I was picked up in a car at my guesthouse at 9am (a half hour late) for my Etosha tour. There was a British woman driving, and another girl who’d been picked up before me. As per usual, I went into chit-chat mode, and within a couple minutes, I’d learned that she’d came to Namibia many years ago and ended up marrying her tour guide. I asked her if they were still together, and she told me he’d subsequently died in a car accident on a later tour. Awkward silence. The trip was off to a great start!
Me and the other girl were brought to the tour company’s office to gather the group. Folks started slowly trickling in, and I once again tried to get the conversations going, and with less awkward silences. Before long, we were 14 folks: 12 Europeans (A handful of Germans, an Austrian, Belgian, Pole, and a Dutch couple), a Thai man, and me representing the western hemisphere. A large overland truck arrived and our bags were loaded in followed by us, our guide, and a helper, both Ovambo. I ended up seated next to a German girl. We were told to buckle our seat belts, but mine was missing the buckle. “Hold on!” I was told. Adventure!
The ride was mostly uneventful, with a couple stops for fuel, an uninspired lunch, and a chance to shop for snacks, water, or alcohol. The girl next to me was a teacher in Munster, a town I knew of due to the cheese (which isn’t named for it) and its bloody history during Protestant Reformation (thanks, Hardcore History!). We had a great chat as our large overland truck cruised down the paved highway, baking sans-aircon in the desolate desert. By the time we arrived at the Etosha gate at 4, I’d firmly cemented my reputation with my travel mates as the ebullient American, just how I like it.
No sooner did we pass through the first little settlement inside the park when the animals Etosha is famous for started making their appearances. First, a massive bull elephant wandered out of a watering hole, gave itself a nice dirt bath, and wandered into misbehaving tourist traffic, releasing its bladder and bowels as it lumbered at foolish cars.
Etosha National Park is built around the Etosha Pan, a large flat salt lake bed that periodically fills with a thin layer of water, and subsequently (nearly completely) dries. Winter being the dry season, when it was in sight, it resembled the Black Rock Desert in summer, with the exception that the pan extends all the way to the horizon, seemingly endless. At 4,800 km2, the pan’s size is no mere optical illusion.
When water in the pan recedes, it leaves traces of water around the edge that animals use as watering holes even in the dry season. Not to rely too much on nature, interspersed in the human trafficked parts of the park are man-made watering holes with large water pumps standing a suitable distance away from camera lenses. Add in fencing around the entire park, as well as all the settlements that serve as overnight spots for people, and visiting Etosha feels like driving into the world’s largest African animal exhibit at a zoo for giants. We passed springbok, hyenas, warthogs, zebra, ostriches, and wildebeest (I never get tired of that word) within only a handful of kilometers of the gate; each appearance punctuated by the sharp staccato of camera shutters and vehicle traffic. It was super impressive.
Before sunset, we rolled into the settlement that would be our home for the evening. Our guides unloaded the bags and tossed heavy canvas 2-man tents down from the roof. Me and the old Thai man were the only solo males traveling, so we were paired up to share an old beat-up South African tent. Once we were set up, the guides set about braai-ing us dinner. In the meantime, at the edge of the settlement was an illuminated watering hole to watch wildlife, and our guide explained it was one of the best places in the park to catch animals. He wasn’t mistaken.
It was a hell of a night. Sitting with new friends, so much animal melodrama played out on the banks of the watering hole that there were time we couldn’t contain our laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. As the sun was setting, giraffes’ long necks appeared on the horizon, silhouetted against the sky’s shifting red and blues. In the dark, elephants by the dozens came, drank, wrestled, and played out complicated social dances I couldn’t entirely follow, but sat rapt with fascination. White rhinos came and went; so, too, howling jackals. Bats and birds flew feasting on the flying insects drawn to the lights. A cornucopia of stars shined in the night sky. Photos were difficulty in the darkness.
Also, delicious dinner of stir fry was served. Beer was consumed and friends were made. We spoke of languages, culture, bad music, animals, religion and politics. I converted a few folks to Pastafarianism. This reverend has now done missionary work in Africa, how cliché. I enjoyed repeatedly mispronouncing “sternschnuppe” — German for shooting star — while witnessing said phenomenon over and over and over again. I tried halfheartedly to snap some photos of the sky, fully aware they’d never do it justice. Then I showered and slept like a baby. 6am was reveille, and tents and things needed to be packed before breakfast.
I woke up refreshed and broke down the tent myself in a few short minutes, gaining me a high-five from my tent mate who’d gone to brush his teeth. Breakfast wasn’t ready yet, but folks were already clamoring about a lion at the watering hole, so I set out once again to be amazed by the unending animal parade. In the calm morning light, a lone female lion stood alternating between gazing at the scenery and lapping at the shore of the water. Another jackal trotted by carefree. I took in the peaceful moment and headed back to camp. Breakfast was a nearly-full English breakfast, and afterwards the guides sent us to a nearby viewpoint tower while they put the finishing touches on the truck.
The group was in high spirits after the night of animals and banter. We’d connected. Even out guide got into the show, occasionally barking commands at or assigning blame to yours truly by name. We had a full day of so-called “game driving,” bouncing in our truck from watering hole to watering hole, taking in more animals: a pack of lions, hartebeest, eland, and impala.
I took several hundred photos. Our group joked and bounced and clamored over one another for the best views. We shared another middling lunch. Armies of zebra, roving bands of wildebeest, and playful gangs of elephants seemed around every corner and behind every thicket of trees. A lone black rhino chomped on shrubs in the distance. Eventually, we came to another settlement at the other end of the park, a former German military settlement complete with early-20th century fort, and it was time to once again pitch our tents for the evening.
I took in the sunset on the top of the fort per our guide’s recommendation. I befriended a cosmopolitan French family who passed along their contact info should I make it to Lyon. We were adjacent to another watering hole, but repeated visits granted a view of not much more than throngs of tourists and seething, boisterously loud flocks of birds. Instead I took my new German teacher friend aside to teach her how to take photos of the sky. I managed to get one half-decent shot.
Our final dinner was a hearty braai of sausage, mutton chops, garlic bread, baked potatoes, and salad. I ate myself stupid. I learned that my new Austrian friend (and future veterinarian) has access to baby capybaras I can feed, thereby adding Vienna to my list of destinations. Finishing the night was more beer, bonding, and bed.
Morning, breakdown, breakfast, and loading. I did my best to make myself useful. We swung by a final pair of watering holes on the way to the gate, but this side of the park was uncharacteristically quiet. Then we were rumbling down the road in relative quiet, the gang worn out from the excitement of the weekend.
We had a long drive back to Windhoek, and given my rapidly-approaching solitary status, I couldn’t abide the quiet. I kicked off a game of “two truths and a lie” and got most of the group in on it, each in turn revealing ridiculous stories about their past to talk about. We stopped in a small town along the way known for their wood carvings so folks with more space than me for such things could be aggressively harassed to buy things (aka shopping) by locals in small huts overflowing with nicknacks, then it was on to Windhoek for bittersweet goodbyes.
In my diary under Etosha, I wrote “success.”