Rock Martins greet our arrival at Windhoek airport in the warm sunshine of a clear blue sky, quickly followed by Little Swifts, while the drive out of town is interrupted by stops for numerous Lesser Grey Shrikes, a Tawny Eagle and Black-shouldered Kites, perching on wires, hovering by the roadside and occasionally parachuting gracefully to ground. Viewed in the scope, their smart clean plumage and dark red eyes neatly lined by a black mascara effect gives them instant star bird status.
Whistling White-browed Sparrow Weavers herald the dawn at Otjibamba Lodge, where wheezing Southern Masked Weavers are nesting right outside the breakfast room. Out in the bush a host of new ticks vie for our attention; Red-billed and Swainson's Francolins, Crowned Plover, Grey Lourie, Greater Scimitarbill, Groundscraper Thrush, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Grey-backed Bleating Warbler, Long-billed Crombec, Black-chested Prinia, Marico Flycatcher, a nice pair of Pririt Batis, Brubru, Glossy Starling, Great and Grey-headed Sparrows, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, the delightful Melba Finch, Yellow Canary and striking Crimson-breasted Shrikes, Namibia's national bird. Meanwhile, incredible Shaft-tailed and Paradise Whydahs compete for "longest, and most elaborate tail design" in their bid to attract the "ladies".
Many times on the long road north to Etosha, the radio crackles, "Another PCG up ahead". Handsome Pale Chanting Goshawks perch at regular intervals. What did they do before telegraph poles came along? Another roadside stop produces lovely Plum-coloured Starlings, a superb male African Golden Oriole and a Wahlberg's Eagle mobbed on its treetop perch by Grey Hornbills and White Helmetshrikes.
After a night of luxury at Mokuti Lodge its another early start into the bush, where we pick up Bearded Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Apalis, White-bellied Sunbird, White-browed Robin in full song and a noisy party of Southern White-crowned Shrikes before breakfast.
Entering Etosha via Namutoni Fort, we bump into Blackfaced Impala and then a stunning Grey-hooded Kingfisher crosses our path. Nearby Fischer's Pan is so waterlogged it has attracted Ruff, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Black-winged Stilts in their hundreds alongside Blacksmith, Three-banded and Kittlitz's Plovers, Glossy Ibises, a Sacred Ibis, an African Spoonbill and wildfowl including Little and Black-necked Grebes, Red-knobbed Coot, Egyptian Geese, Southern Pochard, Cape Shoveller, Cape, Red-billed and Hottentot Teal, a pair of Maccoa Duck and several unusual Knob-billed Ducks. Our cameras are working flat out as we see our first Springbok, Zebra, Wildebeest, Oryx and Jackal and no end of Giraffes. By the end of the day we have spotted a staggering 92 bird species with masses of Cape Turtle, Laughing and Namaqua Doves, restless flocks of Wattled Starlings and Red-billed Queleas, a Double-banded Courser on the track, beautiful Lilac-breasted Rollers, Red and Yellow-billed Hornbills, smart Red-capped Larks,Banded Martins, Southern Anteater Chats, Golden Bishop, the mighty Martial Eagle and tiny Red-headed and Scaly-feathered Finches. Bird of the day? A difficult choice but perhaps the bizarre Secretarybird seen at close range, stalking the Andoni Plain with long feathery legs.
An early morning game drive to Klein Namutoni waterhole and Dikdik Drive is full of excitement. A disorganised party of Helmeted Guineafowl scatter back and forth as our vehicles approach, a large Spotted Hyena trots across our path, and then a mother and pup. A Pearl-spotted Owl sits watchful in the early morning sun, we count five imposing Dusky Larks, spot our first Temminck's Coursers and the only Southern Pied Babblers of the trip. After breakfast a glance at Namutoni waterhole reveals the statuesque figures of both Spotted and Water Dikkops, the yellower beak and legs of the spotted species clearly visible in the scope. An African Hawk Eagle circles lazily overhead.
