Rebel With Claws

MY road. Photo by Marian Buechert.

One of the greatest thrills of African safaris is that you never know what you’ll encounter. You could cruise for hours, seeing little but dirt and brush, until you’re hot, thirsty, discouraged, and anxious to find a bathroom. What keeps you going is knowing that an unforgettable sighting might lie just around the next bend. Literally.

It had been that kind of day in one of the more remote parts of Namibia’s Etosha National Park. Being at the height of an unusually dry season, many of the waterholes had dried up and wildlife was scarce. We had heard that there were rhinos in the area, but many miles of slow searching had failed to locate any. When the shadows lengthened in the late afternoon, we turned our car wheels toward camp.

As we drove around a corner, I could see a patch of shade thrown across the road ahead. Something was lying in the darkness, enjoying some relief from the desert sun.

“Leopard!” I whispered with intense excitement.

On our first trip to Africa, we had not seen a single leopard. My South African-born friends warned that the spotted cats were notoriously difficult to see, much more so than lions, which tend to laze around in large groups during the day, not paying much attention to vehicles and their ogling passengers. Leopards, on the other hand, are nocturnal, solitary, and usually wary of humans. On this, our second African safari, we had caught only two fleeting glimpses of leopards hidden in the tall grasses.

This fellow, however, was definitely not hiding.

Assuming he would disappear at any moment, we stopped the car a good distance away and I snapped shots with my telephoto lens. The big cat looked unperturbed and showed no sign of concern. He had no intention of moving from his cool spot unless absolutely necessary.

Well, he was in the middle of our road back to camp, where we would be given a serious lecture and possibly even a fine if we turned up after sunset, so we needed to get past him.

We did what one does in these situations: we inched the car forward, stopping every few feet to take increasingly close-up photos of the still-recumbent cat. I eventually had to switch to a shorter lens because he was simply too close for my telephoto.

It is important to remember that in order to photograph wildlife, one must have the window of the car rolled down. Also that leopards are lightning fast, incredibly agile, and completely lethal. The closer we approached, the more I pictured myself lying flat on the seat of the car, dodging the talon-swipes of a leopard plastered against the side of the car with his foreleg stretching in through that open window. But there was no question of shutting the window; I was in the throes of the shutter madness that grips photographers. MUST GET PERFECT PHOTO the imperative screamed somewhere deep in my dinosaur brain, ignoring the danger signals blaring from the more sensible lobes.

How dare you disturb my repose! Photo by Marian Buechert.

So we crawled closer, until the leopard finally, and with a clear look of being put out, sat up. That was it. He sat and stared at us from a couple of metres away. So much for being wary of humans. His gaze was calm. I looked at his golden eyes and wondered what it would be like to be dinner, knowing those eyes were the last thing you would ever see.

At least now there was room for us to squeeze past. As we did, he decided enough was enough and nonchalantly wandered to the side of the road. For a short distance, he and we kept pace and we could see how perfectly his colours and spots blended into the dry vegetation.

Then we left him in peace and moved on.

At dinner that evening, I proudly showed everyone the photos. The waiter, a native Namibian, was keenly interested. He said he had never seen a leopard before, as he came from a farming area where, presumably, the cats had been driven out long before.

Later, I asked a wildlife expert why “our” leopard had been so cooperative. Probably a young adult, a teenager, he guessed. Cocky and full of himself. Too young and stupid to fear anything yet.

So it was just my luck to run into the James Dean of the African bush. I’m glad we both came out of it alive.

 

Disdain. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The gaze of a hunter. Photo by Marian Buechert.

 

 

Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)

Etosha National Park

Rush hour at Okaukuejo

A few months ago, I wrote about National Geographic and how it has influenced me over the years. I vividly remember seeing the NG special Etosha: Place of dry water back in 1980 and being enthralled by the scenes of wildlife congregating around the waterholes.

When we planned our second trip to Africa in 2012, I was drawn to the idea of spending time exploring Etosha National Park. My research indicated Namibia was a relatively safe and accessible country where we could drive around on our own—as long as we carried two spare tires and glass insurance. The Namibian roads are notorious for destroying tires and windshields. We flew into the capital of Windhoek, picked up a rental car, and motored north to the park’s eastern gate, Von Lindequist.

