Etosha National Park (20 – 22 May 2014)
I arrived at Windhoek Airport at night on the 19th. It was already pitch dark outside. All the money changers at the airport had stopped work for the day and they made it crystal clear that they were not going to entertain any request. I wonder if it had anything to do with my ethnicity. I do not want to be overly sensitive, but it did seem like visitors from China, and there were at least two who had arrived on the same flight as I did, were checked quite thoroughly at customs and then at bag check as compared to visitors from other countries. I have come to accept that PRCs are not entirely welcomed in many places worldwide and it is definitely not pleasant when people think that I am one.
Nevertheless, I was cleared quite quickly and I think it was because my passport was not Chinese and I did not need a visa to enter the country. As for bag check I suspect I was simply overlooked.
The journey into the city took about 45 minutes. It was a smooth ride but for some reason I felt quite sick after that. Fortunately the real tour was only going to start the next morning.
But before I could get into bed I had to meet the group. The guide cum driver P was Namibian. The rest of the group included two sisters from Canada, Al (elder) and C (younger); a retired couple from Canada also, Ar (husband) and J (wife, whom I only met the next morning); a Belgian family that had moved to the US 16 years ago, F (father), Dn (mother), and Ay (son); and another lone traveller, Dl, who was from Zimbabwe but had moved to Switzerland. Nine of us would be enjoying the tour led by P together and each other’s company. I was quite eager to find out what the dynamics of the tour would be like with eight white people and me the lone Asian guy travelling together.
After breakfast the next morning, we hopped onto a bus for 10 passengers and we were off. It was going to be a long journey to Etosha National Park.
On the way we were brought to this crafts market in the town of Okahandja. There were hardly any customers around and so we were give plenty of attention. I felt hesitant however to enter any of the stalls because I was wary of pressure sales tactics. Furthermore I can never find a good enough reason to buy any craftwork since they will merely take up space and collect dust in the little old apartment I live in with my family. I also do not believe that my aged parents will be able to handle anything too exotic looking in the house.
I could not have been happier when we finally arrived at Etosha. I had never been on safari and that visit was going to be my virgin experience. Going on safari in Africa to see the wonderful animals of that continent, how cool is that?
Soon after we entered the park we were greeted by a herd of elephants. That was brilliant. P warned me not to reach too far outside the bus window as that might attract unnecessary and hostile attention from the elephants. There was a calf in their midst after all. It could get much worse too since one of the males in the herd was in musth.
We drove deeper into the park and we saw a whole bunch of other animals like springboks, zebras and giraffes. That was brilliant too!
We stayed two nights right inside the national park at the Etosha Rest Camp. There is a watering hole at the camp area which gets really busy in the day. The watering hole is of course one of many around the park specially dug for the animals to get a drink from. In the day, herds of animals would take turns to come, drink and then leave after they had drunk their fill. There was no fighting for water and not one animal took more than needed. These wild animals seemed more civilised than many human beings I know. The watering hole is also visited at night although it does not get as busy as during the day. Al and C told me that they saw some lions one night at the watering hole after I had gone to bed. I do remember hearing a lion’s roar one night and it sounded as if the lion was right within the camp grounds.
The viewing area by the watering hole was also normally swamped with visitors like me who wanted to observe the animals. I became fascinated by some of the photographic equipment used by them. I thought that they looked more like missile launchers than cameras. I wonder if their owners were professional photographers or did they just want to look professional in front of the animals?
We spent three days driving around the national park looking for animals. It was pretty hard work actually. We had to peel our eyes wide open to make sure that we did not miss any animal worth seeing. P was obviously an expert and he was able to spot an animal from a mile away before anyone else and even tell us what animal that was despite it being a mere speck from our perspective.
The herbivores, especially the zebras and springboks, were everywhere. The elephants, rhinos and giraffes were also quite common. The carnivores however were harder to spot. We only managed to see a grand total of two lions twice during our whole time at the park. It was sheer fortune that they were basking by the side of the road and could not be bothered to move much when we spotted them. We were hoping to see some cheetahs and leopards but we did not have the luck. I told the group in jest to not bother me if the animal spotted was neither a cat nor a snake. After hearing stories of man-eating pythons and vicious mambas from P I was quite eager to see them.
We however saw some one or two hyenas but they disappeared into the grass very quickly. We also saw quite a few jackals and they seemed to only appear at sundown and then disappear again after sunrise. One adorable jackal actually wandered all the way onto the camp grounds just outside the restaurant one night. A German tourist reached her hand out and beckoned to it as if it were a puppy. Fortunately the jackal did not approach her. A major disaster might have occurred if it had since it could have either injured her with its jaws and claws or infect her with anthrax. Scavengers may be unaffected by anthrax but not us fragile humans.
One morning while on a sunrise safari organised by the camp, we saw a dead zebra by the side of road. The guide said that it had died from anthrax. A pack of jackals was having zebra for breakfast. Later that day we came across the same carcass and this time a flock consisting of three different species of vultures and some crows were having a rowdy feast on it. The feast of the scavengers was the most memorable sight for me at Etosha. It was nature at its cruelest and most real. It was not pleasant but it was definitely stunning.
Besides the vultures, we saw a number of other birds too. The most amazing were the weaver birds and their condominium. It was amazing how large a cluster of nests could get.
The complaint that we had about the safari was our ride. We went animal watching in the same bus that we came in. The tour company had for some reason decided not to give us a proper safari vehicle. While the bus was a comfortable vehicle to get us around, it was not suitable for safari. It was awkward having to move about in the small bus to see the animals but we took turns at the windows and helped each other get shots of them.
Being in the middle of nowhere meant that our meals had to be taken at camp. Even when we were far away from our camp during the day we had to visit another one to get lunch. Dinner was always interesting because we got to try interesting meats. I had springbok (which I had actually already tried in South Africa), eland and oryx. In the day we admired their grace and in the night we ate them.
Gradually, I got to know the members of the group a little more through our time together on safari and at mealtimes. Al and C were the first two people I spoke to properly and made friends with. They are both pretty young and work in the medical industry. Al is a doctor. I am not sure if C is a nurse but she works in a children’s hospital. They live in Toronto although Al was making plans to move to Vancouver for a job there. Ar and J are retirees from the Navy and enjoying life at the moment. They had already done South Africa and Swaziland before ending up in Namibia. They live in Vancouver. I have no idea what F was doing but Dn was an air stewardess. Ay was graduating from college and planning a whole series of internships and study tours. The Belgian family has been living in Miami for the last 16 years and seem to be travelling all the time. F and Ay are very avid photographers and never missed a chance for a good shot, usually with Ay’s DSLR, if they could help it. As for Dl, I could never be sure what she did for a living but she seemed to be naturally wealthy. She drinks quite a bit and is a vegetarian. She could not bear the sight of the zebra being feasted upon by scavengers. As for P, our long-suffering guide, he actually owns his own travel business but also takes tours for other tour companies.
Very quickly I began to feel comfortable travelling with these people. As I admired the star-filled Namibian sky with these erstwhile strangers one night at Etosha, I felt so very lucky.