The “white ghosts” of Etosha are something that any explorer of Namibia's national park should try and catch a glimpse of. Namibian photographer and elephant lover, Anja Denker, is here to tell you what it is like spending time with these gentle giants and how you can observe and photograph these magnificent creatures.
Photos and words
The word Etosha literally means “great white place” as the pan in the middle of the park is a vast expanse of white, salt-laced earth. This soil supports very little plant life except for the blue-green algae that gives Etosha its characteristic coloring.
In the areas where the soil does get wet elephants can be found wallowing, covering their bodies in the mud that forms. This mud then dries into a light (usually) white coat.
The ‘white ghosts’ of Etosha, as I like to call them, can be observed frequenting the Nebrownii waterhole, where the dry white clay dusts their skin and coats the entire elephant in white – often brilliantly offset against the bright blue sky.
It is also a treat to photograph elephants at the Goas waterhole, due to the fact that it is so vast and open and very green especially in the rainy season. Here you can get a fantastic contrast between the blue sky, green vegetation and gentle grey giants.
The startling contrasts of color make for a visual, photographic feast, especially when it comes to the elephants that love to wallow in the water and the distinctly coloured mud. It is not uncommon when visiting Etosha to see these giant animals caked in the dried white mud of the pan.
It wasn’t until October last year that I came across my first ‘green’ elephant. This particular elephant coating himself with the green algae slick of the pan and gaining a distinctly ‘mouldy’ appearance in the process!
Being so used to seeing the typical “white” elephants, this green specimen came as a complete surprise. The lone elephant bull was standing in a patch of blue-green algae at the Springbokfontein waterhole, a contact spring at the edge of the pan.
He was obviously having great fun splashing in the mud and coating himself with the green stuff he had found. His new dye-job really made him stand out in the vastness of the pan, and when a few zebra and blue wildebeest joined him it made for truly unique photo opportunity.
There are quite a few challenges when photographing on the Etosha Pan, the most obvious being the harsh light and predominant white background, which poses some real exposure problems. Strangely enough I find that I need to overexpose the shot sometimes, say for instance at midday at a waterhole when the background is bright and the animals are too dark. Of course it is advisable to use the “golden hours “ to full advantage, those being first light early in the morning and then in the late afternoon.
I have managed to get some very decent shots in not so favourable light conditions as well and you'd do well to remember that any challenge forces you to grow. Cloud cover is also great as it softens the light considerably, being a wonderful natural filter.
I like to shoot at eye-level and up but this is not very often possible on the pan due to the animals being lower than the photographer. Except, of course, in the case of an elephant when it is close enough or when you get an animal on a rise and you can shoot against the horizon.
Dust is also a very big challenge in the sense that you really have to protect your gear carefully – it creeps in anywhere!
Elephants have always held a fascination for me, not only because of their impressive size, but also for their remarkable intelligence and emotional capacity. They demonstarte these almost human-like traits with their communication habits, mourning rituals, deep sense of family ties and fierce protection of their offspring.
I can remember I was with my daughter in Etosha and a small breeding herd of Elephants approached us from the front. There was plenty of space to move for the elephants so we stayed in our parked car and waited for the approach. The herd moved past our left side where my daughter sat – so close that their skin nearly touched the side of the car. As the herd made its way past us the matriarch lifted the tip of her trunk and briefly touched our side mirror as if in silent acknowledgement of our presence.