I'm sitting at a watering hole, watching three elephants drink from the pool. An hour ago there were three black rhinos here, drinking their fill. A dark shape moves on the horizon, getting closer and closer, until it becomes illuminated by the orange lights surrounding the pond. Another rhino has joined the three elephants. Jackals run around, trying in vain, to catch – well, it's not quite clear what they're trying to catch, only that they're failing. Welcome to Etosha Park.
Twelve years ago I saw Etosha on a television show. It claimed that the name translated into Land of Mirages. I thought that it must have been the most beautiful place in the world, and as such named one of the notebooks I used to write in, back in high school, after it. Never did I have any dreams that I would, some day, be standing in that very place. In high school the world seemed so far away, travel was what others did – rich people did – I'd never be able to get there. And yet, here I am, after only three years of saving, with a relatively moderately paying job.
I wonder what types of conversations I would have with twelve years ago me. He'd probably rip into me for smelling terrible, and having only four different shirts. But then I'd tell him that while he has many shirts, they're all black and look the same. Then he'd go put on his trench coat and hide in a hall opposite the school library. He also, probably, wouldn't believe I'd been to Africa – at the same time, the time travel situation? That would be handled and accepted without pause.
At the watering hole I sit on a bench, late at night, looking over a stone fence, some pieces of wire in place before it. This is what keeps the animals from jumping out and eating me. Being eating is somewhat of a constant fear for those of us travelling through conservation and game parks. The food chain gets a little messy here, and the animals haven't been told that they all lead to us. They think that it's fine for them to snack on us humans. We need to educate!
Behind me are rows of cabins with balconies that look out onto the pool. But we have no need of air conditioned cabins. No – we have tents. All air conditioning does is wrongly acclimatize you, and lead to you getting sicker quicker. It's true. But most people who could be watching this site are fast asleep. It is, after all, two in the morning. Even I would be asleep if not for the fact that Chef recommended trying to stay up all night...
Before we reached Etosha we drove from our campsite we slept in last night, and headed to a small town. Here we'd be able to shop for souvenirs, and buy water, and just hang out for a bit. Outside the various stores – which remind me of small K-Marts, the locals sit on strips of cardboard, or unfurled magazines, coming together to chat and while away the day. They are not begging, they are not hocking, they are just sitting together to chat. Living constantly in this extreme heat... well I can't imagine it. And this, after all, is their winter.
On the truck we pulled names from a hat and came up with Secret Santas. I had pulled Helen's name. Hmm – Helen... Helen... mother of three, what could I get for her that was less than seven dollars? Seven dollars being our groups limit – 50 pula I think it was?
We all converged on the same gift shop. And what a gift shop it was. It had all the items that people sold in little street markets, as well as other gift shops, but the prices were incredible. Bone beer openers for eight bucks, cloths for less, shot glasses, earings, pins, carved animals, bracelets. Everything. And again – the prices. A pair of earings? Three dollars. The set of five big five pins? Five dollars.
Just for the record – the big five are: Elephant, Buffalo, Black Rhino, Leopard, and Lion. They're the big five, because apparently they're the most fun to shoot. But due to this people who come to Africa often try to spot them all. Good luck!
I picked up the pins for Helen, and received them in a paper bag, sealed with a porcupine quill. And if one wanted to be totally accurate – this is the town we bought our Christmas lights in. And we put them up this night – not as previously mentioned. Whoops.
Christmas was a key thing today. We did the decorations, and were told by one of our travellers that she hated Christmas. Couldn't stand it! That's why she was in Africa. It's interesting to note that everyone on this tour left their families behind over the holidays. But she went on and on about how terrible it is, without any redeeming qualities. So at the front of the truck me and Hamish thought to ourselves – what is the longest, most obnoxious Christmas carol ever? The Twelve Days of Christmas!
We couldn't just start singing though – we had to work them out. And between twenty of us, no one was sure. Here's what we put together:
1 – partridge in a pear tree
2 – turtle doves
3 – french hens
4 – four calling birds
5 – goooooool-den rings
6 – hens a laying
7 – swans a swimming
8 – maids a milking
9 – lords a leaping
10 – ladies dancing
11 – pipers piping
12 – drummers drumming
We sang this song loudly and proudly through the mic over the trucks P.A. system, and it was the best of times.
I ate some biltong too. It's African Beef Jerky – except not always made with beef, and it's very very strong. It may hurt your jaw to chew it. Enjoy!
On the drive we saw a number of giraffe making their way across the lands, moving as if in slow motion. Seeing them was a spectacular sight. The type that makes you rub your eyes and think, my god, I'm in Africa. And these animals are real. They don't just exist in parks, or zoos – they are real wild animals. I can't imagine what it would have been like for a European to come from the land of small animals to Africa and take in all of these creatures – they're just so different from anything anywhere else in the world.
There were also Springbok. These were more important a few days ago, before they were everywhere, and before we had ingested them. Now when we saw them, we just thought of how hungry we were.
Now Etosha offers a night drive for some extra monies. And we were told that it was on the night drives that you'd most often see leopard and lions. I'm not one to care for such things, but with all this talk of the big five, I figured I needed to see them all, otherwise I would feel as if I missed out! So off to the night drive – but wait, all the seats were already full! This led to our Christmas hater complaining, and yelling, and doing terrible things to our captain and chef. But did they get angry? No – they just added a free afternoon drive to our tour. Because they are the best. We had one hour in this campsite named “Land of Fertile Woman” (I forget the name in the original language) before we headed into the park.
I headed off to the watering hole. It was there that we watched springbok (yawn) be pushed closer by Zebra who were unsure as to the safety. One the springbok had drank for a while they were nudged out by the emboldened zebras who now wanted the place for themselves. And after some time watching, a shadow moved on the horizon, drawing closer and closer. It turned to be an elephant. An elephant very very close to us. I questioned the ability of the fence to keep this beast out. A jackal jumped over the fence, terrifying Mitchel, passing close to his face, to escape. Now I really questioned the fence's ability.
As it got even closer we noticed something – it looked like the elephant had five legs. But the fifth one was being used to swat flies. I'll just leave that to you to figure out. Huge.
A number of giraffes came down, spreading their legs to form tripods, so they could support themselves as they bent down to lap the pool with their large purple tongues.
And then off to the game drives. The two drives led us to see more springbok (yawn – not even worth picture at this point) and giraffes, and – after talking to another traveller we were directed to – a pride of lions out in the distance. There were a number of females with their cubs, running around and playing. While we couldn't get too close to them, leaving the path is forbidden, we could still see them. There's another one checked off of the big five.
As we were leaving the park, we saw a car stopped ahead of us. What had they seen? What had they spotted? A lion – a male lion – no more than two or three meters away from us. We watched the lazy beast as he lounged in the sun, not really getting up to all that much. And we fought each other in the truck for proper window space to take our pictures. Whenever something new or exciting is seen there is always the jockeying for position. Peoples toes are crushed, flip flops lost. Closed toed shoes are recommended on these drives.
Having enough the lion got up and walked into the bush. We headed back to camp.
There I showered, ate dinner, and headed back to the waterhole with Hamish. That's where the three rhinos came, then the elephants. At this point I started to fade in and out of consciousness. But luckily Erin woke up and joined us. While me and Hamish passed out, she watched. At three o'clock she roused us to see the giraffes that had gathered. There was a unicorn too. But we're not allowed to talk about that. The park ranger said so.
Big five count? Lions, and Elephants, and Rhinos – oh my!