The girls on tour - encounters with animals

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Africa » Namibia
November 13th 2006
Published: November 14th 2006
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I’m sitting at a friend’s PC in Johannesburg where, blu-tacked to the screen, is a quotation from Jennifer Aniston: “There’s nothing better than contagious laughter.” And nothing could better encapsulate my recent trip with my oft-travelling companion and long-time friend, Amanda Burge… (There was also “that Keane song” which we played as often as the road conditions would allow and which will forever conjure images of Namibia for us. Every trip needs its theme tune, although this one, it must be said, didn’t exactly capture the ebullience of our travels; nevertheless, we both loved it.)

Travelling with Amanda has always been easy. We have known each other since the half-student/half-living-like-a-grown-up days of Law School at Chester and, although we’ve never done a Big Trip together, she joined me and my then-travelling companion, Delia, for three weeks in Australia during our “world trip” in 1993. This quickly demonstrated our ability to get on in a variety of situations - whether planned or unplanned - and, invariably, to laugh about it either at the time or before too long. Since then, we’ve travelled to Portugal (who could forget that driving-up-a-pedestrian-precinct incident in Cascais?), Greece (where we had our Chalkidiki peninsula pretty much to ourselves, it was so late in the season), Boston MA (where we tried, with some success, to eat or drink in each of the city’s central districts during our five-day trip) and back to Australia (after the nausea-inducing scenic flight over Kakadu, I wasn’t going to suggest that we repeat this mode of transport!); this was to be our first time in Africa.

The first aim of our trip was to introduce Amanda to some wild animals. Although she’s been to South Africa a couple of times, she hadn’t yet managed to “do the safari thing” and we needed to remedy that omission. We didn’t have any problem with this one: within 30 hours of falling off a plane from Gatwick, Amanda was meeting a large male leopard at very close quarters. She could be excused for looking a little stunned.

To back up: the Cheetah Conservation Fund, one of my (many, it must be said) second homes in Namibia during the last few months had kindly agreed to allow Amanda and myself to stay overnight and thereby give Amanda the “inside CCF experience”, rather than just the usual tourist version of events there. So, having given Amanda 24 hours to come round after her flight - during which time we did a quick tour of Windhoek, had lunch at the best coffee shop in Namibia, and dined at the redoubtable Joe’s Beerhouse (her first of many Serious Meat Meals during our trip) - we hit the road north the next morning and stopped at Otjiwarongo to pick up the essentials for a stay at CCF: a crate of beer, crisps and large amounts of cake - I knew my erstwhile colleagues’ requirements! It was while we were at SuperSPAR (sic) acquiring the aforementioned that I got a text from Andrew Stein, the PhD researcher at CCF. Quite simply and concisely, it said, “caught leopard - get out here”.

The next half-hour was a flurry of activity. Having finished in the supermarket, we dashed down the road to the Kameldorn Garten where we had originally intended to have lunch. That repast was put on hold, but I still needed to pop in as I had to repay Hanne-Dora the money I had borrowed from her in extremis two days earlier (more of that “Africa wins again” incident in a future blog). There, I ran into a
leopard work-up in the fieldleopard work-up in the fieldleopard work-up in the field

Within 30 hours of coming off a flight from London, Amanda was having her first encounter with wildlife: a 64 kg male leopard!
friend, Betsy Fox from the Ministry for the Environment and Tourism, whom I had wanted to see in any event before leaving the country and who then asked for a lift back into town to pick up her car. During all of this, I was juggling phone calls with Lorraine Bowden at CCF as to how and when we could best get out to CCF to see the leopard work-up; I’m not sure that my multitasking capabilities quite extend to having four conversations coherently at once!

