Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Blue wildebeast.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]

We drove through the gate of Etosha[1] National Park with the last hour of daylight, the sun a sinking orange globe.  I feel an instant sense of arrival.  This is the Africa that I have dreamt about since my childhood.  The road continues straight through dry, dusty grasslands for as far as the eye can see.  The occasional tree acts as a lone sentinel on the horizon.  And there are animals, lots of animals!  I have not been disillusioned.

Curious giraffe.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
Though late, we have timed our arrival perfectly.  The wildlife are aligning their daily routines with the sky as it begins its daily transformation from intense blaze to a glorious palette of color.  This is the time of movement, the never-ending rotation between the nocturnal and diurnal.  Predator and prey alike shift their activities to prepare for night.  We immediately see springbok chasing each other, giraffes trotting towards unseen water holes, and ostriches taking a final dust bath for the day.  Elephants stop in their tracks to scrutinize and question our arrival as we race towards camp before the gate closes for the night.

We arrive to the camp five minutes after the sun sets, something that is NOT allowed.  We timidly drive through the gate knowing that we should have arrived before the sun disappears for the day.  Fortunately for us, the guard is talking with the camp mechanic and isn’t as strict with the time as he should be.  We hope that he will only be lax with us, for this gate, and the surrounding fence, is what protects us from the wildlife that inhabit the park.  Nobody wants to wake to an elephant or rhino or even worse at the door.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]

We hurry to our rondavel[2] before anyone realizes that we have arrived late and begin unpacking the car. 

Immediately outside the fence that surrounds the camp is a waterhole, the hub of life in this arid remnant of a prehistoric lake.  This waterhole provides us viewing opportunities and insight into the lives of the animals, for all must come to the water hole; survival depends on it.

Our timing offers us a unique opportunity.  The night we arrive, the local lions kill a young elephant only 20 meters away from the water hole.  To our amazement, we awake to find two males vying for the privilege of dining on such a large meal.  The deep throaty rumbles for dominance permeate the camp as the two males intimidate each other without the need to expend valuable energy in physical combat.  The winner dines first on his choice of meat.  Once satiated, he wanders to the waterhole to drink his fill.  As he drinks and stretches in the morning sun, the less dominant male begins his meal, gorging himself with a lioness that appears to have a mild limp.

The King and his meal.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
The day continues like this.  The King walks where he pleases and eats at his leisure.  Occasional rumbles escape his throat, perhaps to ward off unseen rivals or perhaps to remind us that this is his kingdom.  As he wanders off for a drink, a temporary exchange of power takes place as the lion prince and his princess seat themselves at the dinner table.  A dance, choreographed by centuries of survival, develops as the lions circle and avoid each other in the eat-walk-drink-sleep-digest cycle.  For each intermission, the ever-present jesters briefly enter the hall, each jackal quickly ripping a piece off of the life-giving carcass and gulping it down before the prince and princess begin their meal.

There is still activity at the waterhole, but it is clear that these animals do not like being this close to lions; they only approach out of necessity.  Even so, it is undertaken cautiously and quickly.  Each time that a lion approaches the water, sound stops; life disappears.  Movement only slowly ebbs back well after the lions silently pad off into the brush.

Spotted hyena.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
The late afternoon sun brings rhinoceroses.  They are cautious, but somehow realize that the lions have gorged themselves to the point that they are no longer a severe threat.  The two take turns drinking and keeping watch, even remaining when the limping princess drinks from the other side of the small pool.

Evening fades into night, night darkens into midnight.  The witching hour arrives with an overpowering smell of decay and rot.  I am surprised that only now, well after the heat of the day has past, that we are beginning to smell the kill.  But, I am very mistaken.

This smell is not from the dead elephant, no, this oozing stench marks the arrival of the invading hordes… the hyena.  The smell is so powerful that breathing becomes difficult.  A gagging taste cakes our mouths as two harbingers arrive, then two more, and then one.

The prince and princess.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
(photo by Richard Wilkin III)
Only now do we realize that the lion forces have also changed.  Two rumbles come from the carcass, not as deep as before, but much more aggressive.  A third rumble is heard circling, well beyond our ability to see into the darkness of night.  We believe that three adolescent males are sharing the feed, now that the royal family has left.  We hear the noises of feasting; bones crunch and chomps escape as they greedily devour.  This overt indulgence is too much for the hyena.  The rabble form a loose affiliation to test the will power of the lions, each approaching the carcass and retreating, each probing, looking for weaknesses.

