DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT!
Parks don’t allow night driving. Many locals avoid it. Guidebooks discourage it.
The no-night-driving advice is so prevalent in Africa that it feels like a law.
But Africa has nocturnal animals that we wanted to see, and what better way to see them than by driving at night?
We understand the concern: It would be a bummer to hit an elephant going 120 km per hour. Elephants, kudu, cows, goats, and other animlas meander along and hang out on roads as if they lived there. (Stupid animals.) Some might even lie down on a warm road during a cool evening.
But what if you drive 20 or 30 km per hour instead? What if you eliminated the animal-slamming risk?
As Mike read about the area north of Windhoek through which we’d travel en route to the border crossing at Buitepost, he noted this in our Tracks 4 Africa book:
“There are many hunting and cattle farms in this area, and you have to be very aware of wild animals along the road. Never travel at night.”
And then this:
“There are many wild animals on the C30 between Gobabis and Otjiwarongo, especially around Hochfeld.”
Naturally, Mike thought, “Let’s drive through there at night.”
And thus we planned to end our tour of Namibia with a night drive.
In the Morning
At the Hobas campground at Fish River Canyon, we broke camp before dawn in order to watch the sun creep in and wake up the canyon. Sunrise was better than sunset, as we knew it would be because the sun shone on the canyon, not behind it and in our eyes.
I hate that sunsets get so much more attention and admiration than sunrises; they don’t deserve it. I think the biggest reason they are favored is because few people are inclined to get up in time to see a sunrise, and that’s a lame reason. Sunsets are awesome because . . . people are lazy? Yeah, that makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a sunset as much as anyone; I just find the birth of a day more inviting than the death of one.
Anyhoo, Fish River Canyon is no Grand Canyon, but the sunrise was nice.
In the Afternoon
From there, we headed north to Windhoek. Mike had a surprise stop in mind for lunch time: another Namibia Wildlife Resorts park area currently undergoing extensive renovations. As such, it was mostly closed, but not all the way closed. That is, for a reduced fee, we could drive around, but no services were available.
And so we had lunch overlooking Hardap Dam, which creates Namibia’s largest man-made lake. The lake provides water for the town of Mariental and a number of irrigation projects.
The dam is on the Fish River. People come here to fish in the lake. Rumor has it there’s a hiking trail, too, and there’s a fenced game park. Either there are no predators in the game park, or officials are confident predators cannot escape and wander the hiking trail.
The game park was to be the highlight—it had been a while since we visited one, and we are always game to see wildlife. We were disappointed to be told by the gatekeeper that the fence would close at 4:00 p.m. instead of the advertised 6:00 p.m. Sigh.
So we did what we could with just ninety minutes. We saw springbok, gemsbok, warthogs, and two brown-colored rhinos, the darkest rhinos we’ve seen. The wildlife was skittish, not habituated to cars the way it is in other parks. Maybe they hadn’t seen cars much since the resort closed, or maybe hunting occurs to thin populations in the tiny area. Who knows?
In the Evening
On we went to Windhoek. It was getting dark as we skirted the city. At a police block, we were asked where we were going, and, thankfully, Mike was able to rattle off the strange name of a nearby town. Honest to dog, I felt as though we were doing something wrong by driving in the near dark! Police blocks are not something I’m accustomed to.
Shortly after dark, we got off the main, busy roads and left all the rushing traffic behind. Phew! Early on, we saw two big trucks on our chosen C road (as opposed to paved A and B roads), but after that, nothing. Once again, we were the only people/car around. There’s comfort in the familiar.
We crept along at our normal looking-for-wildlife speed: maybe 30 km per hour, at most. We looked for the usual clues—something that doesn’t belong, movement—but now we had another sign at our disposal: eye shine. If an animal looked toward our headlights, chances were good we’d see the eyes reflecting light back at us.
The trick is recognizing an eye shine for what it is. At one point, we passed a tree that had a reflector on it, like something you might put by your driveway.
We weren’t all that far from Windhoek, but we were far enough away to make a reflector on a tree unlikely. We looked more closely. The reflector moved from the trunk into the branches. Yeah. Probably not a reflector.
It was a genet. I can’t tell you if it was small-spotted or large-spotted—I did not see a white tip on the tail, and I looked specifically for that—but it was a genet.
We saw a genet early in our stay in Maun, and it was great to see another. We saw two more before the night was over. Three genets in one evening! Why-oh-why hadn’t we done a night drive earlier?!
I’ll tell you why: Our days have been jam-packed, and staying up all night would have required giving up something else we did. I love what we’ve done, and the fact is we can’t do it all, so the night drive got put off. But we were finally doing it, so hooray!
Mike has never bothered to learn flash photography, so except for a lousy photo of a jackal in the headlights, we didn’t even try to take pictures. We just drove and watched. We had two first-time animal sightings.
First, was a bat-eared fox. We saw a single one and then three more all together. The threesome may have been a family. All were hunting in the roadside brush. The body shape and bushy tail were familiar and unmistakeable. The tail had a black tip rather than a white tip (as our red foxes have), and these guys wore a mask like raccoons and bandits. The ears, however, were bizarre and (don’t tell them I said this) comical.
Our second first-time animal sighting was the highlight of the outstanding evening for me. We saw a springhare. It looks like a cross between a kangaroo, a rabbit, and a rat. It is, in fact, a rodent, and it hops around on kangaroo-like feet and legs. It hopped around in our headlights for some time.
One night: three genets, four bat-eared foxes, and a springhare. I call that worth the effort, but there was more, too: springbok, gemsbok, kudu, wildebeest, and even a waterbuck. Another highlight of the evening was seeing how gemsbok and kudu deal with fences.
I’ve been referring to gemsbok as rugby players based on their stocky, muscular build and the way they run. I still think it’s a good comparison. To get past a fence, the gemsbok we saw put their heads down and pushed, bending the fence as they forced their way underneath.
On the other hand, I’ve been calling kudu lumpy and gangly. Other than the gorgeous spiraling horns on the males, kudu didn’t have much to raise them on the Awesome Antelope list, but that changed on this night drive. We saw them leap. It was impressive.
Over and over again, we saw kudu stop in front of a fence and then effortlessly leap over it. No running start required. Apparently, those lumpy, gangly bodies are built to jump, and they look smooth and graceful doing it.
Twice during the night we pulled over and shut our eyes for an hour, but it was an exciting drive, and that kept us awake and alert.
The Next Morning
The following day we crossed the border into Botswana without any drama, and made our way to Maun, through sun and the hardest rain we’ve had in six weeks. The final day of our six-week road trip covered 1,000 miles and lasted about 36 hours. It was fan-flipping-tastic!