Friday, 13 September 2013

16th - 17th August, Okahandja, Namibia - "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"

As we come to the end of the trip, today saw the last real journey, from Epacha to the interestingly named Elegant Farmstead just outside the town of Okahandja.  The journey was to be just over 350 km, and as a result we did not rush to get up early in the morning.  In fact for the first time at Epacha we were able to see the lodge in the early morning sunshine, and as I looked out from the balcony, I was reminded once again of scenes from Out of Africa.

After breakfast and checking out we were back in the truck, and heading down reserve drive to the main gate.  We finally signed out from the lodge after struggling to find the last entry, and made the guard very happy by giving him my Swakopmund hoodie, I imagined him modellingit after we had passed through the gate.

After the 25 km of the gravel road from the lodge to the C38 we turned south and headed off on tarmac.  The road was very good, and we made good time.  We had timed it just right, and we finished the last Danny Baker podcast on this journey.  I had to be aware of the road though, as it was alright where the grass was short, you could see any animals, but where it was above a few feet high you could be surprised by a Warthog bursting from the scrub, and across the road.  We were twice, the first time being a little too close.

The C38 took us through two towns, Outjo, and Otjiwarongo, the latter was where we stopped to fill up with fuel once again.  It was then on to the B1, the main road north and south through Windhoek.  Everything was fine until we came to Okahandja.  I had selected the sister property to the Farmstead in the sat nav, and this was located in Windhoek.  Reverting to the instructions and the map threw up confusion so we had to call the property.  Once we had the directions it was clear there was an error on the instructions, so we were able to set off once again.

We turned off the B1 on to probably the worst road of the whole trip.  our instructions describe it as a scenic drive, I wouldn't know as it took all I had to keep hold of the steering wheel.  They were constructing bridges over the dry rivers, and we would be diverted through sand and rock.  the truck shook, and we collected even more dust.

We finally pulled into the Elegant Farmstead, which looked from the outside like a working farm, which it obviously had been, there were chickens crowing, and cattle in the distance.  We were shown to our room, and around the property.

We had a nice lunch on the deck, and a welcome beer.  The rest of the afternoon we set out to just relax in the sun, again there was a pool but it was very cold.

The farm was set alongside a dry river bed, and there were water holes around the grounds.  I had itchy feet and couldn't sit still fro too long, so I went for a walk around the grounds.  I found one water hole that was covered in pond weed, but it was attractive to small groups of Red-billed Francolins, and they would creep down the bank to drink.

When I returned to the sun bed, i was immediately distracted by bird calls that could only belong to a parrot.  I could see them flying into a tree, but I couldn't immediately identify them.  So I was up again for a closer look.  It took a while but I finally managed to get one in the open long enough to identify it, a Ruppell's parrot, not one of the prettiest, but a parrot nonetheless

Mission accomplished it was back to the sun bed, only to be distracted once again by a small bird perched in a tree by the fire pits.  When we had arrived at the farmstead, as Helen opened  the gates she saw and pointed out an owl box.  We were told when we checked in that this belonged to a White-faced Scops Owl, and that there was an owlet around the buildings too.  When I got the binoculars on this small bird I could see it was an owl, so I was up again, camera ready, taking shots as I crept closer.  This is a Pearl Spotted Owlet, and was quite happy for me to approach it, I even had to squeak to make it look at me.

As I was up I decided to explore a bit more, and walked by the fence that ran alongside the river.  I was intrigued by the electric fence and razor wire all over the tree trunks close to the fence.  As I scanned across the river bed I suddenly realised why as I saw a small group of Baboons, with one acting as look out at the top of a tree.

by four o'clock the sun was beginning to go down, and was losing its strength, so we decided to take the option of walking around the trail the farmstead had.  We were not sure what it was going to turn up, but we saw it as a chance to stretch our legs on what has been a quite sedentary trip.

As we set off their was a couple in front of us, and they immediately stopped as there was a large cow sized creature in front of them.

