Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Oh, Etosha – Erich

Let me tell you about two amazing days in Etosha National Park. But first, let me explain what it is. Etosha is built around the Etosha Pan. This is a salt pan. A few hundred million years ago, this was a lake. A few different rivers flowed into it. But then there was a change in elevations due to continental drift. And the rivers took a different course. So the lake dried up, leaving a huge lake shaped salt and sediment pile. When it rains, the salt pan is very permeable, so the water can soak through it. But beneath the salt layer is a clay layer that is impermeable. The water flows downhill (mostly south) on this clay layer until the clay layer meets the ground level and the water comes out.

This has formed watering holes for the animals. There are three kinds, as I learned. Contact springs are when the water is between a permeable and impermeable layer, and the water cannot go down the impermeable layers so it has no choice but to soak up to the surface. Water level springs are when the elevation of the land dips below the water table level. And artesian springs are when pressure from the weight of material above the water presses on the water, forcing it up and out of the ground.

Regardless of the types, the watering holes are places where many, many animals congregate to get a drink. There are many watering holes along the southern and western edge of the salt pan. So lots of game is found here.

When the first European settlers came, they thought this place was great! Hunting paradise. But about 100 years ago, the then governor of the region declared the lands around Etosha Pan as a preserve. He was trying to stabilize populations of these animals. Now it is a national park and there are huge herds of many different antelope species and so much more.

Etosha is a driving park. We camped at Okaukuejo, a campsite with swimming pool, restaurant, and most significantly, a permanent watering hole that is floodlit. So you can even watch at night and possibly see some of the nocturnal species. But when not in camp, we drove to various watering holes to see what we could see.

Let me tell you some of the most impressive moments we experienced. Then I will give you a full list of the different species we saw.

Our first night in Okaukuejo, we went to the floodlit watering hole after dark. There was thunder and lightning. Seeing the lightning in the background was an experience I cannot easily describe in words. At first, there were only a pair of ducks in the water itself. We felt a few drops and were about to leave when Syarra saw something coming. We stayed and watched and a white rhinoceros and her baby came down to the watering hole to drink. They hung out for awhile and then headed out. After that, we also saw (more or less in silhouette) a giraffe browsing on trees in the distance beyond the reach of the floodlights. When the lightning flashed, we could sometimes make out its shape more fully. But it never decided to drink and to come into the light.

The next day, we were traveling from watering hole to watering hole. Along the roads we saw many species, including some that are very rarely seen. For example, we saw a honey badger. It walks much like the badgers in the U.S.A. But they have black fur on their sides and underside. Their tops are more of a tan or brown. They are called honey badgers because they work together in symbiosis with a species called the honey bird to get honey. The birds apparently lead the badger to a place where there is a bees' nest. Then the badger breaks into it and eats honey. After which the honey bird gets to enjoy the mess of honey left, for the badger is neither complete nor neat in his honey consumption.

But perhaps most exciting and even rarer than the honey badger, we saw a leopard. We were at a watering hole called Aus. There we saw some kudu (large antelope with twisting horns and thin white stripes on their sides) drinking. After they left, we were about to leave. But along came a leopard! It didn't walk to the watering hole, but went partially around it. It got to a stand of trees and then laid down to rest. Leopards are the rarest of what is often known as the big five. So we stayed to watch. A bit later, three springbok (another antelope species that is a bit smaller than the kudu, though still large, and has a lighter coat) came toward the watering hole. But they seemed to suspect something was wrong. They were very slow to approach. Meanwhile, from the other side, a whole troop of kudu and several warthogs came stomping in. They must not have smelled anything amiss or suspected the presence of the leopard, because they happily marched to the watering hole.

While the kudu and warthog were approaching, the leopard got up, walked to a stone structure, leaped up onto it in one big jump, and then went over the wall. None of the prey species saw him. We thought perhaps the leopard was trying to get into a position to surprise one of the kudu or warthogs. We stayed until both of those groups had enjoyed enough water and left. But we never saw the leopard attack. Maybe that wasn't the plan after all. Still, we considered ourselves incredibly lucky to have seen the leopard at all.


Impala seeking the shade

Here is a more comprehensive list of many of the animals we saw at Etosha National Park:
  • Leopard
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Side-striped jackal
  • Spotted hyena
  • Gemsbok (a type of oryx)
  • Blue wildebeest (which is also called the brindled gnu and isn't blue)
  • Red hartebeest (which isn't fire engine red, but does have a reddish brown coat)
  • Bontebok
  • Kudu
  • Impala
  • Black-faced impala
  • Springbok
  • Steenbok
  • Damara dik-dik
  • Black rhinoceros
  • White rhinoceros (which is not white, but its name comes from the Dutch word for “wide”)
  • Zebra
  • Warthog
  • Honey badger
  • Goshawk
  • Korhaan

If any of you have any interest in going to see the animals of Africa, ask me about Etosha and how you can do it. I can't imagine that you will be disappointed.

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