The Church of the Floodlit Waterhole

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Etosha National Park, Namibia – August 2015

Winter in Etosha. The rains cease. The few streams that exist in this land of infinite dust dry up, forcing the animals out of hiding. We migrate from waterhole to waterhole. Eleven humans in a bulky white vehicle. Some of the waterholes are natural, others are man-made. It is said that each has its own personality. None are considered to be the best, because the atmosphere changes on a daily, and even hourly, basis.

As the truck bounces down the road, Christof, our guide, asks each of us, “Which animal would you most like to see?”

When it’s my turn, I say, “Rhino. I’d like to see a rhino. Even just one.” I keep my expectations reasonable, so that I’m not too disappointed. The day is drawing to a close, and we’ve yet to see anything but some springbok, ostriches, a couple of giraffes, and various birds. All of them were spotted along the side of the road. The waterholes have been vacant. The discussion turns to the recent rhino poachings in Etosha. This year alone, sixty rhino carcasses have been discovered in Etosha. A Chinese man was just arrested for smuggling the horns. And then, there’s the hunter from Texas who recently paid $350,000 to kill a black rhino. Cecil the Lion is mentioned, but that is all. That subject has been pounded to death. No matter what I see, I will be grateful. One day there might be nothing left to wander this desolate place.

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The dust-powdered brush recedes, revealing a lone elephant. It stands with its back to a large waterhole. Springbok drink their fill and then frolic in the dirt. We stand on the seats and stick our heads out of the pop-up roof. We exchange smiles of cautious relief. Finally. The elephant lingers in this position of uncertainty, like a bar patron who has finished his last beer, but has nowhere better to go. It lifts a leg as if to move forward, but then sets it back down. We move along. The gates of our camp, Halali, close at sundown. If we’re not inside, we’ll have to sleep in the truck. Halali has a floodlit waterhole. We can hang out there before and after dinner. Tomorrow we have an entire day of game viewing.

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It’s difficult to judge the hour in Etosha. The sun is hidden behind an opaque curtain of white dust. Up ahead, several vehicles are clustered by the side of the road. Christof slows down, inching his way as close as he can. Our vehicle looms over the others, and so we are banished to the perimeter. A leopard is curled up in a small bush by the side of the road. Not even ten meters away. A couple of the vehicles move along, but before we can inch closer, a small car squeezes by. An ovoid, balding head pops out of the window.

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Let’s observe, for a moment, the Safaritard. A subspecies of Homo sapiens, it is an opportunistic creature that seeks out the discoveries of others and claims them as its own. It compensates for its diminutive size by wielding apparatuses of exaggerated length and girth. Although his presence is a nuisance, this particular specimen’s trophies are merely photographic, therefore he is relatively harmless.

Christof cracks his window open. “Hey, you won’t feel so proud of yourself if your child is eaten!” He rolls the window shut again. He tells us about a woman who was killed in South Africa just a couple of months ago. She had her window down while driving through a game park, and the lion jumped right inside the car and mauled her to death.

A distinctive trait of Safaritard is its complete disregard for warnings and regulations. Its profound belief in its innate invincibility. But note the position of the male: behind the vehicle while his mate and offspring are completely exposed. He lacks the protective instinct necessary for the propagation of all species. Far from being endangered, however, the Safaritard has somehow managed to thrive.

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Halali. Dusk gives way to darkness. I tiptoe between the benches and boulders, which are already full of the devout. I am late to the ceremony. My self-conscious steps echo in the tense silence. Rigid backs against pews, chins elevated, lips pressed tightly closed, hands folded in laps. At the far side of the viewing area, I spot Isabelle. She makes room for me on her boulder. Two rhinos stand head to head next to the waterhole. My heart leaps. I unzip my backpack tooth by tooth in an attempt to minimize the noise. Glares glow in the dark. My camera has a fabulous antishake setting for dark and zoom photos. That setting makes a series of annoying clicks, however. I hold my camera for a long moment. The urge to be insolent arises. The rhinos are way on the other side. A choir of birds croaks a deep, monotone hymn. The froglike chant would probably drown out the camera noise. The bratty face of Safaritard looms in my mind. I stifle a long sigh and switch the antishake off. I’ll just have to settle for an artistic blur. Soak up the experience with my mind, like we did in the olden days.

I take a few photos, ignoring the snorts of disapproval. I settle myself on the boulder. “I have the distinct impression that I’m in church,” I whisper to Isabelle in French.

She claps her hand over her mouth, gives me a shove, and doubles over with stifled laughter.