It was an Eland, the largest of the Antelopes, and not something I had expected to come across.  they are big animals, with substantial horns.  This one had one broken, probably as a result of a fight.  It looked at us as we watched it, then it walked across the path and away into the scrub.  We could hear others and we waited to see if they would show themselves.  They did but not the best of views.

A little further on we came across a small group of Ruppell's parrots feeding in a nearby tree.

Helen agreed not the prettiest parrot!

The couple walking in front of us stopped again, and we wondered what hey had found this time.  It was any thing new, but a nice close view of a Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill.

it was calling, and I was bale to imitate it, and hold a conversation. 

The path was very dry and dusty as we approached the river bed.  Coming around a corner I was completely surprised by what I found in front of us, just like the Eland I did not expect it.

There were in fact two giraffes, and they stood watching us with no real concerns.  As we turned on to the river bed, they turned away from us and walked up the bank.

A little way along the bank we came across another new antelope, the Blesbok.

A very smart looking antelope, but they are not native to Namibia, but have been introduced here from South Africa.  It stood watching us as we walked along the sandy bed.  Every so often it would run away, only to turn and continue to watch us again.  The face markings stand out against the rufous brown body.  In all we probably saw three individuals on the walk.

As we watched the Blesbok, there was some bird activity in the surrounding trees.  Grey Louries were everywhere, they have another name, the Go Away Bird, due to their call, which sounds like "go away".  they look very smart with their crest of very fine feathers, and the long tail.

Another bird to catch the eye was the Crimson-breasted Shrike.  I had seen them in the Kalahari, but was not able to get a photograph.  This one hopped into the sunshine at just the right time, the sun enhancing the beautiful red chest.

We walked along the river bed, and then around to the air strip, as mentioned we continued to attract the attention of the Blesbok, but apart from that and a small group of Helmeted Guinea Fowl, there was little else.  As we turned onto the air strip there was a pair of Glossy Starlings at the top of a bush, enjoying the last warmth of the afternoon sun.

the walk back was into the setting sun, and it cast a glow on the grasses around us, and also provided a fitting end to the trip as we walked slowly back to our last sundowner in Namibia

Dinner was very nice, and once again we were able to make the staff smile, as Helen this time made a present of her Swakopmund fleece.  After dinner we sat by the fire, and finished our scrabble with a night cap, then we retired to our room, where the mosquito netting had been turned down, and our last night here in Namibia.

The next morning it was sunny and cold, in fact we were told that the water in the fountains was frozen first thing in the morning.  After a good breakfast we packed our bags for the last time, and settled the bill, and set off on the final leg of the journey.  I took it easy on the road from the farmstead, and we passed a herd of Eland by one of the fences.  The car wheels did not bump so much on the gravel road this time, and when we turned on to the B1 to head north, we had a bout 100 km to go.  The journey took us through Windhoek by the route we had arrived 14 days earlier, and then on to the airport.

it has been a wonderful trip, made even better by the fact that we were able to drive ourselves, and set our own plans, yes we had some organised trips,and they were good, but the best time was when we just did it ourselves, just as we did in Fish River, and Etosha.  We managed to see a total of 137 birds along the way, not a huge number, but there were 75 new birds for me in the total.  Of the animals we saw 26, including the two species of Dolphin with the experience of the elephants at Rietfontein water hole in Etosha standing out as the absolute highlight.

If I amasked in the future of the African trips we have made what is the best, it would have to Namibia, if you want a wonderful safari experience this is the place to come.  There are not the numbers of people you have to contend with in Kenya, the landscape is better for viewing tahn in South Africa, and it is safe.  Would we come back, yes we would.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

15th - 16th August - Etosha, Namibia Part Two "Its a Military Goal"

It was another early start, and once we had woken the guard from the lodge at the end of the park drive, we were off along first the gravel road, then the tarmac to the Anderson Gate.  We pulled up to the gate just as the sun was rising.  There were no administrative hold ups today, and we were off heading towards Okaukuejo immediately.

