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Published: September 27th 2017
September 27, 2017
Episode 5: Etosha – and homeward bound.
Hello to all our family and friends. Not long now before we return home to the Great Southern Land.
In the last blog, I talked about Walvis Bay flamingos and the German-infused town of Swakopmund, on the Namibian Coast. We then drove back inland, stopping briefly at the beautiful Rocky outcrop of Spitzkoppe, which rises like a massive pyramid above the grassy plains. This is the southern part of an arid and incredibly scenic region called DamaraLand. (When I explained this to Ross, he misheard it as TomorrowLand, and wondered if we were somehow going to Disneyland.) We stayed at a lodge later that day in the Erongo Mountains. This area was beautiful. The land was strewn with massive granite boulders across a sea of straw coloured grasses dotted with thorny acacia trees. It was as if a giant had dropped a pile of brown marbles all over the landscape. The lodge was nestled in amongst a cluster of these “marbles.” We climbed up through them for an awesome sunset.
The next morning, I heard the familiar call of peach-faced lovebirds. A commonly kept cage bird in
Australia when I was growing up in the 1970’s. The lodge had a pet cat, so maybe they had some caged lovebirds too? Then the penny dropped. No, these were wild peach-faced lovebirds that I could hear, because Namibia is their native home. Sure enough, I saw them sitting in a nearby tree. Brilliant green with their rosy-peach coloured heads and blue rumps. What a special sight they were for me, as they brought back vivid memories. When I was young boy living in Woy Woy, Dad built me a wonderful house-shaped aviary in which we bred many of these birds.
Dad, while looking at the lovebirds here in Namibia, I thought of you and the wonderful aviaries you built for me in the1970’s.
I love you, my father.
I snapped some good photos of the lovebirds before they all took flight, wheeling off over the granite boulders into the distance.
Before leaving this region of Central Namibia, I briefly visited some native San bush folk nearby. (Similar to the Kalahari bushmen, of further south.) The bushmen experience was really interesting. I was teamed up with two San bushmen, each about 35 years old
but only two thirds my height, and wearing nothing but loincloth. They were barefoot, which was remarkable to me, given all the thorns, spikes and spines all over the ground that prevented us tourists from ever wearing anything other than boots or sandals. The men took me on a bush walk/hunting expedition. We saw San rock art, and they showed me how they traditionally harvest food from the hot and harsh environment. This included setting snares of sticks and twine for catching guinea fowl, lighting a fire from two sticks and grass, etc. The women and kids later danced and sang. Part of their vocabulary involves these clicking sounds that are amazing to listen to, yet impossible to fathom.
I then picked up Ross from the lodge and we headed Northeast along a gravel road towards the town of Otjiwarongo, our next stop for the night. However, about half way along this lonely road, after encountering a family of giraffes, we came to an abrupt halt due to a flat tyre. We were in the middle of nowhere and it was blazing hot and dusty. I recalled what someone had told me back in Windhoek: Namibian roads eat tyres.
Well, being a man of great mechanical skill, I got out of the car, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work jacking up the car, un-doing the wheelnuts and changing the tyre, sweat dripping from my brow. Ross just stood by and watched, like Lovey Howell from Gilligan’s Island, holding a parasol and clutching a lace handkerchief to his cheek.
OK, OK, yeah, it was the reverse.
And, no, we did not discard the entire wheel and deflated tyre. (An in-joke that only family and close friends will understand).
We made it to our destination, got the flat tyre fixed and stocked up on food for our drive the next day up to iconic Etosha National Park in Northern Namibia. The following morning, I said to Ross:
“Because I’ve done all the driving so far, you can drive up to Etosha. It’s all on a sealed road from here on.”
“Oh, no, you can keep driving. You’re more familiar with the car. I can’t drive. I have a sore thumb from that weird bug that bit me yesterday.”
I frowned and said: “If you are looking for sympathy, don’t look
at me. Check in the dictionary, somewhere between Shit and Syphilis. Now, get behind that wheel.”
He grudgingly obliged, and I had a well-earned break.
