“There is an elephant holocaust going on in Africa today,” says Paul Maritz, the last gentleman adventurer. “Up to this point elephant counts have been done by error-prone Mark 1 Eyeballs, and nobody believes the numbers. You really can’t motivate people to take needed drastic actions unless they are convinced you have the facts. And so we need to get the facts.”
Rhodesia born Paul and his brother David have created a flying machine they think can do the job: the BushCat, a lightweight, low- and slow-winged vehicle, designed for the bush.
A BushCat is like a kayak, beautiful in its simplicity. It is low maintenance, largely modular, so any part can be replaced with ease. It is less expensive than other LSAs (light sports aircraft) on the market, and significantly cheaper than a long-distance drone. The idea is to attach a visual spectrum high-resolution camera working in tandem with an infrared camera to the undercarriage, fly the width and breadth of Africa, and with intelligent software that uses algorithms derived from the facial-recognition world, determine near exact numbers of land animals. This could be game-changing. Paul has commissioned a company in Cape Town to create the software, but in the meantime, he wants to test the BushCats and be sure they are up to the task.
So, Commander Maritz, as known to some in the flying world, has gathered a dirty dozen of scorpions and scofflaws to wing from Johannesburg north through Namibia to the Angolan border to test the BushCats’ suitability in some of the remotest, most unforgiving but beautiful landscapes in the world.
We begin at SkyReach, the manufacturers of BushCats, at a row of hangers in Springs Airport, South Africa. Here the birds are hand-assembled, and rolled out for use. So far 160 have been sold, employed for recreation, transport, and the World Wildlife Fund has one patrolling for rhino poachers. As we are prepping our little expedition a satisfied customer, 6’7” Byron Lutzke, lands out front in his BushCat, having just flown from Cape Town. He tells me, “A mile of road will take you a mile; a mile on a runway with a BushCat will take you anywhere.”
We finally take off into the high, white roof of Africa, above a dazzling checkerboard of moving light and shade. There is nothing quite as perfect as a small plane, in that perfection is attained not when there is no longer anything to add, such as in a rich man’s jet, but when there is no longer anything to take away.
Our first leg takes us to Kimberley, passing over a lake with 20,000 lesser flamingos, to the Protea Hotel on the edge of The Big Hole, largest man-made ditch in the world where diamond miners scrambled in the 19th century like something from a Sebastião Salgado image. We tour the mine, closed since 1914, and the museum, which offers up the entry quote from Zsa Zsa Gabor: “I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back.” Back at the hotel, we celebrate getting through our first day with flying colors by quaffing Castle beer shandies and noshing springbok carpaccio.
The sun stares like a snake eye as we head to a refueling stop at a small dirt strip at Griekwastad. Here we experience a bit of unpleasantness, in that one of our pilots has overloaded his BushCat, well beyond the recommended limits, and bites a hard landing. When Paul first flew the predecessor to the BushCat, the Cheetah, to Zambia, a staffer at the landing strip said, “Hey Bwana…this is just a wheel barrel with a raincoat.” Maybe so, but the BushCat has strengthened the key components, upgraded the engine to a Rotax 912 S, integrated the avionics, added tundra tires, and improved the ergonomics and design, so the mishap elicits only a few spots of blood. Harel Kodesh, riding shotgun, emerges like Daniel Craig in Skyfall, nonplused, with a dust-off. The orange-and-black-stripped plane, though, named Tigger, has to be sent back to its hanger, and the pilot decides to accompany. So, we are now the Dirty 11.
We head north to Dundi, on the edge of the Orange River in the Kalahari. When I founded Sobek Expeditions at the ready age of 22, I went to the library and made a list of all the wild rivers and waterfalls I hoped to see in my turn through life. Augrabies Falls, on the Orange, was on that list, and now at last I’m flying over it with Paul at the controls, in a panther black BushCat named Kitty. The river below runs copper, an ember in a canyon hearth.
