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Etosha National Park is safari central in Namibia! The name Etosha can be translated to ‘Place of Mirages’, ‘Land of Dry Water’ or ‘Great White Place’. Set in the north-west of the country, the main hub of the park is the Etosha Pan, a massive salt pan that is dry for large periods at a time. Similar environments can be found in Botswana, particularly at the famous Makgadikgadi Pans, and Etosha is well-linked for combination safaris with the Skeleton Coast and Waterberg Plateau.

This pan is a seemingly endless expanse of silvery-white sand in which dust-devils and mirages blur the horizon, and is the defining feature of the park. The remains of a large lake that was once fed by rivers from the north and east; but after a continental shift the rivers were redirected and the lake vanished to leave the salty residue. With few plants able to grow in the hostile environment left behind, the pan hollowed out due to erosion and now takes up a quarter of the parks total area. At the beginning of the year the pan may partially fill when the rains to the north and east are good; this water will stay for a few months. Only extremely rarely does the pan fill completely.

The rest of the park is mainly flat with habitats that range from mopane wooland to virtually treeless plains.

Zebra fighting on Etosha Pan

To the east of the park are waterholes and makalani palms giving a picturesque scenery in which to sit and watch the water. There are three different types of spring here; contact, water-level and artesian springs. The artesian spring is the most reliable of the three, and these are formed when overlying rocks exert enough pressure on water that lies on water-bearing rocks to force it to the surface. The other types are less reliable; contact springs are formed when two layers of rock with extremely contrasting permeability’s sit adjacent to each other and the water-bearing rock ends thus forcing the water upwards because the underlying layers of clay are impermeable.

The springs attract a large variety of common animals including elephant, giraffe, eland, blue wildebeest, kudu, gemsbok, sprinkbok, impala, steenbok and zebra. Rarer animals and predators include black rhino, white rhino, black-faced impala, lion, leopard, cheetah and caracal.

The elephant found here often have short, broken tusks due to the calcrete content in the soil that makes them brittle. Large families of elephant can be a spectacular sight gathering at the waterholes to drink, wallow and bathe. These elephants are currently being studied to see if they communicate over huge distances using infrasonic noises that they can pick up with their feet.

Around 340 species of bird have been recorded in the area, along with magnificent birds of prey such as bataleur, martial, tawny and Wahlberg’s eagles, as well as pale chanting goshawks, little banded goshawks and a couple of snake eagles. Vultures are also common, as are the larger ostriches and secretary birds which can be seen in groups on the plains. In January and February the blue cranes, an endangered species, can be seen in some numbers.

Desert elephant on Etosha Pan

The best time of year to visit depends entirely on your weather preferences, and whether or not you are interested in the animals or the birds. The start of the year is hot and fairly damp, and there are clouds covering the land for some time. If rains have been good, Etosha Pan will contain a bit of water. The rains end around March, and the plants are bright green at this time. Between April and July the park dries out, and nights become cooler. In August temperatures at night time are above freezing, and by September the weather has started to warm up again. October is very hot but the humidity is low; in late November-early December the rains start and the air is cleared, vegetation revived, and an atmosphere of rebirth fills the park.

For photography, the park is at its most stunning between late April and June, with green vegetation and clear blue skies.

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