With a two-week window of time available our circuit of the Central Namib Desert (as far south as Sossusvlei), the Namibian Escarpment (via Spitzkoppe, Erongo and latterly Waterberg) and Etsoha (plus the highly recommended Hobatere and Tandala Ridge lodges) worked perfectly. Having previously visited the northwest of South Africa, the southern reaches of Namibia held less of an appeal and would have also led to a significantly increased mileage. A visit to the Caprivi Strip would have reduced the time available elsewhere, and in our view this region is best combined with a separate trip including the Okavango Delta, unless significantly more time is available.
Most independent birders and tour groups tend to visit Namibia towards the end of the dry season, i.e. from September to November. Work/annual leave constraints dictated that Victoria and I visited in late January, at the start of the wet season (although it should be noted that the commencement of the rains varies from year to year). As things worked out the increased precipitation did not interfere with our enjoyment of the trip and it meant that a number of sought-after inter-African migrants were also present, for example Dusky Lark and Violet-tipped Courser. We also found that many species were vocal at this time of year, making them much easier to find, for example Herero Chat and Monotonous Lark. A final benefit was that many species were in their full breeding regalia, such as Shaft-tailed and Eastern Paradise Whydahs.
Visiting Etosha National Park in the wet season meant that mammals were not congregating at waterholes and were hence more difficult to locate. Conversely, visiting the Park at this time of year meant that it was much less crowded and therefore when mammals were located they could be savoured in solitude, without an accompanying band of fellow elephant-watchers. Driving conditions within the Park would have been a little hairy at times without the aid of a 4WD due to the volumes of rain experienced and standing water which was deposited.
Importantly to us, travelling out of the normal season meant that much better rates could be negotiated with both the hire-car company and several lodges; many establishments are almost empty at this time of year when most travellers seem to stay away.
Having decided upon an itinerary which most suited our requirements, essentially using the invaluable ‘Southern African Birdfinder’ (http://www.birdingafrica.com/resources/sa_birdfinder.htm) as a reference, the services of Birding Africa (http://www.birdingafrica.com/) were employed in sourcing appropriate accommodation, giving additional logistical advice and securing some excellent low-season deals on both accommodation and car hire. Birding Africa were also on hand to make a few tweaks in the itinerary during the course of our travels and it was reassuring to know that we had such backup should anything go astray.
Special thanks must be credited to Marje Hemp of Birding Africa who worked tirelessly in answering our many queries and requests and also to Callan Cohen for all the additional bird-finding help and advice so freely given; without Birding Africa’s input the trip would surely not have been the smooth-running success which it turned out to be and we would urge anyone who follows in our footsteps to do so with the assistance of this first class company.
Saturday 17th January
Air Namibia’s direct flight from Gatwick to Windhoek is certainly the most cost-effective means of travelling to Namibia, but what you save in price you must pay for in terms of comfort and cuisine! Therefore, the sight of the rain-greened acacia coming into focus below us is a great relief, marking the end of our ten-hour direct flight. Its 09.30, the sky is blue and cloudless, and the temperature is a very welcome 25 Degree C, the perfect antidote to a cold European January.
‘Hosea Kutaco International’ is a tiny airport, but runs efficiently, and within minutes our Desert Car Hire representative is chauffeuring Victoria and I on the thirty minute drive to Namibia’s Capital City. Just a few kilometres into the drive Vic shouts “Giraffe!” as a tall brown neck breaks the green canopy close to the road; such are the joys of everyday journeys in this amazing continent!
En route James explains that the airport is so remote from Windhoek due to the fact that there isn’t anywhere flat enough to build a runway closer to the Capital! Windhoek is a small city, with a population of just 230,000, and our short ride through its margins gives the impression of a clean, leafy and rather laid-back conurbation.
It takes some time for the Desert Car Hire staff to run through the paperwork and introduce us to our 3.5 litre Mitsubishi Pajero 4WD, which will be our means of transport for the next two weeks. This includes a crash course on travelling on the gravel roads which predominate in Namibia and also a lesson on how to engage the 4WD, which may well prove to be vital. The Pajero is a truly awesome piece of machinery and proves to be invaluable in the course of the 3,200km we are to cover during our trip; we would recommend Desert Car Hire to anyone (http://www.desert-carhire.com/).
Finally departing at around 13.30, we stock up on water and provisions at a local store before heading south on the main B1 route, through a magnificent landscape of orange-yellow rock formations and green thornveld. After travelling around 80km on the tarmac road to Rehoboth we take James’ advice and call at a garage to drop the tyre pressure from 3 down to 2.5 Bar before we hit the gravel roads. Heading west out of Rehoboth we are instantly on gravel, but the roads are well maintained and with the reduced tyre pressure we glide effortlessly over the dusty chippings and through the acacia-clad hills.
Our journey traverses flat plains cut by die-straight roads and winds through rocky passes, all under a sun which now burns down mercilessly from a cloudless sky. Telephone lines seem to constantly follow the road and clinging precariously to the supporting poles are the huge forms of Sociable Weaver nests, appearing like suspended haystacks which dwarf their avian builders.
Our ultimate destination is Weltevrede Guest Farm, just south of Solitaire, but our chosen route is via the Spreetshoogte Pass as there is a chance of finding Namibia’s scarcest endemic bird at this starkly beautiful location. At Spreetshoogte Pass the Namib Escarpment drops dramatically away to a shimmering yellow plain that stretches west to distant low hills and an unseen Atlantic Ocean.
Winding steeply downwards we make regular stops both for photography and to look for the elusive Herero Chat. Long-billed Pipit, Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Familiar Chat and Dusky Sunbird are all noted, but the target bird remains unseen. At a particularly well-vegetated gully mid-way down the pass a speculative trawl of the relevant recording finally elicits a response, and the fluty notes of a Herero Chat ring down the valley.
After a short search the source of the call is located, a male Herero Chat singing from the crown of a low acacia bush at the unlikely hour of 16.00 on a decidedly hot afternoon. A unique bird in a genus of its own, it appears as something of a cross between a Lesser Whitethroat and a Red-backed Shrike, with black mask, brown back, russet rump and tail, and a lightly streaked breast. After securing some good photographic evidence of this excellent find we proceed on our way to the bottom of the pass on some steep roads that instantly make our choice of a 4WD worthwhile.
