A lone giraffe stands motionless at the edge of the clearing waiting for its turn to drink. The zebras and a host of other animals, springboks, elands, hartebeests, and kudus have already quenched their thirst and left. But two lionesses, after lapping up a drink, decide to lie down for a rest near the edge of the waterhole. From the lofty vantage point atop its long neck the giraffe watches them warily for almost an hour before thirst finally overcomes its fear and it walks cautiously to the water's edge. With its long front legs spread wide and bent at the knees it lowers its head to drink. That's when one of the lionesses charges. It is just a bluff but the giraffe wheels and lopes away, its thirst unquenched, while the big cat strolls leisurely back to her resting place.
The standoff between the lion and giraffe was just one small episode in the nightly drama at Okaukuejo's waterhole. Surrounded by a sturdy fence and entered through a guarded gate during daylight hours only, Okaukuejo is one of three rest camps in Etosha's sprawling game park. The fence is not there to keep the animals in - it is there to keep them out. The camp provides a safe place to pitch tents, a few bungalows, a small shop, a bar, and a viewing platform located just inside the fence, only a few metres from the edge of the waterhole.
We had spent the day driving around the edge of the Etosha Pan or "Great White Place." Once a lake, the pan is now a parched expanse of dry clay where a few umbrella-thorn and mopane trees struggle to survive from one wet season to the next. Shimmering heat waves distort the landscape and the horizon disappears in a glistening mirage that merges with a pale cloudless sky. It was late afternoon when we rolled into camp and parked our Land Rover under a mopane tree. After the heat of the pan even the sparse shade of a small tree was a welcome relief. I was glad that Odie had reserved space for us in one of the bungalows - a rare treat that allowed us to leave the tents lashed to the top of the Rover, pick up a cool beer from the bar and head straight over to the viewing platform.
Etosha National Park covers an area of 23,000 sq km and is home to more than 100 species of mammals. They range in size from tiny jackals to five-ton elephants, and in behaviour from shy, ever cautious giraffes to bellicose, short-tempered black rhinos. But regardless of size or temperament every creature needs water to survive - and in Etosha's sun-baked pan there are not many places to get a drink.
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