Sunday, October 9, 2011

etosha national park (1 of 2)

park that car
drop that phone
sleep on the floor
dream about me

-Broken Social Scene

By the time we left Windhoek on Friday night, we were three hours late, which actually was exactly what I had expected to happen with us. This meant that we were driving in the dark, something that everyone had warned us against doing, but we’ve gotten used to it these days. I actually love driving late at night back in Canada, down dark, empty country roads, blasting My Bloody Valentine while watching for the sparkly eyes of deer at the side of the road. Here, the other Canadian Allison is driving, and we’re looking out for other animals that might be crossing the B1 highway in the middle of the night. We’re playing the entire Broken Social Scene album You Forgot It In People from beginning to end, which provides the perfect soundtrack for the quiet darkness outside, with no lights at all except for the oncoming cars’ headlights. If you look far enough toward the horizon, you can see the last of the sun’s lights tracing the outline of big hills that look like they are sleeping as peacefully as Dean in the back seat. This Canadian album has always resonated specially for me because songs like “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” came out when I was a seventeen year old girl.

The small town we’ve arrived in, Outjo, is a town that we more or less chosen randomly on a map for the sole reason that it seemed like a suitable distance to drive for the night. Outjo is completely dead, even though it’s a Friday night. Stores are boarded up, the lights are all out in every house, and the streets are deserted. Dean feels creeped out.

We pull into Kai-Oms Lodge and are greeted by the owner, who sits with us outside by the barbecue for a drink. He’s a South African how moved here decades ago from Pretoria. He welcomes us to Outjo and suddenly remarks “To me, Namibia will always be a developed country.” He asks us what our ultimate destination is. We tell him that we’re heading out to Etosha National Park at first light tomorrow. He shakes his head.

“You have come at a bad time,” he says sadly. He tells us that just days ago there was a massive fire that cleared out a giant part of the park. “What you will see tomorrow,” he warned, “is something that Namibians have not seen in thirty or forty years.”

No persons died in the fire but hundreds of animals were killed. The owner described a photo he saw in the local paper that morning, of a lioness with half her face burned off. “Usually lions are good at running, but this one must have run back into the fire for her cubs.” He tells us that the grass will grow back, but it’ll take a decade to make up for the animal loss.

The fire had affected the surrounding farms too. One farmer had lost 3000 heads of livestock. Many of them he had to go around and shoot himself because they were badly burned and in so much pain. Involuntarily I had this image of a farmer solemnly standing with a gun, suddenly surrounded by the bodies of animals he’d raised himself for many years. It was a sobering thought to go to bed to. I wanted to see a lion.

I woke up to the sounds of a rooster crowing persistently about the sun coming up and about four dogs yelling at the rooster to shut up, nobody cares, let people sleep in till at least 6AM. Me, I lay awake, feeling excited about the day despite the lodge owner’s warning. For some reason I was thinking about my late grandfather, whom I always felt lived a hard life and died too early, but I thought about how I was here, deep in Africa, getting ready to go on safari to watch lions, and I thought about how I would have never made it here had my grandfather not worked himself so hard and given so much. I felt thankful.

The day felt like magic. We pulled into Etosha Park about 7:30AM, wondering what we would see. What if we didn’t see any animals? What if the fire had indeed ruined everything?

the burned wasteland of etosha

Luckily such worries were silly. Indeed we saw the extent of the fire damage everywhere, but the animals were still about, thankfully, and we saw many animals off in the distance. Springbok, wart hogs, giraffes, wild docks, kudu, wildebeests…sometimes we couldn’t tell what kind of animals they were at all.

look, a giraffe!

wart hog. pumba!

i have no idea what kind of bird this is

or this bird

um, i think this is a wild dog or a fox?

springbok crossing the road

a whole lot more springbok


more zebras, crossing the road

dan tries to blend in with the zebras, which he calls "zehbras"

oryx and springbok

black-faced impala

oryx butt


“These are all like deer!” Eliza complained after the heat of the noonday sun began beating down on the car. “I’m bored. I want to see lions!” I wanted to see lions too, but was a little nervous about when/how we would encounter them.

And then we saw the elephants.

here come the elephants

there go the elephants

By the time we reached the rest camp at Halali, it was the hottest part of the day and I was feeling really gross from sweating in the car. We ate lunch at the restaurant, a boerwors hot dog with chili and chutney and a delicious Savanna beer on the side, and then we set up our tents. We had no trouble setting up the tents, because Allison and I are Canadian and were practically born in camp tents.


