When you look down on the vast open plains of the African desert it is impossible not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur, splendour and power of the natural phenomena. What wildlife dramas do these plains contain, what will nature provide? The fragility of nature has never been so pronounced as it is today. It will be interesting to observe the extreme lengths the wildlife will go to survive. The landscape is arid, dry and desolate, ravaged by years of drought, the safari begins to uncover the survival of the wildlife in these challenging conditions …
The mountain ranges tower around us, the rocks are rich in minerals; granite, malachite and amethyst and glint attractively in the sun light. In places the rocks have smooth curves from where the ice melted during the ice age, then when the seas rose and finally receded. Interesting smooth curves have formed, cracks in the rocks and natural bridges. Over millions of years boulders have stacked on top of each other, naturally occurring due to climatic change. These are sleeping grey giants from millions of years of wind, rain and sun. Skeleton trees rise up from the sand from years of drought, their bony fingers pointing to the sky, begging for rain. Euphorbia with its deadly long grey spiky branches punctuate the sky. There is such wild beauty here whether you look, the harsh desert conditions both challenge and excite the senses.
The journey to Spitzkoppe is breath-taking, we are surrounded by all this natural phenomenon. We arrive at Bushman’s paradise which is a dry desert, the heat causes a haze to rise from the ground. Luscious cactus rises from the white sand, they have tall thick grey trunks with spiky green thick leaves. Here we find the love cave; the walls are golden and thick lines of different minerals show how it was formed. A pool of water in the middle, clear and as smooth as glass perfectly reflects the rocks surface. Next to the cave there is an impressive rock arch formed from rain and wind over millions of years, the sun shines through it giving it the appearance of a gate to an unexplored world. This is the true wild, untamed, natural and harsh. Red billed Hornbill hop around the ground picking up insects and seeds to eat, their bills curved and vibrant in the sun. Small Ground Squirrel scurry from bush to bush on alert so they are not picked off by predatorial birds. The cluck of Guineafowl or as affectionately known African chicken alert us to the flock heading our way. Up in the trees Weaver nests hang empty on the trees like decorations, their intricate weave quite mesmerising. A Monteiro Hornbill flies into the tree and settles on one of the branches, it curiously looks down. An Agama Lizard with its bright blue body and orange head, bobs its head like it is doing push ups, it is so vibrant against the pale beige of the rock it is warming itself on. The sun sets over the mountains, the deep vibrant spread of fiery reds, oranges and yellows light up the minerals in the rocks and as the air cools the sound of wildlife can be heard all around us.
We leave Spitzkoppe and travel down to Twyfelfontuin via Sorro Sorros. We are in search of the desert adapted Elephants. It is dry and hot; the heat haze shimmers before our eyes giving the scenery an ethereal glow. The mountain ranges rise up through the dry arid sand occasionally punctuated by deadly plants which require little moisture and almost no rain. The Elephants walk slowly through Sorro Sorros in the Ugab dry riverbed. Their large grey impressive bodies covered in white sand from dust bathing. They lumber slowly to conserve energy; they are in search of food but most importantly water. They can smell water from over thirty miles away and the matriarch passes down the vital information of where to find it from generation to generation. When they reach a tree, they rise incongruously given their sheer bulk, onto their back legs in order to reach up with their trunks to reach the more luscious green leaves. There is little greenery in this dry riverbed, many of the plants have died and the trees branches hang listlessly with dead leaves. The matriarch leads the herd onwards in search of food and water, the lives of the young calves depends on her skills and leadership. She kicks up dried roots with her impressive feet and pulls them up with her tusks before depositing them in her mouth with the sensitive end of her trunk. They contain little nutritional value, but she must sustain herself for her long journey ahead. Elephants are beautiful peaceful giants, their bond is unbreakable, they will protect each other at all costs.
The rock engravings at Twyfelfontuin world heritage site are several hundred years old, tribes have depicted the wild animals they live with and their fight for survival. The images despite the human/wildlife conflict that is still an issue today. For millions of years man and animal has shared this beautiful world but the fight to survive and share natural resources has come at a cost, especially to the wildlife. The drawings are rudimentary, but it is very interesting to see through the eyes of the then uneducated how they perceived the animals. Some of the drawings are of the warriors with spears chasing the animals to either hunt them or chase them away from their dwellings.
The sunrise brings a vibrant glow over the dry desert sand, the rich mineral deposits shine in the morning light. An adolescent Steenbok is sitting by the by the road, it has a rich red coat with small horns and incongruously large ears. Its large dark doe eyes stare at us, it looks like a character from a children’s film it is so adorable. Before long we find a herd of Elephants walking to find water, they stop along the way to kick up roots and eat them. One of the young bull Elephant threatens to charge, he is exercising his authority and dominance over us. We stay back giving him room to walk ahead, you never get in a path of an Elephant. The rest of herd are dust bathing, using the sensitive ends of their trunks to grab clumps of sand and throwing it over themselves. The dust forms a thick covering over their skin, it is their sun protection. An Elephants hue depends on the colour of the soil, so desert adapted Elephants are more beige than grey.
