Wednesday, 11 September 2013

11th - 13th August - Swakopmund & Walvis Bay, Namibia "Like Dolphins Can Swim"

The morning turned out to be cloudy, and we thanked our lucky stars that we had the beautiful blue skies and sunshine yesterday.  Our visit to the dunes would have been so disappointing Today we were travelling to the coast, and Walvis bay and the seaside town of Swakopmund.  It was a distance of about 400 Km, and it was estimated to take about 5 hours, from that I anticipated some bad roads, and that was pretty much how it turned out.  Once again we had an early breakfast, and as we were about to leave we could see that the clouds were thinning, but by now the shadows in Soussuvlei would be weakening.  How lucky we were!.

We headed north towards the Roadhouse at Solitaire, we stopped here for coffee and fuel, then turned left onto the C14, which was basically the single road to Walvis Bay.  The difference today though was that we passed over two significant passes at Gaub and Kuiseb.  However before we reached there the road was not to bad, and the clouds as they burned off added to the landscape.

There was very little to see on either side of the road, so when we did spot something it was worth stopping.  Helen saw this shape in the distance, and when we stopped and checked it out we found that it was a Bat-eared Fox.  It is a little distant, but the ears are unmistakable.

I got out of the truck for a better look, and of course it was off, and slowly it walked away from us, again the ears being completely diagnostic.

It was back once again to the Danny Baker Show as we made our way through the changing landscape.  The gravel roads slowly became much more challenging, and very soon we were crossing the Gaub Pass, the road was very winding, around undulating landscape, that had the appearance of a moon scape, which locally it is known as.

We wound our way around this amazing scene, and eventually reached a tarmac road, which led to a river valley, a lone Baboon sat by the side of the road, and looked straight into my eye as I passed it slowly.  The river forms part of the Kuiseb Pass, and I slowed down to get a photograph as we drove over the bed.

We thought we were now ok, driving on tarmac, but suddenly it ended and we back on sand and gravel.  Both sides it was just empty desert, with absolutely nothing.  These pictures were taken by my navigator, and show the vast and emptiness we were driving through.

As we got closer to Walvis Bay, we began to see dunes on either side, and small pockets of green, that were obviously signs of water.  The gravel finally turned to tarmac  and we came upon a round-a-bout, from which we headed north along side the Atlantic Ocean towards Swakopmund.

This area has been the subject of much warring over ownership, and up until the 1990's Walvis Bay was under South African rule. The harbour's value in relation to the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope had caught the attention of the world powers since it was discovered and goes some way to explain the complicated political status of Walvis bay down the years.  In 1990 South-west Africa gained independence as Namibia, but Walvis bay remained under South Africa sovereignty.  On the 28th February 1994 South Africa formerly transferred sovereignty over Walvis Bay to Namibia, it remains a very important port, and as we drove the coast road we could see huge tankers in the bay.

The coast road took us into Swakopmund, and to our lodge, which was situated alongside the Swakopmund river.  The bungalows are situated on stilts, and some overlook the lagoon and the beach.  Unfortunately we did not have one of these, but we looked out over scrub and reeds.

We decided after settling in to explore the town of Swakopmund, we also had to find somewhere to eat tonight.  Now I mentioned previously about how quiet it was in Windhoek when we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, well here we were in Swakopmund, a much smaller town, and as a result a much quieter place on a Sunday

It was like we were the only people about, it was empty, and nowhere was open.  We wanted to try and get some warm clothes, as we were on a boat trip the next day, and we had been advised that early in the morning it gets foggy and cold, we walked about, had some frustrations at an ATM, but finally found a supermarket that sold clothes, and we were able to pick up some track bottoms and a fleece for Helen, and a top for me.  Next we had to find a restaurant for dinner.  Everywhere but the Tug restaurant on the jetty was closed, we stopped for a drink, to see if we could get a reservation, they had nothing that evening, but we were able to get one for the next day.  We sat on the terrace and had a drink and called some other restaurants, and managed to get into Kuicki's, a German bar restaurant.  All sorted we wandered back to the Lodge, avoiding the watering systems on the path.

