I spent ten days at Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia, a tract of land ten times the size of Manhattan, brimming with more wildlife than you could ever dream of. Read on for stories of lion cubs, herds of elephants and lone hyenas.
The First Afternoon
As we headed out for our first drive, Warren, my guide, asked me which animals I was particularly interested in seeing. I told him I really wanted to see a cheetah, but that I hoped to see as many different animals during my time in Namibia as possible. It quickly became evident that Erindi was the land of plenty. The first animals we came across were springbok.
The springbok, the national animal of South Africa, is probably best known for being prey for just about every big cat in Africa. As a result, they're scared of pretty much everything and don’t hang around long for you to take pictures. Our springbok sighting was swiftly followed by an ostrich sighting, then we ran into groups of baboons, crocodiles, hippos, zebra, wildebeest, and a smattering of birds of prey. My mind was already blown. Little did I know that this was just an average afternoon in the bush. And the best sightings of the afternoon were still yet to come.
Warren, known as “the lion guide” at the lodge, decided it was about time I saw some lions. We headed toward where he had seen two lying by the side of the road earlier in the day and crossed our fingers that they were still there. Sure enough, there they were. Lying in the long grass by the side of the road, you’d be forgiven for not spotting them, camouflaged by their golden coats. Since lions are most active around dawn and dusk, all they really wanted to do was sleep. Sunset was still a good couple of hours away. Sitting just ten meters from these incredible beasts, you get a primal sense of their immense power, even as they sleep. After an hour or so with the lions, we thought we'd try our luck finding a cheetah before it got dark. Again, Warren had a pretty good sense of where one might be.
We drove towards the open plains as the sun began its descent, picking up some tracks in the road before long. By the time we found the two males we'd been tracking, we only had half an hour before dark. Distinctly more active and scrawny than lions, cheetahs are best known for their speed. The fastest land animals on earth, they can reach speeds of up to 75mph during a chase. That’s faster than the speed limit on a US highway. We followed them as they headed to a watering hole, thirsty after another long, hot day. And, as the sun began to kiss the horizon, we figured we may as well grab a drink too. It was a pretty epic way to finish my first afternoon in the bush: drinking a beer at sunset, twenty metres from a couple of cheetahs.
Leopards, Lion Cubs & Baby Elephants Playing in the Mud
Growing up, I loved researching big cats. It was only natural that I wanted to try to find the only other big cat on the reserve I hadn’t seen already. We set out on a mission at 5:30am the next morning in search of a leopard named Honey.
We hoped to find her inside of an hour, so we could be with her as the sun came up. Fifteen minutes into our drive, we came across some tracks. Half an hour of tracking later, we found her, laying in the long grass, impossible to spot from further than a few metres. As the sun started to kiss the tops of the trees, she got to her feet and started walking. She crossed in front of the car, and headed for a small drainage line - then she disappeared. Ten minutes later, we found her again. This time she had a baby ostrich in her mouth. At first, we wondered how on earth we had missed a kill. But, as we edged closer, we realised the baby ostrich was already partially eaten and there was no way she had had the time to feed. She must've stolen it.
We followed her as she loped through the undergrowth, looking for a suitable place to stash her food. Eventually she came across a tall tree, the perfect spot to keep her meal for later. But, after circling the tree and surrounding area for the best part of half an hour, she decided it wasn’t for her. She decided to keep moving. This time she came directly towards us. She stopped, food in her mouth, five metres in front of us. She stopped and just stood there, eyeballing us, telling us to get out of the way. Our car had no doors or roof, so we happily obliged, not wanting to mess with a killing machine. Once we were out of her way, she kept walking, heading for the long grass. Then she dropped her food and rolled over. She had chosen her sleeping spot for the day.
At the time, I did not realise quite how special this encounter had been; but by the end of the trip, I was fully aware. Leopards are the most elusive animals in Africa. You don’t just come across them. Since they are mainly active at night, even if you are lucky enough to find one, odds are all you will see it do is sleep. One afternoon later in the week, I found this out first hand when we went looking for Honey again. It took us hours just to find her, and when we did, all we saw was her tail twitching in the long grass as she slept. We watched her tail twitch for four hours, hoping she would get up, even just for a moment - but she didn’t.
The next few days were special. We encountered a pride of lions with three six month old cubs, ran into a tower of giraffes, and watched two elephant bulls come within a metre of our car. But one of the most special moments was not actually out on a drive. It was while I was sitting at the lodge, having lunch. The lunch area overlooks a watering hole, so it’s not uncommon to see animals swing by for a drink. And sure enough, one day a herd of elephants stopped by. In the herd were three babies, two of whom were not even a metre tall.
