Namibia’s Etosha National Park will soon celebrate a one hundred-year history of protection and survival. PHILIP DICKSON grabbed his camera and binoculars to join in the anniversary

Standing on the battlements of Fort Namutoni like a foreign legionnaire guarding Namibia’s northern wilderness, the vast open emptiness of the great white place” stretches as far as the eye can see. Set among long swathes of arid savannah and scattered with waterholes and areas of lush woodland, Etosha National Park has a huge salt-encrusted pan, the size of Holland, at its centre. Often perceived as a recent attempt to conserve wildlife, Etosha was actually proclaimed a national park in 1907, almost 100 years ago, and today remains a natural sanctuary teeming with wildlife.

And it’s not just Etosha that is about to celebrate its centenary. The glistening white Beau Geste style Fort Namutoni on the eastern side of the park was rebuilt in 1906 after a fierce uprising. The current fort dates back to the time when Namibia was German South West Africa, having been used as a police post, army base and even a prisoner of war camp. As a homage to its military past, a lone bugler still calls at sunrise and sunset from the fort’s north-eastern watch tower as the Namibian flag flutters in the cool breeze. This elegant colonial building with its lush tropical gardens is now a well preserved national monument providing historic visitor accommodation, and is certainly a rather unexpected and surreal haven as you approach through the surrounding wilderness.

Covering an area of 22,270km2 the best time to view Etosha’s diverse wildlife is after the rains, when its 114 mammal and 340 bird species are drawn to over 30 life-sustaining waterholes. Because Namibia is one of the few places in southern Africa where it is possible to self-drive safely and easily, a visit to Etosha is very much a do-it-yourself kind of experience. Situated in the north, 435km from the capital city Windhoek on a good tarred road, the gravel roads in the park are well maintained with clear route signs, and we had no problem in navigating around the park in a normal (not four-wheel drive) hire car.

There are three tourist camps in Etosha at Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni, about a two-hour drive from each other, offering a broad range of accommodation from camping through to chalets and family bungalows. Each camp has a restaurant, bar, shop, petrol station, swimming pool and, most importantly, an intimate floodlit waterhole where only a low stone wall separates you from an abundance of wildlife. During my visit, it wasn’t even necessary to get up at dawn from my warm cosy sleeping bag and drive to the park to search for game.

Even the audience for one of Africa’s great ringside spectacles need a few props to enjoy the endless procession to the waterhole. I was certainly glad of my thermos, fleece, binoculars and camera when the cast of a thousand appeared at this vast open-air theatre, where the curtain was always up and the action kept rolling.

Convoys of guinea fowl were the first to arrive out of the cool early morning shadows, followed by red hartebeest jostled by herds of boisterous zebras and a harem of graceful spingbok. Tempers soon frayed with all the commotion and a pair of zebra stallions suddenly erupted in a bout of viscous biting and kicking in defence of their mares, and later, male springboks demonstrated their prowess with the clashing and jousting of horns. Throngs of grunting blue wildebeest herded their calves towards the water, and gawky giraffes made an odd sight as they spread their gangly front legs and lowered their towering heads acrobatically to drink.

Scanning the bleached calcite horizon paid dividends as lions approached menacingly from the skeletal wasteland like a threatening mirage, inevitably arousing acute neurosis at the waterhole. As they padded ever closer pandemonium broke out and turtle doves, sandgrouse and francolins blasted from the air like an explosion of fireworks and hundreds of hooves kicked up a dust cloud in a stampede to escape. Once the waterhole had been claimed, the pride relaxed idly for hours, sometimes hidden behind rocks in an attempt to ambush the unwary in a sudden rush of bodies. Only the large bull elephant was immune from fear, surging towards the waterhole in an arrogant stately manner, scattering families of gloriously ugly warthogs in alarm with their curly tales erect like antennae.

Interest and tension revived in late afternoon, as animals were forced to drink at Etosha’s perilous waterholes to survive. Heads turned nervously, ears pricked, noses twitched and bristled, and another stampede was only an alarm-call away. As darkness fell a chill descended, and from somewhere out there the ethereal sound of howling hyenas, crying jackals and trumpeting elephants echoed back hauntingly. Overhead in the cold, thin air a pearl-spotted owl hunted around the big spotlights, while activity at the waterhole below continued as black rhino materialised from the night.

Decimated in other parts of Africa, the ghostly pale reflection of their armour plated bodies mirrored in the still water as they waded between the elephants. Okaukuejo is the most reliable camp to see these magnificent prehistoric warriors and sitting on our bench we probably saw more black rhino at this waterhole than survive in most other African countries. As difficult as it was to tear ourselves away from the constant wildlife carnival at the camps’ busy waterholes, the largest and most spectacular pool of all lies beyond the low stone wall. If the rains are good, up to one million migratory flamingoes make an enticing sight through the steamy heat haze shimmering over the glistening white pan. The park gates open between dawn and dusk and the ‘great white place’ is difficult to miss. Not only is the arrival and departure of up to 1000 flamingos at any one time impressive, so too is the brave leaps and bounds into the pan by their desperate predators, as hyenas, jackals and even lion are attracted by this seasonal avian feast.