Later I make the short drive to the rim of the granite gorge, and gawk at the “place of big noises,” and it is a loud talker, a tumultuary crowd of currents. But perhaps even more sensation-worthy are the darting, gremlin-like rock hyraxes, closest living relative to the elephant, says Justin Seymour-Smith, our resident expert on all things Africa. Some call him “The Professor,” as he has an academic acquaintance with all flora and fauna of the region. Some, who have experienced his astuteness and guiding prowess, call him the best safari guide in Africa.
We cross the border into Namibia, named from a Hottentot word for “desert,” and this country holds the world’s oldest. In the jigsaw puzzle that is Africa, Namibia is the piece that got left behind. The barren state, larger than Texas, lies north of South Africa’s western border and most of its eastern edge abuts Botswana. Namibia was a German colony until the end of World War 1 when the League of Nations entrusted South West Africa, as it was then known, to South Africa as a mandated territory. The country gained independence in 1990, yet it remains one of the emptiest domains on the continent. Some 42% of the land is under conservation management.
We flare across a blindingly bright wilderness, dropping in at Keetmanshoop for customs and immigration. We have to wait an hour for the official to show up. The saying goes, “The Swiss made the watches, but the Namibians have the time.”
As an official walks in one of our pilots asks, “Were you taking a nap?”
“No. Not a nap. I was just sleeping,” he grins, and offers up the South Africa handshake. He processes us, then takes a seat in the arrival hall and opens his laptop to play Grand Theft Auto.
We wheel now into the vast, rocky ocean that is the Namib Desert, an endless retreat of ravines, ridges and terraced escarpments, the compacted age lines of the earth as deep and hard and revealing as the dark weather-carved face of an aged miner.
Out of nowhere there is suddenly a gash in the skin of the continent, the Fish River Canyon, “The Grand Canyon of Africa,” 160 kilometers long and 27 kilometers wide.
Twelve years earlier I organized a scout through the Fish River gorge to check the feasibility of a raft trip. With me was a group of friends, including famed expedition leader Pasquale Scaturro, who had made the first full descent of the Blue Nile from source to sea, as well as led Erik Weihenmayer, the blind climber up Mt. Everest in 2001. Pasquale is the rare being who goes seven times round the moon to everyone else’s one, and every time he sets off, one is never certain he’ll come back.
Also on the trek was Peggy Delany, née Rockefeller, daughter of David. The scout was not a success…we found no way to navigate the Fish…but both Pasquale and Peggy fell in love with the broken landscape, and ended up buying property. Peggy invested in the Fish River Lodge, where we make our way to spend the night. It’s gorgeous, an eco-lodge in the Rock Resort minimalist style, with each chalet overlooking a chasm that looks as though cut by some giant axe.
In the bath of morning sunlight we take a hike through the quiver trees, aloes with stems vivid as trails of fireworks. We track along the edge of eternity, and take turns yodeling into the abyss.
Pasquale, a geophysicist by trade, interprets: In the mists of geological time, a sea bed was lifted kilometers above the level of the ocean and weathered into ranges of table mountains. Then some 500 million years ago, a fault opened up. Widened by glaciation and altered by more faults and wind erosion, canyons within canyons were formed until 50 million years ago a river began to flow.
We saddle up, head to the air strip, unlace the stays, and take off down the dark canyon, along fissures and folds etched with spidery schist. The ribs of the main canyon spread below like an x-ray.
Our next goal: Lüderitz, a preserved in aspic Bavarian town on the edge of nowhere. We begin to fly over dunes, which look like the tracks of giant snakes slithering angrily across the landscape. Once we reach the coast there is a wall of fog, but not at the air strip, a few kilometers inland.
