Sunday, 8 September 2013

4th - 6th August - Kalahari Desert, Namibia "Been Running From The man"

We arrived the afternoon of August 3rd in Windhoek, after a long overnight flight into Johannesburg.  The transfer process was exhausting with extremely long queues at both the transfer desk and security.  Fortunately we made our flight, some didn't.  After a tutorial on safe driving by Avis we were in the Toyota Hilux cab, and on our way into sleepy Windhoek.  My first piece of advice for any one visiting Namibia, if you have to find your own meals in a city or town do not arrive on a Sunday!  Everywhere was closed, but we felt quite safe as we walked around the streets.  The travel guides had recommended Joe’s Beerhouse and after a mix up over where it was actually located we finally found it, but after quite a lengthy walk which after a long flight cooped up in seats was a good idea, but not after travelling for almost 24 hours.  As we walked the streets taxis passed us bibbing their horn in the hope we would take a ride.
The walk was worth it though, and despite the fact we had been on the move for over 24 hours we enjoyed a good meal, some quality beer, and a taxi ride back to the hotel, where after a night cap we retired to get ready to face what the next days would bring.
The next morning we had breakfast on the terrace, and watched a Scarlet-crested Sunbird make its way around the flowers on a tree in the car park.  As the sun caught the feathers it would reflect the iridescent greens, and scarlet’s of this lovely bird 

We were heading south from Windhoek on the B1 via Rehoboth, which became our first stop to top up on fuel, and to get some provisions to overcome the munchies along the way.  As we pulled into the service station a crowd had gathered to watch a wrecked vehicle similar to ours recovered from the side of the road.  It had obviously been in an argument with a large truck that was only slightly damaged on the other side.  The fact that there was a pub close by probably had contributed to the event.  I just hope no one was injured, or hurt badly, or worse.
The B1 was a tarmac road, and with speed limit of 120 kph, we were able to make good time, there was hardly anyone on the road, but every so often a huge truck would pass going north, and we would pass trucks going south.  At first as this happened I saw it as a risk, but after a while I settled into the routine.
The route now took us onto a gravel road, and initially I slowed right down, but the roads weren’t too bad and I was able to maintain a good speed. 

We came across a tree that was covered in straw and grass. As I slowed we could see it was the work of Weavers, so I stopped to get a better look, and noticed an even larger nest in a tree a little further on.  As we were about to move to this tree a coach passed us and pulled in close to the larger nest and all the occupants poured out to take a look.  Annoyed we took some pictures of the trees from where we were and decided to move on.

After leaving these nests, a little further along we found another nest and got some better views of the owners of the nests, the Sociable Weaver.  As I photographed the adults, I could hear the young cheaping from inside the huge grass construction.

We were soon to find out that these nests can be seen everywhere, and that in places they pull down the trees, and telegraph poles when they become heavy in the rainy season.  But for now they were an exciting find, and an incredible piece of natural engineering.
The coach raced past us once again, but this time did not stop, so we continued stopping when we saw something of interest.  The first was a soaring bird of prey that turned out to be a White-backed Vulture.

There was more than one, with some on the ground.  As I watched it was joined by the much larger Lappet-faced Vulture, identifiable by the white line seen underneath the leading edge of the wing.

An ostrich running across the plain stopped us, and this allowed us also to find a single Kori Bustard.  It would walk along and the tilt its head with the eye looking up to the sky.  I wondered why it did this, then realised the eye looking up to the sky was not important, it was the eye on the other side that was looking to the ground for anything to eat.

Another stop was for a Pale-chanting Goshawk that was perched at the top of one of the road side bushes.  I got out and made my way through the dust towards it, stopping every so often to photograph.  This is the closest I got.

Then it flew off, showing the very pale grey in the wings that distinguishes it from the very similar Dark-chanting Goshawk.

Finally we arrived at our lodge after a little more than three hours and about 300 Kilometres, From the entrance gate we had about a 2 km drive through sand, which required the 4x4, to reach the main buildings.  On the way we passed some Oryx, and a few Springbok.  

The lodge was called the Intu Africa Zebra Lodge, and was part of a chain called the Leading Lodges of Africa.  We would be staying at four of their properties on this trip, the first being where we had just come from, Villa Verde in Windhoek, so we would have the chance to compare them.  At the Villa Verde we met the owner, who was naturally very proud of what he had put together.  The lodge is situated in a huge private game reserve, and has a floodlit water hole that our room was lucky to over look.

After a light lunch I wandered around the grounds close the lodge.  There were birds in the scrub, and around the water hole.

This Golden-tailed Woodpecker came skimming across the sand to end up in an Acacia tree.

I could hear song from within the trees, and waited to see if those doing the singing would reveal themselves.  When they did I realised they were a type of Bulbul, an African Red-eyed Bulbul.  They seem to get ignored, a bit like the starling in Europe mainly because they are common and i saw a lot on this trip, but at this point it was a new bird for me.