Anyway, with huge thanks to Lorraine and Andrew for sorting it all out, we headed up the road to CCF, stopping in at the office to pick up Andrew’s hand-drawn map of the relevant cage trap’s location. I’m not sure that our Toyota Corolla had ever been driven off-road to this extent. At least the road out to CCF had been much drier than when I’d battled along it three days earlier after 12 hours’ solid rain: I’d been in a 4-WD at that point and had still had to work hard to get it and myself back to Otji in one piece. Now our shiny white saloon car was being asked to navigate thorn-bush-edged tracks with a not insignificant amount of vegetation growing down their centre. Fortunately, that vegetation was mostly grass: as it was, the car got its tummy tickled for a good half-hour. Miraculously, the paintwork seemed to survive the thorns.

But all that was by-the-by. At our destination, we found one heck of a large cat out for the count. Andrew had been setting traps to try to re-capture the animals he had collared for his research a couple of years earlier. However, this leopard was new to him. A large male, it weighed in at an impressive 64 kg (141 lb) and measured about 2.2 m from nose to tip of tail. It was, by now, past midday with temperatures in the mid-late 30s Centigrade, and the greatest concern was to ensure that the animal did not overheat. With this aim, Amanda found herself holding and monitoring a drip and we sloshed several gallons of water over the animal during the course of the work-up. Unfortunately, there were not enough people to hold a blanket over the operation, as we had done for the brown hyena ten days’ earlier, but Chris - a volunteer from Switzerland -
the leopard back in the cage trap to come roundthe leopard back in the cage trap to come roundthe leopard back in the cage trap to come round

Although his eyes are open, he certainly wasn't "with it" for a while yet.
did his best to hang a blanket from the nearby bushes to create a little shade. The cat’s temperature was monitored every five minutes or so, and Andrew covered the cage-trap in more blankets when we put the animal back in there to come round after the work-up. It was an amazing experience to be that close to a large feline: to ruffle his fur to allow the cooling water to get through to his skin, to see his vast paws and perfect teeth, to lift - not without some difficulty - his huge head. I could not believe the timing of this capture: my parting words to Andrew three days’ earlier had been to “order” a leopard (“please”) for the following Tuesday or Wednesday when we would be visiting. I never imagined that this would be fulfilled!

With sundowners up the Tower that evening, dinner in the midst of yet another thunderstorm, sleeping in one of the staff dorms and feeding the cheetah at Bellebeno the next morning, Amanda had a real CCF experience distilled into less than 24 hours. When we came to leave, I confess to having been a little emotional. It had been a standing joke that when I’d “left” CCF before, I’d had a date to come back: this time I didn’t, and I was saying good-bye (hopefully only “au revoir”, but I needed to be realistic about this) to people who had become very good friends. Even if I do go back, Andrew will be back in the US writing up his PhD, Clare will be back in Canada, Bonnie may be back in South Africa if her immigration hearing this month does not go in her favour… As with a river, CCF’s staff ebb and flow.

But my spirits brightened when we “hit the road” north to the von Lindquist gate of Etosha. Amanda had shaken off the stresses of London remarkably rapidly and was well on the way to relaxing into life in Africa. We put on the music and sang along at the tops of our voices to an eclectic choice ranging from Cold Play to Tom Petty to Steve-Wright-In-The-Afternoon-Classics from the late 1950s to the mid 1990s. As we headed north, the land- and sky-scape around us became more and more impressive with dark clouds, curtains of rain and lightening flashes on the horizon. The way that you can see 360 degrees of weather covering the full gamut of weather, from thunderstorms to bright sunshine, never ceases to amaze me. If I have seen “big sky” elsewhere in Africa, in the US and in Australia, Namibia’s takes the biscuit for me; it really is impressive. We were to be hit by the rain ourselves in the middle of the night, with interesting consequences for the navigability of Etosha’s roads the next day…

But that was a few hours off. Once through the von Lindquist gate, paperwork completed, we went in search of animals in the couple of hours remaining before sunset, at which time you have to be inside the gates of one of the rest camps. (Mind you, I’m not sure what would happen if you weren’t: do they really send vehicles along all of Etosha’s roads to find errant tourists? Etosha may not have the most complex road system of the national parks I’ve visited in Africa, but this exercise would still take some time. Do they leave you to camp out in your vehicle? Although an interesting set of questions, we decided not to put it to the test!)

