Text by Hu Berry
At night the Etosha Pan assumes unreal dimensions. Forms dissolve, distance becomes exaggerated, direction disappears and fantasies flourish. In daylight the pan is awesome, at night it is foreboding.
It is easy for me to return in thought to the great Pan of Etosha, easier than to deal with it in real terms. I picture myself in my vehicle, parked out on the pan, several kilometres from the shoreline, waiting for sunset. There is no surface water on the pan, but during the rainy season shallow, briny lagoons lap softly against the verges of this huge, flat depression.
Now all surface moisture has evaporated or receded deep below the mosaic of cracked clay. In places this silted surface reaches down to a depth of 40 metres, mirroring the millions of years it took to fill the enormous bed of Lake Etosha. Its size, three million years ago, covered an area of approximately 71 000 km2, making it the third-largest lake in the world after the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior. Shrinking to 4 700 km2, it nonetheless retains an air of vastness.
Replaced with the realities of what is taking place around me, these statistics recede in my mind, compelling my imagination to run free. I face westwards, watching the sun flame and slip below the horizon, its last rays burning like a distant veldfire just below the evening star. Then I turn and face east. The pan lies in front of me. It spreads around me, merging with the sky as the spectrum of sunset colours transforms to a haziness that heralds the coming darkness.
A spectrum of emotions takes control of me. I try to ignore them to concentrate on the scientific logic that must prevail for my task of the night ahead to be successful. My intention is to follow a herd of wildebeest from dusk to dawn, quantifying their activities on a stopwatch in an attempt to improve our understanding of how they survive or succumb to the relentless pressures of living free in Etosha’s harsh wilderness.
The wildebeest are far out on the pan where patches of ephemeral, nutritious grasses have sprouted, following good rains. My aids are a powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle, a voice recorder and a pair of night-vision binoculars that intensifies images by a factor of thousands. A strong spotlight, which I will activate only if the intensifier proves ineffective, is on hand. Slung on the rack behind me lies a heavy caliber, magnum rifle and wrapped snugly around the gear lever on the truck’s floor, the ugly snub-nose of a stainless steel revolver protrudes from its holster. I will carry them with me in case my vehicle has a breakdown or I need to leave its safety for some other reason. Lesser but vital support items lie on the seat next to me – snacks and a thermos of steaming coffee to tide me over during the long night ahead.
Try as I might to focus on the systematic procedure that I must follow to accomplish my goal, my imagination persists and my emotions mingle, overwhelming all rational thoughts. I experience excitement, anticipation, apprehension, anxiety. And yes, fear. The pan at night assumes unreal dimensions. Forms dissolve, distance exaggerates, direction disappears… and fantasies flourish. In daylight the pan is awesome; at night it is foreboding.
I feel the daytime agoraphobia, the fear of too much space, giving way to its antithesis. Claustrophobia takes hold as shadows deepen, then disappear, dissolving into nothingness. And the sound – there is none. The wind that by day sighs and gusts pale clouds of dust high into the air is gone. In its place I hear a soft, rushing resonance – the flow of blood coursing through my ears.
There is no moon. I have purposely chosen this night to record what wildebeest do when only starlight provides illumination. There is no doubt that they can see, hear and smell far better than I can. I need the help of technology and as it becomes dark I strap the image intensifier to my head and activate the batteries. A soft whirr is audible as the instrument takes in the available starlight, intensifying it 40 000 times. To prevent temporary blindness, I’ve covered the dashboard panel, headlights and rear lights of the vehicle with masking tape. If I were to switch these on by accident, or even so much as tap the brakes, the intensified brilliance of their light would be sufficiently dazzling to blind me. Worse still, my vision could suffer permanent damage.
