Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 37

25 11 2008

Never ignore a guinea fowl.


The Okaukuejo campsite in Namibia’s Etosha National Park is unique in that the visitors are fenced in and the wildlife runs free. Trenches, walls and high fences surround the campsite on all sides with benches and mini-grandstands lining the perimeter allowing campers to view the floodlit waterholes and arid wilderness beyond.


Late one afternoon we had strolled to the benches for a few hours of game-viewing at the neighbouring waterhole. There was no shade and we sheltered beneath the inadequate brims of our hats and jealously guarded our water bottles. A steady parade of zebras and giraffe, elephant and antelope sauntered to the hole for a quick drink before wandering back onto the sun-parched plains. After a short while, the parade petered out and apart from two turtles half-submerged in the murky green water and a few guinea fowl hastily trotting past in the background, there was nothing in sight.


Despite the unrelenting heat, we continued our stakeout. The turtles remained motionless while more guinea fowl raced past. Initially in ones and twos, the fat little flightless birds were now racing past in packs like water-balloons rolling down a slope. In little clusters they sped past on short legs, wobbling as they speed-waddled in a mass fowl exodus.


We watched the display with bemused smirks. We half expected to see a herd of marauding elephants suddenly materialise from the scrub, or even Wile E Coyote with acme anvil in hand. The feathery stampede provided excellent entertainment for ages…until the reason for their mass migration became apparent.


With a mighty gust, the hot wind suddenly roared and carried with it half of Etosha’s sand. The air boiled with the browns and ambers of the stinging grit and we soon found ourselves hunched against the mightiest of mighty dust storms. It was the sort of apocalypse that had besieged Lawrence and from which the Tasmanian Devil had emerged. We turned our backs to the onslaught, but the particles whipped around and blasted our faces. We pulled our mouths and noses deep inside the collars of our t-shirts, pushed our sunglasses closer to our eyes, pulled our hats down as low as possible and attempted our escape.


The suffocating dust had turned day to night and we groped our way back across the compound in what we assumed was the direction of our camp, tripping over tent pegs and rock-lined pathways with each step. Although confident we were headed in the right direction, we instead reached the perimeter on the far side and had to double-back. The dust was now choking and the wind stronger than ever. The sand bit at all exposed skin while we attempted to protect our eyes and breathe through the filter of our shirts. Eventually, like wayward desert nomads, we stumbled back to our camp and clambered into the kitchen block, quickly closing the door behind us.


The storm banged at the windows and sent a tide of sand slithering across the tiled floor. It continued for perhaps an hour as we remained entranced by the menacing blast that buffeted the windows.  Though my ears remained clogged by the sand, over the roar of the merciless elements I detected another sound…a rising and ebbing song…a taunting melody…a high-pitched warble…as though several hundred porkie little guinea fowl were mocking those of us who had earlier laughed at their migration.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Safari A-Z: N is for Night Game Drive

29 09 2008

Things that go bump in the night.                        (Etosha, Namibia)

There is a quiet and intermittent ticking coming from the cooling engine. Everyone sits silently in the open-backed vehicle, mouths open, listening intently for any noise from the surrounding bush. Hands swat at mosquitoes while eyes strain for the slightest movement as they slowly grow accustomed to the engulfing darkness. From the right, there is a low rolling rumble, a deep breath and a heavy rustle. The guide gestures with his hand.  We can see nothing. He turns on a hand-held spotlight, and there, no more than 30 metres away, a herd of elephant drifts almost silently past us.


It’s not possible to do night game drives everywhere in Africa. Many parks restrict movement after dark in an attempt to curtail the activities of poachers. But where they are available, they are amongst the greatest and most unique wildlife experiences.


During early morning or late afternoon, it is rare to have a disappointing game drive in any park in east or southern Africa. Even the drive from a park gate to a lodge or campsite usually rewards with giraffe, antelope, zebra or elephant. Night game drives are different, however, and it is not unusual to return from several hours of searching having seen almost nothing. While it is much more difficult to find the Big Five than during the day, there’s a much greater likelihood of finding some of the lesser-known nocturnal species that the vast majority of visitors will never see. Things like honey badgers, anteaters, porcupine or certain wildcats. But any encounter at all at night takes on a magical quality that makes it truly unforgettable.


