We had to pull the car to the side of the road it was raining so hard. The windshield wipers could barely hold up to the strain of the torrential downpour, but I was still able to make out lightning hitting the deserted asphalt highway less than a mile in front of us. I closed my eyes, let out a small whimper, then burrowed my face into my husband’s shoulder. He was enthralled by the scene and looked out excitedly with giddy eyes. Within five minutes the rain eased to a steady yet manageable thrum on the windows, we started the car back up, then continued on towards Namibia’s Etosha National Park.
It was early March, during the country’s aptly named wet season that runs from November-April. For days I’d watched storm clouds slowly pass over the African plains. They would never linger long, and at times barely enough rain would fall to wet the ground, but now that we were out of the desert and headed North towards the Etosha salt pan, we saw sand give way to vegetation — lush and green and brimming with life.
Etosha is Namibia’s largest National Park, home to four of the big five game animals: lion, leopard, elephant and rhino (the cape buffalo being the elusive species). Initially the term “Big Five” was created to label the five most difficult animals for game hunters to kill, due to their size and level of danger, but now refers more to animals visitors want to see from a distance rather than to massacre.
With the rain gently falling and with evening approaching, instead of going into the park we went directly to our accommodation, the Ongava Lodge nestled within the Ongava Game Reserve along the southern border of the park. At its entrance we handed over our identification and documentation to the armed guard, only to find that we’d somehow lost the car keys in the six foot walk from our car to his station. While the guard raised the gate my husband Carl and I hunted about for the misplaced keychain. During this time I asked if there were lions within the reserve we were now flailing about in, to which the guard replied yes, there were, and we should probably try to get back in our vehicle as soon as possible.
Inexplicably the keys were in the back seat where they must’ve been tossed while locating our paperwork. Crisis averted, we buckle up and make the slow 20 minute drive to the lodge, looking out for wildlife along the route. We spot none. Disheartened, we’re met in the parking lot by three men with umbrellas who whisk us into the building and give us a quick rundown of dinner hours then lead us to our hut. It was gorgeous, featuring an outdoor shower, large deck and a shelf of leatherbound cans, one with the words “Doom Insecticide” stitched into it, another labeled “Emergency Airhorn”. Both cans feature the image of a rhino with no explanation provided.
One shower later I’m back in the main lodge waiting for dinner to roll around. I sit at an outdoor terrace, wet and shrouded in mist, pop open my book and order a beer. Carl joins me shortly and for the next hour we sit perfectly still, novels in hand, listening to the soft pitter patter of the rain and watch as the sky darkens. From where I’m sitting I have a view of the bush stretching out until the puffs of trees blend into the horizon where a heavy fog hangs, separating the two plains like a curtain. As a child I’d imagined Africa as a golden land of baobabs, but this wet-season landscape gives way to something else entirely. More delicate than a sun-parched earth and just as untamed as a roaming animal.
When hunger approaches we exit the terrace and move twenty feet inward to the open air dining hall where a 3-course dinner begins: a bacon wrapped onion to start (far better than it may sound), followed by a chicken kabob and boerewors entree (South African sausage), topped off with an amaretto mousse which I’ve since found myself craving.
As I tuck into some chicken a lodge member stops off at our table to ask how we’re enjoying the food and make small chat. In Namibia there’s something odd — Almost all employees in remote destinations are black, but there will be a caucasian employee, frequently of German ancestry, who interacts with guests. Namibia was a German colony for nearly one hundred years and we found that most tourists in the country are indeed German, but it’s all a bit uncomfortable to witness. We ask the gentleman currently at our table what our odds are of seeing game in the following days while we’re on a self-driving safari, and he’s quite frank. “You likely won’t see much large game since it will be rainy. But the birds, the birds will be marvelous.”
This information wasn’t new to me. While doing my research on a March safari it was commonly stated that if your intention is to see game, don’t visit during the winter months when pools of water accumulate throughout the region and animals are no longer bound to year-round watering holes. During the summer months, well known watering holes become an essential source of life — a communal hub for wildlife — and travellers can simply park their car off a popular watering hole and wait as animals swarm. In the winter, prey like zebra and kudu no longer need to put themselves in danger by travelling to a water source frequented by large game and animals are spread out throughout the park, making them more difficult to spot.
Bird watchers rejoice in the rainy season however, as migrating birds arrive from the Northern Hemisphere. This is also when many animals give birth, so if your main objective is to see a tiny warthog, now’s the time.
When we finish dinner and stand to make our way back to our cabin, we’re promptly met by a khaki-shorted gentleman with a rifle. He confirms our lodge number then weaves us alongside the pool and along a cobblestone pathway to our door. It’s dark and while he doesn’t seem too concerned, I’m not usually escorted by a thick-armed and bullet-bedecked individual so I’m looking out for lions like I’m the protagonist in an arcade game. The journey from lodge to doorstep only takes minutes and he bids us adieu, but as I tuck into bed I wonder if it’s overkill to sleep with the Doom Insecticide beside me.
Shortly after dawn we hit the road. The Etosha entrance is just twenty minutes from the lodge but we stop to fill up on gas and load up on afternoon snacks. My most notable purchase is something appearing to be fruit snacks, simply labeled “small cubes”.
It’s a wet, gray morning with a light, steady rain. The kind of weather that further confirms the day will likely be uneventful on animal sightings, though I cannot help but be excited. Passing through Ethosha’s gate I’m now officially in a park inhabited by the most famous of African wildlife. The kind of animals that own letters in children’s books: E is for Elephant. G is for Giraffe. L is for Lion. Z is for Zebra. Animals that only ever lived in books to me. Or documentaries. Or zoos. Species that existed so far away from me that only in my bucket-list dreams did I dream of being close to them. And now I’m sitting in a car driving ever-so-slowly through a washed-out bush, hoping that a cheetah will jump from the page into reality.
