I told you last time: I'm in love. As soon as I returned to the U.S. after my last trip to Namibia, I was already aching to return and, one year later, I got my wish. Would it be the same? Would my starry-eyed perspective have vanished when I spotted my next rhino? Would I still feel the same sense of wonder at the solitude of the second most sparsely populated country on earth? Would the jarring gravel roads still make me giggle with joy? The answer? Absolutely.
To begin, we returned to Okonjima Game Reserve. A convenient stopping point on the way north from Windhoek, it is a stunning land of lush green forests stretching up rocky red hills. I feel sure we will return here time and time again. Not only is this vast expanse of land replete with leopards and cheetahs, but also home to mountain zebra, giraffe, warthog, bat-eared fox, hartebeest, kudu, and a host of other creatures.
Sometimes the smallest creatures are the most fun. We came across an enormous colony of ground squirrels who popped up from every which way, scurrying and scampering and chasing on another. This little couple seemed to be sharing secrets. We also saw an elephant shrew! While most people are familiar with the "Big Five," this adorable little rodent is a proud member of the aptly named "Little Five."
Okonjima is home to the Africat Foundation, which rehabilitates cheetahs and leopards who have either been injured or have come into conflict with farmers and returns them to the wild of their reserve. To monitor the population of leopards, many are fitted with radio collars, which has the added bonus of helping guides find them on game drives. On a drive with Gideon, a guide we met the previous year, we were searching for a mother leopard who was wearing a collar. To the delight of me and my camera, we came across a young male leopard who was not collared! "Fatty," as he is affectionately called by guides, is about nine months old and full of mischief. He earned his name not only from his heft, but his knack for greedily grabbing the prey his mother catches before his sibling can.
Sitting under a tree, we were able to pull up right next to him. My initial reaction is to be in awe of his beauty. Then, as he does some kitty-like things like scratching on his natural scratching post, I think, "He's so cute!"–that is, until he promptly looks directly at me and my camera and crouches low, thinking about whether he should pounce on me, and I am humbled and reminded of his ferocity. To me, the leopard is the most intimidating of all the big cats. Cheetahs have a rather soft nature compared to the others. Lions, when not hunting, are lazy and content to nap and roll about in the shade with full bellies. Leopards, on the other hand, have this constant intensity and the wildness just emanates from them.
Fatty is known to do less-than-smart teenager-esque things, because he hasn't quite grasped the rules of being a leopard yet. We all go through that phase, don't we? In this case, a truck that was watching him nearby us caught Fatty's eye. He sauntered toward the vehicle, confident and devil-may-care. Walking about the truck, to the concern of the passengers, he took interest in the comfortable-looking bed of the truck. Crouching and pacing and clearly deciding on the best angle to jump aboard, Fatty made his approach. Just in time, the driver pulled away before they added an unwelcome weight to their load.
After we were done spending quality time with this impish youth, we went off in search of our initial target, the radio-collared mother leopard. The beep-beep-beeping led us one way and then another, constantly searching for a stronger signal. We eventually narrowed it down to a forested area between the vaguely defined roads and Gideon sighed in resignation. It seemed as though she was settled down, maybe with a kill, somewhere deep within the impassable brush. With great determination, he began navigating the Land Rover off-road, crushing branches below the wheels while thorny branches roughly slapped the open-air vehicle as we narrowly dodged the blows. We continued to follow the volume of the beep until we were certain of the direction. Binoculars scouring the brush, we at last located the spots in an even thicker part of the bush. Gideon would not give up when we had come so close, and miraculously we pulled up a few meters away next to the beautiful leopard feasting on the leg of a dik-dik. Engine off, we watched her enjoy her kill, the unmistakable sound of bone crunching a thrilling, if ghastly, experience.
At night, the universe opened up its doors in a dazzling display of twinkling lights. Completely in awe of the Milky Way, I set my camera up on the tripod and began taking some long-exposure shots. I backed up in order to get a different perspective and promptly fell off the ledge of our chalet entrance, thankfully not taking my camera with me, for I surely would have saved my equipment before my head. I crawled back up to my camera, bleeding from my hands, knees, and feet, and grinning my head off at the beautiful, perfect, glorious night that closed the pages of our second first day in Namibia.
Driving out of Okonjima, I felt less melancholy than the last time, knowing I would be back again. The baby jackals on the way out didn't hurt either. An adult jackal ran by with a mouth full of something dead. Soon enough, two rolicking, scraggly jackals about half her size appeared and delighted us with all kinds of cuteness.
