Sundowners with an Aardwolf!
The Namib-Naukluft National Park is Namibia’s largest and, at 50,000 square km, the fourth largest National Park in the world. Though the park is not well known for spectacular wildlife viewing, specifically predator sightings, it is extremely well-visited due to its stunning scenery and the world-famous attraction, Sossusvlei.
Hadley and I visit this park on virtually all of our Namibia tours and we stay at a different lodge or campsite almost every time. The lodges here are of varying degrees of comfort from budget to high-end luxury and there are tons of them. On this specific trip we were staying at the Namib-Naukluft lodge (original, right?), which is about 70 km north of the gateway to Sossusvlei.
We had collected our guests from Windhoek that morning and arrived at the lodge in the afternoon, giving ourselves a couple of hours to relax and enjoy the truly spectacular views of the national park the lodge has to offer. Hadley and I decided to climb a koppie for sunset. A koppie is an Afrikaans word that essentially means a large pile of rocks forming a hill in an otherwise reasonably flat area. I love climbing things, whether it’s trees, mountains or cliffs, and I of course always have to get to the top. This koppie proved easy to climb and Hadley and I settled down on the top boulder to watch the sun set.
About twenty minutes before sunset we noticed a car in the distance driving in the direction of the lodge. It had spooked something, which was now tearing across the open plain to our east before relaxing and slowing down to a leisurely trot. Luckily I had my binos on me and had a look at the strange creature which was still a good 300 meters away. To my utter surprise and delight it was an aardwolf (see photos below). Aardwolves are art of the hyaenidae family but rather than scavenging and hunting like the spotted and brown hyena, they tend to feed mainly on insects like termites and ants. Aardwolves are notoriously shy animals and I have been lucky in the past, seeing them several times in South Africa’s Marakele National Park when I worked there, though never during the day. I didn’t expect this individual to be any different so I quickly, and somewhat reluctantly, handed my binos over to Hadley to have a look. Surprisingly the aardwolf stayed very relaxed and even started to dig, sniff and scent-mark in places. It kept issuing a bark, a sound that resembles something between a kudu and a baboon, all while coming closer and closer to our koppie. Never one to pass up a photographic opportunity, Hadley decided to run down to our room to get her camera while I would stay put and track the aardwolf’s progress from the vantage point of the koppie. When Hadley left, the aardwolf was coming closer and closer to my position and I could clearly see its neck and head were covered in something red, which I initially thought was dirt from when it had been digging and foraging. He started moving in a semi-circle around the koppie I was on and surprisingly close to our accommodation. Luckily there were virtually no people around. I decided I would try to climb down and get a closer look to, and of course to let Hadley know what was happening.
When I got to the bottom, I was less than 50 meters from the animal and could see Hadley by our cruiser already snapping away with her camera while remaining hidden. To me the situation was very strange as the aardwolf must have smelt or heard us at this stage but it had not changed its behavior. Somehow it must have been habituated to the presence of people at close quarters. Hadley indicated she wanted to get in the cruiser and try to follow him in the vehicle so I quickly and quietly walked over to her and jumped in the cruiser beside her. If the animal reacted negatively to the sound of the engine we would simply switch off and leave him in peace. Incredibly, he did not move off. As we followed behind him, we could tell that he had been in a fight with another animal and that the red colour on his upper body was actually dried blood. His face had been left horribly mangled from the fight. Injured animals can often change their behavior and become far more timid than normal because they are in a more vulnerable state. They can also sometimes become far more approachable as they don’t have the energy to run away; this seemed to be the case for the aardwolf. This aardwolf, apart from his wounds, looked in very good health stil;, he wasn’t skinny and his fur was still flush and shiny so we decided we would approach a bit closer, all the while looking carefully for signs and reactions that would indicate we were disturbing the animal. He did lift his head to look at us but amazingly we could get to within about 20 meters of him and Hadley managed to get some great shots and videos. My camera is currently getting repaired in Cape Town and this would be the first trip I didn’t have it with me. Typical.
The sun had set and darkness was fast approaching. We were able to follow the aardwolf for another 20 minutes, watching him scent-mark constantly, which led us to believe this was a territorial male who had been ousted by another male in a fight and was now setting up a claim to a new territory. He continued walking along a small ridge and Hadley managed to get a few more shots before it was too dark to see him. In one of the shots, he walked past a pair of roosting Ruppel’s korhaans; that’s got to be a once in a lifetime shot.
Eventually we left him to his own devices. The sighting taught us more about aardwolves than any book ever could and once again climbing to a vantage point and observing our surroundings rewarded us. It’s an experience neither one of us will forget any time soon.