Etosha National Park at Night, Day 1.
Sometimes my lack of preparation for a trip is intentional; I don’t like to use guidebooks because they detract from the mystery, intrigue, and adventure of traveling. You know where you can sleep, eat KFC, find a drink, find a doctor, and everything in between. I remember sitting with my brother, Bubba, on the bank of the Mekong River in northern Thailand looking across at Laos thinking, ‘what the hell are we going to do when we get out of the dingy tomorrow morning?, and feeling great.
Besides detracting from the adventure, I eschew guidebooks because they are often complete B.S. This time, however, traveling with a partner, we bought a Lonely Planet for Southern Africa, and have used it to keep travels a little safer. I used the guide to select our camp at Halali because its watering hole was touted as the “best best wildlife-viewing venue in Etosha Park”. Of course, for us, it turned out to be wrong.
Once the French guide left our camp we ate lunch and pitched our small tent in the wide space, under a tree guarded by red-billed hornbill birds. Meg was tired from her week of work and the stress of the new job. I was fresh and ready for adventure since I am not working, so while she took a nap in the tent I looked around.
Halali is called a resort, and is fenced in on all sides to protect campers from the animals in the park. It was very comfortable, and catered to the car campers with a restaurant, bar, multiple bathrooms with hot-water showers, western toilets. Our tent was the only low-budget tent on the premises, but we were comfortable with our air mattress, sleeping bags, and bedding from home. As the afternoon wore on the grounds began to fill up with cars and trailers of South Africans on their winter, school holidays, and their screaming kids.
Meg woke up before sunset, and we decided to check out the “best best wildlife-viewing venue in Etosha Park” at the Moringa watering hole directly behind out tent. Sunset is when animals are supposed to be active, so we brought both cameras and high expectations as we followed the signs to the spot.
The watering hole is in a large clearing about the size of a football field, with a pool of water at its center. In this, the dry season, the area of water is no bigger than a large swimming pool, surrounded on all sides by gray rocks. Twenty meters east of the water is a wire fence strung on posts below a low rock ridge. The ridge creates a natural, and safe grandstand from which tourists view the action below. By the time we climbed the ridge the stone stands were full of people looking west towards the watering hole and the setting sun. The mood was subdued and almost reverent, the people totally silent. It felt like being in an outdoor, orchestral concert hall.
The only problem was that there for all the reverence and anticipation, there were only a few small birds and one female Kudu, similar to a deer, drinking from the water. We walked behind the crowd and took places on the rocks away from the crowd. However, lost in all the press about Etosha wildlife is the sheer beauty of place itself. With the sun setting, in the west, and everyone looking to the watering hole I turned around to look east. The inverted, southern moon was rising behind the bare limbs of a tree in a darkening sky, and it was beautiful.
When the sun went down I was disappointed in the lack of wildlife and hungry and wanted to get back to cook dinner over a fire. Meg said she wanted to stay for five more minutes. I relented. Then, right on cue, at five minutes exactly a mother black rhino emerged from the bush with her baby beside her. She sniffed the air at the edge of the shrubs, her nose and horn high in the air, and walked nervously towards the water. They walked side-by-side to the edge of the water and began to drink slowly and silently.
With the low light, and low power of my camera lens, I could not get a good photo of them, but they were great to watch. I am not sure why they were skittish, they are black rhinos for god sake, but they were. They were not bothered by the sounds of cameras beeping, or flashes clicking, but they were clearly scared of other animals, and within minutes they were gone, and us with them, back to our campsite for dinner.
At night Etosha is unsurprisingly cold, it is a desert after all. We layered up at our campsite, right down to thermal underwear, boiled a cup of tea, pulled a sleeping bag out of our tent and returned to the watering hole after dinner. We still hoped to see elephants, but would settle for more rhinos, and hopefully a battle of rhinos for dominance of the watering hole.
The grandstand at night was fuller than it had been at sunset. The garbage can at the base of the rock ledge was full of ‘Tafel Finest Beer’ bottles, and the mood was more pregnant with anticipation. One large black rhino, presumably a male, was at the watering hole drinking alone. He had the place to himself except for a black-backed jackal that circled around the water sniffing invisible scent trails.
Soon we heard crashing sounds from within the bush, and within minutes another, larger rhino appeared at the edge of the clearing. He also sniffed the air and then approached the watering hole. I hoped for a fight between the two, or at least a show of domination, but there was none. The smaller rhino gave his place to the new, larger rhino.
The new rhino was more self-assured, and moved around the watering hole, taking short drinks from every side. He then left the watering hole and came towards the rock ledge, the grandstand, and us. He rooted around in the tall grass, ate leaves from tall shrubs, and kicked large rocks around looking for food. He came just below where were sitting as Meg took a video.
When the rhino left nothing else appeared. Meg wanted to wait, but I wanted to see what the crowd was expecting to see. I did not feel that there would be much more action at the watering hole. I looked around to see who looked like they knew what they were doing to ask about the local wildlife. An older, South African gentleman was sitting on a bench with his wife, a pile of empty beer bottles by his side. Just the man I was looking for.
I whispered to him, so as not to disturb the other people watching an empty watering hole. He replied without whispering. “This is bloody terrible. There is nothing here.” His strong words made more powerful by the beer on his breath. “The watering hole at Okaukuejo is twenty times better, with herds of animals around at all times of day. Go there and you will see for yourself.”
When Meg and I left the watering hole we decided on a game plan for the morning; forget the guidebook and listen to the drunk South African.
A rule to live by.