After a long and beautiful drive north, we arrived at our next lodge, which will remain nameless to protect the location of the rhino photographed, and promptly headed into Etosha National Park. When we visit Etosha, we self-drive, which is my favorite part about Namibia. Driving yourself allows you to spend as much time as you like with your sightings. There's nothing better than being all alone with wild animals. There is a thrill to having an elephant nearby that could crush your car with its strength or a rhino that could charge at you, but be completely at peace with each other because you mean no harm and respect each other's space. Driving on the opposite side is pretty fun too.
I drove through Etosha gate and paid our park fee only to see more small and wonderful creatures in the form of a large family of banded mongooses. Near the reception building, it is safe to get out of your car, so I took advantage of the opportunity to get a low angle shot and instantly got down onto my belly in front of the scurrying little creatures. Two baby mongooses wriggled and climbed on top of one another, biting and playing. One of the babies took notice of me and approached with curiosity. After several brave steps, it plopped down on its belly, in a perfect mimic of my own position. I looked at him, and once again he crept forward, before again losing courage and plopping down again.
After a quick examination of the map of Etosha, we began a route to the right of the salt pan. While you don't often see many other vehicles in Namibia (one of the best parts), it is best practice to stop when you see another vehicle stopped to discover what they've spotted. We quickly sighted some elephant on our route and, wisely, a guided safari tour pulled up nearby to check out our find. I shouted up to the guide and asked if she's spotted any lions today, hoping for a tip, and after a "not today" she quickly followed with, "Don't I know you?" I broke into a grin, feeling like I had run into an old friend. She had been our guide on a game drive on our last visit to Namibia! We chatted for a while, both delighted at the improbability of running into each other once again.
Sometimes the best part of wildlife photography comes when you're editing. While I knew I got some shots of the kori bustard during the golden hour and while I knew it had something in its beak, I didn't know that the something was an absolutely enormous tarantula! To give you some perspective on just how big that spider is, the kori bustard stands at over three feet tall.
The last time I was in Etosha, it wasn't until the last day that we saw any elephants. Possibly, last year's abundant rains allowed the elephants to stay hidden from view, in the lush growth. This year, rains were scarce and our journey offered elephants at every turn! This group emerged from a wooded area one by one, marching under the setting sun.
I like to set photography goals for myself when I travel. It's good to have a mission and satisfying to accomplish it. In my previous travels, my ostrich photos always proved a disappointment, so I set out to capture an ostrich shot I was proud of. Their narrow neck makes even focusing a challenge, but this time I was happy to get these shots with lovely lighting that highlights the beautiful fluffy texture of their feathers and the beauty of sunset in the bush.
Following the rule of "stop where other cars stop," I pulled up to an area that clearly had people excited. A cheetah was walking parallel to the road, and at a close distance. I was able to follow along, pulling far ahead of his path and then stopping and waiting for him to catch up before moving forward once again. Their sleek bodies and fluid movements make them the most elegant species in the animal kingdom.
The following day, I arranged for us to spend the morning in a photography hide. A hide is an area dug into the earth with open areas at ground level which allow photographers to take shots of animals unseen. It also allowed me to get these low angle shots which would be impossible without a willingness to become one of the fools you see on the news who get mauled because they got out of their vehicle in an area with big game. The hide was both peaceful and incredibly thrilling, positioned right in front of a waterhole. Waiting for the animals to come to you, not knowing what will come next, creates this sense of anticipation that I love. We were first graced by an abundance of birds flitting about. Then the warthogs came. Then the zebras came.
On my last trip to Namibia, I captured a shot of a shaft-tailed whydah in flight, but from quite a distance. The shot was nice, but taken from too far away to get any great detail. I was hooked, and wanted nothing more than to have the opportunity to photograph one again.This special little bird only has its flowing tail feathers this time of year, so I was fortunate to be able to see one of nature's most special birds once again at its most brilliant. I could not believe my luck when I got to the hide and discovered that the area was overflowing with whydah flitting about. They particularly liked the thorny tree just to the right of the hide, which allowed me to get these close range shots.
Impala visited the waterhole as well as more zebra. A beautiful woolly-necked stork joined the party, picking about in the reeds. I squinted into the sky at the faint dot of a vulture circling above. The waterhole is a place for everyone and I couldn't be more thrilled that, as I photographed the stork, the vulture swooped down over the waterbird, her massive wingspan creating the ultimate photobomb.
