After leaving Khowarib Lodge in Damaraland, we stopped off in Palmwag and Kamanjab to fill up with fuel. I had gotten used to helping the gas station attendants “rock” our Nissan 4×4 in order to get a bit more petrol into the gas tanks. I figured that we could get a maximum of 60 litres (total) into the tanks, but that was a far cry from the 145 litre capacity we were supposed to have. At least we had enough fuel to make it to the next petrol station.
We were headed to Etosha National Park (NP) – one of the world’s finest and most beautiful wildlife reserves. We were staying at two different camps over the next 4 days – here we are on the map:
Our first stop in the park was Dolomite Camp (indicated by a red star labeled with a “1” in it) which is run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR). We gave up on our travel agent’s travel time estimates and directions and it took us about 6 hours to get there.
Dolomite ($N 1,800.00 or $USD 224.00 per night including breakfast) is a brand new camp in Etosha NP. In fact, the President of Namibia officially opened it the day before we arrived – that is how new it was. It is a really beautiful facility and obviously quite modern given its age.
The camp manager was absolutely delightful and gave us a lovely welcome (complete with cold towels and fruit juice). We were shown around the camp and eventually to our room.
The room was stunning – spacious with all of the comforts of home including electricity for recharging our electronic gadgets. What was most incredible was the view from the room. The veranda overlooked the plains and we could easily see herds of animals in the far distance. I could actually spend all of my time on this veranda, it was that nice.
One drawback to Dolomite is that it is situated on the top of a large hill. That of course makes for beautiful views, but it also means you will get more than your fair share of exercise going from the main building to your room as it is a steep uphill walk for at least 800 to 1,000 metres. That is fine if you are reasonably fit, however, those with mobility issues will have major difficulty getting around at this camp.
There is no electric fence (yet) at the camp to keep the animals out, so you have to be escorted to/from your room at night just in case you encounter a hungry lion (don’t laugh, it has happened before). A guide armed with a flashlight (huh?) would escort us in the evening. I have stayed at other camps in Africa where we were always escorted at night by rangers armed with a rifle – but I had no idea how a flashlight could possibly protect us. Maybe I am missing something…
One of the great things about Etosha is that there are plenty of watering holes that the animals visit. And given it was dry season, we were guaranteed to see quite a bit of wildlife at them.
The next series of shots were taken with my Sigma 150-500mm f/5~6.3 DG OS HSM APO zoom lens – with good long lens technique, you can get some amazing images with this lens, even at 500mm. I have indicated under the photos when I used this lens at 500mm @ f/8. For an inexpensive lens, it performed really, really well.
First off, the wild African squirrel. Actually, he posed for me for quite a long time and I was amazed by how great his posture was:
This is important to note: under no circumstance may you get out of your vehicle to get a better photo or just wander around. You might become some animal’s dinner (yes, there are lions, cheetahs, hyenas and leopards about) if you do so.
I was really glad that I bought the Naturescapes SkimmerSack Beanbag with me on this trip. It easily fit on the door (with the window rolled down) and it solidly supported my camera and long lenses. I doubt that my shots would have been this sharp without this support. Sigma’s OS and Nikon’s VR are really good, but there is no substitute for a stable base.
If you are patient at the watering holes (and make absolutely no movement or noise), the wildlife will come to you. Here is a zebra with a couple of Oryx in the background:
As I’ve mentioned before, African sunsets are magical. The colours are so vivid and surreal.
As the sun was about to set, we had to return to the camp. We were not allowed to drive in the park at night, so off we went.
Dinner at the camp surprised me, it was excellent. It was the best lodge food we had since leaving Wolwedans. The menu was creative and fresh, the service was excellent. A very pleasant surprise.
We were tired after a great day in the park (and a fine dinner), so our guide escorted us back to our room armed with his flashlight. We awoke bright and early the next morning and then set off to visit the watering holes again.
We came across a couple of male Oryx sparring with each other:
And another Oryx who was just curious about us:
We had to be extra quiet when a Warthog showed up – they are really skittish and will run if they hear the slightest noise:
There is a good reason why visitors to Etosha are not allowed out of their vehicles – there are lions are everywhere. This one came down to the watering hole but this giraffe did not seem threatened. The other animals did seem a bit uneasy by the lion’s presence:
During the day, most of the animals rest, so we decided to do the same back at the camp. Afternoon naps are wonderful things :o)
When I was last in South Africa, I hired a private guide to drive us around (off road) who was excellent – he tracked all kinds of animals for us and was very knowledgeable about them. Before going to Namibia, I had asked our travel agent about hiring a private guide to see the animals in Etosha. She stated that Namibian guides were, “shockingly bad.”
We decided to ask the camp manager about having a guide taking us out for the evening ($N 500.00 or $USD 62.00 per person) and sure enough, we were loaded into a Land Rover with a couple other people and we were on our way. Unfortunately, we were going to find out the hard way that our travel agent was right as this guide was, “shockingly bad.” I just hope other guides in Namibia are better than this – mind you, they could not get any worse. He was awful.