Heading west we hit areas of drier grassland and our first Ostriches, Black Crows, a lone Rufous-naped Lark, and a family of four elegant Blue Cranes. Northern Black Korhaans and massive Kori Bustards are popping up all over the place at close range, giving further photo-opportunities. From the edge of the pan, we can appreciate the vastness of this white desert and can only speculate whether the distant black blobs shimmering in the heat haze mirage are in fact a line of Ostriches or Elephants. Daft as it sounds we shall never know. Back in the trees, a Majestic Brown Snake Eagle watches us with large yellow eyes as we look up to its treetop perch and we manage to track down a Great Spotted Cuckoo. Approaching Halali camp a lone Cheetah reveals itself by occasionally raising a head above the tops of the grass as it monitors the movements of distant Springbok.
An early morning stroll to the waterhole at Halali pulls in a band of Bare-cheeked Babblers, Familiar Chat and Gabar Goshawk, the first of thirteen raptors of the day from a total of twenty five for the whole trip. Today's game drive soon notches up lots of exciting raptors starting with the strange Gymnogene acrobatically climbing a small tree in search of prey like lizards. This is quickly followed by the powerful Lanner Falcon and both Rock and Greater Kestrels, with the unmistakable outline of Bateleur floating by. Then a small raptor hurtles into a roadside tree. Once pinpointed its features are not immediately diagnostic so it's time for a radio conference between vehicles (we're not allowed to get out of vehicles in Etosha). The combination of mainly grey back with a brown streaked head and neck, rufous bars below streaks and yellow, not red eye, leads us all to the verdict of a sub-adult male Little Banded Goshawk. Leaving raptors aside for a moment we have excellent views of a Long-billed Pipit and Spike-heeled Larks feeding young right beside the road.
Returning to Halali, a group of vultures huddle over the remains a Springbok carcass, while a single Marabou Stork stands proud of the melee like the referee of a rugby scrum. There is a clear pecking order with the small Hooded Vulture at the bottom, then the medium White-backed Vulture, with the awesome Lappet-faced Vulture as "top dog", lashing out at the underdogs with its feet and occasionally strutting decisively around the carcass with wings outstretched like a robed wrestler after a winning contest. A star bird indeed, with its huge wingspan, white legs, red face and massive beak glinting in the late afternoon sun.
After dark we return to Halali's waterhole. The floodlights attract a myriad of moths and other insects which in turn attract Rufous-cheeked Nightjars. One repeatedly lands on the branch of a nearby dead tree allowing scrutiny of its plumage pattern in the scope. Suddenly a Spotted Eagle Owl silently appears in a nearby tree, starring into the beam of Howard's searchlight. What a climax to another fabulous day.
Next morning the owl theme continues as we spot a tiny African Scops Owl asleep in a tree outside the camp restaurant. It's now time to leave Etosha, spotting along the way. Chestnut and Grey-backed Finchlarks are present in large numbers at ground level while high above, specks spiralling on thermals turn out to be Abdim's Storks in their hundreds. Others on the ground show off their blue face patch and an iridescent violet sheen on their neck. Other good ticks include Kalahari Robin, Cardinal Woodpecker and Chat Flycatcher but the real prize is the lovely little Pygmy Falcon which appears right on cue at a large nest of Sociable Weavers, where it poses on a nearby bush.
With that one under our belts, the next target species is the elusive Hartlaub's Francolin which lives amongst the boulders of the Erongo Mountains, said to be the oldest in the world. Who could forget the duet performed by a pair of these tiny francolins atop a giant boulder in the reddish glow of an African sunset?
