At first I think it must be a mirage. They come, tons of them, literally, through the dusty, shimmering heat of the African afternoon, meandering towards the waterhole. I have never seen so many elephants. They come, in family groups, from every direction across the parched Namibian landscape.
Old battle-scarred bulls, their huge tusks catching the sun; the weathered matriarchs; and the adolescents, with all the swagger of youth. And the babies, so many babies, scampering as only very young elephants can, through the legs of their elders, occasionally stopping to roll in the white dust of the salt pan. I’m entranced.
We came here to the waterhole for a late lunch, not expecting to find the elephants having their big day out. We count 45 of them at the waterhole at one time. My husband Chris and I have come to Africa on safari. It’s the trip of a lifetime for us.
The Etosha National Park is about 400km north of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. It covers more than 22,000 square kilometres and it’s alive with animals. Etosha means “Place of dry water”and dry it is. Namibia is in the grip of a three-year drought and we are there at the driest time of year so the waterholes are particularly busy. Elephants roam widely here and they have had a huge impact on the countryside, decimating the vegetation.
It’s a barren landscape, dotted with thorn trees, saltbush and clumps of rough tussock-like grass. I’m amazed, though, at how healthy the animals look, rounded with gleaming coats. It’s clear they have adapted well to this harsh environment.
Etosha’s waterholes are a joy. We go to check out another. It’s like a child’s poster of African animals. There’s a giraffe, legs splayed, almost doing the splits to reach the water; a ghostly elephant covered in dust from the salt pan; herds of zebra and splendidly horned oryx, as well as delicate springbok that leap as if they are putting on a show just for us.
And then there are the warthogs. They’re ugly little critters, but what characters! They rule the waterhole – everyone else has to exit when the warthogs come calling – until the elephant arrives. Yes, there’s definitely etiquette to be observed.
As we leave the park, a lioness strolls across the road disappearing into the fading light, as if staking a claim to this land of hers. One of the biggest threats to the big cats is habitat loss. Vast tracts of the countryside have now been turned into farms. Where once lions, leopards and cheetah roamed, farmers now raise cattle and sheep, and they’re quick to shoot those that stalk their stock.
There’s a real conflict between animal rights and the farmers’ right to earn a living. The AfriCat Centre at Okonjima is a sanctuary for the big cats, a place that teaches conservation and practical ways for farmers to coexist with the animals. The cheetah here have been rescued from farms all over the country. Weak, orphaned or injured, they’re brought to the centre to convalesce, then they’ll be returned to the wild.
We sit in our safari wagon an arm’s length from a group of young adults. They don’t seem bothered by us, these Lamborghinis of the animal world, but they’re under threat. I hope my grandchildren will still be able to see them in the wild.
Namibia is a former German colony. It shares a border with South Africa in the south, Angola in the North and Botswana in the east. Its west coast is pounded by the rolling swells of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a vast, empty land with about two people per square kilometre. Germany’s influence is everywhere, from the architecture – we spend our first night in a converted castle overlooking the capital – to the bakeries specialising in strudel.
The sheer orderliness of the place leaps out at you. It’s orderly and clean. I am a big fan of clean public loos when travelling and Namibia has them in abundance!
The wildly beautiful Namib Desert is one of the country’s true treasures. Thought to be the oldest in the world, it’s been here more than 43 million years, pushing right out to the ocean’s edge. We pass tiny beachside communities, brightly coloured houses with hardly a shrub or a blade of grass in sight. Namibians flock here for their summer holidays.
There’s plenty of evidence of stone age occupation in the desert. The rock art sites at Twyfelfontein are world heritage listed and among the largest and most important in Africa.
From there we drive south through desert, over ancient rocky mountain passes to the great sandhills of Sossusvlei.
We reach the entrance to the park before dawn. There’s a queue of safari vehicles and buses waiting to be let in. The gatekeeper has slept in. “Africa time” operates here and no amount of German efficiency can override that. He eventually arrives, wiping the sleep from his eyes, and we head in to climb the daunting “Big Daddy”, all 325m of him.
The sandhills are spectacular in the morning sun, glowing terracotta, due to the high content of ferric oxide in the sand. They’re alive with creatures. Lizards tunnel just under surface of the sand, dancing lady spiders dart from side to side and then there’s the wheel spider... he forms a wheel with his legs and rolls down the dunes at speeds of up to 200km/h. I’m dying to hurtle down with him... but first you have to go up.
It’s 40ºC and there’s not a patch of shade to be had. Still, we set out clutching our water bottles. Our guide, Saki, seems oblivious to the heat, wearing jeans and a corduroy jacket over his thick shirt. We make it up the lower slopes, but exhaustion sets in. Big Daddy won’t be conquered today.
One of the joys of Namibia is it is not overrun with tourists. We drove for hours through the desert and only ever met someone coming the other way when there was a one-lane bridge to negotiate! Tomorrow we head to a houseboat on the Chobe River and a new leg of the adventure begins.
To get to Namibia, we flew Air New Zealand to Sydney and then on to Johannesburg on South African Airways with a connection to Windhoek.
Hepatitis A, typhoid, polio diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis. Yellow fever is only necessary if you are travelling into an area that has the disease, for instance if you are viewing the Victoria Falls from the Zambian side, Zimbabwe won’t let you re-enter unless you have proof of a yellow fever vaccine.
Malaria medication is also something to consider if you are travelling around rivers. There are a couple of drugs to ward off malaria. We took doxycycline.
Where to stay:
Hotel Heinitzburg in Windhoek overlooks the capital city. We also stayed at the Etosha Safari Lodge and the Namib Naukluft Lodge in Sossusvlei.
Judy travelled with Bon Voyage Travel and Cruises.
Photographs by: Chris Bailey