At the foot of the pass we find ourselves in a land of parched yellow grass, with a backdrop of desolate rocky peaks that constantly change with the light as dark storm clouds begin to brew. The grasslands are home to two species of bustard, and within a few kilometres we have added both Ludwig’s and Ruppell’s Korhaans to the bird list. A small party of Rosy-faced Lovebirds hurtle overhead and a group of Namaqua Sandgrouse descend to drink at a cattle trough just behind the Solitaire Petrol Station.
South of Solitaire hundreds of Lark-like Buntings feed in roadside grasses and a solitary Red-necked Falcon perches on fence-post, pondering the next meal. Mammals seen on this leg include a couple of attractive little Striped Mice, sheltering below roadside bushes, and the first of many Springbok and Gemsbok, the ubiquitous and extremely handsome game animals of the region. A family of Bat-eared Foxes have commenced their normally nocturnal activities a little early, and these delightful little Carnids trot through the grassland as we approach Weltevrede Guest Farm.
We are warmly welcomed by Ann, the proprietor, and find that we are the only guests on the premises during our two-night stay. This proves to be the case for a fair proportion of our travels, as the wet season has clearly deterred the majority of visitors at this time of the year. Our accommodation is clean and well-equipped, with a pleasant family-run atmosphere. It is also just 40 minutes drive from the Sossusvlei entrance gate and has its own floodlit waterhole adjacent to the chalets; we would certainly recommend Weltevrede Guest Farm as offering excellent value-for-money (http://www.weltevredeguestfarm.com/ ).
After watching Namaqua Sandgrouse drink at the waterhole and soaking up a sunset which paints the sky bright orange above the dark shapes of the distant dunes, we enjoy an excellent traditional meal of game steaks and vegetables washed down with the first of many bottles of Windhoek Lager. And then it’s an early night, in anticipation of a big day amongst the famous red dunes.
Sunday 18th January
An 04.45 alarm heralds the new day, though it’s still pitch black as we snatch a coffee, cereals and our packed brunch. Heading to the main road south, we join a small convoy of headlights which are clearly aiming for a similar 06.00 start at the Sossusvlei entrance gate.
By the time we reach the Sesriem entrance to the Sossusvlei section of the Namib-Nakluft National Park we are in a small queue with half a dozen other cars and minibuses, though we later find that at the peak tourist season this site can be inundated with visitors. After negotiating the complicated permit system we are relieved of ND 170 and set off along the smooth tarmac road and into some of our planet’s most stunning desert landscapes.
Heading west, the level gravel plain on which we travel is bordered to the south by dark rocky peaks and to the north by deep red dunes, initially some way off from the road. After regular scanning of the stony plains bordering the road we finally hit the jackpot at the 16km mark, when a loose flock of no less than 13 Burchell’s Coursers are located. All coursers are attractive birds, but this species has additional significance as it was a notable omission during a trip to South Africa some eight years previously. Sossusvlei is renowned as one of the best locations in the world to find this scarce wader and we savour the group as they trot across the seemingly lifeless gravel expanse in typical courser fashion.
The further one travels west, so the larger and more spectacular the dune formations become. Now flanking the south as well as the north of the plains, the dunes progressively funnel towards the road making the stunning detail of their wind-blown structure visible. At the Sossuspoort Lookout, where the red dunes sweep down almost to the road, we park up to look for the next big target bird.
Larks are something of a speciality of Namibia and the Dune Lark, which is uniquely adapted to life in the inhospitable environment of the red dunes of the Namib Desert, is high on my list of priorities. As it turns out Dune Lark is rather easy to locate at Sossuspoort and before long I am stalking a pair around the pale wispy grass clumps at the dune base where they glean insects from the sparse debris that accumulates here. Acquiring a definitive photograph proves difficult as the birds lead me on a comical chase over the loose sand, but eventually some pleasing shots of the subtly streaked breast pattern and sand-red backs of these little beauties are obtained.
Having successfully completed the morning’s birding at an early hour we continue west to concentrate on the breathtaking dune systems, with frequent photo-stops to capture the constantly changing light and incredible shapes making progress very slow. At the end of the tarmac road is the 2WD car park, but we have paid good money for our Pajero, so 4WD is engaged and we set off through the sand! Reaching the Dead Vlei car park without the need of a tow is something of a relief, even in our hefty off-roader, and the walk across the soft sand to the famous Dead Vlei depression is also a challenge in the intense mid-day heat. The ‘arty’ photographic opportunities amongst the blackened and twisted tree stumps, set against the towering red dunes, make the efforts all worthwhile and we celebrate with our packed lunch which is shared with the attendant Cape Sparrows at the car park.
It is stiflingly hot as we retrace our route back to Sesriem, where Sociable Weavers feed from the hand outside the visitors’ centre, and then onwards to Weltevrede. Back at the Guest Farm tea and homemade cake revive us a little, though an afternoon siesta is certainly in order and this conveniently coincides with a particularly intense thunderstorm which serves to cool the air. After enjoying the exclusive use of the small swimming pool we set out for a steady drive for 20km-or-so back towards Solitaire.
Both Ludwig’s and Ruppell’s Korhaans perform close to the road, as does the only Pygmy Falcon of the trip. The first of many Spotted Flycatchers is also notable, as it seems amazing that this small passerine has flown all the way from our homeland to winter in this remote desert environment; the wonders of bird migration never fail to impress.
We return to Weltevrede to end the day with another spectacular sunset and an equally impressive meal. A short night drive on the main road produces a Scrub Hare and an impressive African Porcupine, which fights with the cattle fencing before eventually squeezing through a narrow gap and away into the dark night. A stunning aerial display of stars sees us off to bed, given in a night sky unusually free from light pollution.
Monday 19th January
An early breakfast allows us to depart at 06.15, with a long day of driving ahead. Today we will be travelling over 400km, to Spitzkoppe and the commencement of our exploration of the Namibian Escarpment.
As the early morning light illuminates the yellow grasslands and high red dunes that lie beyond, a pair of big-eared Cape Foxes make their way back to a den after a night of nocturnal hunting. A tiny Steenbok darts for cover, while out on the plains both Ludwig’s and Ruppell’s Korhaans are present in surprising abundance, perhaps influenced by the impending rains.
