29.09.2013 - 12.10.2013
Namib Naukluft National Park
We spent our first night at Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, and then drove to Agama Lodge near Sesriem on the edge of the Namib Desert and the Namib Naukluft National Park, Africa’s third-largest conservation area.
The following morning we set off early to arrive at the park entrance in time for a dramatic sunrise.
Whilst waiting for the necessary permits, we came across cape weavers’ and white-browed sparrow-weavers’ nests. These were described as ‘hotels’, being communal nests and home to many birds. They co-operate to build the structures and each pair has its own ‘room’.
We continued into the park, passing ostrich and oryx, to reach the Sossusvlei sand dunes. These dunes are up to 300m high and we climbed up one known as Dune 45, which is one of the biggest and the most popular. The reason for our early arrival was to make the climb whilst the sun was relatively cool (the temperature reached 40 degrees at mid-day!). It proved easier than expected, because there were footsteps on the ridge flattened by previous climbers, so we didn’t have to flounder upwards. The climb to the top was exhilarating. We then sort of slid down the side of the dune, which was the quickest and easiest way down, and had breakfast by our vehicle. The dunes are the highest in the world and are a spectacular sight, showing deep red against the bright blue sky.
After breakfast we walked to the dead vlei, a huge clay pan that used to be a lake millions of years ago. The grey hues of the clay provide a striking contrast with the red dunes surrounding the pan with its eerie-looking dead trees. This walk, although on the level, actually seemed more difficult through the sand than the climb up the dune and the sun was hotter.
After lunch we drove to the Sesriem Canyon and had a walk through it. The canyon is small, but the Tsauchab River has made a 40m deep cutting over millions of years.
The next day we left Agama Lodge, drove across the Tropic of Capricorn and then stopped to admire the dramatic Kuiseb Canyon. This is a canyon within a canyon formed 20 million years ago, when the original river silted up and the water cut a new course. The landscape almost looks as if it has been ripped and scarred.
We drove on to Walvis Bay, where a spit forms a natural deep-sea harbour with a lagoon. The lagoon has thousands of flamingos, both greater and lesser, and we also saw a variety of waders, such as plover, curlew sandpipers, little stints, bar-tailed godwit, ruddy turnstone and pied avocet, plus the odd marooned jelly-fish.
We moved up the coast to stay at nearby Swakopmund, a town which retains much of its character and a number of Jugendstil or Art Nouveau buildings from the German occupation of the country in 1884 to 1915, when it was ceded to South Africa. The following morning we returned to Walvis Bay for a dolphin cruise in a small motor-boat. Before the boat set off we were visited by a lone seal and a number of great white pelicans, which appeared to be half-tame (to the boatman at any rate) and crowded round to be fed fish.
We were also offered sherry or Namibian coffee, as he called it. The cruise turned out to be amazing and we soon became surrounded by a large pod of dolphins, which particularly enjoyed swimming in the wake of the boat’s engine; apparently this is like a massage to them.
We were also visited by another ‘friend’ of the boatman, a seal which clambered out of the sea and onto the boat, again to be fed fish. At midday we were treated to a lunch of snacks and canapés on the boat, plus sparkling wine and local oysters. We then went along by the spit, where there are seal colonies. We also saw a couple of black-backed jackals on the beach. We went in close and the boatman threw them some fish, which they eagerly devoured.
Cape Cross Seal Colony and Twyfelfontein
After another night in Swakopmund we headed a short distance up the coast to the Cape Cross Seal Colony, where 100,000 Cape fur seals jostle for space on the rocks. Along with the visual impact and accompanying cacophony of sound the smell was also very pungent. The males are very large and seem very bad-tempered, probably from having to lollop about so much to defend their territory and harem.
We then continued our journey past the Brandberg Mountain (at 2500m the highest point in Namibia) to Twyfelfontein. The next day we went to the site of the Bushmen rock engravings. This was Namibia’s first World Heritage Site and contains over 2,000 engravings and paintings, some dating back to 3300 BC, depicting both animals and people. It is considered one of the richest rock-art sites in Africa and is impressive.
We then visited the nearby Petrified Forest, which has fossilised logs and tree trunks estimated to be about 250 million years old. It is a small site, but was designated a national monument in 1950. The texture of the wood, the bark and the tree rings are all clearly visible. Also we saw welwitschia plants, which are strange living fossils, some over 1,000 years old, and they are only found in this part of Africa. The plant consists of two leaves, a stem base and roots. The two leaves are the original ones; they grow continually and are never shed. They are leathery, strap-shaped and lie on the ground, becoming torn and tattered with age. The stem is woody, hollowed-out and sturdy, growing to about 500 mm in height. There are separate male and female plants and the estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years. Another odd plant we saw was the euphorbia damarana, a small bush with grey-white stems. It has a milky sap which is poisonous to man, even to the touch, but is eaten by rhino and oryx without any ill effect.