As the herd drank, I ran back to my room to grab my camera, hoping they would go for a swim as they often do to cool down. When I came back, they had moved on from drinking, to the mud nearby. The older ones in the herd started splashing themselves and each other. It was not long before the whole herd was in the mud pit. Mud baths serve a critical role for elephants in Africa, helping them both cool down and serving as a protective layer from UV rays: mud is their sunscreen. But it was the babies, not the adults, who stole the show. You see, baby elephants don’t have great control over their limbs, and even worse control over their trunks. This is because an elephant’s trunk contains 40,000 muscles (63 times the number of muscles in the human body) and those muscles take time getting used to. The result is cute beyond belief. The babies kept falling over, flapping their ears and their trunk all over the place as they did so. Moving around in the mud was difficult for them. Getting out of the pit was an even bigger challenge. I sat there and just marvelled, enthralled by the cuteness of it all. That was when I decided I wanted to try to find a herd with babies on a drive, so that we could sit with them for hours.
The Waiting Game
As I mentioned, cheetahs are my favourite animal. I used to love watching videos on YouTube of cheetahs chasing springbok, so I’ve always had this dream of one day filming a kill. On my first day at the reserve, I had talked about this with Warren, and rather than dismissing it as a dream, he said he thought it was a realistic goal for the trip. We talked about how I could film it with my drone, and we knew that if we could get it done, we would be the first ones to ever film a cheetah kill with a drone. It would be an awesome perspective. So for three days, we sat with a cheetah called Obi Wan. Six hours in the morning, six in the afternoon. The only waking hours we weren’t spending with him were a couple of hours in the middle of the day when we would go back to the lodge to get out of the sun and eat some lunch. Over that three days, I like to think that he grew accustomed to our presence, that he got used to the sound of our vehicle. He knew what we smelled like. He could recognise our voices.
Just before sunset on our second day with him, Obi Wan started to get curious. Maybe we had driven through a bush with a smell he liked, or maybe he was just hungry after four days of not eating. He was eyeing us up from fifteen metres away for twenty minutes or so. Then he jumped off his termite mound, and started walking towards us, body low to the ground, so all you could see was a moving head in the long grass. As he got within ten metres of us, Warren started talking to him, telling him to back off. He stopped for a moment and his body language changed. But it was only for a moment.
He started walking toward us again. He was now just two metres from me. His piercing eyes stared back at me as I tried my hardest not to back away. Warren decided it was probably about time we back the car up a little bit. As we did, he stalked us again, always staying within five metres of the car. We tried backing away a second time. Again, he followed us. This time, he was on Warren’s side of the car. I started snapping photos. He stopped. He stood three metres from the car and just watched us. Maybe he was tired of us watching him and just wanted his turn. Either way, it was a moment I will never forget. Then he turned away and started walking out toward the open plains.
On the third day, we headed out after a quick lunch to find Obi Wan again. This time, he wasn’t where we had left him in the morning. After twenty minutes of tracking, we found him lying under a tree. At first, we thought he had just relocated, but then we saw his belly. It was full. And, if you looked closer, you could see little specks of blood around his mouth. We had missed it. We couldn’t believe he had gone out hunting in the middle of the day - cheetahs usually hunt around dawn and dusk - but I guess he had been very hungry. The whole experience was both amazing and disappointing at the same time. I had spent over 24 hours with him in a three day period. I felt like I had gotten to know his personality. I felt like I knew him. But I hadn’t even seen him attempt a kill.
What Would You Do If A Pride of Lions Charged You?
The most unforgettable moment of the whole trip came about half way in. We decided to try to find a pride of lions who had a four month old cub. We heard them even before we could see them. Their growls shook the ground as we drove closer. We stopped about twenty metres away, not wanting any trouble. Even still, they continued to growl. A lion’s growl will touch your very core. It will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and heart beat and double speed. And when they show their teeth at the same time, there’s no amount of movie thrillers that can prepare you for it. I thought I had ice in my veins. Still, as they started to settle down a bit, I felt myself relax a little. I started taking photographs again, trying to capture the beauty of the little cub. A cub whose pupils were so big you couldn't even see the whites of his eyes.
Every now and again, the females would start growling for no obvious reason. A couple of times, they even started to stand up as they did so, but Warren’s shouting seemed to calm them every time they did. Then, seemingly out of the blue, they started growling again and bolted up. As the mother of the cub started to charge at us, so came the other female. We had parked the car with the side facing them so that I could take photos, but I now felt more vulnerable than ever. I have never felt that much adrenaline hit my bloodstream at once. In the second that it took them to jump up and get within five metres of the car, I put my camera down and recoiled as far back into the doorless open-top car as I could. I could hear my heart beating a million miles a minute. Warren was shouting louder than ever. They stopped just a couple of metres away from me, showing their teeth and their muscles as they did so. Their size and power was never more evident.
