Monday, June 21, 2010

A Horse of Another Stripe

Can you have too many pictures of Zebras? Yes. Did that stop me from taking photographs every time we came upon a new group of zebras during a recent trip to Namibia? Of course not. How can you resist trying to get the one image that best captures the insanity of all those stripes in their infinite variety?

We saw zebras almost everywhere we went in Namibia. They are well-adapted to the grassvelds and dry climate that we found surprisingly similar to New Mexico. Picture New Mexico with striped horses and taller grass.

Namibia has roughly 6 people per square mile (second only to Mongolia in lack of population). Rainfall varies from an annual average of less than 50 mm in the Namib Desert to 600 mm in the northeastern Caprivi Strip. Namibia lies between Angola on the north, Botswana on the east, South Africa to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. Etosha National Park is a World Heritage Site and the newly-declared Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park will extend 1570 km down the entire coastline. The Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park will be the 8th largest park in the world, the biggest in Africa and the sixth largest terrestrial park globally. In other words, there is still room for lots of wild things in Namibia.

David and I were eager to return to the African continent after our first visit in 2007. We wanted to go to a country that we could explore on our own and where we could make impromptu decisions to go left or right, or in my case, to stop for another zebra. It was easy to get around in a Toyota Corolla, although in hindsight we should have rented the higher clearance 4x4. Three flat tires and some tricky driving to avoid scraping off the bottom of the car or getting buried in sand were the consequence. They have a saying in Namibia – rental cars can go anywhere.

Ours took us 2600 miles in three weeks around the northern half of the country. Our first stop was Okonjima to visit the Africat Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting cheetahs and leopards - We went out with a guide to find one of the radio-collared leopards. Even with the radio-collar (which the leopards wear for their protection) it was no sure thing that we could find the one we were looking for within 10,000 acres. We found Nkoshi at dusk, alerted to his presence by the scent of a recent kill. After watching him resting in the deepening shadows, we left him in peace. Africat has rescued more than 900 cheetahs and leopards since the early 90’s and over 85% have been released back into the wild. Nkoshi was born at Okonjima and is used to being around people who don’t point a gun at him, so he will always remain at Okonjima.

At Huab we walked along an ephemeral river which still had a small flow of water with fish, dragonflies and turtles. We loved coming upon small groups of mountain zebras (the ones with the Adam’s apple) in the thickets of acacias, leadwoods and camelthorn trees. The Oryx seemed almost tame as they grazed along the sandy edges of the river. The peace and quiet of the lodge, and the vivid stars at night were just the ticket.

Our visit to Hobatere got off to a great start when we rounded a corner on the drive in and saw a leopard standing in a spot of shade. We stayed in a treehouse our first night there. We ate our picnic dinner on the deck while zebra and oryx came to drink at the waterhole. In the middle of the night we heard the huff-huff of a lion and in the morning found her footprints in the sand beneath the treehouse. An owl flew from the branches as we climbed down the ladder.

Etosha National Park was the land of the Plains zebras (the ones with the shadow stripes). There were zebras on the salt pan, nervously approaching a waterhole near a large scattering of bones where predators had obviously had previous success. Zebras by the dozens walked down the middle of the gravel roads. There were lots of newborns and more on the way. There were zebras trekking single file to their favorite springs and there were zebras just hanging out, resting their heads on each other’s back. They say every zebra can be identified by its individual stripes, like fingerprints, but you either have to be a very dedicated scientist or a hungry foal to do so.

There are currently only three places where you can stay within the park, run by the government agency Namibia Wildlife Resorts. A fourth is under construction on the western side of the park and there are plans to extend the park all the way out to the coast. It is worth staying at these NWR places because you have to be in camp by sunset or have left the park by then. This translates into at least ½ hour more time in the park at the best animal-viewing hours of early morning and early evening.

