An African Diary, Part VI: Etosha Continues

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Day 14: Wednesday, December 12, 2015

5:30am came in the blink of an eye. I ripped out my ear plugs, shot up in bed and smacked Rug.

“Lions”, I said.

We sat stock still for a moment and listened as their raucous roars filled the quiet morning. No other words were spoken as we grabbed our knife (the security of this water hole was questionable at best in our minds!), head lamps and cameras and marched to the waterhole. In the distance, two male lions and two females could be seen.  The smaller male was off and to the left, alone, clearly not welcome to enjoy the feminine joys of the other male lions domain. The big male stretched and roared and sniffed at the females, nuzzling their heads. They each slowly rose from the ground where they lay and lethargically made their way to the waterhole. The predawn light was dull and muted so I wasn’t able to get any good pictures. Instead I just sat and watched them interact among each other and listened to those frightening roars that had kept me awake all the night before. When they all began to move off back into the bush, we set out back for our camp and packed up quickly and hit the road to see what else sunrise had brought with it as we made our way towards our next and last camp.

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Rug slammed on the breaks not even 10 minutes into our cruise and began to back up.

“Baby jackals”, he said, straight faced, not taking his eyes off the rear view mirror.

I looked about frantically, seeing only a regular sized jackal and thought he must have been mistaken, they are pitifully small creatures after all.  But as he slowed to a stop I saw a tiny baby jackal no bigger than a grapefruit  scampering clumsily in the bush along the roadside.

“Oh my god!!!!! Look at the baby!!!!” I exclaimed giddily. This phrase was soon to become one of our signature ones throughout our trip – there were just so many babies!

As we stopped to watch, two more babies emerged nearby and then another came trotting across the road right in front of us to join his siblings. I couldn’t contain myself. Four baby jackals were scampering around together, frolicking in the orange glow of first light. Momma lay by the entrance to the den, keeping a watchful eye of their surroundings, while dad laid by a small nest of twigs, supervising the young. The babes tumbled over each other biting at ears and nipping at heels as they stumbled over to dad to nuzzle up and play with him. iIt was so beautiful to be able to watch this new family wake up to the world and play. Another adult jackal walked up and all of them happily moved about, which confused me as I thought the parents would get defensive- but like wolves, they must live in packs.

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I marvelled at the group dynamics and nearly died of the cuteness of the four playful pups. How lucky we were to stumble upon this scene and again have it all to ourselves! I had to be torn away so we could keep going after a good 20 minutes of ‘oohing’ and ‘aaahing’. We left the family to their morning fun and down the road, not 15 minutes, Rug slammed on the breaks again as we spotted three hyena. I was terribly excited as I had really wanted to see these creatures, but worried our only chance would be in the middle of the night, if at all. One was standing next to the another that was laying sprawled out on the ground and a third was sitting a little ways away. All three were grotesquely bloated, their muzzles and necks stained with blood from their feast the night before which was no where in sight. These were spotted hyena, taller in the front legs, their backs and necks strangely arched.  Their hair was sparse like an old balding man, showing clearly the spotted dark leathery skin beneath.  Deep wrinkles furrowed their foreheads giving them a menacing look that was nearly cancelled out by the comical look of a balding man that their patchy hair gave them. They were undoubtedly ugly beasts, but terribly fascinating. They paid no attention to us at all as we sat and excitedly watched, windows down, cameras out.  The one standing began to approach what we assumed was us, which set us to rolling up the windows with haste. But he stopped at the roads edge and crawled beneath the small culvert to get into the shade. The one laying down arched his neck to watch his comrade pass, then dropped it down again, clearly deciding that getting up at this moment was a task simply out of the question. His belly was so grossly bloated, I questioned whether he could get up at all. The third stood from his place behind the one laying down and skulked towards us, the effort of walking clearly a great difficulty. I thought of Christmas dinners and supposed I behaved and looked much the same way after those indulgent dinners. But with better hair.

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He joined his brother in the shade and left the other to lay in the sun to set to the task of licking the blood caked fur and skin around his shoulders, as that was as far as his craned neck could reach from his lazy position. Again, we were the sole spectators to this incredible scene and couldn’t believe our luck! This morning was shaping up to be unbelievable and we were only a half hour in!

Over the next hour, as we carried on, we saw a honey badger (!!!), giraffe, an elephant, eland, ostrich, wildebeest, oryx, springbok, hornbills, kori bustard birds, and some fighting zebras. Seriously, this place is ridiculous! Etosha is ripe and bursting with wildlife everywhere you look.  As we pulled up to our third camp, Namutoni, I noticed that the perimeter fence was badly compromised. Entire sections had been barrelled over as if an elephant had stormed through. It was anything but secure.  When we entered the large camp, we soon noticed that there was elephant poop scattered about within the outskirts of the camp – proof that elephants had indeed been through camp! I am pretty sure if an elephant can get in, a lion or hyena could get in?! We checked the rest of the place out and decided to head back out to explore some of the surrounding waterholes, as there were so many in the area. We were now on the easternmost edge of Etosha, close to the gate and the end of the park for us. We hit a few waterholes and saw giraffe, zebra, kudu, antelope, springbok, and jackals – all what had come to be considered the ‘usual suspects’ because they were always about in abundance.

