Windhoek and Etosha National Park, Namibia

My flight from Cape Town to Buenos Aires was still two weeks away, which, I decided, gave me enough time to fit in a side trip to Namibia.  My well-traveled friend Tenley says that Namibia is one of her favorite countries, and for years I’ve wanted to photograph the iconic sand dunes at Sossusvlei.

Temporarily chastened by my “no room at the inn” arrival in Cape Town, I took the unusual step of making a hotel reservation before landing in Windhoek.  When I arrived at the airport a driver was even holding up a sign with my name on it.  Windhoek’s airport is about 40 kilometers from the city.  “Why did they build it so far away?” I asked Paul, the driver.

“No flat ground any closer,” Paul told me, pointing to the dune-shaped, brush-covered hills on both sides of the road.  I had what I imagine is a typically Western thought:  Isn’t that what bulldozers are for?

I spent two days wandering around Windhoek.  Anyone who didn’t already know that Namibia was once a German colony could have guessed from the street names, an eclectic mix of German (Banhofstrasse, Bismark Street, Beethovenstrasse), African (Robert Mugabe Avenue, Sam Nujoma Drive, Mandume Ndemufayo Street) and Other (Fidel Castro Street, Florence Nightingale Street).  While exploring the city I stopped by a safari operator and booked a camping trip to the country’s two most popular tourist destinations:  Etosha National Park and Sossusvlei.

 

One Indication You’re in a Former German Colony

 

Sign on My Hotel Exit Gate

 

Eating breakfast at my hotel I met a soft-spoken German woman who said she’d just spent three weeks doing volunteer work in South Africa.  “What kind of volunteering?” I asked.

“Working at a lion rehabilitation farm.”

“You got to hang out with lions for free?”

“No,” she said.  “It cost 1,500 Euros.”  Hmm…  In that case I guess I’d also volunteered in South Africa when I paid $500 to spend four days working as a wildlife spotter in Kruger National Park.  It really felt great to give back to the community.

Early Saturday morning I left on a three-day tour of Etosha.  Covering 22,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Vermont) on the northwestern edge of the Kalahari, Etosha is one of southern Africa’s top game parks.  Most of the African wildlife stars – lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, zebras, rhinos – can be found there, but I’d been warned this was not the best time to visit.  In the dry season the Etosha animals congregate around a limited number of watering holes, which makes them relatively easy to spot.  But the rainy season was still in full swing and the abundant supply of water allowed the animals to spread out.

There were only four other tourists in my group – Julia, Jean, Edwin, and Giacomo – all solo travelers from Europe, all interesting characters.  It took us most of the day to drive from Windhoek to Etosha, and along the way we started to get to know each other.

Julia, a 40-something, redheaded architectural engineer from England, had, like me, left her job to travel and was, also like me, a little over halfway into a year-long trip around the world.  More cerebral than most of the other travelers I’d met, Julia said she’d already read 100 books on her trip.  And she rarely missed an opportunity to share her knowledge (“Hippopotamus is a Greek work that means ‘water cow,’” she volunteered at one point).

Jean, now retired and living in Cape Town, used to own and run a delivery business in Belgium.  He said he was passionate about cycling and had biked across six continents, including a tour of the U.S. that took him all the way from Miami to San Francisco.  “In San Francisco I stay at a hotel where Herbert Hoover also stay,” he said with a laugh.

Edwin, a German in his 50s, was a professional gardener who always smiled when he spoke.  He told me he usually runs 10 marathons a year, a fact I couldn’t quite reconcile with his prominent pot-belly.  Initially I thought Edwin was quiet and reserved, but I soon realized that was due more to his poor command of English than his personality.  He and Jean became fast friends and spent the entire ride to Etosha talking in rapid-fire German and giggling like schoolkids.

Speaking of schoolkids, Giacomo was by far the youngest in our group – just 16 years old.  He was spending a semester in Windhoek on a student exchange program, and he’d decided to take advantage of a school holiday to see more of the country.  Giacomo (“You say it JAH-kuh-mo,” he told me) had been born in Italy but his family now lived in Germany.  He was tall (“I am 1.93 meters”), with a droopy chin and light hair.

We reached Etosha in the late afternoon and looked for wildlife as we drove to our inside-the-park campsite.  Our first animal sighting was a gemsbok (also called an oryx), a tough desert antelope with horns that can grow up to three feet long.  “Wunderbar!” yelled Edwin.  “Oh my God!”

