ETOSHA (Namibia), Nov 6 — As a child, I would pour over encyclopedias of the animal world, memorising names of exotic beasts in far-off lands. Of course, I saw some of them in zoos but it’s not quite the same as seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitats.
Fast forward a few decades and I’m finally on a safari tour in Namibia. Formerly a colony of Germany, Namibia is located in the southern part of Africa. This is one of the driest countries in the world, a land of wild natural beauty. During the dry season from mid-April to late October, the animals are easier to spot as they congregate around waterholes.
Perhaps the best place to view these animals is the Etosha National Park in the northern part of the country. Spanning an area of 22,270 square kilometres, the park is also home to the Etosha salt pan, which is a source of water during these dry months.
Whether you hire a guide or go on your own in a rented jeep, it’s advisable to start early when the park opens at the break of dawn as animals get their water during sunrise and sunset, when it’s cooler.
En route to a waterhole, we spot our first African wildlife. With its stark black and white plumes, the ostrich is a sight to behold. Being the largest birds in the world, they also lay the largest eggs of any living bird. These can weigh almost 1.5 kilograms – that’s almost two dozen chicken eggs!
Ostriches are swift too. With their long legs, they can run at nearly 70 kilometres per hour. Predators (and humans) foolish enough to try and attack an adult ostrich may regret it; a single kick from the bird’s powerful legs can be fatal.
Possessing of even longer legs are the giraffes, the tallest living land animals. The giraffe is one of Africa’s most enduring wildlife icons, with its graceful long neck, dark blotches against a sandy coat and slim, muscular legs. The speed of the latter is what gives the animal its name; in Arabic, zarafah means “fast walker” — something we’ll soon observe.
To drink at the waterhole, these elegant creatures have to suffer the ignominy of spreading their front legs as wide as they can go before lowering their long necks to the ground. It’s quite a workout for a simple sip of water!
Suddenly the giraffes raise their heads from the water and gallop off. A pack of hyenas is approaching, and the giraffes know they are vulnerable to attacks from the rear while drinking. In popular culture, hyenas are portrayed as scavengers but in reality, they are fierce hunters and can even drive off larger predators, such as lions.
The hyenas are also causing a group of antelopes to be on high alert for any sudden movements. With coats marked by layers of brown, black and white, these are the springboks. The national animal of neighbouring South Africa, the springbok is one of the easiest animals to spot from a distance. One has to be truly unlucky (or not very observant) to go on safari in Namibia and not see any.
We hear a series of loud trumpeting sounds. It’s the elephants, a small herd of females. As they move closer, using their strong trunks to feed on leafy branches, sometimes grabbing abandoned bird’s nests (these are made of dry, edible grass, after all), we observe a baby. The infant elephant is still being nursed by its mother and we can hear the gurgling of milk being greedily drunk.
Namibia is home to over 20 species of antelopes. The smallest is the dik-dik, standing at a mere 30-40 centimetres at the shoulder. Thus named due to the alarm calls of the females, the dik-diks are always in monogamous pairs. If there is a third, it is usually their young; a juvenile if it’s about the same size. It’s hard to tell; they’re so small as it is!
There are creatures smaller than the dik-dik, of course. The banded mongoose forages in troops, feeding mainly on insects as well as small reptiles and birds. There are ground squirrels, easily recognisable thanks to the flourish of their bushy tails.
On the other extreme are larger antelopes such as the greater kudu, whose large horns twist dramatically while their bluish-grey coats are stained by several vertical white stripes, and black-faced impalas, with their reddish brown coats and lyre-shaped horns in the males. The oryx, Namibia’s national animal, has pale fur contrasting with darker facial and leg markings, and long, straight horns.
Where are the other predators, you may wonder? It’s midday now and the sun is at its highest point. Too hot for hunting. Too hot even for grazing, for most of the herbivores. The springboks and oryxes seem impervious to the heat though, and we spot herds of them sporadically, happily munching away at dry grass.
Patience and a good eye will reveal more to the passionate safari goer, such as the reclusive leopard. Blink and we would have missed this impressive animal resting high on a tree branch, its powerful muscles rippling beneath a spotted coat. A dangerous and unpredictable beast, it is one of the Big Five (referring to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot), together with the lion, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo.
Later we spy another big cat: a cheetah, the fastest land animal in the world. This sleek, sprinting machine can go up to 112 kilometres per hour during a short burst of speed. Its body is slenderer than the muscular leopard’s; its eyes are marked by black tear-like streaks. The cheetah leads her cub from one spot to another, well-hidden by the tall brush.
To protect themselves from such predators, some animals band together in symbiotic relationships. Take for example the plains zebra, which has a characteristic greyish “shadow stripe” in between its black stripes, and the blue wildebeest, which is one of Africa’s Ugly Five (along with the vulture, marabou stork, hyena and warthog).
They often graze together as zebras have excellent eyesight while wildebeests make up for their poor vision with their strong sense of hearing and smell. That’s quite a formidable combination of heightened senses, an early predator warning system bar none!
We spot another member of the Ugly Five clan scouring the area for food: the warthog, a type of wild pig with distinctive tusks, facial wattles (the so-called “warts”) and bristly hairs. Its head also looks much larger than our Malaysian wild boar (to our untrained eyes at least).
As the day cools and evening draws near, herding beasts flock to the waterholes again, together with predators and scavengers, such as the black-backed jackals. It’s almost sunset when a solitary black rhinoceros makes its star appearance at the waterhole. The black rhinoceros, or hook-lipped rhinoceros, is a critically endangered species and Namibian rangers work hard at fending off poachers seeking its horn. There is a solemn majesty about this splendid beast as even other animals make way for it.
The twittering of sociable weavers as they return to their nests signals the end of another day. They build huge community nests that can house several generations, sometimes over a hundred pairs of birds. These structures are so spectacular we can see them from miles away even as we head back to the game lodge.
Time to rest and ready ourselves for another day in the safari. Who knows? Tomorrow we might even spot a lion, the King of Beasts. Every day in Etosha is an adventure, a wild experience.
Etosha National Park
Accessible through four gates: Anderson’s Gate (southern), Von Lindequist Gate (east), Galton Gate (south-western) and King Nehale Lya Mpingana Gate (northern). Entrance fees: Adults NAD80 (RM24) per day; free for children under 16 years.
Opening and closing times are based on sunrise and sunset, and thus change weekly.