A clap of thunder crackled across the sky and down my spine.
“That’s… not great,” I muttered to Dave.
Ahead of us, the sky was rapidly darkening; rain splattering like tiny water bombs on our windscreen. I looked around us in dismay.
We had just arrived in Etosha National Park: the one place in Namibia where we really didn’t want to encounter rain.
Here’s what you need to know about the wet season in Etosha: when it rains, it essentially ruins your chance of seeing any animals beyond the common antelopes and zebra.
Etosha is the largest salt pan in Africa: a dry, arid part of a dry, arid country, and that’s why practically all of the animal action takes place at its waterholes.
It makes sense: when it doesn’t rain for months on end, these waterholes are the sole sources of water for animals; when it’s wet, water gathers in puddles all over the park, so there’s no reason for animals to risk their lives and head out in the open.
The rains also act to transform the landscapes from a white, dusty plain into a lush, green oasis, full of tall grasses and dense vegetation. This makes spotting animals particularly tough.
On top of that, there are very few roads in Etosha — just a couple of them stretching from east to west — so if the animals are away from the waterholes and away the roads, you’ll struggle to see anything beyond the bushes.
In short: arriving in Etosha to the sound of thunder was the worst possible greeting we could have imagined.
But before you think it’s all doom and gloom, there are several advantages to hitting up Etosha when there’s a high chance of rain: accommodation is heavily discounted; very few tourists visit, so you’ll only see a handful of other people or cars each day; and there are animal babies everywhere! I’ve always dreamed of spotting a baby giraffe in the wild and this would be one of the best opportunities I’d have to do so.
As we made our way to our accommodation for the night, multiple strikes of lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the deserted plains, and I started to worry we’d be spending the next two days desperately peering into bushes from our car window.
Our destination for the night was Halali, one of the park’s lodges, that’s located smack bang in the centre of the national park. Thanks to the perks of low season travel, I’d managed to bag a room in their honeymoon suite for just $68 a night, one of the cheapest spots of our entire trip. Our room even had a hot tub in the garden, although it was full of swimming spiders when we attempted to use it one night.
We checked in, dropped our bags, and made our way straight to Halali’s waterhole.
One of the huge benefits to staying within Etosha is that the accommodation usually has its own waterhole, which makes animal sightings possible even after dark. At Halali, there was a wooden viewing platform overlooking a small floodlit pool of water.
That afternoon, we sat there for several hours with our Kindles, but there was nothing to be seen; not even a bird. As we wandered off for our buffet dinner, I crossed my fingers and hoped this wasn’t a sign of what was to come.
Animals are more active when the temperatures are cooler, so we were up at 6 a.m. the following morning, shovelling down breakfast and waiting for the gates to open at sunrise.
You can’t fault our enthusiasm: we were first outside of Halali’s gates and crunching over the gravel in search of any animals that might still be roaming beside the roads.
We had two full days in Etosha, so we formulated a plan of attack as we drove. Our first day was to be spent exploring everything from Halali to the east, and then we’d spend our second day out west. You’re not allowed to drive in the park between sunset and sunrise, so this would give us around twelve hours each day to see as many animals as possible. We figured we’d waterhole hop our way around the park, as the waterholes were most likely going to give us our greatest chance of seeing anything.
So in dry season, the waterholes look like this.
But in rainy season? Well…
Spoiler alert: we went to 32 different waterholes in Etosha over our two days in the park, and saw literally nothing at any of them. Literally! We didn’t even see a single bird.
By this point, we’d been driving over for three hours straight, hit up half a dozen waterholes, and seen zero animals.
I was just about to throw my arms in the air and declare Etosha a bust when one of the most magical moments of my life began to take place.
We were pulled over to the side of the road and I was scouring the (super-useful) Bradt Namibia guidebook for recommendations for wet season animal-spotting when Dave let out a gasp.
“Look up! Look up! Look up!” he whispered urgently.
In front of us were three enormous giraffes in the middle of the road, no more than ten metres from our car.
“Holy shit!” I hissed, coming out of my paralysis to dive for my camera.
As I made every effort to capture the beautiful animals in front of me with my shaking hands, I was completely oblivious to the fact that four more giraffes had materialised from behind the trees and were currently stood metres away from the back of my car.
The moment when I discovered we were encircled by a group of giraffes was one of the most thrilling of my life.
I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding, then almost passed out when a baby giraffe came wobbling out of the trees.
“This is it,” I announced to Dave. “My life is now complete. I can now die happy.”
Little did I know, just several minutes later, I would come face to face with a zebra and his enormous erection.
Best. Day. Ever.
Within minutes, our luck had transformed, and we were suddenly surrounded by more animals than we knew how to take photos of.
Dozens of zebra crowded around our car; scraggly wildebeest stared grumpily up at us; a hundred springbok pronked across the road ahead of us; half a dozen ostriches jogged alongside our car; and even more giraffes came wandering out from the trees to say hello.
I felt like I was in the Lion King, except, well, there were no lions.
Allow me to take a step back and talk for a minute about impalas, though, because goddamnit, I’ve fallen in love with them.
Which is something Dave found hilarious because most people who safari their way around Africa grow tired of most types of antelopes. Impalas are everywhere. In Etosha, we could go hours seeing nothing but impalas, but man alive, I would make Dave stop the car for each and every one of them.
“I love youuuuuu,” I would coo out my window at them.
I want to paint one of the rooms in my apartment a perfect shade of impala orange.
Swoon! They’re so beautiful.
As the sun began to set, we turned our car around and raced for Halali.
It had been a successful day of driving. We’d learned that animals in Etosha were anywhere but the watering holes. That patience is most definitely a virtue. And that we were never going to see scenes like the ones that had led us to visit.
