Our first big stop in Namibia was the large game reserve of Etosha National Park. After a long drive in the morning, in blistering heat, our driver Pete told us that he was going to arrange for us to get private vehicle game drives as he was suffering with food poisoning. After setting up our tents, we piled into two 4 x 4 vehicles for our 3 hour game drive. We were informed that many of the animals had already moved to the western part of the park in search of water after the recent rains…a bit disappointing to hear as we first headed out. Regardless, we were able to spot Eland, Hartebeest, Zebra, Giraffe, and Elephants during the drive. We also had fun taking perspective pictures on the salt flats in the middle of the park.
The absolute highlight of this place, however, came a little later in the day and was completely unexpected. We had been told, in passing (as if it were really a minor detail) that there was a watering hole that we could go to after dinner, and if we were lucky, we’d be able to observe animals coming to drink throughout the evening and night. However, as a few of us were readying ourselves to take a dip in the pool, a woman came by and casually said “oh! There’s Elephants in the watering hole at the moment…!”
Since I was already in my swimsuit, I decided to take a quick swim first and then headed down to the watering hole. I wasn’t really sure where I was going, but a set of signs quickly pointed me in the right direction. At first, I felt a stab of disappointment as my friends, Sandrine and Benoit, informed me that the entire family of elephants, who had been playing in the water had now left.
My heart sank, but I sat down on a comfortable rock and enjoyed the view as the sun began to do the same.
And then, just as everything had grown extremely quiet, a black rhino ambled up to the water’s edge and began to drink. It was incredible, being this close to the Rhino, and seeing him in such an unobscured fashion. It was a beautiful scene and my heart was filled with gratitude.
Then, as we were getting ready to head back and shower in time for dinner, another rhino appeared from the bush and approached the watering hole! Black rhinos are solitary animals, so it is extremely rare to spot two of them in one place. These two rhinos were clearly male rivals, each asserting his authority over the space with audible grunts and aggressive posturing of his horn.
As time went on, things got even crazier, and Sandrine and I began clutching each other in excitement, unable to comprehend the rare spectacle we were being treated to. The two rhino began to actually fight, one charging the other, and the other backing up in a move that strangely and hysterically reminded me of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Then, another two rhinos appeared from the bush, chasing each other in a huge cloud of dust, dispersing the two that were already at the watering hole with a very audible display of upset at the intrusion. Then, a hyena appeared, seemingly unconcerned by the rhino situation ensuing, and calmly drank at the water’s edge.
For another hour or so, these four rhino came and drank at the hole, fought with one another, scratched themselves on a tree trunk, and stalked one another back into the bush. It was a display of wills, strength and, well, high-stakes drama.
It made me realize something very important. Each day we’d been on a safari, or visiting a place in Africa where we were on the lookout for wild animals, our guides would ask us, “what animals are you hoping to spot today?” I always found this question bemusing, and usually resorted to the response that I’d like to see one of the rarer cats, a leopard, say. However, this experience made me realize that on a safari, it’s not what animals you spot that make the trip memorable, it’s whether the animals are exhibiting interesting behavior while you happen to be observing them.
What kind of animal they are is of less importance.
It is very rare to see rhino. It is even rarer to see more than one black rhino in one place, and astonishingly rare to have seen them fighting/interacting/vocalizing the way the small group of us did that evening. I was humbled by the experience, and to that point – it became the highlight of the entire trip.
We also had one other treat in store. The Honey Badger is a creature endemic to this region, and are known for coming into the campgrounds of Etosha and wreaking havoc, eating food out of tents, etc. After dinner, as I was getting ready to return to the watering hole, I watched as two honey badgers came into camp and started attacking some towels that people had hung out to dry. They are aggressive little buggers, with razor sharp teeth, and our guide had told us that they have been known to attack a lion, and humans. I stayed a little back, and watched them as they also proceeded to tip over 3 of our garbage cans and make a complete mess of our campsite.
Returning to the watering hole after dinner(Sandrine and I stayed there until about 11:30pm) we only got to see a single rhino, and a single hyena return – things were altogether much quieter and no way near as dramatic as at sunset.
Etosha was a very special place.