En route to Namutoni, our destination for that night, we drove around the pretty, wooded Dikdik Drive. We were to find that the recent rains had scattered the game in Etosha - game would no longer be concentrated around the dozen or so waterholes as water was in much greater supply - but, even so, there were more than enough animals to entertain us that evening. A lone giraffe crossed in front of us, appearing to wait for his mates to come down the road, before the four of them turned back to the waterhole as if having a quick beer before going home to their wives - albeit a beer that requires the careful rearranging of legs to enable the head to sink down to drink. Black-faced impala teased our cameras in the late afternoon light. Springbok skittered around, the odd lamb delighting us on its spindly legs. Zebra demonstrated their camouflage in the shadows. Back at the waterhole, we even had a distant ears-only sighting of a lioness lying in the long grasses, the surrounding game seemingly oblivious to her presence. And, true to the name of the road, a dainty dikdik paused for a second, before darting back into the safety of the bushes.

That evening, we were to stay in Namutoni’s Fort. Built by the Germans as a border post at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was destroyed the Ovambos during one of the Germans’ many altercations with the indigenous peoples, but was later rebuilt as a police post. It fell into disrepair but was restored in the 1930s and declared a national monument in the 1950s. Now it provides a superb view over the surrounding area, including the camp’s waterhole and the nearby Pan, and is a popular spot for watching the sunset. We dumped our stuff and skedaddled up to the tower, just in time for a spectacular series of colours, made the more impressive by the contrast to the blackening clouds around us.

Woken by rain and thunder during the night - though apparently I slept through the loudest thunderclaps - and seeing the overcast skies in the morning, I was nervous about what the driving conditions in the Park might be. I had been repeatedly assured that Etosha is “always fine for 2-WD”. Humph. I wasn’t convinced of the veracity of that statement when we squelched to a halt a couple of hundred metres from Namutoni’s gates on our way back from splashing round Fisher’s Pan. I really ought to have known better. The waters stretched the width of the road and for about ten metres or so along its length. What I ought to have done was stop the car, shed my boots and walked through the centre of the water to test its depth. (My only defence, pathetic and weenie as it is, is that it was a chilly morning!) What I ought not to have done was assume that the edges of the water would be firmer and, therefore, safer. What I also ought not to have done was let myself be distracted by the presence of another vehicle such that, when I hit the mud, the car was only in first gear. Ach well: you live and learn and, if we were to get stuck anywhere, we got stuck in the best possible place. The other driver, having successfully driven through the middle of the water, went on to Namutoni to get help. I’d assumed that we’d have to be towed out, but was hugely impressed when our rescuer managed to drive the car out. I’d only dug in the front of the wheels, not wanting then to reverse too hard lest that piled up the mud behind the wheels and he was able to take advantage of this.

Once refreshed at Namutoni after the excitement, we emerged from the gates to look for the road to Halali, the rest camp half-way along the road through Etosha. Imagine our consternation when we realised that the road we needed was the one from which we’d just escaped! What to do? Well, they say you should get right back on the back of a horse if you fall off, so I did just that. Reassured that the water couldn’t be too deep for the vehicle (could it?) having seen other cars get through it, and mindful of our rescuer’s advice that the water was usually safer to drive through as, by definition, the ground beneath it would be more solid than the edges of the pool, I bit the bullet, put the car into second gear, accelerated to a reasonable speed and held my breath. You can always spot a car that’s been to Etosha in the rains. In fact, we were thinking of recommending a new paint name
red hartebeastred hartebeastred hartebeast

Not easy to get close enough to these guys to photograph them: this was my best opportunity.
to Dulux: “Etosha white”. The mud splashes are a pale, pale grey/white and the mud itself forms a concrete-like consistency, particularly in the wheel arches. I know. I spent an hour with a hose a couple of days later trying to return the car to some semblance of the vehicle we’d picked up from the airport. Anyway, suffice to say our little swimming exercise got the car well “washed” outside and in (note for next time - should there be a next time - close the windows first…), and the engine was still nicely Etosha-splattered when I took the car back to the airport on Sunday. Oh, and we got through first time. Fo fum. An adventure.