There were plenty of giraffe visible above the trees to the west as we drove along the road, something we didn't see yesterday.  We stopped again to pay the fee, and to fuel up, and then we headed off on the C38.  The plan today was to visit the natural water holes that yesterday had the best views.  Instead of driving around the plan was to sit and wait.  

This morning there seemed to be giraffe everywhere, we could see their heads and necks above the trees like industrial cranes.

It was still quite cold despite the sunshine.  We came across this Pale Chanting Goshawk on the top of a bush, a typical scene for this bird, but from the fluffed out feathers it was cold too.

As we came into an area of scrub on both sides of the road there was a truck ahead of us stationary by the side of the road.  As we got closer they waved us to stop, and while they didn't speak English we were able to understand that there was a cat nearby.  I reversed and immediately saw a group of three possible four Lionesses in the grass.

One was rather restless, and moved about watching something (it wasn't us), in doing this she made herself more visible.

We couldn't see any sign that they had been feeding, their mouths being clean with no sign of blood.

The restless one eventually became over come with all things lion, and settled down with the others.  In doing so they were completely out of sight, and you had to wonder how many cars and trucks will go past not knowing they were there.

our first real stop was going to be Homob water hole.  Yesterday it had been host to quite a bit of activity, but when we arrived it was very quiet, Sociable Weavers were in the reeds, and a Jacana walked along the edge of the pool, but that was about all.  There were some Zebra by the side of the road, and they were extremely confiding, allowing me some nice portrait shots, which in turn I was able to play with to get another abstract collection.

We returned to the main road, and headed towards the loop road that took us to the three waterholes close to the pan.  First stop was Salvadora, as we approached a Black-backed Jackal was walking in the same direction.

When we got to the hole it was empty, there was nothing, and no sign of any game looking too come close.  We decided to move away.  At the junction we had to make a decision, do we go on towards Retfontein, or do we check out Charitsaub, which was close by.  There was no game moving about, but we decided to just have a look, so we turned back to the west.  There was one truck in the parking area, and as I turned off the main road, I saw immediately that luck was with us, and that we had made the right decision.

Moving down to the water was a huge male Lion, and as we pulled up it laid down, and started to drink.

Every so often it would pause from drinking and look around.  There were several Sandgrouse close to the water, and they were clearly not happy with the presence of the lion.

The Lion though was not bothered with them trying to buzz him.  I wondered what he was looking for as he paused and then scanned around the water hole.

he lay their drinking for some time, I am not sure whether he actually drank a lot, or the process of drinking by lapping takes some time.  When he did finish, he stood up and slowly began to walk away.

After marking the small bushes by the water, it strolled off, scattering the Sandgrouse that suddenly didn't appear so brave.  

It carried on walking through the scrub.  We realised that if it continued in the direction it was headed it would come out by the road, so we moved away, and onto the road to try and meet up with it.  We were right, we found it coming through the scrub, the amount of water in it's belly though must have been tiring it, as it decided to lie down, and immediately disappeared from view.

We had some wonderful views so we decided to move on, and allow others the chance to wait and watch should it decide to get up.  As we drove off, Helen pointed out this Sandgrouse that was sitting in the sun by the side of the road.  It didn't move as I leaned out of the window to get a photograph.  I thought at first it was Namaqua, like the others, but when it turned its head I could see the yellow eye ring, and the black and white in front of the bill, that confirmed it as a Double-banded Sandgrouse

A pattern was now emerging, the water holes were very quiet, with little game, it seemed as if the game were waiting for the predators to use the holes first.  Yesterday we had seen plenty of game at the water holes after 10.00 am.  We did check Rietfontein, it was very quiet but for this very confiding Namaqua Sandgrouse, which allowed us to see the difference between the two very clearly.  

We decided to take a loop road just up from there that went back on us, a road we had not driven before.  A little way down the road I noticed two vultures circling.  We got closer, and I could see more birds above us.  I wondered if there might be a kill or dead animal nearby, but the scrub around us was quite high and it would be difficult to see.

