Earlier this year, wildlife photographer and publisher HEINRICH VAN DEN BERG packed his family into a 4x4, hooked up a caravan, and headed off to Namibia. His mission was two-fold: to introduce his young sons to the stark beauty of Namibia; and to meet up with Dr Philip Stander, who is almost as elusive as the desert lions he looks after.
Two years ago, I began writing a similar article on travelling with toddlers during a monthlong project in the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park in summer. Our children were not yet human, the temperatures hovered just below 50⁰C and one of them tried to pick up a Parabuthus scorpion with his bare hands, causing my wife Dana to go into a state of neurotoxic shock, which ended the trip. What started out as a 3 000-word article idea ended up as a three-word summary – ‘Don’t. Do. It.’
But we had to try again. The aim this time was to travel for a month through Namibia, drive for more than 8 000km, meet with Philip Stander and his lions in one of the most remote places in Namibia, and return via the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park to make peace with the scorpions. Easy. For the expedition, we were armed with a well-kitted-out Mazda BT50 bakkie, a Jurgens Safari Xcape caravan, a collection of Netflix animation downloads and a scorpion torch. On our second night we already had our doubts as to whether this was a good idea.
Taking a tumble
We were camping at Zelda Guest Farm, close to Gobabis just across the border in Namibia. The facility has a few animals in enclosures, including porcupine, caracal and a huge male leopard. As we arrived, the leopard showed interest in a few goats just outside his enclosure, stalking them and crouching next to the fence, his tail tip flipping back and forth like a metronome, counting all the ways in which he would like to kill them.
Now we were on the scene, with our two goat-sized children who immediately started running up and down the leopard’s fence, laughing like tasty meat. The leopard immediately transferred its attention from the goats to our children, staring at them with that unmistakable look of death, its tail tip flipping even more meaningfully. That night all four of us were sleeping on the fold-out bed in the caravan, for although it was designed for two people, the bed is big enough to accommodate all of us. The night was quiet except for the distant call of jackal and an occasional grunt from the leopard, which was only about five metres from us.
At 2am we woke to a strange wailing sound, hailing from outside the caravan. The creature, whatever it was, seemed to be right outside our door and the sound was disturbing, loud and bone-chilling. It tore the night to shreds. ‘Arno!’ Dana shouted. ‘It’s Arno!’ I opened the caravan door and found an agitated, wailing three-year-old with outstretched arms and streams of tears reflecting in the blue moonlight. That night was only the second time I had opened the foldout bed and I hadn’t wrapped the canvas all the way over the sides, resulting in an opening through which Arno rolled out of the caravan, into the darkness and on to the rocky ground. The drop was not far, but the fall rattled him. And us.
After that I couldn’t sleep, being haunted by nightmares of the leopard stalking my crying child in the dark. It was staring right into my dreams and its tail tip was keeping me awake. What if this happened while camping unfenced among lions in Kaokoland where we were heading? Were we not luring predators with the two tasty little morsels of live bait we were travelling with? But the night ended, and the sunrise fixed everything. The leopard sleeps during the day. We packed up and started out on our adventure.
Good vibrations. And good vibrations
Because we were to meet Dr Stander in Mowe Bay on the Skeleton Coast, we drove to Swakopmund and from there, north into the harsh land of reality and skeletons. But reality often seems deceptively dreamy.
In our luxurious 4x4 it felt as if we were driving through a virtual reality tunnel on the moon, or a theme park where skeletons and shipwrecks were part of the decor. Skeletons themselves are not scary. Blood is scary. Rotting flesh is scary.
But the white bones and ribs of shipwreck skeletons are mere ornaments. They are beautiful. Dusty time has erased the grimace of pain from every skeleton on the Skeleton Coast. The hum of our bakkie’s air-con silenced the screams on stranded ships. What is scary is the horror of the transition from life to bare bone. We drove to Terrace Bay and stayed there for two nights. Every person I met there had been coming there religiously every year, some for more than 25 years. They had a routine: in the morning they gulped down their breakfast and headed out to their favourite fishing spots with fishing rods towering like antennas on their 4×4s.
