Almost every visitor to the country will participate on a game drive at sometime or another on their Namibian holiday. The national parks, private game reserves and various conservation and rehabilitation centres are teeming with wildlife; large and small, colourful or dull, noisy and quiet. It is not uncommon on arrival at your accommodation to meet up with other tourists, who always seem to have some fantastic stories to boast about before you've even unpacked your toothbrush.
So how on earth can you match those experiences ? Your anticipation levels should always remain high, but don't be too disappointed if you don't see what the guy before you did. After all National Geographic Wild spend around 2 years producing a one hour documentary! Chances are you'll see more than the next person. Here are some tips to help you get the most from your game drive:
Animal Sighting Books: Consulting these books (if they are available) is a good start. In Etosha National Park the rest camps at Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni Restcamps all have them. Hopefully visitors before you will report major observations, such as a lion at a waterhole or a leopard in a tree. Your game drive could be taken care of already.
Time of day:
- Morning: These game drives are for those who prefer the quieter sounds and smells of the bush. At dawn, many animals can be spotted scampering around going to ground for the day. Lions will finish off their night time kill. The hazy-red sunrise and appearance of the daytime shift heralds a different sort of wildlife experience. Animals leave their overnight accommodation, sun themselves, groom each other and start to forage. In Etosha (and elsewhere) in the long, dry winter season food supplies become scarce. Predominately nocturnal species such as honey badgers, Cape foxes and bat-eared foxes extend their foraging hours. Giraffe are excellent cat spotters – staring at any danger intently. Birds such as bulbuls and starlings will mob any threat, be it an African wildcat, owl or snake.
- The middle of the day: Some animals do remain active. Plains game drink mainly from 09h00 to 15h00. Elephants continue to graze or browse. Primates forage all day, mainly in trees. Cheetahs, the African wild dog and mongooses are often active during the heat of the day. Others choose to rest in the shade, sleep or finish off a kill. Although it is generally regarded as the most disappointing time of day to game drive, it doesn't mean to say there isn't anything in the bush worth looking out for.
- Afternoon: The late afternoon and early evening are generally more exciting. The setting sun provides extra photographic opportunities. Big cats adore the dry season. Antelope have no option but to tip-toe nervously to a waterhole. Herds of buffalo and elephant vie for bragging rights. Submerged hippos emerge at dusk after a day in the water and trudge onto the shore.
- Night time: Night time game drives are highly recommended. Nocturnal animals emerge. Bush babies, reedbuck, leopard, bat-eared fox, porcupine and honey badger become active. Smaller creatures like the fat mouse, small spotted cat and lesser musk shrew make an appearance. Rules and regulations often limit night game drives though. Many lodges in Etosha conduct night drives for instance on the western side of the park, Ongava Lodge while Onguma Lodge located on the eastern borders also offer an exhilarating after dark experience. Safari camps with floodlit waterholes are also worth their weight in gold. Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni Restcamps in Etosha National Park are excellent examples and night drives can be organized here as well. Many private game reserves in Namibia also have their own private floodlit waterholes and night game drives.
Be alert: Venture slowly if you are on a self-drive safari. Always look deep into the bush for movement. As every species is both prey and predator, natural camouflage plays an important role in their survival. Colours and shapes are difficult to detect in various habitats. The sounds and actions of the animal kingdom also play an important part on a game drive.
Habitats: Some animals have a specific habitat preference and with 14 main types of vegetation in Namibia, there is plenty to choose from. Lions visit almost any habitat. Leopard need cover, not just to ambush, but to drag a kill up a tree out of reach of other predators. Cheetah also need cover to get within sprinting range. Hippos need deep water to cover their bodies and prevent them from overheating. White rhino need water and grassland to graze, trees and mud to wallow. Black rhino prefer dense bush and thickets to browse, with water and mud to wallow and mineral licks.
Elephants blend perfectly into the bush and can easily be overlooked. They eat fruit, bark, roots, leaves and soft branches of moringa or mopane trees . Giraffe prefer (rather obviously) tall trees for food and buffalo need water every day and feed on a variety of grasses. Burchell's zebra can be found on grasslands, plains and open or lightly wooded areas.
Grazers such as buffalo and wildebeest feed in the open on a number of different types and heights of grasses. Antelope inhabit a variety of places. Browsers such as kudu, bushbuck and klipspringer feed on plants and bushes of differing heights. Grazers and browsers include roan antelope, waterbuck, sable antelope and black-faced impala. Eland are nomadic and difficult to find.
In your vehicle: Do not drive directly at animals, advance slowly and in stages. Give approaching elephants some space and turn off your engine and anything else that is noisy. Cardinal game viewing sins include getting out of your vehicle and breaking the outline by standing up and waving or leaning out of a window. The advantage of going on an organized game viewing safari in Namibia, is that they are equipped with custom-made safari vehicles, with elevated seating and an all-round view.
Hooting at an animal is another big no-no. Elephants are very noise sensitive. There have been a number of examples over the years where impatient self-drive tourists have had to explain to their car rental company why an elephant or rhino smashed their car. One unfortunate couple parked up in one of Namibia's northern rivers and went for a walk. A herd of elephants trudged by and triggered the car alarm. Can you imagine the look on their faces when they came running back to find an irate elephant wrecking their car?
How long: Time permitting try and spend around 1hr at a productive waterhole. Watching animals come and go might yield a rare mammal or bird sighting, not to mention some sort of exciting animal interaction.
Binoculars: A (decent) set of bino's are not essential for some and can be shared. For others there is nothing worse. Animal activity in Etosha for instance can be non-stop. Most avid wildlife enthusiasts don't want to miss the action or waste time resetting their bino's after somebody else has used them. So either bring your own or wait your turn. Focusing sharply (on one image) when viewing your target close up or further away will improve your game drive considerably though. Favourite game viewing binoculars are 7 x 35, 8 x 32 and 10 x 42.
Cameras: Digital cameras are easy to use. As it is not always possible to get close to animals, telephoto lenses are ideal. The best light is just after sunrise and before sunset. If you can keep the sun behind you, it will eliminate shadows on the animals. Always look first and photograph second.
Finally the focus of many a safari centre around the Big 5; Buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and white rhinoceros. They can all be seen in the country but rarely on the same game drive. Namibia is so diverse, look out for other creatures. Birds, insects, flowers, trees and vegetation all play an essential part and deserve some of your attention. At the end of your Namibian safari it will be your turn to boast of the sights and sounds of the bush before others have had time to unpack their toothbrushes!!!
The continued existence of wildlife and wilderness is important to the quality of life of humans. - Jim Fowler