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Close Encounters of the Wild Kind in Namibia's Desert

A writer gets a rare, close-up look at African wildlife.

Through my camera lens, the lions looked startlingly close: five young brothers with silky manes, sprawled on a dune that matched the tawny color of their bodies, and a sleek older lioness, sitting high above on a rocky promontory. Every 15 minutes or so, the female would carefully descend to approach one of the males—provoking fierce roars, which sent her scrambling back to her perch.

The skirmishes, though brief, were actually momentous. They were the first documented confrontations between two separate lion prides—parts of a small, threatened lion population inhabiting this remote corner of the Namib desert. So far, the lions didn’t seem to notice our tiny group hidden in an acacia thicket, spying on them from our parked Land Cruiser.

For us—just three Americans and one European, along with our guide—the occasion was significant as well. Seeing these lions, in the arid northwestern region of Kunene, was both a rare privilege and the culmination of a two-week-long journey. The trip, a new offering from Wilderness Travel called “In the Realm of the Desert Lion,” offered close encounters with many of Namibia’s desert-adapted species—animals whose survival in some of Africa’s most punishing landscapes was a world away from those I’d seen on game drives in popular national parks.

“Can you see what’s happening?” a voice crackled from our vehicle’s walkie-talkie. It was Dr. Philip “Flip” Stander, a prominent Namibian wildlife biologist who has spent three decades studying desert lions. His own vehicle was parked nearby, but his sightlines weren’t as good.

“Yup,” replied our guide, Jason Nott, who also happens to be Flip’s godson. “She’s trying to engage with them at regular intervals. We’re keeping a log and taking photographs.”

“That’s terrific,” Flip said. “Please just carry on. You’re witnessing something really important here.”

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  • Original de horned rhino.jpg?1465943339?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Just Say Rhino
    A male rhino (deliberately dehorned to discourage poachers) mock-charges a group of visitors who unintentionally roused him from a nap.
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    Keeping Track
    Dr. Philip “Flip” Stander, who has studied Namibian desert lions for more than 30 years, tracks lions’ movements by their satellite radio collars. Living in his truck for weeks at a time, he often writes the lions’ GPS coordinates on his body so he can remember them.
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    Kunene’s Gorge
    Punishingly dry, the Kunene region’s landscapes include red-rock escarpments and deep gorges.
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    Leopard Cub
    A rare sighting of a leopard cub at Okonjima, a private, 55,000-acre nature preserve where dozens of cheetahs, leopards, and lions live.
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    Young Male Lions
    Two young male lions, part of a group being studied by Dr. Stander, asleep on a dune in the Hoanib River valley.
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    Camp Staffer
    A staffer named Desert Rose, at Desert Rhino Camp in Damaraland—an area that is home to the largest population of wild black rhino in Africa.
    Photo by Sarah Gold
  • Original lion brothers3.jpg?1465943932?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Keeping Close Watch
    Though Dr. Stander has fitted some of the lions he studies with satellite radio collars, he never interacts with them. “They know my truck,” he says, “but I don’t think they’ve ever actually seen me.”
    Photo by Sarah Gold
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    Rough Roads
    Most of the roads that crisscross the Kunene region are unpaved, unmarked, and bone-rattlingly rough.
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    Roaming Zebras
    Zebras, like other Namibian desert-adapted species, subsist in extremely hardscrabble conditions.
    Photo by Sarah Gold
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    Cheetah Release
    Releasing a cheetah back into the wild after its annual veterinary checkup at Okonjima preserve.
    Photo by Sarah Gold
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    Courtesy of National Park Services

Collecting data for Flip (he would later download our images and notes for his encyclopedic archives) was just one of the conservation efforts we took part in during our circuitous, 700-mile driving odyssey through Kunene’s starkly beautiful, otherworldly landscapes. We saw dry boulder-strewn riverbeds, soaring escarpments of flame-colored rock, and expanses that, if it weren’t for the occasional oryx or mountain zebra, could have stood in for the surface of Mars. Along the way, Jason, who’d grown up in the region and had an exhaustive knowledge of its flora and fauna, gave us some extremely close brushes with local wildlife.

Some of these were hairy—and exhilarating. Driving near the Palmwag Concession (a conservation area of roughly 2,000 square miles) one afternoon, Jason quietly pulled over the Land Cruiser and beckoned us toward a stand of mopane trees, where we crept close enough to count 14 feeding desert elephants before their warning snorts drove us back. Several nights later, after bedding down at an elegant tented camp, I was woken in the wee hours by frightening yips and snarls: A pack of spotted hyenas had mobbed my outdoor deck. (My own banshee shrieks eventually drove them off.)

Even more thrilling were the chances we got to work on the ground with Namibian conservation organizations, including several days spent with Save the Rhino Trust, a donor-funded anti-poaching group in Damaraland—home to Africa’s largest population of endangered, free-roaming black rhino.

Early one morning we joined two of the group’s Damara-tribe scouts on their daily foot patrols—the most unobtrusive way to chart the whereabouts of rhinos in their jurisdiction. We trailed the scouts for nearly nine hours while they tracked across a sun-scorched plain. At one point, they motioned for us to slowly approach a spiky euphorbia shrub, beyond which we saw a huge, dehorned rhino settling his thickly armored carapace down for a nap. Suddenly, he caught our scent—or maybe it was the scrape of our boots on the ground—and was on his feet, chuffing. We crouched, half-terrified, as he mock-charged us, thundering within a few feet before changing his mind and veering away.

Easily the most intimate wildlife encounters we had on our trip were at Okonjima, a onetime ranch turned private game preserve where 55,000 acres shelter dozens of lions, leopards, and cheetahs. The property is also home to AfriCat, an educational foundation that studies desert cats. Because our trip coincided with the preserve’s annual veterinary checkups, we got the opportunity to assist vets with tasks like carrying dart-tranquilized cheetahs onto examination tables and monitoring their vital signs.

One day I spent a whole afternoon with a single male cheetah, combing the burrs from his matted, feral-smelling coat while he was sedated, gently swabbing his small, tufted ears, then observing him as he groggily regained consciousness inside a wooden crate.

Later, after I helped heft the crate into the back of a pickup truck, preserve staffers and I drove to a meadow made golden by the dipping sun. There, I had what was one of the most memorable moments of my life: standing atop the lowered box, waiting for the signal to spring its door open and watch as the magnificent creature beneath me darted out, back into the wild.

Wilderness Travel’s “In the Realm of the Desert Lion” trips operate three times per year, May to September. Prices start at $6,895 per person.   

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