Back at the lodge I had a wander around the bungalows, and looked out across the lagoon.   The lagoon was backed by the dunes to the south, and the Atlantic to the west.

 There were both Lesser and Greater Flamingos on the lagoon.  The Lesser being more pinker than its larger cousin.  In amongst them were also Little Egrets.

Above them flew Hartlaub's Gulls , quite impressive against the blue sky.

As I walked along the wooden walkways a small bird caught my eye in the scrub below me. This is a Black-chested Prinia.

Helen then called me back to the bungalow  as she had been watching some interesting things from the window over the scrub.  First was this beautiful Swallow-tailed Bee-eater

It was difficult to photograph them as the window was a little murky, and I ended up leaning out of the side one to get this shot.

As we watched the Bee-eaters a Yellow-Tailed Mongoose appeared, perhaps the closest to a meerkat!

There were signs of weavers in the scrub, as you could see these beautifully woven nests hanging from the thinnest of branches.  They belonged to the Masked Weaver , that looked gorgeous in the setting sunlight.

As the sun set we got ourselves ready for our taxi ride to the restaurant.  We were very lucky to get a table, as it was packed.  The food was good, admidst a nice atmosphere.  As we waited for the taxi to return, we chatted with one of the staff who told us this was the busiest time of the year in Swakopmund despite the fact that it is winter, it is very popular with German and Italians, and he said we were lucky to get a table.

Once back in the bungalow it was a night cap, then bed, we would be up early in the morning to drive to the water front at Walvis Bay for our boat trip.

Much to our surprise the morning was clear with blue sky, and sunshine and none of the expected fog.  There was a lot of dew though, and it was difficult walking on the wooden walkways.  After breakfast we were off again, back along the coast road to Walvis Bay.  The dunes by the side of the road were looking spectacular as they were lit by the morning sun.

We pulled into the car park at the waterfront, and immediately met the person who was going to look after our truck for 50 Namibian dollars!

As we waited to board the boat we were able to watch the antics of the Greater Flamingos around the jetty.

As you can see from the flamingo photographs the weather hadn't changed, and there was no sign of the infamous fog.  The sea was very calm, mill pond like, and as we slowly made our way into the bay we were entertained by one of the Fur Seals that is attracted aboard by our hosts with fish, and an African White Pelican, that also played the crowd in return for fish.  It did though give me the chance to get this rather nice portrait.

After the Pelican and seal left us we quickly came across a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins.  They were moving amongst the moored boats, and some were in playful mode.

There were though others that were quite content to slowly swim alongside us, and watch what we were doing as much as we were watching them.

The pod included some youngsters, who swim very close to the mother, in this shot you can see the main body of the young one under water.

The Bottlenose are a feature of the bay, and the numbers fluctuate depending on the time of year.  Similar to the Scottish dolphins in the Moray and Aberdeen harbours they seem to unconcerned by the presence of the large tankers and freight ships.  As the dolphins swam away from us we turned and made our way towards Pelican Point, the sandy spit at the north of the bay.  As we sailed slowly through the calm waters we would pass Fur Seals floating with their flippers out of the water.  They use them as solar panels to warm up, the sea being quite cold at between 5 - 10 degrees centigrade.

Groups of Cape Cormorants and Pelicans would fly past us, the most impressive flyers are the pelicans as they glide across the water, with the wing tips just grazing the surface.

As we looked north towards Pelican Point we could see the sand spit, and if you look closely the black line on it, which is the Fur Seal colony.

As we got closer there were large noisy flocks of Swift Terns flying over us.  These are arriving back for the summer, some nest, others just hang out on the spit.

One came a little closer and allowed a more detailed view

On reaching the spit, and the colony we were greeted with the noise of the seals, and their fishy smell.  The beach was packed with seals rushing into the water, and fighting and interaction on the sand.  As we watched them I could not help but compare it with an experience we had at the beginning of July, see what you think:

Fur Seals, Walvis Bay, Namibia

The British holiday maker, Camber Sands, UK.

All that is missing in the Walvis Bay picture are the wind breaks!