I can smell the iodine tang of the sea at Lüderitz. We walk the steep streets, visit the Evangelical Lutheran Church with a stained-glass window donated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, and then back to The Nest, a hotel hanging over the cold, crashing Atlantic, for drinks and dinner. The bartender at the Crayfish Bar leans in and says, “Welcome to ǃNamiǂNûs,” which sounds like the clicks and pops from the San farmer Nǃxau in The Gods Must Be Crazy. It’s the new name for Lüderitz, he says, rebranded in 2013, obviously with an eye to attracting more tourists…who could resist visiting a place called ǃNamiǂNûs?
The sun shoots up and decants a vast, hard light with the morning. We drive 15 kilometers inland, into the Forbidden Zone (Sperrgebiet), so designated to keep the hoi polloi away from the diamond mines. Here we turn into Kolmanskop, a ghost town being swallowed by desert sands. Established in 1908 when diamonds spilled like rain, it became a lavish outpost, with a bowling alley, bakery, ballroom, theater, casino, ice factory and the first x-ray-station in the southern hemisphere (for detecting swallowed gemstones). Then the diamonds ran dry, and it was abandoned in 1954, left to the swirling sands. It is also the setting for one of my favorite movies, the 2000 Dogme film, The King is Alive, in which a bus full of tourists breaks down in middle of the Namib Desert, and knowing they aren’t going to survive, decide to put on a performance of King Lear. “Come not between the dragon and his wrath,” Paul remarks, as it is time to go.
It’s like herding bush cats, but finally Paul shoos everyone into the air, this time whisking to a Fitzcarraldo-like enterprise, The Neuras Winery. The landscape here is called gramadoelas, a thirsty, savage, fissured terrain. It looks like Sergio Leone’s Italy…the perfect set for a spaghetti western. Nonetheless, it hosts a wine oasis, producing about 3,000 bottles a year. We check in, and sit down to sample the Neuras Shiraz and the Namib Red, a Shiraz Merlot blend, along with plates of cheese and biltong, which though tasty sits like rubber in my belly. But the wines, though they look like Robitussin, are, improbably, quite good.
The singular micro climate of Neuras makes it all possible, as the favonian wind blowing in from the Atlantic chills the area down, while a geological fault spills out five natural springs into the alkaline soil. Christa Minnaar, one of the managers, takes us on a little tour, up a path swarming with Koringkrieks, giant armored ground crickets in the midst of a cannibal orgy.
Past the trellised grapevines is a fairy grotto sheltering a clear pool, festooned with large, elaborate weaver nests. There are frogs and tilapia swimming about, and go-away birds calling. Just outside the cave there is a boat on a trailer, which seems the ultimate in optimism, a characteristic here. Inside the cave are French oak barrels, a wine press, stacks of bottles, a corking machine, and the other paraphernalia needed to handcraft wine in the desert.
That night, under a full moon, we have a braai, a local barbecue for carnivores like us. Paul says “I just want to eat Boerewors,” the spiral shaped sausage made with beef and pork popular in South Africa. I take the lamb, which is local and organic, and has been, long before the Zeitgeist.
In the air the next day we look down to see the elaborate stitchings of animal trails. Tracking the paths of animals was an important element in the education of early man, and we feel as we are dialing back to a more vital time.
Now we begin to see wildlife, animals that have snatched beauty from the barren desert. And in these crafts we can easily photograph as they parade down the bleached sands of dry river beds. We are close enough we can see springbok spronking; oryx prickling their ears, wildebeest kicking dust, and the mad clash of zebra hooves along the gravel.
As we fly a setting more sky than earth, the light changes the sand from beige to pumpkin to scarlet, and the shadows form ever shifting patterns and textures, like a gallery of abstract art. There are crescent-shaped dunes with gentle windward slopes. And dunes that multiply in ever more dense colonies, and linking to form sculptured chains perpendicular to the prevailing winds.
Our target is Solitaire, a shandy town suitably named, and co-owned by good friend Pasquale Scaturro. It is the last gas on the way to the Sossusvlei Sand Dunes, among the most popular sights in the country. In addition to petrol Solitaire offers up Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery featuring the best apple strudel in Africa. A cervine sign says, “Many people have eaten here and survived.” Pasquale says they serve up about 400 of the apple pastries a day.
