Posted on Friday, 2 December 2016
Namibia, October 2016
If you have been reading my blogs for long enough you should know by now that the end of September/October is only ever about one thing. The Great White shark season at Seal Island has come to an end and it’s now time to immerse ourselves in the African Bush!
This year we had planned a 7 week trip and as we would be travelling over the peak of the dry season in Southern Africa nothing but intense heat, chocking dust and about 12,500 kilometres of driving lay ahead of us. The reward for all of this… getting away from it all, the promise of adventure, and amazing experiences with wildlife.
Our first stop was actually a detour of about 1000 kilometres to Etosha National Park on our way up to Zimbabwe. Etosha is undoubtedly one of our favourite Parks in Southern Africa, and late September is the absolute best time to visit. At this time of the season the waterholes provide the only drinking options, and as all animals have to drink once a day this plays perfectly into the hands of the predators who stake these waterholes out. A daily drink for a plains game animal can also become a deadly affair.
Not only can one see exciting behaviour, but the sheer volume of animals using the waterholes is nothing short of spectacular. Hundreds, and with no exaggeration, sometimes up to 1000 animals can be seen coming and going, and congregating at a waterhole, all for their daily drink.
We were only in Etosha for a very short 4 day period and spent most of our time in the west of the Park. For those of you who are familiar with Etosha you’ll know the Mbari waterhole well. Mbari was absolutely pumping with throngs of animals coming and going. Everything from Elephants, rhino, red hartebeest, warthogs, huge herds of Eland, giraffe and springbok, zebra’s, wildebeest, gemsbok…the list goes on! When we’re in the bush we don’t normally spend that much time sitting and waiting, we prefer to rather drive and find things, but the mass of animals present here was too much to not just sit and appreciate.
Another advantage to spending time in Etosha in the dry season is that the dryness of the bush creates very clean backgrounds to compose the kind of photographs that we find appealing. As a result we would find the best background and then sit and wait for the herds of animals to pass against our desired canvas. That in itself was exciting while trying to create beautiful images, and the photo yield over just a few short days was very high.
The avian world also provided intense behaviour. Birds of course also have to drink and the multitudes of Guinee fowl, doves, sandgrouse and other small birds also had their aerial hunters to deal with. Kites, falcons and sparrowhawks were on the prowl and the sudden flush from a predatory bird would send hundreds of feathered-prey trying to escape in all different directions and at hugely impressive speeds.
Little dramas and scenes were being played out all around us and it was truly captivating as we sat for hours in the sweltering heat.
The White Elephants of Nebrowni
When deciding to visit Etosha Chris had a very specific photograph in mind. One of the main waterholes close to Okaukuejo Camp is Nebrowni. Nebrowni is famous for the huge White Elephants that frequent this waterhole. When I say white elephants, I literally mean white in colour. They become white from covering themselves in the dust and mud that has a very high lime content in this particular area. The reason for the dusting and mudding is to help ward off insects and also for the wet mud to cool them down. What’s interesting is that it’s only the older bulls that use this waterhole and the matriarchal herds are seldom seen. They stay here year round and of course they all know one another very well.
Chris didn’t capture the image he had in his mind of the white elephants crossing the open Namibian plain, but we did get to observe fantastic interactions between the bulls.
We found that some were very friendly with each other and happily shared the prime drinking spot, whereas others were definitely not welcome!
The most hostile interaction took place right in front of our vehicle. A bull that was already drinking spotted an approaching elephant which he obviously didn’t like and intercepted him even before arriving at the waterhole. They sniffed each other warily and then locked trunks. As soon as they locked onto each other they began to push against each other in a show of strength and a high energy scuffle ensued. Eventually the more dominant bull stood his ground and the submissive bull had no option but to give way and wait on the outskirts for his turn to drink. It was a superb interaction to watch at such close quarters and interesting to try and get an understanding of the dynamics at work.
Etosha, as I already mentioned, has so many highlights. A unique highlight here is that each camp has its own waterhole that is floodlight at night. So, if you still have not had enough wildlife during the day you can stay up and watch all night. The cover of darkness brings all the usual suspects but there is something very special about sitting out in those incredibly quiet and muggy nights just waiting to see what comes in.
