Two days after I became Austin’s wife, we drove approximately eight hours to the north of Namibia for our bush safari honeymoon at Namibia Wildlife Resort’s camps inside Etosha National Park. Once there, we spent the first few days in the vicinity of the Okaukuejo waterhole photographing big game.
On our first day, we drove out into the bush in the searing heat and realised just how much the long drought in Namibia had affected the northern region. There was not a drop of moisture anywhere. The ground had less vegetation cover than Austin had ever seen there before and the dry soil had been reduced to dust. These conditions were disheartening for the animals but did provide us with a distinct advantage – the lack of water would mean that more animals would congregate at the remaining waterholes, making them easier for us to find.
As the mopane forest gave way to grasslands, we passed a flock of ostriches with babies at foot. When the birds approached the track in front of us, Austin circled around and drove back towards them. The adult ostriches were immediately wary of us.
‘Wild animals always worry when you come back for a second look,’ Austin told me.
The chicks were huddled in a tight group around the feet of the adults, and were of varying sizes. Austin explained that this was because some had hatched last year and the others the year before that. The adult birds extended their wings like an umbrella over the chicks to provide them with shade, and Austin’s camera never missed a moment of this touching display of parental care. The chicks spread out and crossed the track in single file ahead of the adults, and as they did so I counted twenty-seven of them. They already possessed the basic shape of a mature ostrich, but they were a speckled light brown in colour and were no bigger than chickens.
We explored all morning, observing lions at a kill from a distance through our binoculars, and admiring the bravery of a black-backed jackal that was determined to gain from the lion’s efforts. Austin also photographed a beautiful young goshawk attempting to flush small prey animals from the grass. At late morning, we saw two bull elephants companionably wandering in the direction of the Okaukuejo waterhole together, so Austin turned the car around and drove us back to camp.
By midday, when the temperature soared and there was very little shade, activity around the waterhole peaked. Austin and I took a seat inside the boundaries of the camp beside the waterhole and watched as hundreds of springbuck gathered under a tree, competing for shade without sacrificing their close proximity to water. Many of the female springbuck were pregnant. The two bull elephants we’d come across earlier arrived and sauntered into the water, siphoning the precious fluid into their trunks. The bulls then placed the tips of their trunks into their mouths, and drank with obvious satisfaction. As the bulls commenced to playfully throw water over their backs, I noticed long lines of wildebeest, zebras and oryx making their way to the waterhole. I had never seen so many animals in one place in my life, and the noise and movement resulting from such a congregation was incredible.
I looked closer at the animals drinking from the waterhole, and noticed how terribly thin they were. The ribs and hips of each animal clearly showed through their taught skin and rough coats. The only animals that did not appear to be badly affected were the zebras, which seem to keep their good condition no matter how harsh their environment becomes.
‘In an ideal world, animals could roam freely, instead of being restricted to isolated patches of national parks. Instead, they are confined to smaller and smaller areas because of human activity,’ Austin lamented. ‘I hope the rains come soon.’
‘I know, my love,’ I replied quietly, giving Austin’s hand a gentle squeeze. It was a familiar lamentation, and one that I had no new answers for. Austin stood up and began photographing the activity at the waterhole. He captured the colossal bull elephants spraying themselves with water, and the long-horned oryx, comical wildebeest and noisy zebras drinking and wading around them. Eventually the two elephants turned away from us and walked out of the water, and all the other animals scattered to make way for them.
‘I wonder how long they will stay together,’ I told Austin as the bulls headed towards the mopane forest.
‘They seem to be enjoying each other’s company,’ Austin said, ‘but eventually they will want their space, like all bull elephants.’
Austin and I retired to the comfort of our air-conditioned bungalow to sort through the photographs and have lunch. Then we explored further throughout the afternoon, which gave Austin the opportunity to photograph a herd of zebras happily rolling in the dust.
