Giraffe

Namibia – Birth, Death and Marriage

Marriage is a loose affair in Namibia, and for that matter many other parts of Africa. Polygamy is still practised in many tribes. It is a common custom that after years of marriage the husband will select a new wife to join his household. The number of wives depends on his wealth. A wealthy man owns a large herd of cows, goats and sheep that will enable him to pay the bride price. He will also need stamina to service multiple wives as there is an expectation that everyone will share his bed. Hence, families are large, complex and extend over many locations and tribes.

Family succession is an important issue that has to be resolved. The family always looks to the headman for leadership and to make decisions that will affect them all. These decisions can be trivial day-to-day issues such as family arguments, or important matters such as marriage and property disputes.

When the husband decides it is time to select his successor as head of his family, he elects the eldest son of his sister. He asks his nephew to come to his home and stay with his wife or wives for a couple of weeks so they can “get to know each other”. During this period, the husband leaves the village and goes off hunting or visiting distant friends and relatives. Meanwhile the nephew is taken into the family and is given all the rights and respect of the husband.

On the husband’s return, the nephew moves out of his uncle’s house and the uncle resumes his position as head of the household. On the death of the husband, the nephew comes to his house and takes his uncle’s wife or wives to his own house and they then join his family. Hence, in a tribe, everyone is related by blood or by adoption. There is a shared responsibility for the caring and nurturing of all children. No child is ever left homeless should something happen to his parents.

Another important issue is inheritance. This importantly determines the person’s status and ability to pay a larger bride price to attract more desirable women into the family. If inheritance is determined after death, should the man not have selected his nephew by the time he dies, the tribe believes that the dead person was “witched”. To determine who will then take the dead man’s wives, family and possessions, six eligible men of the tribe are nominated to carry the “witched coffin” until one of them feels that the dead man inside the coffin moves. This signifies that the ancestors have chosen his successor and the person who “felt the coffin move” inherits the wife or wives, house, cattle, possessions and children.

Many people have conveniently blended their traditional beliefs and values into Christianity. I met Jonas’ uncle Nicky. He and Jonas are like brothers as only a few years separate them in age – they went to school together and now both are guides at neighbouring camps in southern Namibia.

Nicky is devilishly handsome, with a wide warm smile that showcases his perfect white teeth. He is wearing a large gold cross around his neck and when I asked him how all these tribal customs rest with his Christianity, he replies,”he is very comfortable”. He can reside in the belief that both can co-exist. It seems that the people “cherry pick” what they like from both belief systems and blend them into a framework which dictates their current social and spiritual norms.


For example, when Jonas was born he was given two names. Those being: Jonas from his grandfather, who was a Christian and a tribal name of “Kakumbire”, which translate to “he didn’t pray when he passed away”. The name Kakumbire came about when Jonas mother was pregnant with Jonas, his grandfather was very ill and everyday it was his custom was to offer a Christian prayer. However, the day he died he did not pray and hence this sentiment was captured in Jonas’ Himba’s name, “Kakumbire” -“he didn’t pray when he passed away”.

Traditional spiritual customs are not the only things that co-exist with modern practices. Male circumcision is still widely practised. When the village has a number of children to be circumcised they call in the “specialist”. Each family has to buy a new blade and pay the specialist $100 Namibian (AUD20.00) each. After the deed is done, they apply a paste of paraffin and roasted herbs, which is then applied to the wound. This is slowly worn off as the cut heals.

However – the most painful tribal practise is the knocking out of the four bottom teeth in the females and males. Luckily this is not commonly practised by modern Himba but is still widespread in the tribal areas. The headman is designated to carry out this ritual by taking a nail and hammer or two stones and knocking them against the gums where the roots of the teeth are. This sounds horrifyingly painful, and no doubt it is. This practise occurs at puberty and is important part of the Himba culture that easily identifies them as Himba apart from wearing the distinctive traditional Himba clothing.


The traditional costume and grooming includes dressing the hair, particularly for the women. They braid their hair thickly with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat. These braids are finished off with large fluffy pompoms of hair at the ends. The women “bathe” their bodies all over with the red ochre/fat mixture, which makes their skin very soft and it becomes like a burnished brown colour. Their necks, ankles and arms are ornamented with a variety of jewellery, belts and metal work. They wear around their waist a small skirt of goat hide which covers their bottom and in front a small cloth for modesty.

Categories: Animals, Elephants, Giraffe, Hippos, Leopards, Lions, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, White Rhino | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Namibia – Gin and Tonic With The Lions

The white saltpans of Etosha National Park in the central north of Namibia are vast. The saltpans stretch over 20,000 sq km. Etosha means “great white place” and was once a super-lake. Today, it is dry, flat and hot with very few rivers and creeks which only run during the rainy season. At that time, as the saltpan fills, thousands upon thousands of water and wading birds migrate to it. There are also many man-made waterholes which surround the enormous saltpan that stretches as far as the eye can see. The most amazing of all the animals that congregate around the waterholes are the Etosha elephants. These wonderfully huge creatures are intriguing to watch as they come to the waterholes to drink and “bathe” themselves in the white mud which then turns them into huge ghost-like creatures.

