2. Wildlife Up Close

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Chapter 2

Wildlife Up Close


After two nights in Sossusvlei, we drove up the Namibian coast for about five hours to Walvis Bay. It is the first deep water harbor north of Cape Town, South Africa and historically was a welcome shelter for sailing vessels rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Later, whaling ships came to the area to hunt the abundant Right Whales and took shelter in Walvis Bay for respite and repairs.  During the white colonists landgrab era in the early 1800s, Britain claimed this strategic bay and the surrounding territory to get access to the interior of southwestern Africa. Today, Walvis Bay is the primary Namibian port for the export of diamonds, uranium, and other ores, as well as food and live animals.


A Birder’s Paradise

In years of exceptional rainfall, the Okavango Delta cannot absorb all the water that flows into the Kalahari Basin, so the excess flows west to Walvis Bay, and then into the Atlantic Ocean. The cold Benguela Current runs north up the South Atlantic coast between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, Namibia and brings with it abundant fish for the thousands of sea birds that inhabit that portion of the coast. Walvis Bay has gained international recognition by UNESCO as a wetland worth protecting and preserving by treaty. Thus, birders like us, visit this area to observe the thousands of water birds that congregate there to feed.

The afternoon we arrived, we dashed down to the spit to see what birds were feeding on the exposed tidal flat. We were not disappointed. A raucous cloud of Cape, Hartlaub’s, and Grey-headed gulls roiled overhead while thousands of Curlew Stints, and Common-ringed and White Fronted Plovers raced across the wet sand in search of juicy sand fleas. Bar-Tailed Godwits and Pied Avocets plunged their long bills into the wet sand for wigglers. The birds were so loud and moved so fast it was hard to follow Terry’s directions to a specialty bird before it got lost in the chaos.

The next full day of birding included two extraordinary places. North of Walvis Bay we stopped at a guano platform built on offshore Bird Rock by an entrepreneur in the 1930s. The nitrogen in the accumulated guano is used commercially in fertilizer and explosives. Adolf Winter noted that the sea washed away much of the guano on Bird Rock and saw an opportunity. The flat rock is only 120 feet offshore, so he built a wooden platform high enough to escape the tidal flows. With sections added over several years, today the platform covers about 43 acres.

The birds adapted to Winter’s platform, nesting without hesitation. He did quite well “harvesting” the guano at the end of the breeding seasons and now the expansive platform yields more than 600 tons of high-quality guano.

The platform is thick with Cape Cormorants and occasional Crowned Cormorants, as well as smaller numbers of other birds that have found refuge on this odd but functional structure. In addition, the platform is dear to birders’ hearts because for many years, White Pelicans traditionally bred on islets in Sandwich Harbour to the south, one of only three safe places in southern Africa for them to breed. However, in 1949, the islets were linked to the mainland, allowing predators access to the islets. The pelicans moved north to breed on the guano platform and are doing well.


Living Fossils

From Bird Rock, we turned north-east into the desert to find a plant that Terry said “we had to see.” I love that kind of hook.  We were in search of Welwitschia plants, informally known as “living fossils.” Some of these plants can be between one thousand and two thousand years old. They are found in one of the starkest desert ecosystems in the world—some years recording no rainfall at all. The plant gets its name from the Austrian botanist, Friedrich Welwitsch, who identified and named the plant in 1859.

Deep into this habitat, the only vegetation we could see were a few scattered plants starkly surrounded by the clay pan. Wire fences surrounded the larger plants to keep onlookers away. The plant we observed, large enough to be astounding, had been encircled by melon-sized rocks brought to the site by another protector. The two leathery leaves of a mature Welwitschia plant are twelve inches wide and grow up to thirteen feet in length. Wind whips these grey-green leaves around like a sea wind will whip flat kelp leaves, forming a messy heap over the thick root. The shade formed helps trap water from the cool fog that reaches inland from the Atlantic. It is believed, though not substantiated, that the single root can reach deep into the ground to water far below the surface. While standing there quietly, looking at this odd plant, I took a deep breath in reverence and awe that the plant before me could be 2000 years old? As I pulled myself back into the present, another thought crossed my cynical mind. I was thankful that that innocent ancient has not been defaced by some knife-wielding fool!


Erongo Wilderness Lodge

After another night in Walvis Bay, we continued northeast with plans to spend the night at a unique lodge in central Namibia. At a brief stop near a stream in open savannah habitat, we easily found the Rueppell’s Parrot. Named for the German naturalist, Eduard Ruppell, the parrot has red eyes, and is dark brown and a bit of yellow on the wing, a more subtle coloring than most parrots. Later, during lunch near a dry riverbed, a Violet Woodhoopoe, which can only be identified as violet in good light, flew in to land close by. Not far from our destination, we found the rare Herero Chat, a small greyish bird with a white belly and a black patch that runs through the eye and russet rump. This bird was named after one of the prominent tribes descended from Bantu migrants.