One of the facets of the NWR camps that I thought I would not like were the flood-lit waterholes – it sounded too intrusive and unnatural. Yet one of our most memorable sights was walking up to the camp-side of the waterhole at Okaukuejo around 7:30pm to see 4 adult rhinos and 1 baby drinking deeply at water’s edge. It was truly breath-taking. We sat on benches behind a low stone wall with other guests from the camp, everyone totally quiet in the dark, all eyes searching the gloom beyond the edge of the waterhole to see who might be out there.

         Other notable sights were the mother Red-billed Teal marching down the side of the road near Fischer’s Pan followed by 10 ducklings; the Banded Mongooses splayed out in the road and atop rocks, soaking up the reflected heat before moving off in a big troop; the Black-faced Impala at a waterhole staring down some lions that were lying in wait under a tree; the wasps and moths using bits of leaves as rafts to float across the top of the water on a pool.

Perhaps the luckiest moment came just as we were leaving Etosha at the end of our fourth day there. Everyone we had talked to at the camps had mentioned the elephants they had seen but we had not yet come upon the largest and most iconic of Namibia’s animals. I said half-jokingly, “We’ll see one just before the exit gate”. And that is the way it happened, when I had given up on trying to see into the dense brush, and David said, “Heads up Scout, there’s your guy”. We watched an old bull elephant, with two broken tusks and caked with clay, step out from the trees and cross the road. Just as quickly as he had appeared he was gone.

We got to see one more elephant on our trip. This time we weren’t even looking for it. We were just following along behind four San hunters as they probed tree-holes for honey, dug up roots from which they squeezed a bitter liquid, and showed us how to make string from a sharply-pointed plant called mother-in-law’s tongue. The men were chatting happily in the odd clicks and pops of their native Juhoansi, which guide Kaece translated into English for us. All of a sudden everybody got very quiet and then quickly changed direction. We hurried after them, hoping the 12,000 pound bull had not seen or smelled us yet.

When an elephant is only 75 feet away and you are on foot, you notice in a hurry that the trees and shrubs of the bushland do not provide much protection. I decided it was smarter to go with the hunters than to try to get that incredible National Geographic photo that I so badly wanted. Poison arrows are fine for catching a warthog or steenbok but from the look on the guys’ faces they did not intend to mess with an elephant.

After he went his way and we went ours, we came to the waterhole where the elephant had just been drinking. One of the men pulled a plastic bottle from his shoulder bag and filled it with muddy water – ostrich eggs no longer serving as the water jug of choice – and we admired all the tracks that told the story of who had recently been there. We continued our walk with an appreciation for the skills and knowledge of the San, a way of life that is rapidly vanishing.

The men who took us into the bush were all in their thirties as best they could count. None of the young boys in their community were interested in learning the traditional skills of hunting and gathering food. Tourist visits provide income that in turn supplies food, clothing, tobacco and other goods. Nhoma Lodge owners Arno and Estelle Oosthuysen drilled a well for the community so the women wouldn't have to walk miles to find water. A tented school up the road provides basic education for the kids. Despite these improvements to their quality of life, the future is uncertain.

          What we appreciated most about our visit to Nhoma and the San was the opportunity to meet people one-on-one. We also met people by sharing our car. The funniest part was trying to explain there was only room for two in the backseat while four people with their sacks piled in. It all worked out since they were slender people and didn’t mind squishing. Plus Bob Marley on the CD helped and so did sharing a pack of gum.

David and I met other people that touched our hearts during the course of our three-week visit to Namibia. One was tiny Victoria who said she was 7 years old. She had a few baskets to sell and spoke impeccable English. Lariska was a young girl whose handmade sign compelled us to stop at her roadside stand near Spitzkoppe. We shared some food with her and bought a few crystals from the Erongo Mountains. I hope she gets the photograph that I am mailing to her.

