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Travel: The Okaukuejo waterhole

Hundreds of animals in Etosha’s sprawling National Park depend on a few waterholes for their survival

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The parade of animals to and from the waterhole never ceases, magnificent gemsbok with long rapier-like horns share the pond with tiny dik-dik, an antelope no bigger than a dog, bizarre blue wildebeest lower their outsized heads to the water alongside tusked warthogs - one the worlds ugliest animals. Most of them ignore the two lionesses, still dozing on the far side of the pond, but the giraffe and several of his long-necked friends continue to eye them from a discrete distance - preferring to go thirsty rather than risk an attack. They are still standing there at dusk when the elephants arrive.

Lead by a giant matriarch the long line of females and calves march straight for the water. The lions slink away and most of the other animals move aside for the giant pachyderms. Sucking water into their trunks and curling them back into their mouths they pump gallons of thirst-quenching fluid into their giant bodies and then wade in for an orgy of bathing. Using their long versatile trunks as showerheads they spray their backs and one another with muddy water. Some sit half submerged or wallow on their sides, churning the waterhole into a giant mud puddle. When they are finished their frolic and wade ashore the first blush of colour has appeared in the sky and the giraffes decide it is safe to drink. Within minutes the short, intense tropical sunset is in full bloom and its reflection turns the surface of the waterhole into shimmering gold. It is one of the most memorable moments of our trip to Africa - elephants silhouetted against an intense crimson sky and giraffes kneeling to drink from the glistening waterhole in front of us.

The sunset lasts only a few minutes and as darkness settles over the waterhole the floodlights are turned on. Strangely the animals pay no attention to the light and one by one the creatures of the night come to drink, each one casting a long eerie shadow as it makes its way down to the water's edge. A nimble cape fox is followed by a mean looking spotted hyena then, before I see the animal itself, I catch the glint of eyes just beyond the circle of light. A black rhino, resembling some prehistoric creature from another age, emerges slowly from the darkness and stands motionless a few metres from the water. Despite its thick armoured hide and the vicious weapon protruding from its snout the animal seems edgy, wheeling to stare first in one direction and then the other, giving the impression that if anything moved it was ready to charge. After a long draft of muddy water it turned abruptly and stomped off into the darkness.

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