Chapter 45 – Etosha National Park

Amy Stevens at ant hill, Waterberg Plateau, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy Stevens at ant hill, Waterburg Plateau, Namibia.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

After some time had passed back in Namibia, Austin and I decided to celebrate our first year of marriage by returning to Etosha National Park, where we had honeymooned twelve months earlier. Austin had not yet completely recovered from his surgery but being inside constantly was depressing him. Eventually, his restlessness overcame his physical discomfort and he decided we simply must travel. We had traded in the Mazda truck and the Fiat Uno for a red Suzuki four-by-four to combine the smaller size we desired with more economical petrol consumption than the Mazda was able to provide. We planned to eventually leave Namibia to investigate the possibility of a home base in Australia again, and we did not want to have two cars left standing in Namibia when that time came. We had to keep a four-wheel drive for desert travel, and trading in both cars for the Suzuki eliminated the problem of having to drive the Uno back to South Africa to sell it privately due to its South African registration.

Austin had taken the Suzuki for several test drives and examined it as best he could before proceeding with the trade-in, so we were shocked when, just a couple of hours after leaving Swakopmund and heading out across the desert, the car blew its head gasket leaving us stranded. Austin put a call through to the dealer he had purchased it from and arranged for our Mazda to be returned to us so that we could continue our trip. Being found by the driver from the dealership and exchanging vehicles took hours, but we continued with our trip and finally managed to reach our first stop at Waterburg Plateau camp just before 9pm. The brush-covered rolling hills stretched out uninterrupted to the horizon and the plateau loomed out of the darkness above the camp as kudu moved silently through the bush around it. Temperatures reached the high thirties and after a difficult night in a small room with no air conditioning, we stepped outdoors into the early morning sun. Our little hut was surrounded by a family of banded mongoose, all busy foraging and digging for insects. The camp was also filled with torpedo moths, which Austin warned me to avoid due to the fluid they excrete causing blisters when it comes into contact with human skin. After a nice breakfast at the restaurant inside the camp, we explored the area around the plateau. Termites had constructed mounds twice my height from the red earth and they towered over the deep green shrubs beside them. The plateau itself was hundreds of metres high and its almost sheer cliff face was home to the ever-present rock hyrax.

Baboon with infant raiding clean linen supplies at Waterberg Plateau camp, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Baboon with infant raiding clean linen supplies at Waterberg Plateau camp, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

As we prepared to leave, we heard the indigenous African cleaning staff shouting. We peered around the corner to see approximately twenty baboons ransacking the clean linen supplies! The baboons swung from the roofs of the huts with ease and ran through the open doors, whereupon more cleaning staff promptly ran out! The baboons emerged from their foray with hands full of sugar packets, which they ate leisurely beside our car. The female baboons carrying babies across their chests were always careful to keep their backs to us to protect their young ones, even while they overturned garbage bins looking for other tasty morsels. Two impressively large males oversaw the operation, one of which had a serious wound on his elbow that he appeared to have sustained in a fight with another baboon. Austin recorded the action on video with his camera before we continued our journey.

Baboons raiding garbage bins at Waterberg Plateau camp, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Baboons raiding garbage bins at Waterberg Plateau camp, Namibia.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

Austin’s post-operative symptoms were making travel very difficult for him, and it was with great relief that we reached Etosha National Park in the early afternoon and noticed that it was much greener than when we visited twelve months earlier. Grass covered the previously barren areas and the trees were a bright and healthy green. The zebras, springbuck and giraffe we passed were well fed and many had young at foot. That afternoon we drove to Okandeka waterhole in search of lions. We parked as close to the waterhole as we could without leaving the established track and saw a pride of eight lions, including two big males, dozing lazily by the water. Oryx, giraffe and zebras looked on in dismay from a safe distance, waiting for the lions to vacate the waterhole so that they could drink. It was obvious from their greatly distended stomachs that the lions had recently made a kill and had eaten well. For the next three and a half hours, Austin and I sat in the sweltering summer heat in hopes that the lions would begin to move around and provide us with a photographic opportunity, but as the gate from the camp to the reserve closed at sunset and the lions showed no inclination to move, we were forced to return to Okaukuejo camp empty handed.

That evening, after Austin had rested, we sat near the waterhole in Okaukuejo camp in time for sunset. Several springbucks drank from the waterhole and a pair of black-backed jackals hunted doves that were also drinking at the water’s edge. One jackal suddenly pounced and stood up with a dove in is jaws. The jackal trotted to within several meters of where we sat and enthusiastically buried the dead dove for later retrieval while the other jackal foraged among the rocks. This second, apparently younger jackal also picked up something in its jaws and ran right towards us. The jackal then halted in front of us and placed the object on the ground between its front paws. We were amazed to discover that this object was a round rock, and over the next quarter of an hour, the young jackal collected several more rocks and added them to the first. We had no explanation for this astonishing behaviour.

Lions at Okandeka, Etosha National Park, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Lions at Okandeka, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

As the shadows grew and the sun disappeared from the sky, the springbuck left the waterhole. A couple of hours later, we were still waiting quietly in the darkness for animals to come and drink when a large female black rhino with a calf materialised out of the night. I estimated the calf to be approximately two years old based on its size, and it remained close to its mother’s side at all times. She led the calf to the water and both rhinos took a long, leisurely drink before wading in to soak. Both rhinos found a position in which the water reached half way up their sides. As they did so, they were joined at the water’s edge by another adult rhino, and mother and calf left the water to greet the new arrival. All three simultaneously sniffed at each other and rubbed their noses together. The arrival of a giraffe only metres away did not disturb the rhinos whatsoever, and the giraffe spread its front legs and lowered its head to drink. At that moment, the magnificent and ghostly visage of an enormous bull elephant appeared out of the darkness from behind the camp. He was covered in white clay, in which he must have bathed earlier, and he had beautifully symmetrical tusks that were large for an elephant in the Etosha National Park area. The bull elephant wore a radio tracking collar around his neck that looked as though it had been fitted a very long time ago. The elephant wound his trunk in circles playfully and then rested it on his right tusk as he approached the waterhole.

The rhinos and the giraffe had ceased their activities and were gazing at the elephant, which raised his head and trunk, fanned out his ears and moved towards them with a determined stride. He proceeded to chase the giraffe away, despite already having ample room to drink at the waterhole. It was an illustration of the power and stubbornness often shown by elephants when they decide they want an area to themselves. The rhinos moved a short distance away but were otherwise not unduly bothered by the elephant’s presence. Austin and I watched the animals until, one by one, they left the waterhole and continued on their own individual paths, vanishing into the night.

Black-backed jackal catches a dove in Etosha National Park, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Black-backed jackal catches a dove in Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

To be continued in Chapter 46, when getting stuck in camp leads to some fantastic encounters with wildlife!

I’d love to hear from readers in the comments section below, “The African animal I would most like to see in the wild is…” It’s always fascinating to me to discover what people gravitate towards. I look forward to reading your responses!

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