The road south to Spitzkoppe brings good views of Monteiro's Hornbill, Tractrac Chat and Booted Eagle. Once inside this amazing rocky landscape we quickly encounter a stunning Bokmakierie, Rock Pigeon, White-throated Canary, a pair of Black Eagles soaring across the rock faces and Mountain Chats, Pale-winged Starlings and plucky Dusky Sunbirds by the barrow load. Other notable sightings here include Alpine Swift, Red-faced Mousebird, Acacia Pied Barbet, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Fiscal Shrike, Larklike Bunting and the fabulous White-tailed Shrike. Oh, did someone say Titbabbler?
The air is noticeably cooler as we arrive at our first coastal base, the former German colonial fort at Nonidas. A storm is brewing. Sure enough our day on the skeleton coast, one of the driest places on earth, coincides with torrential rain, the first for over a year and the heaviest for several. The desert town of Swakopmund is inundated and the road to Cape Cross is reduced to a treacherous mudbath delaying our progress. Eventually we make it to the cape with its enormous colony of Cape Fur Seals in their hundreds of thousands, a mesmerising spectacle. Our first seabirds here include African Black Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Kelp Gull and a motley crew of Swift, Sandwich, Arctic and Black Terns. The weather gradually clears as we head south into the gravel plains of the Namib in search of Gray's Lark. We are lucky enough to get super views of up to fifteen of this small and attractive species. Bird of the day. Deeper into the desert we come to the only place in the world inhabited by Welwitschia mirabilis, a strange plant adapted to survive for thousands of years in this hostile arid environment. Ironically our hotel kitchen is awash that evening after the freak deluge and the meal is prepared without electricity.
Following the coast road south we pick up Little Egret and Caspian Tern at the mouth of the Swakop river and stop to view an offshore guano platform which heaves with seabirds. Among the thousands of Cape Cormorants are some Eastern White Pelicans and a few White-breasted Cormorants. We even manage to pick out the red faces of four Crowned Cormorants among the throng.
At Walvis Bay we meet up with the Mola Mola Co. for a 4x4 journey south to Sandwich Harbour. What an adventure. We start with an endemic Damara Tern and then head off road into a wilderness of sand dunes on a white knuckle ride in search of another highly sought endemic, the rare Dune Lark. We soon have one showing its rich sandy colour in our scopes at very close range, a definite nominee for bird of the trip. Somehow our drivers find their way back to the seashore and we are once more on course for Sandwich Harbour, speeding along a steeply shelving sandy beach with waves washing away our tyre tracks as we go. We approach a huge flock of Cape Cormorants of football crowd proportions, surely ten to twenty thousand strong. An endless stream of birds takes off across the sea and into the mist and yet the crowd seems to get no thinner. It's late afternoon before we make it to Sandwich, an oasis of freshwater, a sea of high sand dunes on one side and the south Atlantic on the other. With the sun on our backs we have excellent light for a Purple Gallinule with bright red beak and legs and rosy pink Greater Flamingos against a backdrop of swirling orange sand dunes and deep blue sky.
Another day out with Mola Mola, this time far out on a pelagic trip. Close inshore a young Cape Cormorant smells the chum and jumps aboard, our mascot for the trip. Next we encounter a pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins and then to everyone's astonishment a bull Fur Seal climbs aboard. It almost lies along the entire length of the boat, as we pet the creature and the skipper dangles pilchards into its gaping throat. After this amazing circus act the huge beast jumps over the side to rejoin his own kind. Further out to sea we get into some serious birding; Cape Gannets, White-chinned Petrel, Arctic Skuas, an obviously bulkier single Pomarine, and then some 15km out we are surrounded by more than a hundred Wilson's Storm Petrels, pattering over the surface at close range, giving delightful views. Among them we pick out a European Storm Petrel and then something different again, but this time unfamiliar. Slightly larger than the storm petrels, without the pattering action, and all dark brown except for a paler brown stripe along the wing coverts. Could it be a vagrant Swinhoe's Petrel? On top of this we are buzzed several times by a Yellow-nosed Albatross. Returning to shore, Heaviside's Dolphins ride our bow wave so close I manage to make contact with one. How often can you stroke wild fur seals and dolphins before lunch?