By the time we finished struggling with the tents, we were hotter than heat itself, so we rewarded ourselves with a dip in the rest camp swimming pool. I swear, I don’t care how bourgeois this makes me sound, but I love the swimming pools in Africa. It may not feel like Africa, but it feels like luxury and sometimes that’s just what I need. Sometimes, I need for my most oppressive problem to be the fact that I can’t nap by the pool and drink Windhoek Lager at the same time.

After a refreshing swim and quick poolside snooze (in which I apparently did manage to inhale my beer in my sleep), we decided to use the rest of the fading day checking out the Etosha look out, which overlooks the Etosha Pan. I was not prepared for the Etosha Pan.

The Etosha Pan was a giant lake, over 100 kilometres across…12 million years ago. It then dried out and nothing grows there now. It is probably the most amazing, most beautiful geographical thing I have ever seen in my quarter-century life. From afar, you think that you are approaching the ocean, and then when you reach it, you realize that you are looking at a sea of nothing. Absolute nothingness, absolute stillness, no sounds – the whole thing is so insulated that no sound carries, eve if you scream. If you wandered into it, you could walk for days and see nothing. Nothing but the silvery shimmering sandy ground and stillness. It would drive a man mad.

To me, the most beautiful and awe-striking features of nature are the things that remind me of infinity – the sea, the sky, the Etosha Pan. Staring at things that are bigger than anything I can fathom reminds me of god, and is the reason why I love going into the wilderness. And to me, with its strange desolate whiteness, the Etosha Pan was like a love song, and I loved it.

We said little on our way home.

i have climbed highest mountains
i have run through the fields
only to be with you, only to be with you
i have run
i have crawled
i have scaled these city walls
these city walls
only to be with you


I call this Boob Mountain

By the time we got back to rest camp, it was ten minuets after sundown and they had already closed the gates. We had to get a guard to open the gates to let us in. Beside our tent, we each scraped together a dinner that was oddly stereotypical of our respective origins: the british guy made himself a corned beef sandwich, the Korean woman was slurping oriental ramen noodles, the German had her Brotchen and the Canadian girl was eating a healthy apple. We ate under the romantic light of the almost full moon, which was providing so much nocturnal brilliance there was no need for our flashlights.

But Eliza had come to the Park to see lions. I wandered over to the camp bar and talked to the off-duty staff enjoying a drink after work and asked them where we could go to find lions. They rattled off the names of several great watering holes, and teasingly told me that the lions would eat me first because I was the smallest. They also told us about Moringa watering hole, which was just a short distance from the camp and could be reached there by foot, even at night. We decided to give it a try, so we packed our flash lights, cameras, and beer, and hiked to the watering hole in the middle of the night.

When we arrived there, there were other people already sitting in the dark, silent and patiently waiting. It felt like church, and we slipped in discreetly. Nothing was happening, but I didn’t mind. The night was warm and beautiful, and if this was like church, I felt like worshipping by sitting quietly and enjoying the night that had been given to me. For a few minutes a nervous-looking jackal scurried to the watering hole, and after looking around carefully, allowed himself a quick drink of water before running back into the darkness again. Nothing much more happened, and I felt my eyelids growing heavy (like sometimes happens when I am in church). And like sometimes in church, I fell asleep, leaning against a tree, dreaming that I was listening to lions growling.

waiting for something to happen at the water hole

When I woke up, there were seven great lions, striding toward the watering hole. They didn’t look around, not even to the people watching them from the shadows, a big contrast to the nervous jackal that was wary of the night. The lions don’t have to be nervous about anything; they are the kings of the continent. One of them, the only male, was particularly kingly, and I decided to call him King Dean, because he too only hung out with several other women. He had a great mane that made me finally understand why some men like to wear their hair long, and he shook his mane majestically, and then bent down to drink some water. The lions were lapping up water like ordinary house cats.

I found that my camera was just not equipped to take proper photos in the dark, so I just sat back against the tree, sipped my beer, and watched the lions, feeling that if church felt like this every Sunday, every person in the world would believe in God.

God is alive, magic is afoot
God is alive, magic is afoot
God is afoot, magic is alive
Alive is afoot, magic never died

God never sickened
Many poor men lied
Many sick men lied
Magic never weakened

Magic never hid
Magic always ruled
God is afoot
God never died

-Buffy Sainte Marie

(Click here for part two of our Etosha adventures. Think lions and tigers and bears oh my except not the tigers or bears, those not being native to Africa. TEASER HINT: my camera runs out of batteries at the most crucial moment, and so i rely on Allison's amazing photography instead)