Water apart, the day was a lot of fun. Even before the excitement with the mud, we’d had some fascinating sightings round Fisher’s Pan, including some “firsts” for me: a giraffe sitting down, not apparently suffering in any way, just keeping a nonchalant look-out as it chewed the cud; two male zebra fighting; and a jackal chasing a herd of springbok, hopeful that, as they’d already run along in front of our car, they might be sufficiently tired to succumb, but we
kori bustardkori bustardkori bustard

These birds were so numerous on this trip that we became quite blase about them!
were delighted to see that even the lambs escaped his impressively fast turn of speed.

Further along the road we saw the first of two pairs of young bull elephants that we were to see in Etosha. I was sorry not to see any of the breeding herds, but the elephant were particular beneficiaries of the recent rains and many people had reported far fewer sightings in the previous weeks. Nevertheless, they were Amanda’s first wild elephants and she was in seventh heaven. Having shrieked with excitement like a six-year-old myself when I saw my first elephant in the wild - a lone imperious bull on the skyline in the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana - I am always overjoyed when others react the same way. Veerle had done so in July, and Amanda did not let me down.

We took a break at Halali. Although the waterhole had nothing more to offer us than a lone marabou stork (these have to be one of the ugliest birds I know: even the odd vulture has its redeeming feature, these have none), Amanda was content to soak up the atmosphere and I lay back on the bench and closed my
the waterhole at Okaukuejo, Etoshathe waterhole at Okaukuejo, Etoshathe waterhole at Okaukuejo, Etosha

the beginning of one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen
eyes, hypnotised by the bird noise around me: an excellent therapy for a stressful morning’s driving. While the Namutoni incident was the “lowlight”, there had been a further couple of occasions when we’d stopped to assess the road conditions in front of us: each time opting for discretion as the better part of valour. There would be another waterhole and more game further along the main road; the smaller roads could wait for another day.

But the day’s exertions were to have an even better reward. After settling into our little rondavel at Okaukuejo rest camp late that afternoon, we took binoculars, cameras and, most importantly, sundowners to the Okaukuejo waterhole. This has always been my favourite waterhole in Etosha. The stone walls of the camp border the area on two sides, leaving the third and longest side bounded by bush but only way off in the distance. The waterhole itself is in a slight indentation so that, when you are looking at it, you feel as if the animals are being drawn towards it like slow-moving paperclips to a vast magnet. And, for the human punters, there are a number of benches, thoughtfully raised a little on concrete blocks, to give perfect views over the walls; the benches well-spaced from each other so that, most of the time, you don’t feel on top of your fellow man. We settled ourselves down and waited for sunset…. And what a sunset. Words fail me: the golds, the oranges, the reds, the pinks, the purples... I can only say that I have never seen a sunset like it in Africa or, to my recollection, anywhere else. African sunsets, in my experience, usually evaporate quickly after the sun itself has sunk below the horizon. This one just kept on getting better. And then, when the zebra approached to drink in the dying rays and we saw their silhouettes in the sunset-coloured still water… truly, it could not have been more magical. (But I won’t subject you to all 40-plus photographs that I took that evening!)

The next day we based ourselves at the Okaukuejo waterhole, venturing out from there on a couple of occasions: first to the Gemsbokvlakte and Oliphantsbad waterholes in a 70 km loop east from Okaukuejo, and then up what we nicknamed the “western coast” of the Etosha Pan, returning to Okaukuejo by a road further to the west of the Pan. There was little game to be seen until our final return journey, the highlight of which began with a couple of pairs of flapping grey ears on the distant horizon. The road curved round at this point and we were able to follow this second pair of young bull elephants for about half an hour as they meandered towards Okaukuejo. This degree of exertion in the heat of the day was unusual and I half-expected that they would continue their journey all the way to the waterhole. When they disappeared from view, we went back to the waterhole to see if they appeared, but they didn’t, either choosing to relax in the shade of the trees that they had reached or taking longer to walk the final kilometre or so than I had anticipated. No matter: it had been a good sighting and an excellent note on which to end our trip to Etosha.