We take lunch, sparkling wine and oysters, amid the salt lagoons of Walvis Bay, surrounded by thousands of wading birds, mainly Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint, but also Avocet, Knot, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel and Ringed, Grey, White-fronted and clockwork Chestnut-banded Plovers, making a total of seven different plovers for the trip. There are also countless thousands of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, an exceptional birding spectacle, with massed ranks of pink in all directions, and yet there was not a single flamingo to be seen in Walvis Bay the same time last year!
No bird tour is complete without a visit to a sewage works, so we drop in on the Walvis Bay plant to coincide with the evening roost. The light is ideal for the many different wildfowl and a comparison of Hartlaub's and less numerous Grey-headed Gulls, while a scan produces several Purple Herons, but the highlight of this bird sanctuary is an incoming flight of fifty plus contrejour White-winged Black Terns, daintily dipping and skimming the water as if weightless.
Back in the desert it's time for 'Ostrich at ten o'clock' again and then big numbers of Namaqua Sandgrouse at close range. We end the day with some forty five Ostrich and sixty plus sandgrouse in the bag. Other stars today include Burchell's Coursers, Rüppell's Korhaans, with their noisy croaking calls, a party of three Ludwig's Bustards, stalked from the roadside and a trio of exquisite Rosy-faced Lovebirds spotted at a nest site in a cliff face. At the desert outpost of Solitaire we take on supplies and get our first good views of striking Cape Sparrows, scratching a living in the dusty ground of the petrol station forecourt.
Our next billet is in the middle of nowhere and a wrong turn would mean a time consuming delay and journey's end in the dark, so we pause for map reading at the junction for Sesriem. People are so scarce out here that the oncoming vehicle has to be a local. Sure enough, it's Boesman, our barefoot desert guide, just in time to confirm our correct direction. What a coincidence! We need no introduction, shake hands and set our rendezvous time next day for 5.30am.
Night time in the Namib Desert; the air is cool, still and ringing with a chirping chorus of insects. Above, the milky way spills across the clear night sky. Even with so many stars, the Southern Cross is clearly discernible. The far horizons flicker with silent lightning flashes. This is our evening entertainment at Betesda Rest Camp.
It is still dark as Boesman arrives to drive us over 100km deeper into the desert, where we marvel at the landscape of mountainous red sand dunes and Boesman's intimate knowledge of the wildlife and its many spoor. He tracks down a sixpence sized trap door which hides the half metre deep burrow of a spider with a fifty year life span, and picks out from a pile of stones, a button made, from Ostrich egg shell, by a Bushman countless years ago. Describing the geomorphology of Dead Vlei we learn how the tree skeletons have been preserved in this arid graveyard for over nine hundred years. It is a surreal, unearthly landscape. Birds are few but Pied Crows and Ashy Tits join us for a late breakfast and White-backed Mousebirds are easily found. Back at Betesda, Stark's Lark compliments our collection of eleven different larks.
Alas it's time to return to Windhoek but the drive brings more good birds like Karoo Chat, Hammerkop, an understandably scarce waterbird in this area, and a Jackal Buzzard which perches obligingly for good scope views over lunch. At a roadside stop to admire a superb perched Black-breasted Snake Eagle a noisy LBJ in the bushes turns out to be a stunning Rufous-eared Warbler (nice one Vera). Late in the day, a dash of colour catches my eye and I slam on the brakes. It's a gorgeous male Short-toed Rock Thrush, pretending to be something else by perching in a tree. Bright orange below, blue above with a white crown, it's another star bird.
In two packed weeks we covered nearly 3000km through marvellous landscapes of desert, mountain and bush, on some of the world's longest and straightest roads. Our group total of over 240 species included many stunning sightings of exciting birds, in addition to a wide variety of mammal encounters. With so many vivid memories, highlights and special birds from our Namibia safari, it is so hard to pick out one overriding experience. A fabulous trip or what?