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!