Our next stop was to see a different kind of animal, Keith Leggett’s lugubrious dog, Tommy. Keith himself was still abroad, but he’d kindly given me the use of his house in Outjo and I’d promised to check up on the dog while he was away. Once again, it was an oasis and we had a peaceful evening with a simple supper, a bottle of wine and a movie.

The next day we ventured onto the first roads of the trip that were, as yet, untravelled by me as we headed west and into Damaraland. It was an area that I had visited in July - with the Petrified Forest, the rock paintings and the rock carvings - but this time we were staying to the north, heading due west towards the Skeleton Coast. The road to Kamanjab was tarred, but this swiftly changed to gravel once we were passed the town itself. Initially, somewhat “down-y and up-y” (to call this road “undulating” implies a gentleness in its geography that was distinctly missing), the road quite simply “got less”. When I commented on this to Amanda, she agreed: you didn’t need to add any further adjective, it just got less. Just when we were thinking that the car wouldn’t be happy with any further deterioration in road conditions, we saw the sign to our destination, Wilderness Safaris’ Damaraland Camp.

The instructions that I had been sent kindly warned that the final 11 km to the Camp should not be attempted by 2-WD, even our intrepid steed; instead, we would be collected, leaving our car at the grandly-named “2-WD car park” (well, it had an impressive awning for about four cars, so I shouldn’t be too rude) where the local people would keep an eye on it. While we were waiting, we were entertained by three of the children: the rather serious 8 year old Zenobia, the cheeky and lively 5 year old Chantal, and their little brother Leonardo. However, even Zenobia thawed when she tried on my somewhat battered Wild Dog baseball cap, impishly putting it on at a jaunty rapper-style angle. We were sorry to leave them, but they gave us a cheerful wave on our way.

You don’t slum it at Wilderness camps, not by any stretch of the imagination. At Damaraland Camp, there is a large L-shaped open-plan area incorporating a large dining table, some easy chairs and the bar. The main inhabitants of the dining area are the glossy starlings who shamelessly come down to forage from any uncovered dish, no matter how close the nearest human might be. I don’t blame them. The food is excellent - even the vegetarian option which, I have the impression, they had to rustle up in fairly short order - and generous in its portions. The wine flows at dinner, and the coffee at breakfast-time when those who are so inclined can have a good set-you-up-for-the-day English plateful.

Arranged on either side of the main area and part way down the valley are the ten or so tented rooms. Much in the same style as the one in which Colin and I had stayed at another Wilderness camp, Ongava, these rooms are semi-permanent in construction but with canvass walls to the main sleeping area. Every amenity seems to be provided, although we both did a double-take when we were shown into the bathroom area and the first item we saw was a bucket…. Fortunately, it was explained to us that this was to catch the first water from the shower while it heats up: this is later collected and used to water the plants, an admirable economy measure in the desert. For our other needs, there was a thoroughly twenty-first century flush toilet! The beds proved to be divinely comfortable and we were even furnished with
Zenobia, Chantal and LeonardoZenobia, Chantal and LeonardoZenobia, Chantal and Leonardo

aka The Entertainment at the 2-WD carpark for visitors to Damaraland Camp: a delightful and lively trio
hot water bottles to counter the night’s chill.

We had deliberately timed our arrival at the Camp to enable us to partake in one of the afternoon’s activities. Deciding that it really was too hot for a guided walk - and how mad at ourselves would we have been, with hindsight, had we taken this economy option? - we joined one of the vehicles heading down to the Huab and Aba-Huab valleys below the Camp, our companions being a trio from the large group of Italians who seemed to be in residence and our driver, the quiet but knowledgeable Aloysius.

