Several hours into our first proper game drive we were coming up empty-handed. Aside from the perpetual springbok and the eternal zebras, our truck rolled down the empty dust roads of Etosha National Park while we silently strained our eyes to make out any movement against the browned grass.
But somehow, I didn’t terribly mind the lack of animal sightings. I was still in a post-Canadian-winter daze, having landed only two days before after 36 hours of travel, hardly believing that I was now in Africa, hot breeze blowing through the open truck windows, and a herd of zebras grazing in the distance. The sky was all cloud, heavy and ragged, a distant rainstorm slashing grey rain in sheets on the horizon. The air smelled of wet dust.
But Etosha, that “Great White Place” stretching through a salt pan and across 22,000 square kilometres in the north of Namibia, rarely disappoints.
Within a few hours our dry spell was broken by a trio of lanky giraffes slowly making their way down to a watering hole, herds of gemsbok and wildebeest grazing in the tall grass, and even a lioness, aloof and sinewy, stretching sensuously right beside our truck like an oversized house cat.
We also saw eight black rhinos, which is incredible considering how critically endangered they are and how few of them there are in the park (I heard the unconfirmed number that there may be as few at 20 of them in Etosha, but the park does not publicly release their numbers).
It was also wet season, and therefore baby season, with mini versions of the animals even more heart-arrestingly adorable than their full-grown versions (as things in miniature always are). While a zebra is impressive, a baby zebra is blubberingly cute. A baby springbok looks like a toy, giant ears balanced on a tiny delicate head and supported by spindly legs no thicker than my pinky finger.
It was almost jarring to see that many animals in such concentration. The first group of zebras was terribly exciting, slow stripes moving through the browned grass in the distance. But by the end of our second day in Etosha, I had seen hundreds of them across the plains and at every watering hole, more populous than pigeons in Toronto. The springbok were even more common, undeniably adorable in their Tigger-like bouncing, but their sheer numbers a clear illustration of why springbok steak could be found on most restaurant menus (and is delicious, sorry vegetarian friends).
For all that Etosha doesn’t disappoint, our night game drive experience is illustrative of the luck involved in animal sightings – we only saw three rhinos by a watering hole, and nothing else (an owl aside) in the whole three hours of the drive. In fact, still jet lagged, and hypnotized by the red floodlight sweeping back and forth in front of the jeep, I spent the whole drive fighting sleep and losing the battle.
Yet two days later, as I was chatting to a lovely elderly lady about her game viewing, I mentioned our unfortunate night drive. Her response was, “Oh, you’re the ones we heard about!”
Turns out she went on a night game drive and saw rhinos galore, herds of elephants, even some lions, and the guide told them how the night before he had “A group of very nice people who saw absolutely nothing.” At least we went down in infamy.
The watering hole beside the Etosha campground, lit by floodlights at night and protected by a raised viewing promenade with benches, was phenomenal for animal viewing.
Two of my favourite animals moments came while sitting on one of those benches.
One was on the last night, as two of our group members who had gone down to the waterhole sprinted back into camp, flailing their arms, “Elephants, elephants at the watering hole!”
We hadn’t seen elephants yet, had spent that entire day driving around the park to not a single elephant sighting. And I really wanted to see elephants. They are a contradiction, something simultaneously so prehistoric yet futuristic about them, so awkward yet majestic. Plus they’re just straight up wonderful. So this was a rallying cry. We dropped all post-dinner chores and scrambled to the watering hole, where the benches were full with silent observers, watching the elephant couple making their way slowly down to the water.
They are so slow and still, moving a limb and then pausing for long moments, as though posing. Sweetly affectionate with each other, they entwined trunks and touched foreheads, swaying gently. They were there for a long time, but as soon as the wind changed and they sensed us, they slowly lumbered off into the night. I walked off on my own to the edge of the viewing platform to watch them as long as possible, their slow procession into the darkness, the sky behind them rolling with silent waves of sheet lightning
The following morning, my tentmate Sarah and I woke up for absolutely no reason just after four in the morning and decided to walk down to the watering hole.
It was still dark, but the kind of diluted darkness when night begins to dissolve gently an hour before dawn. It was cool and silent down by the water, shapes blending into one another in the deceptive gloom, where rocks would look like animals… and a lioness looked like a rock.
She sat still for the longest time, bent down to the water like a gargoyle, but lifted her head when a guttural roar echoed out of the darkness. Two male lions descended to the water and she joined them.
That roaring, a deep rolling grunting, went right through me. It’s resonant, echoing against something primal and primitive in my bones. Maybe harkening back to the days where that roar sent a chill through our bipedal ancestors out on the savannah plains, maybe just the natural tremour of hearing an apex predator display their power.
You could see it in the way the animals went down to the water. The zebras and springbok would proceed cautiously, skittish at any sound, some looking out into the distance and keeping watch while others drank with their ears perched forward. But the lions descended without hesitation, every step a powerful contraction of muscle and sinew.
In summary, before I use up all the adjectives, Etosha was brilliant. I’ve been conflicted about zoos in the past, or other interactions with captive animals (like swimming with dolphins in Cuba), but here there was no such ambivalence. We were the ones who were contained, watching the animals roaming free.
Etosha shows its moods through its massive sky, scooping low and wide over the plains.