At day’s end, we reached the Erongo Wilderness Lodge near Omeruru, built where desert, mountain, and bushveld ecosystems overlap, creating an area rich in bird life. The lodge huts were nestled among giant boulders and rock outcroppings, on stilts to leave the native granite boulders in their natural state, rustic yet comfortable

 Birding highlights from two days in Erongo National Park included a grouse-like Hartlaub’s Francolin, endemic to Namibia and Angola. The Rosy-faced Lovebird , endemic in most of Namibiai, is a sweet bird in spite of its harsh call. Sadly, in my opinion, it is popular as a caged bird, caged in someone’s living room. Other birds we saw were the White-tailed shrike, also endemic to the most arid places in Namibia and Angola and a Damara Rock-jumper, one of the African warblers recently separated from the larger warbler family. The Carp’s Tit is a small, coal-black bird with some white on the wing. I must admit I found some of the bird names as interesting as the birds, themselves and all satisfying to find. For example, we also saw Adim’s Stork, one of the smaller storks, Black-Backed Vulture, Secretary Bird, Bateleur, Helmeted Guineafowl, White-Quilled Bustard, and Spotted Thick-knee. Without question, this area was rich with birds!


Renowned Etosha National Park

Our next destination, Etosha National Park, is one of the best-known wildlife areas of Namibia, visited by some 200,000 tourists yearly and on occasion, even British Royalty. The 8,500 square-mile park has one of the largest accumulations of big game species in the world and hosts a plethora of smaller mammals (114 species), birds (340 species). Mopane trees and shrubs in isolated stands are the predominant vegetation in this terrain. They are host to a moth that, in the larval stage, is an important source of protein to the local inhabitants. Mopanes are similar to eucalypts with their long, leathery leaves, characteristic of plants in extremely dry habitats. Similarly, members of this plant family are widely varied, from shrubs to taller trees. Their dense wood is used for firewood, medicine, musical instruments, and more. Mopanes are so dense, termites cannot eat these trees, making it good for fence posts.

The most notable feature of the park is the Etosha Pan that covers more than 1,900 square miles and is a part of the Kalahari Desert. The Etosha Pan is usually a dry lakebed, almost devoid of any life, until the rare heavy rain covers the desert with a thin layer of water that attracts pelicans and flamingos that stay until the water evaporates.

In 1907, when most of the large mammals had been hunted almost to extinction by big game hunters, the Governor of German South West Africa proclaimed Etosha a game reserve. After a good recovery, the big game populations were again decimated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by opposing fighters from the Protectorate of Southwest Africa (the name of Namibia at the time) and South Africa during the fight for Namibia’s independence. Since 1990, when Namibia gained its independence, the park has been well run and the wildlife populations are replenishing.

In order to see as much of huge Etosha National Park as possible, we stayed at a different lodge or camp around the edge of the enormous pan almost every night. During drives to see the game, we could easily observe hundreds of mammals from the van, exciting even to birders, such as Burchell’s Zebras, African Elephants, Warthogs, Common Giraffes, Greater Kudu, more Oryx, Springbok, Impala, Hartebeest, and Blue Wildebeest. Knowing the full name of each species was as interesting as those of the birds we identified.

Watching the only Kirk’s Dikdik seen on the tour reminded me of a delightful field trip I had taken years earlier while a teacher in Tanzania. My biology students and I took a small ferry to tiny Saa Nane Island near Mwanza. The whole island was a free-range zoo where most animals roamed at will, no fences.

Tabitha, one of my students, and I were chatting, both of us enjoying a view of Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water lake. Suddenly, she gave a shriek! I turned and she wasn’t there, but I could hear her laughing from the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a tiny antelope dashing into the shrubbery.  A staff person explained that it was the dik-dik that had surprised her. They are 12 to15 inches at the shoulder and that one had become aggressive towards visitors. It could not be returned to the wild so the staff felt it best if they just removed the three-inch horns and let it run free. But on occasion, it did butt people right at knee level. Tabitha thought it was hilarious and no damage was done. To this day, I still laugh thinking about the surprised look on her face and how tickled she was that it happened to her.


The Vital Watering Hole

At Okaukuejo Rest Camp in Etosha National Park, I was lucky to be assigned a bungalow only two hundred feet from the artificial watering hole. The government had drilled down to the water table and installed a pump to pull up the precious water to attract wildlife for visitors to view from a safe distance. The resulting pond was wide and shallow and hosted a rotating collection of thirsty wildlife.


 From a stone bench behind a low rock wall I enjoyed the mid-afternoon arrival of a variety of wildlife various birds, antelopes, and zebras came and went, usually in flocks or small herds. I trusted the animals were more interested in the water than eating me. Though I knew lions were close by, they did not come to drink while I was there.

Two Southwestern Black Rhinoceros ambled in for long drinks, sucking and slurping great mouthfuls, oblivious to the other animals that moved aside for them. Endangered in many parts of their traditional territories, Black Rhinos are not considered vulnerable inside the protection of Etosha. These rhinos are also known as Hooked Lipped Rhinoceros from the shape of their mobile upper lip, adapted for browsing.  In contrast, White Rhinoceroses have a broad upper lip for grazing. The use of the word “White” is from the misinterpreted Dutch word wijd used by Afrikaners to identify that species rhino. The name is confusing to Anglos and does not denote the color of their tough grey hide.