Before we left the camp, the guide informed us that we were only going to the watering holes along the road (i.e. the same ones we just visited) and he could not guarantee we would see anything. I wish they would have told us that before, we would have just driven ourselves and saved a lot of money.
Africa has the coolest looking trees, both dead and alive. One of the European tourists in our Land Rover asked the driver to stop as he saw a leopard in the following tree. The guide told him he was “seeing things” as there was no leopard in the tree.
The European tourist insisted that there was a leopard in the tree, we just had to move forward a little. After moving about 5 m, I took out my Sigma 150-500mm f/5~6.3 DG OS HSM APO zoom lens and there he was, a beautiful leopard:
Leopards are solitary, shy creatures and they are hard to find at times. Thank goodness that this European tourist had a really keen eye. Turns out that if he was not with us, we would have seen very little in the way of wildlife as he knew a lot more than our guide did (actually, all of us knew more than our guide).
The next shot (of a Kori bustard) has little artistic merit, however, I wanted to point out the impressive optical performance of the Sigma 150-500mm f/5~6.3 DG OS HSM APO at 500mm.
Here is the 100% crop:
I am still impressed by this lens.
Our guide seemed to be in a hurry to go from watering hole to watering hole and ignored the animals we saw at the side of the road. He just kept telling us how “beautiful the light was” (yeah, I know, I am a photographer) and if we wanted to stop, to let him know. Umm… wasn’t he supposed to be showing us some wildlife?
Something I never understood about our guide was that when we saw a large animal on the road, he would speed up and then stop suddenly about 20 – 30 m in front of it. In my reading about wildlife behaviour, it is a good idea to approach large game (such as rhinos and elephants) with extreme caution. The last thing you want to do is startle a large animal and have them charge your vehicle – you would not stand a chance if they did so.
As luck would have it, we came across a black rhino while driving. They have really bad tempers, but our guide didn’t seem to care and IMHO, approached him too quickly:
After taking this next photo, I thought my life was over. The rhino was obviously startled and looked ready to charge us. He stared at us for about a minute as everyone held their breath while the guide kept telling us how “beautiful the light was.” Dude, instead of repeating the same line ad nauseum, learn something about animal behaviour if you want to be a guide.
After telling the guide to keep quiet, the rhino eventually backed down and wandered away. Talk about a close call.
Maybe our guide thought he was on an Indy race track as we were zooming along at 80 – 100 km/hr (the limit is 60 km/hr). We had to ask him (actually, yell) to slow down so we could see some of the animals. I managed to catch a quick shot of this Steenbok:
We also came across this Kudu and I asked the driver to stop so I could take a few photos. He told me that the light was not good and that I would not be able to get a good photo, so why bother?
You be the judge:
Dolomite is a fantastic camp and I wholeheartedly recommend staying there. There is a lot of wildlife in the area and the camp is just amazing (as long as you are reasonably mobile and fit).
Unfortunately, their wildlife guide is by far the worst I have ever come across. If you are staying at Dolomite, save your money and drive in your own vehicle – you will see much more on your own. Use the money instead to buy a sundowner, dinner and a nice bottle of wine for you and your better half (for at least 2 nights). Wildlife is plentiful in Etosha, so you will see many animals provided you are patient and quiet. Just use caution and some common sense when approaching really large game.
We left the camp early after breakfast for our next destination, Okaukuejo ($N 1,800.00 or $USD 224.00 per night including breakfast) which is the main hub of Etosha NP and another camp that is run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR). We were going to spend our last 2 nights in Namibia here before going back to Windhoek to fly home.
Okaukuejo is indicated on the map with a red star with the number “2” in it. It is about 180 kms from Dolomite to Okaukuejo (about 3-4 hours) so we took our time to stop at the watering holes along the way.
We saw our first Blue Wildebeest on this trip:
And we also started to see some more giraffes – but they were a bit closer to us now:
I have a funny story regarding the next image.
As we were driving, my wife thought she saw something close to the road in the far distance. I thought it was a couple of trees, but as we got closer, they turned out to be ostriches. We thought it was odd that a bunch of ducks would be underneath them – as we got closer, they turned out to be ostrich chicks! In total, we counted 17 of them and they were cooling off in the shadows cast by their parents in the mid-day sun. The male (who you see here) was very protective and didn’t let them out of his sight. They are really big birds.
This was completely unexpected and one of the highlights of this trip.
Pulling into Okaukuejo, we thought that we had arrived at the Namibian version of Club Med – it was a run down concrete facility that sprawled out over several square kilometers. It is the main hub of Etosha NP and you could buy groceries, fuel, postage … just about anything you want here. I did not feel as though we were still in a national park, it felt like a big city.
We went to the main reception area where the 5 employees present were having a contest to see who could ignore us the longest. After a few minutes, I said, “Hello, I would like to check in.” Four of the staff looked at me in disgust and walked away, the fifth was the unlucky one who would have to serve us.
I found out that our second night of accommodation here somehow got “cancelled.” I had a voucher (and booking reference number) that showed that I had clearly booked and paid for 2 nights. After making a fuss about it (and calling our travel agent who turned out to be based in South Africa, not Namibia), we were told that after the first night, we would have to move to another room, but we would be “upgraded.” All seemed well, at least for a little while.
