Okutala Etosha Lodge
This private game reserve lies 40 km away from Etosha National Park’s Andersson Gate and is reached via the D2695 gravel road off the C38. The Okutala Etosha Reserve is privately owned and was set up by a mining magnate who wanted to give something back to nature and help with local employment etc.
Okutala’s private airstrip has a long concrete runway and is one of the best for miles around. Although there was no activity during my stay, the owner visits periodically in his private plane and Okutala and many of the other lodges use it to fly-in paying guests. Animal transfers also take place occasionally, the last time being a couple of years ago when several baby elephants were flown in individually, slung underneath a heavy-lift helicopter.
The situation of Okutala Lodge is impressive with the main complex having been built on a small hill. This is the first view of the lodge that guests see on the drive in. The main block is just right of centre with the covered parking area lower down surrounded by trees. High on the ridge are most of the accommodation units and a small swimming pool. There are also a few chalets lower down beside reception which are easier to access.
The reception area, bar restaurant, and main swimming pool occupy the lower slopes and overlook two waterholes. The waterholes are floodlit at night and there is a photography hide at one which is visible on the right hand side in the title photo. A family of Rhino, plus Oryx and Ostrich were all present when we arrived and the panorama from the terraces is excellent.
The Ostriches are very inquisitive and not in the least bit shy so you may have to run the gauntlet to get to the edge of the waterhole.
Additional information and an interesting image gallery can be found on the lodge`s official website: okutala.com.
Another guest gets a few snaps of the Mongeese on dawn patrol. I took both these shots from the restaurant terrace at breakfast.
Guests can stand along the waterhole fence-line and a short section of wall has been several viewing slits, but the well-disguised hide itself, built into a pile of rocks, is excellent. A ladder descends to the opening which is at water level for some nice reflections and offers a unique angle on any action. When venturing down during the hours of darkness, the advice is to stick to the path and watch out for snakes and scorpions, but I was too tired to check it out after dinner each night.
Trips offered include a half-day and full-day excursion to Etosha National Park for those guests who don't want to drive themselves, plus several more short outings close to Okutala Lodge to see the animals at feeding time. We chose the ‘Combo’ Tour which takes in Elephants, Cheetah, Hyena, and Leopard.
A member of staff meets visitors upon arrival with a tray containing a welcome drink of iced tea and cold towels - just the job after a long and dusty drive, especially when you place it on the back of your neck! We were shown round the restaurant/ main pool area, passing an aviary with a trio of inquisitive African Grey Parrots, and although they weren’t saying much at that time, they made up for it later.
There were lots of Banded-Mongeese, most of whom were crashed-out in the gaps between the rocks, avoiding the afternoon sun. I expected to see them later when we came down for dinner but, with the cooler temperatures, they were out on the plain below, getting up to all sorts of mischief!
They are very tame and the staff can often be seen shooing them away from the restaurant and terrace bar but they still manage a sneaky drink from the swimming pool. They also take shortcuts through reception! Wi-Fi is only available at reception and supposedly the restaurant but I couldn’t connect at all here which was no surprise as internet access is poor throughout Namibia apart from the main cities and towns.
The lodge area is decorated with all sorts of quirky art work including animal sculptures, some of which are made from empty gas containers. There are lots of colourful plants, cacti and flowers too which attract butterflies and hummingbird feeders have been put up beside the bar although we didn’t see any of these tiny types during our stay here. The only guy checking them out was a chipmunk!
The area immediately outside reception is drop-off / pick-up only, so after the familiarisation tour another member of staff, in our case the Chef, loads your cases onto a golf cart and takes you to your accommodation. The covered parking area for guests` vehicle in at the foot of the hill. The individual chalets, all named after African mammals, are dotted around the summit and we had ‘Fox’ (above centre). There is also a small pool here for anyone who fancies a dip but can`t be bothered going down to the main one.
Our unit was excellent, very spacious and clean with two single beds pushed together to form a double, surrounded by a mosquito net, although there weren't many pesky mossies around at this time of year. Another area, almost as large, contained a walk-in shower, ‘his and her’s’ sinks, and additional storage space including a bench big enough for a couple of cases.
The stone chalets are private and well-spaced with a stockade-style wall and a side door leading to a shaded sitting area where there are a table and two comfy wooden chairs, both arms of which have a cutout to securely hold a wine glass - you won`t spill a drop here!.
Although trees restricted our view slightly, it was still an impressive panorama with low-lying, tree-covered hills on either side and partial views of any animals grazing in the distance directly below. The track leading down to the main lodge can be seen on the right.
Dinner is buffet-style with a choice of chicken skewers, springbok sausages and oryx steak on the first night. Despite a great view from our table, complete with lantern, there wasn’t much atmosphere but it was great watching the Rhino family at the waterhole who became increasingly annoyed with a pair of very large rabbits. Wandering back uphill later, we startled a porcupine foraging between the chalets but he or she scuttled off into the shadows before I could bring my camera to bear.
