The lion stared at me, less than 10 meters away, then roared. I gringed, realizing that with just a quick, short leap, he could pull me out of our open “safari Ferrari” and drag me away.
The lion sighting — it seems almost too casual to call such a close encounter a “sighting” — happened at the end of the last day of our 6 day fly-in safari, arranged by ATI Holidays. The safari began almost as dramatically.
To begin our safari we flew for about 1.5 hours in a single engine 16 passenger plane from Swakopmund to Damaraland Camp, one of the most highly regarded and best run camps in Namibia. Damaraland is north of Swakopmund, about halfway between Swakopmund and the Angolan border. It is a pristine wilderness — a hot, empty land with rocky, rust-colored buttes and mesas, separated by vast dry, sandy lake and river beds. The flora and the scenery is vaguely reminiscent of the American Southwest, absent the highways, motels and gas stations. The overall impression was both prehistoric and post apocalyptic at the same time. We were met at the landing strip by our guide, Charlie, driving the ubiquitous 4WD safari vehicle, which Charlie fondly referred to as a “safari Ferrari,” with open sides and a canvas top for sun protection (not, I should note, lion protection). Riding from the strip to the camp in this vehicle was, in the words of one of the other passengers, like being in the Mars Rover. I had to agree. If Wustenquell is the moon, Damaraland must be Mars.
Damaraland Camp, like many of the safari camps throughout Namibia, is partly owned and managed by the local community. The staff were as good-natured and competent as any accommodations staff I have encountered in my many years of travel, and far better than most. They greeted us after game drives with songs, cold towels and drinks, sang and danced at dinner, and shared their abundant knowledge of the human and natural history of the area at every opportunity. They also organized an elaborate breakfast and sundowners on mesa tops so we could watch the sun rise or set over the stunning landscape. The Damaraland Camp staff gave new meaning to the expression, “hospitality industry.”The camp and the accommodations were as welcoming as the staff — large, raised, tastefully decorated, tented huts with private baths, ceiling fans, and decks with expansive valley views.
But it was animals we were here to see, especially the wild “charismatic mega fauna” — elephants, lions and rhino — that have learned to adapt to the harsh desert climate. We weren’t disappointed. On our first game drive, late that first afternoon, we found a herd of about 20 elephants, including several babies and youngsters of various ages, on the banks of a dry river bed.
We had seen many elephants in Etosha, but this was different. It felt much wilder. We were the only ones there, and it was clear from watching them that they were not used to humans. They were skittish, as was Charlie who made sure that we were always positioned for a fast retreat — as fast as a 4X4 can go in deep sand — in case the elephants started to get too skittish and aggressive. Charlie kept his hand close to the ignition and changed our position often, most of the time to get better views, other times to get out of the way of annoyed elephants. At one point we were in the path of about a dozen of them. At my urging, Charlie held on as long as he could so that I could steady my hand and take a few good photos of the approaching elephants.
Elephants were not the only animals we saw in our two days at Damaraland Camp. Giraffes, zebra, oryx, springboks, jackels and ostriches darted across the dry lake beds or through the brush on the riverbanks, sometimes stopping long enough to pose for yet another photo.
We also visited the famous Twyfelfontein etchings, a recently designated World Heritage Site, to see the engravings carved by Stone Age hunter-gatherers 2000-2500 years ago in the red rock.
But it was the memory of that that herd of elephants heading my way in the dusty late afternoon haze that still gets my heart pounding. The first significant wildlife sighting of our six day fly-in safari, but far from the last.
(my next post will feature Serra Cafema Camp on the Kunene River on the Angolan border. This is one of the most remote and inaccessible regions in Southern Africa and one of the most luxurious camps in the region. Or as I refer to it, “paradise…with crocodiles.”)