The final safari

Etosha National Park – Namibia

June 2008

The first big stop in Namibia was Etosha National Park, an extremely long drive day north of Windhoek. Etosha was to be our final National Park of the tour, which left a sad feeling beginning to take a hold of me. We were about to commence a series of last experiences that would start now and continue until I was boarding the plane in Cape Town in only sixteen days’ time. I had been on many different safaris by now, on foot, by boat, canoe, truck, 4 x 4 and even plane, in numerous National Parks. Lake Nakuru was the first and largely bypassed by tourists which made it a wonderful place to visit. Ngorogoro crater is a popular place to visit but, its relatively compact size and sheer beauty make it a wildlife haven. The Serengeti, one of the most famous in the world, disappointed on the animal front which was probably more down to timing but its scale was incredible. South Luwanga National Park is one of the hidden gems of Africa and I hope it stays that way. The Okavango Delta, one of the most unique habitats in the world. Chobe National Park, much like the Serengeti only I remember Chobe having a much paler, almost white dust which contrasted amazingly with the blue lakes and the tall grasses. Etosha National Park was to be the ‘la di da’ park. Its website even points out that it is accessible in a regular Sedan and there is a range of restaurants and viewing decks. Such comments affect me like holy water on a vampire yet as it happened, Etosha was going to serve up its own selection of memorable moments that would be added to a seemingly endless list.

Our first day started early at four thirty in the morning at a basic campsite not too far from the park. The plan was to get in the park for sunrise which was always a great time of day to be out and about on safari and we were not to be disappointed. Gemsbok, giraffes, wildebeest, zebras and a solitary male lion were the highlights of the morning trip out. Little did I realise at the time but Etosha is great for game viewing because of all its watering holes; which would explain the number of great animal sightings we would get around….. watering holes! The lion sighting was by a large pond-sized body of water with two palm trees and then nothing but dry grass surrounding it. Beyond the grass were bushes only a few feet high which stretched off into the distance, meeting up with the cloud-free blue sky on the horizon. At twenty-two thousand square kilometres it is seven thousand bigger than the Serengeti and over twenty-one thousand bigger than the Maasai Mara and so there is plenty of space to get lost. Parking the truck up near to the watering hole, we were the only people there as we leant out of the open sides with our binoculars and cameras, watching Aslan casually stroll over to the water’s edge for a cheeky morning drink. There is something very refreshing about watching a wild animal go about its day in its natural habitat. It always amuses me when we dumb ass humans feel we have to manage habitats, I’m pretty sure they did perfectly okay before us. But, then again, before us there was no one around to make such a bloody mess of the habitats of every single other species on the planet. Making our way to breakfast we passed Etosha’s namesake. Africa’s largest salt pan, one hundred and fifty kilometres in length and up to fifty kilometres wide. Etosha simply means ‘Great white place’ in the local tribal language, which sums it up rather perfectly as it is just a huge expanse of flat whiteness, which sits beautifully with the clear blue sky overhead.

After a late and much needed breakfast we headed straight back out into the park and happened upon another watering hole that ended up supplying photos of some of my favourite safari animals having a drink. This watering hole was relatively smaller then Aslan’s exclusive place. There was an island of reeds in the middle of the water and the banks were surrounded by a large expanse of grey dirt and rocks which left it very exposed, not that any of the animals appeared to care too much. As we parked up we could see giraffes and zebras looking a bit thirsty and so we decided to stick around and see how events played out because quite obviously, a wild animal having a drink is extremely exciting. First to make an appearance at the water’s edge were four warthogs. These are usually notoriously shy little buggers but absolutely hilarious to watch when the chance arises. These little critters must have been thirsty or simply the trendsetters of Africa because no sooner had they started to lap up some water, ten zebras rocked up for a swig too. Not only did I have a photo of some warthogs, I also got a photo of some warthogs drinking alongside a group of zebras. Lovely job. But then, some random animals turned up for a drink as well. I won’t lie to you, I have no idea what they were! They looked a lot like deer, although a lot of animals in Africa look like deer and I have no doubt someone will have told me at the time what they were but, me being me will have failed to take it in. So now I have a photo with warthogs, zebras and an unnamed animal species all pretty much lined up having a drink with some giraffes hanging about in the background. So far, so good, but it was the giraffes that I really wanted to see, I mean seriously, how often does one get to see a giraffe drink? Several minutes later one of the giraffes decided to go for it and as it turns out watching a giraffe partake in some watering hole drinking action is both incredibly amusing and extremely frustrating. To start with they just loitered in the background undecided on whether it was worth risking their neck for a drink. Eventually, one couldn’t handle it any longer and made its way to the water’s edge. This was the moment I had been waiting for. After a few more glances at its surroundings the giraffe began to shuffle its front legs apart and bring its rear legs closer together. It then leant back with all four legs at a forty-five degree angle causing its ass to push outwards as though it were posing for Playboy. Finally, it started to lower its head towards the water, this was it, the money shot! Oh, no it wasn’t, as all of a sudden the giraffe leapt upwards and stood at attention to some perceived threat. My guess is a mouse sneezed three miles away but that’s just me being mean towards an animal I genuinely love to watch going about its day. The problem for a giraffe is that as soon as it drops its head for a drink it is at its most vulnerable to predators. As soon as a lion or a crocodile gets hold of giraffes head it is going to struggle to come out of the situation any way other than dead. The giraffe made a second attempt to get to the water before jumping to attention for a second time and I began to think this was never going to happen but on the third go we got touch down and I can safely say the posture of a giraffe drinking looks extremely demanding. Photos in the bag, it had been a prosperous hour or so but we had one more treat before moving on as a baby giraffe wandered out from the nearby bushes and as with any baby animal, it was quite adorable.