Baboons are foraging for insects and seeds in the dry grasses, they have excellent eyesight and can pick out the smallest piece. They are gregarious and will spend hours grooming each other, they are also very argumentative and suddenly two adolescents will start fighting and chasing each other in a display of dominance. Nearby two Red Hartebeest take off running, they have seen us and are very skittish as they are hunted for food by the man here. They startle a pair of mating pair of Ostrich; the male has bright pink legs which indicates he wishes to mate with the female. He starts an elaborate dance to attract her, she pecks at the grass ignoring his advances for now. Namibia is rich in bird life, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill with their striking yellow bills which amusingly look like bananas hop about the grass also foraging for seeds and small insects. They are joined by Grey Hornbill which are less attractive and typically forage in the trees. Standing tall in the long grasses is a dominant male Oryx. The Oryx is an iconic symbol of Namibia, appearing in the country’s coat of arms, and is the national animal of Namibia. It is a desert adapted animal, it is very tolerant of the country’s harsh arid conditions and very little water. On seeing him you can understand why they are so symbolic. They have beautiful beige coats with black and white faces and long sturdy horns. The seem quite curious, they walk off a distance, stop and turn to stare affording us a beautiful view of their majestic bearing.
We climb the rocks to see more paintings etched out of the rocks, they are older and depict again the wildlife and the tribe’s relationship with them. Even though they are quite rudimentary it is easy to spot Rhino, Lion and Giraffe. The tribes often smoked hallucinogenic herbs before painting these scenes and often the pictures are quite fanciful. The Lion has a claw growing out of its tail, this could depict the fact that the tribes discovered indeed the Lion does have a claw in the tuft of its tail or it could represent the tribes belief that they had the power to turn into animals. The tribes believed in spirit animals and ancestry. The Giraffe is the rain bringer and living in this arid dry desert would have been a good omen for the tribes when then encountered them, they were revered and respected. The Rhino is depicted with its long horn raised aloft, the tribes would have discovered the Rhino is dangerous, bad tempered and unpredictable. The Rhino is surrounded with men with spears, you can almost feel the tension between the Rhino and the warriors, it is all about survival.
Our safari takes us from Twyfelfontuin to Palmwag in search of Elephants in the Aba Huab river system. We wild camp at Kai ais Palmwag Conservancy, it is a beautiful natural landscape with indigenous green succulent plants. We find the Elephants in the eastern section of the Aba Huab River system, it is hot and arid here, it is very challenging conditions. The sand is white, deep and hot, the Elephants march slowly, their large feet sinking into the sand. The sun beats down on them as they search for water. It is difficult to see what they will feed on as the trees have dry leaves and there is little vegetation. There has been seven years of no or little rains, so Namibia has had to resort in drilling boreholes so provide much needed water for the wildlife. Around a nearby water hole Springbok are “pronking”, that is leaping with their legs and heading pointing down. There are many theories why they do this, maybe they do it to attract a mate by showing how agile and strong they are. It could be a form of social communication alerting the rest of the herd of danger. The older Springboks may “pronk” when fleeing so that the younger ones can see them and follow. Of course, they may just be doing it because they are happy, when you watch them it is such a joyous movement. This would explain why when they come near the much-needed water hole many “pronk” in happiness at the sight. Whatever the explanation it is a joy to watch, it brings new meaning to having a “spring in your step”.
Two Mountain Zebra come down to the watering hole, they are large muscular stallions. The mountain Zebra has a dewlap which is a fatty deposit under its neck. The mountain Zebra are boldly striped in black or dark brown, and no two individuals look exactly alike. The whole body is striped black and white except the belly. Their preferred habitat is the mountainous terrain around us, especially the escarpment with the diversity of grass species. The are joined by two male Oryx who too are searching water. The prey will graze and drink together as it helps protect them from predators, as one bends it head to drink leaving it vulnerable, the other can watch out for threats. Red-billed Hornbill hop around their feet, they have bright red bills tapered to black and striking black and white plumage. They are omnivorous, taking and eating insects, fruit and seeds. They feed mainly on the ground.
Kai ais in the Palmwag Conservancy is an interesting place to wild camp, it is like camping on Mars. It is apocalyptic, the red earth is very arid and dry, nothing grows here and there is very little wildlife. At night we hear a Spotted Hyaena whooping near camp, they are nocturnal here, hunting at night the little prey that can survive living out in this tough environment. Euphorbia grow out of the dry earth it is very poisonous, if you break the tip it secretes a milky substance, which consumed will kill you. Rhinos is the only animals that can eat it. The Rhinos also use it to get shade within the long thin branches. Welwicha, the National plant of Namibia grows forlornly out of the dry earth, it looks limp and dead, but it can be over a thousand years old as the leaves grow only five centimetres a year. We are looking for the elusive Rhino, there is a strong scent of Rhino urine and piles of Rhino dung, but they travelled in the night.
The watering hole is surrounded by thick grasses which is both perfect shade and camouflage for Lions to lay into ambush prey coming to drink water. The nearest next available water is over 15km away. We see the white faeces of the Spotted Hyaena, they have a calcium and bone rich diet hence the colour. They have dens in the ground where they sleep in the heat of the day. Eleven Springbok run across the sand, they are keen to reach the water hole, their eyes dart around looking for predators. A male Oryx walks away from us and predictably stops ever so often to turn to look at us. We hear the high pitch cry of a Black-chested Snake Eagle soaring on the vortex over the mountains, its sharp eyes are searching for small prey in the long grasses, they hunt rodents, reptiles, snakes and small gazelle. A Southern pied crow looks up at the hunter, small birds can fall victim to the Eagles sharp talons.
