1. Namibia, Full of Surprises

My tour gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, all of us excited to begin our birding trip to Namibia and Botswana. The five of us introduced ourselves, a couple from Washington State, a woman from British Columbia and man from my city of Portland. I was pleased to see Terry Stevenson striding across the airport lounge with a warm smile. He had the shortest flight from Kenya, where he has lived for most of his life.

The following day we flew north to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia located in the country’s highlands at about 5,600 feet. At that time in 2011, it was bustling with more than 300,000 people, the country’s largest city and growing rapidly.

After lunch in Windhoek we had time for a quick trip to a local sewage treatment plant—a favorite lure for birds and a good spot for us to easily observe water birds from dry land. Sightings included the Hottentot Teal, one of the few birds that has a blue bill, a White-faced Whistling Duck, and Red-billed Francolin.  The Black Crake, which has a yellow bill and long red legs, used its very long toes to spread its weight as it walked on the broad leaves of water lilies. In the shrubbery, we spotted a White-backed Mousebird, a greyish bird shaped like a cardinal but with a longer tail.

After our first satisfying afternoon of birding we were off to a good start for our two-week road trip around Namibia.


A New Country

At the time we visited, Namibia was still a fairly new democratic country that had struggled for 24 years to gain its independence from South African administration.  After the Namibian War of Independence the new nation of Namibia come into being in 1990.

Today, the government of Namibia is a stable multi-party parliamentary democracy. With a population of 2.6 million it is one of the least dense countries  by population in the world due to its extensive deserts. Namibia is the driest country in Sub-Sahara Africa with highly variable rainfall and frequent droughts. The Namib Desert and the Kalahari Desert cover large portions of the land. Due to the mining and export of mineral wealth, notably diamonds, some citizens are extremely wealthy, but two-thirds of Namibians live in abject poverty, the result of years of colonization.


Expansive Landscape

From Windhoek we drove west and south 170 miles toward the Namib-Naukluft Park on the Atlantic Coast. This park stretches along the southern forty per cent of the Namibian shoreline, all of which is protected. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world and contains the highest dunes that reach almost 1000 feet. The northern section of the rugged coastline was named The Skeleton Coast referring to the skeletons that washed ashore after many ships carrying kidnapped and enslaved Africans crashed on the uncharted offshore rocks.

True to its name, Namibia is of Nama origin, one of the indigenous tribes, and means “vast place.” Rich places to find birds were situated near the scattered water sources, far apart though worth the long scenic drives. Our tough Toyota Land Cruiser pulled a trailer with our luggage, a cooler, a picnic table, and chairs for our picnics.


At our lunch stop by a seasonal pool, we found a Maccoa Duck. another duck with a unusual bill, cobalt blue. We also spotted a Cape Shoveler that has the same spoon shaped bill as our Northern Shoveler. The white African Spoonbill we saw has the same long and flattened bill as our Roseate Spoonbill, though it is is a rosy color. Other birds we spotted that day included a Montiero’s Hornbill, a common bird with a huge orange bill, and a Burnt-necked Eremomela, a small warbler.  This last bird is a member of the Camaroptera family, recently separated from Old World Warblers, a huge family currently undergoing revisions to more clearly defined families.


The Dunes at Sossusvlei

I kept my eyes on the horizon, eager to glimpse those colorful dunes I had seen in magazines and nature documentaries. Shortly after lunch,  I spotted pink in the distance and recalled the documentary in which the narrator, David Attenborough, explained sand dune dynamics. Dramatic music played behind his commanding voice. “Strong winds from the sea push the sand grains up the stoss, the upflow side of the dune. Once clear of the crest, the grains fall down the shorter slip face.”

Then the camera zoomed in to find two tiny dots laboring up the side of the dune. Closer still, it focused on two heavily built antelopes bobbing their heads to aid their climb. Their pointed, four-foot horns punctuated the stark blue sky.

 Dramatic scoops of black spilled over the white faces of those Southern African Oryx and I so wanted to get closer views of them. Their bodies were a pale tan, a good color to go unnoticed on sand dunes, the black markings mimicked shadows.  But they looked so out of place. How could those large mammals survive where there was no obvious food or water, just blowing sand? I hoped I would find out soon.


Half an hour later, we pulled up to the Namib Desert Lodge in Sossusvlei, a motel with a fabulous view of the dunes. This town was named after the dominant feature of the park, the white salt and clay pans tucked among the red dunes. Sossusvlei loosely means “dead-end marsh,” because the road ends there. The flat dry desert floor was surrounded by sand dunes containing high levels of iron that makes the sand shades of red. This surreal landscape is one of the most photographed areas in Subsaharan Africa.