All in all, we had a jolly good day of spotting wildlife and it came to an end around mid-afternoon with a late lunch at the campsite we would be staying for the night. This campsite was not the kind of campsite we were accustomed to. There would be no heavy drinking for several reasons including the price of the beer, the numerous families dotted around the site and the fact that we were all shattered. This was a campsite for people who had spent a lot of money to come to Namibia for a holiday or locals taking the family away for a few days. As well as there being the usual camping area and toilet block there were also double rooms, chalets, restaurants, swimming pools, shops and, petrol stations, all of which was adjacent to a floodlit watering hole in the event we hadn’t seen enough that day. As it happened we hadn’t seen enough and a group of us went to take up residency at the watering hole to see absolutely nothing other than another thought-inducing sunset. A sunset that demanded peace and quiet as it disappeared over the horizon to be replaced by a sky full of stars that were promptly replaced by the giant flood lights that lit up the watering hole. This novel floodlit viewing area was basically on the boundary of the campsite which was completely surrounded by miles upon miles of national park. The spectators sat in a stand that resembled a mini Roman coliseum but, nonetheless a very nice spot to enjoy the evening. In the end we were rewarded with an elephant and at one point six black rhinos. Rhinos were an animal that we would see knocking around from time to time but to see six together was an absolute first.

The following day we packed up camp and headed out into the park for another morning of game viewing which turned out to be rather boring to begin with – there was absolutely nothing to see, the place was dead. Defeated for the first time we made our way towards our breakfast stop when all of a sudden we finally spotted something we had all been looking for since arriving in Africa, a leopard! Between all of us we had seen brief glimpses of a leopard here and there throughout the trip but few of us possessed a good photo and it was always about getting that first photo, no matter what the animal or the scene. With the sun still low in the sky, the leopard was casually walking parallel to the track that we were travelling down. Granted she was about twenty metres from the truck but she was still close enough to get a decent photo and she seemed completely oblivious to us as she maintained her path until finally disappearing into the bushes a few minutes later. It had been well worth the wait. They are simply stunning animals and I am assuming that their elusiveness makes them even more appealing. It’s not that they are limited in numbers although, as you can imagine they are in decline like pretty much every other animal on the planet, its just that they are very antisocial buggers. Unlike lions, leopards keep themselves to themselves and are most likely to be found chilling out up in a tree during the day. We probably passed plenty of them but never thought to look up.

Feeling rejuvenated from all the excitement of the leopard we once again headed out into the park after breakfast. Another little critter we had seen very little of was the meerkat and again it wasn’t until we got to Etosha that I managed to get one on film. What can one say about meerkats? They are probably the celebrities of the animal kingdom, and rightly so. They are hilarious to watch, being everything you expect them to be. They stand on their hind feet looking out for predators yet they are only about a half a metre high. What are they hoping to see? Most of the grass is taller than them! The excitement of the meerkat, plus a family of elephants, some zebras and an eagle the size of a baby hippo was apparently all too much for Olly as he tilted his head back, closed his eyes and took a nap. The grand finale for the morning was, can you believe it, another watering hole. A small pond of blue water in the middle of a barren and exposed landscape which was littered with animals. At first you would wonder why all these animals are relaxing in such an exposed area but then you realise that’s exactly why they were there. Any predator wanting to sneak up on a four-legged meat feast would have been spotted miles away and besides it was the middle of the day which made the chances of getting killed a lot less. There were zebras and antelope everywhere for as far as the eye could see with the zebras as interested in going for a swim as having a drink.

Upon arriving at our campsite for the evening Cathy informed the group that she thought she had seen a lion at the campsite’s floodlit watering hole as we drove past. Excitedly we all disembarked the truck and everyone except the poor buggers on lunch duty made their way down. Whether there had been a lion or not we shall never know but I can safely say there wasn’t one when we arrived but instead we were greeted by a herd of elephants that were drinking and bathing in the water. As we excitedly snapped away and enjoyed watching the baby elephants play around in the water, a second herd of elephants made their way towards the watering hole. Upon their arrival there was a total of fifty-four elephants, young and old, all milling around the water’s edge, providing quite the entertainment. Quite simply a case of being at the right place at the right time. Our final act at Etosha was to spend another evening sat in front of the floodlit watering hole, watching rhinos, elephants and, giraffes come and go for a drink or just a general look round. Sharing a bottle of red wine and enjoying the company of some great mates it was, dare I say it, just another night in Africa.

Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

 

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