The Great Wide Place

Heading out of Windhoek on a safari tour to Etosha National Park, we drove down Beethhovenstrasse, Bahnhofstrasse, Robert Mugabe Avenue ( a surprise) and Nelson Mandela Avenue. Says a lot about Namibia actually.

Onto the highway and we were soon out of the small city and heading across the flat plains. Occasional impressive mountains rimmed the flat horizons that stretch in every direction. I was reminded of old Westerns. The colours of the landscape was also reminiscent of outback Australia. Olive green scrub dotted the plains and hills, hovering over cream and pale green grasses that sat on the rust-orange earth.

Anthills started to appear, three metre high witches hats of clay. Occasionally they clung to or surrounded the black tree trunks, and some had the bushes sprouting from their peaks, looking like  narrow-headed men with crazy hair. Kind of what I look like at present, actually.

In the truck, we had Germans, Canadians, Swiss, a Korean girl and a Japanese man. The United Nations in a truck heading north to Etosha, world famous for its wildlife. We passed under a storm, with rays of light rimming its edge, covering 180 degrees of the sky.

Sam was intrigued. ‘God is coming.’

‘Perhaps.’click tab to read further

On entering Etosha, immediately animals started to appear roadside. A limping zebra, all alone. Soon she would be easy pickings for the lions. I thought of her awful impending fate.

Sam piped up.‘I can see a giraffe.’

I couldn’t see it, and neither could anyone else. Confabulation? Two minutes later the rest of us saw it. He must have eagle eyes, my boy. The giraffe spread his legs, a collapsing quadruped, and lowered his head down to the nearly dry water hole. On the side of the road impala and springbok scattered from the noise of the truck. A lone bull elephant was spied, ripping branches off a tree while keeping his large eye fixed on us.

It was nearly sunset when we reached the campsite, which was more like a village surrounded by a large lion fence. Today we were the ones inside the enclosure, not the animals. Sam slowly realised that there was no option besides a tent. He was not happy.

The Namibian driver and his assistant threw the tents off the roof of the truck and everyone pitched in to help.

Sam decided he’d had enough.‘I am not sleeping in a tent.’

‘Sam you have to.’

‘I’ll sleep over there.’He pointed to some nearby holiday flats within the enclosure.

‘Sam, we are not allowed to stay there, other people own those.’

‘I’ll make them let me sleep there.’

While my back was turned retrieving bags from the truck, he took off. I eventually chased him down as he ran through a restaurant outside a swimming pool.

He yelled as I approached him.‘I AM NOT STAYING IN A TENT. YOU CAN’T MAKE ME. I WANT A BETTER FATHER. YOU ARE A VOLDEMORT FATHER!’

Concerned, the staff in the restaurant came out to see what was going on. Finally I regained some semblance of control, as I enforced a sit down and chat to calm down. A protracted negotiation ensued. Sam should negotiate with the North Koreans; he would wear them down soon enough.

Eventually we returned to the tents near the truck, now assembled. He held my hand as we walked back, knowing he had done wrong. The driver said he could sleep in the truck if he wanted to. Sam was happy with that. He grabbed his DS and sat inside the toilet block, not wanting anything to have anything to do with the tent.

The rest of the group walked over to look at a nearby water hole and watched a spectacular sunset. I dared not leave Sam in the toilet block so I had to sit that one out. The limitations of travelling with a child with special needs, I suppose.

After dinner I was able to talk Sam into walking with the others back to the water hole a hundred metres away. At the back of the enclosure was a viewing area above the lion fence, and we looked down on the water hole which was surrounded by rocks and lit by flood lights. Like a choreographed pantomime, a black rhino sauntered down to the edge for a drink. A few minutes later a large herd of zebra played there part and came down beside him. Off in the distance the roar of a lion was heard. It spooked the herd and they hesitated.

Unfortunately Sam’s patience had worn thin.  We headed back to the tents, continuing to negotiate on sleeping in the tent.

‘Tents are for poor people.’

‘Sam, there is no other option.’

‘I will sleep in the truck. The man said I could.’

I didn’t want him sleeping in the truck, as I didn’t want him alone at night and I certainly didn’t want to sleep there when I had a mattress in a tent.

‘How about just trying ten minutes in the tent.’

Ten minutes became thirty, and then Sam remembered.  But the truck was now locked. Good.

‘Oh, unfair. I want the truck.’

‘Just lie down and see how you go.’

The others returned from the water hole. The lions had appeared in our absence. Damn! At least Sam then went to sleep in the tent. As we chatted amongst ourselves, jackals flitted around the site, looking for scraps from the tables. Tomorrow was another day, we were in Etosha.

During the night I tried to discern between the snoring coming from some of the other tents, and the lion roars and elephant calls off in the distance. It was difficult sometimes. Hyenas called out before dawn.

We arose at 530am to get a start on the animal spotting at the best time of day. The group scrambled together tents and packs to hit the water holes early.

Driving through Etosha on the rough dirt roads,  animals seemed to be everywhere. The zebras and springbok were so common they became uneventful soon enough. Wildebeest, giraffe, ostrich, black faced impala and red hartebeest were spotted. At a water hole a yellow and red tawny eagle sat on a dead tree. A large wildly plumed secretary bird scratched the sand and rock for grubs. It reminded Sam of the phoenix in Harry Potter. Fair enough. Flamingos filled a large waterway, and a bloated hyena, filled with his night time kill, lay down to digest his victim.

At every intersection of the winding dirt roads, a sign instructed you not to get out of your car; this was lion country. The two serious cameramen in the bus, a German and the young Japanese guy went nuts with their telephoto lenses. The Japanese guy had a lens on his camera that belonged on a surface to air missile.

Two lions loped towards us across the plains. A female and a young male. Sitting next to Sam, 19 year old Meike from Hannover teased him.

‘Do you think they have smelled you Sam?’

‘No!’

‘They like the young ones. You will be first to be eaten.’

‘NO!’

The lions veered off. No one was eaten, well not today.

Etosha, which means wide great place in Oshiwambo, celebrated its centenary in 2007. It was not hard to see why it was one of the oldest national parks in the world. Flat rocky plains scattered with scrubby mopane trees and saltbush surround a salt pan 130 kilometres wide. We drove down onto the pan and walked around. It felt eerie, knowing nothing but salt covered dry mud for so far in every direction.

The pan, which was an inland sea a million years ago, last flooded after an unusually heavy wet season in Angola four years ago, which swelled the tributary rivers which then sent their waters swelling across the pan.

As the truck climbed off the pan, we saw some oryx in the tall grassveld. This beautiful antelope can go days without water. Fittingly Namibia’s national icon, it can survive in the oldest desert in the world.

At lunch in another campsite village, we ventured over to another water hole. Twelve elephants slowly rolled in. Sam thought it was hysterical when one of them did a large poo in the water. So did I actually.

They were magnificent, and we were all transfixed, Sam included, watching them from a viewing platform only metres away. Young males wrestled each other with their trunks, infants snuggled next to their mother, and an old matriarch watched carefully from the side of the pack. Their gentle perambulation, splashing themselves down flinging water and mud with their trunks, showed a grace and serenity that belied their size.