When Animals Attack

October 7-13 (Brandberg, Palmwag, Grootberg and Otjitotongwe, Namibia) —

Last week, we saw a desert elephant destroy the campsite next to us. Two nights later, we hid in Jimmy as a very large elle ate the tree under which we had camped. And then a cheetah attacked David.* It was an interesting week.

* With kisses.

From Spitzkoppe, we headed to the Brandberg Plateau area and camped at the Brandberg White Lady Lodge. After drinking a bottle of bubbles by the pool and playing with Carlos, the resident meerkat, we headed next door to pick out our campsite. We chose number 8, which had this view across campsite 5 (foreshadowing).
We cooked some dinner and set up our tent not long after the sun set. We then heard some loud crashing in the nearby bushes and scrambled quickly up the ladder into our tent. Shortly thereafter we saw a large elephant pass right by us. He paid us no mind and headed directly to campsite 5. We saw the headlamps of the campers scatter away from their dinner table as the elle approached. The elle then proceeded to decimate their dinner and rummage through their tents. As the elle finished cleaning the table, the group’s guide snuck back to their rig and started the engine. This finally encouraged the elle to leave. He ambled off into the darkness, trumpeting a few times as if to say, “I’ll be back, suckers!”

The next day, we chatted over cold beers with two South African campers who had just arrived. Like us, they had made big life changes and were traveling for an extended period. They had quit their jobs (she was with Goldman Sachs and he was also a banker of some sort) and completed training to be safari guides. They were 14 months into a trip around Africa. They passed on all sorts of advice about camping in the bush:

1. ¬†Always sit with your back to your vehicle at night with the campfire in front of you. (Logical, of course, but we hadn’t been doing this.)

2. Don’t leave food unattended on the braai even for a second after the sun starts to drop as brazen baboons, hyenas and jackals will sneak up and take it right off the grill.

3. If bitten by a puff adder, shake the hand or foot bitten to get the venom to move as it is more toxic if it stays in place and less likely to cause lasting damage if it circulates. However, if you’re bitten by a mamba then you should do the opposite, lie as still as possible so as not to let the venom circulate. (Um, great advice but what if I can’t identify the snake?).

4. Big tail, small pinchers on a scorpion = deadly. Small tail, big pinchers on a scorpion = it will hurt but not kill you. Scorpions will crawl inside your boots if your leave them outside so always check before putting on in the morning.

5. Never keep oranges in your camp. Elephants love them. That was campsite 5’s downfall.

6. At night, never walk to the loo – always drive – due to risk of leopard attack.

7. If you are having a problem with the car’s electrical system, take it to a mechanic because snakes love to crawl up into the dash for warmth.

So, after that relaxing chat, we were rather nervous and laid in bed with our eyes open waiting for things that go chomp in the night.

We headed to Palmwag Lodge the next day, which has a private concession of desert area that is renowned for its beauty and desert-adapted elephants, zebras and rhinos. The landscape was stark and stunning.

On our first game drive, we learned that even the plants here can kill you. If you burn branches from any of the bushes in this picture and breath the smoke or eat food cooked over the fire, you will die. Great.

The kudu in the photo, however, is not bothered by these murderous bushes but instead likes to sleep in them because they hold heat at night.

You can be sure we were careful about what branches we used in our campfire. As we settled in for the evening, the resident elephant who lived in the ravine in front of our campsite was eating nearby. We could hear him breaking branches and munching along for a while. Suddenly, the munching sounded much, much closer. We jumped out of our camping chairs and excitedly both climbed through Jimmy’s closest door. The elle was right behind our camper, eating the tree – if we reached out, we could have touched him. We watched as he ambled through the other campsites, eating along the way. Probably looking for oranges!

After another not so restful night, we booked into a posh lodge (Grootberg Lodge) overlooking a different private concession for some pampering. I got a massage, while we both enjoyed having some else cook us dinner. And we really enjoyed sleeping inside four solid walls. The views were outstanding and the resident dassies were a treat to watch.

dassie – oddly, the elephant’s closest relative
We spent the next day trekking after the rare black rhinos in the area, which are protected and managed by the Save the Rhino Trust. We were lucky to come within a few hundred yards of this mother and her five month old baby.

We also saw Africa’s largest and smallest ungulates together — giraffes and dikdiks.

Dikdiks – Africa’s knee-high antelope
Grootberg was sold out the next night (we checked) so we moved down the road to their community campsite (ie, run by the local community) – Hoada campsite.

I could tell you we roughed it but the pictures would betray me. And I didn’t even get a shot of the refreshing splash pool or bar that were built into the boulders. I do have photos of our private bathroom though. We highly recommend a visit to this camp.

From Hoada, we headed to a cheetah sanctuary called Otjitotongwe. The family that runs the place has four very tame cheetahs who were rescued as cubs and hand fed by humans. They treat them more or less like large house cats, and they live in the enclosed garden around their house. This one was laying on the lawn as we came in the gate.

Another was up in a tree.

Compared to the semi-tame cheetahs we got to pet in 2008 in Botswana, these were super relaxed. And not as terrifying, so long as you didn’t look at their teeth or claws. They were still a bit naughty – taking the hat off the head of one visitor and playing tug-o-war with another over a flip-flop, but they also were affectionate and purred loudly.

The oldest female among the four really, really (really) liked David. Once she started licking him, she wouldn’t stop. He would get up and walk away and she would follow him until he sat back down and allowed her to continue. Their tongues are like sandpaper.

It was funny when she started licking him

Not quite so much fun after 20 minutes

The family also had two dogs, the smaller of which was crazy brave (or really stupid) and tussled with the cheetahs. At one point, the little dog’s head was fully inside the cheetah’s mouth. He didn’t seem to care and kept right on nipping and yapping.

After visiting the tame cheetahs, we then went on a drive into the multi-acre enclosure where they had 8 wild cheetahs that had been captured after they attacked farm animals since they otherwise would have been killed by the farmers.

We got to watch the cheetahs be fed – a process that involved our guide throwing large pieces of donkey to each cheetah as they paced around the truck. The cheetahs sometimes fought over the pieces but eventually each cheetah got a feed.

They are gorgeous creatures. Although they certainly are skilled hunters, wild cheetahs live a precarious existence. They are the least powerful of the predators and their kills are frequently stolen by lion prides, hyenas, and leopards. They are also the most likely of the big cats to come into areas where they kill farm animals, creating conflict with farmers. Cheetah sanctuaries like Otjitotongwe aren’t a solution to the fact that the territory available to cheetahs is constantly shrinking in Southern Africa, but at least they provide an alternative to death for those cheetahs who would otherwise be killed by humans.