Johan van Zyl, one of the pilots, elects to land his BushCat, Zebbie (painted with black and white stripes) on the main road, and motors the plane into Solitaire, past rows of gawking tourists, up to the gas pump, where he leans out the window to the attendant and says, “fill ‘er up.”
The rest of us sclaff at the dirt strip marked “Solitaire International,” and step past the “Customs” sign hanging on a hollowed-out shell of an ex-auto-gyro helicopter.
The setting could be a memory theft for Radiator Springs in the Cars movies, with a host of junked cars and tractors as ruin porn; ground squirrels bolting about, dragging their giant balls in the dust; prickly pear cacti, an empty church, a kitschy general store, comfort game food, and a pregnant waitress, Lena, who has gold implants on her front teeth, a heart and a dollar sign. It’s the kind of place you can shoot a rifle out of any window and nobody complains.
A few kilometers down the pad is Pasquale’s Solitaire Guest Farm Desert Lodge, which has pet peacocks parading about the roof, oryx roaming the grounds, and in a small pen by reception a two-week-old orphaned Hartman’s zebra that looks like a painted toy. Its mother died hooked by a fence down the road.
Fences, of course, are hotly controversial throughout sub-Saharan Africa, as they interrupt natural migrations, yet help gazette protected areas. As a child David Maritz was inspired by the book, “Serengeti Shall Not Die,” which chronicles the aerial surveys of Bernhard Grzimek and son Michael, and which resulted in the enlargement of the Serengeti National Park. The Grzimeks had painted their Dornier Do 27 plane with zebra stripes, but in 1959, towards the end of their campaign, it crashed and killed Michael. David had one of the BushCats painted with zebra stripes in honor of the Grzimeks and their pioneering conservation efforts.
We relax by the open pit fire, sipping G&Ts, committing philosophy, swapping lies, sharing life’s meshings and unmeshings, stirring the Owl of Minerva. Paleolithic souls are at home here. Miriam Makeba is playing on the CD player at the bar. Ismael Ghalimi, one of our pilots, is listening to Schubert while hunched over his laptop.
With first light Paul conducts a dawn patrol with the fellow pilots; David Whitlock, a serial entrepreneur from Seattle; and David’s friend Fisk Johnson, head of S. C. Johnson & Son, who has flown in for a 2-day visit.
The coffee station at breakfast has a basket of Huletts sugar, with a quote from Lao-Tzu on the package: “Freedom from desire leads to inward peace.” After a profound repast a few of us pile in the Toyota and head west, for the Sossusvlei Dunes. It’s a dismal drive, at first. The bare, rocky bones of the earth show through the road-edge dirt. Warthogs scrabble by in neat, small steps, fly swatter tails straight into the air. Camel-thorn trees scratch at the sky. We run over a black mamba, but don’t slow down. This is a landscape cruelly lacking in sentiment.
Then we begin to pass the parade of dunes. They are so lusciously honeyed I’m tempted to lick them. At Dune 45, coincidentally 45 kilometers from the park gate, a sizable throng of people are plodding up the sharp ridge of the dune. We watch as the top of the dunes are eaten away by the wind, and then push on. At the end of a laterite road distinguished by the quality of its ruts, we stop at Deadvlei, “dead marsh.” This is a pan once fed by a nearby river, but at some point the dunes shifted and cut off the flow, and the camel-thorn trees died. Their ghostly, scorched remains are still standing hundreds of years later, like the setting for a post-apocalyptic fashion shoot. The dunes above us smoke; the wind makes a scratchy drumming sound, caused by the piezoelectric properties of crystalline quartz, the same way a needle on a phonograph translates vibrations into sound.
On the way back we pass Dune 45 again, and the footprints are gone. The wind has left a clean page for the next chapter.
