After Sossusvlei our group continued on to a relatively remote campsite just inside the eastern edge of Namib-Naukluft National Park. Once we had our tents set up a local bushman guide took us on a sunset drive, and almost immediately we spotted a puff adder alongside the dirt road. It was the first time I’d ever seen one. And it was our second reptile sighting of the day – on the way to the campsite we’d passed a large monitor lizard.
A little later we reached the top of a plateau and found ourselves surrounded by herds of mountain zebras lit up by the setting sun. We hadn’t expected to see so much wildlife and it was a rush.
Back at the campsite a fire was burning under the iron donkey – a metal drum used to heat water – and after a hot shower we ate dinner in a big circle. Our group continued to get along surprisingly well. Nobody was high maintenance, everyone was considerate, and we all pitched in when something needed to be done.
Over time we’d been learning more about our guide and driver Tenk, who mentioned that he and his fiancé had a nine-year-old daughter.
“Wait…” I interrupted. “You’re 27 now, so your daughter was born when you were only 18?”
“Yes,” Tenk answered with a laugh. “Eet was beeg probe-lem!” When they broke the news to his fiancés father, Tenk apparently had to flee over a fence to avoid being hit by flying objects.
Later that night I walked down to the campsite’s floodlit waterhole, where – if you were still and quiet – groups of skittish zebras would stop by for a drink. There wasn’t enough light for good photos and it was relaxing to take a break from the camera.
The next morning we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn on our way to Swakopmund, where we enjoyed the luxury of a hotel for two nights. Most of the group went quad biking on the dunes just south of the city, but I slipped into hermit mode and spent almost all my time working on photos. Swakopmund is a quirky place with a heavy German influence, and I’d enjoyed exploring it back in 2011. But on this visit I was happy to lie low and recharge my batteries, literally and figuratively.
Driving north from Swakopmund we made a short stop at a shipwreck on the southern end of the Skeleton Coast before cutting inland to Spitzkoppe.
Spitzkoppe is known for its dramatic rock formations, with towering granite peaks rising from an otherwise flat plain. After a short tour with a bushman guide, most of us walked from our campsite to a massive stone arch that caught the late afternoon light.
Juan, a short, bald lieutenant in the Spanish army who was traveling alone, told me Spitzkoppe reminded him of one of the National Parks in Utah.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “It looks a lot like Arches National Park.”
“No, different one,” he said.
“Zion? Bryce? Capitol Reef? Canyonlands?”
Hmmm. “Arches National Park?”
“Yes, that one!”
That evening Jessie, the American who used to work at Google, started leading an exercise class to help offset the impact of spending so many hours sitting in a truck. Jessie swam for Stanford and still looked fit enough to hop in the pool and compete. I was proud of myself for making it through the first third of her workout before digging a beer out of the cooler and retiring permanently from the class.
The next day we stopped at Outjo to visit a Himba tribe. The Himba are an indigenous, semi-nomadic people who cover their skin and hair with reddish-brown otjize paste to protect themselves from the desert climate. The place we saw was more of a tourist attraction than an authentic village, and it felt awkward when the Himba women were paraded before us. But the Himba kids seemed to be having fun, and the entry fees are used to help the tribe. I did my best to get some portraits once the initial posing was over.
From Outjo we drove to Etosha National Park, one of the best places in southern Africa to see wildlife. My visit in 2011 had been during the rainy season, when the animals were spread out and tough to find, but now, in the dry season, the animals were concentrated around a limited number of waterholes and much easier to see.
Just inside the park we made a quick stop at the Okaukuejo Resort, where at the adjacent waterhole herds of zebras, springboks, oryxes, and impalas were taking long drinks.
From there we drove on to the Halali Resort, also inside the park, and set up our tents before leaving in our truck for a late afternoon game drive.
“Fuck!” Tenk yelled suddenly over the truck’s intercom, the first time I’d heard him cuss. “A lion!”
We all stood up to look around and were almost knocked off our feet as Tenk spun the truck around and sped over to the other side of a waterhole. He was so excited that his attempt to explain the lion’s location came out in a confused jumble. After a few sharp turns he slammed on the brakes and brought the truck to a skidding stop. “Eet is there!”
And sure enough, a lone female lion walking alongside the waterhole in the late-day sun. We watched her pace back and forth and at one point leap over a patch of water before finally wandering away from us. No matter how many times I see a lion in the wild it’s always a thrill.
After dinner that night we sat in silence at the Halali waterhole and saw rhinos, hyenas, and elephants take turns drinking. Early the next morning most of us headed out in two safari jeeps instead of our truck, choosing to pay a little more for the extra mobility and the expertise of Etosha guides.
The guide in my jeep, however, had only been working in Etosha for a few weeks and didn’t seem to know any more than Tenk. We hoped his radio might alert him to good sightings made by others, but a problem prevented him from even talking to the driver of the other jeep.
Luck was with us, however, and we spotted a rhino mom with a baby almost right away. “I theenk eet will cross dee road up dare,” said our guide, who pointed to the distance but otherwise remained still.
“Well can we go up there?!” we asked, trying not to yell.
“Ah, OK,” he said, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him before. We arrived just before the rhinos crossed the road and had a great view, although the other jeep missed out.
In the early afternoon we finally saw an elephant, a lone male at a waterhole. As we watched him other elephants began to arrive, and on the way to another nearby waterhole we passed a family group on the road, including a couple of babies.
I’d been skeptical of our guide’s decision to leave the first waterhole, but he was right – there were so many elephants at the second waterhole it was almost overwhelming. At one point someone in our group counted more than 60.
We watched happily for about an hour as baby elephants wallowed in the mud, teenage elephants wrestled each other, and adult elephants took turns chasing away the kudus and warthogs that tried to sneak in for a drink.
Our jeep drive ended in the mid-afternoon and almost immediately afterwards we headed out in the truck again to hunt for lions. Tenk knew where a group of lions liked to hang out, and when we pulled up the male leader of the pride was just visible in the distance.
Even farther away a giraffe stood warily at a small pool of water for almost an hour before feeling safe enough to make itself vulnerable by stooping over for a drink.
We camped at the Okaukuejo Resort that night and watched more animals visit the floodlit waterhole. By dawn the next morning Tenk had us loaded up in the truck for one last attempt to see lions. We returned to the same area we’d been at the previous afternoon, and this time we discovered the majority of the pride – minus the male leader – walking slowly alongside the road, sometimes just a few feet away from us. Their faces glowed in the golden morning light as they cast curious looks into the truck. To see them so close for so long was an experience I’ll never forget.
When we finally had to leave the park, Tenk repeated one of his favorite phrases: “You see my friends, when you smile at nature, nature always smiles back!”
After a long drive we rolled into Windhoek for a short city tour that would have been lame even if it hadn’t followed the giddy high of our lion encounter. That night we stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of town, sad that we’d be leaving Namibia the next day but excited to see what Botswana and Zimbabwe had in store for us.