Far from it. Having travelled to Namibia almost every year since I first visited the country in 2001 I can assure you that the wildlife experiences are only getting better, because in Namibia, it is not only the wildlife that is ‘alive’, its ancient landscapes are living too…
My greatest fear for this trip was its timing. Almost 18 months ago I had decided to run the itinerary as close to the start of the rains as I dared, but before they fell. Too late and the wildlife would be dispersed far and wide, hiding behind an impenetrable wall of miombo and camel thorn vegetation.
We had flown to the north of the country three days previously and arrived in a land burnt dry from months of harsh African sun, and experienced an unprecedented volume of wildlife viewing - aided by less than one millimetre of rain in the preceding six months, the waterholes attracted a continual stream of wildlife.
Ongava outshone its reputation as one of the best private reserves in the country – highlights included an afternoon observing the exhausting mating ritual of a male lion with two females, a rare sighting of a pair of dik-dik’s while on a walking safari, identifying a plethora of birds including African hawk eagle, gabar goshawk, giant kingfisher, snake eagles, hornbill’s, sunbirds, waxbills, hoopoes, drongo’s and rock-buntings from the cool-luxury of an underground hide, and witnessing the evening arrival of six (yes six) black rhino who threaded their way through the bush to a waterhole no more than twenty feet away from our night-hide. Equally, the mighty Etosha (aptly translated as ‘big white place’ in the mother tongue of the Damara people) repeatedly delivered outstanding wildlife viewing – never has this most incredible national park failed me…
Upon arrival I offered the group an optional afternoon drive into the park. Still tired from the journey I was worried about the heat, and managed expectations with the commonly adopted wildlife caveat “OK, so listen. It’s 2pm and about 45C. The animals are likely to have sought shade and be tucked away for the afternoon. But, I’d like to show you Etosha and give you a sense of our wider surroundings”. But, I needn’t have worried about the wildlife…Within moments of passing through the gates, we were the only vehicles viewing five southern giraffe. We drove on and had barely enough time to count 20 blue wildebeest beside us, before another seven giraffe ambled into frame. We drove on to the administrative centre, Okaukuejo, where dozens of Burchell’s zebra, springbok and a handful of southern giraffe supped water in long, slow and deliberate gulps – while a black-backed jackal scurried between them. Then, after what could only have been ten minutes, four elephant barged through the distant bush a few hundred metres to our right; a matriarch, with three other young females.
Etosha is renowned for its impressive population of elephants, and I’m never any less emotional when I see them now than I was when I saw an elephant for the very first time. But this time it was special – very special – more special than any other time, because “What’s that at the back?” I said to myself. “Something doesn’t look right”. I continued to think, as I pulled my binoculars to my eyes. “Oh wow – look there’s a baby with them too. Five elephants” I whispered to the clients around me, as I pointed. It was very small. The smallest elephant I have ever seen. Only just able to walk properly – could barely put one foot on the ground in front of the other to walk in a straight line. Narrowly missing tripping over its trunk, which dangled loosely in front – as if a carrot on a stick and the only thing keeping it moving forward. The parade slowed to a halt, but they were still some distance from the waterhole. It was as if they were waiting for the animals still drinking to respectfully move to one side and make way – which finally they did. But still, mother remained where she was – something was not right, she was unsettled. The infant was desperate for water. We watched. What was wrong?
Then our guide pointed to the far distance, beneath a tree. “Lion”, he said in a hushed yet firm voice. “Sitting down.” And yes, far away the unmistakable outline of a large male lion could be seen sitting down, facing our way, in between some distant bushes. After what seemed an age, the mother slowly moved forward, keeping her baby tucked beneath her enormous frame, cautiously glancing towards the distant bushes. She knew – but it was a calculated move. The infant fell into the water, rolling and snorting in the muddy gloop, while the mother drank and sprayed herself down – cooling her 4cm thick skin. And then, as if that were not enough, two enormous bull elephants crashed through the trees to our left and moved directly to the sides of the female and her baby in a move that said ‘Protection’, with a capital ‘P’.
