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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Namibia and Northern Botswana, 28th Nov- 18th Dec 2004,

Richard Rae

Double-banded Courser, Etosha National Park, 2nd December 2004 (Richard Rae)

This is a report on a trip to Namibia and northern Botswana by Richard Rae and Emer Callanan. The trip was based around the best birding sites, and most time was spent on birding, although some time was also spent doing other activities, which resulted in some species being missed that would probably have been seen on a hard-core birding trip. Having said that, we did have good views of most of the endemic and near-endemic species of Namibia.

Major misses were Hartlaub's Francolin, Herero Chat, Cinderella Waxbill, Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush, Damara Hornbill and (unbelievably because I was expecting it to be dead easy!) White-tailed Shrike.

Also some larks, pipits and hirundines were probably overlooked.

The highlights of the trip included White-backed Night Heron, Slaty Egret, Black Eagle, African Cuckoo Hawk, Pygmy Falcon, Kori Bustard, Secretarybird, Blue and Wattled Cranes, Greater Painted Snipe, Temminck's and Double-banded Coursers, Rock Pratincole, Damara Tern, Namaqua and Double-banded Sandgrouse, Pel's Fishing Owl, Giant Eagle Owl, all 7 possible Bee-eaters, Dune and Gray's Larks, Rockrunner, African Barred Warbler and Crimson-breasted Shrike.

Some of the mammal highlights including Lion, Elephant, Black Rhino and Hartmann's Mountain Zebra.

Apart from the great wildlife, the scenery in Namibia is fantastic, in some parts of the country seemingly every turn in the road revealing another stunning vista.

Getting There and Getting Around

We flew with Lufthansa and South African Airways from Manchester via Frankfurt and Johannesburg at a cost of 715 per person, the best price we could get at the time of booking, some four and a half months before going. Air Namibia was cheaper but didn't fly on the dates we wanted.

Flights were booked through STA Travel.

The flights were generally ok although we were kept waiting on the plane at Johannesburg for one and a half hours before take off on the way back, with very little explanation as to why, and nothing resembling a satisfactory apology from Lufthansa. This resulted in a frantic dash across Frankfurt airport where we just managed to make our connecting flight back to Manchester.

Car hire, from Europcar at Windhoek Airport was booked through STA Travel using the broker Holiday Autos. The car, a Toyota Corolla, cost us 546 for 20 days. It could have been 50 less but we took some additional cover that protected us in the event that we were hit by someone who didn't have their own insurance (fortunately not needed)

Taking a hire car across into Botswana is straightforward, but you need to tell the rental company when you pick the car up. They will give you a letter of authorisation to take the car out of the country. This letter should include the car chassis and engine number, which you have to write in a book when crossing the border (although both times we did it no one asked to see the letter, and they didn't check what numbers I wrote in the book).

When going into Botswana you have to pay a fee of 60 pula (about 9) to take the car in.

When returning to Namibia we had to pay a fee of N$110 (about 10), and then hand in the Cross Border Permit to the car rental company at the end (to avoid getting charged again). However I'm not sure if this was because our hire car had South African plates, or whether Namibian cars have to pay it too.

The car gave us no problems at all (not even a puncture), despite driving 5700km along sometimes quite bad roads. In the only minor incident we had with the car, a combination of a sudden torrential downpour and misjudgement by the driver (yours truly) resulted in us getting badly stuck in mud for two hours in Mahango National Park until some kind people helped to push us out.

Mahango and the road between Ruacana and Okapupa campsite (near Swartbooisdrift) were the only places where a 4x4 would have been handy, but still not essential. Prolonged heavy rain could render either of these roads impassable to 2WD however.

The roads we used in Botswana were never less than good and mostly superb. The road leading south from Shakawe, via Sehithwa and Ghanzi is now tarred all the way to Namibia, so you can use the border crossing at Mamuno if you don't fancy backtracking through the Caprivi Strip and Rundu.

The road is good from Shakawe to Sehithwa, although potholed, particularly between Gumare and Sehithwa, however the road from there right down to the border was freshly tarred and one of the best roads I've ever driven on.

Police roadblocks are not uncommon in Namibia so it is important to carry your driving licence with you at all times. An international licence is required in order to hire a car.

Accommodation

Generally good, and not necessary to book in advance (when we were there at least). We took a tent which is a good idea just in case places like Etosha are fully booked, although we only used it at the Kunene River (necessity unless you are prepared to drive all the way to Kunene River Lodge along a very bad road), Shakawe and Sesriem (both for financial reasons).

National Parks normally have good, if somewhat overpriced, accommodation and a reasonable restaurant.

Food

Generally quite good, with western dishes available everywhere we went. Some good seafood at Swakopmund, and as the English tv host Bruce Forsyth might say, some "good game", Gemsbok steak being particularly delicious.

Namibia is not much of a country for a vegetarian, as Emer found out, and she would have probably returned home in a somewhat emaciated state had she not been prepared to eat at least some chicken and fish!

Health and Safety

Malaria is a risk in the Caprivi/Okavango regions, and a combination of Chloroquin and Proguanil is recommended. This needs to be started one week before travelling and continued for 4 weeks on returning home.

