After our intimate encounter with wildlife on the Caprivi Strip, we weren’t sure how we felt about camping our way through the rest of Namibia. Cautiously optimistic, we exited Angola and made the one-day drive to the jewel of the country’s animal venues–Etosha National Park–where we planned on a two-night tented stay. We had heard that many of Namibia’s campsites are plagued by hyenas and baboons and were not eager to encounter either one late at night. Frankly, we didn’t know whether we’d even be able to camp since all the guidebooks and South Africa’s auto club (the equivalent of AAA) insisted we had to prebook in Windhoek, the nation’s capital. Once again proving the authorities wrong, we drove up, paid the required fees, and popped our tents in the reassuringly fenced and convivial Okaukuejo Rest Camp. We ran into some lovely South African women who had also been at our campground in Nata, Botswana. We hadn’t met them and it had been dark when we arrived, but they recognized us by the sounds of our voices. Apparently there aren’t many American families with small, loud children traveling the Southern African campground circuit at the moment and we were easy to identify.
Confident we could fight off the occasional pesky jackal, we were ready to rest easy…but first there were animals to find. We’d already found elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, buffalo, warthogs, hippos, kudu, impala, wildebeeste, and a slew of other animals on our previous self-styled safaris, but the big cats had eluded us. Tom was eager to track down a lion or two so we set off into the vast Etosha pan. We were barely a kilometer outside the camp gates when we found what Tom figured would soon be a front row seat to to a feline feeding frenzy–a dead zebra. The great beast laid bent and broken on the ground beside a tree. Something had snapped its neck, a leopard perhaps? As we drove up, three or four jackals were just beginning to take the first few bites out of the coarse hide. We knew the jackals couldn’t be responsible for the kill, but when no bigger animal appeared, we began to wonder what really had happened. The best we could surmise was the big, dumb beast had been looking the other way and run headlong into the tree.
We left the zebra behind vowing to return and quickly discovered more zebra, giraffe, and wildebeeste. Much to the kids’ delight (Dax excluded), our new big discovery was birds…oodles of them. Using the handy spotting guide the park provided, they identified many varieties of exotic avians including the famed secretary bird, familiar to old people like their parents from the Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The sun began to set and we had to get to back to the camp before they closed the gate. We circled back by the zebra but still no cats had materialized.
Like an excited little kid, Tom woke early the next morning and beat everyone else in the park to the zebra. 15 minutes later he was back shouting, “Hurry! Out of the tents. The lions are at the zebra.” We jumped into Uncle Vito and raced back to the carcass. During the night, most of the animal had been devoured. When Tom arrived, a pack of jackals had been feasting, but within a few minutes a hyena chased them away. The hyena was almost immediately replaced by three lions, two female and one male, who asserted their food chain superiority. The male lounged lazily in the distance while the lionesses tore the carcass with their frighteningly powerful jaws.
We lingered for a good 30 minutes and were joined by many of the tour groups who had shared our campground. Of all the high-priced guides and expert park rangers, it had been Tom who located the lions first. Who says you can’t safari successfully on your own?
We returned to the camp, struck our gear, and hit the road. We had 145 kilometers to travel to reach our next campsite at the western end of the park. We saw a few more of the same old animals and a bevy of interesting birds before arriving at the midpoint of the park–Halali Restcamp. Here we cooled in the swimming pool and feasted on our own buffet of ground kudu and pork chops. In stark contrast to predominantly vegetarian Indians, Africans believe a meal is not a meal unless there is at least one healthy serving of meat.
We found a few more rhinos along the way to Okaukuejo but after the lions and our rhino spotting in Hluhuwe-Imfolozi, nothing seemed that impressive. Our second night in Etosha reinforced how unusual our tactics for exploring Southern Africa are. We were surrounded by tour groups in their monstrous overland vehicles with nary an independent traveler in sight. While the participants on these tours seemed a jovial lot, we were glad to be on our own this time around, looking out our own windows, deciding which route we wanted to travel, and eating our own food. We agree we’d prefer the safety of one of these trucks if trekking through the racier central African countries, but given the relative safety of this region, making our way on our steam is liberating.
Our tents proved waterproof that night as the rains came, though our trash cans were not jackal proof. Having had our fill of animals, we headed off in the direction of the infamous Skeleton Coast, one of the first destinations Kieran and Asher picked out of our travel books at home. The only problem was Uncle Vito refused to accelerate beyond 3,000 rpm and we were stuck going 100 km/hr. Could we have been too smug in our independence? Ahhh, but that’s a story for a future post.