We thoroughly enjoyed the guides and staff at all the places we stayed but none more so than Bruno Nebe. Bruno grew up in Namibia, the son of a professional hunter, and learned tracking skills from a Bushman. He started his working life as a hunting guide and then created Turnstone Tours to show people the unique desert environments around the Skeleton Coast and the Namib-Naukloft Park. Over the years he got involved in conservation and saw the threats to wildlife from over-hunting and poaching. Nine years ago Bruno and his wife Kate purchased a 13,000+ acre former cattle farm in north-central Namibia. They named it Mundulea and vowed that no wild animal within the perimeter of the farm would ever know a gun again.

We booked our stay at Mundulea for our second-to-last stop because we figured by then we would have seen a ton of animals and we would enjoy walking with Bruno just to see what we could see outside the confines of a vehicle. We learned about many different types of thorny acacia, all designed to snag and trip, and how to tell one dung pile from another. Whenever Bruno saw some poop he put it into his pocket until he had 6 samples and then laid them side-by-side under the shade of a marula tree – his outdoor classroom. He showed us how to ID the rhino’s dung by the bits of twigs nipped off at a 45 degree angle that it contained and how another one’s insects parts revealed it to be from a badger.

               By the end of 2 ½ days we felt like we had walked a lot of the 13ooo acres. We never saw Hooker, the last male Black Rhino of the subspecies Bicornis chobensis, nor any of his gal friends. We did see scuff marks where some eland bulls had tussled and we watched a warthog watching us back before he trotted away with his tail pointing skyward. We dodged a swarm of wild honey bees in the mini-Grand Canyon we climbed through and passed by a pile of bones from a Kudu that had probably fallen to his demise. We were informed and enchanted by Bruno’s knowledge of this special place.

One of his many stories illustrated his concern for the entire spectrum of life on the farm. One day he was by himself in a remote corner, looking for the endangered Black-faced Impala that he reintroduced at Mundulea. He was suddenly attacked from behind by a huge python, who sank her teeth into his calf and then coiled herself around and began to squeeze. The only thing that saved him from being crushed to death was the fact that every time she started to squeeze, she was squeezing her own head as well. She loosened her jaw in order to reposition her hold on Bruno and in that instant he was able to get his leg free and then extricate himself while the python continued to bite him.

Once he was out of her reach he stopped to admire her healthy condition and estimated the python to be about 40 years old and 18’ long. He had a pistol in his backpack but never thought of using it. Instead, he drove back to the farmhouse and soaked in a bathtub full of antiseptic liquid, then greeted guests that afternoon and took them out on a walk. One of the guests wondered why he was moving so stiffly.

When we were making our travel plans at home we thought it would be great to end our trip at the ocean. Namibia is the only country that has made its entire coastline into a national park and the towering dunes along much of that coast are world-famous. We booked an excursion with Turnstone Tours, Bruno’s company, and were delighted when Bruno himself met us at our hotel in Walvis Bay to take us to Sandwich Harbor.

To get to Sandwich Harbor you must have a substantial 4x4. You begin by letting some air out of the tires to have more grip in the sand. You travel along the sloped shoreline while trying to avoid being pulled into the ocean by the surge of the tide. You must know exactly where to cross some open stretches so you don’t disappear in quicksand. To climb over the dunes you need the gear-shifting skills of Mad Max. This is not a trip to try on your own in the rental car.

We reached the fresh water lagoons at Sandwich Harbor and had it all to ourselves. The lagoons are a sanctuary for pelicans and flamingos and there was plenty of birdlife to watch. Jackals trotted around the edges of the ponds sniffing for a meal. We hiked to the top of an enormous dune to enjoy the view over the lagoons and ocean. We could see a pod of dolphins playing in the surf. We went down to stick our toes in the ocean and a seal popped his head and neck out of a wave to see what we were doing.

By the time we headed home we felt we had just scratched the surface of all there is to learn about Namibia. We appreciated the easy, welcoming attitude of everyone we met, the beauty of the landscapes, and most importantly to us, the efforts being made to balance the well-being of wildlife with that of people. I recommend a visit to Namibia if you value these same things. And especially if you want to photograph striped horses.

Go to to view more images from our trip


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