Other than that no significant risks other than large animals in some places and occasional livestock on the road at night (it's best to avoid driving at night if possible for this reason).

Namibia seemed very safe to us, although the usual caution needs to be used in urban areas, particularly at night.

Trip Reports and Field Guides

The SASOL Guide to Southern Africa was the only field guide used. It is a great book, although some of the lark illustrations could be better.

The most useful trip reports I found were by Jon Hornbuckle (1994), Jan Vermeulen (1996), Jos Stratford (2001), Phil and Charlotte Benstead (2002) and John van der Woude (2003). Additionally the article by Christian Wagner on finding Namibian Endemics was a useful compilation of info on some sought after species.

The Southern African Birding website http://www.sabirding.co.za/birdspot/index.htm is also very useful.

The Lonely Planet and Bradt guides for Namibia were useful for accommodation, places to eat etc.

Miscellaneous

Electrical sockets in Namibia take a 3 prong plug. You can easily buy adaptors but they will not work with English plugs, so it's necessary to take a European adaptor and then plug that into the Namibian adaptor.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all the people who have written trip reports. Thanks to Jos Stratford for some additional info on the Spitzkoppe.

SITES VISITED

Most of the sites we visited are well covered in other reports, so I will not waste too much time repeating what has been written elsewhere.

Waterberg Plateau

This was our first stop, and was a good place to start. We spent two nights here, which I think is about right. We birded the trails around the base of the plateau as well as the trail up the plateau. Some good birds including Rockrunner, Violet Woodhoopoe, Carp's Tit, Ruppell's Parrot, Black Eagle, African Hawk Eagle, Little Sparrowhawk and Cape Vulture.

The road leading up to the Waterberg entrance gate was quite birdy as well.

The baboons here are quite bold and can be a nuisance. I made my quickest ever exit from a swimming pool when I realised that a troop were about to go through our things that we had left on a sun lounger!

Etosha National Park

We spent four nights here, one each at Okaukuejo and Namutoni and two at Halali. Halali camp itself and the area around it was a bit disappointing and in retrospect we would probably have been better off spending two nights at Namutoni instead.

Our strategy was simply to drive around and try to cover as much of the park as possible. Lots of good birds seen, although in such a big place as Etosha some birds were inevitably missed. In particular I'm sure we overlooked some larks at the start of our visit when it was a bit overwhelming.

Highlights at Etosha included Secretarybird, Kori Bustard, Temminck's and Double-banded Coursers, Namaqua and Double-banded Sandgrouse, Bare-cheeked, Black-faced and Southern Pied Babblers, Giant Eagle Owl, Lappet-faced Vulture, Pygmy Falcon, Greater Kestrel and Blue Crane.

We left the park via the Nehale lya Mpingana gate to the north of the Andoni Plains. They don't seem to get much traffic here and they made a right meal of checking all our accommodation receipts (which are important to keep to avoid hassle when leaving the park).

The road between this gate and the first small settlement (which is little more than a farm) to the north proved to be good for Pink-billed Lark, which we saw several times. Also there is a small area of pools on the left just before the settlement which held Chestnut-banded Plover and Black Stork, as well as a selection of commoner waders.

Kunene River

From a birding perspective this was one of the most disappointing sites, and we missed most of the key species to be seen in this area, although it is a beautiful and remote part of Namibia and quite different to anywhere else we visited. We arrived in the evening, and camped at the Okapupa camp site which we had seen mentioned on the Southern African Birding website. Although not as far as Kunene River Lodge it is still about 35km after the end of the tarred road along an at-times very bad road. There was no one at all at the campsite when we arrived and we weren't sure if it was still open, but someone came around to collect money in the morning. We then spent the next day birding the area but decided against spending another planned night here due to the oppressive heat (which didn't relent until after midnight) and the poor birding.

Main target was Cinderella Waxbill. We followed the instructions given on the Southern Africa Birding website (and those by Phil and Charlotte Benstead), but despite walking a considerable distance up both forks of the riverbed it was dry as a bone and it was hard to imagine finding any pools. Somewhat disheartened, we walked downstream from the road bridge, eventually hitting some water in the river bed. We waited here for 2 hours, during which time various small passerines came down to drink but not our target bird.

There was no sign of Grey Kestrel around the pylons where the tarmac ends.

A few riverside palm thickets were searched in vain for Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush. We did see some birds here that we were not to find elsewhere on the trip including Madagascar (Olive) Bee-eater, Spectacled Weaver, Jameson's Firefinch, White-browed Coucal and Red-necked Francolin. Also a good area for Monteiro's Hornbill, and 3 Black Crakes gave wonderful views along the edge of the river at the campsite just after dawn.

We also made a brief visit to the "no mans land" between Namibia and Angola to have a look at Ruacana Falls, which were more impressive than expected. The officials at the border post are used to people asking to do this and there is no need to go through the normal border formalities.