The elephants happily share the waterhole with a variety of animals including many antelope and zebra. However the elephants seem to have an intense dislike for ostriches. One young male elephant takes this enmity to an extreme – every time an ostrich approaches the waterhole, the elephant sucks up a trunk full of water and gives the ostriches a good hose down. The ostriches reply to this indignity with much fluffing of feathers, flapping wings, shaking of tails and stomping of feet while retreating to a safe distance to wait for another opportunity to approach the waterhole when this rambunctious elephant had his back turned.


Waterholes are often places where old and sick animals come to die. The heat of the plains and the rough, rocky ground are hard on old feet and the grass is often dry and brittle. These weary animals make their way to a waterhole in the hope of sweet, soft grass and the coolness of the water. It is interesting to observe this cycle of life as it turns a full 360 degrees. Eventually, these aged, sick or wounded animals become the life giving meals to a whole range of other animals from the big cats, to the scavengers like jackals and hyenas, and of course the vultures, storks and buzzards circling in the sky that will their descent onto the carcass.

On my last game drive in Ongava, my guide Bono suggested that we visit a distant waterhole with the hope that we would see the resident pride of lions which we had tracked in the morning. On arrival at the waterhole in the late afternoon we saw at a short distance, in the thick bush that surrounded the waterhole, a number of giraffe nervously approaching the waterhole. They were cautiously eyeing the open ground around the waterhole as this is a very dangerous place for any unwary animals. Sure enough, there was a huge male lion and lioness lying in the grass metres from the waterhole. The giraffes, pushed by thirst, approached the waterhole but the sense of self preservation made them reconsider and they retired back into the thick scrub to wait for a safer time to drink.

We sat there quietly for some minutes and out from the long, thick grass emerged another lioness and followed by six cubs around eight weeks old. They made their way to the water’s edge and, one-by-one they lined up and started lapping the water. As if this sight wasn’t wonderful enough, another three females with older cubs around six months approached with a huge male sporting a magnificent, thick black mane. They all clustered around the waterhole and drank freely and loudly.


I was amazed how the sound of their lapping carried to where we were sitting some 10 metres away. The lapping of all those thirsty tongues was like the sound of many small hands softly clapping. They continued to drink for quite a while until their thirst was completely sated, as this would have to last them through the night while they hunted.

As each of the lions took their fill, they lay down beside the waterhole and relaxed or grabbed forty winks while the younger cubs played. The cubs spent their time wrestling with each other or sneaking up on the lionesses to grab their tails, bite their hind legs, or crawl over their mother if she was lying down and grab a quick drink of milk. The lionesses were patient up to a point, but if the wrestling became too vigorous, she would get up and go over and give the cubs a soft hit with her paw to quieten them down.


The least patient of all in the pride were the large males. One had removed himself from the group and was keeping close company with a female and discouraged interaction with the cubs. The other male was quietly lying by the water, and every now and then, a cub would approach and try to engage him in some fun. This was quickly rebuffed by a deep growl, a quick flick of his tail or a swat of his huge paw. Everyone seemed to know that these big boys were serious and not into games with the kids.

Sundownders are part of the ritual in the African bush; as the sun set, Bono prepared our gins and tonics. We then sat in the Land Rover with our drinks and watched this magnificent family of 20 lions play, relax and communicate with each other. They were completely uninhibited by us and walked up to the Land Rover and around us to investigate noises in the bush with sharp eyes and keen ears.

My heart skipped a beat and I looked to Bono for reassurance when a very large and fit female approached the jeep and stared at us through the windscreen for five minutes. She was only one leap away from joining us in the front seat. Satisfied that we did not pose a threat, she ambled off to join her sisters and cubs.

Much of this playacting by the cubs is in preparation for hunting. The cubs stalk each other and then pounce on their brother or sister and try to wrestle them to the ground. When they are old enough to follow their mothers into the bush for a real hunt, the adult females will bring to the ground a small quarry so they learn how to kill it by choking it around the neck. Then it will be their turn to try their skill at stalking and bringing down their own prey. There will be many lost opportunities along the way, but eventually, they will take their place as part of this finely tuned hunting machine.

It was a wonderful opportunity to watch and study the lions as such close quarters. Their social and familial bonds are very strong and totally cohesive if the pride stays intact. This is the responsibility of the alpha males in the pride, they need to protect their home range and spend much time proclaiming their ownership by marking their territory, sending out loud calls to warn off any intruders and protecting the females from any threat.


The younger adult males will be pushed out of the pride by the alpha males. These young males will then form a coalition by themselves or join up with other solitary males and become a bachelor group. They wander the bush looking for other prides that they may be able to join, or as they mature, they will try to challenge the resident alpha males. If victorious, the young lion will take the place as alpha male in the pride. These fights are vicious and often deadly.

When a young male is victorious, he will lay down the law to all the females and, if there are cubs in the pride, he will kill them. The females will then come into heat and he can then mate with them immediately to ensure that his genes are carried onto the next generation.