We saw a herd of 16 giraffe, by far the most we’d seen together, as they paraded through the tall grass, grazing. A baby giraffe appeared from behind its mother, clumsy on its lanky legs and playfully loped around the herd, as I exclaimed ‘look at the baby!’ again.  Seven or so other grown giraffe all ambled about the baby, putting up with his playful antics, while they tried to forage. It was so precious to get to see so many baby animals on the trip so far!

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We pulled into the first waterhole we saw a turn off for, but the only thing to greet us was the picked clean skeleton of perhaps a zebra or antelope, one leg completely detached and dragged off a ways from the rest of the bones.  We went to the next waterhole only a couple of minutes drive away.  Pulling up, our hopes sunk as the hole appeared empty. But as the truck rolled to a stop, through the bushes we saw a huge grey mound coming forward- an elephant! Two! Yes, yes, yes!  They strolled up to the hole and dipped their trunks down to pull back water. There was hardly any water at this hole and I was sure I would be ale to see the level of I drain right down to nothing with the huge trunkfuls they pumped up to drink. After a few minutes, one began to walk away and I followed him with my eyes. ‘Don’t go!’, I whispered. And suddenly, there through the thick vegetation, I could see two more elephants coming our way! And then another two. And another. And there, in furtive glimpses, I saw, between the tree branches and huge, grey blocky legs, a tiny, slate coloured lumpy thing stumbling on wobbly legs.

“Look at the baby!”, I squealed to Rug for the third time that day. “Look at it, look at it! Oh my god it’s a BABY! A tiny, little fresh baby!”.

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There were several other young in this herd that now numbered 14! – but this one was unquestionably the smallest, at surely only a few weeks old. It fumbled about clumsily on its new limbs, still figuring out how to used them. He stayed close to mother’s legs and joined the rest as they all somehow managed to make it into the waterhole to drink and splash mud and water all over themselves. It was just darling to watch the baby stumble around and try to mimic his family’s actions in the waterhole. He was so tiny amidst the stomping legs of giants, and could hardly keep his footing in the slick mud and slippery rocks. Seeming to have finished their baths, the elephants, one by one in single file, began to head right for the truck.

“Oh shit…”, said Rug. “What  should I do? Should we drive away? Turn the truck off so we don’t scare them?”

“No, leave it running”, I said.  “You rev the engine if they start showing aggression, but I think we are fine.”

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And we were fine. But you can’t even imagine how intimidating and frightening it is to see that many beasts of such monumental size, the largest land mammals on earth, stomping straight towards you. Even in a huge truck, you feel like an ant at the mercy of their powerful swinging trunks and feet with enough power and weight behind them to crush your truck like a little aluminum toy car.

One by one, this beautiful family passed within 10 feet of the back of the truck and slowly made their way into the bush to our right. We sat there in the truck, flabbergasted, once we had watched them all disappear in to the bush. We once again had this magical encounter all to ourselves, before another vehicle, a safari tour, pulled up and sat to the side waiting and wondering what we were looking at. They didn’t have to wait long because a few minutes later, our herd returned the same way they had just left. All in single file again, as they paraded right past our truck once again back to the waterhole. It was near an hour we spent at that waterhole, watching this huge herd of elephants go about their day. It was so incredible to see these creatures in such numbers interact  – eat, drink, bathe, and nurture their young  – things I’d only ever seen on Discovery Channel or BBC. Things I was always so terribly fascinated with, and here I was in Africa, watching it all before my very eyes, not through some TV screen. It just doesn’t get any more high def than that!

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There was simply no way to top that, so we headed back to camp to hit the pool as it was now the in the dead heat of the day, and thus wretchedly hot – near 40 degrees. The pool was a nice reprieve from such penetrating heat. After cooling down in the cools waters, I dried off in the sun and put down my mat for my yoga practice. It was grounding after such an exciting day. We set up camp, checked out the camp waterhole, which didn’t seem secure at all…! We  sat watching the sun go down and said hello to a lone giraffe enjoying the nearby vegetation around the waterhole. Dinner was burritos again and we hit the hay nice and early, exhausted from our early start, knowing we were rising with the sun yet again. No lions and their chorus of roars kept me awake this night, but there was an endless song of howls and bays from the hyenas.

