Europeans first knew Etosha in the early 1850s when Charles Andersson and Francis Galton visited it. They recorded their early impressions:...we traversed an immense hollow, called Etosha, covered with saline encrustations, and having wooded and well-defined borders. Such places are in Africa designated 'salt pans'... In some rainy seasons, the Ovambo informed us, the locality was flooded and had all the appearance of a lake; but now it was quite dry, and the soil strongly impregnated with salt. Indeed, close in shore, the commodity was to be had of a very pure quality.
They were amongst the first explorers and traders who relentlessly hunted the area's huge herds of game. In 1876 an American trader, McKiernan, came through the area and wrote of a visit to Etosha:All the menageries in the world turned loose would not compare to the sight that I saw that day.
The slaughter became worse as time progressed and more Europeans came until, in 1907, Dr F von Lindequist, the governor of German South West Africa (as Namibia was then), proclaimed three reserves. These covered all of the current park, and most of Kaokoland – between the Kunene and Hoarusib rivers. The aim was to stem the rapid depletion of the animals in the area, and protect all of the land through which the seasonal migrations passed. It was an excellent plan for conserving the wildlife – though perhaps not so perfect for the people who lived in these areas.
This protected area remained largely intact until the 1950s and 60s. Then, just as a nature conservation unit and several tourist camps were set up, the reserves were redefined and Etosha shrank to its present size.
Geography, landscape and flora
The defining feature of the national park is the huge Etosha Pan, which appears to be the remnant of a large inland lake that was fed by rivers from the north and east. One of these was probably the Kunene, which flowed southeast from the Angolan highlands and into the pan. However, some 12 million years ago continental uplift changed the slope of the land and the course of these tributaries. The Kunene now flows west from the Ruacana Falls and into the Atlantic. Thus deprived, the lake slowly vanished in the scorching sun, leaving behind only a salty residue. Few plants can grow on this and so erosion by the wind is easy, allowing the pan to be gradually hollowed out.
The pan has probably changed little over time. It is roughly 110km from east to west and 60km from north to south, covering an area of 6,133km2 (around a quarter of the park's surface) with flat, silvery sand and shimmering heat. If the rains to the north and east have been good, then the pan will hold water for a few months at the start of the year, thanks mainly to the Ekuma River and Omuramba Owambo. Only very rarely does it fill completely.
In the rest of the park, beyond the sides of the pan, the terrain is generally flat with a variety of habitats ranging from mopane woodland to wide, open, virtually treeless, plains. In the east of the park, around Namutoni, the attractive makalani palms, Hyphaene ventricosa
, are found, often in picturesque groups around waterholes. The small, round fruit of these palms, a favourite food of elephants, is sometimes called vegetable ivory because of its hard white kernel. In the west, one of the more unusual areas is the Haunted Forest, Sprokieswoud
in Afrikaans, where the contorted forms of strange moringa trees, Moringa ovalifolia
, form a weird woodland scene.
Etosha is so special because of the concentration of waterholes that occur around the southern edges of the pan. As the dry season progresses, these increasingly draw the game. In fact, the best way to watch animals in Etosha is often just to sit in your vehicle by a waterhole and wait.
Three types of spring create these waterholes, which differ in both appearance and geology:Contact springs
These occur in situations where two adjacent layers of rock have very different permeabilities. There are many to be seen just on the edge of the pan. Here the water-bearing calcrete comes to an end and the water flows out on to the surface because the underlying layers of clay are impermeable. Okerfontein is the best example of this type of spring, which is generally weak in water supply.Water-level springs
Found in hollows where the surface of the ground actually cuts below the level of the water table, often in large depressions in the limestone formations. These are inevitably dependent on the level of the water table, and hence vary greatly from year to year. Typical of this type are Ngobib, Groot Okevi and Klein Okevi.Artesian springs
Formed when pressure from overlying rocks forces water up to the surface from deeper aquifers (water-bearing rocks). Here they normally occur on limestone hillocks, forming deep pools, which will often have clumps of reeds in their centre. These springs are usually very reliable and include Namutoni, Klein Namutoni, Chudob and Aus.