Situated in the northern part of Namibia, Etosha National Park is one of the iconic wildlife locations of southern Africa. At it's heart is the Etosha pan, a dry lake bed stretching to the horizon, which is virtually featureless (except for a few animals who seek refuge of a night because it doesn't provide any cover for predators). Surrounding this there are stretches of grassland and scrubby woodland.
Like most national park area's there is a curfew. You have to be inside a waterhole lodging area or out of the park by dark and cannot enter till dawn. If you want to be the first out of the campground to take advantage of nice photography light, make sure you are up early and waiting at the gate ready to go (then hope the staff are not tardy with their opening time).
Wildlife photography and wildlife viewing is a bit different to other area's of Africa such as the eastern African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. For a start it is dominated by the self drive crowd in a variety of 4WD or 2WD vehicles, but mainly because it revolves mostly around waterholes. The cooler, drier middle portion of the year is the best time to visit as the only water in the park is at the waterholes which are scattered around the edges of the pan and these obviously attract the animals. You basically drive from one waterhole to another through the park hoping to see animals along the way but always having more success at the waterholes.
One of the most popular locations in Etosha is Okaukeujo. This is both a great waterhole and a place of accommodation. There are many campsites and a range of chalets of various quality. The best of the chalets are the waterhole chalets which are built directly overlooking the waterhole (you can sit on the balcony and view the elephants at your leisure).
The waterhole itself is supplemented by pumping from a bore but it is otherwise completely wild. The lodge and camping area itself is fenced off so it is like a zoo in reverse. The viewing area for the waterhole is a low stone wall with electrified fencing in front of it to keep the animals out and there is plenty of space around the wall to photograph from at different angles. The sun sets to the far side of the waterhole so in the evening there is the chance to get magical, glowing back-lit shots and slivers of golden light falling on whatever animals happen to be there.
Be warned - if you want close-up photo's of the smaller animals you will need considerable focal length. The elephants often walk around to the near side of the waterhole letting you use your shorter focal lengths but most other animals seem to stick to the far side. I was shooting with my Canon 500mm F4 lens with and without the 1.4x extender but I sometimes wished for more (for instance the lion photo below is cropped quite a lot). I was using my full frame Canon 5Dmk3 and found myself regretting my decision not to bring my Canon 7D as it's higher pixel density and smaller sensor would have given me some extra 'effective focal length'.
Shooting at night at the waterhole is made possible by floodlights. People stay up till all hours watching the procession of animals coming down to drink.There seems to be something of a routine for the various species. Elephants come and go in family groups during the day along with zebra's, the occasional wildebeest and impala. Giraffes usually arrive in the twilight or early evening. The rhino's make an appearance later in the evening and it is very common to see a number of the huge animals attending the waterhole all at the same time. The evening I was there, there were six black rhino's all having a drink and bathing at the same time. They are irascible beasts and there was quite a lot grunting disagreement among them. When you consider how few black rhino's there are in Africa (and the fact that they are solitary animals) it is remarkable to be able to see so many of them in one place. After I returned to my tent there were apparently eight of them there at once.
Shooting in the low light conditions of the waterhole late at night was difficult. A very high ISO is a given. I was using my 500mm F4 on a tripod and using live view and manual focus as it was too difficult to focus with auto focus. The rhino's quite often stand completely still so it is possible to magnify the live view and manually focus. Then I would take my hands off the camera to allow lens shake to subside, wait for the rhino to become stationary again then fire off a few shots with a cable release. Doing this means the ISO can be at a 'reasonable' level (ISO 3200 in the following example) and image quality pretty usable. The camera's auto white balance gave very orange shots because of the warm colour temperature of the floodlights but this is easily correct in Lightroom if you shoot in RAW.
Elephants love the waterhole. While there I was treated to the sight of a herd of about 30 elephants drinking and splashing around in the waterhole. One of them was wearing a radio collar, evidence of the research that is carried out in Etosha. On other occasions a bachelor group of three enormous bulls came down to enjoy the water.
Four lion cubs came down to drink on their own in the evening obviously waiting for their mother to return from a hunt. We saw them again after dark with their mother and in the early hours of the following morning we heard roaring very close to the waterhole so they must have stayed around for the night. I didn't see them again before we left for our transit game drive to Namutoni.
On the road between waterholes or driving from one camp to another, the animals you see comes down to luck and a keen eye. On our drive from Okaukeujo to Namutoni we were extremely fortunate to spot a leopard. Our eagle-eyed guide spotted 2 ears sticking up above the grass that about three cars in front of us has failed to see. We stopped and a magnificent female leopard strolled casually over and flopped down in the shade of our vehicle (you can see shots of her in my image gallery). The next morning we stumbled across a pride of lions in early morning light with a few playful cubs.
Etosha is certainly a great spot to visit - especially if you want to try self-drive game viewing in an organized and safe environment. I will certainly be going back there in the future some time.