So the deal in Etosha, as in many African parks, is that you can self-drive the roads without a guide between daybreak and sunset. You cannot go off the roads, but you can stop anywhere it’s safe to do so in order to watch wildlife or take photos. Outside of the secure fenced camps and very occasional rest areas, you CANNOT—and this is the cardinal rule of independent safaris—you cannot get out of your car under any circumstances. You want to stretch your legs? Tough. You need to, um, relieve yourself? Better practice holding it in. Because if you’re caught outside your car, it’s immediate expulsion from the park and a hefty fine. Or you could be et by a lion. Your choice. Oh, and make sure you’re back at camp by sunset or it’s also a fine.

Rules notwithstanding, self-driving is an exciting and rewarding way to tour Etosha. It’s such a vast area (over 22,000 km2) that even with 200,000 annual visitors, you’re still going to have lots of space to yourself on any given day. Compare that with Yellowstone’s 9,000 km2 and 4 million visitors per year.

We spent six nights in the park, three of them in the wonderful Okaukuejo Camp. Often rated as the best waterhole viewing in all of Africa, Okaukuejo looks like nothing much if you arrive when the animals aren’t there. It’s just a big puddle with rocky banks, surrounded by a lot of dry, barren land. You wonder why you paid upwards of $300 per night to stay in a chalet overlooking the waterhole.

But that’s before the parade begins.

First, it might be a bevy of dainty springbok, nervously stepping between the stones before surrounding the water and drinking. Then, a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest, larger and heavier in body, wade straight into the pool and plunge their faces in. From a distance, you can see an organized line of oryx with their sweeping sabre-like horns approaching single file. A rhino or two might join the crowd. Majestic giraffes spread improbably long legs wide apart so their heads will reach the water. An eagle swoops down to a landing and dips and lifts her beak until she has her fill. It’s busy but calm—until the elephants barge in. Nobody argues with the ellies; most accept that their time at the waterhole is done and move off along the commuter routes, faint game tracks sketched in the hard ground. The great grey beasts own the place as long as they choose to drink, blow, play, roll, and muck up the water.

When they finally wander away, it’s the dark of night. You’ve been watching all this from the balcony of your chalet and now realize that $300 was well spent. Then a lion roars somewhere nearby and you think what it would feel like to hear that sound if you were not safe in a chalet, but camping somewhere out in the open. The whole pride—several lionesses and a number of sub-adult cubs—emerge from their hiding place and pad to the bank, standing side by side to lap in synchronicity. A hyena skulks on the fringes, wary of the big cats. Finally, a large owl glides in without a sound.

This is Okaukuejo. But Okaukuejo is only the first among many waterholes in Etosha. Your days run something like this: wake early, grab some food for the road, be in your car and ready at the camp gate when it opens at dawn. Putter down the gravel and dirt roads at a walking speed, searching, scanning the bushes, grasses, trees, skies as you go. Rainbow-coloured birds like the lilac-breasted roller and the European bee-eater could be perched on any twig and wildlife roams freely through the open country, but in the dry season, you can simply park beside any waterhole and wait for the animals to come to you.

When the heat of the day makes sitting in a car unbearable, you head back to camp for some lunch and a siesta, or, at least some shade time.

Later in the afternoon, you hit the roads again for the last couple of hours before sunset (circa 6:00 or 6:30 pm). As the sun nears the horizon and you turn the car back towards camp, intending to make the evening curfew with time to spare, you will inevitably come across some amazing sight—like giraffes in a courtship dance, or a huge martial eagle perched on a fresh kill—that you simply must stop for, such that you end up squeaking through the closing gate a few minutes after the deadline.

Apres dinner, you can stroll down to the floodlit waterhole to watch the nightly show begin one more time—from behind the safety of a large fence.

To most North Americans, Etosha seems like a remote and difficult place. “Namibia? Where is that? And why are you going there? Oh, to visit a dry salt pan. Of course….” For me, however,  it was even more wondrous than the pictures I’d carried in my mind for over thirty years.

Watch my short video of Okaukuejo waterhole here.

Have you finally visited a place you dreamed about for years? Did it live up to your imagination or disappoint? Let me know in a comment.

Lilac-breasted roller

Okaukuejo waterhole

Sharing the water

That water looks mighty tempting. Now, how do I get my mouth down there?

Springbok rumble