Rundu

We stayed here for one night at the excellent Kaisosi Lodge (where the manager Martin went out of his way to make us feel welcome as well as cooking us the best meal we had all holiday), a few km east of town along the old Rundu-Divundu road, and made visits to the sewage works in the evening and in the morning. Older site information makes reference to parking at the golf course club house. The golf club now seems defunct and the club house is derelict, with cattle on what presumably was the course. We parked at the side of the main road and walked around some of the ponds visible from the roadside. We also took an inconspicuous track that leads off to the right a couple of hundred meters before the first obvious pools (if approaching from Kaisosi Lodge). This leads to some good looking marshy areas where we saw Ethiopian Snipe and several Greater Painted Snipes.

This general area also produced Coppery-tailed Coucal, Diederik Cuckoo, Great-spotted Cuckoo, Jacobin Cuckoo, Hottentot Teal, Black Crake, Osprey, Burchell's Starling, Swamp Boubou and numerous Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters.

Kaisosi Lodge itself had Heuglin's Robin, Long-tailed Shrike, Hartlaub's Babbler and Woodland Kingfisher, with a colony of Spotted-backed Weavers breeding in the reeds on the river.

Popa Falls

We spent two nights here, using it as a base to visit nearby Mahango National Park. Some birding was done here, with an afternoon and an early morning walk round. The best bird here for us was the smart Rock Pratincole, with 15 in flight over the falls and 1 showing well on a rock in the river in the late afternoon, and one again seen on the rocks in the early morning. Various other species seen, the most notable being several Terrestrial Brownbuls and Brown Firefinches.

Mahango National Park

A good site, where we spent a day and part of the next en route to Botswana, although as mentioned previously we got the car badly stuck in mud here, which reduced our birding time and made us less inclined to hang around on our journey through the next day.

Being in a 2WD we were limited to taking the eastern loop which goes along the edge of the floodplain and river, although this is supposed to be the best bit for birds anyway. The main road between Divundu and Botswana goes through the middle of the park, although this was in a dreadful state when we visited and we were advised to stick to the loop road. A couple of lorries were terminally bogged down in the mud and had been abandoned.

The best birds we saw here were Wattled Crane (a pair with one young, seen by scanning the fields around the floodplain from the Baobab Picnic Site), Slaty Egret (2 seen from Baobab Picnic Site, then 1 flying over when waiting by the stuck car between there and the main road), Long-toed Plover (a few on the floodplain), African Openbill, Woolly-necked Stork and the fantastic Southern Carmine Bee-eater.

Shakawe (Botswana)

We spent 2 nights here, the main aim being to see Pel's Fishing Owl and White-backed Night Heron. We succeeded on both counts, and the quality of these two excellent birds easily justified the relatively expensive detour into Botswana. We stayed at Drotsky's Cabins (having read in a previous report that Shakawe Fishing Lodge closes for christmas); two nights camping here, plus a day and a half's meals for the two of us, a few drinks and a three hour boat trip cost approx N$2250 (200). Botswana is not a cheap country. The staff here were very friendly and helpful and we really enjoyed our time here.

I had perhaps got an unrealistic idea about how easy it is to see the owl after reading other peoples reports. They can take a long time to find, and dipping is not out of the question (although unlikely). More details in the Diary section below. Other highlights while staying here included Southern Brown-throated Weaver, African Wood Owl, African Cuckoo Hawk, African Pygmy Goose and African Skimmer.

The babblers here are worth paying attention to because in addition to the now familiar Hartlaub's, we also found a party of Arrow-marked, the only place on the trip we saw this species.

Sossusvlei

This is arguably the main tourist attraction in Namibia, its famous red dunes gracing almost every postcard of the country. Not really a birding stop, the main reason we came here was to see the dunes and take a hot air balloon trip over the dunes at dawn (very expensive but a unique experience and recommended). As the balloon was landing and the champagne breakfast was being laid out (not your typical experience on a birding trip.) 2 Ruppell's Korhaan's showed well and this turned out to be our only encounter with this near endemic.

Our visit here was a bit rushed and the area could have probably given us more birds.

Swakopmund and Walvis Bay Area

Sites in and around these two towns were excellent and almost all target birds were found easily, the only exception being Bank Cormorant which I hadn't realized was present at the guano platform on my first visit, and during the only other chance I had to go there in the late afternoon the sun made viewing absolutely impossible.

Being the only coastal area visited the birds were completely different to those seen elsewhere on the trip. I just focussed on lifers here, no doubt I could have seen more trip ticks by doing a bit of seawatching or spending more time around the sewage works but we felt like taking it easy after a few high mileage days.

In addition to the birding sites (Rooibank; Walvis Bay Esplanade; Walvis Bay sewage works; Guano Platform between WB and Swak; Swak salt works) we also went on the Welwitchia Drive, a tourist route that takes in several of the strange Welwitchia plants, some of which are estimated to be 1500 years old. Very few birds (although including Gray's Lark) but some memorable, almost lunar, scenery.

Dune Lark was found after about half an hours searching at the classic Rooibank site. The directions by John van der Woude were indispensable for finding the exact site. We had great views of a bird walking on the small dunes to the right of the last path in his directions, just before the slightly denser vegetation of the riverbed starts.