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Day 15: Thursday December, 3, 2015

I slid drowsily out of bed to the sound of my alarm at 5:30am. I crawled out of the tent to head to the bathroom, my full bladder not used to being held all through the night, but with those broken fences, there was NO way I was wandering to the bathroom alone in the dark even with my baboon/lion/hyena knife!

In the east, the sky was just breaking into a shattered kaleidoscope of pinks, violets, and blues as the sun threatened to expose himself. He lingered beneath the horizon a while longer, as reluctant to get out of bed as myself. Instead he just teased us with his vibrant show of colours. We packed up camp without a word, because words are hard at 5am. we hit the road to check out several waterholes in the area that we hadn’t seen yesterday, so we headed north first for a peek at them. On the way we figured why not check out our elephant hole, just in case? It had proved so bountiful yesterday, perhaps we would be treated again today.

As we drove along the bumpy dirt path and rounded a corner, Rug hit the brakes. Three young male lions were sauntering ahead of us!

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“Lions!!!!”, we squealed. I immediately played the Lion King’s Circle of Light from my playlist as we followed slowly behind them.  They briefly looked back, saw it was only us in the White Wildebeest, and kept moving, on course for the waterhole. Their pace was painfully slow, due to full bellies and the need to conserve energy in the already sultry heat of the sun. We parked on the turnout as they parked themselves at the waterhole. They drank and stretched, growled and nuzzled. They scratched their huge heads into the thorny acacia trees to give themselves a good old head scratch. One laid down and the other laid half atop him. They were likely three brothers, still young, their manes only half grown. There was one other vehicle with us for once, and we each sat in our own little worlds in the safety of our trucks, watching the king of the jungle laze about with his brothers. Each day we spent in Etosha, something more spectacular than the last occurred. You would think you had seen the most and the best this place has to offer, but it constantly outdid itself and showed you something even more marvellous than the day before.

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“Simba, remember who you are…”

When the lions left, we followed suit and headed north.  When we arrived at King Nehale, the northernmost gate, it was full of zebra, oryx and springbok.  I couldn’t help but notice that the animals were behaving rather strangely. They all seemed to be standing in a line, nearly in single file, all looking towards the cement water catchment structure. We soon realized the structure must be hiding something from our view, a predator that was holding all the rest of the animals at bay, keeping them from the water. We readjusted our position and used the binoculars to get a better look and were able to see the head of a lioness bobbing up and down as she panted in the morning heat. Well that definitely explained the waiting line! The zebra were skittish and would balk at the slightest movement of their predator, their high pitched whinnies echoing into the flat savanna all around us. I could have sworn I was in Saskatchewan, the way the land stretched flat and endless before us, nothing but straw coloured grass as fas as the eye could see.

The lioness laboriously left her shady spot, sending the zebra and others galloping away in a cloud of dusty fright. As she came fully into view, we could see her muzzle, chest and left hind quarter were stained dark with blood from her night hunt. She padded along, heading south east at a terribly slow, but deliberate space. Two giraffe to her left stood watching her pass and a herd of oryx to the right did the same. Yet as soon as she was past them, they began to slowly follow her! I was baffled. It was almost as if they thought they were driving her out – telling her to leave them be and never return. Bizarre indeed, and so marvellous to be witness to the strange and alien behaviours of such creatures!

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We followed her along a detour path for a few kilometres until she disappeared from our sight and then we pressed on, heading back south to hit the last two waterholes on our way out. It was only natural to pop into our elephant and lion hole, Groot Okevi, one more time, where we saw a large herd of kudu and impala. We decided to rename the place “The Bountiful Waterhole of Plenty” for she was was indeed bountiful! At the last waterhole, Chudop, we were treated with a plethora of wildlife: zebra, oryx, giraffe, black faced impala, springbok, cape teal ducks, blackmith lapwing, and kudu – all milling about a distance from the water. Sadly, just 10 meters from the right hand side of the waterhole edge, lay the fresh carcass of a dead giraffe. Another giraffe closed in slowly, warily towards the carcass. He lowered his head, sniffing at his fallen comrade for several minutes. Slowly, he turned and headed to the far left side of the waterhole to drink.  Two more giraffe approached in the same fashion and one could swear they could sense the grief in the other giraffes as they paid their respects by coming near and lowering their heads. Looking around I noticed another giraffe carcass, this one hardly more than a rust stained skeleton, picked near clean.  A vulture sat at the fresh carcass taking his fill, doing his part in the circle of life to ensure nothing goes to waste here in this land of seeming scarcity.