Our first room was very basic, but spacious and clean. A chair to sit in would have been nice. Not the 5-star accommodation we had experienced before (especially at other NWR camps) – it was fine for one night, but given what we were paying to stay here, it was a disappointment.
The main attraction at Okaukuejo is their watering hole. It is just outside the perimeter of the camp (and its electric fence) and the guests can easily view the animals coming to drink. That’s right, the animals come to you. They also light up the watering hole at night, so in the dry season, you are pretty much guaranteed to see a lot of game.
So far on our trip, we had not seen any elephants, but tonight was going to be different – a lone bull was coming our way:
Here is a view of what the animals get to see – including some bleachers for us spectators. I felt as though I was in a zoo – except we humans were the ones being kept in captivity.
All kinds of animals started coming to the watering hole, including this herd of zebras:
Then in the distance, a whole herd of elephants came toward us. This was unbelievable – they are massive animals and yet, you will hardly hear them move. They are beautiful creatures.
We even saw a few jackals, but they were hard to see against the gray rocks:
I still have no idea what this bird is (edited to add: a few people wrote to me and identified this as an Egyptian Goose):
Here is wide shot of the watering hole with the herd of elephants. I have to admit that seeing this was another big highlight of our trip.
I am continually impressed by how female elephants are always guarding their young from predators. This little guy was no different – none of the females let him out of their sight:
And of course, two adolescent males sparring and having a little fun:
It was fantastic to see all of this wildlife in such a short period of time (late afternoon to sunset).
We decided that since we had a long day, it was time to have a bite to eat, so we wandered up to the restaurant. It was a good thing we were not too hungry as the restaurant was the closest thing to a circus I saw in Namibia.
At the risk of sounding harsher than usual, the service was a complete joke. It was early in the night, but the restaurant repeatedly ran out of food in the buffet which left a lot of people hungry and angry. The wait staff forgot our (and others) drink orders (but charged us for it) and a server dropped a glass on our table with the glass fragments ending up all over me resulting in a couple cuts on my arm. If you are interested, what food they had left for their guests was mediocre at best.
I had to laugh at the end of the night as the server wanted her tip for not serving our drinks to us and injuring me. I just looked at her and said, “You’re joking, right?” and walked away.
We moved to our “upgraded” room the next day, but that was after checking out of the first room and waiting 5 hours for our new room to be ready. The “upgrade” was a farce – our new room was smaller and in worse shape than our first room. I decided to give up – we’ve had an excellent trip so far and I didn’t want to get too wound up and disillusioned by the poor management and attitude at Okaukuejo.
So after settling into our new room, we went off to the watering hole and this giraffe came to say goodbye to us:
I used some HDR tonemapping techniques blended with a high key black and white composite to make this image.
We were going to have a long drive back to Windhoek so we needed to leave first thing in the morning at 6:31 am (when the gates opened). It was at least a 6 hour drive back to the airport and since we had complained enough, the vehicle rental company finally consented to us leaving the Nissan 4×4 at the airport, so we could make our flight.
Dinner (and the service) was actually worse the second night. When I did finally receive a beer I ordered, the bottle was not open, so my wife got up and nicely asked the bartender to do it. Good thing she did it as I was about to lose my cool. The barman’s response, “I am too busy” – he then walked away from her.
And yes, the reception staff ignored me for several minutes (I was the only guest present there) when we checked out. A fitting end to our stay here.
We had met some people along the way whose travel agent told them not to stay at Okaukuejo – rather, just drop in for lunch, buy some groceries and fuel, then leave for someplace better. That was really good advice. I wish we had received the same.
We had stayed in many fantastic places while in Namibia – and some of them were also NWR resorts like Okaukuejo. This camp’s operation was like watching a gong show: from check-in to check-out, we were treated with complete disrespect and the service was non-existent to the point of being rude. Even the petrol station attendant at the camp initially did not want to help me as it was too much effort for him to get out of his chair. It is amazing how quickly he jumped out of it when I started filling my petrol tank (and tires) myself. And yes, he tried to overcharge me too.
If you ever visit Etosha, spend your time (and money) at Dolomite – we also heard that the other Etosha camps, Halali and Namutoni, were good places to stay. Just visit Okaukuejo as a stop to refuel and pick up some supplies, but whatever you do, do not stay overnight. Given how hard Namibians work at other resorts, both the staff and management at Okaukuejo should be ashamed of themselves for trying to pass this rubbish off as a 5-star resort. It is offensive that they think they can get away with this nonsense.
Having said all of that, I got to see my last African sunset of this trip. I will be back one day to see another. Namibia is just too beautiful not to visit again.
It is unfortunate that we had to end our Namibian trip this way, however, it does not diminish any of the wonderful things we experienced during our stay here. I would gladly visit Namibia again and now that I am armed with a little more information, I know what I would do differently next time and where to avoid staying.
I’ll summarise everything (including lots of tips and recommendations) in my next post.
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