LIONS, ELEPHANTS AND ZEBRAS
Glued to the airplane window, I gaze down at a complex maze of animal trails covering the dusty, sparsely treed landscape below. I spot a giraffe ambling along. Then we pass over a herd of zebras, heads down, grazing. As we bump down, two ostriches with long necks watch us curiously. We've just landed at a small airfield near Etosha National Park, in northern Namibia, and already I'm excited and impressed by the abundance of exotic big game.
Our guide, Rio, a stocky black man with a perpetual huge smile, greets our group of four and loads us onto an open-sided Land Rover. As we drive toward Ongava Tented Camp, my head swivels back and forth as we pass wart hogs, zebras, a waterbuck and two oryx with long, lethal horns. Engrossed in the constant procession of strange animals, I hardly notice that we're immersed in oven-like heat, almost 40°C.
Smiling African staff greet us at camp with welcome drinks and oh-so refreshing cold towelettes. Soon I'm relaxing in my 'tent,' which resembles a large hotel suite and includes a luxurious king-size bed draped with a flowing mosquito net, a desk, hot water, flush toilet and a deck. I feel like Hemingway in Africa.
Photo 1. Zebras foraging
We assemble at the elegant lodge, the social centre of the camp with a swimming pool, lounge, bar and, of course, a much-watched water hole, which draws a continuous parade of springbok, zebras, oryx and flocks of birds.
Rio bustles us aboard the Land Rover and we are off on a safari, following a dry, dusty riverbed. "We're getting close," says Rio pointing to huge round footprints in the dust and fresh dung the size of soccer balls. Rounding a bend, we find ourselves face to face with a herd of 11 elephants, foraging amongst the trees and bushes. A little baby Jumbo, only two weeks old, wanders like a midget amongst the enormous tree-trunk legs of the adults.
Photo 2. Baby Jumbo plays amongst ponderous legs
We continue driving, our cameras clicking constantly, for Rio has an amazing knack for finding animals. An ostrich races across the sparse landscape. Zebras, a tangle of attractive black-and-white patterns, drink at a water hole next to delicate springbok and spiral-horned kudu. We follow three white rhinos as they forage, two huge and ponderous adults and a smaller youngster. They studiously ignore us as they munch the dry scrubby grass.
Photo 3. White rhinos at dusk
As the sun settles low in the western sky, Rio stops, pulls a fold-up table from some secret compartment in the Land Rover and sets it with a colourful tablecloth. He unloads a cooler and magically produces appetizers and drinks, introducing us to the delightful safari tradition of 'sundowners.' Sipping a South African sparkling wine, I contentedly watch the rhinos slowly moving against the backdrop of a horizon ablaze with reds and purples. The sky darkens and then, suddenly, a hideous, blood-curdling howl shatters the tranquility. It goes on and on, raising goose bumps on every inch of my body. "Just a black-backed jackal," says Rio nonchalantly, uncorking another bottle.
It's dark by the time we return to camp, where we are met by an escort carrying a huge shotgun. "Please don't walk about the camp after dark without me. Otherwise, you may get eaten," he says.
Photo 4. Armed escort
We're led to the lodge for a delicious dinner of kudu steak accompanied by an excellent South African cabernet sauvignon, served by friendly staff. During dinner they dance and sing in their Nama-Damara click language. I close my eyes and think I am hearing songs from the Lion King.
Our dinner-table talk is all about the animals we've seen. Rio explains that preserving game has been difficult because rhinos, elephants and other animals were being decimated by poachers. Progressive anti-poaching and conservation programs, however, are making a difference.
After dinner Rio shows us infra-red photos taken the previous night of lions prowling through the camp. I watch a lioness walk toward the camera. Even on the grainy screen, I can see she is about 300 pounds of lithe, fluid motion, her muscles rippling, the epitome of confident power. Then an American from Philadelphia excitedly describes how he had looked out his tent window the previous night and seen the lions at the waterhole.
Photo 5. Proud lion
When I return to my tent, I stick like glue to the armed escort.
IF YOU GO:
Namibia is an amazing country. The people are friendly and travel is safe.
" General Namibia information: www.namibatourism.com.na
PHOTOS by Hans Tammemagi
1. Zebras foraging
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