A third rhino lumbers out of the brush. I peer through my binoculars. The face off is silent, still. The birdsong intensifies in volume, but remains aloof. After many minutes, one of the rhinos wanders to the far side of the waterhole and into the darkness. It does not drink. The choir falls into a contemplative silence.

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The two remaining rhinos clash horns and grunt. It is a meaty, prehistoric sound. They back away from each other after impact. A pendulous sway of testicles. Excited murmurs from the congregation. The ensuing minutes pass in utter immobility. Isabelle and I decide to head back to camp. We must wake before dawn tomorrow.

At the trailhead, we run into the two American college guys in our group. We exchange exhilarated smiles. Words would only dilute such an experience. After we’re down the path a ways, I ask with a snicker, “How did you like that welcoming crowd?”

John says, “I know, right? I thought they were gonna kick me outta there when I dropped my water bottle, but then some lady whispered to me that thanks to me she didn’t feel so bad for bringing carrots to munch on.” His voice slurs a little. He had wine with dinner. “I don’t understand why there’s a fight over the water. There’s enough for all of them to drink.”

I stare at him and smile. “Now, that is the question, isn’t it? Why do some individuals always need to control everything? Why is there war?”

His eyes bulge with bewilderment, awe.

The shrill, impassioned voice of a lone hyena rises above the brush. A woebegone farewell.

67 thoughts on “The Church of the Floodlit Waterhole

    • Safaritard was a splendid specimen and he knew it. You should have seen him swaggar around the breakfast buffet the following morning.

      Etosha, and all of Namibia, has an eerie beauty. It turned out to be a very successful safari. More posts to come.

  1. Congratulations on seeing so many rhinos. I was lucky enough to go to ‘church’ in Etosha in 2009. Practically spent the entire night at the floodlit ‘stage’ and saw rhinos too and much more.

    • I would have spent the night out there if we didn’t have to get up so early. So, is it just me, or do you also think that some safari people take themselves a little too seriously?

      • It is not just you. What amused me most on our safari in East Africa were the outfits. The banker from middle America in his multi-pocketed pants for all his non-existent tools, the socialite in her pristine hiking shoes and coordinated bandannas … they fancied themselves so outdoorsy I had to stifle a laugh. Luckily, they were not on my tour; we had a great group!

  2. wow, so exciting, Julie… I’ve never seen a Rhino (for now!) but I wish to have the chance someday…your description of Safaritard is just brilliant.I’m always impressed by the majesty of these beautiful, giant, animals.

  3. The close-up of that dry, dusty elephant and his arid surroundings makes me thirsty just looking at it! I loved your church analogy. Even though the people seem annoying, the dark quietness of the place and the appearance of the ghostly rhinos does inspire some reverence! This post and a previous one on Namibia have really captured my fancy; I just learned my daughter may be posted to Angola in the coming year and now I’m thinking about heading over at some point and whisking her off to Namibia for a visit.

    • I was definitely awestruck by the rhinos, but I don’t think it’s blasphemy to take a few photos. 😉 Wow, Angola. Is your daughter in the Peace Corps? There are direct flights to Namibia from there. Namibia is just incredible. Before I went, I could never say which of all my travels was my favorite. If you decide to go, feel free to email me for ideas. I can highly recommend the safari company I used.

      • I will absolutely contact you if I go! It would be in the fall of this year. My daughter is in international public health – looking at positions in either Ghana or Angola and leaning toward the latter.

  4. I always have a fascination for the big cats. I definitely leaned into the screen when you found him/her 🙂 But that first rhino shot gave me goosebumps.

  5. The safaritard – brilliantly funny yet true.

    Glad you saw the rhinos. Good photos are one thing, but the experience and memory are something else. I wish I were there.

  6. “The elephant lingers in this position of uncertainty, like a bar patron who has finished his last beer, but has nowhere better to go.” I laughed at this phrase. 😎 Your prose is impeccable.

  7. Clever post, you captured the hum of anticipation of a game drive, peppered with annoyance of the “others”. LOL While Namibia is high on my list, I wouldn’t go there anticipating a lot of animal viewing. I was fortunate to safari in Kenya and Tanzania… Tanzania won, hands down… way fewer people, though I could have used even fewer Safaritards. They are a mottled and annoying species.

    • Namibia is extraordinary. We ended up seeing a lot the following day, though “a lot” might be relative as I’ve got no other safari experience to compare it to. We saw 4 of the big 5…no water buffalo or hippo, but you need lots of water to see those, so… I’d heard of Safaritards, but didn’t expect to witness such a prime specimen. 😀

  8. Excellent post! I, too, smiled at your “safaritard” — people do insane things when traveling. Great photos that reminded me of our safari. A life-changing experience.