We made it safely to Etosha National Park, where we were to spend the next six days, seeking black rhinos and other critters. We stayed in two so-called “Rest Camps” in the National Park. First at Okaukuejo and then further North at Halali. Okaukuejo Rest Camp is a large fenced compound with campsites, bungalows, more expensive chalets, a small shop, petrol station , a pool, restaurant and bar. Everything you could want (like in Kruger park, South Africa). Our unexpectedly posh bungalow at this first place (Okaukuejo) had robust air-con, cooking facilities for our self-catering and huge mosquito nets that hung from the ceiling over big comfy beads. Mosquito-nets because Etosha is a Malaria area, after all. The mozzi-nets have a seam that you part and hop through into bed. Apparently, one night, Ross got up to go to the loo in the middle of the night. Fumbling about to get back into bed in the dark, he parted the “seam” and promptly walked into the window. He had parted the bedroom’s curtains
The wildlife experience at Etosha was fantastic. Loads of critters. Etosha’s central feature is a vast dry lake bed (called a “pan”). It is devoid of water for most of the year. Around the edges of this pan are waterholes that attract animals from miles around. The area is a semi-arid, harsh rocky landscape with hardy shrubs strewn about the place. Quite different from the landscapes we had seen in Northern Botswana. Etosha is one of Africa’s finest National Parks and certainly one of the most impressive I’ve ever visited. The wildlife viewing could not be easier here. Rather than driving around looking for critters, wildlife spotting involves sitting at waterholes, where all the animals must come to drink due to the hot and dry environment. You can just sit by a waterhole at the Rest Camp (or drive to a waterhole), and watch all manner of animals come to drink. We saw large numbers of zebra (dazzling to see when up to 100 of them are all drinking at once), giraffes, elephants, ungainly ostriches, lions, jackals and all sorts of majestic antelopes in large numbers. All drawn to the life-giving waterhole, and often all at once.
However, my main aim here at Etosha was to see black rhinos, rare and elusive beasts that I have never seen. (We have seen many white rhinos in south Africa.) And maybe, just maybe, a honey badger.
The best time for black rhino spotting was apparently by the waterhole at night, when they come to drink. Okaukuejo has a large area with seats where you can sit and look over a small protective barrier at the floodlit waterhole to see what comes down to drink in the cool of the night. In short, we saw heaps of black rhinos there. Each night, they would emerge from the shadows and trot slowly to the water’s edge. Usually singly, but sometimes two or three of them. This could happen anytime. 9pm, 11pm or midnight or after. I had my camera set up on a tripod, recalling all the points about shutter speeds, exposure and night photography that people such as Thomas Ohnesorg, Leon McQuade and Rob Sall had told me. I got some great photos of them at night. A very happy chappy indeed! On our last night at Okaukuejo restcamp, instead of sitting at the waterhole, we went on a
night drive with one of the park rangers. On the night drive, we saw eight black rhinos at various waterholes, and a few other nocturnal beasties. And just before returning to the rest camp, we encountered no less than five Honey Badgers having some sort of furry five-way in the middle of the road They ran round in circles then scattered in all directions when the spotlight hit them, making photography way too hard. They were whizzing around like that Tasmanian devil when he went into an excited tizz on the Bugs Bunny Show! This made any photography impossible.
The night drive eventually returned to camp at 11:30pm. Buoyed with enthusiasm and not at all tired, I grabbed by tripod and said to Ross:
“Well, I’m taking my camera down to the waterhole. Who knows what critters might be there.”
Ross said: “But its late and I’m tired after that drive. I’m going to bed.”
I said: “OK, then, fair enough, but I’m going down there. Its only a two-minute walk away.”
Grinning, Ross said “OK, then. Let’s grab that half bottle of red, some glasses and I’ll come with you. The things I do
for you, Smiddy.”
While the waterhole viewing area at the rest camp was usually quite crowded during the day, as folks watched elephants, giraffes, antelope et al., the punters had typically dwindled after sunset. When we arrived, just after 11.30pm, there were about ten diehards sitting about. The yellow floodlight was trained onto the waterhole but there was nothing there, except a few night birds darting about. An Eastern European guy was sitting nearby. He seemed to have been there a while, judging by all the empty Savannah Dry cider bottles around him. I asked him what had been at the waterhole that night. He said with a thick accent (or maybe a slur):
Elephants, yes. Many of elephants, yes. And a tall crazy thing.”
“a giraffe?” I suggested.
“Yes maybe that one. Yes.” I would have thought a giraffe to be unmistakable.
“Have you seen any rhinos” I asked.
“It’s OK, thank you.”
Ross and I poured the wine and sat whispering and watching for about half an hour. Some nightjars flitted about, deftly catching moths on the wing. Then, around midnight, very slowly and tentatively, two figures emerged
from the inky blackness. One was clearly larger than the other. They came cautiously to the waterhole to drink, and in doing so they revealed themselves as a mother black rhinoceros and her small baby calf. My gosh, we were thrilled. The little one stayed very close to mum, always in physical contact. Either behind her or right by her side. We then heard a tremendous series of roars from a male lion somewhere very nearby, just beyond the floodlight. A very close lion’s roar sends a chill down your spine. Yet I knew this was a territorial thing, not hunting mode. Nevertheless, the mother rhino spun around and the baby immediately fell in behind her. They stood in the direction of the roar for some time, until it faded into the distance. After about 30 minutes, the mother and baby rhino slowly turned around and, crunching their way across the rocky terrain, they disappeared back into the blackness of the night. I got a couple of good photos. Just Ross and I and a few other enchanted people witnessed the event, while everyone else had long gone to bed. The European guy also missed out, having had fallen asleep
into his beard.