That evening, we were sitting around the Okaukuejo waterhole in time for sunset. The soft spotlights placed on our side of the waterhole turned on as the sunlight vanished from the sky, and we were able to watch the events of the night without disturbing the animals. A steady procession of giraffes made their way to the water, spending twenty to thirty minutes standing dead still, observing their surroundings, before moving in and awkwardly positioning themselves to drink. Each giraffe splayed their front feet as wide as they could and bending their knees, they gracefully lowered their heads to the surface of the water, their shapes silhouetted against the darkening purple of the sky behind them. A moment later, we realised the cause of their reticence when a pride of lions began to roar in a thundering united chorus. I had never heard lions roaring around me before, and the sound seemed to make the very air vibrate.
‘That’s incredible,’ I breathed, shuffling in closer to Austin. ‘Where are they?’
‘Look,’ Austin said, pointing beyond the waterhole to the open rocky ground that stretched out in front of the mopane forest. ‘They’re around.’
A lone male lion with a dark, shaggy mane materialised out of the darkness, padding softly towards the waterhole. The giraffes raised their heads in alarm and stared at the lion, which stopped and lowered himself to the ground in a pose of casual relaxation. The giraffes continued to stare at the lion until he raised his head and roared three times. The deep rumble of his powerful voice carried across the clearing and the giraffes scattered in panic, running around the waterhole towards us with their characteristic loping gait to put as much distance between themselves and the predator as possible. The giraffes were thirsty. Many had travelled all day from where they were browsing on vegetation in order to visit the waterhole. Their fear of the predator was not as strong as their need for water, so they did not run far. One young and obviously inexperienced giraffe seemed possessed of particularly slow thought processes. After initially following the rest of the group in their dash for safety, the young giraffe walked back in the direction he came from until he stood some twenty metres from the resting lion. The young giraffe stared at the lion as though trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.
‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I muttered to the giraffe under my breath as I scanned the surroundings for other lions. ‘If this is an ambush, it’ll be the last mistake you ever make.’
As I watched, the lion stood up and walked towards the young giraffe, which remained totally motionless. When the lion came within ten metres of the young giraffe, he finally turned and loped away, as though this were not a matter of great urgency. The sight of a prey animal running can be all it takes to trigger the natural instinct of a cat to chase, but the lion wasn’t interested in food, and would normally have left the arduous task of hunting to the lionesses in his pride. He, like all the other animals, was there to drink. As he approached the waterhole, the giraffes departed, disappearing into the bush to the left of the waterhole. The lion neatly tucked his giant paws under his body and crouched forward until his furry muzzle almost touched the water, and then he extended his rough pink tongue and lapped softly at the surface. When he had his fill, he walked in the opposite direction to the one the giraffes had taken and vanished into the darkness.
It was quiet around the waterhole for a few hours and we enjoyed the silence of the night until around 11pm when a pair of indistinct grey shapes appeared out of the mopane forest in the distance. The shapes took form as they came within range of the spotlights.
‘Black rhinos! A female with a baby!,’ I exclaimed, tightening my grip on Austin’s arm in my excitement. Austin smiled indulgently. This was my first rhino sighting, and I was thrilled.
Black rhinoceros are physically quite different from white rhinoceros and the two can usually be easily distinguished. White rhinos are larger than black rhinos and are more even tempered. White rhinos have very square lips for grazing on grass. Their horns are wide and they have an obvious hump on their necks, located dorsally. They are social animals and can often be found in small groups. Their common name, ‘white’ rhino, does not denote colour but comes from the Afrikaans word for ‘wide.’ They are found in open, grassy areas. Black rhinos are slightly darker in colour and are known for having a short fuse and for charging with very little provocation. They have triangular, prehensile lips for removing leaves and twigs from bushes. They are mostly solitary animals with the exception of females who have a calf at foot. Black rhinos most often inhabit dense thorn bush shrubbery and thus are very difficult to spot.
