Austin and I returned home after completing commentary recordings for Austin’s new series in South Africa; however, we did not spend very long in Swakopmund before we began the nine-hour drive north to the Desert Rhino Camp in Damaraland so we could spend some time with Austin’s friends, Emsie and Chris, who ran the camp for Wilderness Safaris. As we drove out of Swakopmund and began crossing the gravel plains, we narrowly avoided a collision with a desert chameleon that was crossing the road. Austin stopped the Mazda, jumped out and rescued the chameleon, which opened its mouth wide and began to hiss and struggle to get away as he brought it back to our car. There was a truck coming up fast behind us, so while Austin attempted to drive with one hand, I gently took the hissing chameleon behind the head and lifted it onto my lap. The chameleon brightened its colours a little once it settled on my leg, and we drove it to a safer part of the desert where Austin took some great photos of it before we released it and continued on our way.
A couple of hours later, we were driving around Brandberg Mountain and past the dry Ugab riverbed to continue our journey north. Just as we rounded a bend, I saw a huge lone bull elephant making his way from tree to tree through the high hills immediately to the left of us. He was walking faster than any elephant I’ve ever seen, taking branches from the trees to eat along the way.
‘Elephant!’ I yelled excitedly, and pointed in the bull elephant’s direction. Austin slowed the Mazda to a stop.
‘What a nice boy!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’d love to get some pictures of him.’
‘What’s his hurry?’ I asked, fascinated by the determination in the elephant’s brisk steps.
‘Water, probably,’ Austin replied. ‘I think he’s thirsty.’
As Austin positioned the car in order to photograph the elephant, he walked towards us and we reversed to give him room to cross the track in front of us. He was a massive elephant and clearly in a rush, but he didn’t mind our close proximity as long as he had space to move. He crossed right in front of our car and began walking down the other side of the track towards the opening of the riverbed. Austin used this opportunity to swing the car around again in order to take some more pictures, but before long the elephant turned to face us, fanned out his ears and tossed his enormous head. He was warning us to give him more room, so once again we backed off and the elephant exerted his authority by walking right past the front of the car again and making eye contact with us as he did so. Then he turned and wandered down the track. We hoped no other cars would take that bend in the track just then as they could have collided with the elephant, but after making his way down the track for a short while, he turned back into the grass and left us for the riverbed with Austin’s camera capturing every moment of his departure.
Seven hours later, after passing through some beautiful desert areas, we reached the little desert oasis of Palmwag where Emsie and Chris had driven from Rhino Camp to meet us. I had met Emsie and Chris around town in Swakopmund a couple of times in the past. Emsie was 30 years old and had known Austin for nearly 10 years. She met 42-year-old Chris several years earlier when Austin convinced her to leave Swakopmund and take a job running Rhino Camp in the north. Chris was a game ranger in South Africa before coming to Namibia and being stationed to work at Rhino Camp for Wilderness Safaris, where he met Emsie. Years before, while still in South Africa, Chris lost his left arm below the elbow to a crocodile and narrowly escaped with his life. He had recently published a book about it all called ‘In Bushveld and Desert – A Game Ranger’s Life,’ which was on sale in Swakopmund.
Chris and Emsie had their little brown and white Jack Russell, Tier, with them. Tier, whose name meant ‘animal’ in Afrikaans, had a heavily bandaged front paw and was missing an eye. He was also sporting some bite marks that obviously came from a large animal, and before continuing the drive to Rhino Camp, Chris told us the story of Tier’s recent misfortune. A rogue leopard had been stalking Rhino Camp in the previous weeks and had killed and eaten one of Emsie’s pet cats. The leopard grabbed Tier and almost killed him before Chris was able to frighten the leopard away. Tier was walking with a pronounced imbalance; he found it difficult to move in a straight line, but the wounds left in his neck by the leopard’s teeth had healed well. The missing eye, it turned out, had been lost in another accident earlier in life. Little Tier constantly wagged his tail as I patted him, and he seemed perfectly content despite everything he had been through.
It was getting dark quickly, so Chris picked up Tier and carried him to his four-wheel-drive. Emsie joined them, and Austin and I climbed into our Mazda to commence the drive into the desert to find Rhino Camp. I wondered briefly if Chris would be able to drive a manual vehicle considering his disability, but he quickly proved to be as capable as anyone with two arms. If we did not have Chris’s car to follow, we most certainly would have got lost. The rough track was mostly unmarked and branched off in various directions at several points. The track was so rocky that it took us well over an hour to cover the 35km to Rhino Camp, which we could barely see in the darkness. We could just make out the lines of the large luxury tents that made up the camp. As Chris pulled into his little house near the main camp, we saw a young oryx standing by the front door! These steel grey antelope have very long, pointed, sloping horns and stand approximately 1.2m high at the shoulder. Adults weigh around 220kg. Emsie jumped out of the car near the oryx and showed Austin and me where to park the Mazda. Emsie then took us to our tent, which contained a bed, a sink, a shower from which flowed hot water thanks to the outside solar panels, and a toilet. It was much more than we had expected and we knew we would be quite comfortable in the enormous tent. Emsie left us to arrange our things and we agreed to meet for dinner later.
