Inside Etosha
Etosha is a wildlife park like no other. On a reserve the size of The Netherlands, vast concentrations of game gather at water holes set on a glistening silver pan. It’s arguably the best place in Africa to view ‘the Big Four’. Here award-winning photographers Steve and Ann Toon give their insiders’ tips for “The Great White Place”.


ImageIt’s late afternoon and the sun’s baking down on the chalk-white pan. We’re driving slowly, staring into the thorn bushes, past small groups of zebra resting bar-code heads on the backs of their neighbours. A foal spooks as we go by and moves closer to its mother. We spot a stallion rubbing his haunches on a termite mound, but don’t stop because we want to find Ivy.

Ivy is a lioness. We’ve christened her Ivy because she has a brand mark on her flank that resembles the letters ‘IV’. Brand marks have been used in the past by researchers to identify individual lions in this world-famous game reserve. Ivy also has four delightful, three month old cubs, and we’ve been lucky enough to track them down on several occasions.

We first found them one morning on a zebra kill close to the road.  Ivy was sharing the meal with other members of her pride and we marvelled at her strength as she dragged the carcass into the shade - the four hungry cubs eagerly tripping at her heels.  Another pride lioness also had very small cubs and we guessed they wouldn’t be moving far. With so many to feed, and so much prey gathering on the plains, we reckoned everything these lions needed was right here on our doorstep. We were right. During the next few days we stumbled across them lolling around in the heat or enjoying a breakfast of fresh wildebeest. Once they crossed the road right next to our vehicle, warily keeping the smaller cubs close, no doubt en route to a favoured patch of shade to crash for the day.

Of all the pride members, Ivy has captivated us most. Something about her assured manner suggests that she’s a seasoned and skilful lioness. We want to follow her fortunes further.

This is one of the great things about Etosha, Namibia’s premier national park, and one of Africa’s top wildlife reserves. It’s one of our favourite places because, in this bleached landscape of shimmering heat - Etosha means ‘great white place’ - it’s possible to pick up the stories of individual animals encountered on previous game drives.

Etosha is one of those places where you can really tune in to the unique rhythms of its ecosystem. Because the landscape is so open, it’s an excellent place to see and photograph iconic African wildlife at whatever time of year you visit. It’s also one of the best places for seeing some of the smaller, lesser-known, but equally fascinating creatures, like bat-eared foxes, silver foxes, honey badgers and the diminutive dik-dik antelope.

Many operators run tours to the park, but Etosha is also an excellent self-drive destination. The park is easily reachable from Windhoek along Namibia’s well maintained, empty, metalled roads. And you can negotiate the reserve’s gravel roads in a two-wheel drive sedan, although a larger 4WD does provide a little extra comfort, and after heavy wet season rains a few roads can flood.

You don’t need an expert guide to take you round, as the road lay-out is simple and you can buy a roadmap of the reserve on arrival. The roads explore the thorn bush and arid savannah grasslands that skirt the south and east sides of the reserve’s most dramatic landscape feature, the expansive Etosha pan. This massive dried-up lake is around 120 kilometres long and up to 60 kilometres wide. The reserve’s 100 plus mammal species and 340 or so bird species can be a lot easier to locate in this vast wilderness than in many more densely-vegetated reserves. The drive between each restcamp is only about 70 kilometres and petrol is available at each camp, as well as a shop selling basic supplies and a restaurant.

The best time to visit? Most people choose to go in the dry season, with August to October being the busiest months. This is certainly the best time if you want to see large concentrations of game, including big elephant herds, lurking predators and hundreds of herbivores gathered en masse at water. At this time of year the best way to enjoy the reserve is to simply park up at a waterhole and let Etosha’s wildlife come to you. The downside of a dry season visit is that everyone else also wants to visit then, so you do need to book well in advance.

Call us perverse, but our favourite season in Etosha is the Southern Hemisphere summer. The reserve attracts fewer visitors at this time because of the heat - temperatures can exceed 40 degrees - and there is the ever-present threat of thunderstorms. But Etosha wears a completely different mask at this time of year. It’s lush and green, alive with waterbirds, an unexpected treat in a usually arid reserve (in good rainfall years the pan shimmers with pale pink clouds of flamingos) and most of the animals have their young then. You won’t see big elephant herds at this time, as they disperse deep into the bush, and game generally is scarcer, but so too are other tourists. And those thunderstorms can be spectacular.

There’s also a lot to be said for visiting around April and May, when daytime temperatures are more bearable and the chillier nights of winter have yet to arrive.

Back on our afternoon game drive we’re still on the lookout for our lioness. Ivy’s afternoon routine is unusual. Unlike most lions that rarely stir before sundown, Ivy starts moving around the bush in the late afternoon. She’s quite conspicuous too; boldly crossing the open terrain, advertising her presence to anything nearby. We pick her up like this again today, sitting quite openly on the edge of the plain. We stop, scanning the nearby bushes for the four cubs. Not one is to be seen. But Ivy seems content enough sitting there and isn’t looking about her constantly as she might if the cubs were missing. When the cubs still don’t show after a while we decide to drive on. The light’s softening now. We wonder if we’ll run into the clan of hyena we’ve seen a few times nearby, most recently making light, but noisy, work of a zebra carcass which they had filched from three young lions. Or we might catch another glimpse of the impressive black rhino bull we saw yesterday, striding across the pan in broad daylight.  But where are those four cubs?

We drive along the road still speculating about them. As we slow down to look through binoculars at a flock of vultures in the distance, we hear a soft ‘mewing’ sound and look down to see where it’s coming from. Peeping over the edge of a ditch by the roadside are two amber eyes topped by a pair of teddy bear ears. It’s one of the cubs, a mischievous young male, who seems to have appointed himself leader of the gang. He’s certainly inherited his mother’s boldness. He’s followed out by another cub, and then another…

The cubs have been hiding in a storm drain under the road just a few hundred yards from their mother. Enjoying an early taste of independence, they emerge from their shelter and pad curiously around our vehicle on oversize paws they’ll eventually grow into. As suddenly as they appeared they scamper off to look for their mother. She is casually walking over, calling them to check everything’s okay and calmly greeting each one with a reassuring lick, before leading them into the thorn bushes and out of our sight.

Lion cubs in the wild suffer a huge mortality rate. But somehow we sense Ivy’s cubs may have a better chance than most. Four months later we’re fortunate enough to visit Etosha again. Once more, we find ourselves on the lookout for Ivy. On our last afternoon we head for a waterhole just south of Fischer’s Pan, where people have reported lions. On our approach we’re met by a dozen or so giraffe, all staring fixedly at a stand of trees behind us, mesmerised. Turning to see what holds their fascination, we see four, fat lion cubs sitting prominently by the water. Walking coolly towards them is a well-fed lioness with a brandmark we don’t need binoculars to identify. It’s Ivy and her four rapidly growing cubs, still successfully living their lives on the dry white plains of Etosha.


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