There they would stare out to sea, looking for wave patterns to find holes where they could catch their dreams. It is said that the stormier the sea, and the more soup-like the water, the more fish you will catch. Chance doesn’t bite when visibility is good. And it is a fact that dreams appear bigger if they get away. But Terrace Bay is one of those magical places where fishing dreams do come true.
At the end of the day, fishermen dripped into the bar, slumped on to their seats and stared from underneath heavy eyelids at the silent TV that only showed natural history programmes about crocodile and hippo, while the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations played repeatedly on the sound system.
The song was stuck in repeat mode for an hour, but nobody noticed except Dana and I, as everyone else was just too tired, sunburnt and red-eyed to listen. They just drooped over their soup and discussed bait and the depressing lack of white fish. But they all love Terrace Bay more than most things in their lives. There are many skeletons on the Skeleton Coast – of people and creatures that did not intend to die there – but there are probably also as many ashes strewn over its deserted beaches, of departed fishermen who couldn’t imagine their remains ending up anywhere else on earth.
A man. And a cottage next to the sea
We drove further north where few people are privileged to go. The feeling of floating over emptiness for hours is something that I cannot describe with words on paper, just as one cannot describe silence with music. A blank sheet of paper would be more effective. In the middle of this land of emptiness, we met Philip at his cottage at Mowe Bay. The area is windswept and deserted.
The small cottage, situated on a little hill close to a seal colony, has no water supply, and its only power source is the blue eyes of solar panels in front of the cottage staring at the sun like the compound eyes of a huge insect.
The inside walls of the cottage are decorated with lion hair in satchels and old lion collars, each one meticulously named and described. The bookcase is educated with a variety of titles, and on the floor stands a red electric guitar.
Philip strongly resembles his environment. His beard is mane-like, the lines on his face are dry as the riverbeds of Kaokoland, and his eyes have the intensity and colour of the water beyond the waves in the bay behind his cottage. He walks barefoot, but since he was stung by a scorpion in Etosha while walking at night, he has been wearing shoes after dark. As we arrived, a brown hyena wandered past the research station, and Philip in his typical energetic manner dashed to his vehicle to get his binoculars so that he could identify that particular animal. It was Bonnie, he said.
I have had the privilege of working with Philip while publishing his book Vanishing Kings, and I have not come across a more dedicated author.
Philip explained how he wrote the book in the Mowe Bay cottage during several weeks one winter. “It was so cold that I had to permanently wear three layers of clothes. The only way to bath was to swim in the sea in my wetsuit,” he said.
“I sat at this little table at the window looking out to sea and just wrote. Some days I only managed one paragraph.” The book marries Philip’s groundbreaking desert lion research with his and the filmmakers Will and Lianne Steenkamps’ incredible photography to create a book with many layers, mirroring Philip’s own personality.
“Writing this book was the most difficult thing I have ever done,” Philip said staring out the window. “More difficult than my PhD.” In the afternoon, Philip took us on a tour through the seal colony behind his cottage.
“There are about 15 000 seals in this colony,” he said, “and they are expanding into my favourite bay where I used to swim.” Now the bay is swarming with seals and littered with decomposing seal pup carcasses. Our walk along the beach made it clear that here death has not yet matured into the skeleton stage, but washes up on the shore in little heaps of horror. The smell of reality hung in the air like rotting mist.
Philip does not spend much time at the cottage. “My home is my vehicle,” he said, pointing to his converted Toyota Land Cruiser. “I have to be permanently in the field to monitor the lions.” His vehicle has been converted to suit his work. He installed huge 1200W speakers outside that would be the envy of many car radio enthusiasts and uses them to attract lions when he needs to dart them, and sometimes to chase them away. “When the lions get too close to the villages, we try anything to move them away,” he said. “I have found that AC/ DC works well, but the most effective music is Jack Parow.”