A Black backed Jackal is running through the long grasses back to its den with some food for its pups, they are mainly found down by the coast where they can hunt seal pups. There is a fountain watering hole, the water naturally bubbles up from the earth, it is surrounded with dense perfect ambush grass. Mountain Zebra and Oryx cautiously come down to drink, their eyes alert and watchful. A small burnt dead tree rises, barren of leaves in dramatic shadow surrounded by gun metal grey ash, this contrasts with the vibrant moisture filled thick grasses rising from the Marsh land behind it. This scene is backlit by a dramatic deep blue clear sky devoid of any clouds. Namibia is a country of exaggerated contrasts, dry and arid, vibrant skies and succulent plants that thrive in this harsh environment.
Driving though the Palmwag Conservancy, several under earth fountains have dried up as the drought has gone on for nearly seven years. Springbok walk over the dry earth, fortunately they are not water dependent and breed just twice a year. Basalt rocks litter the ground due to the Ekendekka Vulcanision, a super volcano that exploded here 180 million years ago. The rocks vary in size from around six to sixty inches in diameter. It is a mineral but incredibly hard and when polished is shiny black, hence locally is called desert varnish. Female Welwicha plant has been germinated and displays large seed pods that will be dispersed across the dry desert when the winds come.
The landscape is arid, dry and desolate. The earth is red only occasionally punctuated by lush green poisonous Euphorbia and Zygophylium Simplex a vibrant green small leaved ground spreading succulent that provides much needed moisture in its leaves for the prey. It almost feels like you are driving over the terrain of Mars, it has an apocalyptic feel about it that nothing could survive here, but as we have witnessed plants and animals have adapted to this harsh environment. Over 160 million years ago the dry flat red sand dunes we are driving over was actually an ocean. When the ice caps melted the sea, levels rose and then receded, we are currently 625 metres above sea level. The Palmwag Conservancy is 5,500 square kilometres, it is the largest in Namibia.
Cleomi Velosies a luscious green plant with yellow petals also known as Pretty Lady or Spider flower incongruously grows in the arid red soil. The tribes can boil it down and add grease to make perfume or it can be used on mosquito bites to numb the sting. A Ground Squirrel sits on top of its burrow to look for birds of prey, they will not leave the burrow until they are happy it is safe. They suffer from lice so do not stay in their burrows for long. This is good for when the rains come as all the underground defecation fertilises the soil for new plant and grass growth. Males decide who is the alpha by standing belly to belly and seeing whose testicles are larger. Their gestation is around four months and they will often share burrows. They are preyed on by Snakes, Hyaenas and Jackals.
We pick up fresh Buffalo tracks and dung, we are only yards from an underground fountain. Sand Grouse the colour of the beige soil peck at the ground for seeds and insects. It is easy to spot underground water in this dry arid desert as suddenly you see an oasis of wild mustard bush which is an evergreen and high in tannin so used as a substitute for coffee. Its roots go deep underground to the source of water. Like a mirage we see a small pool of water, life giving and essential to the survival of these desert dwelling animals. The Elands Beans grows in clumps it is very green and drought resident and a good source of food for Hartman Mountain Zebras as the leaves contain a lot of moisture. A Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk with grey feathers and black tail feathers hovers on the vortex its black eyes focused on finding rodents to swoop down and catch. Four male Ostrich run up the mountain, they favour the Zygophylium Simplex to feed on. The Dollar bush has leaves the size of one-dollar coins and are a succulent full of moisture. When you break a small leaf open it excretes a large amount of moisture. It is also a good source of salt especially when boiled down.
The composition of the Cliff face is made up of Dolerite, Granite, Red oxide, Basalt and Ferrite. It looks like someone has chiselled blocks into it, stunning etched square rocks carved over millions of rains from wind, rain and sea levels. Swirls and stripes of glistening minerals thread through the rocks, it is a geologist’s paradise. A rock lays on its side it looks like half a fallen column. On top a beautiful yellow and green Agama Lizard sits enjoying the heat of the sun on its cold-blooded body.
Klip Springer run up the rocks at a sharp forty-five-degree angle, they are shy animals. It is non water dependant but gets its water from succulents. It also mates for life and is the smallest antelope.
The Southern Giraffe which is smaller and lighter in colour as it had adapted to its desert dwelling conditions, browses on the underside of the Ballanite Tree branches right next to our camp. A calf meticulously chews leaves next to its mother; it is incredibly beautiful with its long eye lashed eyes. A herd of thirty-one Springbok walk towards the watering hole, you can hear them clicking in communication. As they approach the watering hole the Springbok start pronking which does seem to support the theory that it is mainly down when they are happy and excited. These joyful leaps have been known to reach heights of up to four metres, repeatedly, at very short intervals, making the whole display quite something to watch. Back in camp the sky is a blanket of beautiful stars, we find Tree climbing Scorpions which are fairly harmless, under fluorescent light they glow purple.
Giraffe stretch their limbs in the cold morning light, they reach up to the branches of the trees to log off fronds of leaves with their exaggerated long tongues. The Poison cork wood plant is a beautiful plant with small pink flowers, but it is deadly. The roots are glycoside so used to poison water when fishing, it is also used on tips of arrows when the tribes hunt. Butterflies are attracted to it, but birds will not eat it. It is so cold the Atlantic sea mist is rolling over the mountains which is quite stunning. A large male Oryx is running like a show pony, elegantly prancing into the now thick morning Atlantic fog.
The Anna tree is large with thick dense dark green foliage, many are 750-1000 years old. They have the distinctive umbrella shape from the gardeners of the desert or rain bringers, Giraffes eating the foliage from underneath with their long eighteen-inch tongues. The Anna tree has large brown seed pods which can be boiled up as a substitute for tea, they are also coveted by Giraffes and Elephants. Elephants even with their great bulk will rise on their hind legs to reach the pods with the tips of their trunk as sensitive as fingertips. The Drongo bird, the clown of the bush, they can mimic up to sixteen different birds, also they can mimic car alarms. They use their mimicking trick to steal food from other animals such as meerkats.
