Memories of Africa (Part 2)

Etosha National Park, Namibia

In the fall of 2011, my daughter and I traveled to Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. To read “Memories of Africa (Part 1 of 3),” please see the previous post.

Lion porn

The next morning after breakfast at Toshari Lodge, we headed back to Etosha. At eighty-six hundred square miles, Etosha is one of the largest game reserves in Africa. Its grasslands sustain an abundance of wildlife, including several threatened and endangered species, such as white and black rhinos.

We stopped first at the Ombika waterhole, where a pride of eleven lions lounged in the grass. No other animal dared venture near the water.

We drove slowly through the park, stopping frequently to take photos. Numerous zoos could be filled with the multiple species grazing in the savanna—elephants, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, wildebeests, kudu, oryx, black-faced impala, springbok, spotted hyenas, black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes, and warthogs.

As we drove, Trompie spotted a large male lion hiding in the shade of a tree near the road. A minute later, he excitedly proclaimed that a cobra was in the tall grass near the lion.

Etosha National Park, Namibia
Etosha National Park

As it turned out, the “cobra” was the long tail of a resting female lion.

The pair got up and ambled into the road, right in front of the ice-cream truck. Traffic stopped in both directions as the male mounted the female.

During periods of mating, lion pairs have sex as often as every twenty or thirty minutes for up to five days. We waited and, sure enough, a few minutes later the couple engaged again along the side of the road.

Meanwhile, another male, a handsome giant with a flowing mane, stretched out under a nearby tree with his mate. We joked that his hair looked styled, as if with a blow-dryer. We named him Fabio. He was massive in size and seemingly confident in his power and position. I will never forget the way he measured us with a steely, thousand-yard stare, as if to say, “I could take you if I wanted to.”

Zebras, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Dust-bathing, Etosha National Park

Salt of the earth

At the Rietfontein waterhole, three herds of elephants, including several babies, submerged themselves in the muddy water to cool off. Zebras bathed in dust by rolling on their backs and kicking their legs in the air. After lunch at Halali Camp, we parked the ice-cream truck and walked out onto the Etosha pan.

The pan is a vast salt flat, covering nearly nineteen hundred square miles, almost a quarter of the park. In every direction its empty whiteness seems to reach to infinity.

In the language of the Ovambo, Etosha means great white place. The salt pan is the largest in Africa and so big it is visible from outer space. Appropriately, it was a set for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Etosha pan, Namibia
Etosha pan

Millions of years ago the pan was a lake. Movement in the earth’s tectonic plates changed the course of the river that fed into it, leaving it to dry up.

In particularly rainy years the pan becomes a shallow lake once more, attracting thousands of migrating flamingos.

We left the pan and headed back to the savanna. At a waterhole, we watched a jackal attempt to sneak up on a brood of ostrich chicks. Before it could snatch one away, father ostrich attacked and chased it for a few hundred yards until it got the message.

In addition to ostriches and flamingos, well over three hundred species of birds can be seen in Etosha. It’s a birders’ paradise.

We spotted what we thought was a kori bustard, another species of bird. Some are as tall as four feet. The kori bustard is the heaviest bird capable of flight. We corrupted its name, of course, to bastard. But we misidentified the bastard. The bird was actually a secretarybird, also imposing at around four feet tall.

Etosha National Park, Namibia
Protecting the chicks

“It’s not the bastard,” one of the Canadians said. “It’s the bastard’s secretary.”

Before we left the park, we finally spotted a leopard. It lay motionless among the rocks next to a waterhole, evaluating its opportunities to ambush. A warthog and red hartebeest steered clear. A mob of banded mongooses scurried past to grab a quick drink.

The leopard didn’t move. It lay so still it looked like a leopard-print throw. Trompie thought it was waiting for dark when larger prey might approach the hole. We wished we could wait as well, but the park closes at sunset.

Over the line

In the morning some members of the group, after a night of drinking springboks, lumbered like elephants. Springboks are mixed with crème de menthe and Amarula, a cream liqueur made from the fruit of the marula tree, also known as the elephant tree.

Okavango River near Rundu, Namibia
Migrant workers from Angola crossing into Namibia

A long drive today. We stopped again in Outjo to run errands. Trompie and Danny had three more flat tires repaired. Allie and I bought a five-liter bottle of water to keep on hand in the ice-cream truck. Tap water in Namibia is not safe to drink. We checked our e-mail at an internet café.