Like sands through the hourglass
We stayed at Mowe Bay for one night and headed out to Hoanib camp the next morning on a route only Wilderness Safari vehicles use. Philip was driving in front, and we followed with the Mazda and the caravan, swaying through the dune landscape. Our children didn’t have a clue about where we actually were, and bounced around happily in the back seat. The caravan had already taken a hammering up until then and survived it all quite well, but driving up a dune turned out to be too much.
The problem was not the dune itself, but the corrugations on the road running up it. As we raced up the face of the dune, the Mazda and the caravan started bouncing violently so that we could not create enough momentum to get to the top. I tried a few times in vain, and then we decided that Philip would tow the caravan with his Land Cruiser and try to race it over the dune. He had the same problem and after a few attempts we decided to drive up another route, even though Philip doesn’t like creating new tracks on the route.
A bit further on is a natural spring in the middle of the dunes that Philip wanted to show me, so we unhooked the caravan and raced like rally drivers to get over the dunes on the way to the spring. I got stuck a few times because due to a combination of driver error and insufficiently deflated tyres. My pride had sunk into the soft sand and the only solution was for Philip to tow me out of my humiliation.
Then to my relief, he also got stuck. We discovered our mistake: Before we had left Mowe Bay, we had deflated the tyres to 1.2 bar in the cold early morning, but now in the much warmer middle of the day, the pressure was up to 1.8 bar. We deflated to 0.8 and there was no further loss of pride.
The road from Mowe Bay to Hoanib runs through beautiful, rugged terrain. The Wilderness Hoanib camp is almost always fully booked. One of the reasons for this is Philip Stander’s work with the lions.
This used to be the home territory of the Five Musketeers, who have been featured in the first Vanishing Kings film. A famous lioness, XPL-10, also known as The Queen, returned to the Hoanib in 2006, the first time a lion had been there in just under 20 years. In places like the Huab there has been an almost 30-year gap since lions roamed the area. Today, the Hoanib and the Huarasib have healthy populations of desert lions.
Philip’s research project started in the late ’90s. “Then there were only 15–20 lions that had survived in a mountainous area,” Philip told us. “Frankly, we thought they had become extinct. Today we estimate there are between 120 and 150. This means a seven- to eightfold increase in numbers and also in distribution.”
But this increase in distribution has unfortunately increased conflict between humans and lions. “The Vanishing Kings films, and now the book, help to put everything into context,” Philip explained. “It is really important to make the world aware of the plight of the lions. The value of the book is the information it contains. It provides all the information that enables one to understand the problems that have arisen, and also gives some solutions.” The challenges for Philip in writing the book were enormous. The biggest one was finding actual writing time away from his research work. Then too, there was the logistics of communicating with his co-authors. There would often be Skype conferencing, with Philip at his cottage at Mowe Bay, Will and Lianne Steenkamp on the bank of a dry riverbed in North Luangwa, me in Johannesburg and Nicky the designer in Pretoria. The book was made possible because of the technology that allowed this to happen.
“It was a challenge to decide what format the book would take,” Philip explained. “It was clear that we had to have a coffee-table book, but we needed to marry an artistic coffee table book with popular science.” The book is divided into three sections: science, the story, and glimpses behind the scenes. The valuable science content has never been published before, and it was important to make it accessible and appealing to the man on the street. “I brought in the scientific side,” Philip said, “and Will and Lianne the artistic.” “My real hope is that the book will elevate the lion problem in the sense that ‘Yes, there is a solution, there is a way to address this’. The book will put the lions on the centre stage, but in a good way.” “The value of the lions can be considerably increased so that they become a significant feature of Namibia, which they deserve to be. They are already seen as a national asset.”
Philip has spent more time with these lions than anyone else – more than 10 000 hours with XPL-10, the Queen herself.
“We really try to maintain a distance.” Philip said. “Never get out of your vehicle. And I am very proud that many of the lions I work with have never actually seen me. The vehicle, yes. They get completely used to it and trust it. Lions can be incredibly perceptive. I can even be in a different car, but they quickly pick up that it is me, just in the way I drive.”
We drove all the way to Hoanib camp, and were lucky to encounter two lions: xpl-69 and one of the orphans. Well, it was not really luck, as Philip knew exactly where they were, so perhaps fortunate is a more accurate word.
