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Close Encounters


Emma Gregg gets familiar with the wildlife in Namibia's Etosha National Park

That guy looks like he's won a few battles," says Manfred, our Namibian guide, with a whistle of respect.

We've stopped beside one of the quieter waterholes in Etosha National Park to admire a particularly impressive male giraffe. Apparently unperturbed, he gazes into the middle distance. His flanks are the colour of well-seasoned bark and his neck is mottled with scars, the badges of an eventful life. Since the pelt of a male giraffe darkens with age, there's a good chance that this individual is well into his 20s.

There was a time when I paid little attention to giraffes. There's no denying that they're remarkably tall; if this one were to stand outside my house, he'd have to stoop a bit to peer through the upstairs windows. They're elegant, too, and look spectacular when they're running with that strangely cinematic, slow-motion gait of theirs.

But most of the time, they don't do much. They're quiet, enigmatic and inscrutable. This is the deal-breaker. On safari, it's all about the action. Pausing beside a waterhole in prime wildlife-watching territory, you feel like a spectator at a theatrical arena. Barely a moment passes when you're not hoping that something extraordinary will happen.

You have to be both patient and fortunate to witness the kind of scenes which, earlier this year, changed my opinion of giraffes forever. Africa, the highly acclaimed BBC wildlife documentary series narrated by David Attenborough, included footage of two rival Namibian giraffes clobbering each other in a bout of what is rather coyly called 'necking'. It was an astounding show of aggression and strength from creatures that usually appear so benign.

Since then, I've found the earth's tallest animals rather intriguing. There's plenty about a giraffe that's unexpected or just plain quirky, from its long, mobile tongue, coloured black as a safeguard against sunburn, to its blotches, which are as unique as a fingerprint. Then there's the fact that a giraffe's heart can weigh over 10kg and the horn-like ossicones between its ears (tufted in females, bald in males) play a part in keeping its head cool. My favourite nugget of giraffe trivia is this: it has the same number of vertebrae in its neck as any other mammal. Each bone is, of course, enormous.

Our driver shifts the vehicle into gear and we head along a sunbleached track to another waterhole. At this stage in the hot, dry season, we're confident that whichever we choose, there'll be something to see.

window on a secret world

It's this reliability that makes Etosha one of the best destinations in southern Africa for a self-drive safari. The animals are free to roam, but to find them, you simply pick up a map at the park headquarters, Okaukuejo. It shows every waterhole and which species like to hang out there. You don't even need a 4x4, as long as you stick to the main tracks, drive carefully and don't do anything daft. So far, so predictable. But Etosha is a park with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. This astonishing wilderness is not just fascinating by day, when herds of zebras, antelopes and elephants shimmer in the heat haze and predators wait for their chance. It's quite something by night, too. The waterhole at Okaukuejo, which is floodlit, opens a window on a secret world that visitors would never normally see.

At our next stop, a pair of jackals are cavorting on the bank. Once again, giraffes grab our attention, striding confidently into view, their scale nothing short of epic. They splay their legs, lower their lips to meet their reflections and drink.

nocturnal rendezvous

The surroundings look familiar, and we wonder whether it was here that the BBC Natural History Unit filmed another astonishing sequence for Africa. With cutting-edge cameras, the team spied on the nocturnal rendezvous of rare black rhinos, revealing social behaviour that few had witnessed before.

"Even if I knew exactly where that was," says Manfred, "I wouldn't be permitted to say." The wave of rhino poaching that has swept through South Africa's parks and reserves like a curse has yet to spread over the Namibian border, thanks in no small part to Namibia's intelligent, community-focused conservation strategy. Nonetheless, those on the ground aren't willing to take any chances. Rumour has it that tourists sometimes act as accomplices in wildlife crimes by broadcasting the whereabouts of unguarded rhinos to poachers.

On the way to bed that evening, I have the most enigmatic encounter of all on the trip. As I cross the lawn in front of our lodge and take the final turn to my room, a shape looms out of the shadows. A giraffe has chosen this moment for a late-night leg-stretch in the unfenced grounds, just a few hundred metres from the campfire where my fellow guests are still chatting.

secret thoughts

I stare up at him, astonished. He stares down at me. Then he turns and disappears into the trees, his secret thoughts intact.


Expert Africa

Tel. 020 8232 9777 /

Expert Africa can arrange organised or bespoke guided or self-drive tours of Namibia's best desert landscapes and wildlife-watching areass.

Captain's Choice

Tel. 0845 304 5227 /

Captain's Choice offers a 14-day tour of Namibia, including game viewing, the Sossusvlei sand dunes, the Fish River Canyon and a private, three-day journey on the Desert Express luxury train.

Rainbow Tours

Tel. 020 7666 1250 /

Rainbow Tours offers a variety of tailor-made Namibia itineraries, from self-drive to camping safaris and flying safaris.

Wilderness Safaris

Runs several superb camps in Namibia. Its newest venture, Hoanib Skeleton Coast, will open in the Kunene region in 2014.

Namibia Tourism

Offers detailed information on tours, transport and accommodation.

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