A female Giraffe with a calf of around four months old stares intently into a group of bushes, there are Lion tracks from a few days ago and she is concerned for the safety of her baby. Giraffes are very good at spotting prey and will stand for hours staring at them. A troupe of Baboons are foraging under the Anna tree, one of the females is in oestrus her bottom is bright red and the dominant male mates with her. Baboons are actually ruled by the dominant female rather than the male. The Giraffe and calf stop under the Anna tree spread their legs and bend their long necks forward to scoop up the seed pods with their long tongues. Under the tree a group of three female Oryx are hiding a young calf of a couple of months old, it is plain fawn with no horns, when it is laying down it completely camouflaged against the sand. They are disturbed by the Giraffe so move off. The Oryx mother of the calf chase the other females if they get too close to her calf, she is very protective.
A large herd of Springbok are grazing on the dry grasses when Desert adapted Elephants march into view. There are three females, one male and three calves all under three months old. They are quite relaxed but weary as the night was cold so they would have been grazing to keep warm. They stop and stand and enjoy the sun on their thick, dust covered skin. They look ecstatic to be warming through. After a short while it becomes too hot for the calves, so they stand under their mothers for shade. Once cool they start chasing each other their small trunks waving around. Small calves are bemused by their trunks they are quite a novelty to them, so they love playing with them. The young calves roll around in the sand frolicking with each other. Like most babies they grow tired quickly and seek their mothers for comfort and security. The adults are also tired as they most likely were awake most of the night, so they too shift their weighty bulk and lay down on their sides on the now warm sand. They herd fall asleep, relaxed and happy under the warmth of the sun.
A lone Giraffe runs through the sand dunes kicking up soft golden sand, it stops between two mountain ranges, one dark sand one light sand, both glisten in the sunlight as they are rich in minerals. A herd of fifty-three Ostriches mainly male walk through the golden sand dunes. They are joined by five Oryx with a young calf. The Ostrich can be heard twittering like chicks, due to the size of the flock it is very loud. In the distance we see two bull Elephants they are eating the seed pods from the Anna tree. It is very hot and after their sleep in the morning they are hungry. The tree has very rough bark and they use it to start scratching their bottoms and sides. One looks tired and rests its trunk around a branch of a tree, it is very amusing. The old bulls seem to know every trick for gaining comfort and relieving itches and discomfort. They pull down fronds of leaves with the sensitive ends of their trunks into their mouths and chew. One male is aware of our presence and asserts his authority and alpha status by showing us his large appendage. They seem relaxed in our presence they are not far behind the rest of the herd being led by the matriarch. Further ahead we catch up with the matriarch with three other females and three young calves. The young calves now also awake are suckling from their mothers. It is a heart-warming scene of bonding and motherhood. The calves use the large bulk of their mothers for shade. They walk very close to them for security. In the heat of the afternoon they look to find water and head to the next watering hole.
Three Giraffe walk in front of the impressive mountains, they are in perfect contrast to the mineral honed mountains covered in golden red sand. Sitting on the sand on the opposite bank I am in awe of the vastness of this desert, the peace and tranquillity of its desolate place. It is quite incredible how animals have adapted to its arid dry environment. Oryx and Ostrich walk together, they both seek shelter, food and water. Even though we have not seen predators they are very aware of the threat. The Oryx are very well adapted for these conditions, the black around their eyes deflect the sun and the white absorbs the light. They are beautiful Gazelle; their fawn colour bodies are almost camouflaged against the sand, but the black markings make them stand out. In camp a Cape Fox slyly runs through camp looking for scraps of food to eat. The dancing flames of the campfire light up its red fur.
We drive to Sesfontein on route we see a large herd of Steenbok are gathered under a tree near a watering hole. We pass the two bull Elephants they are feeding on the Anna tree seed pods and husks. It is early in the morning and they use the rough bark to scratch their heads and bodies. One bull does not want our presence, so he raises his trunk and trumpets at us. In the long grasses the Trumpet flower or Angel flower grow, it is a beautiful white long trumpet with long stamens insides. The seeds are a natural hallucinogenic like LSD, the Himba tribe smoke them in their pipe to induce a comatose state so they can commune with the dead. They also crush and boil it to put on wounds to numb them. Another interesting plant is the Devils thorn, it is a testosterone booster, it has beautiful small yellow flowers but when they finish, they turn to spiny thorns and if walked on will stick in your foot. This plant is used in the modern world in supplements used to boost testosterone in athletes. Salt bush grows on high salt content soil, if you dig the roots out there will be salt crystals. The plant has long very thin green leaves. If you see an animal feeding on this bush, you know they have a mineral deficiency.
The scenery becomes more scenic and greener with large Fever Trees, Five Finger Palms and a sub specie of the Papyrus. The Papyrus grows in large clumps, tall with impressive white feathers grasses on top. We drive through the Hoanib river system it is extremely dry and sandy. The only animals who can survive out here is the Springbok, there is no water and little food. Mopane trees are evergreen with very deep root systems to assess the mineral waters deep in the earth. This wood is very hard and used in construction. Cory Bustards fly over the dry desert seeking water and food.