The drive north to Kuiseb Pass is particularly enjoyable, with the winding road carrying us through a great variety of scenery and habitat. We traverse lush green grasslands where vast flocks of Lark-like Buntings and Grey-backed Sparrowlarks have assembled to feed on the seeding plants, and pass large herds of striking Gemsbok. Cutting through deep rocky gullies our first Pale-winged Starlings and Cape Rock Hyrax are recorded, before the road winds its way through a strange geological formation of countless small rounded hills.
After dropping down the Kuiseb Pass we finally arrive at a land of bleak gravel plains, which stretch to the west for as far as the eye can see. This barren area is the home of several unique bird species, and the search for these scarce desert specialists may therefore commence. Several pairs of the ghostly white Namib form of Tractrac Chat are located, but birds are clearly few and far between in this barren environment.
Finally a chance stop to scan yet another area of pale gravel and wispy yellow grass reveals the desired prize, a flock of five superb Gray’s Larks. This endemic species is cryptically plumaged to blend in almost perfectly with the pale grey stones on which they search for food, making them all-but invisible from any significant distance. These large rock-coloured larks feed with a horizontal stance, blending perfectly with their surroundings, save a hefty dark bill and legs and a few dark breast streaks. As an unashamed lark fan these birds are a superb find and a real sight to savour.
It is over 100km from the Kuiseb Pass to Walvis Bay, and the straight gravel road seems never-ending in the intense shimmering heat. Kilometre-after-kilometre of pale gravel is covered, with quartzite glinting as we pass. Eventually the undulating gravel mounds give way to whiter, sandy substrate as we approach the coast, with the road finally dropping through a belt of high yellow dunes to the irrigated order of Walvis Bay.
After purchasing water and provisions at the well-stocked ‘Spar’ supermarket we head to the coast for a picnic lunch. Finding a suitably scenic spot proves a little difficult around the flamingo-filled lagoon, where a stream of salt-laden lorries trundle by. Continuing past the salt lagoons and their impressive gatherings of Palearctic migrant wading birds we finally arrive at Pelican Point, where Atlantic breakers pound the shore and an almost constant stream of Cape Cormorants pass overhead, heading for their breeding colonies.
After a good feed and a short siesta the journey continues, first heading north on the main coast road to Swakopmund. To the east of the road huge yellow dunes rise up, the haunt of quad-bike riders and paragliding dare-devils. To the west of the road the breakers crash on the Skeleton Coast, where the hulk of a recently-wrecked vessel demonstrates how the region acquired its name.
At the resort town of Swakopmund we turn northeast, to traverse another landscape of barren gravel plains, but this time via the unfamiliar medium of a tarmac road. We have driven for nearly an hour when a distinctive jagged peak begins to take shape, protruding abruptly from the otherwise flat horizon. Gross Spitzkoppe has a surreal air, appearing like an apparition from a ‘Disney’ movie or a ‘Lord of the Rings’ scene, with its exaggerated rock formations looking out-of-place in a landscape of typically African savannah. The incredible granite inselberg dominates the area, rising 700m above the Koakoveld Plains.
Turning off the tarmac and nearing our destination, the mountain becomes ever more imposing and the birdlife significantly more interesting. Marico Flycatcher, Spike-heeled Lark and most exciting of all, a flock of a dozen Stark’s Larks are all noted as the first drops of rain from this afternoon’s thunderstorm begin to fall.
Nestling at the base of the inspiring orange dome of Spitzkoppe is a community run rest camp where we have booked to stay for a night. We are shown to our traditionally built chalet, with sweeping thatched roof and timber walls, which has a comfortable clean bed and mosquito net. For the princely sum of ND 120 (£8) we also get the use of an outdoor shower block and an earth toilet with the most amazing sit-down view of Spitzkoppe Mountain!
A quick birding foray produces Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, lots of large-billed ‘Bradfield’s’ Larks, the common Mirafra of the region, and a pair of wonderful White-tailed Shrikes, one of Namibia’s most attractive endemics. Our eating arrangements cause some confusion, to say the least. At first we are told that no food is available at the small camp restaurant, and then miraculously we are summoned thirty minutes later for our meal! It is certainly not the best meal we enjoy in Namibia, but the breathtaking location in which we eat more than makes up for any culinary inadequacies and we would thoroughly recommend the rest camp, the patronage of which also helps the local community (http://www.natron.net/nacobta/spitzkoppe/main.html).
After the sun has turned the landscape a more intense shade of orange, night shrouds the ancient dome and we sit on the warm rocks below a display of stars of staggering magnitude; what a magical setting this is.
Tuesday 20th January
At 06.30 it becomes apparent that bright sunlight is streaming into our room around the door frame and unrecognised bird calls are penetrating the walls. The birding commences in an acacia-dotted gully right behind the chalet, where Violet-backed Starlings, White-throated Canaries and White-tailed Shrike are all active. A familiar liquid song attracts my attention and, following its source, I am soon confronted by a pair of Herero Chats escorting a heavily-barred juvenile bird; clearly late January is a great time to track down this unpredictable endemic.
At 07.30 our young guide, Franz Frays arrives (Cellphone number 081 3466 405). We have arranged for his services the previous evening, again part of the local community project. Franz proves to be excellent company, being well-spoken, clearly well-educated and with an obvious passion for this remarkable area. He not only possesses a great knowledge of the local bird life, but also of plants and their traditional medicinal properties and of the fascinating Bushman rock paintings which are found in the area. He also has access to sections of community land which would be out-of-bounds to unaccompanied visitors and hold some great birds.
For the next 5 ½ hours we circumnavigate the Spitzkoppe inselberg, soaking up the stunning scenery and fantastic avifauna. Rosy-faced Lovebird, Bokmakerie, White-tailed Shrike, Red-headed Finch and yet another Herero Chat are all early stars, along with our first Burchell’s Zebras. Moving onto the arid gravel plains to the north of Spitzkoppe we encounter a mobile flock of over 50 Stark’s Larks, many of which feed right beside our vehicle, while an Orange River Francolin calling from the hillside is a surprise find and a new bird for Franz! The birding highlight for me is a pair of Benguela Long-billed Larks, long-tailed, huge-billed beasts with a distinctive whistled song and superb swooping display flight; at least two other birds are answering the territorial proclamation and this site clearly holds a good population of this near-endemic.
