Sunday, March 16, 2008

Doom: solver of all problems

The front wheel hit the puddle and instantly, the windscreen turned brown. I jumped out to sluice it with bottled water (the windscreen wiper reservoir was, of course, empty) and the smell hit me, curling my nose hairs and crimping my mouth. Something must have been using the puddle as a wallow and Livingstone was completely covered in what can only be described as a thin solution of shit. The smell was so bad even the flies vanished.

It had been a long drive from Swakopmund and we were running late, largely because I’d managed to slam the hatch on Livingstone’s tray cover while the pins were still open and bent them. Yes, I know. I’m great like that. Most game lodges start their afternoon activities at 4 or 4.30 and by the time we screeched to a halt in the parking bay, it was already 4.20. We had just enough time to dump our dust-covered bags, jam on our hats and climb into the safari vehicle.

Ongava is a private reserve on the border of Etosha National Park and I chose it thinking that even if Etosha turned out to be a fizzer, we’d be bound to see something in Ongava: they have one of the largest rhino conservancies in Namibia. We bumped along four-wheel drive tracks that wound through grassland reclaimed from mopani and thorn veldt. Zebra, springbok and blue wildebeest cantered out of our way. Giraffe browsed the thorn trees in the distance and kudu, eland and waterbuck (which weren’t native to the area, but had been introduced presumably because they were pretty) grazed nearby, placid as cows.

We were sharing the safari car with Frans, our guide, a gay couple from South Africa and a husband and wife team from the UK. Frans was a nice bloke and knew his birds and animals, but getting the information out of him was a challenge because his English left a bit to be desired. The gay boys were an odd match: Andrew was Storm Boy grown up – about my age, tall, rangy and tanned – while his partner David was about 50 and the classic dapper arts-scene lad with a neat grey goatee and a penchant for natural fibres. The Poms, on the other hand, were perfect for each other. Michael was a smart-arse sports coach and his wife Ruth, chinless but good-natured in the face of rampant chauvinism, took full advantage of her husband’s secret horror of insects. As you would.

Frans stopped the car and pointed at a bull rhino the size of a mini bus grazing about 200m away. His horns looked sharp and he was crusted in dark grey mud. “That’s Derek,” Frans said.

Immediately, Michael the Pom and I both asked, “Where’s Clive?” Sadly, there wasn’t a Clive. There was a Tony, though. The three big bulls had been named for the three directors of the company that owned the reserve.

Twelve rhinos, a sundowner and no lions later, we made it back to camp for dinner. We had enough time for a quick spit and polish and a look around our safari tent.

If this is tent living, I’m all for it. It had a board floor, twin beds under mosquito nets and a stone and canvas bathroom through a door at the back. The shower was open to the sky and the toilet roll holder was a hollowed gourd.

The only catch was finding a way of not being carried off by the mozzies while you were using the bathroom. We drenched ourselves in Peaceful Sleep and waited to be collected for dinner. After dark, no-one walked alone because there were no electric fences around the camp. The lions just wandered through whenever they fancied, so the guides went armed after twilight. Cameron, the manager, came to fetch us. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park.

Dinner was served in an open-sided boma with a thatched roof. Lanterns on the table attracted insects of every size, including emperor moths as big as my hand. David, the South African guy, was sitting next to me and looked delicately affronted when a big cricket landed on his bread roll. “Doom,” he said, poking it off with his knife. “When you go home, fill your suitcase with Doom. It could solve all the world’s problems.”

Frans took us into Etosha the next morning. We had wanted to go for a whole day, thinking that with such a big park, we’d miss things, but they talked us out of it. Etosha is famous for its huge salt pan and the numbers of animals that crowd around its waterholes. The photos I’d seen had kudu, giraffe and zebra all drinking together in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, two weeks before we arrived, it had rained after a long dry. When that happens, the animals vanish into the bush because natural waterholes appear and they don’t have to crowd around the ones fed by National Parks’ bores. We drove through the park for a whole morning and saw two-thirds of bugger all. One black rhino in the distance, a couple of jackals, a chameleon and an osprey struggling not to choke on a whole mongoose were about the size of it, apart from a few antelope and zebra. The waterholes were deserted.

