Travel

Tracking black rhinos in the Namibian landscape

Cheetah crossing the dry lake bed of Etosha pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Cheetah crossing the dry lake bed of Etosha pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

On an eye-filling day driving through the naked landscapes of Etosha National Park, the animal bounty of Namibia revealed itself, one by one.

There was a cheetah mother and her two nearly grown cubs, pacing hungrily across the blinding white wash of the Etosha pan, a Rhode Island-sized birthmark on the continent of Africa.

At a spring called Chudop, three giraffes and then a dazzle of skittish zebra approached, warily eyeing a pride of lions lazing on the opposite side amid yellowed grass.

And from a distance of a few hundred feet we watched as elephants — 23 in all, mothers and young — ambled leisurely, confidently down both sides of a gravel road toward our Jeep Wrangler, breaking tree limbs for snacks as though they were matchsticks.

“Now what?” Chris asked, as the pachyderms edged closer.

“Just turn the engine off,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”

And there we sat while these elegant beasts neared for more than 20 minutes. My camera clicked away but Chris and I barely whispered to one another, trying to hide in plain sight. Then one mama near the front of the group tentatively approached our vehicle, sniffed with her trunk, and delicately nudged the front bumper with one tusk.

She’s testing it, I thought, to see how easy it would be to turn the Jeep over — should the need arise.

Only when I could see her backside filling the rear-view mirror did I exhale.

Tucked into the parched southwest corner of Africa, between South Africa and Angola, for years Namibia has played second fiddle to better-known safari destinations.

It doesn’t need to anymore.

Tourism has played an increasing role in Namibia’s economy since the country achieved independence in 1990 — it had been governed by Germany, Great Britain and South Africa during the 20th century. And although European and South African visitors have been the mainstay, Americans are starting to discover the country’s stark, dramatic landscapes and its rich biodiversity. With this year’s Mad Max reboot — the Namib Desert standing in for Australia — a mass audience encountered Namibia’s scenery in all its 3-D glory.

Our trip marked my seventh to sub-Saharan Africa, yet it was my first in one notable way. Rather than being escorted from camp to camp by drivers and pilots, Chris and I explored Namibia independently for our entire 16-day visit, which allowed us to experience the country and its people beyond the cocoon of luxury encampments.

5,500Estimated population of black rhinos in Africa, down from 65,000 in 1970.

While there are a number of African countries in which I might have been wary of setting out on my own, Namibia wasn’t one of them. Though there are only a few paved highways — mainly one coursing east and west through the capital of Windhoek, another north and south — gravel roads are generally well maintained.

But it’s a vast country, twice the size of California, and with a population of just 2.1 million; gas stations would be few and often far between.

To minimize any logistical bumps in the road, we worked with Windhoek-based ATI Holidays, a tour operator that specializes in self-drive vacations. They developed a personalized itinerary for us, booked our jeep and lodging, provided us a cellphone for emergencies and packed a map marked with gas stations.

They also clued us in on places to spot Namibia’s wildlife, and this included the endangered black rhino, the one member of Africa’s “Big Five” that had eluded me on previous safaris.

With a population numbering 65,000 in 1970, at last count Africa’s black rhinos had plummeted to 5,500, largely due to Vietnamese and Chinese poaching (rhino horns are used in Asian folk medicine). So, although I’d set my sights on seeing a black rhino, perhaps tracking one on foot, I knew not to get my hopes up.

And yet, as we were driving out of Etosha and the sun eased toward a honeyed dusk, a mass of grey flashed past the corner of my eye.

“Stop,” I urged. “I saw something.”

Chris put the jeep in reverse to back down the empty road for a minute, and then we saw him, just 50 feet away: a black rhino grazing in thorny brush at the edge of the desolate pan. Lathered in mud from a nearby watering hole, he paid no attention to us, instead snorting and heaving while he chomped at the foliage.

The rhino stayed for a few moments, then trotted across the road behind and into thicker covering.

It was only the third day of our trip, and I already felt a sense of achievement. But we were headed to Damaraland, where Africa’s greatest concentration of black rhinos is found.

For years Namibia has played second fiddle to better-known safari destinations, but since the country achieved independence in 1990, tourism is playing a growing role in Namibia’s economy.

Our itinerary took us there the long way, via Namibia’s far north, a region that sees very few visitors.

Near Oshakati we overnighted at Ongula Village Homestead, a simple four-room inn at the edge of a rural Owambo village, surrounded by fields of sorghum and millet. What the inn lacked in privacy and amenities, it made up for with cultural interaction, the highlight being an enthused dance performance by eight girls from the village.

In the Kunene Region, the harsh landscape gave way to a lush river valley that defined the border with Angola. Three decades ago the region was the scene of a proxy war fueled by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Today, the mood is serene at Kunene River Lodge, a family-run outpost in a lonely land.

We found scampering vervet monkeys and lots of bird life; otherwise animals were in short supply here. But sundowners on a sandy beach on the Angola side helped make Kunene a verdant, peaceful intermission between Namibia’s parched acts.

