by Ginger Mauney
Like graphs in a textbook, numbers present a single impression.
While a litany of statistics relating to size, age, seasonal fluctuations and other aspects provides a reader with knowledge and perhaps an appreciation, deeper emotions are left largely untouched.
Starting with the numbers and looking beyond, Namibia’s Etosha National Park offers a myriad of experiences that defy quantification.
“Twenty-two thousand, one hundred and ninety-five is a big number. It is also the size in square kilometres of the Etosha National Park, making it one of the largest national parks in Africa.”
But on the ground, it is a number that can almost be felt. Drive out onto the Okondeka plains, feel the breeze, breathe in the fresh air scented with manure and anticipation, and listen to the sounds created by wildlife and wild spaces. Etosha feels enormous, beyond the scale of measured kilometres. With no fences and no buildings in sight, it feels infinite.
The largest feature in the park is Etosha Pan, an area covering 4 730 square kilometres, 21% of the park’s surface. And while the size is awesome, if you approach the pan at midday when mirages create mirrors shimmering across the horizon, the scenes are even more impressive. Zebra, moving in single file, seem to float towards springs on the rim of the pan. Jackal lap up water from the salty seeps, while ostrich dance in the heat haze. These are scenes of beauty infused with the excitement of knowing that predators lie in wait at the pan’s edge. Etosha is the largest open-air theatre on earth.
Other numbers featured in the statistics represent temperatures. They vary from a low of –1˚C in the winter to over 40˚C during the summer when the sun is at its zenith. But as visitors to Etosha can attest, winter mornings can be as sharp as ice splinters. Driving out onto the plains, you spy ground squirrels standing on their back legs, using their bushy tails for support as they warm themselves in the heat of the rising sun. It seems so effective that you want to join in.
In the summer, the heat is palpable. Hot air whips across the plains, sand blows and stings the skin and, strangely, visitors don’t seem to mind. They are much too preoccupied with the scenes of springbok sparring in the dust, of giraffes moving languidly but deceptively quickly across the plains, and of vultures catching thermals in the air and drifting further and further away.
Rainfall figures in Etosha – varying from 300–500 mm a year – classify Etosha as semi-arid, but if you are fortunate enough to experience a thunderstorm while you’re in the park, all thoughts of the amount of rain falling are washed away by the intensity of the storm’s build-up and ultimate release.
During the summer months rain clouds start to build on the horizon. Slowly, the masses grow, until like cannibals, the clouds appear to consume each other. Against a lapis-blue sky, lightning flashes and a towering mass of white and purple cloud starts to dominate the sky. The temperature drops, the wind blows ominously, and then, suddenly, a torrent of rain is unleashed.
Isolated thunderstorms interspersed with days of steady drizzle are typical during the few months of Etosha’s principal rainy season, but the effects may be felt for years to come, because with the rains, comes birth. One day it might appear as if only two or three springbok lambs are lying in the grass, their ears pressed to the ground, waiting for their mothers to return from grazing. Then, apparently overnight, the plains become dotted with groups of tiny lambs, racing, chasing and pronking as if in celebration. Zebra foals and wildebeest calves are similarly plentiful and carefree. But this is also the time when predators, particularly jackals, have their pups. So the young antelope must be cautious, otherwise they could end up being a meal for another litter.
After the rainy season, when evaporation has taken its toll and the isolated pools of water have dried, Etosha’s wildlife retreats to one of approximately 86 springs, artesian fountains and boreholes. Visitors to the park need to settle near just one of these watering points to witness countless special moments. Warthogs run down to roll in the mud, giraffe approach tentatively before spreading their long legs and daring to drink, while herds of elephants charge in to quench their enormous thirst. Often young elephants postpone drinking water and simply wade in; immersing themselves in the water until all that can be seen of their bulk is their trunk protruding like a snorkel from underwater.
Elephants, giraffe and zebra are three of the 55 mammal species found in Etosha National Park. Black rhino are another. Indeed, Etosha has the largest population of these rare creatures on earth. Under the lights at Okaukuejo’s floodlit waterhole, visitors may see as many as ten black rhino gathered at one time. But once again, numbers don’t tell the entire story.
Because of the successful protection of black rhino in Etosha, the population grew to a point where it became a ‘donor’ population, providing small breeding groups of rhino for relocation on private farms in Namibia. This ongoing programme has been highly successful in protecting the population and encouraging breeding of this rare species.
The success of the Etosha National Park as a tourism attraction can be quantified. Fifty-one years ago, in 1955, 6 210 people visited the park. In 1990, the year of Namibia’s independence, the number had increased to 90 000. As Etosha celebrates its 100th anniversary in March 2007, the number of tourists visiting the park is expected to reach 180 000.
While these numbers are important to Namibia’s economy and add to the prestige of the Etosha National Park, they give potential visitors advance notice that they should make their bookings soon!
This article appeared in the Oct/Nov ‘06 edition of Travel News Namibia.