Gray's Lark was found at the Swak salt works as well as on the Welwitchia Drive.

Damara Tern was seen at Swak salt works, and also on several occasions while driving between WB and Swak. The birds fly right across the road on the way to their nests in the dunes.

Lesser Flamingo was seen in small numbers at Swak salt works only.

Orange River White-eye was easily seen at the site near Swak described by John van der Woude. I asked the owner of the garage and he was happy for me to look round; I saw 3 birds with ease near to the entrance.

Spitzkoppe

This site was visited en route from Swakopmund to Windhoek. We didn't get there early enough, arriving at about 0800 and spending about 4 hours wandering around in sweltering heat looking (unsuccessfully) for Herero Chat and White-tailed Shrike. We saw quite a few species in the bush at the base of the rock including a couple of new ones but it was very hard work in the heat. We actually had difficulty relocating the car here, and had to climb up one of the lower bits of rock to get our bearings.

The scenery here is very like central Australia.

Daan Viljoen Game Reserve

This site, close to Windhoek, was visited on our penultimate morning in Namibia, in a last attempt to boost the list. Plenty of birds were seen, although few new ones. The highlight was 2 African Barred Warblers, one of which gave superb views bathing in a pool from a sprinkler near to the accommodation. Short-toed Rock Thrush was very common and easy to see here with no fewer than 7 different birds seen.

Hoffmeyr Walk

We had a quick look at this site on our final day in Windhoek, in a last ditch, unsuccessful attempt to find the embarrassing-to-miss White-tailed Shrike, for which it is a noted spot.

The "Walk" does not seem to be particularly well maintained, and I am unsure whether we were looking in the best place. We were warned to be careful at this site by a couple of locals and the Lonely Planet mentions some muggings of tourists taking place here.

Site for Rockrunner on way to the airport

Driving back to the airport from Windhoek, we stopped off at a couple of spots to see if we could add a final few birds to the list. At one of these I saw a Rockrunner, and the site may be worth a brief stop either at the start or end of a trip. If coming from the airport, from the junction at the airport where you turn right onto the B6, drive 36.9km along the B6 towards Windhoek. Here you will see a bridge crossing over the road in front of you, and a sign saying "Klein Windhoek". Park on the left and cross over the road to view the rocky crags. At the base of these, just a few metres beyond the fence, I had marvellous views of a Rockrunner hopping about on the rocks and perching in the low bushes.

DAILY DIARY

28th November - We arrived in Windhoek at 13.00, collected our hire car and were on the road by 14.20, bound for the Waterberg Plateau, arriving in the late afternoon. We checked into a pleasant chalet here for the next two nights. Not really much time for birding and we were fairly tired after the flight. (338 km driven today).

29th November - Up early for a productive walk along the Kambazembi Trail from 06.00 - 09.45, with lots of new birds seen including my most wanted bird for the trip, Rockrunner. Other Waterberg specials such as Ruppell's Parrot, Carp's Tit, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Black Eagle and Cape Vulture all showed well, making for a good start to the trip.

After breakfast at the canteen we spent the heat of the day relaxing around the superb swimming pool (even here we had excellent views of a pair of African Hawk Eagles as well as Ruppell's Parrot apparently nesting in one of the tall palms next to the pool enclosure). At 16.10 we set off to climb the plateau, which afforded excellent views of the vast flat plain to the north, although was not especially productive for birds. We had planned to stay up there to watch the sunset but decided to head back down before then.

Dinner in the restaurant and then an early night. (0 km driven today)

30th November - Up early to walk to the base of the plateau in the hope of seeing Hartlaub's Francolin but I didn't even hear one. We then walked along the Anthill Trail (which gave 2 Violet Woodhoopoes and another Carp's Tit). Breakfast at the restaurant and then we departed at 10.00 for the drive north to Etosha National Park where we would be spending the next four nights. The first few kilometres out of the gate at Waterberg featured numerous stops for roadside birds including our first stunning Crimson-breasted Shrikes, a bird we never tired of seeing.

We arrived at Etosha at about 13.45 and headed straight to Okaukuejo camp where we checked into a bungalow. We discovered that all accommodation was half price until the end of December, which was rather fortunate. From 14.55 - 18.00 we went on a drive to the east of Okaukuejo, which gave many larks (of which a fair few went unidentified). The best birds were our only 2 Temminck's Coursers in Etosha, and the first of many Kori Bustards and Northern Black Korhaans. On arriving back at camp we spent an hour at the waterhole before dinner, which gave us Giant Eagle Owl, Rufous-cheeked Nightjar and many Double-banded Sandgrouse arriving after dusk.

After our meal at the restaurant we returned to the waterhole for an hour and were rewarded with a single Black Rhino coming down to drink. (334 km driven today).

1st December - The first hour of the day was spent around Okaukuejo camp where, in addition to another view of the Giant Eagle Owl, we had great views of a wonderfully condescending Pearl-spotted Owlet. From 06.50 - 10.00 we headed west towards the "Ghost Tree Forest" and back. The forest itself is nothing special, but the route between Okaukuejo and there was excellent with lots of game including our first Lions, and a shed-load of ticks including Pygmy Falcon, Lappet-faced Vulture, Greater Kestrel, Black-breasted Snake Eagle, Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark and our first exquisite Lilac-breasted Roller (soon to be relegated to trash bird status!).