But that was okay, because we’d been lucky to see as much as we had. We’d even managed to spot a rare black rhino crashing through the grasses just before sunset.
That evening, I grabbed a cold Savannah cider and wandered down to Halali’s waterhole in the vague hopes of seeing something. Anything. An elephant?
We sat for an hour in tense silence with a dozen other people, crossing our fingers and praying for something to materialise. And, once more, it was just as we were gathering our things to head back to our room that we heard a crunch.
And then another.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when a rhino lumbered out of the grass and into full view of the floodlights. All you could hear was the buzz of crickets and the frantic click of camera shutters as it lapped at the water, took a dump, then plodded back into the darkness.
It was one of the highlights of my life.
“The stars,” I squeaked as we wandered back to our room.
Gazing skywards I felt as though I was staring at a photo. There were thousands of twinkling stars blanketing every square inch of the night sky.
Why isn’t Dave freaking out about the stars? I wondered before realising he grew up in New Zealand, not London. This was normal for him.
I stared at him instead, filled with wonder.
And then I stared back at the stars, because let’s face it: they were far more exciting to look at.
The following morning, Dave and I were first out of the Halali gates once more, inching over the roads and shivering in the cold morning air.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ve seen giraffes, zebras, a thousand antelopes, ostriches, a rhino, and some wildebeest. What we haven’t seen are elephants, leopards, cheetahs, lions–”
“We should at least see an elephant, right?”
“Yep. For sure. Etosha is meant to have one of the largest elephant populations in the world.”
As I began scanning our surroundings for anything huge and grey, I had no idea what was lying just around the corner.
“Oh my god!” I hissed, flailing my arms around in excitement.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
This easily was one of the most breathtaking moments of my life.
A black rhino: the third we’d seen in twelve hours, and it was just fifteen feet from our car.
I gained control of my limbs and froze, suddenly too afraid to move in case it disappeared again. Making eye contact, holding my breath, praying for it to stay just a while longer.
It didn’t hang around for long. Twenty seconds, no more than that. Just long enough for me to snap one kickass photo, and then it was off, lumbering back into the bush.
We waited for any sign of it returning — maybe with an elephant friend in tow? — but it was just me and Dave for now.
Buoyed by such a beautiful moment just minutes after leaving our accommodation, we promised each other that today was going to be even better for sightings than yesterday.
We would see elephants, for sure.
We had a full twelve hours to explore the park, and we’d already seen one of the most critically endangered animals on the planet. Three of them, even. Or maybe the same one three times.
And we. saw. nothing.
Next to nothing.
A dozen impalas, a few oryx, a bird or two; a lone wildebeest.
It was almost as if every single animal in Etosha could sense we were coming and immediately did this:
We returned to our accommodation that evening empty handed, having had a magical minute at the start of the day, followed by 11 hours of disappointment.
“Do you wish we had longer here?” I asked Dave as we drove through the lodge’s gates. It was a question I’d been grappling with over the course of the day.
He thought about it for a second. “I think I’d be happy with one more day here.”
“Even if it meant driving for 12 hours straight and potentially seeing nothing?”
“Well, I’m the eternal optimist, aren’t I?” he said with a chuckle.
“Same,” I lied.
Part of me wished we’d given ourselves an extra day in Etosha, because surely we’d see an elephant then? Surely the plains were starting to dry up? Surely it was just a matter of time?
And yet, at the same time, I would have been frustrated as hell if we’d given ourselves a third day in Etosha and ended up spending it driving around for 12 hours, seeing nothing but grass.
Despite Dave’s claims to the contrary, on our final morning in Etosha, we both awoke full of pessimism.
Should we even bother going for an early morning drive after the previous day’s search had been so unsuccessful?
Our desperate desire to see an elephant outweighed our longing for a lie-in, though, so we opted to spend two final hours driving around the park in the hope that an elephant would show its face for a few seconds.
I knew I’d end up wondering about what might have been if I didn’t give it one final shot.
Thirty minutes of driving: nothing.
An hour: nothing.
Ninety minutes: nothing.
Two hours: nothing.
With a resigned sigh, we turned our car around and made our way towards the exit.
And there it was.
Nope, not an elephant.
Another freaking black rhino!
There are only 5,000 black rhinos left in the world, so the odds of seeing so many of them over the past few days had been so low.
Jesus Christ, we had been lucky.
As we slowly inched our way towards the rhino, it edged closer and closer towards us, until it was crossing the road in front of us, until it was mere metres away from us, until it was walking away again.
Once more, Etosha had given us just enough for us to not feel as though we’d not wasted our time, but teased us with a preview of what our trip would have been like if we’d visited just a few months later.
We took one final glimpse, high fived for yet another successful animal sighting, then left Etosha National Park.
Etosha National Park: Sort of Disappointing, Sort of Amazing
As I come to the conclusion of my post, I’m conflicted over how I feel about my time in Etosha.
Because after experiencing so many incredible moments, it feels like such a whingebag thing to do to say I felt disappointed.
It’s weird, right? I had some of the most breathtaking experiences of my life there, but there was also a part of me that knew it could have been so much more.
Reports online gush about sitting at a waterhole for four hours straight because there was so much to see. Whereas we drove for 24 hours over two days and only encountered an hour of magic with the rest of our time spent bouncing over gravel, staring at bushes, and seeing very little.
To not see elephants in one of the places where it’s supposed to be easiest was disappointing; but in contrast, we saw so many black rhinos that it was almost bizarre.
So it was a little disappointing, but it was a whole lot of amazing at the same time.
And Etosha gave us such a tantalising taste of dry season travel that if another set of cheap flights show up to Namibia, Dave and I would totally pounce on them and drive straight to Etosha National Park.
Surely we’d have to see elephants then?