Windhoek – A safari guide once taught me that if you can’t see the wood for the trees, try scanning each branch for lumps and bumps – you never know what they might turn out to be. It’s a trick that’s found me bushbabies, roosting owls and tightly coiled snakes. But this is the first time it’s delivered an antelope.
From a distance, the impala in the acacia appears to be standing up, high in the branches, like a Moroccan tree-climbing goat. “Did it jump up there? Is that normal?” asks one of my companions. Earlier, Manfred, our guide, told us a pronking impala can leap three times its own height; up to three metres, if it’s really agitated. So it’s not too outlandish a question. But our binoculars reveal the answer. Just visible at the foot of the acacia is the leopard which killed the hapless impala and hauled it off the ground. It shows its face for a heartbeat, then melts into the undergrowth with a flick of its tail.
We’re in Etosha, a superb national park which, in the space of a few hours, delivers thrill after thrill. At one mirror-smooth waterhole, battle-scarred giraffes splay their legs to drink while a pair of jackals court and couple on the opposite bank. At another, a herd of elephants and their thigh-high young socialise in the cool of the afternoon, seeing off a robust young male who presumably looks like trouble.
In centuries past, the San people used to roam this sun-bleached wilderness, living among the wildlife and doing their best to outwit them. In a prehistoric precursor to Twitter and Facebook, they exchanged information at rock art sites such as Twyfelfontein and Brandberg via trance-induced paintings and engravings depicting shamans, hunters, prey, waterholes and migration routes. The dusty but dignified National Museum of Namibia in Windhoek devotes a sizeable exhibition to these remarkable petroglyphs.
After Etosha was declared a game reserve in 1907, many San clung on. But within 50 years, all had been driven out. By the 1960s, the apartheid government parcelled them off to an arid block of Kalahari scrub they called Bushmanland, in what is now the Otjozondjupa region of northeast Namibia.