Under the stone-splitting light of mid-day next we join the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre on a patrol for collared cheetahs. Cheetahs, though the world’s fastest land mammal, are on the Endangered Species List, and 50 percent of the world’s population call Namibia home. The main aim of the NCCC is to rehabilitate and release carnivores back to the wild. Cara Esterhuizen is our guide, and drives us about in a three-ton-truck converted into a tour vehicle, sticking an antennae out the window every few minutes hoping for a signal. Finally she stops, and directs us all to step out. We walk through the high grass, and she uses her telemetry tracking antennae like a divining rod. At last we come across two male orphans, six meters away, lounging in the shade. This is as close as I care to get to a large carnivore. But they pay us no mind, as they are well-taken care. There are an estimated 5,000 cheetahs in Namibia, double from a couple years ago, but nobody really knows as an accurate count has never been made. This once more is where a BushCat could help.
In the cool, quiet morning air we lift off to the west, into a white metal dome of sky, over a vulture preserve, and then to the Skeleton Coast, the world’s largest shipping graveyard. Early Portuguese sailors called it As Areias do Inferno (The Sands of Hell), as once a ship washed ashore, the fate of the crew was sealed. The tides now seem to be pulling us along this high road to the coast. We pass over the Eduard Bohlen, a 310’-long cargo ship that wrecked here in 1909 in a fog. The rusted, partially buried hull now lies several hundred meters inland, as the Kalahari sand is creeping westward, towards Brazil, perhaps someday reconnecting the continents, Gondwanaland II.
Fog has been the bane of many a ship, and there are untold numbers of wrecks along the Skeleton Coast, but now the fog is our problem. We’re supposed to refuel at the beach resort city of Swakopmund, but a thick gumbo has rolled over the airport. One of our party wants to abort and head to Walvis Bay, further south and inland, but Paul dips below the ceiling, at about 200’ AGL, and declares it safe…and it is.
We make our way over swaths of salt marshes, and a tribute to wishful thinking, a golf course, to Cape Cross, landing on a chalk strip next to blocks of salt, a key industry in a town that uses a desalinator to create fresh water for residents and guests. We’re greeted at the Cape Cross Lodge by an icy wind, and a giant humpback whale skull propped against the wall, the remains of a beast washed onto this stretch of Skeleton Coast. There is an evocative welcome sign, “There, where there is nothing, is more.” Inside is a small museum, and a bar overlooking the Atlantic, our first stop. But then curator Nadine Downing gives us a tour of the museum, a rich accounting of the whaling, sealing and guano mining that once made this bleak spot a thriving community. Cape Cross is where Portuguese explorer Diego Cao set ashore in 1486 to hunt among the tens of thousands of seals. He set up a commemorative stone cross on the site, a couple of replicas of which stand today.
I learn that the Skeleton Coast is not named for the scores of shipwrecks on the bony seam of sand and water, but rather for the whale and seal bones that once littered the shore at the height of the whaling industry. Blue Whales, for instance, when harpooned, sank to the bottom, and there decomposed to frameworks, and inevitably washed to shore.
In the pale, oblique light of early day we wind down the coast to the largest seal colony in the world. Tens of thousands of the saucer-eyed pinnipeds honk like an unholy mix of monkeys and sheep. And don’t ask about the eau de toilette. Here, though, is perhaps another opportunity for the BushCats. Seals reproduce heartily, and compete with the local fisherman for fish, so the Namibian government, in a controversial policy, allows culling each year, after a census. The census is done through aerial photography and then manual counting, which has a significant margin of error. The BushCats, with IR cameras and animal-counting software, can make a more accurate assessment.
The sky lightens slowly the next day. The fog is rising, though its lower edge remains sharply defined, like a theater curtain. It is a sublime sight: the interplay of land and sea and fog, the visible breathing of a continent.