This is life at the waterhole. This is life in Africa. This is the circle of life. While the dead giraffe lay now only as food for the scavengers, his brethren stand across the waterhole and drink water that surely has his blood within in. Two oryx giddily chase each other, flirting and playing, a rare show of affection and energy in the heat of the scotching sun. A herd of skittish springbok, undoubtedly excited by the smell of blood and rot, huddle close together to get a drink, trusting their strength in numbers to keep them safe. Life and death are inseparable at the waterhole, one as much a part of the other. It was sad for me because I do so love giraffe! But I understood the balance of it all minutes later, down the road as we saw a young toddler giraffe, and it seemed to ease the heartache of the loss of the others.dsc_0804

Leaving the gates of Etosha we had to wipe our shoes and drive over a mat as there had been an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the area and they were taking heavy precautions to halt the spread of it. We also had an anti-poaching agent do a full inspection on our vehicle. I was really pleased to know they were taking such measures to ensure and maintain the integrity of the wildlife.

It was with heavy but overflowing hearts that we left this enchanting wilderness that was Etosha. It was without a doubt the three most beautiful and exciting days of my life. Being the animal and nature lover that I am, there is no experience more profound and fulfilling than to be in a wildlife reserve in Africa, to see the animals in a protected and natural environment, safe from poachers.

Hakusembe River Lodge was our next stop, a solid 450km from Etosha, so we had a long haul ahead of us, but luckily most of it was on paved roads – something had seen very little of on this trip so far.  We were now in the far North East of the country and left behind the dry arid savanna and desert for the soggy grasslands. It was like entering another country altogether. The last two weeks exploring Namibia had largely been on all dirt back roads where we hardly ever encountered another vehicle, hardly ever saw human life. It was through unbearably hot desertscapes without a touch of rain nor any standing bodies of water. And now, we cruised on perfect black top pavement with greenery all about us. The roadsides were lined with huge trees that looked like bulbous broccoli bunches. There were thatched huts made of sticks for walls and straw for roofs, clustered together in little neighbourhoods that were surrounded by twig and stick fences. Little girls balanced buckets of water on their heads, making the long trek from their water supply back to their village. Groups of children sat huddled under the shade of the largest trees, sitting atop yellow milk crates or in the dirt on their haunches, or straddling on a low tree limb of a tree. These shady trees were the meeting grounds, the play grounds, the study spots, the nap areas; they were where exchanges took place, whether of goods and money or of stories and laughter. A herder walked, his staff strung behind his back hooked into his elbows as his goats pranced ahead. Little boys ran about collecting firewood. Small blue buckets help ripe oranges full to the brim, piled atop each other like a pyramid. The front end of an old 1960’s sky blue chevy truck lay half burned and forgotten in the dirt, as if it were now merely a part of the environment, like a long dead log.

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And finally, the rains came. The slate grey sky had been darkening to a deep and threatening gunmetal blue and then the skies opened up and rained down her tears in swollen drops, a brief but welcome shower, the fresh smell of it all around us.  Children ran out from the shade of their trees, laughing and dancing in the rain, their smiles a testament to how beloved rain is in Namibia. Ahead, a small boy and his brothers herd the family’s goats and one takes aim with his arrowless bow made of a bent twig at the goats as if to usher them onwards. It was strange and wonderful to be back among human-life and to get our first real glimpse into how much of the population of Namibia live. It is not a rich country in terms of wealth, but the people seem so happy, always smiling and laughing and at ease.

The rain abated and then returned with vengeance further down the road. It came down so hard we had to slow down to a snails pace, the wipers maxed out and yet we could hardly see in front of us. With all of the cattle and goats that fearlessly roamed this highway it made for dangerous business.

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Hakusembe  was a few km off the highway and the Kavango river ran through it. The camp was absolutely beautiful with perfectly manicured landscaping, quaint little villas and campsites that each had their own toilet, shower, and sink set up. A bar/restaurant sat hanging over the river and we enjoyed fresh guava juice on the huge patio and watched the river roll by.  We had wifi for the first time in nearly a week, and so lost ourselves to the internet for the next hour, reconnecting with family and friends, letting them know we were alive and well and hadn’t been eaten by lions, and then of course set about posting some of our pictures from our epic adventure in Etosha. It was tranquil and quiet here and we had absolutely nothing on our agenda. It was a much needed evening to relax, catch up and reflect on the incredible time we had in the park. Etosha was go go go, up at sunrise every day – your senses constantly in over drive, always on the lookout for wildlife. There was never a moment to relax other than my hour, long much needed yoga sessions. We didn’t realize how divine it was to just do nothing! I stayed out on the patio for hours, editing photos and writing to friends as a huge storm rolled in. The heavy clouds exploded with thunder and lightening, but the rain held off, and I sat mesmerized as the sky exploded in purple flashes reflecting over the river below. The wind picked up so strong that it began blowing the patio furniture all over the place and I decided it was time to retreat to the sanctuary of tent for the night and dream of Etosha.

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Stay tuned for Part 7!

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