There were Lappet-faced Vultures above us, but I was interested in one bird that was much paler underneath, which was clearly a different bird.  I followed it, and as it came closer I could see it was a Cape Vulture

There was also another pale bird circling, but as this came closer, I realised that it was not a vulture at all, but an immature African Fish Eagle.

To support my theory that there may be a dead animal close by, a Black-backed Jackal scampered through the scrub.  We decided to carry on around the loop, and finally came out onto the main road again.  As we did so we realised that the game was on the move now, as Zebra were walking towards the Rietfontein water hole.  In amongst the Zebra, there was one individual that stood out.  It looked like the white stripes had not been painted on, with the body of the zebra black.  Perhaps this answers the question for once and all, thatthe zebra is originally black, and it is the white stripes that are added

The Zebra and Springbok could be seen either side of the road walking steadily in one direction, all with their heads down.  We pulled into Rietfontein once again, and it was relatively empty of cars.  We positioned ourselves so that we could see all of the water hole, and then settled in with our lemon puffs to wait and see what would happen.

To start with it was quiet, with nothing about, but then Helen pointed out the clouds of dust away to the east, and gradually shapes began to appear through the mist.

As they came closer we could see that they were Zebra, and they were all headed for the water hole.

There is always something  to watch as the large herds gather in these communal places.  It is difficult to tell whether these two were engaged in a playful exchange, or that they were really fighting.  But as we watched it seemed real enough.

The dust and emerging heat haze make it difficult at a distance to get sharp pictures, but they soon decided that they had enough, and they then just joined the rest of the herd, and continued on towards the water hole.

The zebra seemed to pour in, and took a route around the back of the water hole, those that arrived first taking their chance to drink while the others waited behind them, constantly looking. They would then in a very orderly fashion move places, while still maintaining a look out.

Those drinking at the water hole would do so in groups, with some drinking and others taking their turn to watch, it must be stressful.

With the arrival of the zebra, suddenly there was game, and birds everywhere.  A pair of male Kudu timidly made their way in from the west side, and once the large numbers of zebra were around the hole they made their move to get a drink.

These are mature males, as they have several twists in the horns.

Whether it was because the game started to turn the mud over I don't know but there were also quite a few birds in front of us now.  This Wood Sandpiper fed around the shallower pools.

While this Kittlitz's Plover patrolled closer to the cars and trucks through the mud and grass.

Small passerines had been flying to and from the puddles while we were watching, but they would always be distant, these Grey-backed Sparrowlarks though came just close enough

All the game activity had also attracted another bird, above the zebra that were waiting to move to the water to drink there was an African Fish Eagle perched in the tree.  It wasn't there when we arrived, and I suspect it was the same bird as yesterday, and that it uses the confusion and noise of the zebra to spring attacks on the geese and duck in the water

As we watched the comings and goings we noticed the eagle fly down from its perch, and drift across the water hole. 

But the geese were smart, and were immediately off, and the eagle just gently landed on an island in one of the pools.

By now some of the zebra were taking more chances, and as a result there were some squabbles in the water.  This one took off, as did the ducks.

The zebra continued to file in from both sides of the hole.  Those coming in fro the east seemed to come in around the back, and then follow a queue for the water, allowing those already present to move away, rest, and then head off back towards the east.  Those coming in from the west would go immediately to the water, and then either join those at the back of the hole, or turn an head off up the hill away to the south west.

As we watched the zebra arriving from the west we saw the "black zebra" arriving.

It headed down to the water to drink, and wasn't treated any differently by the others.

As well as the abnormality that was the black coat of the zebra, we also saw a Springbok with one horn that was curled, again the animal did not seem to be affected by this.