One hour in we drive alongside a pack of grazing wildebeest. Half a dozen stand about, tails swinging, slowly chowing down on grass. One of the things about watching too much Planet Earth is that you start to believe animals on the plains live in two states: About to murder or be murdered. These horned friends don’t seem in the least bit concerned about predators. They look slightly bored. One strays from the pack, wandering out a ways to do nothing except sniff the grass, realize it’s not that much greener, then ease back over to the herd.
Fifteen minutes later we spot an SUV pulled alongside the road, which we assume means there must be something good lurking nearby. We pull behind them and Carl says quietly yet excitedly, “it’s lions”. I don’t immediately believe this. Some people safari for days in the dry season hoping to see such a thing, and here we are, early morning on day one. But it’s true. A male and female sit just ahead. At one point I swear the male is looking right at us (since corroborated through photos) but his attentions are quickly directed elsewhere as the female takes a few steps away and stretches out giving the male a very butt-heavy view. The male responds by following her to where she now lies on the ground, her legs splayed out.
I’m 1000% sure I’m about to witness a “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” Disney moment, but she bats him away, pounces onto her feet, and they’re right back where they started.
Miles down the road we’re met by three zebras. Not off in the bush, but on the road, where we can do nothing except wait for them to cross. As I watch them I understand how their stripes work as protection from predators — There are only three, but at times they blend into one another and the effect is dizzying. Should I be hungry for a zebra I’d need to bite around indiscriminately in a crowd. More than a handful and it would be incredibly difficult to set your sights on a single set of lines in the crowd.
Next comes springbok, followed by the gemsbok. Then comes the big show. A giraffe. And not just one giraffe, but giraffes. Seeing giraffes in their natural habitat is uncanny enough, but they’re spotted beside electric wires, a scene I’d never imagined.
One thing about giraffes is that regal, they ain’t. The ears a bit akimbo. The eyes at half mast. The mouths perpetually agape. They look downright derpy when bent over a branch beasting on leaves, but the moment they stand tall they transform into ballerinas, all long necked and lanky and looming over the brush.
Watching animals over an Attenborough narration is one experience. Watching the same interactions outside your car window is another. It feels majestic and dangerous and exhilarating all at once. We watch an elder female lion pass yards behind our car not caring about us in the least. We pull in front of several dozen springbok and they eye us extensively, their juggalo-esque faces blended together and I feel an uneasiness bordering on alarm. I know them to be placid, peaceful beings, but alone in the wilderness, us vs. them, my money is on them.
The most alarming sight of the day is not of lions or large game, but rather of the armored cricket — A large, carnivorous insect resembling Star Wars’ AT-ATs that stain sections of the gravel road black. They appear in droves. Several hundred take to the road in patches, making it impossible not to squash them. I’d venture to say this is the only time we did not actively avoid a living thing on the road. There would have been no point in swerving, as the same scene of carnage is on all sides: two or more crickets fighting in a gladiator-esque battle that culminates in the loser’s corpse being devoured on the spot. Once the winner is satiated they move onto another target and so on. Imagine watching The Hunger Games but replace the sexualized teens with cockroaches. No one wants that. Because it would be terrifying.
Seeing these crickets I was reminded of the day I learned aye-aye’s existed. I was much happier in my ignorance not knowing that a creature with long Freddy Krueger-esque fingers evolved to pierce things was out there in the dark somewhere, just as I was happier never having seen a cricket rip the head off another cricket, but the day’s enjoyment far outweighed witnessing these horrific insects.
We stumble onto an ostrich couple with their babies in tow, spot warty frogs in roadside puddles cuddling and frolicing, and watch a herd of giraffes roam under the sun that’s just beginning to poke from behind the clouds. However, one of my most treasured moments that day actually came from an encounter with another human. We pulled alongside a butter-colored SUV to try and spot what they were spotting. After five minutes of gazing at a still bush we pulled alongside their car and lowered our window to strike up a quick chat.
After a few moments they lowered their window half-way whereupon a middle-aged woman in a khaki hat yelled with a thick German accent and not particularly kindly, “I don’t know vhat you ahre looking fur! I ahm looking fur bhirds!”.
Today’s weather, which has cartwheeled from rain to clouds all day, has now landed back on rain. While it’s only 3pm, we’re ready to begin the hour long drive towards the park exit. Ready for a cup of tea, a hot bath and possibly even a pre-dinner nap. (Roadtrippers know that driving for large stretches of time is exhausting. Although your body does no work, your eyes are sharpened and your gut is in overdrive attempting to digest an abnormally high level of snacks and bad coffee). While I’m envisioning wrapping myself up in bed linen, Carl stops the car suddenly. I turn my attention to the spot he’s laser focused on and see a lone black rhino.
Black rhinos are a critically endangered species, with roughly 5,500 left in the world. You’re lucky to spot a near-threatened white rhino in Etosha, with 20,000 roaming about, but black rhinos are smaller and much more elusive to spot in the wild than their counterparts. During our sighting the rhino grazed over several yards of thicket, but our car was hushed, entranced by the animal’s every move.
Etosha National Park is huge. At 8,600 square miles it’s over four times larger than the Grand Canyon. Carbound, we only saw a fraction of it. A fraction on a rainy day in the off season, and still we managed to spot lions, wildebeest and even a black rhino. Tomorrow’s drive on a bright and sunny day yielded warthogs, but no large game. It was luck that we drove alongside what we did when we did.
You can read guidebooks for days but in the wild, research has little on luck and patience. On our last morning in Namibia we passed a giraffe on the side of the highway. It walked in the direction we were headed, away from the park, plodding next to the power lines, as if like us, it was following the road to whatever adventure is next.