Recently I had the amazing good luck to spend five weeks traveling through Namibia–a dream photographer’s destination. The aim of the trip was to kick off the new photographic hide at Onguma Safari Camps as photographer-in-residence at the private reserve on Etosha National Park’s eastern border. My time in the Onkolo Hide was nothing short of magical, and it’s hard to describe how special each of the 130 hours was that I spent underground in the hide…even those hours when nothing much happened.  Much of the thrill was in the spontaneity and good fortune of great sightings. And there were plenty of great sightings! But even relatively common species like impala and warthog made for exciting photographic subjects from this low angle view.

But as always, half the fun was in the journey to get there! It was a whirlwind of a road trip, covering more than 4,000 km from Cape Town to Etosha and back. In face, “whirlwind” would be a good descriptor of the trip over all, and appropriately, I saw several blowing through the hot desert landscape.

I visited several of Photos & Africa’s favourite Namibian destinations along the way. Here’s a rundown:

Quiver Tree Forest

My first stop in Namibia was at the famous Quiver Tree Forest outside Keetmanschoop. Accommodation is in a quirky campsite or one of a few chalets. The Quiver Tree Forest is the real attraction. Over 200 of the bizarre relatives of aloes grow clustered together amid red dust, rocks and dassies. The biggest trees are centuries old. The area is well known for being a great night photography spot and trying for an image of the iconic trees with a Milky Way backdrop inspired me to stay up way past my bedtime. It was full moon during my visit, so the conditions for astrophotography weren’t great, but it was nonetheless amazing to explore the ancient forest by moonlight.

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Erindi Private Game Reserve

Northwards, a few hours past Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, the traffic and bustle of the city is replaced by warthogs and baboons foraging along the roadside. Then comes the turnoff for Erindi Private Game Reserve. A long drive down a gravel road took me well away from the highway, and I enjoyed an exciting 24 hours at Erindi.

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I arrived just in time for the buffet lunch. As I ate, a herd of elephants hurried towards the lodge’s waterhole, chasing the 12 or so hippos that had been peacefully napping alongside the water into a splashing, frenzied stampede to get out of the way. It was extremely dry during my visit, and obviously, water access was worth fighting for!

Next it was out for the afternoon game drive with guide Jeremiah and a few bushman trackers. Jeremiah said that they see the rare and elusive pangolin very frequently in the dry season. so we set out to find one. While we were still searching, a crackling voice reported a wild dog sighting on the radio, so we decided to head towards that. Halfway there, another crackling voice reported a pangolin sighting.

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“Would you like to continue to the wild dogs, or head back towards the pangolin?” asked Jeremiah. Well, that’s a good dilemma to have on safari. The sun was already setting so we continued to the wild dogs, which were feeding on a wildebeest near camp.

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Okonjima Nature Reserve, AfriCat Foundation

From Erindi, it was just a short hop onto Okonjima, a popular stopover between Windhoek and Etosha. Okonjima has a unique history—it started as a cattle farm but became a sanctuary for rescued cheetah and leopard with the establishment of the AfriCat Foundation in the 90s. A portion of the visitor fee to Okonjima goes to supporting AfriCat, which works on environmental education, wildlife conflict resolution, carnivore research, and welfare. Okonjima offers a range of accommodation options and a special safari experience—game drives track leopards, cheetah, hyena and wild dogs by radio collar, so you have a good chance of seeing predators. Many of the animals are habituated to humans on foot, so it’s sometimes possible to get out of the safari vehicle for a closer look.

Over the course of an evening and morning game drive, I got to see leopard, wild dog, cheetah and hyena and we approached the latter three on foot! Unfortunately for photographers, there are some downsides to finding wildlife via telemetry. Of course, the radio collars don’t look the best in photos. But what I didn’t anticipate was that many of the animals we found, all but the leopard in fact, were sleeping and not in the mood to show off for the camera. Without telemetry, we would have driven right past these animals dozing under the bushes. So while it’s still a treat to lay eyes on such rare animals, perhaps it’s best to keep photographic expectations in check.

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Onguma Safari Camps

Visiting the new Onkolo Photographic Hide at Onguma was the main goal of the trip and the hide certainly delivered. The unique low angle from the hide and unobtrusive dry season backdrop made even the most common animals and birds a delight to photograph. Spotting rarer animals like lion, leopard, and elephant from the hide was all the more rewarding and thrilling. Photographing from the hide was so fantastic that after spending time in the hide, I barely even wanted to go on a game drive anymore!

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Onguma is a collection of five different lodges—Aoba, Tree Tops, Tented Camp, Bush Camp and the Fort—all situated on a private reserve flanking Etosha’s eastern border. The new Tamboti camp site is great too and a fantastic bargain. Morning or afternoon game drives into Etosha National Park are a highlight of staying at Onguma, while the facilities are nicer, more private and more comfortable than accommodation available inside the park itself. Sundowner game drives on the Onguma Reserve and morning walking safaris are a great way to enjoy the local environment.

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Etosha National Park

The abundance and diversity of animals inside Etosha is truly incredible and visitors shouldn’t miss thoroughly exploring the park. Because the environment is so harsh in the dry season, the park’s system of pumped and natural pans are wildlife magnets. Many visitors pick a productive waterhole and sit for hours, waiting and watching for wildlife to come to drink. Elephant, rhino, giraffe, zebra, black-face impala, kudu, and wildebeest are all common visitors. Lion, leopard, hyena, cheetah, and jackal are frequently seen too. The birding is fantastic and the light and colours of Etosha’s landscape are really something special to photograph.

I traversed the park from eastern to southern border in a single day and tallied up plenty of sightings including elephant, lion and rhino. But the giraffes marching across vast, dusty pans were my favourite.

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Ongava Game Reserve

Ongava is a private reserve on Etosha’s southern border. Like Onguma, it offers more upscale and private accommodation than the park does within easy distance for game drives into Etosha itself. Game drives and walks on the Ongava property are also fun. The birding at Ongava is very good, and I saw several new-to-me species, like bare-cheeked babbler, Ruppell’s parrot, and Monteiro’s hornbill without even leaving the lodge!  

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Andersson’s Camp and Ongava Lodge both offer hides at waterholes that you can walk to at any time from the lodge. In fact, from both lodges’ restaurants, you can see when animals are on their way to the waterhole and then sneak down to the hides for photos. Ongava is particularly proud of its rhino populations, both black and white, and rhinos are frequent late evening and early morning visitors to the hides at both Andersson’s Camp and Ongava Lodge. These hides might be the best place to photograph wild rhinos in Namibia!

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