“I’m looking forward to seeing the antelope.”
“Antelope?” I said. “Are you serious? We’re going to southern Africa and you want to see antelope.”
“There are many amazing varieties of antelope throughout Africa,” Steve answered.
Classic Steve, but I didn’t buy it. Fine – lots of interesting antelope. But on a continent known for lions, leopards, rhinos, and hippos, I was not especially interested in antelope.
And then I saw a gemsbok.
To get this out of the way right at the start, a gemsbok is not a hyena. That seems obvious now, but on our first night in Namibia, when it fell completely dark at 6pm and we couldn’t make out the animals behind the eyeshine, it was easy to let our imaginations settle on any of the more obvious African animals. We retreated to the tent with haste, and I imagine now that the two gemsbok whose identities we had so badly mistaken must have looked at each other and shrugged as we secured ourselves behind the flimsy canvas wall.
The next morning revealed them for what they are – an amazing variety of antelope. I loved them instantly, and they’re still my favorite to photograph. They’re easy on the eyes decked out as they are in perfect, timeless neutrals. They wear my favorite color combination of taupe, black, and cream – which delights me to no end. They will never, ever go out of style.
They’re built, so says one source, like polo ponies. They’re stout and stocky and not especially graceful in movement. They run like horses, rather than gazelles – galloping rather than sprinting in long lines of limbs like the smaller antelope. But their incredible spiral horns and tails that sometimes grow so long they sweep the ground make them beautiful. Those tails, when the run, stream after them like banners.
They are uniquely adapted to the desert and can survive long periods without any water. They get much of what they need from the plants they eat, including the desert melons they have a taste for. They are also in possession of an incredible metabolism, slow enough that it lowers their body temperatures. On the other hand, they can take advantage of higher body temperatures as well. Lonely Planet says:
“Gemsboks can tolerate body temperatures that would kill other mammals. Allowing the body to heat up to 45C [well over 100F] conserves valuable water that would be lost by panting or sweating. All the while, a remarkable network of blood vessels inside the nose. . .is cooled by inhaled air so that the blood going to the brain maintains a comfortable 36C.”
Females are more nomadic than males, who stick to their home territories, not having to migrate for water like other mammals.
It was the gemsbok that made me reassess my opinion of antelope. They are pretty amazing. I’ll leave it to a South African Steve met who said, simply, “I can’t tell you how many gemsbok I’ve seen in my life. And I never get tired of them.”