For a day, at least. A sturdy yellow three-speed, with the saddle too low and chunky tires and a funky shifter that you had to stop peddling in order not to pop the chain. I was joined by a couple from the Netherlands, and we were led by a waif-sized African woman with mismatched clothes, a jaunty straw hat, a lot of spunk and some very strong opinions which she let fly for the full four hours. This made for a very interesting and educational morning. She issued us effective yellow safety vests, marginally effective helmets, had us sign a lengthy liability waiver and then delivered a lecture about how - when we do this tour - we are not observing the animals in Etosha and staying in a vehicle aiming our cameras at the people. Instead we are going to bike into the community and be part of the community. (It is worth noting that we saw nobody else on a bike the entire four hours. And it is also why I was terrified to pull out my camera at all on this ride - her message was clearly received.) We are not going into the poorest areas with the shanties and no water or electricity and desperately poor people because there is nothing to be gained from gawking and it's not safe ... plus they might take the bikes. Can't have that. And we aren't going down the streets with all the shebeens (bars) because that's where all the fighting and dangerous people are and ... again ... they might take the bikes. And we aren't going into the children's home or the hospitals or other places because she doesn't like tourism like that and this isn't a poverty or a save the children tour. Instead we will see the markets and
Ants. Human Ants. In a line scrambling up a massive sand dune in the dark. This was not my idea of fun. But I joined the ant line and started trudging my way up that dune, heart pounding and breath rattling. Feet slipping back six inches for every foot gained. All in the quest of viewing one of the most photographed daybreakson the planet ... sunrise over the famed Namibian red dunes.We were up at 4:30 in the morning after getting a coveted camping spot inside the park at Sesrium at the entrance of the valley of the dunes. This was not a great campground, but it did allow us to get in the queue of cars so when the gate opens we could be among the first in a long line of cars rushing into the dunes. If you were late, you would miss the sunrise. Once inside the park, every vehicle made for the same parking lot, and then all the ants poured out and started climbing in a noisy, humming line of creeping humanity.While our guide drove sanely at the park speed limit, others careened past in the mad scramble to get their ants unloaded at the dune first. I thanked our guide for being safe. I was grateful nobody hit an oryx rushing into the park in the dark. I grumbled up the first part of the dune. But as I climbed and as the light filled the sky, my black mood lifted with the sun. The sky turned pink and then white and the dunes - a surreal terra cotta soft shimmering sand - glowed more beautifully with the light. Like someone turned on a magical light from within the earth. They looked different every few minutes as the light continued to change.This is truly one of the
Damaraland landscapeRed sand. Endless flat white salt pans. Moonscape mountains of red sandstone rocks randomly emerge from a soft silvery-green plain dotted with the occasional tree. Rivers teeming with wildlife and birds. A few miles later, arid dusty sand-coated trees where the leaves have withered and browned. The desert here ends right at the pounding Atlantic Ocean, giving Namibia a seemingly endless beach stretching inland for miles.The scenery and landscape must be some of the most beautiful on earth - certainly some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in my travels. Etosha Salt pansNamibia is extreme. Extremely beautiful. Extremely harsh. This is an amazing place to visit. But I suspect it's incredibly difficult to live here.The temperatures in the desert fluctuate 50 degrees in a few short hours ... and most of this country is desert. The sun is hot. Mind-bendingly, hide under your scarf to get out of the sun hot. The nights have us sleeping in fleece hats and multiple layers and bag liners for warmth.The population here is small, and most people live in small villages and earn their living subsistence farming - somehow scraping a living farming this dry, sandy ground or by herding goats and cattle. One of many shipwrecks off the Skeleton coast, named by early mariners because the treacherous Antarctic current wrecked countless ships, and survivors of the wreck had no chance of surviving the desert and lack of food and water. And now there is a drought in the north of the country, and the crops have failed. Which means food shortages for many people, when they already live on very little. UNICEF is gearing up for substantial food assistance to help people survive till the next crop comes.There is high unemployment and few jobs ... most jobs are in the mines.
