Namibia: Goodwill hunting
By volunteering for a research project in unspoilt Namibia, Peter Geoghegan got to watch wild animals in their natural habitat, rather than tracking them down in a safari convoy
It's often said that driving in Africa is different to anywhere else in the world -- uneven tracks, unorthodox markings,unpredictabletourists. As I soon discovered, taking to the open road in Namibia certainly poses some unique challenges.
I'd been behind the wheel of my Land Rover for barely two minutes before I had to slam hard on the brakes -- to avoid ploughing head first into a 15ft-tall obstacle ... with legs and a very long neck.
Not that the shiny coated bull giraffe in the middle of the mud road seemed bothered. Oblivious to the screams from inside the jeep, he just stood perfectly still, his elongated, regal neck craned to full capacity, impassively surveying the Namibian savannah.
African giraffes are highly endangered, but thankfully not on Ongos, the sprawling 100-sq km farm-cum-game reserve in central Namibia where I'm staying. Here, as I quickly discovered, the animals really are king: Ongos is home to blue wildebeest, oryx, hyena, jackal, springbok, more baboons than you could shake a stick at, around 50 majestic giraffes and much else besides.
But the real jewel in its crown -- and the reason I'm here -- are the leopards. Namibia boasts one of the largest populations of leopards in the world. It's also one of the favourite spots for 'trophy hunters', tourists who come from the US and Europe, and pay top dollar to shoot big game.
I'm on Ongos, though, not to hunt the leopards, or even to spot them, but to help gather scientific data that will assist local game ranchers to manage the stocks and habitat of big cats on their land.
It's all a far cry from that tried and trusted model of African wildlife tourism, the safari. Instead of 'game drives' and photo-ops with the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo), I, and 15 others, have signed up to become de facto research assistants for two weeks, working from dawn until dusk with scientists and conservationists to build up a profile of the leopards that blithely wander through this unspoilt corner of Namibia's Khomas Hochlands.
"Leopards are not endangered in Namibia but all over the world," says Ronald Seipold, the expedition's bronzed, German group leader, as we sit chatting on the veranda of the lapa, the traditional thatch-roofed hut that forms the centre point of our camp. "It is vital to understand and to save the big cats here."
It's almost noon and the spoon in my coffee is the only thing stirring in the early summer heat.
Ronald is a veteran of numerous expeditions led by Biosphere, a not-for-profit organisation which specialises in conservation volunteering holidays.
Conversation tourism is a booming sector, with increasing numbers opting for holiday experiences that actually engage with 'natives' and their environment rather than just taking pictures of the colourful sites from the safety of an open-top jeep.
From the moment we arrive at Ongos, about 20 miles from the sleepy Namibian capital Windhoek, Ronald and his three assistants (all PhD students in German universities) treat us like proper researchers, with all of the diligence and dedication that entails.
On day one, we are split into small groups, each with our own Land Rover and distinct set of tasks, which include searching for animal 'scats' (that's poo to you and me), collecting memory cards from the camera traps dotted across Ongos, and taking long drives across the farm counting every animal in sight, from kudu to rhino.
"Africans apprehend time differently," the fabled Polish journalist and Africa expert Ryszard Kapuscinski once wrote. "For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective."
However, as our expedition is staffed almost entirely by Germans, and all my fellow guests hail from Europe and the USA, our days run to a thoroughly Newtonian -- and unswervingly punctual -- clock.
Breakfast is served at 6.30am sharp. Latecomers, as I discovered to my peril on the very first morning,, risk not just an empty stomach but also some merciless mickey-taking.
Every morning and afternoon is given over to tasks, with the evenings dedicated to planning, data entry and presentations. Only the unbearable midday heat forces a change of pace, with lunch followed by a leisurely siesta while the arid savannah cools down.
On our first full day, Ulf Tubbesing, a rugged sixth-generation German-Namibian vet who bought Ongos off a Namibian media mogul around the turn of the century, introduces us to Nduna, a female leopard found in a box trap and who now lives in her own 32-acre enclosure.
When we arrive, she is busy tearing apart an oryx carcass. Her strength is a sight to behold; her beauty equally striking.
"I hope there aren't too many tree huggers among you," Ulf banters in his clipped South African English. "You're dealing with animals. Be careful because this could happen to you."
Ulf points to the sling that holds his right-arm, the result of an unfortunate accident with the leopard the previous week.
Having experienced these magnificent felines up close, with some of the less pusillanimous in the group (ie, not me) even stroking their sleek fur, we all want to meet one in the wild.
Our best chance is during the telemetry task. Armed with a radio transmitter, a map of Ongos and a jeep, we head off in search of Lucy, a leopard caught in one of the traps earlier in the season who was tagged with an electronic VHF collar before being released back into the wild.
Early indications are good. We climb the rocky scrub road to the top of Elephant Mountain, a huge protrusion in the centre of Ongos. Not only is the view across this sparse, empty land breathtaking -- Namibia, home to the Kalahari Desert, is the second least densely populated country in the world -- but we also get a faint but unmistakable beep on Lucy's frequency. Quicker than you can say "a leopard never changes its spots", I rev the engine and the group piles into the back of the jeep.
Unfortunately, our first sign of Lucy is also our last. For almost two hours we drive up and down the dirt roads, cross-referencing and triangulating telemetry signals, but it's no use -- Lucy is gone, probably west into the neighbouring farm owned by a French couple.
We pass the long journey back to camp counting game en route: a pair of steenbok grazing at a waterhole; a herd of kudos in the bush; a black-backed jackal, which runs across the jeep's path as we quietly drive along the dry river bed. While we might have failed in our task, it's an incredible way to spend an afternoon, watching animals in their natural habitat rather than chasing them in a safari convoy.
Sitting on the porch outside my tent that evening, as the heat of the day slowly begins to dissipate, it's hard to remember when I last felt this close to nature. The squawk of starlings provides a constant backdrop, while barely 20 metres away a herd of gangly kudu saddle up to a waterhole. Almost before my eyes, a blood-red sky fades incrementally to black.
Dinner that night is cooked in an outdoor pot called a poikie. Most of the expedition sits cross-legged on the dusty ground around the camp fire, tearing strips of tender kudu meat off the bone and talking about the day's adventures. One group found a trail of hyena scat near the eastern fence; another stumbled across a troop of baboons at the north of the farm.
Ronald enquires about our telemetry session. "All we got was one lousy beep, then nothing," says Sheila, an amicable physician from Minnesota. The disappointment in her voice is reflected in all our faces.
Ronald isn't fazed. "Don't worry. Lucy's out there. You'll see."
A week later, a couple of days after I'd returned from Namibia, I got an email from the camp with a picture attached. The photograph, a night-time shot, was dark and fuzzy, but in the left-hand corner was the distinct, unmistakable outline of a leopard. It was Lucy and she was less than a hundred yards from the tent I was sleeping in. It seems that in Namibia, seeing really is believing.