Sometimes, lady luck smiles upon me. Thrilled by even a common warthog or a bird visiting the waterhole, I was beside myself when I drew the blackjack of animal sightings and a black rhino emerged from the woods, walking toward me. He had an enormous, beautiful horn and spent a fair amount of time with us, taking slow, deliberate steps along the waterhole and having a drink before moving on.
Rhinos are exciting and all, but wow have I become a bird person! I guess there were early signs of this foible...I spent a lot of time with geese as a child. I used to rescue and rehabilitate baby songbirds that fell from the rafters of the horse barn I worked at as a teenager. I took Ornithology as an elective in college, and here I am today: a wanna-be birder who is absurdly excited by a nearby stork.
Before leaving the hide, we had the immense pleasure of a dung beetle traversing right in front of us. It was a small dung beetle who appeared as though he was moving one of his first dung balls. What an exciting moment to be a part of!
After some time relaxing at the pool, we headed out for a drive around Fischer's Pan before heading south of Namuntoni to check out several waterholes.
Giraffes are docile creatures that tower above the trees, causing no harm, and clearly an animal you would want to befriend. But, occasionally, giraffes do fight. Male giraffes who squabble over a female do so by necking, a violent battle which involves high speed swinging necks. It's pretty intense. We came across one poor male who lost one of his ossicones in a recent fight, and was also sporting a split lip. I say poor giraffe, but who can really say? He may be the victor, proudly wearing his battle wounds like a badge of honor. Chicks dig scars, right?
I just adore the hornbill. While Etosha is home to six different species of this bird, my favorite of all is the southern yellow-billed hornbill. With a substantial yellow beak, a fluffy crest for texture, and a pale yellow eye that catches the light just so, you have a photographer’s dream subject.
This young jackal was trying to cross the road in front of us and seemed hesitant to do so. We tried to move the car several times to free the way for him but, every time we did, he followed us and was not sure how to do so. I wondered where his parents were or if he had just recently branched off on his own from his family. Finally, he got up the bravery to cross in front of us. His ears perked up suddenly as he spotted his parents in the distance. He went bounded off and we were able to witness the adorable reunion as he went belly up, rolling and snuggling with his family.
I had such an incredible time in the hide that I booked it again for the following day. The first day set such high expectations for me that disappointment was a definite possibility. While I was not graced by the presence of another rhino, something equally exciting arrived– flamingos! Falling down from the sky like umbrellas, the flamingos landed one by one, seemingly out of nowhere. I was instantly reminded of the René Magritte painting, Golconda. There was something whimsical and impossible about the moment and I felt for a moment like I was granted a glimpse into one of Lewis Carroll's worlds. I was enchanted.
A wildebeest wandered into the mix, the morning sunlight adding to his grandeur. Often we see wildebeest hanging about herds of antelope for strength in number. In these situations, I always find them a bit sad and lonely-looking, like Eeyore or a person who feels alone in a crowd. When they're solo, however, they are simply majestic. Their tails flip in the wind– probably just slapping at flies, but the camera loves it. The sheen on their coats highlights their musculature and is just stunning to behold.
There's one in every family...yes, even flamingo families. One flamingo could not refrain from mischief. Every chance he got, he bit at or chased the other flamingos. It was very entertaining for us, but I do believe the other flamingos had quite enough of his nonsense.
Had enough of flamingos? Understandable, but please understand it's hard to filter out any images of these incredibly photogenic birds. After sadly leaving the hide which I would have gladly made my permanent residence, we headed out on our full-day drive across Etosha to our lodging on the other side of the park, Taleni Etosha Village. The theme of this drive, which I was beyond okay with, seemed to be raptors, or BoPs as I like to call them (birds of prey). From a black-chested snake-eagle to goshawks to the menacing looking martial eagle, it seemed like every tree held a treasure if you kept your eyes sharp.
Photographing birds always presents a bit of a conundrum. With a full day drive to get across the park, and the necessity of exiting the gates before sunset, I always have to decide how long to wait. With every turn and flinch of the bird, I am ready for takeoff, but then they settle onto the branch, once again looking content to stay there for hours. Sometimes they decide to take off suddenly, and often during the single, fleeting moment I give my hand a momentary break from the shutter release. How long to wait? What if they are content to stay for hours? With this stunning martial eagle, I eventually had to concede defeat and wish him a pleasant day as I drove onward.
