With the coast in our rear-view mirror we started making our way eastwards towards Etosha National Game Park. We had a long way to go and had to make it to the gate before it closed at 1500hrs. We had been constantly trying to make these seemingly arbitrary deadlines the past few days but these deadlines were better than others. They didn’t even make a whooshing noise as they flew by, but we probably would have to find alternate, nonexistent, places to camp if we didn’t make them.
A few hours out of Springbokwasser, we stopped at the Petrified Forest. We both made jokes about how everything there would have a look of terror on it, and didn’t really know what to expect. As we pulled into the parking lot, the place looked as unassuming as it sounded enchanting. There was a little office and information kiosk where we paid our dues, and a guide (definitely not Gandalf ) joined us for our walk into the forest. As we walked around, we learnt of Weltwitschias, the national plant of Namibia, and a very curious one at that. The entire plant sticks close to the ground, and has only two leaves, one on each side of a convex center that, depending on whether its a ‘he’ or ‘she’ plant, has cones or flowers for seed-spreading and/or receiving, respectively. The fairly young ones we saw were over 200 years old, but the oldest ones can grow to be 1500-2000 years old. Over this considerably large amount of time and with the help of the elements, the leaves fray and break up into fronds similar to palm trees. The above-ground part of the plant doesn’t go too far above since the leaves kinda flop over in a tangled mess. The below-ground part keeps busy looking for the scarce amounts of water in the region, as the cones and flowers do their thing.
We continued on our little excursion down the winding path, slowly making our way up a small hillock when we came across the eponym of the Petrified Forest. A large tree trunk lay in our path but this tree was not made of the regular garden-variety woody material, but rather of stone, hence the “Petrified” Forest. We quickly learnt that the reddish-brown hued replicas of charcoal briquettes, scattered all over the place, had started off as wooden pieces that over thousands of years had undergone the process of petrification. The grain of the wood on the tree trunk, the knots and striations in the bark were all clearly visible, but they all seemed to be carved in a dark stone. Walking further along the path, we came across a statue of a felled tree some 10-15 meters long and a rocky stump that showed growth rings. The guide told us that the nature reserve does not do any archeological work here but rather they allow the elements to unearth these relics over time. This means that every once in a while they discover completely new things that the wind has managed to bring up to the surface. The area shows evidence of a very different climate in the past, these arid lands weren’t always so, and instead, a forest of tall trees flourished here. All the tree tops pointed towards the sea, the inferrence being that they were felled a few million years ago in a flood.
After the Petrified Forest, we continued on east towards Khorixas, then turned north-east down some dirt-roads to meet the highway going to Anderson Gate. The drive was rough as these dirt roads weren’t as frequented as some of the others we had been on, and were in fairly poor condition. Accordingly, they required much lower speeds as our tires, and bodies, struggled over natural rumblers that came about over the years. We only passed by about four cars the entire 3-hour drive until the highway. These parts had some very specific animal crossing signs, many of which we couldn’t record too well. Warthogs, impalas, elephants, and oryx, were all represented and we even spotted the occassional human crossing signs (and what I’m certain is a Tetris crossing sign…cue Tetris music here).
We finally made it to the gate around 1430hrs, completed the formalities and switched driving duties as we passed the sign welcoming us to Etosha. This was Shweta’s first time self-driving in a National Game Park. The plan was to stay two nights in Etosha, the first at Camp Okakuejo, close to the Anderson gate, and the second at Camp Halali, right in the middle of the game park. The mornings and evenings would be spent on game drives since the park was only open from sunrise to sunset, so we had to make the most of day light.
The game drives, as everywhere else, were a bit of a crap shoot. Our first day was a lazy short drive along the salt pan, with sightings of zebras, impalas and the occassional oryx. At one point we spotted what we thought to be a mongoose a few meters ahead on the road, which is quite a rare sight, but it stood up on its hind legs like a meerkat (Timon from Lion King) – we’re not sure exactly what it was. We also spotted a few foxes during our drives, some playing in the grasses, others were walking right on the trails. The park has an abundant supply of antelopes and ungulates with rarer varieties like kudus, dikdiks and bushbucks performing guest appearances on our drives. A couple of giraffes popped up every once in a while, with one particularly old one we spotted on a remote back-road – seems like the poor guy had lost his teeth and was having considerable difficulty chewing. We later learnt that this wearing down of pearly-whites is also a common cause of death amongst elephants – their teeth cause fatalities in a multitude of ways.
Of course one of the highlights, as is usually the case, happened on the morning of the second day when the king himself made an appearance. We were driving along and saw a herd of impalas and zebras on the left side of the dirt road, that lazily grazed in the fields, while a group of four to five zebras stood watch, unflinchingly staring at the predators. There was very little movement, and it seemed quite odd from where we had a view. We then saw several cars parked, with their engines switched off on the right. This was not a common thing. A little further down the dust road, on the right-hand side, there was a young male lion sitting in golden grass just high enough to camoflauge him, and two lionesses were playing in the field a few meters away.
