“It’s flat up there,” Matt’s high school friend, Richard, says to us when we meet him for lunch in Windhoek on day four of our trip across Namibia. “Etosha, man, it’s flat flat flat — it’s flat forever.”
The cicadas were screeching in the midday heat when we got to the entrance. We got out and smiled at each other, admired the curios being sold near the gatekeeper’s hut (curios we would be sorry we didn’t buy when we didn’t see them again), and gazed ahead. We’d driven 2,000km from Cape Town, directly north, and Etosha National Park yawned before us.
Richard was right. Etosha is an endless flatness. There were very few points in the five days that we spent in the park where we had any perspective at all, any view. There are next to no hills, bar the ant mounds, which, to be fair, were the largest I’ve ever seen.
This was actually one of the smaller ones
But it was green, too. And dense. It had clearly been raining for months (and would rain again while we were there, nearly flooding our tents). The bush was thick. Most of the watering holes we came across, filled to the brim, were entirely abandoned. Not an animal in sight; there was just so much water everywhere else. The terrapin sightings, however, were great.
We spent five nights in Etosha in total: three at Halali and two at Olifantsrus. Halali was huge — an enormous and established camp that, in the wake of what seemed to be a lapse in government funding, made worse by Covid, was looking a little worse for wear. But home is where you pitch your tent, and home is what it quickly became.
Halali’s watering hole
Halali is also the closest campsite to Etosha’s saline heart: its pan.
Etosha is impressive in its own right. At over 22,000km2, it’s one of the largest national parks in Africa. Many hundreds of species call it home. But what stands out most is the Etosha Pan, which gives the park its name — Etosha is a Ndonga word meaning “Great White Place” — and which covers over 20% of its surface area. The pan, a salt pan, is 130km long and 50km wide, and seeing it in the rainy season, its surface covered with so much water that it blurred the horizon and made this infinite space feel infinitely infinite, will forever be branded on my brain.
We pulled up to the pan and did what we always did when we paused for any amount of time: snapped open the bakkies’ tailgates, made coffee, and opened the cookie tins.
The kids were in their element, and when eight-year-old Michael turned to Jen and said, “Can we go and play in it?” I saw parenting at its best. Jen, Craig and Rose glanced at each other, knowing what was to come, lathered their kids in sunscreen, and sent them into the gloopyest, slickyest, sloppyest playground they’d ever seen. It. Was. Heaven. And I suspect, of all the memories we made on the trip, for the kids, this was one of the best.
These clay-covered creatures were not only our only animal sighting, and despite the density of the bush, we got lucky more than once. Highlights included a few juvenile lions on the side of the road and one of the best black rhino sightings I’ve ever had, complete with mother and calf, some unwanted male attention, and unimpressed grunts that lasted late into the night.
The night after the rhino sighting was also one of the clearest nights (of many clear nights) we had. We sat for hours, slouching in our camping chairs and staring up, pouring glasses of wine, Matt spotting satellites and shooting stars, as is his way. Above us, the Milky Way galaxied on and on and on.
Hills! Look at the hills!
The sunset before our starry night
This is probably a pretty good place to talk about Namibordle. We went to Namibia when Wordle had gripped the world (I suspect that interest in it has dwindled dramatically since and wonder how the New York Times feels about that seven-figure price tag now). At the time, however, almost everyone in our group was a daily player. Being without any internet access meant that we couldn’t play it online, so we thought ahead and printed our own Wordle sheets out instead.
The Namibordle (Namibia-Wordle) Master or Mistress (Namibaster or Namibistress) would decide on a word, everyone else would sort into pairs, and the guessing would start. The kids were a critical part of the process, and helped with the marking: green for right letter, right place; yellow for right letter, wrong place.
It wasn’t an exact science, and several sheets were marked wrong several times (not by the kids, they were great, but often by — ahem — me). (Without fail, these sheets belonged to Craig. Our friendship took some time to recover.)
It became a nightly activity. After dinner, before the kids went to bed. An unwavering camping routine.
On our last night at Halali, as we sat at the watering hole watching the lapwings, Matt said to me, “The pan will be beautiful now”. I looked at him. “What time is it?” It was 6:10pm, the gates to the park closed at 7pm and it was a 20-minute drive to the pan. We had 50 minutes to get there and back. We smiled at each other, dashed to camp to get the keys and invite the others, and when everyone else declined, left as quickly as we could.
It was fairly overcast the first time we visited the pan — but now, the heavens blue, the clouds wispy, land and sky fused, it was perfect.
We felt like we were the only people on the planet. I don’t think we said much to each other. What was there to say?
We laughed. I remember laughing.
In early 2023, after painting our flat in London, we finally framed some of these photographs and placed them above our bed. They’re quite something to sleep beneath.