The Church of the Floodlit Waterhole

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Etosha National Park, Namibia – August 2015

Winter in Etosha. The rains cease. The few streams that exist in this land of infinite dust dry up, forcing the animals out of hiding. We migrate from waterhole to waterhole. Eleven humans in a bulky white vehicle. Some of the waterholes are natural, others are man-made. It is said that each has its own personality. None are considered to be the best, because the atmosphere changes on a daily, and even hourly, basis.

As the truck bounces down the road, Christof, our guide, asks each of us, “Which animal would you most like to see?”

When it’s my turn, I say, “Rhino. I’d like to see a rhino. Even just one.” I keep my expectations reasonable, so that I’m not too disappointed. The day is drawing to a close, and we’ve yet to see anything but some springbok, ostriches, a couple of giraffes, and various birds. All of them were spotted along the side of the road. The waterholes have been vacant. The discussion turns to the recent rhino poachings in Etosha. This year alone, sixty rhino carcasses have been discovered in Etosha. A Chinese man was just arrested for smuggling the horns. And then, there’s the hunter from Texas who recently paid $350,000 to kill a black rhino. Cecil the Lion is mentioned, but that is all. That subject has been pounded to death. No matter what I see, I will be grateful. One day there might be nothing left to wander this desolate place.

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The dust-powdered brush recedes, revealing a lone elephant. It stands with its back to a large waterhole. Springbok drink their fill and then frolic in the dirt. We stand on the seats and stick our heads out of the pop-up roof. We exchange smiles of cautious relief. Finally. The elephant lingers in this position of uncertainty, like a bar patron who has finished his last beer, but has nowhere better to go. It lifts a leg as if to move forward, but then sets it back down. We move along. The gates of our camp, Halali, close at sundown. If we’re not inside, we’ll have to sleep in the truck. Halali has a floodlit waterhole. We can hang out there before and after dinner. Tomorrow we have an entire day of game viewing.

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It’s difficult to judge the hour in Etosha. The sun is hidden behind an opaque curtain of white dust. Up ahead, several vehicles are clustered by the side of the road. Christof slows down, inching his way as close as he can. Our vehicle looms over the others, and so we are banished to the perimeter. A leopard is curled up in a small bush by the side of the road. Not even ten meters away. A couple of the vehicles move along, but before we can inch closer, a small car squeezes by. An ovoid, balding head pops out of the window.

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Let’s observe, for a moment, the Safaritard. A subspecies of Homo sapiens, it is an opportunistic creature that seeks out the discoveries of others and claims them as its own. It compensates for its diminutive size by wielding apparatuses of exaggerated length and girth. Although his presence is a nuisance, this particular specimen’s trophies are merely photographic, therefore he is relatively harmless.

Christof cracks his window open. “Hey, you won’t feel so proud of yourself if your child is eaten!” He rolls the window shut again. He tells us about a woman who was killed in South Africa just a couple of months ago. She had her window down while driving through a game park, and the lion jumped right inside the car and mauled her to death.

A distinctive trait of Safaritard is its complete disregard for warnings and regulations. Its profound belief in its innate invincibility. But note the position of the male: behind the vehicle while his mate and offspring are completely exposed. He lacks the protective instinct necessary for the propagation of all species. Far from being endangered, however, the Safaritard has somehow managed to thrive.

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Halali. Dusk gives way to darkness. I tiptoe between the benches and boulders, which are already full of the devout. I am late to the ceremony. My self-conscious steps echo in the tense silence. Rigid backs against pews, chins elevated, lips pressed tightly closed, hands folded in laps. At the far side of the viewing area, I spot Isabelle. She makes room for me on her boulder. Two rhinos stand head to head next to the waterhole. My heart leaps. I unzip my backpack tooth by tooth in an attempt to minimize the noise. Glares glow in the dark. My camera has a fabulous antishake setting for dark and zoom photos. That setting makes a series of annoying clicks, however. I hold my camera for a long moment. The urge to be insolent arises. The rhinos are way on the other side. A choir of birds croaks a deep, monotone hymn. The froglike chant would probably drown out the camera noise. The bratty face of Safaritard looms in my mind. I stifle a long sigh and switch the antishake off. I’ll just have to settle for an artistic blur. Soak up the experience with my mind, like we did in the olden days.

I take a few photos, ignoring the snorts of disapproval. I settle myself on the boulder. “I have the distinct impression that I’m in church,” I whisper to Isabelle in French.

She claps her hand over her mouth, gives me a shove, and doubles over with stifled laughter.

A third rhino lumbers out of the brush. I peer through my binoculars. The face off is silent, still. The birdsong intensifies in volume, but remains aloof. After many minutes, one of the rhinos wanders to the far side of the waterhole and into the darkness. It does not drink. The choir falls into a contemplative silence.

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The two remaining rhinos clash horns and grunt. It is a meaty, prehistoric sound. They back away from each other after impact. A pendulous sway of testicles. Excited murmurs from the congregation. The ensuing minutes pass in utter immobility. Isabelle and I decide to head back to camp. We must wake before dawn tomorrow.

At the trailhead, we run into the two American college guys in our group. We exchange exhilarated smiles. Words would only dilute such an experience. After we’re down the path a ways, I ask with a snicker, “How did you like that welcoming crowd?”

John says, “I know, right? I thought they were gonna kick me outta there when I dropped my water bottle, but then some lady whispered to me that thanks to me she didn’t feel so bad for bringing carrots to munch on.” His voice slurs a little. He had wine with dinner. “I don’t understand why there’s a fight over the water. There’s enough for all of them to drink.”

I stare at him and smile. “Now, that is the question, isn’t it? Why do some individuals always need to control everything? Why is there war?”

His eyes bulge with bewilderment, awe.

The shrill, impassioned voice of a lone hyena rises above the brush. A woebegone farewell.