The second day was a long drive, we had most of the day to laze around in the game park so we did quite a bit of exploring. The plan was to camp at Halali that night so we had packed up everything at Okakuejo and ended our morning drive in Halali. For the evening drive, we went through a trail called Rhino Drive hoping to catch a glimpse of the namesake, however no luck. Additionally, we weren’t entirely sure whether this trail was still accessible to visitors, but we continued anyway, hoping that our rebellious move would result in a good viewing, and given that we hadn’t seen any signs prohibiting us (usually, with a “Staff Only” sign, or a neat row of large stones that blocked our vehicle), we were more confident in our decision. The trail did seem to deteriorate, and become less traversed – with piles of rhino dung and ant-hills in the middle of the road, the further along we went on it, which was a dangerous combination of (a) egging on the inevitable rhino that was meant to pop up through the bushes (why else would they call it “Rhino Drive”??) and (b) the dwindling faith in our decision. We were also pressing for time to get back to Halali before sunset. We had no idea what the consequence of violating sunrise-sunset rules would be – whether it would be a slap on the wrist, a hefty fine, sleeping outdoors, permanent ban, or a prison sentence, that would receive us as we came sauntering through the gate. Not knowing made it worse. Using the oh-so-reliable Maps.me app, that got us in this mess in the first place, we had about 10 minutes to figure our way back. With Shweta navigating, and me driving like a maniac (both of us terrified that something would jump in front of us), we reached what we thought was the final turn, and to our dismay, saw a sign for “Staff Only” there. We definitely considered putting our 4×4 to good use, going over those neatly arranged rocks, but found that there was a final, alternate, route available. Gunning the vehicle, we made it to the entrance with 5 minutes to spare, luckily, just as the sun was touching the horizon. We paused for a second, pushing our luck and took a few pictures of the sun setting. We will never know what the punishment would have been.
Both the camps had watering holes which made for nice, convenient, veiwing at night. The Halali waterhole turned out to be a particularly well visited site, by mammals of the human and animal-type. The first time we went there we found a couple of badgers rummaging through the trash cans. While the second time we went there, a little later at night (as an after-thought – “oh, we probably won’t see much, but let’s check it out), we came upon a group of four Rhinos. This was a first for Shweta, at least from this close since she had seen one a few years ago in Tanzania from about 5 miles away.
We sat down to watch these incredible animals, the last few remaining ones, as they socialized and had a drink. There was one particularly aggressive Rhino amongst the group that picked on the rest, making shows of dominance and growling at the others. Two more Rhinos joined the soiree, and the hierarchy of dominance changed with on of the new ones now bullying the rest. While the Rhinos horsed around, we heard the familiar snickering of Hyenas in the distance and almost immediately, with all their differences put aside, the Rhinos stood alert. Shortly the loudmouth Hyenas made themselves seen, it was a group of four, with an additional one going in and out of the bushes, somewhat shy or perhaps scared of the several thousand kilogram advantage that the heavy-weights had on them. This lasted for some time, with the Rhinos attempting to scare the Hyenas away, however the Hyenas did manage to reach the watering hole via the bushes, have a quick drink and made themselves scarce. Other than the Rhinos we did see a menagerie of other animals at the watering hole. There were the usual zebras and impalas, but also Kudus, foxes, an array of birds, and the very akward maneauverings of giraffe drinking water without getting a headrush. The one animal that was sorely missing here was the elephant
The plan for our last day was to do a long game drive and make our way towards Camp Namutoni, exit the park and head towards Grootfontein. For the most of the game drive we had no luck. We meandered around the salt pan catching glimpses of impalas and oryx. The wind created dust devils that looked like tornados in the distance. As the sun baked the pan, mirages undercut everything on the horizon, hills, trees, even animals floated on a cushion of sky. The hot air changed our photographs into watercolors.
As one of our friends had told us, we made a stop at the Namutoni Gate and our vehicle was searched for any meat products. We had a piece of flank steak and were sure that would go to waste. To our surprise, we were also told to take our eggs out. Nevertheless, as we expected (based on information from the same friend), the officer told us that we could cook the meat and eggs and either eat it there or carry it with us. We opted to grill our steak and boil our eggs in our kettle to ensure that dinner would be a much easier task as we would reach Hoba Camp as it was getting dark.
Hoba Camp was located right outside of Grootfontein and was home of the largest meteorite on the planet, that fell on earth 80,000 years ago. The area was surrounded by a mountain range which we learnt may have been caused by the meteorite, which is currently the largest naturally occurring piece of iron known on earth. The visible portion of the meteorite was a fraction of it’s actual size.
Hoba was our last stop before we made our long drive back to Windhoek. Both of us were quite tired and happy to have a night to rest at Chameleon Backpackers before our bus ride to Cape Town at 4pm the next day. As we pulled into the parking lot we bumped into our old-new friends. We had originally planned dinner outside but were convinced to spend the evening with our friends, a couple of cold beers, and a communal braii where we had to get creative to finish our leftover groceries.
The next morning we had lunch, dropped the car back at the rental agency, and headed to the bus station for our overnight ride. Next stop South Africa.