We fly the far horizons of Damaraland, a flat gravel plain sprouting with koppies, inselbergs, buttes, mesas, cathedrals, temples, and a Fata Morgana of unlimited freedom. We steer our winged sports cars through a bald granite gate at Spitzkoppe, “the Matterhorn of Namibia,” and then by a blue crest of rock that rises above the surface like the dorsal fin of giant fish…Brandberg Mountain (Burning Peak), highest in Namibia at 2,606 meters.
We touch down at Twyfelfontein, which means “Doubtful Springs,” one of the few realistic appraisals in the whole of the country. It is also a World Heritage Site and home to the world’s largest concentration of rock art, as well as a lodge that looks like a Vegas version of an African resort. At reception there is a life-sized San bushman statue, spiffy with spear, eager to check us in. There is also a petrified welwitschia mirabilis, the Liberace of flowers, which only thrives here. It has a meter-high and meter-wide trunk, like a candelabra, and two large woody strap-like leaves growing from the base. It’s the national plant of Namibia, and a living relic of a bloom long disappeared.
After welcome drinks a Damara guide asks if we’d like to take a game drive to see the desert elephants, adapted pachyderms with smaller body mass and larger feet than savannah elephants. Their physical attributes allow them to cross kilometers of soft sand to reach water. They survive by eating moisture-laden vegetation growing in transient riverbeds, and can go several days without water. In the 1980s they were poached to extinction, or so it was reported. But then they started to show again, in increasing numbers, so that now there are an estimated 600-3,000. But nobody knows for sure.
Of course we would love to take a tour to see the elusive jumbos, despite an aversion by some to lodge-based game drives. We pile into an old Mercedes Unimog, with no windshield, shock absorbers, or toolbox of any kind (including the cold drinks variety), and rattle towards foothills that stretch into the plains like the paws of a beast of prey. For the next 90 minutes we trundle, witnessing up close a whole lot of nothing. It reminds us of a quest Paul led a few years back, looking for the shoebill in the Banguela Swamps of Zambia. We found leeches, the tree where David Livingstone died, and we lost boots and pride, but never saw a shoebill.
When the shutters of the day are near closed, we turn around and trundle back in defeat. We could have employed the BushCats and determined the elephants’ location in minutes. Then, as we pull into the lodge, under the ceiling of Centaurus, our headlights strike a spectral grey lump; then another, and another. There are 17 desert elephants in our beams…just a few meters from our rooms at the lodge.
The next day serves up the most beautiful flight of my life. It’s like sailing into a dark-hued Monument Valley, with spires and towers that look like the Simiens of Ethiopia. We glide over bowls of eroded cliffs and tors. The sun fires light against oxide-red dunes; shadows gather in the hollows and fissures like dark water. We pass over an ark of wildlife, zebra, camelopards, oryx, ostrich and elephant. This is what the BushCat does best.
We land at the conservancy of Puros (spring), where the desert rolls up to the landing strip like a dry ocean. At camp, on the edge of the waterless Hoarusib River, we take an unescorted game walk, something that can’t be undertaken in most of the parks of Africa, for safety reasons. A few paces into the bush there is the bray of a wild donkey, and a flush of rock pigeons. Then out steps a bull elephant who blocks our passage. The dreadnought stretches his trunk towards us, and I can see the symmetric ridges decanting, like poured geometry. He sniffs, then steps back a half meter, and flaps his ears, the way elephants do when angry or about to charge.
But Justin says he is simply turning on his air conditioning.
“Do we run, or stand ground?” Didrik, one of our crew, asks.
The Professor counsels: “You never know what a wild animal will do. Meeting you on its turf it might turn and go away, or it might charge. But there are some general rules. If you encounter an elephant or big cat, never run….stare it down, and slowly back up or move to the side, otherwise it may chase you like a cat to a mouse; if you bump into a hippo or croc or poisonous snake, run like a rat…but you don’t have to run faster than the animal; just faster than your friends.”
