Interpreting Etosha
Etosha’s place names originate from eight different languages and a colourful, if somewhat bloody, past. Hu Berry, a former head warden at the national park, has become fascinated by the history they reveal.


Image During my fifteen  years of residence in Etosha as a wildlife ecologist I called the park ‘The Place of Dry Water’. I coined the name after I asked an old Wambo member of staff what he would call the mirages which frequent Etosha’s horizons. He thought a moment and then replied, “You see the water but when you go there the water is dry”. His poetic description inspired me to find out more about the place names I dealt with every day.

Etosha hosts at least 185 recognised place names originating from Afrikaans, English, German, Herero, Latin, Nama (language of the Damara people), Oshindonga (language of the Ndonga people in Owambo), and San (language of the Haikom Bushmen). Some of the names are picturesque, others evocative of times when Etosha witnessed the passage of a succession of cultures.  Together they form a mixture of unique descriptions which capture the imagination of visitors to Namibia’s Mecca for tourists.

Etosha itself is also spelled ‘Etotha’ in early literature and has various interesting interpretations. ‘The Great White Place’ is the most popular, or ‘Place of Emptiness’ – describing the vast salt pan covering 4760 square kilometres. ‘Lake of a Mother’s Tears’ is another interpretation, allegedly recalling the grief of Haikom women after their infants were killed by marauding warriors. The fatigue an early Haikom hunter felt when he attempted to cross the huge pan led to the saying, ‘place where you run falteringly across’. Damaras refer to the salt pan as ‘Tu-gas’ – the Rain Plain, whereas Haikom call it ‘Khubus’, ‘Khubush’ or ‘Khushu’ -  a totally bare, white place with lots of dust.  It is also known as ‘Chums’, which Haikom say originated from their onomatopoeic description of the ‘chum-chum’ noise made by a person’s feet when walking across the soft mounds of powdery clay that occur on large areas of the pan.  Yet another Haikom description is ‘Xom’, pronounced gutturally as ‘Ghom’, meaning ‘Bruised Place’ or a place where the earth’s skin has been scraped away.

The main rest camp Okaukuejo, pronounced O-ka-kwi-you, means ‘the woman who has a child every year’ or ‘a prolific woman’.  One of several legends associated with Okaukuejo relates how a tribal princess and her followers living by the natural fountain were visited by a prince from a neighbouring tribe.  He had every intention of sleeping with the attractive princess, but his ardour was dampened by the news that her menses were flowing. He left without making love to her, venting his frustration by calling the spring ‘Place of Red Water’ or ‘Place of the Sick Woman’.  Haikom call the place ‘Thekwi’, meaning ‘a place of the small bush’, probably referring to the dwarf shrub savannah on the surrounding plains.  One Haikom was more specific, calling it ‘Hui-e’ or ‘Place of the Salt-bush’, referring to the major component of the dwarf shrub savannah around Okaukuejo, namely Salsola etoshensis.  A little-known alternative name for Okaukuejo is to be found on the war map for German South West Africa. There it was known as ‘Huiub’, which relates phonetically to the Haikom name. The rest camp’s floodlit water-hole, now supplemented by boreholes, is one of Etosha’s major tourist attractions.  Okaukuejo has been the headquarters of Etosha since formal tourism began in 1955 and incorporates the internationally recognized Etosha Ecological Institute.

Halali is the name given to the rest camp that lies midway between the western and eastern entrances to Etosha. The name is traditionally used in Germany by huntsmen who sound the halali horn, a bugle-like instrument, signifying that the quarry has been brought to bay and the hunt is over. In Etosha the word is used with a different connotation. It proclaims that within Etosha’s borders sport hunting is indeed over and there will be no more needless killing of wildlife.  An artificially-supplied floodlit water-hole named Moringa, after the picturesque ghost trees that occur on the hill above it, was built on the boundary of Halali in 1992. This enables tourists to have an outstanding view of wildlife at the edge of the rest camp. The dolomite-rich hill itself was originally named Ogomabes by the Haikom, meaning ‘Place Where Many People Died’, possibly a reference to earlier conflict with other tribes. A self-guided walking trail exists on this hill, called Tsumasa, which simply means ‘hill’.

Fort Namutoni
Historically known by Wambos as Onamutune, now Fort Namutoni, it means ‘place that can be seen from far away’, because it is noticeably elevated due to the accumulated mineral deposits borne to the surface by artesian water. Historically the Herero name was ‘Omutjamatinda’, describing the ‘strong water coming from the raised place’.  In the past century a trader and cattle post existed near the reeded fountain. The Haikom refer to the entire area surrounding Namutoni as Namob, meaning ‘place of pleasure’, possibly because of its pleasant and attractive situation with plentiful shade and edible berries.  In 1896 the German Reich established a garrison under Lieutenant Fischer, who became the first warden of the unproclaimed Etosha. Legend has it that, on the night of a full moon, the massive wooden gates of the old fort can be heard creaking as they swing open, allowing the German cavalry to ride out under a bugle call.


< Previous   Next >


Safari Planner

Search The Site

Please enter your email address to sign up
What do you think?
What is your favourite desert animal?