On self-guided safari in visitor-friendly Namibia

After a romantic tryst, a male lion yawns as the lioness lies in the grass. Then, a frightful surprise for the visitors.
After a romantic tryst, a male lion yawns as the lioness lies in the grass. Then, a frightful surprise for the visitors. (MICHAEL MILNE)
Posted: October 21, 2012

Situation: We wanted to visit Africa independently so we could avoid the expense, crowds, and early-morning wake-up calls of group safaris.

Problem: In two popular countries for viewing wild game, Kenya and Tanzania, travelers are warned against moving about the country on their own due to safety concerns.

Solution: Namibia. The 22-year-old nation on the southwest coast of Africa has developed a reputation as a safe spot for drive-yourself vacations. It offers an abundance of wild animals, a sterling national park system, and spectacular scenery.

We hadn't originally planned to go to Namibia. But during our journey around the world, its name kept coming up among other travelers as a captivating place to visit. The country was under the control of apartheid-era South Africa until its struggle for independence ended peacefully in 1990. Namibia has emerged as a friendly and welcoming place for visitors.

The Alte Fest Museum in the capital city of Windhoek provided us with a primer on Namibia's recent history. Housed in a barracks dating to the 1890s, the museum chronicles the country's path to present-day independence, including a room dedicated to the memory of the freedom fighters who were imprisoned at Robben Island, the notorious prison in South Africa that held Nelson Mandela for 18 years.

After a few days in Windhoek, we drove 250 miles north to Namibia's main attraction for animal lovers, the vast Etosha National Park. About the size of New Jersey, it surrounds a huge, blinding-white salt pan and provides one of the best wildlife-viewing areas in all of Africa. On any given day, a visitor can spot elephants, zebras, giraffes, lions, springbok, and with a bit of luck, the elusive rhinos, leopards, and cheetahs.

The best time to visit is during the dry season from April through October, when animals emerge from their hiding spots to drink at one of the many water holes scattered across the park. During the wet season, they are more difficult to spot, concealed in the grassy plains and sparse woodlands where seasonal water is plentiful.

Etosha is too big to see in one day. It's best to spread a visit over several days to see different areas of the park. The first day, we started out with a guided game drive to learn some tips on viewing locations and animal-spotting. After that, we drove on our own.

For our safari drive, we jumped aboard an open-air Range Rover with Tomas and Katrin, a German couple. Our guide, Ismail, knew all the hot spots, or in this case, wet spots, as he sought out the water holes where the animals congregate. Within minutes of entering the park gate, we were treated to a pair of giraffes ambling alongside us.

Despite years of watching shows on the Discovery Channel, nothing prepared us for seeing those animals up close in their native habitat. As wildlife newbies, we clicked through, in about five minutes, what would have been several rolls of film in the pre-digital era. Ismail's gentle smile said, "you ain't seen nothing yet."

After 20 dusty minutes on a gravel road, we reached the Nebrowni water hole, where hundreds of zebras were quenching their thirst. Sprinkled among them were springbok, dik-diks, and impalas, in a scene reminiscent of Edward Hicks' painting Peaceable Kingdom.

We watched the animals for a spell and were just about to leave when Katrin dropped her heretofore perfect English and excitedly yelled out, "Der elephant kommen! Der elephant kommen!" Off to the right, three mammoth, leathery-gray beasts lumbered in slow motion toward us,  big ears flapping back and forth.

As the elephants made their deliberate progress toward the water hole, the zebras got a bit restless. Thought bubbles over their head seemed to say, "Well, there goes the neighborhood." Most got the memo early and cleared out. A handful stayed, as if this time it would be different. It wasn't.

When elephants show up at a water hole, it's the equivalent of the chubby kid cannonballing into the pool at a swank hotel. Everyone else gets soaked and soon figures out that it's time to leave the party. It was no different here. The zebras and springbok crept away and meandered aimlessly while waiting for the big boys to have their fun.

The elephants weren't content to just drink the water like the other animals. They plunged right in, splashing and flinging the water about with their trunks. Elephants like to get muddy; it cools them off and provides a layer of protection against insects. In the process, anything within about 50 feet gets muddy, too. They played for an hour, as delighted as schoolchildren on the first day of summer.

The next few days, we drove around the park on our own. Heading down a rutted gravel road for two or three miles through scrub pine, we rounded a bend and watched a herd of 30 elephants cavorting in the mud. At another remote water hole, giraffes crouched into their distinctive, wide, splay-legged stance to reach down to the water with their long necks. Hours slipped away as we enjoyed front-row seats for our very own live-action nature film. Elephants here, zebras there - hey, there goes a pack of ostriches. Since Etosha is so big, we often had a water hole to ourselves, providing several days filled with "pinch-me" moments.

One evening, as the setting sun was casting a golden glow on the savanna, we got a little more than a pinch. Thirty zebras on the left side of the road were all facing toward the right, like soldiers in formation, seemingly on high alert. We followed their gaze to witness a memorable event: two lions doing what it is lions do during mating season. The zebras weren't voyeurs, but were keeping an eye on a natural enemy.

After the lions finished, the female lay down in the grass while the male stood there yawning. We backed up our car on the narrow shoulder of the road to take some photos. Suddenly, another lion leaped right up to the open window on the driver's side of our car. Ismail had told us that lions sleep in the shady culverts under the road during the heat of the day. We had unwittingly rolled over a culvert and awakened this one, who seemed none too happy about it.

Michael was torn between taking a close-up photo of the grumpy lion and closing his window. He tried both, discovering that electric windows are agonizingly slow. Fortunately, the still-groggy lion didn't seem interested in us, and we lived to tell the tale.

Larissa and Michael Milne are traveling around the world for a year and reporting in regularly about their journey.

You can follow them at www.ChangesInLongitude.com.

To comment, e-mail traveltalk@phillynews.com.


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