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april 1st, 2004 -> etosha's crazy kudus: namibia

We had 'done' most of Africa on our own, and were frankly tired of it. We wanted to join a tour; to let someone else deal with the logistics; to hang out with other travelers. Wide-open Namibia seemed like the perfect place. There were three highly-recommended budget safari operators: Wild Dog, Crazy Kudu, and Chameleon. The tours are a popular way to see Namibia; most were fully-booked when we arrived. Thanks to Nori's diligence, we managed to find two spaces on a tour leaving just a few days after we arrived in Windhoek.

We joined Crazy Kudu's 10-day ‘Namibian Explorer’ tour. It was a ‘participatory camping safari,’ which basically means that you set up your own tent, chop a few vegetables, wash some dishes, etc. - in return for a cheaper tour price. Paul, a gregarious, bald-headed black Namibian, was the only Kudu employee with us. He was guide, driver, and chef all at once. While Nori and I were both excited about taking it easy for a week and a half, we were a little nervous about the 'group dynamic.' There were eight other travelers in the not-too-spacious Kudu van. Crowded transport, incredible heat, lots of dust, and potentially incompatible personalities - all the ingredients were there for a hellish experience if we were unlucky.

As it turned out, everyone got along very well. We were a youngish, fun-loving group, with diverse enough backgrounds to prevent too much ‘ganging up’ on anyone. We were joined by a Brazilian couple (Marcelo and Gabriela), a British couple (Akshay and Monisha), two young Dutch men (Sjoerd and Jeff), a German woman (Astrid) and a British man (Phil). Paul seemed to enjoy our company, too. Another Kudu van was doing the same tour at the same time, but the company had wisely placed most of the older folks in the second van. We called them the Crazy Old Dudes.

North of Windhoek, the highway paralleled a rampart of smooth-curved hills to the east. When these hills tapered off, we were left with a landscape indistinguishable from Botswana – scraggly trees and pale grasses. As the hours passed, we began to see dark mesas rising above the plains. The largest was the Waterberg Plateau. From a distance, the Waterberg looked more like a fortress than a natural form. As we got closer, flutes of red granite became visible. If the Waterberg Plateau was free of vegetation, it would look exactly like some of the eroded mesas in Arizona’s Monument Valley. We set up our tents for the first time, and then spent a few hours at the campsite pool – a luxury that we were to enjoy almost every night of our safari. In the late afternoon, we climbed up to the top of the plateau, and admired the views across the plains. The next morning, we headed for Etosha.

Etosha National Park, in northern Namibia, is one of Africa’s finest game-viewing locations. A friend who had done a long overland trip in Africa said that Ethosha was his favorite. I would have to agree. The park abounds with animals that have adapted to the dry conditions, including the incredibly beautiful gemsbok (oryx), the agile springbok and the broad-eared, stocky kudu. The Great Etosha Pan, a massive salt-encrusted depression, occupies the center of the park. The heat rising off its flat surface distorts vision: desiccated expanses turn into great rippling lakes, and trees morph into elephants. It was a harsh, but beautiful landscape.

The diversity of Etosha was amazing to behold. The first animal we saw on our game drive was a rare black rhino. During the three days in the park we saw more than 20 lions. We watched a family of cheetahs cross the road. Black-backed jackals burrowed under the fences and slunk around our campsite. At one waterhole, we watched three giraffe spread their front legs in order to get close to the water for a drink. A huge herd of springbok grazed nearby. Kudus were chomping tree leaves at the fringes. A family of warthogs darted away from the van, their tails straight up like radio antennae. A bachelor group of graceful impala watched us carefully from the side, and several wildebeest snorted their alarms and pawed at the ground. Incredible!

The only disappointing thing about Ethosha was that we couldn't find any elephants. Marcelo and Gabriela were desperate to see an elephant. We drove all over Ethosha looking for them - including gated-off areas. Nori and I had seen hundreds of elephants in Kenya and Tanzania - as had Monisha and Akshay - but we all wanted the Brazilian honeymooners to see at least one of the amazing creatures. Trees, wildebeests, terminate mounds - all were mistaken for elephants as we scanned the bush. We found many tracks and even fresh dung, but the massive pachyderms proved elusive.