Spotting wildlife in Etosha National Park
Almost as soon as I discovered how deserted Tsumeb was and started to think that I was going to have to backtrack down to Windhoek to organize a trip to Etosha National Park, I met a wonderful Australian woman traveling with her 11 year old grandson. They arrived at Mousebird Backpackers at the same time as I did and after overhearing me asking about trips to Etosha, invited me to join them since they were heading there the next morning. It was incredibly lucky for me and incredibly generous of her to offer. So, early the next morning the three of us - Julie, Sebastian and I - set off for Etosha hoping that I would be able to simply add myself onto the reservations that she made over six months ago.
Their plan was to spend four nights in the park at different camps throughout the parks and self driving around the park looking for wildlife. We had some incredible luck spotting things from the get go... the first day was full of elephant sightings - even three mothers with their tiny babies splashing in the mud. I also impressed my new friends by spotting two lions under a tree quite a ways from the road. I think it was just luck but then again maybe I did learn something from my previous safari experiences. :-) We also saw lots of zebra, impala, springbok, oryx, kudu, giraffe and even a small leopard tortoise on the side of the road. And that was just on the first day!
Day two started with our first hyena sighting but then we ended up spending most of the morning helping a French couple that had gotten bogged in the mud and had been stuck out in the park overnight. The camps close their gates at sunset every day so everyone has to be back before then... this couple had been out with the lions and whatever else all night and no one was looking for them. Another car was already there trying to tow them out but without success so we took one of them all the way to the next camp where they said they would send a rescue vehicle. On the way, he told us about a dramatic encounter he saw at the waterhole at one of the camps... a group of lions attempted to go after a rhino who fought back so they started to chase a giraffe instead. The action continued into the dark night (the waterholes at the camps are floodlit) so he didn't known the outcome of the chase but it still sounded pretty exciting! Anyway, after we drove him back to the car we felt like our good deed for the day was done but we actually found out later that the rescue vehicle never arrived and they ended up needing to get another ride to the camp to make another request for help. The park certainly didn't seem too concerned about people getting stranded out there!
Anyway, the next couple of days were fantastic. I ended up having to pay quite a bit for camping because my friends had booked rooms for most of their nights in the park so I had to pay for a whole sight just for myself but it was worth it. We saw a leopard right by the side of the road but it was hiding in the grass so my photos aren't great. We saw two male giraffe fighting in an interesting way - they kept wrapping their necks around each other quite violently and hitting each other with their heads. This seemed to go on for a really long time and in slow motion at times so after a while we decided to move on.
We got an amazing close up view of a lion couple - beautiful male and female lying together in the grass very close to the road. I think they too were about ready to mate because they were growling at each other (the photos came out great!) but I think the cars that stopped to watch them killed the mood a bit. :-) We also spotted a cool chameleon on the road in the middle of the pan (there's a vast pan...maybe salt but I'm not sure). He seemed a bit lost but also quite stressed by us taking photos of it so we just ushered it off the road and left it to find its way back on its own. We saw him change color too which was great... dark when he was freaked out and then green when he started to calm down.
We also spotted a hyena running so we followed it to its den which was in a culvert under the road. We stopped right next to it and could even hear the hyena breathing inside but she never came out again. We think she had cubs in there but we never saw them unfortunately. Later, at a large waterhole, we saw hundreds of zebra drinking and grazing but they seemed extremely skiddish so we suspected that something was about to happen. They seemed to sense something we couldn't see. We scanned for predators for almost an hour... but no action. So we moved on. Not too far away we saw a group of three young male lions with a female just laising out in the hot sun with impala roaming about all around them. I guess they knew that the lions were either too full or too hot to bother attacking one of them.