While watching the baby rhino at the waterhole standing peacefully at its mother’s side, I could not help but ponder it’s possible future. It makes me incredibly angry, because rhinos are still being inhumanely slaughtered by poachers for their horns, often left to die in agony. The horns make their way to Asia on the black market. The supposed medicinal benefit of rhino horn is, of course, just bullshit. It is made of keratin (densely matted hair) and has been proven to have absolutely no health benefit whatsoever. Yet the slaughter continues. Where once there were 70,000 black rhinos roaming Africa in 1970, today there are probably less than 5,000. While the white rhino is fairing better (some 15,000-20,000 now left in Africa), the black rhino is now critically endangered. Hence my keen interest in seeing them on this trip. And so here, at Etosha at night, we saw some magnificent black rhinos, at peace in their habitat and with horns intact. What a wonderful sight, I felt truly privileged. We had not at this stage seen any black rhinos during the day, however.
We then moved further North to Halali Rest Camp for a
few nights. Halali looked barren and less inviting than the previous Rest Camp (Okaukuejo) and our digs were less luxurious. Yet it would prove to yield two precious wildlife sightings. We went along to the waterhole late in the afternoon. A smaller waterhole than the previous one, but closer to the viewing area. There were about 50 other people assembled there. Imagine my excitement when a large male black rhino emerged from the thorny bushes to drink. So, we finally got to see one during the daytime. Furthermore, as those who have seen my Facebook photo, we watched the sunset over the rhino at the waterhole! Wow.
Back at our bungalow after a meal, it was now dark and we were enjoying a drink outside. I said to Ross:
“This trip has been fantastic. I have seen all four of the species I especially wanted to see. African wild dogs, black rhinoceros, Sable antelope, and honey badger. Too bad I couldn’t get a photo of those honey badgers though.”
“Well, at least you saw them,” said Ross.
I kid you not- about 15 minutes later, Ross said:
“What the hell is that? Something just jumped
into that camp rubbish bin.”
He grabbed the torch and I grabbed my camera. Sure enough, a honey badger! About the size and height of a large corgi dog, black and grey in colour with a bilateral whitish stripe. We got very close to it. Ross illuminated it, while I photographed it rummaging about. Now, everything you have heard and read about the honey badger is true. It is a bad-ass little shit that lets nothing get in its way. It tore through the bin, chucking out bottles and plastic, till it found a morsel of food, ate it, then ran to the next bin nearby. With a god-almighty crash, it flung the lid off the bin, jumped inside, and emerged with another morsel. We got a lot closer for more shots – about three feet away. Then it snarled and started to chase us! I went in one direction, Ross in another. It chose me, but then it veered off when it caught sight of another bin to raid. Making a hell of a racket, it torn through that bin. It just did not give a shit! At one point, it scaled a small tree, tried to grab
a roosting bird, then came back down and headed off to raid more bins. So there you have it. Up close photos of a bad-ass honey badger, too! What a day it had been.
I have loved animals for as long as I can remember. When I was a boy in the early 1970’s, Mum would come home from the weekly shopping every Thursday with the latest installment of a magazine called “The World of Wildlife”. I could not wait for her to come home each Thursday this magazine for me. Mum encouraged and supported my reading. As she can attest, I had learned to read and was reading animal books before I had started school. It has stood me in very good stead in life.
I love you, too, my mother.
This trip is now coming to an end. We are now back in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Flying home via Jo’burg on Friday night. Back in Melbourne on the weekend.
Highlights: Magnificent Victoria Falls, Chobe riverfront and the Okavango Delta, Sossusvlei red sand dunes, kayaking with seals, and (number one) Etosha National Park. Oh, and Joe's Beerhouse!
It is said that nothing
substitutes experience. We have had one brilliant experience after another here in Southern Africa. Over our three trips to Africa, we have now seen all the “major” wildlife native to this vast and wonderful continent. And in some beautiful and diverse locations. Now, when I think of Africa, I don’t think about all those wildlife documentaries that I watched as a boy, but I recall my own vivid experiences here.
Love to everyone, hope you are all doing well.
Craig (& Ross).
p.s. More photos below. Click to enlarge, scroll through. (Can also click the in-text photos to enlarge them). Work will be super busy when I return, but I will eventually send a link to my
Flickr pics to all blog recipients.
(p.p.s. Den, can you please get this last blog to Mum and Dad before they leave if possible? Thanks)
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