A very obliging Monteiro’s Hornbill and a lightning-fast Bushveld Elephant Shrew complete the faunal interest, though the 4000-year-old Bushman rock art which Franz shows us is equally as inspiring. We have had an unforgettable morning in these stunning surrounds and have enjoyed our guide’s commentary immensely, even down to his demonstrations of the unique ‘clicking’ Damara dialect; please support him if you ever visit this area.
As we travel northward, so the outlook becomes dramatically greener, with the plains covered in dense acacia and clumps of grass sprouting at the roadside in response to the rains. The drive from Spitzkoppe to the Erongo Mountains is a relative short one, and after less than two hours we again leave the tarmac to take a gravel road through the acacia scrub to the base of the hills in which the Erongo Wilderness Lodge is situated.
From this point the narrow track climbs steeply over the smooth yellow granite, to emerge into a natural amphitheatre where the high rock domes surround a valley whose vegetation has been greened by the recent rains. We are met by Juan and Charles, manager and chief guide respectively, and given a brief summary of the operation of Erongo Wilderness Camp.
We then follow the elaborate timber walkways up the adjacent hillside, which lead to spectacular thatched timber chalets built on stilts at strategic vantage points overlooking the valley. Each has a veranda with the most stunning outlook, while inside a safari-style tent gives luxurious living accommodation and leads onto a bathroom built cunningly into the natural rock face behind. Erongo Wilderness Lodge is probably the most dramatic, well planned and thoughtfully conceived complex I have ever visited and no trip to Namibia would be complete without a night-or-two at this breathtaking location (http://www.erongowilderness-namibia.com/index.htm).
If the location of the lodge were not enough, the bird species which fill the valley is just as mouth-watering. The beautiful song of the Rockrunner rings out from around the chalets and these stunning birds, with stripy head, black-peppered white breast and warm rufous underparts scurry over the boulders within touching distance of the veranda. A family of White-tailed Shrikes feed at the feet of passersby close to the parking area, and as the light of day begins to fail a pair of Hartlaub’s Francolins appear at the very peak of the adjacent granite dome to duet raucously in the sunset. What a place!
A comparably well-presented dining room provides the setting for a magnificent four-course meal after a heavy thunderstorm has subsided, and jagged forks of lightning present a dramatic outlook from our table. Timo, our waiter, gives us a detailed and fascinating insight into life in the far north of Damaraland after we have dined, and back at the chalet our sleep is ‘serenaded’ by the unearthly screams of the Cape Rock Hyraxes which abound in the protection of the camp.
Wednesday 21st January
The absence of Freckled Nightjar had been notable the previous evening, possibly due to the inclement weather, so I make a pre-dawn start for another attempt at this localised nightbird. The nightjar doesn’t give himself up easily, but eventually the recording tempts a bird to circle overhead before settling to call on an adjacent rocky outcrop.
Spurred on by the early success I continue back along the entrance road to the section which cuts steeply through the rocks, an area that the lodge staff claim has been good for Hartlaub’s Francolin. In the first light of the day a group of four, round, dark silhouettes assemble on the rocks above me and the distinctive duet commences. The light is not the best but the views are much closer than on the previous evening and another pair soon joins in from atop another isolated rock stack.
The valley is now illuminated by the first rays of sunlight and is alive with birds. Rockrunner, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Pririt Batis, Violet-backed Starling, Black-faced Waxbill, Red-billed Francolin and Great Sparrow are all logged on the short walk back to the restaurant. Here I meet up with Vic, plus another English couple who are the only other guests at the lodge. After a coffee and a muffin we set off with a guide for a short ‘bird walk’ close to the camp.
Monteiro’s Hornbill, Pearl-spotted Owlet and the endemic Carp’s Tit are highlights, and we also see our first Barred Wren-Warbler. The latter is a new bird for me, but once its distinctive call is recognised it proves to be one of Namibia’s most widespread species, frequenting most thornveld areas for the remainder of the trip.
Our mid-morning brunch is a lengthy affair, as the bird table adjacent to the restaurant proves to be a great distraction. Gorgeous Rosy-faced Lovebirds continually alight on photogenic branches, while lower down the hillside a pair of Dassie Rats and an obligingly static Bushveld Elephant Shrew cause further dining delays.
In the heat of the day Victoria makes use of the small swimming pool and I chase anything which flies, walks or crawls with my camera. Later in the afternoon I set out for a walk in the thornveld below the camp and Vic settles down more locally with her sketch pad. Brown-crowned Tchagra, Ashy Tit, Brubru, Red-backed Shrike and Icterine Warbler are new birds here, but it is a surprise mammal which is the undoubted star. Having walked for 3 or 4 kilometres I climb a rocky vantage point to scan for hornbills and a dark shape below catches my eye. To my amazement a pair of Black Mongoose are hunting around the boulders at the base of the hill, unconcerned about my presence. Very little is known about this seldom-observed species, which has only recently been described to science, and it is an immense thrill to watch the sleek black beasts work their way between the boulders just metres away from where I stand.
Rendezvousing back at the Lodge, Vic and I take an evening walk around the camp where we encounter a pair of particularly obliging Damara Dik-Dik, the tiny antelope endemic to the region. As the sun sinks we open a bottle of white wine on the veranda and soak in the wonder of this unique location.
After another fine meal we return to the comfort of our chalet. On the brink of turning out the light I catch a glimpse of what has to be one of the largest and most aggressive-looking spiders I have ever seen! Knowing that Vic is not terribly comfortable with spiders I try to play down the significance of the sighting as I pursue the pale yellow monster, with a leg span of a good 150mm, across the wall and under the bed. I empty a conveniently large glass jar of teabags and coffee sachets, and continue the chase with my new spider receptacle. It takes two full circuits of the interior of our tent and several shrieks from Victoria before I have our visitor securely potted, safe for identification the following morning.
