A towering dustdevil, like the shrouded ghost of a whirling dervish, spiralled across the flat white surface of the pan. Ahead of us the road disappeared beneath the shimmering surface of a phantom lake dotted with tree-covered islands. As we drew nearer the shoreline receded, the islands morphed into piles of thorn-covered rock in the desert, and the lyrics of that old refrain by the Son's of the Pioneers kept spinning through my head. "Don't you listen to him Dan. He's a devil not a man. And he paints the burning sand with water."
We were on our way to a secure lunch spot after a full morning of game viewing at waterholes along the southern edge of the Etosha Pan in northern Namibia. It was early afternoon and so hot that even the ostriches had stopped their wandering and stood with flightless wings drooping from their naked flanks. Groups of springbok and impala clustered together in the scant shade of mopane trees which stood, bare and leafless, awaiting the summer rain that would restore life to their parched branches.
With an area of almost 5000 sq km the Etosha Pan or "Great White Place" is the centerpiece of Etosha National Park. In prehistoric time, when several rivers flowed southeast into what is now northern Namibia, the Pan was a shallow lake. But some 12 million years ago tectonic uplift changed the slope of the land. The rivers were diverted westward and water in the abandoned lake disappeared, leaving only a flat expanse of limy, salt-encrusted clay where the lake had been. During heavy summer rains intermittent rivers still flood briefly onto parts of the Pan. The water quickly seeps into the underlying rock, leaving the surface of the ancient lakebed totally dry. But, stored in the porous rock beneath the pan's parched beds of clay, this seasonal flood of water seeps slowly back to the surface through a series of springs that continue to flow throughout the year. There are at least 25 such springs along the southern edge of the Pan. And animals by the thousands migrate to these life-sustaining waterholes to quench their thirst during the long winter drought.
We left our campsite at Okaukuejo as soon as the gate was opened at sunrise. The Pan was alive with animals of all shapes and sizes, some grazing on the sparse vegetation, others surveying the landscape for predators, but most making their way across the parched clay to the nearest waterhole. Giraffes, always cautious, seemed to glide across the pan like moon-walking dancers, their legs and bodies strangely out of sync. Nimble springbok, high-jumpers of the antelope family, practiced their "pronking" while majestic kudo and delicate blackfaced impala joined a troop of zebras on their way to a drink. Blue wildebeest seemed content to loiter on the pan and nibble on the dry vegetation. According to legend these unlikely creatures were cobbled together from leftover parts when God had finished making all the other animals.