After we unpacked, Austin grabbed a torch. Keeping an eye out for the desert lions that had been seen in the area, we walked towards the centre of camp to find Emsie and Chris already seated at a table under a tree with their indigenous African staff. Some of the staff members were talented chefs, who regularly cooked for the rest of the staff and guests at Rhino Camp, and they prepared a lovely three course meal for us as we chatted with Chris and Emsie. As Chris explained that supplies were driven in to camp and that we could reach civilisation if necessary by means of the satellite phone, the oryx I had seen near the house earlier crept up behind Chris, its huge horns angled towards him. As I watched, mystified, Emsie said, ‘Jakob, kom, kom, kom,’ and the oryx walked towards her outstretched hand to be patted. Austin and I smiled and stared as Chris explained to us that he and Emsie had rescued the now seven-month-old oryx after they found him abandoned in the desert as a small calf. Emsie had raised the oryx at Rhino Camp, fulfilling all the functions of a mother oryx including waking every two hours during the night to bottle feed Jakob, who slept in the house with them. Tier had quickly become Jakob’s playmate, and Jakob accepted Emsie and Chris as the leaders of his new herd. Emsie and Chris had fitted the sharp, potentially dangerous ends of Jakob’s horns with lengths of black plastic pipe in order to keep the people of Rhino Camp safe from accidental stabbing. Chris explained that he had tried to return Jakob to the wild on several occasions, but always he found his way back to Rhino Camp after a short while and there he remained.
Jakob turned his attention to Austin and me and circled around the table to smell us. Jakob’s long horns arched over his back as his soft, furry nose nuzzled my face. His breath blew warm across my cheek and I wondered if anyone would ever believe that there had been an oryx at the dinner table! Jakob remained with us throughout the entire evening and followed Chris, Emsie and Tier back to their house afterwards.
The next morning Austin and I slept until around 9am, which was extremely late by Rhino Camp standards where people are usually up at dawn. We stuck our heads out of our tent and noticed Jakob grazing on the dry yellow plains grass in the distance, and a springbuck farther afield doing the same. Then we went to find Chris and Emsie, who were in their house near the main camp. Emsie had let her long, straight, copper-coloured hair down and it fell to her waist. Chris’s shaggy mane of reddish-blond hair hung down to his shoulders and over his beard, and in his safari shirt and shorts, he was the image of the quintessential Afrikaner bushman. For a few hours we talked about Namibia and all the places we had seen, about immigration difficulties and the state of things in South Africa, and Emsie showed us her photo album which chronicled Jakob’s growth. Emsie and Chris both possessed an irrepressible sense of humour and were great company. It was obvious that they shared a deep love of Namibia. Tier slept at my feet as the discussion turned to the intricacies of the book publishing business, with which Chris and Austin were well acquainted, and then we went to lunch with Jakob walking beside us.
That afternoon around 4pm, when the worst heat of the day had passed, Chris, Emsie, Austin and I climbed into one of Rhino Camp’s dark green open-sided safari vehicles and Chris drove us out onto the rolling desert plains of Damaraland. I looked on in amazement as Chris used the stump of his left arm to change gears and his good right arm to simultaneously support Tier in his lap and handle the steering wheel. Jakob had seen us leaving, and he trotted along near the vehicle, determined not to be left behind.
The desert of Damaraland was breath-taking at every turn and was easily the most spectacular place I had yet seen in Africa. The rocky plains were covered in high yellow grass and dotted with green trees, and we were surrounded at every turn by mountainous red plateaus. As we passed more and more of the plateaus, they gave the illusion of closing in around us, and Chris explained that they were referred to as ‘etendekas,’ meaning ‘layers,’ for that reason. With the exception of small 130 million-year-old basalt boulders strewn on the ground, there was nothing but wide open space for hundreds of kilometres, and it felt like we were the only people on earth. We passed herds of oryx and mountain zebra in the distance, and families of jackals moving though the grass. The scenes that unfolded gave Austin and me the impression that we were driving through a painting, it was so flawlessly beautiful. After a short while, Jakob seemed content to graze and allowed us to go on ahead. Chris drove us to a high pass that looked down on winding dry riverbeds and rolling plains, and Emsie treated us to drinks and a picnic as the sun set over the desert in front of us. Austin took some pictures and we watched in awestruck silence as the sun dipped below the desert and exploded into beams of red light. As the first stars appeared, we all climbed back into the Landcruiser and began the drive back to camp. It was not long before Jakob came running to meet us, and we all went the rest of the way together. As the full moon turned the desert around us to pale silver, Austin leaned towards me.
‘This must be the strangest herd the plains of Damaraland have ever seen,’ he whispered. ‘You, me, Emsie, Chris the one-armed man, a one-eyed dog, and an oryx with pipes on his head!’
That night there were a few paying guests from USA and England at Rhino Camp, and we all sat beside the fire as the indigenous African staff delighted us with their traditional songs, breaking into complex harmonies and dancing around the flames. Their strong and resonant voices instantly transported Austin to the old Africa of his childhood, and quietly he regaled me with stories of the warring tribes that had remained unchanged for centuries.
To be continued in Chapter 38, when we witness the blazing fury of a charging black rhinoceros…
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