Back at camp a Gabar Goshawk was hunting by the waterhole.

At 11.00 we left Okaukuejo for the drive across to Halali via Oliphantsbad, arriving at 16.00 with many stops. The bird highlights were undoubtedly a Namaqua Sandgrouse that came to drink at the Oliphantsbad waterhole, a pair of Double-banded Courser with a chick just before we rejoined the main east-west road, and one of my main "wants", a Secretarybird stalking the plains around the edge of the Etosha Pan near Sueda/Salvadora.

Once we had checked into our accommodation a quick walk around the camp gave great views of 3 Bare-cheeked Babblers drinking at a leaky tap, as well as yet another Carp's Tit.

Dinner at the restaurant and then bed. This was our best day at Etosha, and probably the best day of the trip (bird-wise at least). (186 km driven today).

2nd December - After a brief bit of birding around Halali camp, which featured the unusual sound (for a British birder at least) of a Willow Warbler singing in December, we embarked on a drive in the area to the east of Halali. It was hard going this morning, and in 7 long hours I only had two lifers, Red-crested Korhaan and Violet-eared Waxbill, although we did see our only Elephant along the edge of the pan, and the drive out into the dazzling white Etosha Pan provided a good photo opportunity. Back at camp we paid a visit to the waterhole where 3 Marabou Storks were in residence but little else.

The rest of the day was spent chilling out. (133 km driven today).

3rd December - Following an early morning saunter around Halali camp, which produced a couple of Southern White-crowned Shrikes, we headed over towards Namutoni Camp. A party of 5+ Southern Pied Babblers by the roadside were the only notable birds until a superb pair of Blue Cranes near to Namutoni. After checking into our accommodation at Namutoni and having a swim in the pleasant pool, from 14.40 - 18.45 we took a drive north from camp, up to the Andoni Plains, but investigating various turnoffs as we did so. Some new birds including 5 African Wattled Lapwings by the roadside near to Namutoni, Fawn-coloured Lark, Southern Anteating Chat and numerous Kalahari Scrub Robins along Stinkwater Road. Shortly before heading back to camp we noticed a couple of vehicles parked by the edge of the Andoni Plains, and headed over there, where they were watching a Lioness at close quarters. Then a couple pulled up to tell us that there were two male Lions about half a mile away, and we followed them to the spot. Excellent views of these impressive animals. Back at camp I had a brief wander around before dark, seeing a pair of Gabar Goshawks, the male being of the attractive melanistic morph. (190 km driven today).

4th December - Our last morning in Etosha, we were out of the camp gates shortly after 06.00, our first port of call being the nearby Dik-dik drive, where, apart from the eponymous antelope, we had good views of the target Black-faced Babbler and a Black Cuckoo.

Next was a drive around Fischer's Pan before heading for the Nehale lya Mpingana gate. Avian highlights included a pair of Blue Cranes nesting by the small waterhole at Twee Palms, two Red-necked Falcons in the same area, a small flock of Chestnut-banded Plovers at the Aroe waterhole, and a flock of approx 150 Black-winged Pratincoles at the Andoni waterhole.

After we left the park at about 11.50 we saw several Pink-billed Larks by the roadside, and a stop at the small wetland before the first settlement gave us our only Black Stork of the trip as well as more waders including 5 Chestnut-banded Plovers.

The afternoon was taken up with the drive to the Kunene River, where we intended to spend the next two nights. The drive was uneventful bird-wise and scenery-wise, until a bend in the road shortly after the Ruacana turn off revealed a wonderful vista of jagged peaks and the flat, empty bush of southern Angola. After the end of the tarred road we saw our first Madagascar Bee-eaters and Long-tailed Starlings. We eventually reached the Okapupa Camp Site along a steadily worsening road, only to find it deserted, however it was too late to go anywhere else so we pitched the tent and settled down for one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever experienced. The heat and humidity was overwhelming and the sweat was poring from us, to such an extent that I awoke at 1am feeling badly dehydrated and with a banging headache. After this time the temperature cooled somewhat making sleeping a bit easier, but it was a relief to see dawn. (455 km driven today)

5th December - Up at first light, birding around the campsite, with Bare-cheeked Babbler, Black Crake, Chestnut Weaver, Red-necked Francolin, White-browed Coucal, Golden and Spectacled Weavers among others getting the day started. After paying our fees and packing up the tent we drove back to the end of the tarred road, seeing Yellow-billed Oxpecker and our first Monteiro's Hornbills on the way, and started the hunt for Cinderella Waxbill. Sadly we couldn't find any, or indeed any of the other key targets, and come mid afternoon the prospect of another night under canvas was looking distinctly unpleasant, and I couldn't imagine us seeing the Waxbill in the current conditions, so after a quick look at Ruacana Falls we decided to head in the direction of Rundu to reduce the mileage to be travelled tomorrow. Because places are so far apart in Namibia with literally nothing in between we ended up overstretching ourselves a bit and had to drive quite a distance in the dark, which wasn't fun due to the presence of livestock on the road and numerous bats in the air, one of which sadly ended up being liquidated against the windscreen. We arrived in Tsumeb at about 22.30 and attempted to check into a hostel there. Unfortunately no one would come to open the gate so we headed for the best hotel in town (The Minen) which, although a little pricey, was excellent. (553 km driven today).