Our one full day at Okutala was spent relaxing with no driving. I woke just before sunup when the full moon was still crystal clear in a cloud free sky. No animals to be seen around the chalets first thing but the birds began to sing just as the sun cleared the crest of a distant ridge.
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It’s just you’re luck what you see on the hillside here and in the past, when two of Okutala’s Giraffes were young, they were free to roam around the lodge area, Many guests commented on social media that they were wakened by a baby giraffe looking in their chalet window!
After a leisurely breakfast, my wife and I sat for a while, looking out over the waterholes and watching the various bird species, but it soon became very hot and most of the animals sought shade. The temperature reached 44 degrees on a couple of days. We headed back to our chalet, stopping to chat with the parrots en route.
The guide for our afternoon Combo tour, Simone, met us at reception at the allotted time and told us that she was running late because one of the lodge’s elderly Cheetahs was sick. She returned half-an-hour later after she had unsuccessfully tried to administer antibiotics. One of the other wardens had better luck and the poorly animal had its appetite back by dinner time.
First port of call was the elephant area, temporary home to four youngsters named Dumbo, Tala, Stouter and Loxy. It is hoped that once the current tourist season ends the elephants will be fitted with trackers and released into the main reserve. Simone, who was born in Switzerland, had worked at Okutala for many years, and among her many duties, was trying to ensure that these young animals would not associate people with food. There is only a moderately high fence around the waterholes and if begging was not addressed, the animals could become aggressive, or possibly inadvertently injure guests.
We were briefed therefore not to respond when the elephants stuck their trunks through the bars and could only touch their sides or high up on their forehead, To encourage the animals to forage for food, guests were asked to take handfuls of camel thorn (Vachellia erioloba) seed pods and hide them under logs and rocks in the adjacent pen. The youngsters became increasingly impatient as we did so, with one biting and rattling the security chain holding the connecting gate in his mouth.
There’s a raised platform so that guess can get an elevated view once the action begins. Sure enough, the elephants charged in, locating the first snacks within seconds. One individual prefers fruit so apples were placed high on the outside wall of the elephant’s stone accommodation block. This encourages them to check the trees as well as the ground.
Next stop was the waterhole area from where we enjoyed an animal’s-eye view of the lodge. Most of the camp’s Rhino were present, including the most recent addition, a young male named Spartacus. Simone told us about the history of Okutala’s animals and the persecution of the species. Namibia was previously considered a safe haven for rhino, but poaching has escalated with over 200 killed in the past year alone. My wife and I discovered a dying juvenile on our last visit to Etosha three years previously. The animal, in the remoter western side of the park, had been shot several times and expired soon after we spotted it. No doubt it's mother would have been lying dead nearby, minus her horn.
Spartacus & Co knew that it was feeding time and came right up to the truck to see what the holdup was! Simone had to shoo away one particular individual who had already made a decent-sized dent in the bonnet a few days previously. We left to continue our tour just before another member of staff distributed the feed.
Okutala’s Cheetah are held in two compounds. Three elderly animals in one, including the sick individual, are fed in a different way than the youngsters. Chunks of meat, usually Zebra, are chained to a log and once Simone sounds the truck’s horn, an assistant releases a gate, enabling the hungry animals to charge in, Although they can no longer reach peak speeds like their younger counterparts, guests are given a rare head-on view as the Cheetahs approach their ‘prey’.
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The technique employed with the faster animals in the other compound (below) is that Simone drives along the fence-line at speed. The young Cheetah know there will be a meal at the end and sprint parallel with the vehicle until it comes to a halt. An assistant then throws the reward over the fence. The run helps to replicate behaviour the animals would use when hunting in the wild.
Next to be fed were Okutala’s Hyenas Wolfie and Sienna. Although they are happy in each other’s company now, it was a different story when they were first introduced. Females are the dominant sex and Wolfie has a few chunks missing from his ears, a result of trying to eat at the same time as his partner. Now, they are fed at opposite ends of the compound which saves any grief. The light was fading and the pair were behind a fine mesh fence so I didn`t attempt any shots.
Our trip was meant to last two hours but we were well past that and it was dark by the time we got to the Leopard enclosure. Simone, like the guides at Okonjima, was very passionate about her work and the establishment she works for, especially the animals. You never get the impression that your tour must end at the allotted time, and any trips we’ve been on so far in Namibia have always seemed good value. The Leopards were brothers but now that they are older, they have to remain separate, otherwise they would fight, possibly with fatal consequences. There was insufficient light for a photo here, but having witnessed a Leopard kill close at hand on the Okonjima Reserve two days previously, it didn’t matter too much.