A couple of times during the tour we crossed the Red Line, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Namibia’s border with Botswana in the east. North of the line are communal farms, where livestock graze freely. South of the line are commercial cattle farms concerned with disease control.

Vehicles are searched at roadblocks for animals and animal products, which may spread disease. We crossed at the Mururani Gate.

Once north of the line, I was struck by the sight of thousands and thousands of huts made from reeds and mud along the road. Smoke rose from cook fires. Children waved as we passed.

In the city of Rundu we visited the busy open market. Merchants sold wood carvings, pottery, fresh produce, bulk beans, bulk flour, shoes, toys, handmade mattocks, tires, and biltong, a dried meat similar to jerky. Used parts and accessories for TVs, phones, and computers were jumbled together in a pile.

Oryx, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Trompie attempted to convince the women in our group to buy colorful print dresses. The merchants avoided our cameras, unless we paid them.

We checked into the Kaisosi River Lodge on the Okavango River between Namibia and Angola. Our hosts served us drinks made with lychee fruit on a deck overlooking the river, while we watched people crossing the border illegally by boat. Supposedly they were headed to their jobs in Rundu.

We antipated a lot of mosquitoes, what the Australians call mozzies, along the river. After showering, applying insect repellant, and bug-bombing our room, Allie and I returned to the lodge for dinner. A guard in camo patrolled the compound with an automatic weapon in order to discourage bandits from crossing the river and robbing us during the night.

Mahango Game Reserve, Namibia
Mahango Game Reserve


Peacocks presented for us as we made our way to breakfast. They are not native to Africa, but are kept at the lodge as pets. We left Rundu and drove east into the Caprivi Strip.

Caprivi is a long, narrow band of land that juts east from the northeast corner of Namibia like the handle of a pan. The handle is nearly three hundred miles long, but only about twenty miles wide. To its south is Botswana, a country slightly larger than France. Botswana, with 2.3 million people, is Africa’s oldest continuous democracy.

We drove through the small Mahango Game Reserve, spotting elephants and sable along the way, and crossed through the Mohembo border post into Botswana.

Fish eagles, Okavango Delta, Botswana
Fish eagles, Okavango Delta

Trompie, a skilled storyteller, told about another crossing. Once, a tour member lost her passport. At a remote border, it was agreed to attempt to sneak her across, so as not to delay the entire group in the middle of the wilderness. Her plan was to apply for a new passport in the next country.

She hid in the tour bus while the rest of the group filed through the office of control. Once processed, the tour members reboarded.

As the bus was pulling away, an immigration official ran after them, waving his arms and shouting, “Stop! Stop!”

“What’s wrong?” the tour guide asked, fearing the worst.

“You’re not going anywhere,” the official replied. “Someone has stolen my pen!”

Near the village of Sepupa we boarded speedboats and headed into the Okavango Delta. The delta is a vast wetland formed where the Okavango River flows into the Kalahari Desert. Depending upon the amount of seasonal rain, the delta covers between twenty-three hundred and fifty-eight hundred square miles.

Inkwazi, Botswana

The marshland is home to one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife, including elephants, Cape buffalo, hippos, wildebeests, giraffes, crocodiles, lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, kudu, sable, black and white rhinos, zebras, warthogs, and baboons.

The delta also supports over five hundred species of birds and eighty-five species of fish. Okavango is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.

As we sped down the river, African fish eagles watched us from tree branches. We startled a hippo and several crocs. Danny spotted a monitor lizard on shore. At a bend in the river, Inkwazi was waiting for us. The houseboat Inkwazi would be our home for the next two nights.

Mokoros, Okavango Delta, Botswana
Mokoros, Okavango Delta

Poling place

In the morning, the speedboat took us back to Sepupa. From there, a truck drove us through several villages until we reached another shore of the delta. A group of local men waited in the mud next to long, slender mokoro boats.

Mokoros used to be dugouts. Now, the twenty-foot-long canoes are made of fiberglass. Each mokoro is navigated by a boatman, called a poler. The poler stands in the back of the boat and pushes it through narrow channels with a long pole. Each boat seats two passengers just inches above the water.

Our convoy of mokoros shoved off through the lily pads, rushes, and papyrus. While we glided peacefully through the tangled waterways, the polers pointed out various marsh birds. The channels through which the boats travel are forged by hippos.

Mokoros, Okavango Delta, Botswana
Mokoros, Okavango Delta

We reached open water where the eyes, ears, and nostrils of six hippos peeked above the blue surface. They chuffed loudly.