Theses Fur Seals are officially Brown Fur Seals, but have several names dependent on where they are found. They found along the coast of Namibia and along the west coast of South Africa to the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape Province. Its Australian subspecies breeds in the Bass Strait between Tasmania and Victoria.

Both subspecies will breed on rocky islands, rock ledges or reefs and pebble or boulder beaches. However South African Fur Seals have large breeding sites on sandy beaches in South Africa, and Namibia.

As we watched a single Greater Flamingo wandered in amongst the pack of seals.

It seemed totally unconcerned about the mayhem that was going on around it, and the seals seemed to move out of its way as it slowly walked the tide line.

We left the seals to head out of the bay, hopefully to find the other specialist dolphin found inthe bay, and maybe a whale.  Looking back along the beach towards the lighthouse the sea was alive with seals, and in the distance the beach was brightened by the pink of the flamingoes

At the end of the point the cape Cormorants had found a spot that was not occupied by the Fur Seals, and they were sitting quietly, resting and drying their wings.

Walvis Bay is named after both German and Afrikaans words meaning whales.  Being rich in plankton and marine life the waters were a big attraction to large numbers of whales, which in turn attracted whalers and fishing fleets.  The Dutch refer to the bay as Walvisch Baye, and the English as Whale Bay.  Eventually it became known as Walfish Bay, then Walvish, and finally Walvis Bay.  Interestingly our guide referred to it as Walvish Bay.  On the map the bay looks huge which is backed up by this photograph.  

As we headed out of the bay we very quickly came across the other dolphin species present here.  Officially it is known as the Haviside Dolphin, but locally they refer to it as the Benguela Dolphin as it is only found in the waters of the benguela current, and as a result is found off the coast of Namibia and the west coast of South Africa.  It is a small dolphin about a metre long, and without the pronounced beak of the bottlenose.  Along the flanks it has pale grey and white markings.

We came across this pair that seemed to be ignoring us.  Note the large tanker in the bay, and the sand dunes in the distance.

Apparently this small group did not want to play so we headed out to sea in the hope of finding more, and of course that obliging whale.  Deeper waters though did not do the trick, so we headed back and immediately came across a pod of these small dolphins, that were prepared to play.

They would come up alongside the catamaran, and swim either alongside, or beneath us between the two hulls.

Once they had enough of the surfing they would break off and re form as a group, and then fall behind us, only to recollect and do it all again

We followed the pod for a while until both of us seemed to become bored.  The dolphins swam off and we retired to the galley to sample the famous Walvis Bay oysters, while the sails were raised and we made our way back into the bay.  The oysters were very nice, and were accompanied by a very welcome lunch.

One feature of the sea was the number of large jellyfish that could be seen close to the surface of the water.  They looked very impressive, and quite threatening, although we were advised they were harmless

As we sailed back, a Cape Cormorant came quite close, and the reflections look nice on the water.

The crew entertained us we sailed along by throwing fish to the following gulls, this soon attracted the Pelicans who flew in for the chance to pick up an easy meal

As we approached the jetty we started to turn away, more Bottlenose Dolphins had been seen moving along the beach to the east, and we had decided to go and have a look.  From a distance it looked like they were fishing, as they were moving back and forth very quickly.  Once we reached them though they were swimming along side the beach, and heading north.  They came in quite close and once again I was able to get some good pictures.  This looks like a mother and calf again, with the head much the same size as the dorsal fin of the mother. Incidentally the notches on the fin, must allow this dolphin to be identified

These two were just happy swimming alongside us

We let them swim off and we returned to the jetty to finally end the tour.  It had been a wonderful morning, and it was nice to be on a trip like this, and for the operator not to be concerned about sticking to the stated times.

I had asked about bird watching spots on the trip, and once we had got more fuel, and solved the ATM and cash problem, we set of to drive around the lagoons and salt pans that exist north of the bay.  As we entered the park, the road took us through a built up area that quickly became sand dunes, and we were surprised to come across a large flock of both Lesser and Greater Flamingos on the sand.