The flood lit water holes at the camps were also great places for seeing wildlife. We saw three rhinos the first night and they came back on the second night but the most entertaining spot was our last camp where I ended up sitting and watching the action from 4:30pm until past 11pm. I would have stayed even longer but I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore. First there were two rhino. They came, drank, and left. Then two more came with a baby, followed by at least three more. At one point there were so many, it was hard to tell which was which but they were soon joined by an elephant, several giraffes (one of which did a split for me... I had been wanting to see a giraffe bend down to drink by spreading its front legs like a yoga pose and I finally saw it!), zebra that would come and go in groups once in a while, at least a dozen jackals, and a beautiful owl that seemed content to just sit on the ground and watch all the action. The animals all seemed to be on edge so I hoped something was going to attack but even still there was so much going on that it felt like a circus! At one point a herd of zebra started to stampeed so we were hopeful but again, no cats showed themselves. As darkness came it was harder to see everything but it felt all the more dramatic with the animals making their entrances from the shadows beyond the waterhole.
The baby rhino was adorable and I could hear it wimpering when one of the adults stopped it from going too far in the direction of the other rhinos by gently pushing it with its horn. I was so close that I could hear them breathing heavily and grunting. Once there were a few rhinos around, the fighting started. First it was just two of them sparring off with their horns. It looked and sounded like a sword fight. Their horns where clanging together and at times they would pause, each pressing against the other until the weaker one gave in. They were horning each other in the neck but it was hard to see if there was any real damage being done. Occasionally one would chase the other for a short distance and it was incredible to see how past they could gallop around. Once in a while it seemed like they jointly decided to take a time out for a quick drink, side by side, and then they were back at it again. They even went into the waterhole and kept fighting in the water for a while! Eventually a third one got in on the action and there were three way standoffs and tussles for over two hours! The other animals seemed fine just casually watching all this but eventually an elephant seemed to have enough and slowly walked into the fray. The rhinos simply ran off and continued their fight in the bushes, giving the elephant the right of way.
Quick side note about rhinos. I later learned that the rhinos we were seeing were all black rhinos which are more common and smaller than the elusive white rhino. The white one has the really long horn that is so coveted by the Chinese so there is apparently still a huge problem with white rhinos being killed for their horns. I heard a statistic that 1.5 rhinos were killed each day in South Africa for their horns. I also heard that sometimes the rhino isn't actually killed but without a horn, they're unlikely to survive too long in the wild without their main form of protection. One ranger even told us that sometimes the rhinos with stubs were stilled poached because even the smallest amount of horn might still be left so there was still incentive. I don't remember the exact numbers but we were told that even a few grams sold for thousands of dollars. The future doesn't sound too promising for the white rhinos. I don't think any of the rhinos I've seen have been white.
Anyway, back to te water hole... there were so many animals and so much going on, it was hard to know who to watch. At one point a zebra started to make its way into the light and someone mistook it for a lion and yelled out (in a whisper since we were trying not to disturb the animals) "lion!" but our hopes were soon dashed when we saw the stripes. With so many animals around, I really thought some lions might be lurking and waiting for their opportunity but by 11pm I couldn't stay awake anymore. The noises coming from the darkness were also incredible... hyenas, various birds and bats, and especially the high pitched call of the jackals. There was a fence around the camp but apparently the jackals can get in somehow so there were quite a few around my tent sniffing for food when I eventually made it back there. They're tiny, cute fox like creatures so I wasn't too concerned.
Our last morning wasn't too exciting but it was a testament to how much we had seen when we passed a group of five cars watching a lion in the distance under a tree and we just drove on... we had had much better lion sightings. ;-) So, it was a wonderful 5 days traveling through the park on our own (we saw everything I wanted to except a cheetah) and I soon discovered that Julie and Sebastian were heading to all of the same places in Namibia that I hoped to visit so they have been kind enough to let me continue to tag along. In the end I don't know if I'll save any money doing it this way as compared to sharing a rental car with a couple people since they're staying at a few pretty swanky places on the way but I assume it'll all be worth it in the end. Needless to say this experience was infinitely better than my Serengeti trip so hopefully my memories of lions won't be tained by crazy sociopaths anymore. Next we're off to Africat - a sanctuary and rehab center for cheetahs and other big cats - so I should finally get to see some cheetahs... even if they're not roaming free.