Hippos are dangerous—some say the most dangerous animal in Africa. They can easily upend a mokoro and chomp down on a swimmer. The polers pay a lot of attention to their whereabouts and carefully maneuver around them.

We disembarked on an island and hiked inland through waist-high grass. Along the way we spotted black-faced impala and zebras. One of the polers noticed a bull elephant, hiding in the trees at the edge of a clearing. We backed slowly and quietly away. Fearful of a charge, we gave him a wide berth.

Trompie joked about the long zoom lens one of the Australians was holding, “You know what they say about men with big lenses.” The Australian replied, “Well, it’s my wife’s.”

Sepupa, Botswana
Sepupa, Botswana

Back at the departure point, I tried my hand at poling a mokoro and found maintaining my balance and keeping the boat pointed in the right direction impossible. I nearly fell out.

In Sepupa, we took a walking tour of the village.

The housing was a mix of both small one-room concrete-block cottages and traditional reed huts. Donkeys, cows, and goats roamed freely.

A local guide showed us the school and the medical clinic. The residents are proud to have electricity to cool the refrigerated cases in the butcher shop. We bought baskets and jewelry made from woven grass from a local women’s co-op.

A circle of residents sat in the shade and drank kgada, a liquor made from berries and brown sugar. We paid for a taste and they dipped a large tin cup for us to pass around. It tasted like sour mash.

Warthog, Mahango Game Reserve, Namibia
Warthog, Mahango Game Reserve

Back at the houseboat, a few of us angled for tigerfish, a fierce game fish with razor-sharp teeth. Only the captain was successful. He landed a catfish.

Cage swimming

In the morning the speedboat transported us from the Inkwazi back to the ice-cream truck. We recrossed the border into Namibia and drove the deserted dirt roads of the Mahango Game Reserve. Along the way, we spotted elephants, Cape buffalo, zebras, warthogs, and various antelope, including sable, roan, lechwe, tsessebe, and black-faced impala.

The Cape buffalo makes four of Africa’s traditional Big Five for Allie and me, the others being elephants, lions, and leopards. We still haven’t seen a rhino.

Ngepi Camp, Namibia
Ngepi Camp

We stopped for a picnic lunch under a giant baobab tree. As we were setting up, Trompie found signs that indicated lions were in the vicinity. We ate warily near the ice-cream truck’s open door in case we had to make a run for it.

Back on the road, we turned a corner and nearly hit an elephant. It disappeared quickly into the trees. We followed the panhandle east, past the village of Divundu, until we arrived at Ngepi Camp.

Ngepi means How are you? The camp is set along the southern bank of the Kavango River. A sign on the bank warns: Beware Croc’s + Hippo’s in the River.

The lodgings at Ngepi are tree houses. The roofs are thatch. On three sides, the walls are reeds. The fourth side is open, but can be covered with a reed curtain.

Swimming Pool, Ngepi Camp, Namibia
“Swimming pool” in the Kavango River

On the deck is a galvanized tin sink and an open-air shower, both delivering cold river water. Mosquito netting hangs over the beds. (The hum of mosquitos was constant.) Beneath the tree house is a toilet.

The camp features several free-standing outdoor toilets and showers along a wooded trail called the Ablution Tour. Each stop is humorously themed; for example, “The Loo with a View.”

After settling into the tree house, we met the others at the “swimming pool,” a wire mesh cage sunk in the river.

Trompie delivered beers from the esky, the Australian term for cooler. The group lounged on the deck around the cage, gazing at animals across the river in Bwabwata National Park.

The enclosure allowed us to take plunges into the water without fear of being attacked by hippos or crocs.

“I wonder what they are doing at the office today,” Trompie mused.

Baobab tree, Mahango Game Reserve, Namibia
Baobab tree

Later, I washed clothes at the tree house and hung them to dry on the deck.

We joined the others for dinner by candlelight in the open-air lodge overlooking the river. Ocasionally hippos lifted their great heads out of the water.

At the bar Trompie bought a round of springboks. I imitated a giraffe warily approaching a water hole to drink, so a new drink, the giraffe, was created on the spot.

Back at the tree house, we unrolled the reed curtain to create the fourth wall of our room. As it unfurled, two large rats fell to the deck—plop, plop—and scurried away. All night, we listened to lions roaring in the forest and wondered if they ever visited the tree houses. 

To read “Memories of Africa (Part 3 of 3),” please see the next post.

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