East to West across the Etosha Salt Pan

Etosha - Onguma: The Fort to the Ongava Lodge

Oh oh, so much for our plan to get up early, we missed our wakeup call and by the time we’d got our act together, packed up all our gear, double checked the room to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind and were in the car ready to head out it was about 9:30 am. When we got to the main lodge, there was a safari vehicle parked outside with a couple of dogs in the front seat looking for all the world as though they were just waiting for some passengers for a morning game drive.

Being a guide is such a dog’s life

I think the dogs belonged to one of the Onguma managers as we saw them again over at the Bush Camp.

At the main lodge we had breakfast and said our goodbyes to all the staff rostered on that morning. Edwin the chef came out to say goodbye and he told us to look out for a chef at Mowani called Nicer and that he’d call him to let him know we were coming.

Henni, who we’d met last night at diner and another great staff member we got on really well with, had only just relocated from Mowani, both The Fort and Mowani are run by the same company.  Henni gave us some nicknames of guides and staff at Mowani that he ensured us would give us preferred status.

Yesterday Kelly had come across an old cabinet full of handmade crafts so we had to stop and check them out before we left. There were some exquisite items and we bought some lovely plates and small bowls made from horn inlayed with beautiful patterns. When we went to checkout they told us that their eftpos stopped working when we lost power yesterday, but that the one at Onguma Bush Camp was working.  We said we’d stop of there on the way and settle up and said goodbye once again.

We arrived at the Bush Camp,  paid for our extras and took a bit of a walk around to see what camp had to offer. There was a great pool and a very cool raised platform with thatch ceiling where you could sit and look down on the local waterhole.

Today’s trip is from Onguma to the Ongava Lodge at the far western end of Etosha National Park. As the crow flies it’s about 140 kilometres from the towns of Namutoni (east end of Etosha) and Okaukeujo (west end of Etosha). However there are over 30 waterholes along the road, all of them requiring a diversion off the main road, and once again all of the roads are gravel. Also the Ongava lodge is outside of the park boundaries which meant we had to be out of the park by sunset. We were told the average drive time, which includes a stop at Halali, a reststop and camp about halfway through the park, would take about 5 hours. Our plan, once we had our permit and paid our entrance fee was to stop at some waterholes on the way to Halali, have some lunch there and catch a few more on the way out.

Map of Etosha National Park showing our intended route

We pulled up at the Von Lindequist gate and there was the same woman as yesterday, on the same damn phone yelling at someone. I got out of the car and waited paitently for her to finish and tell me what I had to do. Eventually she stopped yelling for a second and pointed me to an battered registration book and told me to fill in the details.

Glad to be on our way, we approached reception, about 15 kilometres past the gate, Rector and his morning safari drive were coming back toward Onguma, we pulled over and said goodbye and then continued on to Reception. We paid our N$80 per person and N$20 for the car, gassed up, got some bottles of water, went to the loo (toilets in the park are few and those are mainly what they call “long drop”, in Australia we referer to them as “thunderboxes”, basically a box shaped seat over a deep pit.) As in Ulusaba, getting out of your car in the bush for a quick pee is a big no no, unless you are happy to be eaten by something.

So we were finally on our way into the park and very much determined to avoid the kind of crazy car park action we saw yesterday. In my trusty Brandt Guide to Namibia, there was a list of waterholes and a brief description of each and based on their recommendation we made our decision as to where we would stop.

Our first stop is Kalkheuwel, according to Brandt, “it’s a super waterhole which usually has a lot of game. There’s a permanently filled water trough, and usually a good pan, which is close to the car park.” On the way there we encountered Springbok and Zebra’s and on both occassions had to stop to allow them to cross the road.

I have to say the Brandt guide was spot on, we pulled up to the waterhole and there were elephants everywhere.

Elephants at Kalkheuwel waterhole

Big ones, small ones, some splashing in the water others playing games with each other.

Elephants playing

In addition to the elephants there was a giraffee and lots of springboks milling about.

Elephant & Springboks

After Kalkheuwel we moved on to Goas, talk about all creatures large and small, as on the way we saw our first Land Turtle, making it’s way across the road.

Land Turtle

Goas according to Brandt, “is a large flat natural waterhole and cars can view it from several sides, which is good as there’s often lots of game here.” Again we weren’t disappointed as again lots of elephants, more giraffes, this time zebras,

Zebras and a Giraffe

and a Kori Bustard, said to be the heaviest bird capable of flight.

Kori Bustard

Next stop is Halali Restcamp, opened in 1967 Halali is one of three camps within the park and is roughly half way between both gates. A lot of visitors to the park, on a two day driving visit use this location as their overnight stop, the gate is decorated with a large elephant skull. We took a quick look around just to see what was there, I would have lingered at the Rhino Bar but Kelly suggested we move on.

