Namibia Trip Report: Chudop Waterhole Etosha
Having now recently completed my second trip to Namibia, I have visited quite a number of the waterholes that are to be found in Etosha National Park. One must understand the geography and ecology of Etosha to visualize the situation you will find yourself in when photographing wildlife in this part of Africa. Etosha pan is a long dried-up expanse of crazed white clay. Parts of it do see water at times but it has not been properly filled for thousands of years. This featureless, vegetation-less, water-less 'lake' makes up the majority of the area of Etosha National Park and apart from a few animals seeking refuge there at night (or oddly a rhino I saw way out on the horizon once) it has no wildlife. Surrounding the pan there is mainly scrubby natural woodlands and grassy plains which in the winter months see very little or no rain and get extremely dry. Dotted throughout this terrain are waterholes where the animals are forced to congregate daily. Some of the waterholes are supplemented by bore water, many others come from natural springs. This year it is very dry in Namibia and the land around some waterholes has been turned into dust-bowls that spread out for hundreds of metres. Other area's of the park didn't seem as badly affected by over-grazing but everywhere is very dry as the drought persists. Although it could be argued that the man made waterholes are less 'natural' they at least go some way towards compensating the wildlife for lost territory that is now occupied by the farmlands that spread beyond the borders of the park.
One waterhole in particular stood out in my mind from the first trip I made there and that is Chudop. Chudop is located only about twenty minutes drive from Namutoni Lodge so it is a really great place to hang out waiting for sunset and keeping one eye on the clock so you can time your run to the Camp gate to the minute (a curfew is in place in the park after sunset). Unlike many of the other water holes it is surrounded by brown dirt (rather than the white rocks and clay base that many other waterholes have) and has a nice clump of reeds growing in the middle. The parking area is on the north side which is perfect for shooting either in the early morning or the late afternoon.
On my last visit to Chudop just before leaving the park there was a clan of hyena's on a kill that had been made during the night. The carcass was more than half consumed and was being dominated by the clan matriarch . Judging by the size of her stomach she had probably eaten a good deal of the carcass herself but even so she sure wasn't letting any of the other members of the family near her meal!
Giraffe's are a common sight at Chudop and I have seen them on every evening visit which is when Giraffes are typically at the waterholes. The classic photo's of giraffes are the legs-splayed, head down, drinking shot or the spray of water as the head is lifted. I've got shots like this so, wanting to try something different, I took a lot of compositions of this old bull's body and legs. He must have had a long, hard life as he bore numerous scars and callouses that gave him a certain character. it was as though his life's story was written in battle on his body, Many of the scars would have been made by a competitor bull who's long and powerful neck swings would have driven horns painfully into the chest and forelegs . I suspect some of the other scars on the legs and hind quarters were from repelled lion assaults.
A 'classic' giraffe image from my first visit in 2014. This is a female and it shows the ungainly and awkward position giraffe need to achieve in order to drink. I have observed that giraffe are very cautious and patient when approaching a waterhole, suspecting I guess predators lying in wait. I find this unusual given their size and relative immunity from most lion attacks when other smaller prey animals like impala are much less cautious coming in to drink.
On one occasion I saw Eland coming down to drink. Indeed this is the only occasion that I have seen Eland in Namibia. They are the second biggest of the antelope species (behind the Giant Eland) and in size the bulls can be 1.6 metres tall and weigh 500-600 kilograms. Apart from their size they are distinct by the hanging folds of skin under their neck and brush of stiff hair on their heads.
The most exciting experience I have had at Chudop was undoubtedly on my last evening visit. Scanning the surrounding rim of trees and scrub to see if there were any more animals about to head into the waterhole, I saw giraffe necks swaying and scattering, obviously disturbed by something. Shortly after that I caught sight of a black rhino at full charge bursting out of the scrub then immediately after that a second rhino in hot pursuit. It is unbelievable how quickly such enormous, heavy animals can move when they want to. I can only assume the leading rhino was a female and she was being pursued by a male but whatever the situation the pursuer gave up the chase once they reached the waterhole and decided a drink was more important. He was blowing hard and was quite exhausted so perhaps further chase was out of the question.
The first rhino continued around the waterhole and for a few moments I thought she was going to charge headlong into my vehicle but of course she stopped short and then appeared content to wait for her pursuer to finish his drink, have a wallow in the water then head back into the scrub. When she did eventually come down to drink I was ready with my 500mm lens plus 1.4x extender and Canon 7D to give me as much 'reach' as possible for a pre-planned shot that came off beautifully. I often like to get frame filling shots of animals where you can see every line and hair and lots of eye detail. In the low evening light the final images were everything I hoped and my best rhino images to date. You can even see an acacia thorn stuck in her left leg.
There are of course many other creatures that visit Chudop. The bustard below was one of several that were visiting at the same time as the rhino's. Other species seen include Kudu, Impala, Zebra, Jackals, Warthogs, Guinea Fowl, ducks and pigeons, Only about five minutes drive from Chudop I also saw a whole pride of lions on my first trip to Etosha. If I ever get back to Etosha again I will be most looking forward to visiting Chudop and hoping that my luck here holds.