One of the coolest birds, no– animals, in the world is the Secretary Bird. The Secretary Bird is an enormous bird of prey, standing at over 4 feet tall, and easily brings to mind the close relationship between birds and dinosaurs. It stalks the ground, hunting for everything from insects to lizards, snakes, and mongoose. I was fortunate that this one was close to the road and I was able to follow for a long time, enjoying the bizarre bird’s quest through the tall grasses.
The following day, we set out to explore the western side of Etosha. We picked a waterhole to the north, Okondeka, and began our exploration. On the way we saw an adorable jackal family, the babies pouncing on each other. A leopard tortoise crossed the road in front of us, very slowly, and a kind person risked the big cats, got out of his car, and moved the tortoise off the road.
When we arrived at Okondeka, I was stunned at the beauty all around me. The Etosha pan is an enormous salt deposit, flat and seemingly infinite. The zebra and wildebeest walked away from the waterhole, the stark white expanse of the pan and the lovely blues and pinks of the morning sky as a backdrop.
We drove on, searching and exploring. We visited the ghost tree forest, before finding an incredible waterhole that was overflowing with wildlife. We passed by briefly to see what another vehicle was looking at and found an elephant partaking in a luxurious mud bath. We drove a bit farther down the road to discover two of the most enormous elephants I’ve ever seen. They crossed the road in front of our car, looking at us, and there was the brief moment of wondering if they would charge or not. These docile old gentleman were unconcerned with us, however, and ambled by, not sparing more than an occasional glance of curiosity. The pair walked toward the waterhole, first one and then the other, and we followed slowly beside them in our car as the majestic creatures passed their day peacefully. After drinking from the waterhole and also enjoying a mud bath, one of the elephants approached the line of trees. He broke an adult tree clean in half using his tusks and, rather than eating from it, he then used the broken stump as a butt scratcher. I felt bad for the poor tree, but also impressed by the resourcefulness of the elephant.
This waterhole was pretty spectacular. On my last trip to Namibia, the rains were abundant and waist deep puddles were everywhere. Rivers were flooded. Water was plentiful. The wildlife had no need for waterholes. This trip to Etosha was a completely different experience because they were experiencing a drought. Animals congregated at waterholes like ants on a picnic crumb. Huge groups of zebra, wildebeest, impala, and oryx milled about. Zebras rolled around in the dust, making me a happy photographer. Various other species of antelope mingled with the zebras and I discovered that baby wildebeest look like little cows, but even cuter. We watched an adorable baby zebra zoom around and around (and around and around) as the adults stood by and watched, reminiscing about the days when they had that much energy.
After a mid-day break lazing about by the pool, we headed back into the park with a new strategy. Rather than driving around searching for animals, we decided to park at a waterhole and let the animals come to us for a change. We arrived to find hundreds of springbok blanketing the area. They seemed quite comfortable and calm, considering a pair of lappet-faced vultures were picking at the remains of a fellow springbok nearby. A tawny eagle tried to get in on the scavenging, but was quickly chased away by a naughty crow who bit at the eagle’s tail and feet, chasing him away from the prey. A herd of wildebeest came thundering toward the waterhole in a perfect formation. The number and variety of animals congregating in this one place was awe-inspiring.
From the distance, the most auspicious sight in the world appeared and began his approach as, once again, a black rhino graced us with his presence. We were all alone with him when he arrived. He walked toward the waterhole, marking his territory along the way. Another car took my own advice and came over to see what we were looking at. Naturally, as there was one of nature’s most endangered and beloved animals a few feet away, they stopped their car, which in turn attracted more vehicles. You rarely have to see other cars or interact with other people in Namibia (part of why I love it so much) so it seemed as though every vehicle in all of Etosha managed to be at our waterhole due to our sighting. The rhino tired of the cars, some of whom did not turn off their engines as they should (because rhinos especially find it annoying, much like I do), and walked away into the distance. The other vehicles went their separate ways, leaving us once again in the wilderness with our waterhole, now rhino-less, but still complete with a copious number of springbok.
The sun was beginning to set and the lighting was magical when, to my astonishment, the rhino came back to us! Walking right by our car (which made me ready to drive, based on our rhino-charging mishap from the last time), he visited the waterholeagain, taking a relaxing dip to cool off in the little pool right next to where we were parked. A duck sat by him in happy companionship. We were able to while away the final hours of the day quietly and completely alone with the rhino (and just shy of a thousand springbok).