Another bird that had me guessing was this White-browed Sparrow Weaver, from a distance it looks like a shrike, so i was a little disappointed to find it was a weaver, but nonetheless, another new bird.

With everywhere so dry the water hole and a run off from the pool was very popular, these Sociable Weavers would gather in the surrounding trees, and then drop to the water all in one go.

I spent the time scanning around, picking out distant Springbok, and Oryx, but I also managed to find these Red-billed Francolin.  At the time I was quite excited to see these ground feeding birds, because normally they are shy and difficult.  When I read up on them though I found out that they are commonly found around camps and lodges, oh well another new bird.

The Springbok were coming closer now, and this male posed nicely for me.  I knew I was going to be seeing a lot over the course of the holiday, but you have to take the first picture.

Another animal that would appear close to the pool was this Ground Squirrel, nice pose, but from the wrong animal.

We had arranged to take a game drive in the late afternoon and set off at about 16.00.  As we drove across the dunes, the noise of the truck would scare the game, and they were seen running away from us.  This is apparently due to the fact that they have only recently been introduced to the reserve and are still extremely nervous of vehicles that they previously associated with catching them.  We came across Oryx, Springbok, and Zebra that just ran away.  The birds were a little more confiding.  This is a Red-crested Korhaan, a small relative of the Bustard.  The delicateness of the feathers on the back is wonderful, this one is a female, and lacks the crest of the male.

A little further along we came across a Lilac-breasted Roller perched at the top of a bush by the side of the track, the perfect opportunity to capture this gorgeous coloured bird.  I have seen them in Kenya and South Africa, and they never fail to impress

We saw plenty around this area, but after that they were conspicuous by their absence.
One animal we were going to see an awful lot of was the Oryx, they are also known as the Gemsbok, the Afrikaans name, but I prefer to call them Oryx, for that name seems to describe the animal much better.  The striking black and white face markings contrasting with the long scimitar like horns.

As we made our way over the dunes, nosily at times, the game continued to run away from us.  Even the Ostrich were nervous, this male being a good example.

A Kori Bustard though did allow us to get close, and I was bale to get a closer picture than the one I had taken this morning.  This is Africa’s largest flying bird, and in flight it looks very impressive, but for now it just walked across the desert, with one eye on the sky, and the other on the ground.

After coming over yet another dune, we could see a small group of Blue Wildebeest in the distance, but of more interest were two smaller animals running across the sand away from us again.  These were Bat-eared Foxes, and this was the best shot I could get!

They are specialties of the region, and it is probably safe to say these were not introduced, but are taking advantage of the reserve.  Their main food though is scorpion, which they dig out after listening for them by the side of the scorpion’s hole with their huge ears.

We continued to see Springbok and Oryx as we drove around, and it was nice to come across this male Waterbuck.

We finally found a small group of Wildebeest that allowed me to get a photograph, but as you can see they were not going to stop.

We came out of the scrubby dune area, and headed across a dried pan, apparently in the rainy season during the summer this fills with water, and attracts quite a few birds.  But for now it was a dry dusty pan, with a solitary Wildebeest on it.

We were now going to look for the reserve’s Lions; this meant entering an area known as the camp.  The reserve has two lions a male and female, but the female is sterilised.  We asked why and apparently this is because if she had young she might become very defensive of them and attack the trucks, in addition they are kept away from the game by an electric fence which the young would get hurt on.  Not convincing arguments for me.  This is a very controlled reserve, and allows you the chance to see the game, but as we drove around looking at bones where the lions had eaten it was hard to not think of this as a glorified safari park.  On a positive note apparently there are a lot of sick lions in Namibia, and sperm from the male here is apparently used in breeding programmes that will hopefully contribute to the elimination of this disease through controlled introductions of stronger animals.

We drove around the dunes, painfully sometimes as the truck went through the soft sand, and threw us about.  The grasses and sand being highlighted golden by the setting sun.

We never found the lions, they had just eaten so were probably doing what lions do best sleeping under a bush somewhere (the lions are fed and they don’t hunt, another disappointing aspect of the experience).  It wasn't for the want of trying though, and I became very familiar with the tracks around the camp.  We did see quite a few of these little antelopes though.  They are Steenbok, and have the most amazing markings in their ears.  At first I thought it was blood vessels, but it is actual markings.  

This one is a male with the small horns

Leaving the camp we sped up, and some of the drives up the dunes and down the other side really threw us about, you had to hold on tight.  But the scenery around us was spectacular enhanced to the full by the wonderful light from the setting sun.

Apparently we had to reach a certain dune that would allow us to watch the sun set and partake in the sun-downer drink.  We came to a stop on the top of a red dune, and looked across to where the sun was setting behind another dune.  The dunes run in parallel, with valleys in the middle.  As the sun set it turned the red sand even redder.

Then finally the sun set, and it became very cold.