6th December - After breakfast at the hotel we embarked on the manageable drive to Rundu. There wasn't much to stop for on the way, although we picked up a hitcher about half way to Rundu who proceeded to sell us a mug we didn't want from his fathers stall (we saw him picking it up just before getting in the car, and had initially thought he was going to offer us it in exchange for the 100km+ lift - nave of us really) then tried to persuade us to visit his stall in Rundu, angled for a lift back south in a few days, and then insisted that we drop him right at his door in Rundu. In short, he became a nuisance and we didn't pick up any more hitchers after that. After checking into the very pleasant Kaisosi Lodge and chilling out for a bit we paid a visit to the local sewage works from 16.30 - 18.40, which produced a few lifers and trip ticks. There were certainly plenty of birds around. Back at Kaisosi we saw a pair of Woodland Kingfishers and a brief Heuglin's Robin just before it got dark.

We enjoyed a really superb evening meal and a few drinks with Martin, the manager of the lodge. (395 km driven today)

7th December - Awoke this morning feeling a little the worse for wear, but the sewage works were calling! Highlights from 06.20 - 08.30 included excellent views of 3 Painted Snipe and 2 Ethiopian Snipe. We also met another English birder, Miles Wheeler, and compared notes. After breakfast we left Kaisosi at 10.30 for the drive to Popa Falls, arriving at 13.30 with various stops on the way to look for certain woodland specialities (unsuccessfully). The area around the obvious radio mast has been mentioned as a good place, but there is now a settlement here. Arriving at Popa Falls we checked into the not very inspiring, overpriced accommodation and had a wander around. The falls are pleasant rather than impressive, although we knew not to expect Niagara (I highly recommend reading the comments from some very disappointed people in the visitors book at the office!). Notable species seen included Terrestrial Brownbul and the attractive Brown Firefinch, but the definite highlight was the 15 Rock Pratincoles hawking over the falls as dusk approached, with one obligingly sitting on a rock in the river for good scope views. Dinner in the very average restaurant, Emer being served an almost inedible meal of tinned mushrooms with a mountain of boiled vegetables. (223 km driven today)

8th December - A memorable day, not entirely for the right reasons. We were up early, unfortunately the staff at Popa Falls were not so I had to wake several people up in order to get out of the entrance gate. We drove the short distance to Mahango along a steadily deteriorating road (it had rained heavily yesterday, and indeed on returning to the UK we learned that the exceptionally heavy rainfall in southern Africa yesterday and today had even been mentioned in the Guardian newspaper). Arriving at the park entrance at 07.05 we were advised to avoid the main road through the park, which was in too bad a state for non-4x4 vehicles, and stick to the eastern loop. This was fine since this is meant to be the best area for birds anyway. We worked our way slowly round, stopping at the two picnic sites and seeing some good birds including 2 Slaty Egret, a pair of Wattled Crane with a juvenile, numerous African Openbills, Long-toed Lapwing, brilliant views of Double-banded Sandgrouse, and our first exquisite Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, one of which I was photographing when a torrential downpour commenced some time after midday. We decided to sit out the downpour, not fully realizing just how much water was coming down. After it had cleared, we continued slowly on our way back along the loop road. Pulling over at a section where the road crosses the edge of the floodplain, a transit van approaching us bounced with obvious difficulty through the now very muddy stretch of road ahead of us. We should have taken heed of this and investigated an alternative route round on the damp sand, but after a quick reccy on foot I deemed the road to be passable in the trusty Corolla and off we set. By the time I realized we weren't going to make it through it was of course too late, and it then became a question of just how badly the car was going to be stuck. Quite badly, as it turned out. To cut a long story short, we spent the next two and a half hours waiting by the car (with only a flyover Slaty Egret of interest), debating at what point we would start trying to make phone calls to get help (fortunately this area is in mobile range), when to our not inconsiderable relief a car appeared, containing three very nice people who helped us to push the car out of the mud. It was now about 16.00, so we decided to head back, not wanting to risk getting stuck again. Several stops in the first few kilometres after leaving the park failed to produce the hoped-for Sharp-tailed Starling, but given the extent to which the roadside had been turned into human settlements I wonder if the birds are even here any more.

The accommodation at Popa Falls was more appreciated tonight after the possibility of a night in Mahango! (71 km driven today)

9th December - Up at first light for a final wander around Popa Falls gave little new although several Cape Clawless Otters in the river were nice to see and the solitary Rock Pratincole was still sat on its rock.