The mother black rhino and her calf moved towards the waterhole; the calf walking behind his mother at all times until she reached the edge of the waterhole and dipped her head to drink. The calf then came to stand alongside her. The calf was still small, barely one third of his mother’s size, and he possessed only two small buds where his horns would one day be. The calf had an irresistible attraction to the water. While his mother was content to watch from the edge, he happily waded out until he was almost completely submerged. He seemed to relish the feel of the water lapping at his sides, and he showed very little inclination to return to dry land until another three adult rhinos approached the waterhole from different directions. The calf quickly waded out of the water and hid behind his mother, nervous of these strangers encroaching on his bath time. The new arrivals were all solitary adults, each frequently stopping to sniff the nearby communal dung deposits, known as ‘middens,’ of rhinos that had previously congregated at the waterhole. As Austin and I watched, the rhinos proceeded to greet each other in turn, taking in the unfamiliar scents of the strangers while standing nose-to-nose with one another, with their mouths almost touching. The calf’s mother also took part in this ritual, but she was always careful to keep her body protectively between her calf and that of the other rhinos. I couldn’t believe our luck! I knew how rare a sight this was, to have five elusive black rhinos in the same place at the same time. The three adults did not remain very long after drinking, each moving away on their own paths until they were tiny specks in the darkness. When only the rhino mother and calf remained, the mother began to wander a short distance away, preparing to leave. The calf followed her at first, but then he dropped down onto the ground and began to roll. The calf, who already possessed the beginnings an adult rhino’s massive physique, did his best to coat his damp body in dust, his feet flailing in mid-air as he tried to shift his bulk to best advantage. His mother looked on, patiently waiting for her baby to tire of this game. Eventually, the calf heaved himself off the ground and took several paces towards his mother as though ready to move on, but when the mother rhino tried once more to leave, her baby dropped to the ground again and made the same hilarious attempt to roll in the dust. Austin and I sat observing this battle of wills with wide smiles on our faces, recognising what seemed to be the determination of the calf to try his mother’s patience. This occurred several more times before the calf was finally content to accompany his mother back into the mopane forest. I wanted so badly to follow them, a feeling Austin and I often had to contend with when leaving elephant herds in the Ugab riverbed in Namibia. The desire to continue on with the animals to learn where they go and what they do next was so strong that it was often tempting to abandon civilisation and all the responsibilities that go with it in order to prolong the adventure.
Austin and I returned to our bungalow after midnight, showered and climbed into bed. As we were dozing off, the guttural roars of lions recommenced, only this time the lions were right outside our camp! A moment later, the metal garbage bin situated at the door of our bungalow crashed to the ground. Austin and I cautiously crept from our bed and peered out the door. There, rummaging through garbage, was a black-backed jackal. The jackal barely looked up at us before resuming its search for food. The lions roared again with a proximity that made me quake with excitement, and at that moment the jackal retrieved some small morsel from the overturned garbage bin and took off into the darkness. At intervals during the night the feline chorus began again and brought me drowsily out of deep sleep until the lions finally rested near dawn.
Over the next two days, we explored Okaukuejo and witnessed many more spectacular scenes at the various waterholes within driving distance. Then we spent a full day driving to the eastern side of Etosha National Park, leaving Okaukuejo for Namutoni camp. As we drove, we encountered gigantic wasps that sounded like helicopters as they hovered around the car, searching for spiders. Paralysed by the sting of the female wasp, the defenceless spider would be entombed alive inside the female wasp’s nest, and she would lay on it a single egg. Once hatched, the growing wasp larva would consume the spider.
Since our arrival a few days earlier, clouds had gathered over Etosha in the late afternoons, only to dissipate again by the following morning. This was a common occurrence in the months leading up to rain, but Austin warned me not to get my hopes up, as the searing heat and dry conditions had not changed much in the preceding few years.
As we travelled, we witnessed large herds of zebra, wildebeest and springbuck crossing the grassy plains in search of water. The full effects of the drought were blatantly apparent as one zebra herd crowded around the muddy remains of what used to be a waterhole, noisily calling to each other while digging in the mud with their front hooves. One zebra became stuck in the mud while attempting to find water and it took some considerable struggle before the poor animal could free itself. The terrible conditions all around us began to make us feel guilty whenever we sipped the orange drink we had brought with us, and my head swam with impossible fantasies of providing water to all the thirsty animals in the park.
We also encountered oryx, kudu and red hartebeest (reddish-brown antelope with curved horns) in smaller herds, as well as families of wild pigs running alongside the track with their tails stuck straight up in the air in common alert posture. It was after one such encounter with wild pigs that the grey clouds milling overhead suddenly burst and showered the scorched land with raindrops! Austin and I laughed and reached out of the Mazda’s windows to feel the cool water as it fell from the sky. The downpour did not last long, but it gave us hope for a proper rainy season to come.
