Waterhole

Day 615 – 5 November, 2016

I had big plans for Namibia, armed with a work visa, I would be volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary for 4 weeks, but first I had a few days to kill as I got used to my new environment. Not full up on safaris yet, I signed on to a three day/two night camping excursion to Etosha National Park in the far north of Namibia. Just coming off my East African overland journey with such fun and enjoyable companions, I felt a bit bland toward my new group. We were 14 in a van built for 15 passengers, leaving little room to stretch our legs. There was a Chinese couple and a German guy who spoke no English, a German couple and two German friends who spoke English but chose not to, and a British couple where the husband was friendly but the wife regarded me icily as if she was threatened by me speaking to her overweight aging husband. The rest were a British guy, a Dutch guy, another German guy, and a South African girl who all eventually warmed up for a small talk conversation by the third day. After my little Acacia family, this group was a bunch of duds.

Etosha is best known for its illuminated waterholes. I had heard it wasn’t much more than a glorified zoo, the landscape manipulated and the roads constructed to further tourism, strategically running next to natural and manmade waterholes throughout the park. In a dry desert landscape like Etosha, a waterhole is the most natural place to spot the most wildlife. Everyone needs to drink. Likewise, our campsites were also situated near waterholes, but the tourism board didn’t stop there. At night, the waterholes are lit with a spotlight to imitate moonlight and big wooden benches are set in a semi-circle behind a natural-looking barrier. You can stay all night, if you choose, with a glass of Cab and a cheese tray. I could somewhat see the comparison to a zoo except we were the ones caged inside and the animals were the ones roaming free. But the similarities stop there. I had intended to stay for only an hour and then until I could see a large mammal and then finally I pulled myself away when it was well past my bedtime. This was a much better show than any zoo could pull off.

Imagine being so nervous and timid, in spite of being the tallest mammal on earth, that just to take a sip of water you’re ready to dart at the slightest sign of danger. You and your buddy hear something, but you realize it’s only the big gray thing with a horn on its nose. Ok, that’s fine. We can all share. Drinking ensues. Some time later, two MORE gray bodies with horns on their noses appear on the other side. Too many horns. You decide to retreat a little, but stay nearby. You watch and listen. Jackals. Only little pests. No danger there either. Eventually, these gray lumbering creatures meet, appear friendly at first, and then typical macho posturing encourages grunts and charges before they calm down again. This doesn’t involve you, but you’re a big wimp so you circle around to the far side of the waterhole before you will drink again. Soon the ground begins to shake, you lift your head, and quickly move off into the darkness. You don’t stick around to see the even bigger gray thing with two tusks and a trunk wail at the other guests of the waterhole, shooing them away as if they were flies. Now we all know who is in charge here.

The next day our guide and driver wanted to start at 7:00am. I found this rather irritating because the park opened at 6:15am, right at sunup and precisely the time when it’s possible to see the most animals. The later you leave for a safari, the fewer your chances of spotting the best game. Two of us who had safaried before begged our guide to reconsider, but frankly, I think he was lazy and insisted 7:00 would be better. Next we turned to our fellow safari goers to encourage them to be ready earlier. Their expressions were bland, yet to my surprise, all 14 of us were ready by 6:30 looking to our guides for the green light. Our safari truck pulled out of the campsite just as the sun was hitting the horizon and within moments, our guide said he spotted a couple of cheetahs walking across the barren plain. We stopped to watch. They were coming toward us. They weren’t cheetahs after all – it was a female lion and three playful cubs. They walked closer and closer until they crossed the road right in front of our truck, all while the cubs wrestled with each other and tried to get mom’s attention. See what we would have missed if we had left any later??  

Later in the morning we also saw a lone black rhino on the horizon purposefully walking toward the waterhole that was on the other side of our safari truck. He crossed directly by us while simultaneously spooking the zebra that were in his path.

And in the evening, we found a dead and bloated giraffe swarmed by scavenging vultures that was eventually claimed by two lazy male lions. The lions didn’t so much want the giraffe as they wanted to guard it and make sure noone else could feast on it. The poor slim creature seemed to have died from starvation, it’s lean body felled in a heap of lanky limbs.

The day we were scheduled to depart from Etosha the rains came and not just a little bit. A torrential downpour submerged our meager campsite. We ate our toast and eggs with our heads bowed over as protection from the pelting water. Unfortunately, the rain makes for a sad safari. Just like us, the animals choose to stay hidden away under bushes or stony outcroppings making it all but impossible to find them. But remembering the giraffe from the previous day, I was glad that undoubtedly the rain would sprout new life and begin to turn the barren landscape green once again.

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