This gave me the opportunity to pick out both species to compare the differences.  The main distinction is the bill and eyes.  The Lesser Flamingo having a red eye, and brown and red bill, the Greater a pale pink eye, and a pink and black bill.  If the bird is feeding though the other distinguishing mark is the bright red wing bar on the Greater.

As we watched the flock they suddenly flew off and headed towards the open bay.  We drove on, with the dunes on our left, and the salt marsh and sea on our right.  Heavy trucks used the road, as it led to a salt works.  This consists of very shallow pools of sea water being allowed to evaporate, and then the dried salt is dug up, and loaded into the trucks for them to take it to the docks.

We took the wrong turn and ended up at the works, having turned around we picked up the road that went around the many salt pans.  Some of the pans were full of pink water, which was the result of the algae in the sea water, as they became more active due to the warmth and salinity they turn the water pink.  It was a strange sight.

The pools close to the sea were full of waders and ducks, there was the more familiar Avocet, (or Pied Avocet as it is known here), feeding with Black-winged Stilts.

A little further on I was able to get some good close shots of both birds feeding in the water.

The Black-winged Stilt

and of course the Avocet.

We drove slowly around the salt pans, and as we did we noticed that cloud was rolling in from the north.  At first it seemed to be quite a distance from us, and then all of a sudden it became quite thick fog, and it was coming at us quickly.

We decided to not drive on, but turn around and head back.  As we did we continued to stop for birds on the pools.  Small plovers were everywhere, this is a Three Banded Plover.

A pair of Red-necked Phalaropes were swimming in deeper water, spinning around and pecking at the surface of the water.  This is a female in breeding plumage.

Cape Teal were also along the edge of the water sometimes in large groups, their plumage from a distance looks grey, but on closer inspection is an extremely delicate collection of grey and black stripes on the head, and scallops on the body and wings.

There are two species that have significant wintering populations here in Walvis Bay. First there is the Chestnut-banded Plover, during the non-breeding season, Walvis bay and Sandwich Harbour in Namibia hold over 70% of the world population.  

Then there is the Black-necked Grebe which also can be found in large numbers in the bay.

There were other distant waders present with Greenshank, Sanderling and Whimbrel being seen.

We drove out of the fog, and the salt pans and made our way out of the park.  As we were driving we saw lots of flamingo corpses, some of which the bones and feathers had been torn apart.  the explanation for this became clear when we stopped to scan the marsh for birds.  A Black-backed jackal was seen walking across the the marsh.  It didn't look very healthy, and was clearly in need of a meal. 

It walked across the road in front of us towards the pan on the other side.  After a short time it came back carrying a dead flamingo.  It clearly hadn't caught and killed it by itself, the death was probably the result of the flamingo colliding with one of the many salt trucks.

The jackal took the body to the salt marsh, and started to rip the feathers out, and to eat quickly.  The reason for the haste then became clear too, as another much healthier jackal appeared and headed straight for the first one.

The moment the first jackal saw the newcomer approaching it was off, leaving its meal it didn't want to engage with this jackal.  The newcomer walked at pace and saw that the first one was gone, then returned to the flamingo and started to feed.

This was probably the reason we saw so many fragmented corpses, the flamingos are either killed by the trucks or the poisonous water, and the jackals come along and clean it up, but clearly there is a pecking order.

We then made our way back to the lodge in Swakopmund, and got ourselves ready for dinner. We had arranged last night our table at the Tug restaurant, and we also booked the taxi. However both were eventually different, first of all though the taxi did not arrive, and we ended up walking to the restaurant.  Every cloud has a silver lining though and we were able to enjoy the wonderful late afternoon beach scenes

Once we reached the restaurant we sat on the deck with a drink and watched the scene slowly change as the sun set.  The sky and beach turning pink to the north after the sun had set.

The colours in the sky looking west over the jetty, or pier, were spectacular.

We finally moved inside, and asked for our table, and we found out the other change form the previous day booking.  We were shown to a table by the window that looked out over the ocean.  Along with the meal, the view was the perfect end to the day.

After dinner we tried for a taxi again, but it didn't show, so we ended up walking again.  If you ever go to Swakopmund, and i would recommend it, make sure you arrange a reservation at Tug in advance, it is well worth it.

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