Leaving Popa at about 08.00, our destination today was Shakawe in Botswana, which unfortunately involved driving along the section of road where we got stuck yesterday. It had been hot and sunny since so we hoped it had dried up enough. As it turned out it hadn't but we were able to get round by driving on the sand next to the road. Arriving at the border, we crossed without incident. It was noticeable that the woman who stamped our passports as we left Namibia couldn't have been more miserable if she'd tried, whereas the guys who welcomed us to Botswana were laughing and joking with us about football. From the border it was a relatively short drive to Drotsky's Cabins, where we would be spending the next two nights. On arrival I was immediately grilling the staff for gen about the Pel's Fishing Owls. Having been given a likely spot, we pitched our tent and set off along the river, just beyond the boundary fence at the edge of the campsite, peering up at the tall trees along its edge. We did have an excellent African Cuckoo Hawk but not a sniff of the Pel's. We went back to reception where, sensing my obvious need to tick, one of the staff kindly offered to take us up river to his property where a pair were breeding. An hours searching failed to produce anything. We arranged a 3 hour boat trip for tomorrow morning, and spent the last bit of the afternoon watching the river from the very pleasant bar area, seeing African Pygmy Goose and African Skimmer. Dinner in the open air restaurant was interesting as several billion insects hurled themselves at us while we tried to eat. After a couple of drinks at the bar we retired to the tent, to find 3 juvenile African Wood Owls perched in the clearing by our tent. They remained for some pictures to be taken but an accidental and untimely setting-off of our (very loud) car alarm not surprisingly caused them to flee. Later on Emer thought she heard them swooping down at the tent in retaliation for the severe trauma we inadvertently inflicted on them. I was sleeping soundly at the time so can't comment. (75 km driven today)

10th December - After the boatman had been given instructions on where to take us for our two target birds, we set off at 07.25 on our boat trip. Initially he was stopping every time we saw any bird, but soon deduced correctly that I wasn't able to enjoy anything that wasn't Owl or Night Heron shaped, and headed at speed for Tsaro Lodge (owned by the same people as Drotsky's) where, with the help of the groundsman, we searched all likely spots for the owl. After an hour I was almost resigned to failure, and contemplating the shame of being the only person ever to dip Pel's at Shakawe, when a Pel's Fishing Owl flapped out of a tall riverside tree as we walked under it, fortunately settling in the next tree. By wading out into the marsh I got some good views of the bird, being an immature it lacked the rich ginger colour but was still a very impressive bird. On the way back we stopped off and had excellent views of 4 White-backed Night Herons roosting in trees overhanging the river, but because the owl had taken so long to find we didn't have time to search for reedbed skulkers like cisticolas and warblers.

Arriving back at about 10.30, we chilled out by the bar area until lunch, basking in the nice warm feeling of having the two main targets in the bag. After an excellent and very large lunch we sat out the heat of the day by the river before setting off on a walk down the entrance road at 16.00. This gave little although a family of Blue-grey Flycatchers was nice. (0 km driven today).

11th December - A last walk around Drotsky's grounds from 06.10 - 07.30 failed to give anything new, and after settling up the bill, at 08.30 we embarked on the long drive to Windhoek. We had established that the route through western Botswana was now fully tarred, so we chose this in preference to backtracking through the Caprivi. It proved to be a good choice with the road mostly excellent. I think that we would have struggled to make it back to Windhoek before dark had we taken the route back through the Caprivi. Only birds seen of note were 2 Temminck's Coursers by the roadside a few kms before Ghanzi, and a ring-tailed Harrier between Ghanzi and the border crossing which unfortunately cleared off before we got identifiable views. The border crossing was again straightforward and we finally arrived in Windhoek at 19.20 and checked into an unremarkable budget hotel called the Motown Inn. (1030 km driven today)

12th December - Another big driving day today, although the distance covered was far less than yesterday. Our destination today was Sesriem, near to the famous Sossusvlei dunes. We took a route through the extremely scenic Spreetshoogte Pass. This was really breathtaking. Not a huge variety of birds today, although I finally had convincing views of Bradfield's Swift about 65km south of Windhoek. After the long drive on gravel roads we arrived at Sesriem and pitched our tent before setting off in the late afternoon to drive along the road to Sossusvlei, our intention being to watch sunset at Dune 45, reputed to be the biggest and best dune. I was looking forward to the tarred road that joins Sesriem and Sossusvlei after all the gravel. Unfortunately the road has not been maintained with the result that it is more badly pot-holed than just about any other road I've ever seen and far worse to drive along than most of the dirt roads we drove in Namibia. After driving for 45 km along this disgrace to the art of road building, we found ourselves surrounded by big dunes and there was some debate about which was "the" Dune 45. In the end we decided one looked better than the others and the camera was duly set up to take pictures of us in front of "our" Dune 45. The plan to stay until sunset had to be aborted because we wouldn't have been able to make it back before the gates shut at 20.00 (I think). Still it was an interesting few hours in one of the most striking landscapes on earth. We ate our evening meal of bread and tuna and had a beer at the campsite bar before turning in for an early night.

