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The San bushmen knew it as “the great white place” or “the white place of dry water.” It is Etosha, one of Africa’s most dramatic national parks. Price-wise, it is one of Africa’s biggest safari bargains.

The first impression for many visitors to Etosha is one of amazement that there is so much life in an environment that is so harsh, so punishing.

A desert elephant contemplates the sunset by a waterhole at Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

The 22,270-sq.-km park is located in northern Namibia, formerly known as South West Africa. Ninety percent of the country is classified as arid, but even after driving through Namibia’s badlands, parts of Etosha come as a shock. The park is dominated by the Etosha pan, a blinding white, sterile calcite plain that was once a lake roughly the size of Switzerland. After heavy rains the lake returns, though annual evaporation rates of 3,000 mm in this desert country ensure that it is extremely short-lived.

It is the park’s barrenness, however, that makes it a unique safari experience.

Kruger National Park in South Africa has huge numbers of game, but it is also set on more fertile soil. The animals are there, but the plant growth makes it harder to actually see them.

Etosha has vegetation, but not a lot. The view extends for shimmering kilometers, exposing herds of gemsbok (oryx), zebra, ostriches or prancing springbok, all nibbling a living from what looks like not much at all.

In fortunate years of good spring rains, when the Etosha ghost lake has risen from its pan, well over a million flamingos descend to breed. Flamingos are very precise in their requirements. The lst spring rains were too good; the pan was flooded too deep and the flamingos have blessed Namibia’s eastern neighbor, Botswana, with their presence instead. Etosha is flamingo-less.

It is, however, shaping up to be a bonanza year for Etosha’s other nonhuman inhabitants, due to the same unusually heavy spring rains that failed to impress the flamingos. Namibia’s wildlife is used to the boom and bust of desert meteorology. Species such as oryx don’t come into estrus during periods of drought. When it rains, though, it pours, and Etosha’s animals are currently reproducing like mad.

The elephants that migrate to Etosha from the Kaokoland wilderness northwest of the national park are desert elephants. Etosha is fenced, but the fence does not interfere with the elephants’ ancient migration routes. They simply push it over and rumble on through.

Once thought to be a sub-species, the desert elephant has now been classified by scientists as just an ordinary African elephant. But not really. Namibia’s desert elephant is the largest elephant in Africa; indeed, it is the world’s largest land animal. Its legs are longer than usual; its tusks, due to calcium deficiency, are much shorter and frequently broken. Unlike other African elephants, it consumes water sparingly, and it does not push over trees or inflict other “elephant damage” on its delicate habitat.

No safari is complete without the visceral thrill of witnessing violence. If you ignore the “Don’t get out of the car” signs you may experience some violence first hand. Scientists dryly denote the phenomenon of tourists getting eaten as “interaction.”

Etosha’s lion population is somewhere in the region of 220 animals, and they blend into the patches of sun-dried yellow grass with the ready ease born of evolution. They also lurk in the pools of shadow beneath the occasional acacias and mopane trees. The contrast between the glare of the white salt and dust and the shadow renders them well nigh invisible.

A cheetah walks off with its kill — a black-backed jackal.

Visitors may witness “road hunts.” Some prey species know they can get better traction on the smooth dirt roads, encounter less obstacles and therefore attain and maintain greater speed. The result is a pell-mell chase past bewildered safari-vehicle drivers as black-backed jackals pursue rabbits, or as cheetah pursue black-backed jackals.

Etosha pretty much swallows its human visitors in its vastness. There are three government-run accommodation sites: Namutoni at the eastern entrance to the park, Halali, 70 km to the west, and Okaukeujo, which is near the western extremity of the park that is open to visitors. (Much of the western park is off-limits to anyone who is not a scientist.)

Many visitors are (perhaps understandably) obsessed by seeing the big animals: lions, elephants and herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically over the plain. But there’s a lot of smaller life around. The closer you look, the more you see: ground squirrels frisking and squabbling; 100,000 queleas debating roosting sites in a waterhole reed bed; jackals and civet cats prowling the camps in search of barbecue scraps; jewel-like birds drinking from camp taps.

Photo tips: Bring a 500 mm lens. There is nothing more heartrending than a photo of a very small desert elephant.

Pack a bag of rice. Drape it over your car window. Rest your lens on it. Hey presto! A tripod!

Don’t succumb to “Springbok syndrome” and blow off all your film on the first herd of springbok that come bouncing beautifully into view.

Travel tip: Book accommodations well in advance. They’re cheap ($50 for a four-bed self-catering cabin with utensils, linen, hot water, etc) and they’re usually within a two-minute stroll from a floodlit waterhole. Okaukeujo is excellent for black rhino. All three camps have a shop (food, beer, charcoal for the barbecue), a gas station and a restaurant and bar where safari guides gather tell amusing, usually off-color stories at the expense of their clients.

Drive yourself. No need for four-wheel-drive; Namibian roads are good. You could do Etosha in a mini.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.