The Himba tribe are indigenous peoples with an estimated population of about 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene Region. They are predominately livestock farmers who breed fat-tailed sheep and goats but count their wealth in the number of their cattle. They also grow and farm rain-fed crops such as maize and millet. Women and girls ted to perform more labour intensive work than men and boys do, such as carrying water to the village, earthen plastering the mopane wood homes with a traditional mixture of red clay soil and cow manure binding agent, collecting firewood and serving meals, as well as artisans making handicrafts, clothing and jewellery. Both the Himba men and women are accustomed to wearing traditional clothing, for the women this consists of a simply skirt made of calfskin and nothing covering their breasts. Himba women are remarkably famous for covering themselves with otijze paste, a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment, to cleanse the skin over long periods due to water scarcity and to protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate. The cosmetic mixture, often perfumed with the aromatic resin of the omuzumba shrub, gives their skin and hair plaits a distinctive red coverage, as well as texture and style. Otijize is considered foremost a highly desirable aesthetic beauty cosmetic, symbolizing earths rich red colour and blood the essence of life, and is consistent with the Himba’s ideal of beauty. We are welcomed into the village by the chief’s wife, they woman and children entertain us with traditional dances and display their handicrafts. The chief’s wife takes me into her hut and covers me with the otijze paste and dresses me in skins, I dance with the woman, experiencing the true beauty of this culture.
We wild camp in the hills, it is rocky and incredibly wild and beautiful. A stunning African wild cat goes into camp and sits on a boulder staring at us with its emerald green eyes. It looks like a strong muscular domestic tabby cat, but it is wild and lives in burrows or between the rocks. This particular cat has become quite habituated and enjoys being in our company. Very little is known about this beautiful cat as they are quite elusive. The night is dark and the sound of the wild can be heard all around us, the stars are our only light.
It is time to head to Etosha the largest Conservancy in Namibia, it is over 250,000 square hectares.
African lead wood trees grow here, it is an ancestral tree and very protected, it is illegal to cut it down. It must grow for 400 years before it starts bearing fruit and many are over 1,500 years old. The reason it is so important to the culture is it is the only food for the Ruppel’s Parrot so no tree no more parrots. The roots of this tree are a natural teeth whitener it removes all plaque. There is a wire fence along the road to stop the wild animals running onto the road. A large female Giraffe jumps over the fence in front of us, it is very impressive. We stop as she has left her calf on the other side. She panics and so we wait as she re crosses the road and jumps back over the fence to be reunited with her baby. Two Warthogs run along the road, the tusks are around 16cm long and are used for digging up roots. Warthogs are omnivores so will scavenge meat when it can. They live in burrows but favour Ant eater holes. The predators know this, so they are constantly being dug out by Lion, Leopard and African wild dogs. The skin may look tough, but it is actually quite soft, so it is favoured by the predators. The Warthogs use their tusks and large bull necks to defend themselves, they can easily spear a predator.
Kori Bustard fly overhead, weighing in at an average of 12-18kg, the largest recorded being 24kg it is the heaviest flying bird in Africa. The males have thick necks to attract the females. Both sexes have fine barred grey and white plumage with a black crown. They favour dry open savannah and woodland, dwarf scrubland and occasionally grassland. They are omnivores taking insects, lizards, scorpions and also seeds and roots. The have a far-carrying booming cry. We stop by the side of the road and see a red triangle road sign with a picture of an elephant inside, only in Africa can you see a road sign warning you of Elephants crossing. Next to the sign is a usual small plant, it is actually a large wild onion, it is fine to eat in summer but in winter it can be poisonous. Alongside is a Thyme bush, very fragrant and green. These leaves are used by the Himba, they burn it for their smoke baths. When burnt it gives off a strong intoxicating fragrant aroma.
Outjo is a small town just inside the Etosha Conservancy we stop here and are greeted by locals selling their handicrafts. Etosha actually means the place of the white sand. Now it is the driest it has been here in over six years; it is in a crisis drought state. Herd of Springbok are clearly visible against the white sand and sun-bleached dry driftwood, skeletons of trees long died from the lack of water. A very dark melanistic Giraffe, an old male around twenty years browses on the tops of bushes, its colour so dark against the white plains. Herd of black faced Impala led by the dominate male seek food and water in these arid conditions. A stunningly impressive Greater Kudu male bull with two females stop to watch us, he has a distinctive white stripe across his nose, large ears and the most impressively large twisted horns.
The drought is hard on the wildlife, Wildebeest carcasses litter the plains, they have died due to the lack of water, the scavengers cannot clean up the plains fast enough. A herd of beautiful Burchell’s plain Zebra graze on the dry grasses, they too seek water. A man made bore hole feeds the watering hole for the animals, Springbok, Wildebeest, Jackal, Giraffe and Oryx all congregate to drink together for survival.
Not far off we find a pride of Lions, one of the dominant males and five of the females. One of the females is very dark, she is the alpha female and leads the hunts. They are laying in the short grasses and on the sand. They are a tangle of limbs, rolling over onto each other. Occasionally one will sit up to view the prey and calculate the chances of a hunt. Lions are the iconic image of Africa. Their strength and majestic beauty are unrivalled. The strength of the pride is in the bond between the males who protect the pride and the bond between the females who hunt for the pride the males and females are most alphas have mutual respect for the roles they place in ensuring the survival of the pride.