 

Gemsbok

 

A group of blue wildebeests appeared on the road in front of us.  “Lion!” shouted Jean.  “Lion!  Lion!”  We all jumped up and looked around, but there was no lion.  Jean had just been so excited when he saw the wildebeests that he’d blurted out the first animal that came to mind.

 

Springbok Fawn Resting

 

Springbok Dad with Fawn

 

Three Ground Squirrels

 

Clouds over Etosha Road

 

Jackal in Etosha

 

By the time we reached our campsite I felt confident we were in good hands with Marcus, our guide.  He was professional, friendly, and knowledgeable.  He and Matthew, the assistant guide, helped us set up our tents and then cooked dinner while the rest of us explored the area.

 

Safari Truck at Our Campsite

 

Namibian Squirrel Near Our Campsite

 

Thick gray clouds covered most of the sky, but there were thin patches of blue on the western horizon.  “If we’re lucky we might have a nice sunset tonight,” I said.

Julia corrected me in the same patient, patronizing tone of voice that British mothers must use when their children say something outlandish.  “I’m afraid it’s a bit cloudy for that, now isn’t it?” she said, not a question but a statement.  The sun did end up peeking through a small hole in the clouds just before it set.  We watched the colorful light reflect off the surface of a watering hole near our campsite.

 

Sunset at an Etosha Watering Hole

 

Watering Hole Sunset Panorama

 

I shared a tent with Giacomo, who was eager to practice his English.  As soon as I lay down to sleep he launched a stream-of-consciousness barrage of comments and questions.  “I try to make the Italian national handball team,” Giacomo told me.  “Do you like the band what is called System of a Down?  I have been to border with Botswana but I do not cross it.”  I laughed and did my best to follow along until Giacomo took a bathroom break.  “I go wash my tooth,” he said.

Here’s a kid hardly older than my nieces, I thought, who’s completely comfortable hanging out in Namibia with a group of strangers more than twice his age.  Giacomo already spoke four languages and understood several more.  He was a hundred times more cosmopolitan and confident than I was at 16, and yet he still acted like a kid – in the best sense – earnest, idealistic, and curious about everything.

We spent the entire next day looking for animals.  We didn’t find cheetahs, leopards, or elephants, and the only lions we saw were just two black dots in the distance.  I was glad Marcus kept our expectations low.  We knew we wouldn’t see much, so we were happy to watch the more common animals – springboks, wildebeests, black-faced impalas, hartebeests, and all the different birds.

 

Springboks in the Rain

 

Springbok in Etosha

 

Two Lions Far Away

 

Kori Bustard in Etosha

 

White-Quilled Bustard

 

Black-Faced Impala

 

Lilac-Breasted Roller in Etosha

 

Over lunch, while telling me about some souvenirs she’d bought, Julia made the observation that the first price mentioned at the beginning of a bargaining session is irrationally important.  “I have no clue how much these things are worth,” she said.  “I just work from whatever price they start with.”

I decided to see how she’d respond to a little bit of her own medicine.  “Behavioral Economics has a word to describe that dynamic,” I said.  “It’s called ‘anchoring.’”  Julia scrutinized me for a moment, frowned, and then changed the subject.

 

Black-Faced Impala Locking Horns

 

Black-Faced Impala Jumping

 

Brown Fish Eagle

 

Black-Faced Impala Fawn Sticking Out Its Tongue

 

Hartebeest with Muddy Face

 

Low-Arc Rainbow

 

Three Female Kudu

 

Wildebeest Straight On

 

Rainstorm Over Etosha

 

Towards the end of the day Marcus spotted a black rhino, too far away for good photos but close enough to enjoy.

 

Rhino in Etosha

 

That evening we camped at a different site on the eastern side of the park.  In the half-light after sunset I noticed a jackal, apparently suffering from mange, looking to steal unattended food.  I stalked him as he made his rounds.

 

Mangy Jackal

 

Mangy Jackal Drooling

 

In our tent Giacomo resumed his string of entertaining non sequiturs.  “Do you know this person Edgar Cayce?  At school for dinner we have only bread.  When I go back to Germany I buy a Vespa.”  And once again I was saved by the washing of the tooth.  Early the next morning we only had time for one short game drive before we had to leave the park and return to Windhoek.

 

Steenbok in Etosha

 

Springbok Resting

 

Wet Mongoose

 

Giraffe in Etosha