Close to the equator, darkness comes in the early evening and the intense heat of the day quickly evaporates leaving a biting chill. The best night game drives take place in open-backed or open-sided vehicles with nothing providing separation or protection from the mysteries of the night. The driver and guide scan the bush with a powerful hand-held spotlight, hoping to catch a hint of movement or the reflection of a pair of eyes. Sometimes, the vehicle is just stopped, the engine turned off, and you just sit in the bush and take in all the sounds.


Sitting amid a pride of lions and listening to them grinding into the bones of a kill is a daunting experience that sends rippling chills down one’s spine even in broad daylight. But at night, when you can only see the lions that are in the spotlight yet can hear them all around you and know there is nothing to stop them from leaping into the open vehicle except habit, that terror is taken to primeval levels.


But not all is dark at night. African hares bound through the long grass ahead of the headlights, their comically-long ears and enormous feet evoking smiles. Heads dart towards movement in hopes of a leopard, only to find a small nightjar flitting through the bushes, while the notoriously-shy shaggy brown hyena watches warily before loping off into the darkness like Bigfoot on all-fours.


Taking photographs on night game drives is very difficult, but then that is what daylight is for! Night game drives provide you with a unique opportunity to not so much see the wildlife you’ve travelled so far for, but to sense them, feel them and hear them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

The Circle of Life

28 07 2008

Etosha 2


My first trip to the cinema was to see “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar”, which was not about an aggressive middle-aged woman named Charlotte and her club-hopping antics, but rather a Disney film about a mountain lion. It was enjoyable, but I would have rather been with most other 5 year olds watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”. However, it is possible that my first cinematic foray whetted an appetite that still rumbles to this day.


I really do enjoy nature documentaries. I’m not terribly fond of hour-long studies of the mating rituals of the microscopic mites that live on the end of my eyelashes, but I will opt for a wildlife film over the biography of an unknown actor whose on-screen career highlight was holding the door for Tom Cruise.


While in school, I dreamed of being a nature photographer. I romantically imagined myself living under canvas, risking life and limb lying in wait for days and shooting hundreds of breathtaking images.  When, years later, I made my first trip to Africa, I came close to my dream, albeit only briefly and never in any particular danger.


The great game parks of Africa provide the majority of visitors with their own National Geographic moments. A visit to any major reserve almost guarantees elephants and giraffes and a good chance of lions. In addition, most people have at least one lucky encounter and spy a cheetah, a leopard or possibly a kill. But some experiences transcend even those and make even the professionals jealous.


We were on a late afternoon game drive in Nambia`s Etosha National Park and came across an elephant carcass. Our guide estimated the giant beast had died recently and likely of natural causes. Jackals and vultures were investigating. In reverence we watched until darkness and then returned to our campsite. That was when the debate began.


The following day was scheduled for an early start and a long drive. Half our group wanted to get up even earlier and return to the elephant, whilst the rest wanted a lie-in. Splitting the group and making everyone happy wasn’t an option and so the arguments began. If people were opposed to returning out of sadness, I would have been more understanding. But their opposition was entirely due to their desire for an extra hour’s sleep. My intolerance rose and I soon led the elephant chorus. After all, we had plenty of time to sleep when the trip was over.


Amid much acrimony, the ‘elephant people’ finally won, and we all awoke in the pitch dark, broke camp and headed on our game drive. The ‘sleepers’ were clearly longing for it to be a fruitless journey so they could vent bitter satisfaction. There was stony silence during the short trip.


As we approached the carcass someone whispered “lions”, and all heads – including those of the ‘sleepers’ turned forward. Two large lions were using every single ounce of their impressive strength to feed on the carcass. Their muscular bodies strained at the immense weight as they worked together to manipulate the body to their advantage. The display of power was awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time. Then, mid-struggle, their noses turned to the air and they abruptly stopped. They glanced to their right and stood off, watching the bush intently.


An elephant suddenly charged into view. With trunk raised it trumpeted loudly and raced towards the lions. Other elephants followed and the lions backed away into the shade. Satisfied that the predators had left, the herd gathered around and warily smelled the air. One by one, each elephant came forward towards the carcass. They stood beside their young comrade who had lived barely longer than its own gestation, raised one leg bent at the knee and then slowly moved their trunk over the body. We watched in rapt silence.

Etosha 1


The ritual lasted for several minutes until all the older elephants had visited the youngster. Then, with one final angry mock charge towards the lions,they trumpeted again and charged back into the bush.


We started the engine, and in silence drove away as well.


You see many things on safari. You may laugh, squirm, or even cry, but no one on that truck – not even the ‘sleepers’ – will ever forget that incredible experience in Etosha National Park.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008