distances to capture those orange-red sunset silhouettes on the way home, and you never know what little creatures will be waiting for you en route back to camp.
Of course youmight win the lotto, as we did on the last trip, and find a leopard relaxing in a tree near Rietfontein.
The other option is to turn east and visit Nuamses, the Etosha Pan lookout, and drift home via Goas. Both Nuamses and Goas are known for late-afternoon sightings of leopards, but you’ll have to watch the time and not head back to camp too late, as the drive to Halali is straight into the setting sun.
Once back at camp, head straight for the Moringa Waterhole within the camp. This is a magical way to end the day, as just after sunset the air fills with the tinkling calls of kelkiewyns (Namaqua sandgrouse) arriving in large flocks for a final drink before dark. It’s so lovely to watch their reflections in the water, landing and taking off. It’s the real sound of an African desert night about to begin. Gradually their calls die away and the spotlights illuminate a silent scene as night settles in
Your eyes begin to ache from peering into the semi-darkness, and then suddenly you see a movement to your left. It’s more a change of the shape of the background than anything definite, but gradually as you stare you see that background taking the shape of a leopard! What masters of camouflage these big cats are – you might only recognise it once it’s actually at the water! This always causes a ripple of chatter and mild hysteria amongst the onlookers – there’s just a rock face a couple of metres high separating us from the animals below, and the big cats are what we’re all waiting for. The leopard drinks and disappears as silently as it came.
Some nights the waterhole is taken over during twilight by the elephant herds – and such a commotion is carefully avoided by this secretive cat. It’s marvellous to watch the elephant interactions as they slake their thirst and revel in the water. Later it’s time for a rhino or two to arrive – sometimes as many as five or more at a time. While watching all this carrying on down below, keep an eye open around you for scorpions in the seating area, or even more crucially, a badger or two!
You can spend the whole night sitting here waiting for the next act to happen on stage, and you are welcome to do so, as the waterhole is within the camp and lit all night, but at some stage you’ll need to eat something and you won’t want to miss the restaurant hours (closing time at nine) if you’re not self-catering.
Dinner is a buffet affair and there’s usually a choice of game, beef, fish or chicken plus lots of salads and veggies to keep all diners happy. Some nights there’s a braai outside on the veranda and the draft beers are always icy cold. Taté Petrus Malakia has been the chef at Halali for 29 years and is looking forward to his retirement later this year. He mans the grill and has fried thousands upon thousands of eggs in his time, always with a ready smile.
After dinner we drift off to our tent to sit outside for a last few minutes listening to the night sounds. There are lions near camp tonight and they are restless, the males roaring continuously in the early evening, then again around dawn. This is what camping in Etosha is all about – feeling the night awakening around you and hearing the creatures out there; feeling the gentle movement of air caress your face; listening to the mopane leaves rustling softly in the breeze; watching clouds float across the moon; avoiding the badger; and feeling alive!
Then it’s off to sleep in the freshest air imaginable, listening to the pearl-spotted owlet and its friend the white-faced scops-owl, and dreaming about what you may find on your travels the next morning.
Please stick to the speed limit of 60 km/hour on all Etosha’s roads.
Travelling any faster endangers the lives of the residents that the park is meant to protect – not to mention your own life and that of your fellow visitors.
Please don’t smoke – it’s a public and somewhat confined space, so show respect to your neighbours.
This story was originally published in the TNN Spring 2014 print publication.