Saturday, May 04, 2013

The rhino story, part 1: Okaukuejo waterhole in Etosha National park, Namibia

The Okaukuejo waterhole is a huge floodlit water-hole surrounded by a camp and luxury houses in Etosha. When we arrived at the waterhole, most of the seats around the periphery were already occupied. There were people lined up with their binoculars, cameras on tripods, video cameras , some with more than one camera, most with more than one lens, all kitted out to the nines. But then there were the others, in nothing but their shorts and a can of beer or coke depending on their taste and age. This was not wildlife watching as I had ever known it. A crowd perhaps 300 strong. At this point I wondered if I'd see anything at all, but I'd also learnt that Africa was a bit different. I had learnt not to sneer.

The rains were late this year in Namibia as I'd heard from every Namibian I'd spoken to. Admittedly not many, but they were all praying for it to arrive and watching the skies. Today those skies were a bit cloudy, and only a little light was still left in them. The birds nontheless were still active. The drongos and communal weaver birds were still flying sorties in the four powerful floodlight beams mounted high in the trees. They were hunting, successfully, for the many insects flying about it in the light. Apart from their calls, there was an eerie hush around the wall. This, at least, was familiar. As much as they might enjoy their wildlife watching easy style, everyone here seemed to have signed up on a common pact of doing the best they could to ensure we saw something.

We found an unoccupied bench at the far left corner of the perimeter. I set up my tripod and lenses and started fiddling with settings. The light had nearly gone out of the sky and you could see the near shore, the water-hole and then about another 100 meters after which it was now pitch dark. An eagle-owl landed on the near shore and started hunting for food in the rocks. It was a lucky break, I managed to find and optimise the settings I was going to use over the rest of the night. Of course, at this point I didn't know what that night was going to be like.


Not too long after, a hulking shadow appeared at the far corner of my vision. My eyes were inadequate for the job, I swung my lens around and clicked. There in the centre of my preview screen, there was the first rhino I'd ever set eyes on. His skin, for he was a he in my mind already, was wet below a neatly etched line that ran through all four legs and pendulous belly. The whispers running around the waterhole were true then, there had been a rhino there before now.

He stepped out of the shadowy edges of the water-hole. Unperturbed by the powerful head-lamps that shone in his miniscule eyes he ambled down to the waters edge, and started drinking. I imagine all he could see was a wall of light from beyond which came a few murmurs, soft as the wind in the bush. His ribs stood out in high relief against his enormous...what? Where did his chest end and belly begin? Were his lungs that massive? By the end of the evening we would know something of how much power they could produce.

Abiude, one of our tour guides had joined us at some point in the evening. He laughed at my excitement and perhaps was a little relieved we had finally seen a rhino. Its all about the sightings in their trade. Ensuring the client 'sees' the big four or five if they're lucky. I'd come on this safari knowing that this was not ideal to my temperament. I don't want to see things, or rather that is never going to be enough for me. I want to spend time with things. This evening was probably going to be the closest I came to my ideal wildlife watching.

But again I didn't know that yet, all I could see right then, was that there was a great big hulking beast at the water, drinking unperturbed. Looking up occasionally when someone broke the silence with a cough or gasp, sometimes for no reason at all. I kept shooting, hoping to get a few good images from it. Rhinos are incredibly slow animals, steady on their feet. Only really moving their heads, if that, while their feet stay planted. It made for great photographs. I was taking a risk, but I shot at low ISO to reduce the noise in the image and counted on the tripod to be good for long exposures. I silently blessed myself for hauling my beast of a tripod all the way there. I had had my doubts, but it was the waterhole on the itenarary that had finally swung me.

As my shutter clicked away, I heard another familiar but unwelcome click over at the next bench. An American couple sat there (I say this but I don't really know). The were old, what the British would called pensioners. He was in shorts and boat shoes, she had sunglasses propped on her head and wore too much make-up. He also had a whisky highball in his hands and the click was the sound of his Zippo lighting a cigarrette.

More to follow.

Copyright © Natasha Mhatre If you're reading this without attribution to me anywhere other than at my blog Talking Pictures, its probably being plagiarized.


Samira said...

Ooh! Eagerly awaiting the rest of the story!

Anonymous said...

thrilling! :)