Etosha National Park
We then drove on to Etosha National Park, which is one of the finest wildlife reserves in Africa. In the middle is a huge salt pan of 5,000 sq km, which is devoid of vegetation and as inhospitable as any desert. This was originally a shallow lake that drained dry some 12 million years ago, but can become partially flooded in the rainy season. It shimmers in the sun and creates fantastic mirages. Animals such as wildebeest may graze on it during winter months and ostriches can be seen there. This means that almost all the wildlife is concentrated along the edge of the pan, especially the south side, where a series of waterholes provide the scene for a fascinating and constantly changing parade of animals, as well as almost guaranteed sightings. 114 species of mammal have been recorded in the park, but not buffalo, hippo and crocodile owing to the lack of perennial waterways. It was first given official park status in 1907 and after undergoing changes, is now larger than the Serengeti and comparable in size to the Kruger. Our first night in Etosha was in Okaukuejo Rest Camp and we arrived there mid-afternoon. We spent an hour and a half watching game at its waterhole and saw Burchell’s zebras, giraffes, a warthog and guineafowl coming and going. We returned to the waterhole after dark (it is illuminated) and had an amazing experience, viewing firstly giraffe, then black rhinos and finally lions.
The following day we left Okaukuejo very early and continued our game drive, seeing wildebeest, a hyena, springbok, oryx, elephants, red hartebeest and kudu in addition to animals already seen, as well as a martial eagle, a tawny eagle, a lanner falcon and ostriches. We also encountered a twister coming our way, but it was small and passed us by.
We stopped for our usual picnic lunch at Halali Rest Camp and also visited the waterhole there, where we saw a sole black rhino amidst a herd of elephants; the elephants seemed to allow the rhino plenty of space.
We then continued our drive and saw black-faced impala (exclusive to Etosha), a fine black rhino, Damara dik-dik, a white rhino and banded mongoose. We drove along the edge of the salt pan and did see ostriches on it. We headed towards Namutoni Rest Camp, where we stayed next.
The following morning heralded another very early game drive and notable sightings were a kori bustard, yellow-billed hornbills, a hyena at a waterhole, a blacksmith lapwing, a fork-tailed drongo and more dik-dik. We returned to Namutoni for lunch and spent a short while at the waterhole there. However there was little to see at that time of day – just a few springbok. We set off for the second game drive later and headed for a waterhole where there was a lot of activity. Under some trees nearby were a lion and three lionesses resting, whilst the waterhole was being used by elephants (including two who were mating), hyenas, giraffes, impalas, springbok and flock of guineafowl. Continuing our drive we saw another yellow-billed hornbill, yet another dik-dik (they are supposed to be elusive), a warthog trotting with tail erect and a family of southern pale chanting goshawk.
That evening we had a night game drive, which turned out to be spectacular. The driver had a red lamp to show up the wildlife, as animals can’t see red light. We went to a waterhole and a whole natural scenario enfolded before us. First of all a rhino appeared and then a pride of lions with a kill (an impala); they monopolised the waterhole for about thirty minutes with hyenas prowling around waiting for scraps, until some elephants arrived. At this point the lions withdrew a little way away – apparently they are afraid of elephants. However the kill was left behind, until one of the lions dashed back to snatch it and run off. Then one of the lionesses came and sat down to pose near our vehicle. We left the waterhole and were on our way back to Namutoni, when to our delight and surprise a leopard appeared just off the road. We followed it until it disappeared, with the driver reversing the vehicle and shining the red lamp on the leopard.
Cheetah Conservation Foundation and Waterberg Plateau Park
The next day our amazing time in Etosha came to an end and we drove to the Cheetah Conservation Foundation at Otjiwarongo, a centre for research and education on cheetah behaviour. We had our picnic lunch there and also watched the cheetahs being fed; these were the only cheetahs we saw in Namibia.
We then drove to the Waterberg Plateau Park and stayed overnight at the Waterberg Camp. We spent the following morning there and opted for a nature walk, which we thought would be a stroll along easy paths through the surrounding woodlands. However the Waterberg is a sandstone mountain rising 200m above the plains around it and our walk consisted of a rock scramble up the mountain. Nonetheless it was an exhilarating experience and we even saw another dik-dik, as well as rock hyrax and a warthog at close range! The view from the top was breath-taking and the plain looked a long way below, although it has to be said that the camp is some way above the plain.
Back at the camp we came across the baboons which frequent it. They are adept at pilfering, even breaking into the lodges, if they see anything interesting through the windows. We saw some being chased away by the cleaners, having tried to pinch a bottle of cleaning fluid, but they did grab something from the roof of a parked car.
Back to Windhoek and then home
In the afternoon we set off on the last leg of our trip, back to Windhoek for the night before our flights home. The grounds of our hotel in Windhoek, the Pension Uhland, also provided good bird-watching and we saw a white-backed mousebird, a go-away bird (grey lourie) and a swallow-tailed bee-eater.
Namibia is a delightful, interesting and varied country, although the towns are not especially noteworthy. The German architecture in places like Swakopmund looks rather strange to anyone used to the styles in Germany itself, but that no doubt is a feature of the Jugendstil. The highlights of the tour were the dunes in the desert, the rock engravings and the wildlife which was outstanding. The condition of the roads (frequent lack of tarmac) made some travelling a little uncomfortable, particularly as we had some long journeys. The accommodation was good throughout, as was the food. We were especially pleased to sample bush meat, as that was on offer at both Etosha camps and at Twyfelfontein. We ate oryx, kudu, eland and impala, which were all very enjoyable. At the Agama Lodge and at Twyfelfontein the staff entertained us with African singing and dancing during the evening meal. Twyfelfontein had a bass singer with a beautiful and powerful voice.