Thursday 22nd January
Feeling that I know the Hartlaub’s Francolins a little better now, and keen to get some photographs, I head back down the entrance road at first light. This time the same group of four birds has assembled even higher up the granite mound, making my abortive attempts to get into photographic range particularly hazardous! Having returned to the valley floor, via Cape Penduline Tit, the party of Francolins miraculously glide down the hillside en masse, to land in a chuckling huddle on a new low-level vantage point. Now much more accessible, some stealthy stalking produces the desired photographic approach and in spite of the poor early morning light I get some half-decent shots of these impressive birds.
Back at the restaurant I meet Vic for a quick coffee, and to identify and photograph last night’s tent intruder. It turns out that it’s a Red Roman Spider Arachnid solifugae, also known as a Sand Spider. It seems this amazing Archnid catches its prey by chasing and will eat anything up to the size of mice and small birds! After some close-up photography he’s set free to entertain future guests.
Next we take a walk guided by Charles for some distance around the thornveld plateau and rock hills surrounding the lodge. Charles recites anecdotes of his childhood in north Damaraland where Desert Elephants are constant neighbours, whilst we watch Common Scimitarbill, flocks of Chestnut Weaver and a family of Short-toed Rock-Thrushes. Brunch is another relaxed and protracted affair, but eventually we must pack and reluctantly bid farewell to this most amazing locality.
A 4 ½ hour drive north to Hobatere proves fairly uneventful, save a few Giraffes to dodge on the road, and it’s around 16.00 when we pass the western boundary of Etosha National Park to turn into the imposing gates of the Habatere Game Reserve (http://www.resafrica.net/hobatere-lodge/). The gravel access road winds a further 16km through open Mopane Woodland, grassland, and rocky outcrops, with stops warranted for Violet Wood-Hoopoe, Damara Hornbill and Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra; and that’s before we’ve even officially arrived!
Steve and Louise Braine run this 35,000Ha reserve, and it is Steve who warmly welcomes us at the door to his fine lodge. Steve has the justifiable reputation of being one of Namibia’s top birders, though his knowledge also extends to bird ringing, mammals, Lepidoptera and all manner of other fascinating fields, as we are to find over our two-day stay.
A game drive is due to depart imminently, so we hastily check into our impressive thatched-roof chalet and then report to the open-backed jeep, along with the three guests who are the only other Hobatere residents at present. Martin takes us on a winding circuit through this remarkable reserve, first through open grassy plains dotted with termite mounds that reach many metres in height. Game animals abound in this environment and we watch large groups of Springbok, Gemsbok and distinctively marked Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra, all at close range. The 2 ½ hours flies past as we tour through Mopane Woodland, noting the distinctive heart-shaped Mopane leaves, and over low hills giving panoramic views across the reserve.
After a splendid buffet meal we’re on the road again, this time for a night drive along a similar route in search of Hobatere’s nocturnal inhabitants. Bat-eared Foxes, Black-back Jackals and Small-spotted Genets are not uncommon in the spot-lit world, a Cape Fox scurries past, but in spite of great efforts the sought-after Aardwolf eludes us. Steve is a very keen ringer and takes the opportunity to capture several of the Fiery-necked Nightjars which we spotlight on the track; his efforts to get hold of a Temminck’s Courser transfixed in the beam, ahead of a hungry Jackal, will certainly live long in the memory! A final highlight, as we return to the lodge, are a pair of amazing Spring Hares which wildly bound across the grassland like mini kangaroos.
Friday 23rd January
It’s quite a shock to wake to a morning of rain showers, but the brolley is on hand and a pre-breakfast walk around the lodge environs secures a number of Meves’s Starlings, a huge pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls and, best of all, a wonderful group of very attractive Bare-cheeked Babblers. Breakfast is a rather stretched-out affair as we decide what the weather intends to do, until at 09.00 the sky begins to brighten and we head out with Steve in search of several target species.
Again we work our way slowly through the game-filled plains and bright green Mopane Trees, but this time with a rather more ornithological bent. For some time we study the pipits of the area, as Steve expertly points out the subtle plumage features and jizz of the Buffy Pipits which are numerous in the more grassy habitat. A certain highlight of the morning is the location of a small flock of Dusky Larks, scarce inter-African migrants which breed in the continent’s centre. Very large and almost thrush-like in appearance, these magnificent larks show a heavily streaked breast, well-marked face pattern and pale edged coverts and flight feathers, making upperparts appear very scaly.
Vying for bird-of-the-morning, next to Dusky Lark, is the superb Bronze-winged Courser found huddled beneath a track-side bush. Another prized inter-African migrant, Steve informs us that this is his first of the season and it is certainly a much valued tick, having been missed on a number of previous African trips. Other padders include Desert Cisticola, Tawny Eagle, both African and Black Cuckoos, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Starks and Red-capped Larks, Carp’s Tit and two more parties of Bare-cheeked Babblers.
Returning to the lodge at mid-day we are introduced to Steve’s adopted Small-spotted Genet kits, a pair of adorable creatures which he rescued and now have a passion for sitting on his shoulders. The heat of the day induces the usual siesta mode, before a 16.30 drive with Steve to some very different habitat at the south of the reserve. Here a series of well wooded valleys alternate with steep rocky hills, and we find a group of Klipspringers typically at home on the jagged peaks. Mountain Ground Squirrel is another new mammal for us, but real persistence is needed before Steve finally tracks down Ruppell’s Parrot, the last of the true Namibian specialties to fall. It appears that the Parrots are breeding at this time of year, hence they become more elusive amongst their favoured taller trees. A family party of Violet Wood-Hoopoes provides further interest, along with the ever-photogenic Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra.
By the time we have returned to the lodge a cool wind has blown up, so the night drive is abandoned. Instead Steve, his son Dane and I prop up the bar until a very late hour, enjoying copious amounts of red wine and exchanging some fascinating accounts of travels and birding in Southern Africa.
Saturday 24th January
At 06.30 we set off on our final Hobatere drive with Martin, simply soaking up the fantastic mammals and birdlife of this great reserve, under a clear blue sky. Dusky Lark and some great close views of Bat-eared Fox are among the highlights, before we return for a hearty breakfast where Damara Hornbill, Meves’s Starling and Striped Tree Squirrels feed within feet of our table. After packing, Steve is thoroughly grilled for any outstanding bird information and tips before we depart, thanking him and Louise for such a wonderful visit.