The Rhino Bar

By the time we’d had a look at Halail it was around 2.30pm and I was concerned we are running out of time to get all of the way to Ongava Lodge so we make a decision to stop at only two more waterholes. The first is called Salvadora and sits on the edge of the Etosha salt pan. The viewpoint here is higher than the spring and close to it so it’s good for photography and the pan stretches out forever behind it. Our final waterhole before leaving Etosha will be Gemsbokvlatke, it’s in the middle of a grassy plain and is a permanent waterhole.

Salvadora is a pretty bleak spot and as it’s right on the edge of the pan, at first we didn’t think there were any animals about but after a minute Kelly spotted the lions sleeping near the waterhole.

Lions sleeping near the waterhole

We also spotted a Wahilberg’s Eagle close by to where we parked along with some Guinea fowls and a Pied Crow. (Image 11. Pied Crow)

Wahliberg’s Eagle

Pied Crow

About an hour later we arrived at Gemsbokvlatke, and this is another bleak spot, very white with a large rocky plain surrounding the waterhole. Here we found some Springbok, and a beautiful Secretary Bird.

Springbok and Secretary Bird

There were also lots of small starlings and sparrows and after a few minutes a Jackal came down to drink from the waterhole.


By now we’d pretty much run out of time and didn’t want to get locked into the Etosha park overnight and didn’t want to get to Ongava too late at night so we headed for the western end of the park at Andersson Gate.

African Ground Squirrel

We had seen so many animals over the past couple of weeks but there was still one elusive creature we hadn't seen, even though we hassled Johan at Ulusaba to find us one. I'm talking about a Meercat, those cute little creatures that pop out of their hole, stand upright and look cute. Just as we were heading for the gate, going around a bend, I saw a little head popup from a hole on the side of the road. I braked as fast as I could, Kelly couldn't figure out what the hell was going on until I said "Meercat". I backed up as quietly as I could thinking he'd just duck down into his hole any second, but to my surprise he didn't and I managed to get close enough to qet in a shot or two before he disappeared. Unfortunately my happiness at seeing a Meercat would soon be dashed as after further research he turned out to be an African Ground Squirrel, but never mind he was cute. 

The entrance to Ongava reserve was just a few metres past the gate and the security official at the Ongava entrance gate gave us directions to the lodge.

We are only staying a night here before we move on to one of the places we are most excited to stay at, Mowani, and didn’t really expect all that much from the lodge. As we pulled up near the lodge a couple of the staff members motioned us to a small car park and we parked the car. As it was only one night we were travelling light and only had our small carry on bags, they took them and asked us to follow them up a steep rock staircase. On the way up you couldn’t help but notice how different the vegetation here looked. It was very rocky and there were lots of spiky cactus type plants and gnarled trees.

Spiky plant

After a few minutes we arrived at reception and started the check in process.

Ongava Reception

Once again we were told not to walk from our lodge as the whole of the Ongava reservation was unfenced and there were lions, rhinos etc in the area, we nodded our agreement and were shown to our lodge. I have to say we were extremely impressed by the lodge and the surroundings, it was much more than we had expected. The individual lodges themselves were built out of natural materials such as rock and timber and in the evening sun they looked beautiful.

Our lodge at Ongava

Inside the lodges were just as good, with lovely polished concrete floors, a large bed looking out to a wooden deck with a view over the reserve. Off to one side was a big bathroom with open shower and an outdoor shower as well.

It was pretty hot so after we did a quick unpack we headed up toward the main lodge for a Windhoek Larger and a quick dip in the pool. The pool and the beer were cold and by the time we got out a stiff breeze had come up and it was quite chilly until you’d dried off. After that it was back to get changed for a sundowner and dinner. There was a large waterhole situated below the deck where dinner was served and as we were first there we reserved the best table by dumping our gear on it and went down to the lower deck for to watch the sun go down.

Watching the sunset at Ongava

By the time dinner was ready it was blowing and gusting quite hard with a hot wind coming up the valley. As we had dinner a giraffe arrived at the waterhole and very cautiously made his way in toward the waterhole, just before he could get there a Rhino came in from the bush and effectively chased him off. The rhino spent a while drinking, all the time watched from a distance by the giraffe, eventually he sauntered off and the giraffe slowly started to move in again. Once again just as he got close another rhino, this time with a baby, entered the waterhole area and once more the giraffe retreated. It was pretty dark down there and I didn’t have a tripod with me so the only shot I could get was a long exposure hand held one, seems par for the course for me with Rhino’s late at night! 

Rhino and Giraffe by the waterhole at night

So we’d come to the end of another fantastic day and we were escorted back to our lodge by a guide armed with his trusty flashlight, just in case we encountered a lion or something, and hit the sack knowing that tomorrow we’d be heading to Mowani and Damaraland.