Once settled in our new bungalow at Namutoni camp, we were confronted by the current establishment’s ideas of improvements to the accommodation, which presented themselves in the form of showers without doors or curtains, in a bathroom with one wall missing! These alterations were certainly not in keeping with the otherwise contemporary chalets, and Austin and I were quite mystified. Given the lack of privacy arising from these circumstances, we were happy that we had come to stay as a married couple on our honeymoon and not with friends or acquaintances!
Over the next couple of days, we explored the waterhole and bush areas around Namutoni, which quickly proved to be a giraffe paradise. We frequently had to stop the Mazda to allow giraffes to cross the track in front of us, some of which simply stood in front of our car and regarded us with innocent curiosity for fifteen minutes at a time before wandering into the trees once more. From such close range I was able to appreciate how incredibly tall these animals were, and how amusing their antics could be. Each giraffe we encountered seemed to have all the time in the world in which to go about its business, and we were able to spend long periods of time in their company. Their beautiful markings were highly individual and they ranged from a light sandy colour, through to chestnut and darkest brown. I was also able to observe close up their unusual gait, in which both left legs move simultaneously followed by both right legs when the animals walk.
Namutoni was also home to herds of elephants, zebras, wildebeest and springbuck, and on one memorable occasion we encountered an irate bull elephant close to four metres tall drinking from a waterhole. Although we kept a respectful distance and remained motionless, the bull tossed his head and came towards us in a mock charge, going out of his way to force us to reverse away from the waterhole. The elephant then took off at high speed for the closest area of thick bush, and we wondered why he had so adverse a reaction to our vehicle. We simply could not account for it.
As we drove away from the bull and continued on to the next waterhole, Austin noticed a small leopard tortoise crossing the track in front of us. Austin stopped the Mazda, jumped out and lifted the tortoise from the track. The tortoise immediately ducked his head inside his beautifully patterned shell and must have been quite surprised to find himself deposited in the safety of the bush on the side of the track, away from passing vehicles. Then, not a hundred metres from where we found the tortoise, we began to see giant millipedes, also known as ‘songololos’ in Southern Africa, crossing the track ahead. Explaining that this was probably the result of the rain the previous day, Austin relocated to safety as many giant millipedes as he could before he returned to the Mazda and drove us further along the track. When we encountered a specimen of some twenty centimetres in length, Austin picked up the gentle giant and placed it in my hands. The hundreds of legs walking over my skin each felt like the fluttering of an eyelash, and the millipede’s antennae circled slowly as it wandered across my hands. I was totally fascinated. I had learned in my insect-mad childhood that millipedes are capable of producing a foul-smelling fluid when disturbed, but this millipede did not seem to resent the intrusion in the slightest. Eventually I carried it to nearby bushes and let it wander off into the undergrowth.
By our last day at Namutoni, Austin had photographed many beautiful and interesting animals, but really close, day-time shots of lions had eluded him entirely. With our remaining time in Etosha now reduced to a matter of hours, we were about to be forced give up on such pictures. Lions can be difficult to find because they are frequently on the move, following the game in order to secure the best chance for a successful hunt. We had stopped at a waterhole to watch a giraffe drinking, reluctantly putting off leaving. Just as we were about to start the engine and begin the long journey home, two lionesses and an adolescent male lion materialised out of high grass. The lions settled on the other side of the waterhole far from our car and began to drink. We couldn’t believe our luck! Raising the binoculars to my eyes enabled me to observe the trio more closely. The adolescent male was sprouting the first beginnings of what would one day become a glorious mane, and his attention was fixed on the giraffe that was now standing watching him. The young lion started playfully stalking the giraffe, which was forced to run for the safety of the trees a number of times. Austin and I laughed as we realised that the young lion did not really intend to catch the giraffe, and was simply enjoying the chase. The giraffe soon learned that it had little to fear from the immature lion, and although it ran just as swiftly, it returned to the waterhole time and time again. When the young lion tired of this game, he joined the two lionesses and all three cats started playing together, rolling around in the dirt, growling softly, chewing each other’s ears, licking each other’s faces, and wrestling with each other, all important bonding actions for members of a pride. Their paws were enormous and each animal rippled with muscle. As I watched, Austin began to do what was necessary to get that perfect photograph – he slowly opened his car door and left the safety of our vehicle. Austin had spent a great deal of time living and filming in Etosha years earlier, his research pass allowing him access to areas that the public never see. His vast experience with African wildlife allowed him to judge the situation perfectly and his knowledge reduced the risk of potential accidents. As he stepped away from the car and began taking his first shots, the larger of the two lionesses turned towards him and fixed him with her bright amber eyes. She moved half way around the waterhole towards Austin tentatively, unsure about the strange creature that showed no fear of her, and sat on her haunches. Austin lowered his camera and gazed at the lioness, and the two of them observed each other. The lioness allowed Austin to photograph her for some time before she moved towards him again, and then Austin retreated to the safety of our car. The lioness saw her opportunity to investigate was thwarted, and she softly called to her companions. Then the three lions melted back into the grass and disappeared.