One of our pilots, Bret Cox, subscribes to the credo, “Live every day of your life like its shark week.” He has over 2,000 hours in experimental aircraft, and is our own Chuck Yeager, except when it comes to overnight accommodations. Here he wants earned comfort, and it’s a friendly tug-o-war with Paul, who prefers sleeping bags to duvets (David Maritz, who actualizes the homesick gypsy in all of us, has spent every night in his own tent, so he can enjoy the wildlife sounds of his youth). So, at Puros we unroll bags in nylon tents at a campsite that also hosts simple chalets with toilets and running water. After a long night watching Bush T.V. (the one channel features a cavalcade of stars in a very dark sky) everyone heads to sleep in his preferred place. But in the morning, when David Whitlock heads into an empty chalet to use the bathroom, there is Paul sawing away on the bed. He confesses he used the toilet in the middle of the night, and collapsed on the bed. “If you’re still here to complain about each other in the morning, it was a good night,” says Paul, in a quote I made up.
Next we make our way north, to the mouth of the Kunene River, and then fly up the course, blazing red dunes on the Namibia side, and gleaming ribs of grey slate on the Angolan bank. It is a wickedly wild river, one my former partner in Sobek, John Yost, rafted a few years back, and barely survived for the capsizes and crocs. We pass the Baines Mountains, blue islands in a sea of damask sand, to the south, and then the river narrows into a slot gorge, and does a twist to reveal Epupa Falls. This, too, was on my must-see list of so many years ago, so it is a thrill to fly over it, and then double back and fly again and then again. It looks like a smaller, tighter Iguaçu, but without the walkways, crowds or lights, raw and remote. We land and check in at the Epupa Falls Lodge, nestled amidst a promise of Makalani palms and Baobabs, dangling over the liquid thunder of the main horseshoe falls.
We drop off luggage in our stilt-supported chalets, and head downstream to an island vantage just below the central falls, atop a boiling cauldron of water. It’s wet and slippery, with no fences or barriers, just a rainbow for support. At one point Paul steps down for a view over the brink, and slips. Johan grabs him, and pulls him back from the void. Walking here is much more dangerous than flying.
As twilight rises over the volutes of rock and water below, we head up a nearby hill for an overview and sundowners. Colonel Koos Verwey, owner of the lodge, is our host and says that over 25 people have been killed in the last five years, either by crocodiles or by slipping over the falls. We almost upped that average.
While I’m stabbing at a mountain zebra steak, Koos Verwey pulls out his pipe, pulls up a chair, and joins us for dinner. He shares that he grew up on a farm in the Kalahari, and spent 16 years with the South African Special Forces, an elite military set-up heavily involved in the border war prior to Namibia’s independence. Almost half a million were killed in the war. David Maritz was hit by a grenade, badly tossed by his sergeant in a drill, and a permanent scar on his leg is testament. For the past 25 years Koos has battled in the tourism front, and fought against a proposed hydro-electric dam on the Kunene.
Elephants, too, survived the war and its aftermath. Biologist Michael Chase, head of Elephants Without Borders, claims that elephants in Angola appear to have developed an ability to detect and avoid land mines. That alone seems reason enough to count and conserve the beasts.
But how many are there? On the Namibia side of the Kunene the government claims about 400 desert elephants, with numbers growing. They recently issued permits to hunt six for game meat. “There are more elephant in Namibia today than at any time in the past 100 years,” says the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Conservationists, however, estimate no more than 100 desert elephant here, with numbers decreasing. Oh, for a true count.
We awake to uncertain light and a fish eagle’s call. The lodge’s Jack Russell scampers about the morning buffet, the only breed of dog smart enough to avoid the crocs, says the Colonel. By this point we’ve noticed the commonalities of the lodges on our route…they all have Jack Russell terriers; showers without curtains; beds with duvets; the breakfasts are all buffets; the dinners serve up heaps of meat; and dessert features singing and dancing waitresses and crew.
