“We have our first round buyer!” Jens yelled out with excitement as Frida calmly pointed out the huge elephant on the horizon.
The deal was, the first to spot any of the Big 5 bought the first round.
“So I just won’t say anything,” I said.
“You won’t be able to contain yourself,” said Jens. “When you see an animal you always yell and point.”
Which is what Frida did with Jens calling out wildly. It’s a funny thing we humans do when we see animals. I always wonder if members of the animal world ever get excited when seeing humans around. It was incredible to think that something as big as an African elephant, the largest land mammal on our planet, could be so hard to find.
“There are about six more drinking from the waterhole up the road,” the driver of the car we had signaled to stop tipped us off.
The elephants were huge. Their skin covered with dust to protect it from ticks and the harsh rays of the African sun. And boy, was it hot. It was also extremely dry making it almost uncomfortable to breath.
But what really blew my mind from the day in Etosha National Park, one of the oldest national parks in Namibia, with an area of just over 22,000 square km, was that it was so hard to find any of the Big 5.
I remember growing up and watching nature documentaries always thinking how all these animals, with their magnificent colours, would surely stand-out in the dry grasslands and wooded forests. But now, here in the real deal of it, it was near impossible to see them. Especially when they were laying down.
We were two cars, Jens driving his Nissan X-Trail with Frida in the passenger seat and me jumping in the backseat from side-to-side to try and spot any predators. Behind us, in the bukky that belonged to the church that Frida was the pastor, were Inga (Frida’s wife) and their visiting grand daughter, Anna with her husband, Folker and their baby, Tia, making Frida and Inga great-grandparents..
Jens lives in the flat behind the pastor’s house in Tsumeb. Frida and Inga, both 75 years of German origin, spoke less English than my German (which amounted to ‘Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes’). Luckily, the grand kids spoke English. And it was Frida’s invitation that I had said, “Yes,” to joining the family on a day in Etosha, not only a national park but a huge game-player in the conservation world.
We left Tsumeb at 07:00 on a beautiful sunny, blue-skied day and drove the hour to Etosha. The park opened its gates at 06:30 and visitors had to be within their campsites or out of the park by 17:30. We stopped for breakfast at the Namutoni Lodge, 12 K’s from the Anderson Gate on the C38, coming off the B1 highway where Frida paid the entrance fee of N$80 ($8.00 AUD) per person (N$30 for locals).
“Danke,” I Germaned with a big smile.
We snacked on home-made sandwiches and dried fruit in the Namutoni Lodge, which is built into an old German fort from the turn of the 19th Century (it was attacked by about 4,000 Heraro warriors who were defeated by seven German soldiers defending the fort in the 1904-1907 war). As we munched away, we were visited by Banded mongoose, who resembled tiny Tasmanian Tigers (extinct since 1936).
We bought maps of the park and began our expedition. The park recommends that you stay in your vehicle at all times, not just because of the dangers of becoming prey to the predators or being crushed by an agitated elephant, but also because animals can carry disease (such as Anthrax).
Our first sightings were of Oryx (also known as Gemsboks) and Springbok (also known as Springbok). Followed by an abundance of impala’s and Black-faced Impala, endemic to Namibia.
We stopped by a waterhole (the best spots to see animals are by the waterholes) where a giraffe had emerged from the trees and we watched as it comically did the splits with its forelegs to be able to bend down and drink up the water.
Etosha is a vast dry land. The Ondonga name for it was ‘Etotha’ which means, ‘A place where no plant grows’ but the early European traders struggled to pronounce it so they called it Etosha. According to Hai||lom traditional storytelling, the Pan was created after the men from a local settlement were killed in a raid. On hearing the news, a bereaved woman from the settlement became so upset that she cried until her tears formed a gigantic lake. When the lake dried, a giant salt pan remained.