It was a very moving, but nerve wracking experience, sitting in the African wilderness with a huge pride of lions moving about only feet away. They are intelligent, strong, socially organised and formidable. These magnificent animals are indeed king of the African bush!

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Giraffe, Lions, Namibia, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia, Zebra | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Namibia – Action at The Waterhole

Next stop is Ongava Camp just outside Etosha National Park in Northern Namibia. Ongava is set in 33,000 sq hectares of dry savannah grassland with large areas of mopane forests intersected by rocky volcanic crags, rugged forested hills and a myriad of dry creek beds. It is a thirsty, dusty landscape and the occasional waterholes are dry but patiently waiting for the next rainy season. During spring temperatures are in the mid 30’s and unbelievably 45 – 50 in summer. In summer it is just hot, hot, hot day and night!

My guide for three days is Bono, a very handsome man around 30 years old, with a quiet and respectful manner but with a quick turn of wit and a devilish sense of humour. I am fortunate to spend these days in his company learning so much about the African bush, the wonderful and unique animals, his life history and his future aspirations plus the challenges that face the people of Namibia.

The accommodation at Ongava is in 12 large comfortable tents with en suite bathrooms with open air showers (definitely not recommended for use after dark or before down as you may be bathing with a lion, a hyena or a leopard). The open air dining and bar area sits at the base of a dolomite hill and fronts onto a very busy waterhole where a procession of animals come day and night to quench their thirst.

The journey home to my tent each night is an edgy experience. I am accompanied by Rio who is the camp sharp-shooter and his trusty rifle as you never know what predator you may meet during your trek back to the safety of your tent.  We make our way from the main lodge to my tent which is the second to last tent in camp (more time for that hungry lion to size me up as his next meal). Rio is in the lead with rifle gripped in one hand and torch in the other. He walks slowly while shining the torch around the surrounding bush and trees as we make our way through the dark. The hot breath on his neck was not that of a lion bearing down on him but me only centimetres from his back gripping onto his arm for reassurance. Why is it always at times like these that nervous chatter turns to the weather?


The waterhole in front of the camp attracts numerous animals day and night. These include impalas and gazelle with their delicate fine legs and beautiful big eyes set in their pretty faces. They remind me of ballerinas “en pointe”. Their graceful movements and agility is remarkable as they prance and jump skittishly about. Bigger antelope such as the kudu are ever watchful and anxious, the males with their magnificent horns that spiral upwards of a metre. There are also the fantastic oryx with their black masked faces and horns that are straight black sabres pointing directly skywards for a metre. Hartebeest with deep red-brown coats and curved short horns. Zebras pushing and shoving each other like kids in a sweet shop trying to be first to the counter. Their shimmering coats of black and white stripes make it difficult to tell the number of individuals in the herd. Their markings “en masse” appropriately give credence to the collective noun for zebras which is “a dazzle”. And dazzle they do!

Then comes the graceful and so impossibly tall giraffe – they carefully splay their front legs apart so their heads can reach the water. I am amazed that such a tall and large beast can be so graceful. They have a slow and rhythmic walk and when running the break into a smooth canter.
Did you know that:
• they have a black tongue which is 18 inches long
• they are rarely heard but can moo, hiss, roar and whistle to communicate with one another
• giraffes have the longest tail of any land mammal – up to 8 feet long, including the tuft at the end
• ancient Romans and Greeks thought that the giraffe was a mix between a camel and a leopard. This is where their scientific genus name of “camelopardalis” comes from
• their heart is 2 feet long and weighs about 25 pounds and pumps about 16 gallons of blood/minute
• mother giraffes form a type of day-care for their young. One of the females in the herd will stay behind and baby sits all of the youngsters while the rest of the females go out foraging for food
• despite its extreme length, the giraffe’s neck is actually too short to reach the ground. As a result, it has to awkwardly spread its front legs or kneel on its front legs in order to reach the ground to drink water
• it is the tallest animal in the world – males stand 16-18 feet
• females use their hooves as weapons only to defend their young. They are strong enough to kill a lion, which is the giraffe’s only real predator
• they can gallop 31-37 miles per hour
• males are known as bulls and  females are known as cows
• giraffes rest standing up and only sleep 5 minutes at a time. When sleeping, the giraffe generally lies on the ground, tucking its front legs under itself, then curls its neck back and rests its head on its rump
• they spend between 16 and 20 hours a day feeding.

The waterhole is a dangerous place – this is where all the animals gather, the strong and the weak, the old and the young. Here is a great opportunity for the predators to strike and get a quick meal. Everyone is on guard and often sentries are appointed as lookouts, ears and tails twitch and there is much nervous shuffling of hooves but the need for water far out ways the fear of predators.


At night, there were some special visitors – a small group of white rhinos came to drink. There is a mother and baby who is around three years old and is already two thirds her size. They silently appear out of the darkness like silent grey ghosts. Their huge bodies and large square heads swinging low as they walk, their bulk is in stark contrast to their soft footed and silent approach.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Giraffe, Leopards, Lions, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, White Rhino, Zebra | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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