We had been here for about an hour and a half, and we were beginning to get itchy feet, was it possible there was something more interesting at another water hole?  In the end this debate got the better of us, and we set off back to Salvadora, to see if indeed there was anything there.  As we pulled up we realised that there wasn't, and in fact there was much less than we had seen yesterday, as there were just a few Springbok, and no Zebra.  

Once again debate on where to go, should we try one or two of the drives?  Is there a chance there could be something there we hadn't seen before.  Eventually we decided that we would return to Rietfontein, I had a feeling there would be something turn up there, and as we pulled in, there in front of us was an amazing sight.

There seemed to be Elephants everywhere, large medium and small they were drinking and wading in the water.  We parked, and again were lucky to get a prime spot despite one or two of our fellow visitors attempting to position themselves so we couldn't see.  We settled down to get a closer look at what was going on.

We counted 26 in total, and of these there were three really baby elephants, that were protected by the adults and adolescents, but there were times when the babies just wanted to get from under the feet of their carers and splash in the water. 

We just sat and watched the antics as the elephants took the chance to drink, and generally interact.

Every so often we would look tear ourselves away from the Elephant herd to see if anything else had turned up.  There was quite a large group of Kudu that had quietly arrived from the west, and had gone straight to the water despite the antics of the elephants.

The Kudu are elegant antelopes, with lovely markings on them, and at any other time we would have enjoyed watching them, as they drank at the edge of the hole, it was though very difficult to ignore the elephants  and almost immediately after taking the photos of the Kudu, it was back to watching them.

The next time I see a little Grebe it will just not be the same.  This one was diving and feeding just in front of the elephants, and they would pause occasionally to watch it.

The elephants spread out across all of the water hole, and it really was an amazing sight as this panoramic view shows.

A feature of the herd was the gentleness in which these huge animals would interact with each other.  They would constantly caress one and other with their trunks.  No more was this evident than between the mother and baby.

The Zebra continued to plod in and drink, all going down to the water's edge to drink, butthey kept well away from the elephants.

An African Jacana caught my eye in one of the calmer pools closer to us.

A Giraffe had appeared as we watched the elephants, and unlike yesterday it had gone straight to the water to drink.

As we watched it drink, Helen remarked that there were more elephants coming, and out of the scrub behind the Giraffe you can see them beginning to appear through the scrub.

It was as if the Giraffe had heard Helen too, because it stopped drinking and raised its head and turned around to look at the elephants coming towards the water hole

The Giraffe then decided it needed to drink fast as there might not be much space.

It was another large heard, we counted 23 in total, again with all ages present to very small babies to old females.  As they approached the water hole, the original herd, gathered together and faced them as they came closer.

The behaviour of the new herd was in complete contrast to that we had been watching with the first.  It was as if this was announced by the first elephant to reach the water.

They continued to file slowly in, a large female, maybe the matriarch making up the rear.

It was as if they hadn't seen water for a while, which maybe they hadn't, and where the first herd were calm and just drank the new herd was completely the opposite.  They were rolling around in the water and mud, and throwing water and mud everywhere.  The light grey skins that they turned up in were transformed into jet black as they wallowed and rolled around.

You can see the original herd in the background here just watching as if in horror at the unruly behaviour.

The little ones were soon into the water, and they truly threw themselves in.

Everywhere you looked now there was something happening.  There was a pair of adolescent males, that were continually sparring with each other.  Engaging tusks and twisting each other about.

They would take short breaks when they would sit back on their hind legs as if for a breather, then they would be off again

Every elephant seemed to be enjoying itself, and no where is this demonstrated for me more than in this picture.  It looks as if the elephant is smiling, while the first herd turn their backs in disgust. 

Once again elephants were spread around the whole of the water hole.  The first herd with teior backs to the newcomers as if to want to completely disassociate themselves from the antics that were taking place  In total we were watching 49 elephants, I tried to capture this with a panoramic shot, but this was the best I could achieve, unfortunately not all of them.  

The game that had been about earlier had now almost disappeared, there were still a few Springbok that would wander by, some coming close to the truck, and this one posed nicely for a portrait.