The Pan absorbs the little water that rains here during the summer season (November-April, 300-500 ml). It becomes muddy and makes it difficult for travel even in a 4×4, which we saw plenty of (I believe there are more tourists in all-terrain vehicles in Etosha than there are in the whole of Namibia). Etosha is also where the most rental vehicle accidents occur.
Our main objectives for the day were to see the Big 5 – Elephants, Water Buffalo, Rhino, Lion and Leopard so we all kept our eyes peeled as we drove past huge Secretary birds. “They need quite a lot of space to take off,” explained Jens.
“Like a runway?” I asked.
Lunch was fairly cheap, anything from N$50-60 ($5-6 AUD) for a burger with chips and salad or, my preferred choice, chicken schnitzel with veggies and a salad. And since Frida spotted the first of the Big 5, it was his shout so I washed it all down with a cold draught of Windhoek lager.
The waterhole at the campsite showed no indications that a bird – let alone a predator – might approach the relief point.
With our heads held as high as our hopes, we continued on the dirt track, passing Hartmann’s Zebra.
We continued driving around after lunch with me standing up through the sunroof trying to find predators. Lions would be near impossible to spot as would the rest of the big cats. We drove to the Etosha viewpoint, a few hundred meters into the pan.
“This road is closed in the wet season,” Jens explained. “Because the pan gets muddy and all the cars become stuck.”
It was so arid that the trees on the horizon shimmered in the heat evaporating off the ground.
With the sun beginning its drop in the west we made our way back to Anderson’s gate. We passed giraffes and more oryx, springbok, wilderbeest (gnu) and impala’s before we stopped by another waterhole where a herd of elephants had just finished bathing and were trying to cross the road, going around the cars that had stopped in their paths.
“I don’t want to get to close to the elephants,” said Jen.
And he was right. They can get annoyed and aggressive pretty quickly, especially when calves are around as were in this herd. They trumpeted as they entered the bushy area across the road without hassling the hassling drivers.
We motioned for a car to pullover next to us. “Have you seen any cats?” Jens asked.
“I saw a male lion before in the bushes here,” the driver said. “I don’t think he’s left the area as I can’t see any tracks. He was hassled by some females so he went deeper into the bush to sleep. Good luck,” he bid before heading off.
“If you spot the lion,” Jens said as he drove slowly around the waterhole, “I’ll buy you a round.”
I was up through the sunroof watching every blade of dry grass. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” I called out as Frida and Jens laughed.
There was no way of spotting a lion in there. I looked in the trees hoping to catch a glimpse of a leopard, a cheetah, a civet. Hell, I’d be pleased to see a caracal but nothing. It was as though the cats of Etosha had decided to stay out of sight.
Bunch of pussies, if you ask me.
We drove to another waterhole and it was here, a little off to the distance that I spotted two White Rhinos, covered in dust. White Rhinos aren’t really white. The only differences between them and their black cousins are the way their horns grow and the shape of their snouts. The black rhino has a beak-like pointy end on its upper lip whereas the White rhino has a wide lip, hence its original name, Wide Rhino (which, again, early Europeans struggled to pronounce hence they called it ‘White’. Yet names like Schweinsteiger just roll off their tongues).
We headed over to the last waterhole just before the main road to Namutoni where a bull elephant was approaching. A giraffe sulked behind it, waiting for it to finish its watery business while a flock of Guinea Fowls ran between the cars to the water where someone pointed out the hyena.
“Finally,” I said, “a predator.”
The hyena was cooling itself off in the water. When it got out, it carried the leg of something that could have used it better for escaping the jaws of this powerful beast. As we drove back to the road we stopped by a tourist bus.
“Hyena den,” called out the driver. “You can see the cub.”
We looked over and right there by the road, a small doggish head was peeping from between the bushes, looking slightly scared from all the attention it was receiving.
We drove back to the main road and out of the park in the setting sun, a bit disappointed at not seeing a big cat (a leopard would have made me have to change my pants) but nevertheless, it was an epic day in the real Africa wilderness.
And 2 out of 5 ain’t all that bad.