Seeing desert-dwelling elephant in Damaraland is a rare event. To say that we weren’t holding our breath about the possibility of seeing them is to put it too strongly: elephant weren’t even on our minds as we enjoyed the superb panoramas opening up before us when Aloysius took us down the valley in the warm golden light of the late afternoon. I was enchanted to find landscape that reminded me of the ephemeral rivers of Kaokoland, particularly the Hoarusib, and I unconsciously began to look around for my pachyderm friends. Then I focused more closely on the dry, sandy riverbed: there, on either side of the vehicle, were a number of familiar, dinner-plate-sized tracks, one set in particular looking very recent as the wrinkles of the elephant’s foot had not yet been blown away by the frequent winds of this area. I could see Aloysius looking around as well, and Amanda joined in. My conviction about the freshness of the spoor we were following was soon rewarded by the sight of its owner: a young male ambling down the river. We were ecstatic! What a wonderful sight! Aloysius took the vehicle up a stretch of the riverbed that ran parallel to the route being taken by our new acquaintance… and before us were a herd of… I tried to count the figures in the trees… perhaps half a dozen elephants, including a juvenile, though it was hard to keep track in with the shadows. More appeared, and I tried to re-count… Then a second herd appeared, emerging from the bushes on the far bank of the river to cross the riverbed to the trees where their co-pachyderms were already browsing. This second herd certainly numbered into double figures and included a couple of juveniles of different ages. I
gemsbok climbing a dunegemsbok climbing a dunegemsbok climbing a dune

This would have been a headline-making sight had our attention not been distracted by one or two pachyderms on the other side of the river!
was losing track: as on a couple of days in the Hoarusib, there were more elephants than we could watch at any one time, but I wasn’t complaining, not by any stretch of the imagination!

It really was a most incredible experience. After we’d watched the herds at the first location for a while, they began to move off and Aloysius took the vehicle a short distance upriver to a point near where he predicted they would emerge from the trees to cross the river again. He was right. Seconds after he’d switched the engine off, the elephants appeared in ones and twos, walking with an uncommonly swift determination. Some stopped to browse the acacia in front of us; others carried on further upriver, then stopped at another collection of trees. A young juvenile, freaked when it realised it was separated from its mother and sibling, galloped back downriver to rejoin its family. One adult male nearly replicated WKM-10’s hind-legs-only stretch to reach up to the higher branches of the acacia, but his forelegs didn’t quite leave the ground. Then, suddenly, a dramatic trumpeting echoed around the valley. Straight out of “The Lion King” or some such, it’s not a sound you actually hear very often. It was coming from the trees through which the elephants were still emerging. Was it the continuation of the fight between two young bulls that we’d seen earlier? Or was it something to do with the cow that had recently given birth? This was a sad story: Aloysius had already told us how he had come across a cow with an hours-old calf the day before - a rare sight indeed - but he’d seen the rest of her herd start to walk off without waiting for her and the newborn: very uncharacteristic behaviour. Had they somehow sensed that the calf wouldn’t make it? Sadly, there was no sign of it now, though the stains from the afterbirth were still visible on the cow’s hind legs. We were not to find out the real cause of the trumpeting, but, in any event, our attention was quickly distracted by the other animals around us. Gradually the herds, which had scattered around us, began to regroup and mount the bank on the far side from where we had stopped. Once again, Aloysius correctly predicted their direction: they would be crossing the vast plains to rejoin the river further up. He moved the vehicle once more, this time stopping a long distance back from the animals’ likely path and began to dispense sundowners. What more stunning sight than 22 elephant (I’d had time, by now, to count and re-count to satisfy myself of the actual number we were watching) meandering through the golden grasses of the plains as the sun went down over to our right? Never was there better backdrop for a gin’n’tonic! We were speechlessly thrilled with what we were, and had been, watching; all too aware of the rarity of this spectacle.

Dare I ever admit to Andrew that his leopard was in danger of being surpassed as the animal highlight of our trip?

Additional photos below
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a leopard tortoisea leopard tortoise
a leopard tortoise

Not the most helpful of photographic subjects, this one: I have one photo where she was moving so fast, she's half-way out of the picture! So much for the tortoise's reputation!

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