Moons back, when I was in my late 20s, my brother and sister were both teaching in Namibia, and my mother–in an expression of largesse and adventure–offered to cover the expenses for the four of us to take a trip together during an extended school break.
So, off we went.
We were stuffed into a VW Golf Rabbit (a story for another day) and had been traveling together for about a week, going to different locations each day, when we arrived at the Namib-Naukluft Park, a national park in western Namibia.
As we were coming back from a drive to look about for wildlife, we saw our nearby-yet-distant neighbor’s campsite being ravaged by some baboons. (They were easy enough to identify with their telltale tall shoulders and lower hips.) We were reminded, by the site of them having a go at it, to keep our food in the car and not within reach of creatures who might find the smells of our food more tantalizing than the day-in-day-out offerings of a desert clime. “Sucks to be them,” I thought, but what were we to do? Come up upon a pack of baboons and shoo them away? While not full-on carnivores, they are meat eaters, they do have sharp teeth and they likely wouldn’t take our “shoo” message very well.
So we let it be.
As we were starting to prepare dinner, I noticed our other nearby-yet-distant neighbor was alone and on a motorcycle. I figured he didn’t have much food or water on him, and, well, we’d all been stuffed in a small car for awhile and some fresh company might do us good, so (with the other’s permission) I asked him if he wanted to join us for a meal. He did.
His name was Marco. He was tall-ish, thin, German and about my age at the time: late 20s-ish. He’d been in South Africa for a year, apprenticing as a gold smith, and was now headed back to Germany on his bike. (Oi! That’s a long way home and on some very rocky and not-smooth roads … at least for most of his travels in Namibia.)
He was a delight. Filled with stories and insights and data about the region. We ate, we laughed, we hung out, and then my early-to-bed-early-to-rise family members climbed into their tents whereas I was still wide awake and had many hours yet in me before I was likely to feel sleepy. Marco, turns out, was a bit of a night-owl, too.
a midnight stroll
I don’t recall whether we politely left the campsite to keep the sound down or were asked to move farther away from the tents and my tryna-sleep relatives, but, in either case, we decided to go for a night walk.
There was a thunderous sound in the hills. Lots of it. Thud-thud-thud-thud-thud-thud-thud. Marco knew the region, knew the animals. It was a herd of zebra running, he told me. And running! Like seriously. Thud-thud-thud-thud-thud-thud-thud, running at the ridge near our campsite. It was loud.
We kept walking. We talked of this and we talked of that. (Those details are long forgotten.) We’d find a spot and sit for awhile and talk some more, then we’d move on. As we were heading back toward our campsite (one of four in this area of the park), I heard a growl. “Marco, did you hear that?” I asked him. He had.
We turned and in the distance–maybe about 30-40 yards away, I saw “a baboon,” with its high shoulders and lower hips. I didn’t care for the sound of an animal growling at us in the night, but I figured the baboon wouldn’t hurt us, and, heck, maybe it was one of the campsite-ravagers we’d seen early in the day, now with more than enough food in its belly.
We kept walking and a few minutes later, we heard a growl again: this time a little closer. We turned again, and this time saw three “baboons” rather than one. They were about 25 yards away. Marco took a few steps toward the animals and then stayed where he was for a couple of minutes. They retreated.
I mentioned something about the baboons following us, and Marco said they weren’t baboons because baboons weren’t out at night. But I knew better. I had seen baboons earlier in the day, and the animals following us sure looked like baboons to me.
I was starting to feel a bit anxious, but Marco seemed rather chill, and I figured if there was anything to worry about, he’d know; plus, one way or the other, we still had to get back to camp and no one was around to help us, so onward we walked. I picked up some palm-sized rocks, feeling a bit safer and having some wildly fantastical vision that with my crappy throwing capacities, I could scare away the animals if push came to shove.
We walked on a bit, less chatty and cavalier: more focused on getting back to camp.
The growls came again. Louder. Nearer. More-er.
We turned again and this time, there were five “baboons,” and they were much, much closer to us–about 10 yards away. There was nothing mild, or relaxed or “eh” about things now. From one, to three, to five of them–and closer each time. I realized with a specific clarity I was not, so to speak, in Kansas anymore; I was not in the suburban wilds of Maryland where “big game” meant plant-munching deer. No, I was in southwestern Africa, in Namibia, in a big, big land with very, very few people and many, many animals in their native habitat.
Marco again turned toward the growling animals. This time he walked farther, heading directly and intently toward them. They retreated, still growling, and he stood in the spot where they had just been for several minutes. I stayed silent, figuring he had a better handle on what was happening than I did.
We were, by this time, only a few minutes walk to the road on which cars traveled in and out of the campsite, rather than on the pathways both humans and animals walked. We still had a half mile or so to go, but I knew, instinctively, the animals would not follow us any longer as we got closer to camp, and they didn’t.
Marco and I returned safely, said goodnight and went to sleep.
The next morning, the park’s ranger, a young man named Gerhard (with all kinds of hard-to-pronounce guttural sounds inside that name) came by to say hello and check on us. Chatty as ever, I was telling him about the night walk Marco and I had taken, and the baboons that were following us and growling nearby.
“Baboons?” Gerhard said. “Baboons aren’t out at night; those were hyena,” he told us.
“Oh,” I said. And in that moment I was intensely grateful for my ignorance the night prior, and for the company and confidence of Marco to know what they were, to know how to respond to them (not to act like prey and run, for one) and for the discretion he used in not telling me it was hyenas following us.
Yes, I was very, very grateful.
Marco soon joined us for coffee and a light breakfast. We laughed about the experience. Gerhard told us stories about various wildlife encounters he and others had had in the park, and I was reminded, once again, I was not in Kansas anymore. Not even close, which, after all, was part and parcel of such a trip and most certainly a trip into the wilds of Namibia.