In a final attempt to prolong our stay, Austin and I decided to check out a track known as ‘dik dik drive,’ so named for the tiny five-kilogram, forty-centimetre-high herbivores that live there. These little animals feed on leaves and are a pale speckled-amber in colour. They have tiny faces with large, dark eyes, pointed ears, elongated mobile noses and a very small set of horns. The dik dik’s only defence against predators is to remain absolutely still and perfectly camouflaged in the surrounding bush, or failing that, to bound away as fast as their little legs can carry them. Austin assured me that if we drove very slowly and were careful not to frighten the dik diks, we should be able to see one. I looked for the animals until I felt my eyes strain.
‘I can’t see one anywhere. Are they here?’
‘They’re here somewhere,’ Austin replied. ‘Don’t look so hard. You’re looking at the bush. Look through the bush.’
Remembering working with ‘Magic Eye’ optical illusions books as a child until the hidden pictures revealed themselves, I directed my gaze at the surrounding bush once again. This time I focused on the spaces between the lines of trees and shrubbery, and I saw my first dik dik standing surprisingly close to the Mazda.
‘There’s one!’ I exclaimed. ‘Oh, it’s gorgeous!’
Austin’s smile told me he had already located the animal in question, and had simply been waiting for me to catch on. I was instantly taken with the delicate little creature, whose body was not much larger than that of a rabbit and whose legs accounted for the majority of its small stature. It had one of the cutest faces I had ever seen on any animal, and as I scanned the surrounding bush again, another tiny face peered back at me, regarding me with large, dark eyes.
These dik diks were too well camouflaged to allow for a good picture, so Austin and I drove past them and continued the search. Twenty metres further on, we came across a lone dik dik nibbling the leaves of a low-growing shrub out in the open, by the side of the track. Austin photographed this dik dik through the window on my side of the car, using my shoulder as a kind of makeshift tripod. After a couple of minutes, the dik dik stopped eating and softly picked its way over to our vehicle with all the grace of a ballet dancer. I slowly leaned as far out of the window as I could, in time to see the inquisitive dik dik sniff the base of my car door with its soft little nose. The dik dik was within reach of my fingers but I remained as still as possible to avoid frightening this special creature. The dik dik then turned back and casually recommenced feasting on leaves.
Our time in Etosha National Park had drawn to a close, and safe in the knowledge that all our inspirational encounters had been faithfully recorded by Austin’s camera, we reflected on what had been a magical honeymoon. Both Austin and I wanted desperately to stay, to prolong the joy of being with wild animals in their environment, observing behaviour that so few people are ever lucky enough to witness, and it was with a mixture of excitement and sadness that we finally headed back to civilisation.
Spending time with wildlife in natural habitats changes people. It puts life, and our place in it, into perspective. It makes us realise how small our everyday concerns are, and how much we are missing when we restrict ourselves to a nine-to-five existence within the four walls of an office. It gives us the understanding that nature keeps a balance on its own, and that we fail as custodians of the planet every time we tip that balance in our favour at the expense of the natural world.
To be continued in Chapter 25, when a local competition takes off-road driving to extremes!