The three unite to thwart the hyena hordes with false charges and vocal threats.  For nearly an hour, we hear the cackles, the rumbles, and then the breaking brush.  Finally, without the numbers to overtake the lions, the hyena retreat.  Gratefully, the losers take with them the cankerous stench of rot, allowing us to breath freely again.

What we had guessed to be a victory for the three adolescents was not to be true, for the prince and princess shortly return to the kill.  The three youth must concede to royalty and leave the dinner table disgruntled, clamoring into the night.  The young couple enjoys the midnight snack only briefly… for, another low rumble, echoing in the cold, still air announces the arrival of the King.

Eye-to-eye with the King.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
However, this time the prince is not content to sulk away.  He has decided to stand his ground.  After all, his princess must not doubt that he will someday rule.  Fierce roaring tears through the night, snarls of anger and rebellion echo through the camp.  Crashing and breaking ensue as the two wrestle through the brush and shake the ground.  The royal battle of usurpation has begun.

Quickly, yet somehow slowly, the battle is over.  The King must have survived the coup, for after several seconds, we see the princess in the moonlight running to the openness of the waterhole.  Slowly, quiet returns with the rumbles of content emerging from the King.

By morning, the lions have left.

Each night the lions return, each night we watch and listen.  We watch as they battle for food.  We listen as the males battle for a female in heat.  We are awoken by the triumphs and the defeats and hope that the fence will hold and the morning will find us safe.

Kudu at sunset.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]

List of Identified Animals:
Big Guys
African Elephant Rhinoceros (Black/White) Giraffe Burchell’s Zebra
Hippopotamus Water Buffalo

African Lion

Spotted Hyena Side-stripped Jackal Cape Fox Bat-eared Fox

Grass Eaters
Kudu Oryx Red Hartebeast Blue Wildebeast
Black-faced Impala Springbok Klipspringer Damara dik-dik
Steenbok Common Duker

Small Guys
Warthog Honey Badger Banded Mongoose Yellow Mongoose
Porcupine Scrub Hare Tree Squirrel Ground Squirrel
Rock Hyrax (Dassie)

Cute little Burchell's zebra Large male rhinoceros

List of Identified Birds:
Big Guys
Common Ostrich Kori Bustard[3] Northern Black Korhaan Red-crested Korhaan
Secretarybird Black Stork White Stork Saddle-billed Stork
Blue Crane Grey-crowned Crane Cattle Egret Great Egret
African Spoonbill Grey Heron Black-headed Heron

African Harrier-hawk African Fish Eagle Red-footed Falcon Ovambo Sparrowhawk
Rock Kestrel Shikra Pied Kingfisher Striped Kingfisher

The Others
African Hoopoe Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill Red-Billed Hornbill African Grey Hornbill
Burchells’ Starling Pale-winged Starling Golden-tailed Woodpecker Bearded Woodpecker
Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater White-Backed mousebird Blue Waxbill Greater Painted Snipe[4]
Helmeted Guineafowl Lilac-breasted Roller Rockrunner Pied Crow
Red-billed Teal Cape Teal Black-necked Grebe Sociable Weaver
Red-knobbed Coot[5]

Common ostrich Kori bustard

The Elusive Ones:
Eland Leopard Cheetah

Oryx on the dunes Secretary bird on the dunes
(Photos by Richard Wilkin III)

1.  Etosha means “Great White Place” from the dry salt pan that dominates the park.  Etosha park covers an area of nearly 23,000 km2, reduced from it’s original size of over 80,000 km2.   -return to the story

2.  From the Afrikaans word, rondawel, this is a traditional circular African dwelling with a conical thatched roof.   -return to the story

3.  The kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) is the largest flying bird of Africa (the male kori bustard may be the heaviest living animal capable of flight).  This species, like most bustards, is a ground-dwelling bird and an opportunistic omnivore.  The male kori bustard is 120 to 150 cm (3'11" to 4'11") tall and has a wingspan from 230 to 275 cm (7'7" to 9'0").  Male birds typically weigh between 7 and 19 kg (15 and 42 lb) which can be more than twice as heavy than the female.  Males attempt to breed with as many females as possible and then take no part in the raising of the young.  The nest is a shallow hollow in the earth, often disguised by nearby obstructive objects such as trees.  The name is derived from the Tswana name for this bird, kgori.   -return to the story

4.  Go figure... this guy really does exist...   -return to the story

5.  Boy, oh boy... what a name this guy has...   -return to the story

Elephants bathing

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