The Etosha Pan is a large dry lake bed in Namibia, which due to heavy mineral deposits forms a dry salt pan. The name “Etosha” comes from an Ndonga word meaning “great white place”. While the pan rarely sees water, it is surrounded by savanna and sparse forest, teeming with wildlife. The pan is 75 miles long and just shy of 3,000 square miles. Here you can see the white expanse of the pan stretching into infinity.
Occasionally the wildlife that lives at the edges of the lake bed wander out onto it to gather surface minerals, making up a portion of their diet. A blue wildebeest is dwarfed by the vastness of the pan.
The lake was fed by a large river about 16,000 years ago when glacial melt caused the formation of many such rivers. At some point tectonic plate movement changed the course of the river, and the pan dried up to its current state. The only time it sees a few centimeters of water is due to heavy rains, but this is a seldom occurrence.
The area surrounding the pan is dotted with waterholes which support a wide variety of wildlife. This area is protected within the boundaries of Etosha National Park, which completely surrounds the pan. Although I only spent one full day here, that glimpse of wildlife photographic possibilities will surely draw me back.
My last blog post detailed my experience with five endangered black rhino at the Okaukuejo Waterhole in Ethosa National Park, Namibia. But that’s certainly not all I saw during those long quiet hours in the dead of night.
I arrived at the waterhole just as the sun was setting behind the horizon. Night is the best time to see wildlife here, and to facilitate wildlife viewing, this camp has set up a flood light by which to see the nocturnal visitors. Quite a few people gathered at the waterhole to watch the sunset, but soon they were off to dinner and bed. Over the next hour, the crowds thinned out and only the die-hards remained for a long night’s wait.
One of the more common visitors were the zebra. One night a small herd came at dusk, but it was those few that crept up to the waterhole in the middle of the night that were more fun to watch. The absolute silence was only disrupted by the soft crunching of rocks under their feet, as they lined the edge of the water to drink. The stillness of the water cast a perfect reflection. However there was no chance to relax, as any little sound had the zebra darting their gaze to the darkness, trying to see beyond the wall of black.
Zebra gave way to giraffe, which traveling in ones and twos. In order to capture photos of these animals at night, I had my 400mm lens locked down on the tripod, my mirror locked up, and my shutter speed just slow enough to gather the required light. Keep the shutter too slow, and the animal was more likely to move during the exposure. It was a careful balance of predicting animal behavior, and making sure all my camera functions were set correctly.
One of my favorite sights was the comical way in which giraffe drank water. They had to contort their bodies and spread their front legs in order to bring their heads low enough to the ground to drink.
I did see an elephant in the early hours of morning. However luck was not on my side, and none of my photos turned out. There was too much movement from this giant beast to capture under low lights.
I would certainly recommend this type of experience to wildlife lovers. It was incredibly intimate to watch these animals interacting under the cover of darkness, with nobody else around. It was a wildlife cathedral I was lucky enough to attend!
The endangered black rhino was long thought to be solitary and territorial, usually alone and resting most of the day in deep brush. On a recent trip to Namibia, I was hoping to see one of these rare creatures in the wild. With a worldwide wild population of only 5000, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to see one. Not only did I get my wish, but what I saw was counter to every description I’ve read about these animals.
I was traveling with a group through Namibia, photographing both wildlife and the incredible landscapes of that country. We spent a couple of nights in Etosha National Park, a stop on every wildlife tourist’s “todo” list. Okaukuejo camp features a natural waterhole that is kept floodlit all night. This allows visitors to view the amazing variety of wildlife that frequents the waterhole only at night. Knowing that the black rhino makes itself scarce during the day, I was hoping for a nocturnal sighting.
I waited and waited long into the night, with nothing to show for my weariness. I had a tripod mounted Canon 100-400mm lens with a new 50 megapixel Canon 5DSr attached to the back. At about 3:00 in the morning, just as I was about to pack up my gear, the silent darkness was disturbed by an incredibly loud crunching sound. Suddenly, an impossibly large form emerged from the brush a mere 50 yards from my position. My heart leapt into my throat – it was a black rhino!
Even more surprising was the baby rhino that followed closely behind. I couldn’t believe my luck in seeing not one but two of these rare creatures. After drinking by the water’s edge, the mother walked into the water to bathe. Soon her timid baby followed, and they ventured into water up to their stomachs, drinking as they went.
As they emerged from the water, they looked like some kind of strange half-white, half-black creature, as the water and washed away all the dust from the surrounding landscape. After a few more minutes, they wandered back into the brush, content. I was certainly happy to have lucked out on my first night, but was hopeful to see them again the next night, now that I knew they were in the area.
The next night I didn’t have to wait long. Soon after sunset, two rhinos emerged from the brush. These were two full grown adults, and based on the lack of a baby, I figured that neither of these was the mother from the night before. After a quick drink, the two faced each other. Expecting some kind of fierce territorial battle, I was shocked to see them rub their faces against each other (see lead photo). Exchanging soft grunts (or at least as softly as a huge beast like this can grunt), they stood like this for several moments, touching horns and nuzzling each other. This certainly didn’t look like the solitary hermits I had read about before my trip!
As I was watching these two, the mother and baby from the night before came to the edge of the water. Finally, a fifth black rhino joined the party by the waterhole. At this point, I was expecting a confrontation of some sort, having seen protective wild animal mothers with their babies before. Surely one of these large adults would get too close to the baby and then the action would start!
Not only did none of that happen, but the five rhinos seemed almost sweet with each other. For the next half an hour, these nocturnal socialites drank and mingled, exchanging pleasantries (read: more grunting at each other). The baby was free to wander among the other rhinos. Before they left, I caught a quick video of them all together.
With my only experience consisting of two nights, I have no idea how rare or common it was to see this type of behavior. But rare or not, I was in awe of these amazing creatures and felt blessed to be given an opportunity to photograph them.
Last weekend I took a quick two night backpacking trip with some friends, in hopes of hitting the high country of the Sierra Nevada in peak wildflower season. I set my sights on Gem Lake in Emigrant Wilderness – just about the right elevation for flowers this time of year. Having been there before, I knew that even if the place wasn’t in bloom, we’d have a great time and see some amazing scenery.
I like Emigrant Wilderness because there are no trail quotas and it is very easy to get a wilderness permit with short planning. We set out from the Bay Area early Friday morning, stopping at the Mi Wuk Ranger Station on the way up Highway 108. Even though we were taking our time, we still hit the trail by 10AM, plenty of time to reach our 10 mile destination of Gem Lake.
The trail meanders between thick forest and open granite-filled vistas. Most of Emigrant Wilderness is easily accessible cross country due to many gently-sloping wide open granite bowls and domes. This time we stuck to the trail, and made easy progress. Every so often we were rewarded with a scenic vista. If you are not already a lover of granite, after a few hikes in this part of the Sierra you soon will be!
The elevation changes were just enough to tire our bodies by the time we reached Gem Lake. This lake certainly lives up to its name. However, it is very popular and can get quite crowded on the weekend. As it was Friday night, we were able to relax lakeside in relative peace. As the sun set, the wind settled and we got some nice reflections on the water.
The next day we went further up trail and explored Jewelry Lake and Deer Lake. Deer Lake is much larger and Gem or Jewelry, and it was hot enough to warrant a midday dip in its cool waters. This is a great area to take your time and not hurry along the trail. One more night, and it was time to head back.