The Ghost Elephants of Etosha Pan

A large plume of white dust in the distance announces their impending arrival at the waterhole and they slowly appear on the horizon like grey lumbering ghosts through a shimmering haze of heat. It’s baking hot  and even in the shade, a steady stream of sweat drips down my face as I observe the herd’s progress through my binoculars.

Thankfully they are moving towards my concealed position, which is downwind in a copse of mopane scrub close to one of the few waterholes in the western expanses of Etosha Pan in Central Namibia.

It’s a large female elephant group. Several sub adults walk ahead of the main herd quickening their pace as they move closer to the muddy pools.Behind them are a group of fifteen adult cows with a few very young calves walking closely in step with their mothers.

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Etosha Pan, meaning ‘Great White Place’ is a massive dry salt lake created 16 million years ago and its vast surface which covers 4800 square kilometres, appears unworldly in its aridity, yet the grasslands which surrounds the pan support a huge array of wildlife including some of the biggest elephants in Africa as well as enormous herds of Blue Wildebeest, Zebra, Eland, Gemsbok, Springbok and Kudu.

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Today, I am here in an attempt to photograph the famed ghost elephants of Etosha, so named due to the white clay deposits found in the area, particularly around waterholes in which the elephants like to bathe to protect their thick hides from the sun and from insect bites.

The group’s arrival at the waterhole is announced with a chorus of loud trumpeting and trunks are immediately lowered in an orderly line as the group quench their thirst in the debilitating midday heat. Etosha elephants generally drink around 225 litres of water per day and the supply of water in these arid areas is a constant cause of concern, particularly in this age of global warming.

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Following their mud bath, the herd moves away from the waterhole and use their trunks to suck up the white calcite dust found around here which they then spray all over their wet bodies.

At the conclusion of this daily ritual, the animals appear like giant ghostly statues cast in plaster of Paris. The sight of the great white herd slowly moving back into the Mopane bush in the late afternoon light, is an unusual one to say the very least and an unintended bi- product of this behaviour is the stunning textures it produces, particularly for black and white photography – that is, of course, if you can stand the oppressive heat you’ll endure whilst waiting for the ghost elephants of Etosha Pan to arrive.