The images I see make the pan all the more unreal. Soft, ghostly forms of wildebeest move against a green backdrop of constantly speckling rays. I begin the observations, recording the herd’s activities and the temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed. Fifteen minutes is the longest period that I can concentrate before I become tired. Then I rest for 15 minutes before repeating the procedure. This results in a statistically acceptable, random sample of 50% of the wildebeest’s activity patterns.
The night wears on and I alternate between 15 minutes of quantitative science and 15 minutes when my objectivity is replaced by subjective thoughts. I dare not fall asleep in case something significant takes place. Six hours have passed since sunset. Midnight approaches and nothing untoward has happened. The wildebeest have alternated between periods of intensive grazing and resting to chew the cud, in keeping with ruminant routine. There has been regular suckling by the calves and a few interludes of social interaction, but nothing else.
Progressing into the early hours of morning, I find myself overcome with the urge to sleep. It is three and my ability to concentrate becomes increasingly stressful. I allow myself to close my eyes and rest for brief periods between observations. I sometimes drift towards slumber, only to be awakened by the harsh reminder that the next 15 minutes of observation must start.
I’m drowsy, fighting to stay alert. And then it happens. The scene is indelibly etched in my memory. Feline forms glide in slow motion towards the herd, forming an arc, as a lion pride emerges from the darkness of the pan. The setting is so unreal that I momentarily forget to record. I’m instantly awake, adrenalin pulses through my body and I curse my laxness as I adjust the goggles. It takes several seconds for the images to intensify and focus. Lithe shapes show up like ghosts against a green-speckled background.
This is when my imagination and science initially clash, but then the two blend. Fantasy mixes with fact – pale predators stalking pale prey in slow motion. I feel the hairs on the nape of my neck rise, responding to an atavistic memory awakened from my ancestral past. It recalls times when my species cowered in caves at the approach of sabre-toothed cats. Reality takes over – total silence prevails on this primeval stage as carnivore converges with its quarry. Suddenly, after what seems like an eternity, alarm snorts and a flurry of galloping hooves disrupt the stillness. The wildebeests’ superb senses have detected danger. The ghost lions relax, accepting that their hunt has failed, slowly padding away, dissolving into the darkness.
Fortunately I remember to switch off the intensifier and plug in the powerful searchlight. Forgetting the potential danger of lions nearby, I scramble onto the roof of the truck, sweeping the area with a million candlepower beam to locate the wildebeest. Have I lost the herd and thereby ruined the night’s science? I hear a series of nasal snorts as the herd shakes off its scare. Finding their eyes, which reflect red in the beams of the filtered light, I rejoin them with a feeling of relief. My tiredness has evaporated and I replay the sequence of events in my mind, this time separating imagination from science. When the tape is re-run my words will not suggest any trace of fantasy. My voice states unemotionally: …failed hunt by nine lions, presumably Okondeka pride, on mixed herd of 23 wildebeest; time 03:09, temperature 20C, humidity 30%, wind calm, no moon, vegetation short, ephemeral grass.
What is left of the night passes uneventfully. The wildebeest settle into a sequence of grazing and resting in rumination. As dawn approaches, I watch the earth as it may have been at the beginning of time. On the murky, eastern horizon paleness appears, gradually illuminating the setting of this immense, barren stage. It intensifies, the colours again repeating those of sunset, until the sun’s rim pushes up, first red from reflected dust, then yellowing and becoming pallid as it ascends.
I end my observations and watch the herd beginning the daily trek to the edge of the pan – to water. When they’ve moved away from my vehicle I climb out and stretch stiff limbs, feeling the cold bite through my clothing, despite its thickness. The mid-winter temperature drops to zero at sunrise while I stand bathing in the first weak rays. With light replacing gloom, my feelings change from unease to calmness. Relaxing, I absorb the wonder of this place. I have experienced emotions that cover the full spectrum, waxing and waning in tune with the rhythm of the great pan. My night with wildebeest and lions in this immense, empty place will remain with me as I celebrate the new day.
This article originally appeared in the Flamingo October 2007 magazine.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.