Sometimes the wildlife can get really close. The animals here in Etosha have seen so many people in vehicles, they are not afraid as long as you stay in the vehicle. Get out of the vehicle, though, and they can run or panic and become dangerous. We had some elephants come very close in Etosha. Their behavior was very different than in the Okavonga when we came upon an elephant and it reacted as a wild animal that knows humans in boats are a real threat - he through up his head and trumpeted and warned us back. And certainly different than India when one of our bike ride companions was trampled by an angry female with a baby. While the parks protect wild game in many ways, they also become conditioned to humans and more susceptable to poachers. and there is poaching in Etosha - primarily of rhinos. The Etosha area elephants have smaller tusks, making them less of a worthwhle target for poachers looking for ivory. Here is the photo series:Two male elephants having a nice late-afternoon drink at the waterholeMom taking a video of them drinking from our truckThe elephant comes closer to have a look and a sniff. We get nervous. These are some of the biggest elephants in Africa. This guy is huge.Eventually the elephant decides we aren't interesting and walks around in front of the car to find a tree to eat. He munches on the tree until we have to leave to get out of the park gate before sundown.
There are many baby animals in the park of all species this time of year. This very young baby elephant was napping under the shade of his mother. It got up, had a stretch, and then started to nurse. This young male lion has just finished eating his share of a zebra, and is off looking for shade to digest his meal while the three female lions in the pride eat the remains of the kill. Even though the females hunt, the male eats first. We watched him swat off the females until he had finished eating. Male lions mostly lie around all the day ... interesting to me that the females tolerate it. This springbok nibbles the leaves of an acacia tree with 2 inch long thorns. Springbok travel in large herds, and when they are frightened they bounce high in the air and run with huge high leaps off the ground, moving amazingly fast considering how high they jump with each stride. Lone male Red Hartebeast. Many of the antelope species have one dominant male in the herd. He forces the other young male out of the herd, and you see them either wandering alone or in small groups of males, away from the breeding herds of females and young. The birdlife in and around the park is also extraordinary. This Lilac Breasted Roller is just one of the incredibly beautiful birds - many which adopt incredible nesting and survival techniques to survive in the desert. Red Breasted Shrike - formerly the National bird of Namibia until they won independence in 1990. They replaced the lovely shrike with the fiercer Fish Eagle. This Bee Eater has caught a juicy dragonfly. It takes a while to choke it down, but it eventually manages.
Etosha National Park in Namibia had an incredible concentration of wildlife. We camped here three nights, and had one amazing wildlife encounter after another. This park is enclosed by a huge electric fence, and the animals congregate around the waterholes, making them easy to spot and observe their behavior. Many animals share the waterhole at the same time - often making uneasy eyes at the others as they all try to drink. The waterhole was like the Switzerland of bush ... a cautious truce is the unspoken rule as hyenas and jackals drank within meters of antelope and zebra. The truce even seems to hold true for the lions ... we saw two male lions lounging back from the waterhole while their prey drank nearby. If the females had been there, it may have been a different story. At one waterhole we saw seven different species drinking at the same time. The young animals have much less fear than the adults, and they interact and play with young animals from other species. We watched a baby zebra running around kicking up its heels ... bucking in circles and trying to torment the grown up zebras. When none of his own kind wanted to play, it ran up to a baby kudu, and started chasing it, and the two of them tore around in animal play scattering the impala in a game of interspecies tag. Spotted Hyena Many animals are extremely vulnerable to attack while drinking - especially the giraffe which is very slow to approach the water and usually posts a lookout to keep an eye out. The oryx must either wade into the water or drop to their knees at the edge to get their heads low enough to reach the water. They are also easily attacked while drinking, and are very
Reflection of Rhino Mom and calf, and giraffe mother and baby in the waterhole after sunsetThe campgrounds and lodges at Etosha National park have viewing areas of waterholes, and they even light them for a couple of hours at night. Mom and I watched an incredible interaction unfold one night with the endangered black rhinos, and even though we were freezing we sat there and shivered for two hours because we did not want to miss anything.The Rhino Party started with a large single male black rhino sharing the waterhole with three giraffe. Soon, a mother rhino and her calf wandered down to drink. Eventually eight rhino, including two mothers and calves were at the waterhole at the same time. They apparently have a standing appointment between 8 and 10 pm every night. They live alone, and wander in alone and solitary. But they are social animals, and they gather at the waterhole and interact together - coming together in groups with heads together snorting and huffing and touching horns. This inevitably leads to one of them getting offended, where they will throw their heads up and stomp backwards, snorting in clouds of dusts. They will face off and snort and stare each other down for a few minutes. Then one will charge the other - the mothers are particularly defensive of their young and keep themselves between the male rhinos and the babies. The calves stick right at Mom's side and mimic every move, except for the charging, when they linger safely behind. Two mothers separately backed of this huge male, and at one point ganged up on him to send him back to the outer edges and safely away.One of the rhino calves looked older and we believe was the equivalent of a teenage boy - he was