After dinner, I returned to the bore hole to see what might show up, which I did again, when I awoke during the night. It was difficult to sleep because I did not want to miss anything. I was never alone on watch. Everyone at the lodge had come to witness this spectacle. Bright lights illuminated the water but made seeing anything outside the lights difficult. Parched animals seemed oblivious to the lights and carefully crept out of the shadows. On our side of the protective rock wall and wire fence, we observers were as close as fifty feet to some of Namibia’s most remarkable mammals

In the morning, we witnessed the dawn visitors. Vulnerable species of birds, and small mammals, cautiously approached the water’s edge, always alert for predators that hoped for invisibility as they stalked their prey.  At one point, a Black-backed Jackal ambled in from the pan but halted when she spotted a flock of about 300 Double-banded Sandgrouse. Eyes glued on the birds, she lowered her body and nosed into the dry grasses. The plump, medium-sized birds squatted in three inches of water at the edge nearest to me. The sandgrouse sipped the life-giving water and fluffed their feathers as if bathing. The jackal crept closer. The birds became more agitated. They took quicker sips and paused longer, eyes on the jackal until, suddenly, an explosion of bodies, wing flapping and feathers showered flying drops of water across the pond. The jackal dashed at the slowest birds and managed to snatch one. She pushed the wounded bird securely into her mouth and trotted away, head high and the victim’s wings flapping in her face. The flock crossed the pond to resume their activities on the other side, still eyeing the jackal in its victorious retreat.

These double-banded sandgrouse, pointy-tailed relatives of pigeons, will nest far into the pan for protection and will fly up to twenty miles for water. They all arrive at the borehole at the same time each day. Such a large number of birds makes it difficult for predators to choose which one to chase, giving each bird a measure of safety. The belly feathers of the males are specially adapted with coiled, hair-like extensions that absorb water, so after a good soak and lots of fluffing, they fly back to their nests with up to two tablespoons of water in their down feathers. The chicks at the nest know to strip the water from the belly feathers with their beaks.

A few more special birds in Etosha include a jay-like Bare-Cheeked Babbler, a specialty of the park but not uncommon. Babblers were such busy birds, gregarious and chatty. Other busy birds were the White Helmetshrikes that travel in small groups and are always on the move. The Blue Crane is revered by the ¡Xhosa and Zulu tribes in South Africa. Only Zulu royalty were allowed to wear feathers of that small crane. The Lilac Breasted Rollers are among my favorite unbelievable birds. I love the quirk of nature that gave this bird colorings a child might have created using a big box of crayons; olive back, turquoise nape and crown, lilac breast, blue wings and belly. Delightful.

Remembering that time in Namibia, chills still run up my spine when I recall being so close and intimate with those wild animals and birds.


Caprivi Strip to Botswana

After three bird filled days in Etosha, we drove further north to Rundu, a small and thriving town that lies across the east-flowing Cubango River from Angola. Our last night in Namibia we arrived late and left early from the Hukusambe River Lodge. We were the only guests and hurried east for our crossing into Botswana. Since our visit in 2009 the lodge has been renovated into a “business” accommodation with more rooms and several meeting rooms.

From Rundu, we traveled east along the river and past where the Cuito River joins the Cubango. From there, the name became the Okavango River. We were getting so close!

For the last hour in Namibia, we were in the Caprivi Strip, the panhandle of Namibia, where the strip is only about twenty miles wide. Two hundred miles long, the Caprivi Strip is an odd piece of land that runs east and west from Namibia to Zambia and across the northern border of Botswana. In the early 1900s, Germans in German South West Africa (what is now Namibia) bargained away Zanzibar to obtain what they thought was access to the Zambizi River for commercial traffic to the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, they discovered that Victoria Falls blocked the desired access.

Caprivi Strip is one of the only places in Namibia where a decent amount of rain falls, up to 25 inches during the wet season from December to March. The terrain is similar to the Okavango Delta with swamps, floodplains, wetlands, and woodlands protected as parks and reserves. For this reason, it is becoming popular among tourists who come to southern Africa to see the large mammals and stunning birdlife, like our group. Tourism has become a booming industry in the area, reportedly bringing in nearly 10 million U.S. dollars annually.

Along the Caprivi Strip, we added to our birdy list of first sightings Rufous Bellied Herons, Gabon Boubou, Brown Firefinch, and Golden Breasted Bunting. We also spotted mammals like Red Lechwe, Roan, and Sable antelopes, which was a nice surprise as well.

When I signed up, my primary interest for that birding trip was to visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but I was surprised and pleased that we saw so much of Namibia, an entirely new and unexpected country for me. Still, we had one week left on our tour and the Okavango Delta called to me. I could hardly wait.