Sightseeing on the Wild Side at Namibia’s Etosha National Park
From darting bats to big cats, the natural world awakens as evening falls.
A few hours ago the scene was all heat and dust, with zebra tramping down from the horizon to slake their thirst under a burning sun. Now darkness has transformed the expansive African backdrop into an intimate stage set. An orchestra of insects has replaced the cooing doves. Bats and nightjars pursue moths under the lights, while a honey badger sniffs around in the shadows. Soon the first player enters, stage right: a female black rhino, calf at her heels. She pauses at the rumble of a distant lion – radar ears rotating. Then, with a stamp and a snort, she steps up to drink.
A night time waterhole vigil at Namibia’s Etosha National Park (namibiatourism.com.na/national-parks) illustrates just how busy the natural world becomes when darkness falls. And it makes for an enthralling spectacle – partly, perhaps, because we find darkness so alien. There’s little that’s more intimidating to our species than being alone in the wild at night, lacking as we do any night vision or other special sensory gear. Every rustle brings a primal frisson of fear. We are as out of our element as a bat on a sun-lounger.
Among mammals, though, we are in a minority. Most species, from rodents to big cats, are primarily nocturnal. And you don’t need a safari to discover this. In the UK, few people have seen more than a handful of our 45 or so native species, largely because at least two-thirds are nocturnal. Wander the woods at night and you’d see many more. And not just mammals: you might also hear the hoot of a tawny owl or, in the right place, the explosive melody of a nightingale – the sounds amplified by their isolation as the diurnal soundscape fades away. The butterflies of daylight are replaced by the moths of darkness, searching out nocturnal nectar and you might catch a toad hopping about in search of worms or glow-worms twinkling from the long grass.
Wandering your local heath at night might, of course, raise awkward questions (“badger watching” having long since entered the lexicon of political euphemism). Fortunately, there are now numerous organised opportunities all around the world to seek out nocturnal wildlife, with specialist operators offering everything from watching tapirs at a Malaysian rainforest salt lick (taman-negara.com) to free-tailed bats emerging by the million from a Texan cave (texascaves.org/bats.html). In Africa, many safari lodges run guided night drives or provide viewing hides over a floodlit waterhole. Closer to home, you could join a bat walk or visit a badger sett with your local wildlife trust (wildlifetrusts.org/whats-on).
It’s not only on land. A different community of marine creatures takes over after dark on a coral reef, offering an alternative experience to the scuba diver, while bioluminescent plankton creates a magical spectacle for kayakers at Lugana Grande, in Puerto Rico (kayakingpuertorico.com), as every dip of the paddle leaves a phosphorescent swirl of blue.
And neither is it only about what you see. With vision limited, your hearing gets more of a workout after dark. A night in the tropical wilds offers a cacophonous wildlife symphony, with the chirrups of frogs, stridulations of insects and shrieks, hoots and whistles of night birds punctuated by an occasional rumble – or bellow – from something bigger. Some African safari operators now offer “sound safaris” among their activities. And, in Canada’s Algonquin National Park, the nocturnal Wolf Howl – when visitors gather to listen for wild wolves responding to the howls of trained staff – is a major summer night attraction (algonquinpark.on.ca).
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