Incongruously we see a Wildebeest sat down, the sand is salty and dry. It is not safe to sit near predators but the cats for now sleep. Four Giraffe walk past they smell the Lions before they see them, they are nervous. They come to the watering hole and spread their front legs to drink, they cannot stay in that position for long as their head needs to be above their large heart, or they will become lightheaded. They are watchful for signs of predators. The Lions must have a kill in the grass as the dark Lioness has dried blood on her mussel. A Jackal runs around trying to get close to the Lions to scavenge for food. A herd of Steenbok walk towards the water, they are skittish too. The savannah is arid, dry, white, salty and dusty. There is so little water now all the animals congregate around the watering hole. This is good for the Lions in theory, but they also have little cover here to ambush the prey.
The watering hole by camp is beautiful at sunset, the deep golden red fiery light sets over the water. After sunset Old man Thomas, a large bull male Rhinoceros comes down to drink but keeps looking to the left. A large female Rhino and a young sub adult bull approach. The young bull approaches the old bull and they touch their noses together, the young bull respecting the old bull, it is a tender moment. Four other Rhinos join them at the watering hole to drink. It is interesting seeing seven Rhino in one place, it has only recently been discovered that Rhino are sociable at night around the watering holes. Around them Jackals run about looking for food to scavenge. We can also hear Hyaena fighting in the darkness, they are whooping and laughing. After dark the wild really awakens and the mysteries unfold.
The next morning a large dominant male Lion is mating with one of the Lionesses, they must have only starting mating as she is demanding his attention every ten to fifteen minutes. He follows her as she walks and she crouches down in front of him and he bites her neck, he thrusts for a few seconds and roars when he ejaculates. She turns and growls at him swiping him with her sharp claws before rolling over aiding the flow of sperm. After a few minutes she gets up again and he walks close to her, to the casual observer it appears he is being affectionate, but the reality is he is being possessive he does not want her to mate with the other male. They stop by a dead trunk of sun-bleached tree and run their mussels against it to scent mark it. They walk on and she again crouches in front of him, they try and mate, but he fails so she walks off and crouches again, this time he is successful and they both growl and snarl. Herds of Springbok, Wildebeest and Ostrich wander quite close to them as they are near water. The prey is cautious but as Lions do not hunt whilst mating, they are fairly safe to drink.
A small herd of Burchell’s Zebra cross the plains, considering the dry desolate conditions they look healthy. Many have scratches on them from fighting with each other or being attacked by Lions. They have unusual markings unlike the Common Zebra, they do not have standard markings of black and white but more beige with thick and thin stripes. A lone old male Giraffe, very dark in colour is eating from a thorny Acacia. He is around twenty years old and has a few scars from fighting off predators.
A pride of Lions is sat in the long grasses close to a water hole and the flat white sand plains. They have good cover here to hunt and in the near distance we can see the carcass of an old Rhino. There is a beautiful blonde male around eight years old and four females. One of the females gets up and walks to the watering hole and leans her muscular frame forward to drink, she laps up the water with her long raspy pink tongue, droplets of water fly in all directions. Her golden eyes catch the sun rays and they glow bright. She is alert there is prey around and as it is a pride of nine, they do need to hunt at least every other day. The rest of the Lionesses get up one by one and walk through the long grasses over to the shade of a tree. The large male puts his head up and watches them go. He reluctantly gets up and follows them. They choose a spot under the canopy of the trees perfectly shaded. He sits up his golden mane glows spun gold and bronze, his eyes are bright and alert, he is protecting his pride. The Lionesses sit close to him, the bond in a pride is very strong especially as they are hiding cubs in the long grass.
A herd of around forty Burchell Zebra stand on the white dry arid plains they have several young. They seem to be quite healthy even though there is little to eat. The young are lighter in colour and suckle from their mothers. Nearby a female Ostrich enjoys a dust bath, fluttering its large wings in the chalky dry sand to remove parasites. Down at a watering hole we see around thirty Elephants drinking and bathing, one stands right in the middle swooshing his trunk from side to side in a playful style. Another stands at the side his back legs crossed in an unusual position. Their trunks are heavy so occasionally they wrap their trunks around their tusks. A mother has a very young calf of around two months old, it is still so small it can walk underneath her. She is very protective of it and keeps wrapping her trunk around it. The calf has other ideas he is very playful and finds rocks to try and lift and toss around with its small trunk. His slightly older cousin joins him, and they start play fighting, the small calf tries to kick his older cousin. The Elephants are drinking up gallons of water then using their trunks to spray themselves to cool their skin down, they then pick up dust with the end of the sensitive ends of their trunks to coat their skin, this acts as a sunscreen.
A herd of Burchell Zebra come down to the watering hole and stop, the Elephants are taking up the space and the Zebra know they cannot disturb them, they stop and stare and wait for their turn. A Greater Kudu and Springbok also come down, they find a runoff of water and bend to drink whilst keeping an eye on the Elephants. The Elephants trumpet at the prey indicating they have first rights to the water. Other animals move between the bushes waiting for their turn.
A lone Black Rhino is unusually walking out in the heat of the day, he is walking across the dry white salt panes. We know there is a watering hole about 10km away which it will be heading slowly to. Further ahead two large male bull Elephants are marching through the tree line, they too are heading for the watering hole. One of the bull Elephants is extremely large, one of his tusks has broken off, probably from fighting with other bulls but maybe from the high level of minerals in the soil which makes their tusks brittle when stripping bark from trees. Even without his tusks he will be a formidable opponent due to his size. Another Black Rhino comes into view, he has had his horns cut off to protect him from poachers which is a tragic situation and a controversial one. Without his horn he is vulnerable to predator attack as he has no means of defence. An extremely large herd of Springbok pass near him, an estimated 50-70 cross the arid white sand plains.