After breakfast, the Colonel offers to take us to a nearby Himba village, Okapare, where, in exchange for some staples (flour, cooking oil, salt, and sugar), we are allowed to take “happy snappies,” as Koos calls them. The men have shaped hairdos, caked with mud, butter and ash giving the appearance of red helmets. Some of the women wear a small nautilus-type shell on a leather cord around the neck, and conically tapering metal-studded bracelets extending from wrist to elbow, and lots of ankle jewelry of beads on leather thongs. The hair is done in corn-row braids coated thickly with ochre powder and animal grease. Their front teeth are filed. Their skin is russet-colored, and glows. They are bare-breasted, with leather aprons.
The spare village with its beehive stick, mud and dung huts, its thorn-fenced kraals, wistfully reminds Ismael of Ouled Ali, the small Algerian village where his father was born. There, much like the Himba, he had neither water nor electricity. And much like them, he lived in a house made of mud, had to walk several kilometers to fetch water, and herded goats. But, Ismael imagines, it was a satisfying existence.
Why do we so admire the unfettered life of the Himba and their ken? In the ambit of civilization Man is the sum of his things; though here, it seems, a few fortunate are the sum of an absence of things. Bruce Chatwin said we are travelers from birth. Our mad obsession with technological progress is a response to barriers in the way of our geographical progress. The Himba, and their supposed nomadism, seem a lyrical foil to the angst of settled existence, or so we idealize as we head to the air strip.
We’re then off to our penultimate stop, Etosha, an enormous park enclosed with a fence that extends from the conversation policies of the past to an uncertain future. Enroute we pass over castles of termite mounds, and then the largest salt pan in the world, blinding in its whiteness, a cruel emptiness from which all life has fled. Wait. There is movement below. In the middle of the immaculacy stands a black and white-faced oryx; and then we see the wedge-like heads of ostrich. And there pace a herd of Burchell’s zebra. What a startling contrast, between the dead, sun-parched pan and the swift and beautiful animals that heel through it.
We land like lawnmowers at Okaukeujo, a little-used strip sprouting with vaal bushes and balsam shrubs. We immediately sign up for a game drive, which does not disappoint. An American trader, G. McKeirnan, who visited Etosha in 1876, said “All the menageries in the world turned loose would not compare to the sight I saw today.” Things haven’t changed that much.
As our wheels crackle along there are masts of giraffe, passing in the middle distance like ships on the horizon; springbok bounding like rubber balls. There are impala pelting around neurotically, vast almond eyes on slim necks. Kudu collars are lowered to the ground as they crop. At various watering holes and vleis we see the gleaming eyes of lion, the bullet heads of spotted hyena, and at one, a crash of five endangered black rhino. By one hole, fed by a pump, two elephant face off, long tusks glistening like drawn swords. They lower their heads and put forehead to forehead. We watch the powerful neck muscles bunching under the skin, the sunlight brushing the straining haunches. It is a slow-motion struggle, and each combatant holds his ground well. At last, one seems to tire. His hind legs begin to give way, and he is forced back. He gives up, and the other slashes his tail in triumph.
On the way back to the lodge we pass a mound of bold stripes, and the sweetish smell of decomposition. It is a zebra felled by anthrax, common in the area. Vultures circle above in lazy spirals, waiting their turn as the black-backed jackals complete their feast. This is the place where the BushCats can write answers in the sky, as nobody knows exactly how much wildlife is in Etosha, and by establishing an accurate baseline, then the little frogs of facts might just turn into princely practices and policies.
The last morning we arrive at the strip to prep the planes to discover the tie-downs have been chewed off by hyena. But the take-offs are clean, and in a few hours we’re in the mile-high capital of Windhoek. After more than 2,500 miles and 58 hours of flying, the trip is over. The pilots kiss the planes. Over the final G&Ts we raise glasses in toast, and Paul quotes Winston Churchill, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
How to get there? This is how we did it:
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