Sparsely populated Kunene also had its share of humanity, too, particularly the Himba people. A tribal group of about 50,000, the Himba are nomadic farmers who follow the rains with their cattle.

A 17-year-old guide from the lodge brought us to his parents’ mud and timber house, where we watched the bare-breasted couple apply the Himba’s traditional red paste — a mixture of red ochre dust and animal fat — onto each other’s skin and hair, a bizarre beautification ritual for the women, as well as a sensible sunscreen and insect repellant.

Strewn with jagged rocks and seemingly devoid of greenery, Damaraland was forbidding. The rugged road to Desert Rhino Camp pounded every bone in my body.

“You have to look at it like this,” explained Johann Cloete, head guide at the eight-tent camp. “The rocks have helped save the rhinos. There’s little water and brush in Damaraland, so there are few predators for the little game there is.”

The camp is a “collaborative effort” between Wilderness Safaris, a top upscale lodge operator, and Save the Rhino, an organization dedicated to preserving the animals in their natural environment.

But with poachers utilizing increasingly high-tech methods for their trade, it has not been easy. Despite considerable security, poachers have invaded Damaraland and several rhinos had been lost in the previous months. (Shortly after our visit, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism began “dehorning” Kunene’s rhinos — the horns grow back in time — in an effort to stem the poaching.)

Cloete explained that Damaraland and Etosha held what he called “the last free-roaming black rhinos in Africa.” On an afternoon game drive we canvassed miles of rocky hills and marveled at panoramas that stretched toward a coastline robed in fog. There was a desert elephant, several Hartmann’s mountain zebras and a lone hyena — but no rhinos. At sunset, gin and tonic was stirred into glasses.

“We’ll try again in the morning,” Cloete said, keeping expectations modest.

The wake-up knock came well before dawn, and we eased into the camp’s Land Rover with resignation. But as light began to illuminate the sky behind mountains to the east, Cloete found all manner of fresh evidence that a rhino was on the move. There were places where the flinty soil had been dug at, shrub freshly nibbled on, recently dropped spoor.

But footprints were the key signpost, and each time he spotted them he would stop the Land Rover, climb out and determine the rhino’s bearings. This start-and-stop routine went on for more than two hours, but Chris and I were rapt — Cloete’s body language couldn’t help but hint that we’re getting closer.

In a small valley, Cloete jumped out and disappeared over a ridge. Out of sight for several minutes, he popped his head up and motioned for us to join him.

We clambered over the stubble to reach his perch and there, a couple hundred feet away, a black rhino strutted through the dry riverbed.

“This is Ben,” Cloete whispered. “You can tell because of the kink in his tail.”

This is Ben. You can tell because of the kink in his tail.

Guide Johann Cloete, pointing out a rare black rhino

A 32-year-old dominant bull, Ben seemed unaware of our presence, and Cloete wanted to keep it that way — a charge by a testy rhino can end badly. Fortunately, the ridge we hugged rose a few feet above the riverbed, and Cloete explained that a rhino wouldn’t be able to scale it.

And so we watched, from our safe distance, as Ben played out all the clues Cloete had been alert for — nibbling on plants, spraying urine and roughing up the sand before gradually heading away down the riverbed.

It was a privileged moment.

While we wouldn’t have given up the freedom and full-frontal excitement provided by driving our own vehicle, in Namibia there was much to be said for having an expert guide at the right moment.

If you go

Booking a self-drive tour: All our land arrangements were booked through ATI Holidays (www.infotour-africa.com), a Windhoek-based tour operator that specializes in self-drive itineraries, including multinational routings into South Africa and Botswana.

Despite one flat tire (quickly patched at a filling station for $8) and getting stuck in the sand at Sossusvlei (a German driver helped tow us out), our driving adventures were relatively benign — as we’d hoped—with an itinerary covering almost 2,000 miles.

Gas stations were often more than 100 miles apart, so “topping off” was a daily routine. The only time the cellphone was used was when we received a call to warn us that access to one lodge had flooded.

WHERE TO STAY

▪ Located just outside Etosha’s Von Lindequist Gate, Mokuti Lodge (http://mokutietoshalodge.com) offered clean doubles in a lush, park-like setting; from $94.

▪ Ongula Village Homestead (www.ongula.com) is located near the town of Ondangwa, and had doubles for$75, including dinner and breakfast.

▪ The very remote Kunene River Lodge (http://kuneneriverlodge.com) offered clean, simple chalets along the riverbank facing the Angola border; doubles from$68.

▪ Set on a 1,740-square-mile private concession, Desert Rhino Camp (www.wilderness-safaris.com) is run by Wilderness Safaris, one of Africa’s top safari operators. Fully inclusive rates (meals, activities) start at $375 per person.

When to go: May through October are the top months for game viewing, as well as providing the coolest temperatures. Travel in the summer months (our winter) and you’ll find lower prices.

How to get there: Air access to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, is via Europe or Johannesburg, South Africa, on Air Namibia, British Airways, Lufthansa and South African Airways.

More information: http://namibiatourism.com.na/.

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