Following Steve’s advice we check a particular stretch of the C40 road, as we make our way east, and are delighted to find a Monotonous Lark singing happily from a roadside telephone wire in spite of the fierce mid-day heat. Although its song may be a little repetitive, Monotonous Lark proves to be quite a charismatic bird, puffing out a clear white throat every time he delivers a distinctive phrase. This is my final Namibia lark-target and the sixth lark-tick of the trip, no less!
Leaving the C40 we take the back roads north, towards Tandala Ridge, through a relatively flat landscape of mixed acacia and Mopane woodland. A close Klipspringer and a party of Bare-faced Babblers briefly slow our travel, before we spot the Tandala Ridge signpost, where we make our way through the gate and up the rocky driveway for several kilometres. Reaching the top of a low hill we find ourselves next to a series of well equipped chalets, where Tim and Laurel Osborne welcome us to their lodge and private game reserve (http://www.tandalaridge.com/).
It transpires that Tim and Laurel originate from California, but spent most of their years employed as ecologists in Alaska. Upon retirement they bought a share in a 15,000 Acre farm, which they have since developed as a lodge and game reserve. They are a fascinating, if slightly eccentric, couple and are happy to share a lifetime of knowledge and stories with visitors to their magnificent lodge.
Tom and Sandra, a like-minded young German couple also provide fine company for the duration of our short visit, and after a drink on the veranda overlooking their sprawling property we all set out for a drive around the premises. Half an hour from the lodge, via superb roadside views of Orange River Francolin, is a low escarpment of razor-sharp dolomite formations which is the home of the elusive Jameson’s Red Rock Rabbit. Despite our efforts, however, only rabbit pooh is located and then a tremendous thunderstorm terminates the search.
Returning to the lodge Tim tapes in a group of Hartlaub’s Francolins to the veranda, where we settle in a comfy seat for a sundowner beer overlooking an amazing expanse of acacia-covered plains. Dinner is predictably tasty, made all the more pleasurable when an African Porcupine joins us to munch on some titbits left to entice this regular visitor. The views of the Porcupine, normally a fleeting apparition in the car headlight beam, are simply incredible and we are able to study every detail of this surprisingly large nocturnal wonder during his half-hour sojourn. Amarula liqueur, ice cream and porch-roosting Common Slit-faced Bats bring a wonderful evening to a close.
Sunday 25th January
Venturing out at first light, both Hartlaub’s and Orange River Francolins seem to be calling all around the lodge. The Orange River variety are this morning’s photographic goal and with a little taped assistance I soon have a pair circling me through the open woodland on the hillside. With patience, some superb shots of these beautifully marked birds are obtained, before a fine breakfast of coffee, fruit loaf and freshly cooked muffins is taken.
As Tom and Sandra head off for an Etosha daytrip we join Tim and Laurel for another tour of the reserve, focussing on a couple of outstanding targets. First is the localised Kaokoveld Rock Hyrax, distinguished from Cape Rock Hyrax by its paler, peppered coat and yellow spot on the back. We find three of these distinctive mammals atop a low escarpment, while Tim’s geological knowledge provides a fascinating insight into the areas impressive fossil deposits. Apparently Stromatolites, the fossilised remains of algal domes which lived in shallow ancient seas, are present in greater concentrations at Tandala Ridge than anywhere else in the world.
Knowing the whereabouts of the territories of the Southern Pied Babblers which inhabit the reserve, Tim leads us to a certain well-vegetated gully which he thinks may produce the desired results. After something of a run-around, in pursuit of the chattering calls, we finally get a good look at our black-and-white target as a pair of Southern Pied Babblers climbs high in an acacia. Carp’s Tit, Eastern Paradise Whydah, African Cuckoo and White-tailed Shrike complete the morning’s roll call, before we return to the lodge. In no particular rush and with only a short drive to Etosha we stay for lunch on the veranda before bidding farewell to Tim and Laurel at 14.30.
Etosha, the ‘Great White Place’, is one of Africa’s most famous National Parks (http://www.nwr.com.na/etosha.php). At its heart is a vast depression of white sand, the Etosha Pan, which along with the surrounding grasslands and thronveld is protected within the 22,270Km2 Park. We have dropped down from the low hills on which Tandala Ridge stands and onto a flat plain by the time we enter the park, via the Andersson Gate. Following the tarmac road north for some 18Km, to Okaukuejo Camp, we immediately begin to encounter Giraffe, Black-faced Impala, Burchell’s Zebra and Springbok, the predominant game mammals of the Reserve.
After all the anticipation, Okaukuejo Camp comes as a huge disappointment. The National Park is run by Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR), therefore a monopoly is held on all accommodation within the park boundaries and this lack of commercial drive has had a clearly detrimental effect on customer satisfaction and investment at Okaukuejo. After paying our dues and collecting our key (for which an annoying ND 500 cash deposit is required) we make our way through the compound which has a layout reminiscent of a 1950s Butlins Holiday Camp. Little effort seems to have been made to blend the establishment sympathetically with the natural environment and large expanses of grey concrete and block-paved driveways are the order of the day. Although clean and spacious, our room is similarly lacking in any aesthetic appeal, though we convince ourselves that we are here for the wildlife spectacle and that the room really doesn’t matter too much.
At 16.30 we set off through the entrance to the park proper, heading north towards Okandeka. We enter a landscape of huge horizons, endless plains of long grass and occasional low shrubs. Large herds of Springbok and an odd Blue Wildebeest graze nonchalantly beside the road, with many newborn young in evidence, a sure sign that the rains have well and truly arrived. To the north is the vast Etosha Pan which forms a shimmering white ribbon, sandwiched between the green grassland and deep blue sky; it really is a dream setting for anyone with a love of wildlife and wild places.
A fine array of birdlife complements the mammalian interest. Double-banded Coursers and noisy Northern Black Korhaans are relative common roadside birds here, along with Cape Ground Squirrels which use bushy tails as sunshades in the heat of the day. Both Red-capped and Spike-heeled Larks are numerous, but a single Pink-billed Lark is more of a prize, being both a relative rarity and an exquisite little bird.
By the time we set off on the return leg of our loop the western skies have turned inky-blue as a huge electric thunderstorm blows in. The heavens open, fork lightning cracks the sky and windscreen wipers are a blur. Notebook entries are correspondingly scant, though a 100-strong flock of Abdim’s Storks spiralling in the face of the storm front is an impressive sight.