We made our way back to the lodge wrapped in blankets, they were needed.  On the way we came across another group of Waterbuck, and a pair of bat-eared Foxes, but it was too dark for photographs.  At the lodge we had dinner, and then off to bed.

Our second day in the Kalahari started with a bush walk.  We were introduced to five young men, who hardly looked teenagers.  They are variously referred to as Bushmen or the San, and are one of fourteen known extant "ancestral population clusters" (from which all known modern humans descended).  They introduced themselves in their language, the Khoisan language that is best known for the use of click consonants which involve articulations of the tongue that produce sounds that are recognised as words

The language is threatened, although in Namibia they have the largest population of speakers.  It was lovely to hear, but impossible to recreate, yet people come to study and learn.

The bushmen showed us some of the ways in which they survive in the desert, catching food, and ensuring a supply of water, and how they use the plants of the desert as medicines.
I mentioned that they looked quite young, but at the end of the walk they asked us to guess their age, and it turned out they were all in their twenties.  

We followed them back to the lodge.  I didn't want to photograph them directly, but preferred this shot as we walked behind them.

We had breakfast and watched the birds around the lodge, a Rock Martin kept flying in and out of the bar area, later that evening we found out why

A Steppe Eagle drifted past

After breakfast we spent the rest of the day by the pool, but I always had the camera ready, finding this Pirit Batis in the acacia

and a Red-headed Finch coming in to get a drink.

As the sun climbed in the sky it became warmer, but there was always a cool wind to take the edge off it.  Springbok and Oryx would wander to the water hole, and one Oryx came quite close giving me the opportunity to get some nice portrait pictures.

They use their long horns to scratch their backs!

A few more game were coming close to the water hole by midday, and when two large Oryx met up it was clear they were looking to establish who was the more senior.  They both faced each other and pawed at the ground with their front feet.

Then the action started they just clashed heads twisting the horns in what looked like an effort to impale the other.  

The clashes were with quite frightening ferocity, the horns intertwining as they tried to get an advantage over the other, and the dust being kicked up was adding to the atmosphere around the fight

And then it was over with no real winner, they just parted and walked away, so maybe it was just jousting and not the real thing.  If it wasn't the real thing then that must be something to watch, because you could see the power in the clashes.  These are big animals, the third largest antelope, and those horns look very nasty.

After resolving some confusion as to whether or not we booked an afternoon game drive we waited for the truck while a Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill hopped around the car park.  They are very resourceful birds always on the look out for a meal, and it doesn't matter what.

Our driver this evening was a little more reserved, and informative, the ride a lot slower, and consequently the game didn't run away, well not at first.  This Oryx posed nicely at the top of the dune.

The Wildebeest had stopped walking, and were resting in the shade of the Acacia.  These are Blue Wildebeest, and this small herd had one or two youngsters with them.  The horns and the black markings on the forehead and muzzle contrast nicely with the grey brown coats.

While the game seemed to be a little more relaxed with our presence today, the Ostriches were still not prepared to hang around and this one just ran away over the dunes.

Another Red-crested Korhaan sat by the side of the track, this time we could get closer as it foraged around the twigs and grasses.  The detail on the plumage is much clearer here, it is gorgeous in detail.

The antelope seemed to like the dunes, and a group of Impala made there way along the top of one.  These two males stopped to look at us as we passed.  I like the symmetry of the horns.

The lions are clearly the main attraction, and once again we left the main park and entered the camp.  The difference today though was that we found them almost immediately.  They were together at the top of a dune.  From a distance we could see the Lioness, with the male just hiding behind the grass.  We drove around and edged closer, the lioness watched us lazily then showed her feelings on our approach with a long yawn.

The male was refusing to come from behind the grass, so we drove over the dune and down the other side.  After a few attempts to climb the dune (in the truck!) he finally put in an appearance.

Our guide was determined for us to get a better look at the male, and we endured some bone shuddering attempts to drive up the dune to flush him out.  After several attempts we finally made it, and the male just turned to look at us with complete disdain.

We left them there in domestic bliss, and we headed off for another rendezvous with the sunset.  As we came down yet another dune, a small group of Kudu were walking along the crest of bright red sand which was lit up by the setting sun.

On the drive to the sundowner dune I thought I was going to lose my camera.  It was a true shaker, and we were thrown all over the place.  But once there we were able to get out, anmd once again watch the sun set on the the red Kalahari sands.

Once set, the light would change, and I scanned around us.  This panorama shot gives some representation of the vast empty space that surrounded us, quite incredible

It was another cold journey back to the lodge, it is amazing how quickly the temperature drops once the sun has gone.  Before dinner we sat by the fire, and talked with the staff.  We mentioned that the Rock martin flew in and out of the bar area during the day, and the staff pointed out that it not only came in during the day, and looking up above the fire we could see the little bird roosting in probably the warmest place in the lodge!

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