A Black faced male Impala stands by the edge of the plains he is watching his herd of females, the ones he has mated with are at the front and the ones he had not are at the back. He has three distinctive black stripes on his bottom, they are signs to follow him. When the male wants them to run, he will rise up on his back legs to indicate they must follow so he does not have to make a sound. We hear of a Cheetah sighting but instead we find another Black Rhino, fortunately this one still has its horn. It is right out in the open plains basking in the heat of the sunset, the deep reds and oranges reflect off of its gun metal grey armour.
The Conservancy is quiet this morning, no animals are as yet around the watering holes, the natural watering holes are almost dry, the ones with water are manmade. This once again brings up the subject of how much man should interfere with wildlife. The drought has taken its toll on the savannah it is very arid, dry and desolate. Without water brought in the animals would die of dehydration and hunger as the shrubs would to die. We stop by a man-made watering hole; the mineral water is pumped from deep inside the earth so still a natural resource. There are only Kori Bustard and Pigeons drinking. Suddenly a herd of Southern Zebra alight from the bushes, they want to come to drink but they seem unusually nervous. The wind is in their favour and they have picked up the scent of another animal that is a potential threat. We sit and watch their behaviour; they do not approach the water they are scanning the other side. It is not long before the focus of their disconcertion is heard, a large bull Elephant trumpets loudly their imminent arrival. A large herd of thirty-six Elephants literally come crashing through the tree line, they are all running, excited by the smell of water. The young calves swing their trunks in excitement and run headlong into the cool waters and suck up gallons of water to drink and spray over themselves. The larger Elephants too seem excited and bend low to drink up to forty gallons, some go right into the centre of the watering hole to cool off as they drink. The very young Elephants are under three months old, they stay close to their mothers they are still small enough to stand under their mothers for shade. They are excited and playful though and have not got used to their trunks, so they swing them around wildly and play fight with their siblings and cousins. Females will stay their whole lives with their maternal herd whereas the bulls will leave the herd when they reach sexual maturity and join the other bachelors. The young bulls stand in the middle of the water hole and spray water all over their bodies to cool down. Once refreshed it is time for bonding and mock fighting. Elephants are very gregarious the young bulls wrap their trunks around the others and compete in an almost trunk wrestle. Others lock tusks and mock fight preparing themselves for when they are in their forties and want to establish their own herd.
It is humbling to see such a large herd but then more cracking of branches and rustle of leaves comes from behind and another herd of around twenty Elephants appears. These will be related to the initial thirty-six and we wait for the reactions. Elephants have incredible memories and they turn to greet with enthusiasm their family members. They touch the ends of their trunks together and trunks to lips. They are clearly pleased to see each other. It is a rare interaction and fascinating to observe. The young calves sensing the family reunion join in with the displays of affection. The watering hole is now full of over fifty Elephants of varying ages from two months to over sixty. You can easily distinguish the dominant matriarchs and head bulls. A herd of Zebra stand on the periphery looking for a chance to drink but they know they will be chased off. A lone Ostrich also appears but it too knows it must be patient to access the water.
The herd is not at risk from predators not even the very young calves, there is safety in numbers. This is just as well for off to the left appears the most stunning elegant, beautiful, muscular young Leopard. This is a rare sighting; he sits and views the unusual scene but is clearly used to large herds of Elephants dominating the water hole. He confidently walks towards the water and when he reaches it bends his distinctive rosette spotted body forward to lap up the refreshing waters. He has an open fresh wound on his thigh from being speared by a young Kudu earlier that morning, but cats are very resilient, and this will heal. He looks up and observes the Elephants, but they are completely ignoring him, they too are clearly used to his presence and carry on playing. It is a unique privileged experience to see such an elusive predator with the largest land mammal in Africa.
There is another water hole not far away, the late morning sun is beating down hard making the savannah incredibly hot and dry. The animals seek shade and water and here unusual long green grasses grow tall around the water’s edge. A herd of Springbok come down to drink, they are lined up around the edge perfectly reflected in the still waters. A lone Giraffe ambles down its long legs striding covering the distance to the water quickly. He bends his long neck forward and splays his legs to reach the refreshing waters. His markings are dark brown, he is quite an old Giraffe. Standard Zebra, a mainly male herd trot down, the heat had made them frisky and agitated, they are known for their short tempers. As they reach the edge of the water hole, they need to compete for space to drink, they start biting each other’s necks and kicking shins and chests. They rear up like horses braying loudly getting quite aggressive and heated with each other. Two males start biting each other’s necks, their eyes wild. They disturb the rest of the animals and space is created so they settle down. A row of nine Zebra bend forward in unison, their heads almost touching and reflected in the mill pond stillness of the water.
At another water hole we see a male Greater Kudu and three females drinking. Unusually a Common Duiker which is one of the smallest antelope comes down to drink, it is usually nocturnal and rarely seen. Several Impala also appear their fawn colour Ombre fur stands out against the pale golden sand. A Crimson breasted Shrike flies around the water hole, it is an unusual bird, when it catches it food such as a lizard, grasshopper or insect it will impale them on a branch to feed to their young later. If you see a bush with many impaled insects like a ghoulish Christmas tree it is probably because of this bird.