We return to base to catch up on photo editing and note writing before an early dinner at the Okaukuejo Restaurant where the food is grim and overpriced, and we make our visit a brief one. A brolley-clad walk to the illuminated waterhole cannot be resisted, but predictably all is quiet due to the season and weather.
Monday 26th January
Due to the strict 10.00 deadline for both checkout and breakfasting we clear our belongings and return our room key to reception before setting out into the Park at 06.30. We take the same circuit north to Okondeka, but this time in a clockwise direction, and within five minutes are face-to-face with a pride of five Lions, snoozing at the roadside! It’s great to savour these amazing animals all by ourselves, at such close range, and it’s a long while before we leave them in peace and continue the circuit.
Another Lioness walks slowly past the car and across the road a little further along the track and close by a pair of Lanner Falcons scan the plains from a tall acacia. The previous evening’s rains have deposited serious volumes of water and we are glad of the high clearance 4WD as we make the southern leg of the circuit through some vast puddles.
Back at the Okaukuejo Restaurant we are surprised to find that breakfast is an infinitely more civilised affair, with copious amounts of cereal, fresh fruit, yoghurt, bacon, and eggs-to-order at the buffet bar. Our timing is great too, as the tables are shared with just hungry Cape Bulbuls and White-browed Sparrow Weavers due to our late arrival, and the Camp is redeemed to some degree, at least in the eating department.
We leave Okaukuejo around 10.30 and drive steadily eastwards, towards our destination of Halali Camp. Photographic stops are regular, the first being heralded by Monotonous Larks, when several are encountered singing from the low acacias on the loop which leads to Gemsbokvlakte. Roadside Greater Kestrels, Fawn-coloured Lark and various mammals have a similar effect, as we traverse a mosaic of grassland, acacia scrub and Mopane woodland.
It is 14.00 when we finally reach Halali, and spirits are instantly lifted as we discover this Camp to be a real contrast to Okaukuejo, as it is efficiently run, cleverly laid out amongst some fine acacia woodland and provides excellently equipped little chalets with all the comforts of home. Just as importantly, there is great birding right outside the door where a family of Violet Wood-Hoopoes perform for the camera, Tree Squirrels forage at our feet and a camp guard points out an African Scops-Owl roosting at head height in the sparsest of cover.
A late afternoon drive takes us on an easterly loop out of Halali and past the Goas Waterhole. Mammals are again plentiful, with the highlight being a fantastic Spotted Hyena, a truly menacing creature which makes the hair on ones neck bristle when encountered at close quarters. An annoying feature of Etosha National Park is that the gates to the camps close at set times, just before sunset, and again we are forced to dash for our lodgings just when the most exciting mammals will be starting to roam.
The Halali restaurant is incomparable with the shambles at Okondeka, and the meal set before us is of a great standard this time. Our waiter tells us that the Honey Badgers which are known to roam the camp after dark have been in short supply this season, and predictably my late-night mammal watching foray draws a complete blank.
Tuesday 27th January
A major down-side of Etosha is that you cannot get out of your vehicle anywhere outside the bounds of the camps. This is obviously a little restrictive and spending all day everyday inside the car is also a little tedious. Halali is the perfect antidote to this, as a great couple of hours of early morning birding can be had within the camp boundary, and this is precisely what I do. My species list isn’t an amazing one, but it’s great to simply be out birding alone with the likes of Brown-crowed Tchagra, Carp’s Tit, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Swainson’s Francolin, African Golden Oriole, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Golden-breasted Bunting and some old Palearctic friends in the form of Willow Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher.
After a leisurely breakfast we check out and set off towards Namutoni Camp, our destination for the last Etosha night. Our route again takes us past Goas, and then follows the rim of the Etosha Pan towards Okerfontein. The birding proves to be excellent in this section of the park, with both Steppe and Tawny Eagles, a group of White-crested Helmet Shrikes and large numbers of European Rollers and European Bee-Eaters. We also gain some wonderful views across the shimmering white sands of the Pan, in places holding significant amounts of water after the recent heavy rains.
An illicit toilet stop at Okerfontein produces one of the star birds, a singing Shaft-tailed Whydah in full breeding attire right beside the vehicle. Other notable birds are a pair of Spotted Thick-Knees which refuse to leave the road, a flushed Harlequin Quail and several Violet-eared Waxbills, the latter being the host species of the parasitic Shaft-tailed Whydah. As we near Namutoni we cross plains which teem with game animals and here Lappet-faced, White-backed and White-headed Vultures all circle on the rising thermals. Another group of four Lions refuse to move from the shelter of their tiny bush in the heat of the day.
Arriving at Namutoni Camp we are given our keys and pick our way through the complicated road and boardwalk system to the chalet. And what a chalet it is. It transpires that the complex is newly refurbished, and our room looks like something from a feature in a home design magazine. Dark wood and leather, tasteful canvasses and ornaments, double basins in front of a huge illuminated bathroom mirror and a vast sunken bath; magnificent!
It’s so good we treat ourselves to a brief siesta, but with time in Etosha rapidly running out we are soon back in the Park. Our late afternoon drive takes us out of Namutoni and on an anticlockwise circuit of Fisher’s Pan. We find the Pan virtually full of water and this has had the effect of attracting swathes of waterbirds. Red Knot are present by the hundred, along with large numbers of Black-winged Stilt, plus a sprinkling of Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper and Avocet. Small groups of Glossy Ibis and African Spoonbill are encountered, while in the duck department Red-billed and Cape Teal predominate with lesser numbers of Southern Pochard, Cape Shoveler and Comb Duck. Flamingos shimmer in the distance and we also pass a pair of the resident Blue Cranes.
Away from the water we note Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Blue Waxbill, Great Sparrow, Kalahari Scrub-Robin and many gorgeous European Bee-Eaters, plus a section of grassy plain hosting a close gathering over 100 Marabou Storks. The ornithological highlight of the day is the surprise appearance of two pairs of Burchell’s Sandgrouse in the middle of the road! All sandgrouse are magical birds, but a male Burchell’s really takes some beating, with its wide yellow eye-ring, powdery blue face and throat, and chestnut upperparts sprinkled in bold white polkadots.