(431 km driven today)

13th December - Up extremely early this morning, for a rare bit of extravagance, a dawn hot air balloon trip over the dunes. We were picked up at 05.30 from the campsite, and driven for about 25 mins to where the balloon was being inflated. We were lucky, no-one else had booked today so we had it to ourselves (apart from the pilot, of course!). Although I, not the world's best flyer, initially wasn't too keen on being several hundred metres up in the air in a small wicker basket, I soon relaxed and really enjoyed it. There can't be many better ways to fully appreciate the dramatic landscape of this region. As we were landing and waiting for the champagne breakfast to be prepared a pair of Ruppell's Korhaans gave good views. There weren't many other birds to be seen in this very sparsely vegetated area but we did see Ostrich, Black-breasted Snake Eagle and Namaqua Sandgrouse. Back at the campsite we cooled off with a dip in the very inviting pool, before embarking on the lengthy drive to Swakopmund. We stopped off (as we had yesterday) at the characterful Solitaire roadhouse, for an extremely tasty sandwich made with fresh homemade bread. The drive was notable again for some incredible scenery although the only interesting birds we saw were 4 Lappet-faced Vultures and several Stark's Larks. We arrived at Swakopmund in the early evening and checked into the pleasant and good value Desert Sky Backpackers for the next three nights. (355 km driven today)

14th December - An early start as usual, our first port of call being Rooibank, to the south east of Walvis Bay. Arriving at about 07.15 in foggy conditions that fortunately lifted, half an hours searching of the dunes gave us superb views of a very orange Dune Lark, as well as our first Chestnut-vented Titbabbler and Bokmakierie for the trip. After this early success, next we tried to find the bird sanctuary at the Walvis Bay sewage birds, but there was no obvious place to access it and the few areas of marsh we could see from the road were not very productive. Moving on to the Walvis Bay esplanade it was a different story, with stacks of new birds for the trip including unbelievable numbers of Greater Flamingo, and a fine selection of waders including a scarce Terek Sandpiper. Driving back to Swakopmund, we stopped at the guano platform where scanning revealed a number of pint-sized Crowned Cormorants in among the thousands and thousands of Cape Cormorants. Shortly after leaving here we had our first conclusive views of the breeding endemic Damara Tern flying across the road. A lazy afternoon and evening in Swakopmund. (153 km driven today)

15th December - An early morning trip to Swakopmund Salt Works yielded excellent views of the potentially difficult, nomadic Gray's Lark, as well as our first Lesser Flamingos, Black Tern and a few new waders for the trip. A quick visit to the Nonidas garage a few km to the east of Swakopmund on the road to Usakos gave the hoped for Orange River White-eye (thanks to John van der Woude!). After obtaining a permit from the National Parks office in Swakopmund we spent a pleasant afternoon on the Welwitchia Drive tourist route, which was very scenic, and gave us our second encounter with Gray's Lark for the day next to marker 3, as well as a ghostly namib form Tractrac Chat at the end of the drive. Arriving back in Swakopmund at about 16.30, I embarked on a last visit to Walvis Bay and the guano platform, with a couple of trip ticks at Walvis Bay but the sun made viewing of the guano platform impossible, so I missed out on Bank Cormorant, which a mid-day perusal of gen had reminded me was also present here in small numbers. Oh well! An enjoyable evening meal in top local restaurant The Tug.

(266 km driven today)

16th December - We checked out of the Desert Sky Backpackers early for the drive to Spitzkoppe, where we hoped to bag a couple of Namibian endemics. Arriving (too late) at about 08.00, having made a few stops en route to look at Ashy Tit and Chat Flycatcher among others, it was already damn hot by the time we parked up near the main Spitzkoppe. We spent over 4 hours here, walking around the base of the rock and checking any gullies. The scenery was undoubtedly impressive and the bush was surprisingly birdy, but Herero Chat and White-tailed Shrike both remained elusive. There was a rather tense few minutes as we realized that we didn't actually have a clue where the car was (it is easier to get lost here than you would imagine), until a scramble up a nearby rocky outcrop fortunately revealed its' location. By 12.45 it was very hard to imagine seeing much more and so we left for the final drive to Windhoek. We arrived in the mid afternoon and checked into the excellent value Rivendell Guest House (40 Beethoven Strasse, tel 061 250006, email: ahj@iafrica.com.na). Dinner was at Luigi and the Fish on Sam Nujoma Drive - my Gemsbok steak was superb. (457 km driven today)

17th December - Our final full day, and we started the day at the Daan Viljoen Game Reserve to the west of Windhoek, hoping to add a few more species to the trip list. We saw a lot of birds, although relatively few new ones, the clear highlight being two African Barred Warblers. Heading back into Windhoek we had some lunch before investigating the Hoffmeyr Walk, just to the east of Windhoek City Centre, in a last desperate bid to find White-tailed Shrike. We failed, although 2 Chestnut Weavers were our first since the Kunene River. (62 km driven today)

18th December - Our final day, and a much-needed lie in before the drive to the airport. A chance stop of on the way gave superb views of a Rockrunner, our only one apart from one seen at Waterberg on our first full day, and a fitting end to the trip. (48 km driven today; Total for the trip: 5773 km)

SYSTEMATIC LIST OF SPECIES RECORDED

If anyone would like any further information please feel free to contact me.

Richard Rae, Sheffield, February 2005

 

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