We grouched back to camp and had an afternoon nap. Ah, we know how to book holidays, we do. After all, we turned up in Cape Town in about the only month where the white pointers can’t be arsed jumping out of the water. Perhaps we should start a crappy travel agency – miss the stuff you wanted to see, every time, guaranteed! Yes, I do have a degree in whingeing. How did you know?

Crawling out later in the afternoon, the waterhole by the camp boma was packed with zebra and waterbuck.

A masked weaver was building a nest in a mopani tree overhanging the pool, obviously hoping that it would be good enough to attract the ladies.

Female masked weavers are merciless little bitches. A lad will spend three days weaving a lovely little home for her, but if she doesn’t think it’s up to scratch, she will nip it off at the point where he attached to the tree and all his hard work crashes to earth. Harsh. Very harsh.

Bloke piked on the afternoon game drive (uni assignment) and it turned out to be quite a good call. As we got into the safari vehicle, it started to rain. There were four heavy waterproof ponchos tucked behind the seats, but having learned from Victoria Falls that it’s better to be drenched in drizzle than your own sweat, I left them to the Poms and a Danish couple who were joining us. I was sitting up the back and because I was on my own, I shoved over into the middle and barely got a touch of the rain. The others got sweaty and looked like twits.

Michael the Pom wasn’t interested in seeing anything but lions. Frans would say, “Over there - giraffe” (with a hard G).
“I want a lion”.
“Over there – rhino.”
“I’ve seen lots of rhino.”
“Over there – yellow mongoose.”
“Well, at least it’s the right colour…”

There were plenty of jackals pootling about and Frans said they were always behind the lions. When we stopped for sundowners, there were some barking nearby. I wondered whether we were in front or behind. Whatever the case, I was willing to use Michael as bait.

That night at dinner there were several groups of new guests, a good half of whom fell into the “I love Africa apart from all the bloody living things” category. One elderly couple was English. He had been stationed in South Africa in the air training corps during World War II. I suppose he was settling a few ghosts and they had decided on a side trip to Namibia instead. A dung beetle landed in his bread and butter plate and I thought the poor old chap might pass out. He didn’t look much better at breakfast the next morning because sleeping in a tent was a bit beyond the pale.

Bloke stayed behind again to study, so I went rhino tracking on my own with Jack, a Zambian guide with corn-rowed hair and a white-white smile. We headed for the rhinos’ favourite spot on the reserve’s western plain, with Jack telling me about life as a guide. At Ongava, they worked six weeks on and two weeks off, he said. It’s a tough job of 18-hour days: up in time to do wake up calls at 5 and still going at 9 or 10 when the guests get packed away for the night. There’s supposed to be a siesta time for a few hours after lunch, but I don’t think the guides get time for a cat nap. To become a guide, you have to do a one-year course, learning off-road driving, animal behaviour, first aid and all the usual customer service skills for the hospitality industry. And did I mention they get paid bugger all? Auntie Redcap says, don’t forget to tip your guides.

After about 40 minutes of driving, we spotted Derek and hopped out of the car to follow him on foot. Jack unloaded a rifle and set off in the lead. Naturally, Derek caught a whiff of us and bolted, never to be seen again. It’s amazing how something that weighs three tones can disappear so effectively.

We followed his plate-sized spoor for about 10 minutes, then gave up and went back to the car. Further down the track, Jack spotted a female and her two calves out in the open. One of the calves was about two, but the other was only about nine months old.

Rhinos have poor eye sight, but their ears are good and their noses better, so we parked and walked quietly towards them, sketching a wide circle to keep downwind. A few springbok bounded away and a hyena watched us from the tree line, but the rhinos didn’t realise we were there. The baby was very alert and knew something was up, but mum and the older calf took no notice and kept cropping the grass. We got to within about 15m of them, so close we could hear them snorting as they ate.

We stood and watched for a good 15 minutes before we walked back to the car. There is nothing like being out on foot in an African park. You just feel too safe in the safari vehicles and I love the thought that there could be a lion behind any tree. I also added a fair bit to Poo Boot Tour of Africa II. I stepped in rhino and springbok and wildebeest and zebra and Ford knows what else. You could have started a crap library with the contents of the tread on my Blunnies.