A Bachelor herd of Giraffes graze on Acacia bushes, one has scratches on its thigh, likely from a predator attack. A lone female Giraffe with a calf of under a month-old journeys across the plains in search of water, the young calf struggles to keep up with her long strides. At this age it is very vulnerable to predator attacks from Lion, Leopard and Spotted Hyaena. In front of us a small flock of Ostrich casually cross the tracks, it is so hot in the afternoon heat they spread their wings out. The Andoni Plains are exceptionally dry, there is no water out here, the grass is brittle and dry. Two Warthogs are on their knees snuffling around the dry earth for seeds and grubs. Sat close to them is a solitary old Wildebeest, he would have left the herd. It is easy to spot animals as it is a desert scrub land, there are no shrubs or long grasses or trees. We drive around looking for Lion, but they must still be seeking shade in the bushes as it is hot in the mid-afternoon.
There is another man-made watering hole, it has attracted a small herd of Blue Wildebeest, they are standing near the edge drinking, very conscious there are predators around. They honk to each other communicating. Each male has its family group and keeps them close to him. A small herd of Springbok join them, there is safety in numbers. The Springbok line up around the water hole they do not drink all at once as some near to scan the plains for threats.
As we drive out be back to camp, we stop at the watering hole we went to in the morning, the Elephants have returned to once again bathe and drink. They are noisily trumpeting and communicating to each other. The young calves are playful and run frantically through the shallow waters, splashing and waving their trunks. Two Elephants are being quite affectionate wrapping their trunks around the others, it is a privilege to see them bonding. The adolescent Elephants are in a frisky mood, suddenly, a small group run out of the water, across the plains and into the trees. From the trees we can see much trumpeting and cracking of branches. Moments later they once again appear from the trees and run down to the watering hole, they are quite over excited. The large male bull Elephant has had enough of their behaviour and gives a sharp, loud trumpet and they immediately stand still stopping their unruly behaviour. There is a strict hierarchy in the troop of Elephants.
For the first time we see a herd of Elands, the largest antelope in Africa. They are very distinctive with their large beige bodies, hanging dewlap and straight twisted horns. There are around twenty and they want to enjoy the refreshing waters, but the Elephants are dominating the watering whole. They stand on the pale-yellow dusty sand and wait their turn. They are joined by a small herd of Southern Zebra; they too are aware they will be chased off by the Elephants if they try and approach the water hole. Out of the tree line two Giraffes emerge they silently observe the scene, their long eye lashed eyes beautifully blinking in the sun. A cheeky young bull Elephant tries to assert his authority and trumpets at the Giraffe and tries to chase them. The Giraffe is just bemused by the behaviour of the young Elephant which is smaller than them and they stand their ground, the young Elephant sees he will not win so returns to the water. Up in a tree a Martial Eagle sits high in the branches with a Guinea fowl kill in its sharp talons. Its sharp yellow eyes are piercing and almost malevolent. It is quite usual to see a Martial Eagle with a kill they are efficient hunters.
On the way back to camp our journey is impeded by firstly male Impala crossing the tracks very slowly, then four Giraffes meandering across then finally a whole flock of Guinea Fowl walking down the middle of the track, they are reluctant to move, we have to slow right down to persuade them to move to the side. This is the wild, you must always expect the unexpected. By the tracks in camp we see several warning signs to slow down, one says slow beware of Warthog and another says slow beware of Giraffe. This is nature, the wild belongs to these amazing, unique animals.
We leave Etosha and head down to the Golden Triangle, it is famous for its 24-ton meteorite and Dragons breath cave with stalactites and stalagmites and its blind catfish due to the lack of light. It is rich in arson and copper; arson poison is an issue here. Here you will find a very multi-cultural community, Germans, Namibians, Wambo tribe (means to ask) and Hikom tribe (means tree sleeper). Due to the heavy mining of minerals means there is a lot of pollution especially of the natural waters. Many species of fish have been killed off. We arrive in the town of Tsumeb which means green hills, finally we see lush green trees, bushes and flowers. It is not surprising that is a popular area for Leopards and Kudu.
The Waterberg mountain ranges are stunning red cliffs of Etjo sandstone, it is like a scene from the lost world, they are over 160 million years old. The range is covered in bushes, Acacia, Figs and Sycamore. They are perfectly offset against the perfect topaz blue cloudless sky. There is a large concentration of Leopards in this mountainous range. The trees give them the perfect ambush for hunting prey. The mountains are made up of dolomite, iron oxide, granite and a high concentration of fossilised lime. In the sunlight the rocks gleam with the myriad of mineral colours. There is a charcoal plant here which exports heavily to Germany. There is a small town but mainly cattle farming is undertaken. It is challenging times for the farmers, the grasses here are yellow and dry with little nutrients. Along the roads we see locals selling large bundles of hay to sell to the farmers. Along the dry tracks we see many Warthog, Water buck and Steenbok. Sausage trees with their distinctive roots hang down, they can drop at any time and are favoured by many animals. Termite mounds as tall as fifteen feet tower up, some around the trunks of trees. The area is quite dry and arid in places, the trees here have very deep root systems to access the mineral water deep under the earth.
We have come full circle, a total of 3,224 km travelled across this arid, sometimes challenging and beautiful landscape. Namibia is a country of contrasts, towering mountain ranges rich in minerals and deep-water deposits to dry white sand deserts. The animals have adapted to their environment and live in harmony with nature. We have experienced the extreme cold and heat and witnessed the most interesting animal behaviours. What is the future of this stunning country and its unique wildlife if these droughts continue? What I do know is nature has a way of fighting back and adapting, the animals are resilient and strong. Flying over the desert, the heat haze shimmers giving the savannah a stunning glow, the wild belongs to these unique animals, long may it stay this way.