Another very close Spotted Hyena gives us an evil stare as he crosses the track, before we settle down to savour one of the planet’s most stunning wildlife spectacles unfolding beside the main Fishers Pan causeway. On the short green grass running away to a distant ridge hundreds of Springbok, Gemsbok, Black-faced Impala and Burchell’s Zebra graze. Groups of young Springbok playfully bounce on straightened legs, while a group of Giraffe wade across the water-filled pan to reach fresh grazing. A White Rhinoceros briefly appears on a more distant hillside and, as the sun begins to set, a huge bull Elephant emerges from the tall acacias to wander down to the water’s edge between parting herds of antelope. Nowhere outside the African plains can such mammalian diversity and density be encountered and we try to soak up every last detail of this incredible setting which is undoubtedly one of the highlights of our travels.
A dash is required to make the Namuntoni closing time, as the sun gives the whitewashed walls of the Camp’s distinctive fort an orange tinge. We dine on a great meal in the historic German fort and begrudge the fact that we only have one night in Namibia’s finest hotel room!
Wednesday 28th January
We leave Namutoni for our final game drive as the gates open at 06.30, taking a similar route to that of the day before. The previous evening was always going to be a tough act to follow, but a Double –banded Sandgrouse on the road, another male Shaft-tailed Whydah, some obliging Blue Cranes and a lively family of Banded Mongoose add up to a decent couple of hours.
After breakfast we leave Namutoni and then Etosha National park itself, though we only travel a short distance beyond the gates to the very plush Mokuti Lodge. The Lodge is known as a good site to look for Black-faced Babbler, so we blag our way into the extremely ornate surroundings and order a couple of drinks. While Vic relaxes in the landscaped gardens I pound the establishment with the requisite recording, but all to no avail. My guess is that the ongoing construction works which have taken up half the lodge have put pay to any Babbler action, and hence we will have one more target on a return visit to the Caprivi Strip.
From the southern edge of Etosha it takes a good four hours to reach Waterberg, with all but the last few kilometres being covered on good paved roads. The Waterberg Plateau is not only a good spot to break the journey back down to Windhoek but is also a superb reserve in its own right. From 50 Km away the imposing flat-topped red granite plateau can be seen, rising above the green acacia plain like a scene from Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’.
The Plateau grows larger and more imposing as we approach, passing the only roadside Warthogs of the trip as we do so, with a gravel road eventually cutting across to Waterberg Plateau Park Resort (http://www.nwr.com.na/waterberg.php) located at the base of the vertical red granite wall and flanked by a heavily wooded slope. Another NWR establishment, the Camp is operated on the same principles as Etosha and we are allocated an excellent chalet perched high on the wooded slope at the base of the cliffs.
Damara Dik-Dik are numerous around the chalets and graze, unconcerned, on the mown grass between the blocks. While Vic swims in the Resort’s excellent pool I take a birding recce and my brief walk produces Lesser Honeyguide, Black-backed Puffback, Rosy-faced Lovebird and Violet Wood-Hoopoe. A Namaqua Slender Mongoose scampers across the road and a group of a dozen Banded Mongoose are watched as they raid a huge termite mound in search of supper.
After a couple of cold beers, enjoyed in the setting sunlight on our veranda, we make the ten minute walk down to the restaurant where a magnificent barbeque has been prepared. Although there are less than ten paying guests in residence there is a large delegation from the Namibian Ministry of Agriculture, hence the provision of the unexpected cuisine. The tender steaks, game sausages and excellent local vegetables with mealy maize are a great meal on which to end our trip.
Thursday 29th January
Waterberg is known as the place to see Ruppell’s Parrot and after my previously brief views of flying birds I am very keen to secure a decent look at this scarce endemic. So first light sees me down at the camp site, at the base of the hill, where birds have been seen in the past. Burchell’s Starling is new to the trip, but I come away parrot-less.
Returning to the higher slopes a European Honey Buzzard is a surprise encounter and Gabar Goshawk is another new raptor for the trip. A chance meeting with a Namibian family points me in the direction of a path which leads steeply up to the plateau rim and I can’t resist scrambling to its top, where the view out over the plains below is outstanding; if only we’d have known this was possible we’d have been here for sunrise like the Namibians.
Bradfield’s and Alpine Swifts rocket back-and-forth below me, Pale-winged Starlings and Rosy-faced Lovebirds investigate rock crevices and Cape Rock Hyrax scamper over the red granite. The return walk produces Long-billed Pipit, great views of Rockrunner, several White-browed Scrub-Robins, Ashy Tit, Purple Roller and Green–winged Pytilia, but the parrots remain elusive.
After our buffet breakfast we check out of the room, but return to the Resort as our flight back to the UK is not until 21.00 and we’d rather not kill our time back in Windhoek. While Vic settles down with her book in some shade by the pool I make a final foray through the woodland. Long-billed Crombec, Great Spotted Cuckoo and Pearl-spotted Owlet are noted, with Willow Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers and an Icterine Warbler all reminding me that I will be back in Europe all too soon.
A pair of Carp’s Tits are located nesting in the roof of chalet number 73 and produce some great photographic opportunities, before I set off back to the pool. Just beyond the staff quarters a muted squawk causes me to look up and to my disbelief a pair of Ruppell’s Parrots is sat, just a few metres above my head! Needless to say, this instigates a flurry of photographic activity as grey upperparts, dark red eye, sulphur-yellow shoulder patch and sky-blue undertail are immortalised on the memory card.
And so ends the Namibian birding and so, pretty much, ends our amazing trip. The three hour journey back to Windhoek is uneventful and Desert Car Hire are superbly efficient as we hand back the once-red Pajero which is now the colour of Etosha’s pale grey mud.
Over the last two weeks Namibia has rapidly taken its place in our list of favourite destinations ever. The scenery is incredibly diverse and often breathtakingly beautiful. Both birding and mammal watching opportunities are second-to-none, and above all everything is so easy. The travel infrastructure is as good as anywhere in the world and we have stopped in some of the most incredible locations imaginable. Namibia is certainly the country in which to soak up the wonders of the planet’s most remarkable continent without the problems which such a visit all-too-often presents.
Ian Merrill, February 2009 firstname.lastname@example.org