Austin and I made it back to Etosha National Park for the first time since our honeymoon a year earlier, and the next morning, we enjoyed watching wildlife in the vicinity of the Okaukuejo waterhole, which was surrounded by hundreds of Abdim’s storks that had gathered to drink. Many were already settled on the ground, their glossy black plumage gleaming in the sun. Others circled above, waiting for their chance to alight by the water. The storks were surrounded by herds of zebra, wildebeest and oryx that were all competing for space. As we watched, a rock monitor lizard approached us on the camp side of the waterhole. He came within centimetres of our feet before clambering into his nearby hole.
We spent the afternoon photographing the still sleeping lions at Okandeka, and Austin got some great shots of a large kori bustard foraging for lizards under a beautiful old camelthorn tree.
The next day we left early in the morning to move camps from Okaukuejo to Halali, half way across the national park. During the drive, Austin noticed that the Mazda’s clutch was hitting the floor and not coming up again. He got out of the car and confirmed that it had a fluid leak, and we were lucky to make it through the driest and hottest part of Etosha to reach Halali. Further examination proved that the clutch cylinder seal was exhausted due to normal wear and tear, and had finally packed up. We needed a new one, but no one anywhere near Etosha had access to spare parts. We realised we would be stranded in the vicinity of the camp for the remainder of our trip since we could not risk any unnecessary driving, and we hoped the car would make it to a town outside the national park that stocked such things the following week. We made the best of it, and spent all day and each night until around 11pm at the Halali waterhole.
Unlike the waterhole at Okaukuejo, the Halali waterhole was surrounded by bush and provided a lovely green background for Austin’s photographs. We seated ourselves upon high rocks overlooking the waterhole where we could observe animals without disturbing them. A peregrine falcon, perched on a log, watched a pair of nearby doves with the keen interest of a hungry predator, and a majestic marabou stork stood in the waterhole fishing for small turtles that cruised just under the surface. In the late afternoon of our first day at Halali, the waterhole was surrounded by kudu and by black-faced impala in their rutting season. The adult male impalas’ chestnut coats rippled with muscular tension as they snorted loudly. Two males came forward and turned to face each other. They raised their short, white tails high and lowered their heads, bringing their angular black horns forward before connecting with those of their opponent with a resounding clash. The two males then fought to shove each other backwards, and the winner of these skirmishes proceeded to chase the female impala through the bush. The females were uncooperative, demonstrating that winning the fight was only half the battle. When the impala herd finally left the waterhole, Austin and I returned to our room to make a picnic dinner from our supplies and to enjoy some respite from the oppressive heat.
Around 7.30pm we strolled across the camp and through the bush back to the waterhole and took our place on the rocks once again. A spectacular sunset had touched the clouds and streaked the sky with bands of bright orange and pink. As the last light faded, we saw a lone spotted hyena emerging from the darkening bush. The hyena moved cautiously towards the waterhole and stood beside it before wading in and bathing in the water. The hyena had a very full stomach and a relaxed attitude, indicating it had just recently fed. Now and then the hyena lowered its head to drink, sending ripples across the surface of the water as it turned red with the reflection of the setting sun. It was a lonely and spectacularly beautiful sight. The hyena eventually waded slowly out of the water and vanished into the surrounding bush. Not a minute later, the silence of the waterhole was broken by the soft steps of a black rhino mother and calf. The calf remained beside its mother at all times until they reached the edge of the waterhole, and then separated from her and came into full view. We both noticed simultaneously that this calf had no ears! The calf possessed only the holes in the sides of his head that are normally surrounded by the ears. A closer look with our binoculars showed that both sides of his head were symmetrical in this and all other respects and no signs of scarring were visible, so we concluded in soft whispers that the lack of ears was caused by a rare congenital defect and was not the result of injury or predation. The calf appeared to be less than a year old, with only small buds where its horns would one day be. The mother and calf both drank at the waterhole and then the calf made a series of mewing noises that brought the female rhino closer. The calf then drank its mother’s milk contentedly before following her to the edge of the bush while she browsed on trees. From an area of bush closer to us, a third rhino emerged. This rhino’s horns were well formed but small and its short stature indicated that this was a sub-adult that had only recently left its mother. As it walked towards the water and dipped its head to drink, we heard the exciting and mysterious calls of hyenas, and another two spotted hyenas appeared out of the darkness and made their way to the opposite side of the waterhole. They appeared very wary of the three rhinos, all of whom turned towards them and kept a watchful eye on their movements. Austin leaned over and whispered in my ear that rhinos didn’t like hyenas, in much the same way as elephants lack tolerance for lions. The hyenas maintained a safe distance from the deadly horns and short tempers of the rhinos, and the two species appeared to accept each other’s mutual need for water. Hundreds of sand grouse flew down and landed beside the waterhole, where they began to take turns to enter the water and drink. Each sand grouse twittered constantly to those around it and the hundreds of birds together made a sparkling sound like that of a babbling stream. The sand grouse were so numerous and so well camouflaged that it looked as though the ground around the waterhole was alive and moving.
Austin and I were able to watch the animals at the waterhole into the very late hours of the night with the aid of a soft spotlight that illuminated the animals without disrupting them. The spotlight was mounted on the rocks beside us, which attracted a vast number of insects that were then preyed upon by nightjars. The nightjars soared swiftly and silently through the darkness and snatched torpedo moths from the air without ever slowing their pace. Even the mosquitoes were not enough to persuade us to leave; it was tiredness that eventually forced us to commence the trek back to our bungalow near midnight. We climbed back over the rocks towards the camp, but before we turned onto the bush track, we glanced back at the waterhole once more. All three rhinos stood together in silent understanding, and the hyenas drank peacefully opposite them. The warm, fragrant night enveloped us all. Rhino and hyena were symbols of something wild and free, and we were privileged to share that moment with them.
To be continued in Chapter 47, in which we have more amazing encounters with African wildlife…
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If you would like to read the story of my life with Austin from the beginning, please start at Chapter 1 – Taking a Chance.