Some time passed, and having taken their fill of water and paid their respects, the bulls chaperoned the four females and baby away from the waters edge and back to the bush from where they had come. By now, the giraffe, zebra and springbok had been joined by gemsbok and black-faced impala – all of whom appeared as engaged with the new arrival as we were. They all reverentially stepped to one side to allow passage for the caravan to move on. We all watched, until long after there was nothing left to watch.
Etosha continued to enthral us – greater kestrel, spotted eagle owl, lions, a breeding herd of 25 elephant, herds of 100’s of springbok, the list goes on. The concentration of wildlife was outstanding – a tremendous variety of life in a seemingly desolate habitat.
As we reflected on our time at Etosha and Ongava over breakfast on our last morning, the few of us left at the table were alerted, in no uncertain of terms, to the of a rarely sighted visitor at the waterhole below us.
“OH MY GOD! THERE’S A LEOPARD” shrieked Stephanie.
Friends, I assure you that I could not have spat the piece of toast and marmalade from my mouth further if I had tried, nor moved faster. Even before the half chewed morsel had hit the floor on the other side of the lodge’s boma, I was halfway down the accommodations’ path, sprinting to two clients that had left the table to pack their bags. Rapping on the door and screaming in the most hushed of whispers (I would have never thought it possible, but it is)…”Leopard! Come now!”
Barely 20 seconds later I was crouching on the verandah of a vacated (I presume) room, fitting the Sigma 500 lens to the body of my camera. Paying the otherwise normally delicate process almost no attention, my eyes flickered from one side of the waterhole to another - hoping beyond hope that my mad-dash hadn’t alerted the elusive visitor. My eye detected the feint colourings of the beautiful creature against the otherwise camouflaged backdrop of bone dry bush and my lens gave a satisfying ‘click’. I pulled the camera to my eye and fired off six shots, before she nervously retreated into the obscurity of the bush.
I returned to the group at the main lodge who were still watching the beautiful creature loping, almost apologetically, through the distant scrub until, just as suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone.
Our breath was taken away - all of us. We stood shoulder to shoulder with the camp staff. Looking, looking, looking…
Several beats passed before, finally, someone spoke. “Wow…”, Stephanie said, “Wowww…” we all agreed.
We gathered to say our farewells to the camp staff in readiness for our light aircraft transfer to the Skeleton Coast. One of our guides took me aside and said that some lion that had been sighted close to the lodge. He looked at me, as if to ask what we should do. I shrugged, and with a tilt of my head and a raised eye-brow indicated we should go see what the fuss was about…
Only half a kilometre further down the track we did indeed see lion – about half a dozen of them no more than 10 metres into the bush from the trackside. “Hang on…is that a giraffe on the ground?” I thought, “Woah – Hang on…there’s more lion behind it” I continued to think. Then I started to count “…10...11…12…13…14….15!? 15 lion”. “Oh my God, there’s been the kill of all kills here.” No-one could believe it, and we sat and watched the ceremony unfold. The act had clearly only very recently taken place and despite this being the result of an ambush by two prides of lion, there was no squabbling or in-fighting. Though we didn’t have the spare time to observe the feeding hierarchy, there clearly was one and the lions queued patiently around the carcass, before taking their turn.
The scene was quiet and calm, but the atmosphere was high tension. Little did a couple on their walking safari that drifted dangerously close to the scene know that their wanderings had caught the eye of a female, who abruptly stood up, lowered her head with purpose and glowered intently through the scrub in their direction. Noticing this sudden movement (thankfully), their guide walked them away on a wide arc – out of temptations reach and away from harm. As gruesome as the sight was, we were all fixated. The lions were reverential in their behaviour, almost as if paying respect to the fallen. The sight, the noise, the smell – it was a complete sensory overload – desperately sad (we had observed the solitary old male giraffe the previous evening), but beautiful to be so close to the harsh reality of life in the wild. It was, we all agreed, a privilege.
So with the pilots on hand I insisted that the group try to put the experiences of the last three days behind them, as I explained that we would now be travelling travel to an area entirely different – exceptionally beautiful and truly remote – nothing that we had experienced in Etosha would prepare us for what we would next encounter in the Skeleton Coast…