We tried again with a herd of eight rhino grazing about 200m away, but they disappeared as quickly as Derek had. We tracked through trumpet thorn bushes until Jack lost the tracks. Altogether a pretty successful effort at rhino tracking, I thought. But then Jack had to go and tell me the story of the nature walk he’d done a couple of days ago.

He’d had two women out with him, both of whom were the skittish, screamy type. They thought they were going to see some nice birds when Jack noticed a jackal running back and forth across the track in front of them with bones. He stopped and bent down and saw a huge pair of pussycat paws under a bush not 20m from them. Without telling them why, he told the women to back up very quietly. They pulled back about 100m, only to see a big male walk out of the bush, across the road and into the bush on the other side. He disappeared and then let out a classic king of the jungle roar. Jack said his guests were just beside themselves because they thought the lion was following them. Big girls’ blouses - I was green with envy.

We left Ongava at lunchtime. Our final stop before heading back to Windhoek for our flight to Joburg was a cat sanctuary in the Watervale Plateau.

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At 8:42 pm, March 16, 2008, Blogger tonypark said...

Well, Red, as they say, your worst day on a game drive is better than your best day at work.

You make me want to be back there right now.

Too bad about Etosha. We've only been there in the dry season and had very good luck with lions - prides of up to 24 and every waterhole a winner.

We never venture in to the bush without our Doom.

Thanks for voting for my blog. Three beers coming up whenever the book PR roadshow hits Adelaide.

At 9:56 am, March 17, 2008, Blogger Kath Lockett said...

Great instalment Red. That poor little boy bird...! I like the idea of a poo library!

At 3:47 pm, March 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, Red.

Wish I could be in Africa right now...sigh.

At 6:14 pm, March 17, 2008, Anonymous MikeFitz said...

"Poo Boot Tour of Africa", "crap library" - still sounds like a great time.

At 1:19 am, March 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the pic of the zebras and your descriptions placed me there but I'd like to think picking my way through the steaming piles and not witnessing too many things being eaten...all that blood. I'm surprised at how green it seems, especially in the shot of the "tent". Ah well. Back to the grindstone. SMK

At 10:02 pm, March 23, 2008, Anonymous Teddt said...

Large pussycat paws and a king of the jungle roar.
Come on Red---half the population of the world just pooped their pants another 49% ran off screaming into the jungle and you want a personal introduction and a fucking photo----
God, what shit were you smoking
Another episode of brilliant writing---
I love how bloke sends you off as kitty food while he does his Uni assignment

At 1:42 pm, March 24, 2008, Blogger Ariel said...

I have itchy, itchy feet reading this! Sounds like an amazing trip. So, I guess you're off to Africa again in another 6-12 months? Lucky duck.

At 6:53 pm, March 24, 2008, Blogger redcap said...

tony, oh man, how right you are! Doesn't matter about Etosha - I'm sure we'll go back sometime in October or November. But hang on, did you mention alcohol? ;)

Kath, thanks matey! The AQIS people destroyed the poo library at Shitney Airport, I'm sad to say.

Anon, nah, you don't want to be in Africa - you just wish you were anywhere but here! ;)

mike, of course! It was wonderful! Don't get me wrong - I have no objection to stepping in poop. Unless it's cat shit and I've tracked it all over my favourite (read: only) Persian rug...

smk, I know it's hard to believe, but somewhere in the world is actually getting rain right now. ~sob~ Haven't ever seen anything being eaten, I'm afraid. I think seeing it on National Geographic makes you think of the impala as a character in a Disney movie when it's really just part of the big ol' wheel of life.

ted, whatever you do, don't run. Sorry, I'm unashamed. I can't think of anything I'd rather do than come face to face with a lion. Especially one that's just eaten ;)

ariel, ooh, you should go! You'd adore it! I probably won't be back in six months or a year, though. It will probably take a bit longer, since Bloke's South African project has finished now :(

At 6:59 pm, March 24, 2008, Blogger redcap said...

Oh, and Ted - surely you know me well enough to realise that no-one sends me anywhere I don't want to go. What was I going to do - sit in camp and watch the internet connection go clunk? I don't think so.

At 1:14 am, September 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

where's Clive you say? Well he's obviously up Joan Crawford's #@$%!


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