But it was back to the elephants again.  A Mother and calf had come around the hole, and were now quite close to us.  The youngster had been rolling around in the mud, and as a result had attracted in a Blacksmith Plover.  The plover soon came to the attention of the baby elephant, and it started to try and chase it, waving its trunk at it while pulling itself out of the month.

Gorgeous to watch, but the plover didn't want to play with the over size baby and flew off.  The baby saw this as a result, and flapped its ears and trunk in triumph.

Back to the main herd again, and the mud and water baths were coming to an end, the elephants were now getting out of the water and walking closer to us, where the next part of the ablutions would take place, a nice dust bath.  This one had an itch to scratch before taking part.

While this one was really going for it, I wonder if they sneeze?

This one decided that it didn't want to suck dust into its trunk, and tried rolling around in the dust and mud.

A baby came over to join in, but wasn't really sure what it should be doing, it just looks like it was exhausted and has had enough

Again the activity of the elephants attracted the birds, a new one was this Groundscraper Thrush that flew close to the car and perched very nicely for me.

Then we noticed to the west, a very large elephant approaching slowly.  It was a huge bull, and as it made its way towards the herd it seemed to be coming very close to the vehicles parked watching.  In preparation of the the need to make a quick get away I returned to the drivers seat.

happily he was not interested in us, and walked slowly towards the herd.  One large female, again probably the Matriarch faced him down as he approached, and they greeted each other by stroking trunks, another tender moment, it was as if they knew each other.  He then made his way around all the elephants stroking them in greeting.  his presence took the number of elephants to 50!

He clearly had a motive in meeting with everyone, as he was checking to see if any of the females were receptive and in season, he toyed with one female, but she still had a calf, and the baby returned to see what it's mother was up to, and ruined the moment.

The elephants now were beginning to move away.  The first herd had left in the direction of the east, and the second were now beginning to make a move, the little ones walking alongside their mothers and siblings as they filed away.

As the youngsters moved to join the herd, one young elephant, just older than the babies passed the bull.  As it did so it stroked the bull with its trunk, and the bull did the same.  It was as if the youngster knew the bull to be its father, and the bull was greeting his offspring.  It was an incredible moment to watch, this huge animal, gently stroking this youngster, in what could only be described as an act of affection, absolutely wonderful.  

There was a group of adolescents still lingering, including the pair that by now had stopped sparring.  The bull walked over to them, and they greeted each other with trunks again, then they gathered around him, and followed him as he walked back towards us.  The scene immediately reminded me of the picture on the front cover of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces LP.

having got home and checked it out I realise that it looks nothing like it, but it worked at the time!

They followed the bull to the dry land, then the bull turned west, and the adolescents turned east to join the rest of the herd filing away, and they departed.

We then realised that we had been watching the elephants for around two hours.  It had been an amazing experience, with nothing but the sound of the wind, the splashing of the mud and the low rumbling of the elephants as they communicated with each other.  Cars and guide trucks had come and gone, but we were are own masters and we had been able to enjoy this amazing specatcle, something that will live with us as one of the most memorable.

With the water hole now quiet, and the day entering that quiet patch we experienced yesterday when nothing really happens we decided to head back to the lodge.  We did check some of the water holes just in case, but it was as we thought quiet.  There was a pair of elephants, probably young bulls wandering on the open plain by the pan.  The shot capturing the wild openness, and vastness of this landscape, and rounded off the day

We headed back along the C38, and then out of the park and back to Epacha where we sat by the pool with a drink, and the chance to write up the notes from the day.

At dinner last night we had seen Porcupine running about, what we didn't know was that they were fed, so this evening I took the camera, and was able to get some pictures.  The adult was eating the fruit, and was joined by this young one.  It is difficult to imagine porcupines being small and babies.  Apparently their quills remain soft for three weeks after birth.  This one was cure for a porcupine.

After another round of Scrabble we turned in for the night.  The adventure was coming to a close, with just one more day left.