It was our first full day in Etosha National Park. We camped at the Namutoni Resort which is a fenced compound owned by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR), a private concession with properties all over the country. It’s fenced to keep predators (lions, leopards, hyaenas) and potentially grumpy herbivores (rhinos, elephants) out and visitors in, where they are safe and can’t annoy predators and potentially grumpy herbivores for at least a few hours every day.
The resort offers a variety of accommodations from camping to self-catering chalets, along with a reception and information office; gift shop; a small store with essentials and a selection of food, snacks, and beverages; a restaurant; and a gas station. Pretty much anything a visitor might want or need.
The gate at Namutoni and most other NWR resorts opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. The specific times, updated weekly, are listed at the gate along with the official clock. Returning late, after the gate is closed, can result in a fine and expulsion from the park.
Driving in the dark is discouraged all over Africa. It’s considered dangerous because there aren’t street lights, and wildlife, as well as livestock and humans, cannot be readily seen on the road. Animals sometimes like lying on the warm road at night. Running into an elephant on the road in the dark isn’t a good thing.
On the other hand, if one drives slowly, the chance of hitting an animal is greatly reduced, and being people who want to see nocturnal animals, the unbendable rule is frustrating, as you will see.
We start our “evening” game drive at 2:00 p.m. The gate at the resort closes around 7:30 p.m. As we slowly make our way back to the resort and our campsite, enjoying the low light of the soon-to-set sun, Mike spots something in the distance that he wants to examine more closely. I don’t see what has caught his eye, so I hand him the better binoculars.
This is how it goes, all day long. Sometimes the thing that catches our eye is a rock or tree or shadow, but sometimes it’s an animal. We’ve got three sets of eyes in the truck, all practiced in spotting wildlife. If someone is compelled to stop for a closer look, we stop.
“Cat . . . I think,” Mike says, peering through the binoculars at brush. And then, “Yeah. Lion.”
We all look more closely. I still have no idea what caught his eye: color, shape, or movement. It is several seconds before I locate what he sees. It’s a crazy-lucky sighting. There’s a small yellowish head in a big patch of brush.
One lion. Two. Three. And then five appear out of the brush, stirring after a day of sleeping in the shade. For lions, the day starts when the sun sets.
They approach the road, the truck, and us without hesitation. Etosha has been a park since 1907. The animals here are habituated to cars and people. We’re part of the landscape, not competition, not predators, not prey. The truck’s windows are open, but I’m not concerned. Safari vehicles are open; they have no walls or windows. The people inside are just part of the vehicle, and so are we.
The lions get close enough that we can see there are three cubs and two lionesses. The cubs are getting big, and their spots are fading. Their feet look huge.
They make straight for the road. One cub lies down a few feet from the truck.
The others cross a couple of feet in front of the truck. I wonder if they’re using the truck for cover. On the opposite side of the road, some distance away, springbok and zebra graze.
They stretch and yawn, nuzzle and play. We’re just a few yards away, watching, snapping pictures, taking video.
Lucky timing gives us some funny images. This cub isn’t really snarling at us.
Two cubs play on a sand pile. As soon as the one goes over the top, the other knows what’s coming and waits, alert.
And she’s ready.
It’s all in good fun.
The lions lie down and wait to hunt.
Somewhere out there is dinner. She will find it, catch it, and kill it, teaching her cubs how it’s done.
We’d love to stay and watch longer, but the resort gate closes at 7:30. We set our destination on the GPS, and it tells us how long it will take to get there, which allows us to make good use of every available moment. It seems other park visitors have already returned. We are on one of the main roads, but we haven’t seen any other cars. We’ve had the lions entirely to ourselves.
The lions don’t startle or move when we start the truck and pull away. I wish them—and the springbok and zebra—good luck.