After an early dinner, we walked out onto the desert itself near the lodge, to walk and see the birds emerging from shelter after the hot day. The cooling air felt refreshing. Calm and peaceful, we followed paths that wound around the scattered prickly bushes with grey green desert adapted leaves. Low hills surrounded us and in the distance we could see the closest of the taller dunes. The sun stretched toward the horizon. The play of shadow and light on the dunes took my breath away.

A few of the notable birds we observed during our day of travel were the Pygmy Falcon, Barred Camaroptera, and a Scarlet-chested Sunbird, a black bird with a scarlet chest and a bill more deeply curved than most. We also spotted a Green-winged Pytilia, a multi-colored bird highlighted by a red chin, cheek, and head patch. One of the most interesting birds we saw that day was a Shaft-tailed Whydah, a small bird with a tail almost four times the length of his body. We saw two species of bustards that day, Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards. Bustards are among my favorite birds because of their preferred camouflage behavior, a very slow retreat. And there were more to come.


A Rare Lark in the Dunes

The next morning the weather was relatively cool and cloudy, a welcome break from the previous day’s scorching heat. The bird we most wanted to see was the rare Dune Lark, endemic to Namibia and found only in the sand dunes of the Namib Naukluft Park, just a short drive from our lodgings. Their primary food is minute insects that are active in the cool morning.

Once inside the park, a hard sand road snaked between dunes peppered with scrubby bushes. Shortly, our driver pulled over so we could search in a spot with small hillocks and clumps of waving grasses and small desert bushes. Within moments, Terry pointed out a small, white-and-tan bird running up and down the slippery, brick-red sand, stopping and starting, creating tiny sand slides behind every rapid step. The insects were the size of gnats that swarmed amidst the bushes where the birds worked. In half an hour, I thrilled to see a dozen dune larks racing around chasing their morning meal.

Terry leaned back against our vehicle and crossed his arms, quite pleased with our good fortune to spot the rare birds right away. “These birds, along with the other animals and birds of the region, do not need to drink water,” explained Terry. “The lark can get all its moisture from the insects. And now that we have gotten a good look at the dune lark, we have the whole morning to enjoy what else this park has to offer.”

We crept westward toward the sea and the highest dunes, stopped for likely sightings, all visible from the van. By midday, the sand that had been brick-red in the early light transformed into a paler pink. At one point, the van stopped and Terry pointed into the shrubs.  “Rueppell’s Bustard” he whispered, peering into the skinny branches. Sure enough, I could pick out one “branch” that looked a bit more like the skinny neck of a tall bird, beak pointed upward. We waited. The bird slowly turned its head to eye our vehicle as if assessing whether or not we might eat it. At ease with our presence, the bustard turned to walk away, slowly, and with grace, its head always cocked in our direction.

The Ruppell’s is a small bustard, only 24 inches, a sandy body, grey neck with a black stripe down its throat and a few more around the face. The camouflage is exquisite amidst the desert vegetation, and is often difficult to see until it moves.

I love bustards, which can be the size of a wild turkey. Their bodies are just the right coloring to keep them hidden among the dry grasses. They slowly stretch their bill and point it to the sky, as the one we saw did, pretending they really are a clump of grass. I often need help to find one. If I stare in the direction indicated by another birder and let my eyes soften, I finally can see the motionless bird. What I like most about bustards is that they move slowly, as with dignity, in the thin grasses of the stark desert landscape. They move so even I could take a good photo, though I prefer to stay in that moment with the bird.


The Highlight of the Day  

We took a short hike through the sand dunes while the air temperature was still bearable. As we made our way up the side of a dune, I noted a few tough plants surviving in deep shaded cracks where morning fog condensed. When I saw that vegetation, I acknowledged that life will grab every opportunity to burst forth.

It didn’t take much time before we were sucking air. The sand was so soft I slid back half a step each time I put my foot down.  My chests heaved from exertion. We paused and turned to look across a shrubby pan to the next dune on the sunny side, a light pink in the mid-morning light. Movement low down on the dune drew my attention. Three light tan forms muscled their way up the slippery sand, their heads bobbing for extra momentum. There they were—three Southern Oryx. In awe, I realized I was observing the animals I so wanted to see!

Even from a distance, the magnificent, arrow-straight, four-foot long horns— once sold as unicorn horns—looked dangerously sharp at the tips.  These Southern Oryx were gorgeous, their black and white face markings were especially striking. The respiratory systems of this species have adapted to pull the moisture out of the humid morning fog that rolls in off the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, they get some moisture from a few cucumbers and melons and small patches of grass that grow at the edges of the pans. Their special urinary system also conserves water so the oryx manage quite well in their chosen desert home. Not surprisingly, the magnificent oryx is the national animal of Namibia, tough and well adapted to Namibia’s environment. Of all my travels, observing the oryx gazelles was one of my most unforgettable experiences.

This was only our third day and already it was beyond what I imagined. So much more awaited us: masses of seabirds, a peculiar plant and thousands of fascinating mammals.