The lionesses at Erindi are the largest in Africa, and the two who had just charged me were the largest on the reserve. I knew they could've killed me if they had wanted to. I knew that my life was in the hands of wild beasts. Yet I would do it all over again. There is nothing more primal than the fear that will overcome you as a pride of lions charges, teeth and claws out and at the ready. There is nothing more exhilarating. Just for a second, it was as though I'd stepped back a few thousand years. And it was all over in a matter of seconds. Soon after that, we decided it was probably best to leave them be. We didn’t want them to follow through next time. As we drove around looking for other animals, all I could think about was that moment. It took a good two hours for my heart rate to go back to normal.
The Victorian Pride
After our hair-raising encounter a few days before, you might think that I wanted to steer clear of the lions. You would be wrong. I wanted to find more cubs. I wanted to see them play. They were so cute, I didn’t mind how scary the adults were. So we went in search of the Victorian Pride, a pride who were more comfortable with cars - and they had three little cubs. When we found them, they were standing over a blue wildebeest, trying to rip open the untouched carcass. But none of the young females or cubs were there. It was just the two older females and the alpha, Shadow. We watched in awe as they ripped open the belly, going for the soft tissue first. Their faces were soon covered in blood.
The blood was so red it almost didn’t look real. As blood dripped from the mane of Shadow, all you could do was stare. But the mother of the cubs, Victoria, didn’t eat for long. She licked her face clean and then headed off into the bush. We hoped that she was going to fetch the cubs. We waited until the two others were done eating before heading back to the lodge for a quick lunch of our own.
We went straight back out after lunch, hoping to see the cubs eating. Sure enough, when we got to the carcass, the three little ones were there. They were shy at first, hiding behind the adults. But the adults soon went back to sleep, and the cubs took this as a signal that we weren’t a threat to them. They started to come closer to the car, curious as to what kind of animal we were. As each of them got bolder, they started running between us and the carcass in excitement. As the afternoon wore on, they got more and more energetic, their little bellies full of food. As dusk approached, they put on a show for us. They chased each other around for almost an hour, tackling each other, chewing on one another’s tails, and jumping on the adults, hoping that they would join in the fun. On two separate occasions, a lone cub even came right up to the side of the car, just staring up at us in bewilderment. A few days later, we sat with them again, this time at sunrise. As they chewed on straw, knocked each other over, and attacked tree branches, life felt complete. If only I could spend the rest of my life watching lion cubs play with one another.
Coming to a Close
My final few days at Erindi were magical and I found myself wishing that I didn’t have to leave. On my penultimate afternoon, I decided that I wanted to sit with the herd of elephants that had come to the watering hole at lunch earlier in the week. Getting to them was difficult. We could hear them, as is often the case with elephants. You see, elephants knock down trees and bushes with ease, so sounds of crashing trees signal that they are nearby. These sounds can often travel miles. But the bushes were so overgrown and the terrain so uneven, we couldn’t just head directly for the noises we were hearing. After wandering backwards and forwards for a while, we finally caught sight of a few of the adults. After some further repositioning, we got a glimpse of the smallest of the babies. He had his trunk wrapped around a tree and was trying to bring it to the ground. He clearly didn’t have the strength. As he struggled, another of the babies knocked a tree branch on his head. He was unperturbed. His valiant efforts were indescribably cute - another moment that I will treasure forever.
My final evening brought about two incredibly rare occurrences. The first was a lone brown hyena who wasn’t concerned about the car. He stood forty metres from us, chewing on some bones he had found. Normally they run as soon as they hear the noise of a vehicle. Warren said it was the best brown hyena sighting he had ever had in the eight years he had worked on the reserve. The second was a pack of wild dogs fighting a cackle of hyenas over a kill. We watched the whole thing unfold. It was mesmerising. Needless to say, so was the entire ten day experience. I can’t wait to go back during the rainy season.
Erindi is as much about the work it does for the animals as it is about tracking and viewing them. During my time on the reserve, I was lucky enough to witness several of their nine current conservation projects first hand. From working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) to help rehabilitate cheetahs and reintegrate them back into the wild, to their Global Leopard Project (GLP) which aims track the movements of leopards across Africa in an effort to better understand their behaviours, their concern for the wellbeing of endangered wildlife is abundantly clear.
One project I was lucky enough to become a part of, in a purely documentary capacity, was the darting of an elephant and a white rhino. You see, in order to monitor the behaviour, health, and movements of particular species, you have to know where they are. GPS and radio tracking allow you to gather data that help build a picture that can end up being a roadmap to helping save the lives of countless animals. On top of this, dartings allow for health checks, meaning diseases that might endanger entire populations can be fought before they become too much of a problem. The whole darting process was carried out quickly and efficiently by top veterinary professionals, and all medical examinations were done on each animal within a half hour window. I know that the invaluable insight that was gained will benefit both white rhino and elephant populations on the reserve and I am proud to have been a part of that.
To find out more about Erindi Private Game Reserve, visit erindi.com
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