Elephants, as large as they are, are almost completely silent in their approach, although the actual event of drinking does become very political in the elephant world. The source of the pumped water is the most desired and most sought after spot from which to drink. It can become very comical as elephants most often than not try to be extremely polite with one another. An extremely subtle game of manoeuvring and positioning takes place. I love watching these kinds of interactions.
Rhinos are also extremely endearing and I find the interactions between the mothers, calves and adult males especially fascinating. They most certainly know one another and the adult males can be very excited when greeting the small calves. Perhaps we were watching father and calf coming together and then of course why wouldn’t there be a joyous meeting?!
There’s a Lion in the Window!
The final interaction I am about to write about is without doubt my closest encounter with a lion and also my most adrenalin filled experience!
The interaction took place on the morning we were driving out the park and into the Caprivi Strip. It was a long drive so we weren’t stopping for too much until we saw about five cars stopped up one of the side roads. Stopped cars always mean something worthwhile has been sighted and this time round is was a lion pride of about twelve, all lying complacently next to the road. We are both complete suckers for cubs so when we saw there were six tiny three week old cubs we had to stop and spend some time with them.
The rest of the pride was made up of a male, five lionesses and one more cub that was maybe about eight weeks old.
When we arrived there were two lionesses lying in the shade of one of the cars and the other three were lying in the veld close to us. The tiny cubs were really bugging the mom’s by constantly wanting to suckle as well as play, and the annoyed lionesses were getting up frequently to avoid the demanding cubs. A couple of them eventually settled in the shade of some bush creating beautiful dappled light to be cast over them. We moved closer and Chris was really enjoying using his big lens for some creative images when another lioness decided that the shade from our car was really quite tempting.
In a matter of moments she had sauntered over and plopped herself down right under Chris’s window and was now lying touching the car.
We are used to being in close proximity to large predators so although there was definitely something to think about we were pretty calm about the situation. Added to this the lioness was extremely relaxed and obviously used to cars so for the moment Chris, myself and the lioness were all just enjoying a good lion sighting. At this stage Chris decided not to make a noise, and thus possibly change the atmosphere by closing the windows (both the front and the back were open at this stage).
A short while later the two month old cub arrived to lie with Mom and as with most young felines he was very curious in this big white oblong thing that was sticking out the window. Chris’ lens had now become a focus of attention and the cubs little head would go up and down as he surveyed this strange looking object.
The lioness now also became aware of the lens and shortly after the cub drifted off she stood up. All this took place in just a few moments and my comfort level went from ok to “what the hell” as I saw a very big lioness looking directly into our open window!
I actually couldn’t look because I couldn’t bring myself to look into the eyes of a lioness and admit the reality of the situation!
Although Chris was very calm I could feel him thinking “ok….what now!”
The lioness was now curiously peering inside the hood of lens and we think she was catching her reflection in the glass as she kept drawing her head backwards and forwards as she peered in.
At some point we realised she would probably grab the camera and Chris had to do something about the situation. He couldn’t tap the side of the car as he would literally be touching her so the only reasonable choice was to gently push her backwards with the camera set up. At the same time he needed to swing the ignition (without starting the engine) so that we could get the windows up.
I was completely useless at this point and still couldn’t look; I had my face buried in my hands!
As Chris gently pushed the lioness with the lens she took a step backwards and then in a seamless movement he swung the key and got the windows up….phew…I could breathe again!
The lioness was still unperturbed and immediately came back towards the car. Finding the lens and the object of her curiosity now gone she proceeded to very gently get hold of our door handle and begin to nibble.
This was too much for us now and Chris started the car. With the noise of the engine she now casually moved away.
My goodness…this all only lasted a few minutes but it felt like forever. Both of us had our adrenalin racing and the sweat pouring down. It was a complete understatement to say it was an intense experience…it was an off the scale encounter and I certainly will never forget the feeling of being so close to a completely wild lioness.
In closure I must say what an incredibly beautiful specimen she was; and also that throughout the encounter it was only ever curiosity that she displayed with those big wide eyes and dilated pupils and never a hint of aggression.
Wow, what a note to end Etosha on, with the high not leaving us for many days to come.
The next part of our trip will take us in transit through the great Caprivi Strip along the top of Namibia, crossing over briefly into Botswana and finally into one of the most famous wildlife parks in the world for elephants, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe!
Read about previous Namibian trips here: