Author, conservationist and father of London's Mayor STANLEY JOHNSON goes in search of some big cats
WE HEARD the lion roaring soon after dawn. From the balcony of our chalet, we scanned the waterhole on the plains below. Where was he (or she) we wondered?
As we watched, it roared again, not once but a dozen times. "The lion's obviously had its breakfast," I said to my wife Jenny. "Let's go and get ours."
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Dolomite Camp, where my wife and I were staying, is the latest addition to the previously restricted western section of Namibia's Etosha National Park.
It boasts some of the highest numbers of wildlife in the region and Dolomite is ideally situated to make the most of its treasures. It has been built in and around the dolomite outcrops of a vast kopje (a rocky hill).
The spacious reception, lounge, bar, pool and restaurant area offers crimson sunrise and sunset views over the surrounding savannah.
A walkway leads to thatched, en-suite chalets of which two are deluxe with their own plunge pools. Great efforts have been made to blend in the camp with its surroundings; until we got close, we scarcely realised it was there.
Despite the temptations of the breakfast bar ("Full English" is an understatement) we didn't linger as we couldn't wait to get out into the bush.
There are 114 mammal, 340 bird and 110 reptile species in Etosha and we were keen to see as many as possible. The biggest trophy? A sighting of the lion whose roar had greeted the rising sun.
Our guide that day, and indeed for the whole trip, was an ebullient Englishwoman called Kathryn Haylett.
Years ago, she had fallen so in love with Namibia that she had bought a Land Cruiser and fitted it out as an expedition vehicle with a special "viewing roof" suitable for photographic safaris.
"Just stand on the seat," she told us, "and poke your heads out."
My wife and I were Kathryn's only clients that week. While she drove, we stood in the back scanning the bush. An hour later we struck gold.
Unlike some national parks and game reserves, visitors to Etosha must stick to the gravel or dirt roads which, on the whole, run east to west.
Unless a kill is made close to the road, you won't necessarily be able to view a lion at close range as it feasts on the carcass of a zebra, gemsbok, impala or springbok.
This may be a disappointment to some, but this less-intrusive approach is to be commended.
As it happened, we were extremely lucky that morning.
The lion we had heard roaring had killed about 300 yards in to the bush and we were able to count one big male, three females and six or seven cubs.
At a time when lion populations in southern Africa are in sharp decline (down to as few as 16,000 from around 200,000 40 years ago) to see a pride in all its glory was an unforgettable experience.
We must have spent an hour there with our telephoto lenses balanced on the roof.
The following day we left Dolomite and drove east through the sweetgrass plains, past herds of elephant and zebra on the edge of the vast shimmering Etosha salt pan, to spend the night at Okaukuejo Camp.
What makes Okaukuejo unique is the fact that literally thousands of animals visit the waterhole here daily.
As night fell we sat with sundowners in hand behind a low stone wall and watched what, by any measure, must be one of the most extraordinary wildlife spectacles in Africa.
Competition for drinking spaceis fierce; zebras and gazelle abound, and springbok and other smaller animals often wait for hours for their chance to drink after dominant species such as elephant and the striking gemsbok have moved off.
Our drive back to the capital Windhoek from Etosha for our fl ight home provided us with one more highlight, the Okonjima bush camp.
This 80 square mile private reserve is home to the AfriCat Foundation, the leading organisation involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of cheetah, and to a lesser extent, hyena, wild dog and leopard.
It also aims to reduce conflict between humans and wildlife by helping farmers adopt methods of achieving that objective, such as “corralling” their cattle at night.
I shall never forget the passion and enthusiasm of Rohan, the AfriCat guide who took us out into the bush on our last morning to look for leopards.
We had started late because it had been raining hard all night. Leopards, he said, like humans, were not so keen on the rain. But he had a hunch they were up on the hill somewhere.
Our luck was in again.
We saw not one but two at close quarters, as well as a pair of cheetahs perched high on a termite mound looking around to see what the morning might bring forth.
That image of those two cheetahs, looking out at the new day, stayed with me over the weeks after our return from Namibia.
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The AfriCat story proves that practical conservation can work.
Your Safari (01273 400706/www.yoursafari.co.uk) offers a five-day guided tour of Namibia from £2,825pp (two sharing), full board.
Price includes one night at The Olive Exclusive, Windhoek, twoat Dolomite Camp and one at Okaukuejo (both Etosha) and one at Okonjima, international flights with Air Namibia from Frankfurt(www.airnamibia.com.na),connections from Heathrowwith BA and internal transfers.
AfriCat: www.africat.orgNamibia Tourism Board: 0207 3670965/www.travelnamibia.co.uk
● Where the Wild Things Were by Stanley Johnson (Stacey Publishing, £9.99) is released July 18.