      • Well sort of. More like a piece I could have read 100 years ago or even 100 years from now if we don’t destroy all the natural beauty of this planet. What it would be like for anyone taking this adventure no matter what era they lived in.

        I don’t know if you have ever read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night. Fantastic read. She was the first female bush pilot in Northern Africa and part of the infamous British invasion at the turn of the last century. I think you’d like it.

        And a Happy New Year to you, too, my friend. May it be filled with abundance for us both. Best, Noelle

  9. A great post mon amie. You were very lucky to spot a “chui”, a leopard. I never have in years of Africa. There was the lone rhino from time to time, even a baby rhino. I’ll dig up the photo. 🙂
    “Safaritard”? That is anew species we were spared. Most of our safaris we did on our own. Own cars, no guide, no rangers.
    And how were your nights in the bush? Isn’t the music of African night wonderful?

    • Merci, Brian. The leopard was so unexpected. It was such a strange place to curl up and relax: just by the side of the road. Leopards seem to be not of this world. How fun to do a safari on your own. African night music is truly enchanting.

      • I knew WP had deleted some comments. God knows why.
        I didn’t get your reply, WP saturation maybe?
        Yes, leopards are out of this world.
        Glad you “lived” and enjoyed one or several African nights.
        They are out of this world too.
        (A music to remember through the drab and cold european winter nights.)
        🙂

  10. Excellent descriptions of these adventures concerning the Safaritard…
    I much enjoyed the enidng lines… A good reminder … lesson learned.
    Wishing you a great weekend… all the best to you. Aquileana 😀

  11. I loved our trip to South Africa and the Safaris there a lot, where in the evening we could observe the many animals passing near our camps. There were also various hipos and we were warned to be very careful and not to approach them to much. We were a little bit sorry to not having seen any lions. You homo sapiens camara is, however, very new to me! Thank you very much, dear Julie, for the ending of your reportage about Namibia.:) Martina

  12. A fascinating journey, the good and the bad! Quite an experience watching the rhino and good to hear you soaked it all up. Often wonder what memories the safaritards come home with . . .

    • Thanks, Patti. The safari was all good. I don’t let other people spoil my good time. I can usually turn anything into something humorous. The Safaritards most likely return home with bloated memories of their prowess. 😉

  13. Magic vs mundane, doesn’t it make the encounter seem even more dreamlike when directly after you’re brought back to earth? I love encounter with nature for making me feel like time stops

  14. Lovely writing as always, Julie. When the elephant lifted its foot, and set it back down, I felt I’d seen that before. I felt you brought to us the mind of that amazing being with your description. Haven’t we all felt that way? Like we were caught in between? Like people might be watching? I pictured the elephant wondering… what do they expect an elephant to do next? I wonder if I’m doing it right… being what I am…?

    I can picture the tension on the rock, too. People get so invested in having their moment. Like we’re going to miss something essential to our completion. The closer we come to the experience we think will save us, the greater our annoyance with camera clicks, dropped water bottles, and poor lighting… I liked the images you got of the rhino’s. There’s something about the half-light, the white and dark… The war… It’s interesting isn’t it? Many species joust, but seldom do they need to kill the rival. Am I wrong? It seems more often than not they establish the hierarchy, and leave it at that.

    Michael

    • Hi Michael – We all need to have our moments, don’t we? I’ve been guilty of it. But every moment is a moment, isn’t it? 😉 I am actually very pleased with how the rhino photos turned out. Brilliant analysis of the elephant. I did get the impression that he was self-conscious. Some of the animals we observed seemed to like the attention: giraffes, and especially the lions. Others seemed to be embarassed or ill at ease: the leopard and I’ll never forget one jackal in particular. Animals are endlessly fascinating to me. We can learn a lot from them, especially regarding dominance and restraint.

  15. Your description and photos paint a perfect picture, how I’d like to see Etosha myself, and while I’ve had great experiences in Kenya…the eerie beauty of Namibia you present here leaves me wanting to pack up my bags and leave tomorrow. The first shot of the elephant leaves me feeling a bit sad for some reason – just a powerful shot. Of course, enjoyed the story too about the Safaritards – always nice to have something to keep the smiles going. Look forward to seeing more, great post Julie ~

    • Thank you, Dalo. Namibia is breathtaking desolation. The lone elephant also made me sad when I saw it. There is something about Namibia’s landscape that intensifies emotions. Hopefully you can experience it for yourself.

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