Every day in Etosha is an adventure, a wild experience. Only the day before, in the Namibian national park, we have seen a herd of elephants and a black rhinoceros. We have seen kudus and dik-diks, hyenas and warthogs, zebras and giraffes. Even a leopard and a cheetah with her cub.
Today we hope to spot the King of Beasts. Today we are looking for lions.
The trick is to get up at dawn or before, while the temperatures are still low and the air is cool. Most animals you will encounter while on safari will be at their most active in the early morning or late afternoon to evening, when it’s not scorching hot or freezing cold.
As the sun rises over the horizon, we can spot many animals moving towards the waterhole at the Onguma Bush Camp (where we are staying), located just outside the Etosha National Park. But Anthony, our local safari guide, informs us that these are mostly herd animals. No lions.
To catch sight of the King of Beasts, he assures us, we’d have to enter the park. And so we do, joining the queue of other vehicles entering at daybreak. While on safari, you have many choices – from self-driving (basically you’re on your own, and quite safe, provided you follow the park’s rules) to joining a group tour (which provides companionship and conversation during the lulls between sightings).
Devil and I have hired a private guide. Experienced guides like Anthony can locate most animals, using a mix of knowledge of their regular routes, checking the grounds for tracks and exchanging valuable time-sensitive information with other guides. Listening to him chatting in a rapid-fire blend of English and Afrikaans with his contacts, we realise we’d be missing a lot if we were on our own.
Furthermore, there are over 80 watering holes in the park, scattered across an area of 22,270 square kilometres, so having a guide helps tremendously in deciding which waterhole to visit. Our first stop is the Klein Namutoni waterhole, one of the closest and busiest waterholes upon entering the park from the Von Lindequist Gate. This waterhole is popular with antelopes such as kudu and impalas, spotted hyenas, giraffes and the occasional elephant.
When we arrive, there is only a pair of small black-backed jackals patrolling the perimeter of the waterhole. Their presence means most of the antelopes were staying a watchful distance away. It doesn’t seem promising but Anthony assures us the safari life is a waiting game. Patience… and a bit of luck.
In less than half an hour, our perseverance is rewarded. Anthony, eagle-eyed, tells us to look hard into the horizon. We can just make out a slowly moving object. He passes us the binoculars and we can see what he spotted: a lion!
We are not the only ones to have noticed; the jackals are spooked. Soon they catch scent of the lion and the smaller carnivores start moving in circles nervously, unsure whether to abandon the waterhole and any prospect of prey. As the lion approaches, steady and unhurried, the jackals decide to play safe and depart, yelping tiny, sharp barks as they flee.
The King of Beasts claims the waterhole for his own. Lowering his hindquarters at the edge of the water, he starts sipping. Not unlike a very big house cat, come to think of it. Only most house cats are not possessed of a majestic mane that proclaims the male’s supremacy. Few, if any, can challenge his spot on top of the food chain here in the wilds of Etosha.
Thirst quenched, the lion starts to prowl around the waterhole, urinating as he goes to mark his territory. Anthony tells us this is so other males know that the area has been taken and not to intrude unless they would like to challenge this lion.
After a few minutes rest, the lion gets up and walks away. Within minutes, the waterhole becomes busy again as the antelopes return for their turn at the satiating their thirst before they start their day of grazing.
There will be fewer sightings of lions during the middle of the day, when temperatures are at their highest. Most of these big cats will be taking their siesta, under trees or in the shade, their hides the colour of the land, camouflaging them from all but the sharpest of eyes.
Sometime close to noon, Anthony spotted a lion resting deep inside some bushes, too covered to photograph, but a good lesson why you should follow the rules and never get out of your vehicle during a drive. You never know where some animals are hidden, and these are wild, unpredictable beasts.
From Klein Namutoni, we head 135 kilometres south-west towards Okaukuejo, or about two hours of driving on rough dirt road. The Okaukuejo Camp is famous for its 24-hour waterhole, so called because animals come and go at all hours of day and night. Elephants are known to visit it at dusk, and spotting a black rhinoceros or two is certainly possible, especially after dark when they are illuminated by the waterhole’s evening lights.
Lions have been known to make a kill near the waterhole here, so here we continue our waiting game. Late afternoon and the temperatures start to drop. Anthony motions us to look towards our left, into the trees and shrubs. There is a lioness there.
She is easy to differentiate from the male, of course, due to conspicuous lack of a mane. Prowling, ears alert. Anthony tells us she is on the hunt.
Suddenly there is a loud growl and a burst from our right. A lioness – a different one – is running, almost leaping, chasing an impala. The lionesses hunt in groups – a pride of lions, to be exact – and in a most ferocious, coordinated fashion. We are reminded of the highly intelligent velociraptors in the Jurassic Park films, how they’d work together to trap their prey.
The action is soon over. We don’t quite see the kill but one of the lionesses return to waterhole for a drink and Anthony points out the blood on her forelegs. There most certainly has been a kill, he says, nodding with satisfaction.
Another lioness joins the first at the waterhole, and then a lion appears, possibly not of their pride. They snap at one another, taking light swipes with their claws. Are they fighting? Will there be more blood shed?
No, Anthony explains, they are only playing. He’s right; soon the big cats are nuzzling each other. Almost affectionately… It’s not the mating season yet, Anthony tells us, so there won’t be any further action. Quite enough for one day, no?
We loathe to agree – who wouldn’t want to see more? – but the sun is setting and soon visibility will be nil. Time to return to camp and discuss the exciting things we have seen today. And we dream tonight, we will be dreaming of lions, surely.
Etosha National Park Accessible through four gates: Anderson’s Gate (southern), Von Lindequist Gate (east), Galton Gate (south-western) and King Nehale Lya Mpingana Gate (northern). Open at sunrise, closed at sunset