While in the Hoanib riverbed, we camped somewhere behind a mountain. The striking thing about camping in the Kaokoland is the absolute silence in the morning when you wake up. No birds. No traffic. Just the deep happy breathing of a family in a caravan. According to Philip, this has actually been a problem at the Wilderness camp. “They had people they had to fly out because it was too quiet for them,” he said.
“It is called Sedatephobia”.
After two days in this riverbed of heaven, we said goodbye to Philip, and drove out to Sesfontein. We didn’t have a map nor a GPS, but Philip explained how we should drive. As it had been raining for the past few days, he warned that the rivers could suddenly rise. “If you see a wall of water coming at you from the front, turn and race away. Don’t get caught in it.”
Fortunately for us there was no flooding of any river on our route, and the drive to Sesfontein was uneventful, except when we took a wrong turn along a deserted sandy track and got stuck in the middle of a riverbed that had turned into mud. I was excited, as it was a real challenge to get out, but Dana didn’t view it in quite the same way.
After an hour of skilful, jack-knife manoeuvring which would have made caravan manufacturers Jurgens proud, I managed to spin out of disaster with a yell of victory, and a few fist pumps and high fives with the children. But Dana didn’t participate.
When I then casually said: “Ag, don’t worry. If we really get stuck there are plenty of caves in the area where we could survive for months. No problem,” she calmly, albeit with her voice breaking with emotion, recapped the situation: “We don’t know where we are. We haven’t passed any cars the whole day. We don’t have water and the temperature is 40 degrees Celcius. The river could come down and wash us away any minute. And – er – oh yes, we have two toddlers with us!”
Instinctively I knew that I could not counter her argument with the fact that we had a winch. That would have been futile. And possibly fatal.
So I kept quiet.
Sanity was becoming a priority during this part of our travels, so we headed for Swakopmund for a more leisurely time. There we met old friends: a few sidewinders, a horned adder, a friendly seal, web-footed geckos and Henk, a pilot who had bought Philip’s Maule aeroplane from him. I did mention the Maule to Philip when we were at Mowe Bay and he was visibly upset whenever I tried to talk about it. “I bought it in from Canada,” he said. “It is the perfect plane for the work I am doing. You don’t need a runway to land or take off. I used to just land here in front of my cottage on the road.” He pointed at the road and looked away. Lost love is not something you talk about.
He had to sell the plane as it was simply too expensive to keep. Henk bought the plane from Philip and has not changed anything on it. He is a medical doctor who specialised in the effects of weightlessness on the bodies of astronauts. He has worked for NASA and Doctors Without Borders and is an internationally acclaimed precision flying champion.
Now, after travelling the world, he has decided to settle in Swakopmund where already a few babies he has delivered have been named after him. He invited me for a flip and we took off like a balloon.
I soon realised why Philip loved this plane: flying in the Maule was like flying back in time. The sound of the prop rattled some old forgotten bolts of nostalgia loose inside me.
While flying over the dune landscape, flamingos and ship skeletons, I felt I understood Philip better. I could understand how one can leave a normal life behind for this. I understood how this desolation could consume you.
They say that the reason there have been so many shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast is because of magnetite. This highly magnetic mineral in the sand dunes plays havoc with compasses and has probably steered many ships straight into these hostile and desolate shores. I felt the pull of the magnetite as I flew with Henk. The pull was strong and almost like the primal magnetism I feel towards my children. As we skimmed over the sand dunes and across gravel plains, up the coast towards the lion, over the dry tear-duct riverbeds where elephant roam, I started to realise that Namibia was busy resetting my compass.
I knew that when we landed and returned to South Africa, we would no longer seem to be driving on the same roads. I knew that this trip with our children could not be repeated.
Our compass will keep changing because the magnetite in our children will steer us to new places. It will update the firmware of our GPSes and load brand new destinations.
It will steer us to new shores and wild places where lion walk on beaches.
This article was published in Leisure Wheels, 1 August 2018.