Monday, 30 May 2011

Central and Northern Namibia – ‘For the birds’ – Part 1

Day 1 Johannesburg (JHB) [South Africa] – Zelda Guest Farm [Buitepos; Namibia] – Distance as the crow flies: 1050km

Months of planning and a plethora of OEM accessories added to our Defender 110 lay in our wake. The do's & don’ts list had been checked, stowed & forgotten. ‘Dieseled’ to the eyeballs we roared out of JHB en route nearby Pretoria. Roadworks warning signs winked us on. Not until we reached Zeerust sometime later did we truly let our hair down. The mace and napalm [medicine for the treacherous Gauteng locals] was confined to the console. Pioneer Gate / Skilpadshek – the RSA / Botswana border post into Lobatse (Botswana) beckoned.

Pioneer proved a breeze. We filled out the departure forms, inked in the vehicle registartion on the register & with a skip ‘n whistle waltzed through to the Botswana gate [Skilpadshek]. Piece of cake! The devil’s in the detail  – Officialdom beckoned!

U musti be standing in da line’ – which line ma’am? [Internet said be polite]. ‘I said be standing in da line & you must never never cross this white line when you presenti urselef.’ Yes ma’am. [My first Botswana conversation had gone rather nicely I thought]. Right! Time for that 2nd line…….

Grim & dazed RSA faces in a queue [THE 2nd line] 100 paces long hinted at what was to come. The 2nd queue was the money queue. Motor vehicle declaration – 3rd party insurance etc. We had arrived at Pioneer 7am – subsequently departed Skilpadshek 12:15 pm. Smile you’re on Africa's candid …

The Botswana police were clearly in evidence; edgy even. Banter in the queue had long departed for places other. The officials broke for lunch at 11:25 am approx. [No apology]. Some 180 Pula (Tswana for 'Rain') & 5 long hours later we belted across the white stripe en route Kang, in the middle of the Kalahari & the only fuel stop between Kanye and Ghanzi.

Welcome to the land of goats & donkeys. Kang turned out to be an interesting stop. No electricity meant the pumps weren’t working. It was disheartening to see the same sallow faces from ‘Die Tweede Lyn ‘– reddened and crusted from the 38 degree sun, blankly staring at ‘moerse-stil-pompe’ [Wat nou Pa?]. Gaan koop vir jou ‘n long-range tank boetie! We pressed on…..

The rest of our day's journey proved less eventful. Birding was fair to middling. The usual suspects were in evidence – [85 species thus far] Some notables included Pale Chanting Goshawk, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Eastern Clapper Lark, Fawn-coloured Lark, Common Fiscal [desert race], Village Indigobird, Red-billed Oxpecker, Greater Kestrel, Northern Black Korhaan, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark & Red-billed Spurfowl.

The final insult before Buitepos was the 160 kilometer, absolutely into THE SUN, grind from the Ghanzi turn-off to Mamuno. Cattle, donkeys & goats, from the working class, care less that we had already been on the road more than 12 hours and insisted on right-of-way. All this with my best puckered-eye rendition in blinding glare. Some say we do this for fun……..

Border posts at Mamuno & Buitepos were an efficient relief [even though the queues at Buitepos rivalled Skilpadshek –this at 9pm Wednesday night] An impressively paraat soldier-boy refused to let us through the boom until we had satisfied ourselves that he could [indeed] read [Vehicle-permit]. We streaked across the white line, filled the car at Buitepos and made for Zelda Game Farm, our first stop of the trip.

9:30pm & stars twinkled in the night. We had already seen jackal, gemsbok, impala and kudu. This land is God's own. Words will never do justice the solace & food for the soul this country spoon-feeds travelers & birders alike. Long-forgotten the mahem of Skilpad. Arrogance, strife, stress & ignorance naughty words from countries past.

Zelda was magnificent & just the tonic. BH [Better half /have] did herself justice with the pre-prepared chicken biryani. Our roof-tent was whipped up in double time. All fell 'silence’ –  until the leopard sawed into the night, that is, somewhere under the sheets…. A little hand gently tugged my arm. Nature was knocking on the bladder & the ladder was out.. On closer examination, early next morning, we learnt the truth of the rehabilitated leopard in the camp next to our campsite. BH sees the funny side only now…….

Day 2 Zelda Game Farm – Windhoek [300 km]

Zelda’s the only realistic stop after Buitepos, particularly if you make the trip from South Africa in a single day. I highly recommend the joint. As always we enjoyed an early walk around the lodge grounds. Other South Africans remained asleep, where they had fallen, dead to the world on mattresses, out in the open, [They too had suffered Skilpadshek & Kang...] We felt, at last, that our holiday had truly begun. Some notables in the camp included Barn Owl, Southern White-faced Owl, Pririt Batis, Dusky Lark, Ashy Tit, Barred Wren-Warbler & Swallowtail Bee-eater. Our trip list had topped 114, respectable given the circumstance.

We left Zelda en route Windhoek via Gobabis. Some prefer a heavy foot on the B6 to Windhoek. I, however, find the transition from bushveld to dry scrub intriguing. The mix of birds had therefore changed. Some notables on this section included Cape Vulture [yes it was], Capped Wheatear, SA Shelduck & Kori Bustard.

Windhoek itself is tad surreal. The eclectic mix of indigenous folk and foreigners alike make for fascinating study. On this point I highly recommend not finding your designated [booked & pre-paid] accommodation. That way you too can enjoy the scintillating drive across town, on the hallowed tarmac of Robert Mugabe & Sam Njoma drives. You too can get lost in the parking lot of a local church and you too can contemplate a night on the street, chastened by the smarter one in the seat alongside & whilst absently steering Nandos around a greasy plate. [Some N$1950 later we settled into our hotel room – chastened but not beaten!] Before that though – the sewage works & Daan Viljoen. For those of you who find delight, like I do, in the unsavoury ponds of human waste & scum, do yourselves a favour & visit the Windhoek Sewage Works. It’s a no-brainer given the near-desert conditions of the Khomas Hoghland. Some field notables include African Reed Warbler, Hottentot Teal, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Chestnut V T-Babbler, BF Waxbill, B Crowned Night-Heron, Eurasian Honey Buzzard, Cape Shoveler, Great Reed Warbler, Lesser Honeyguide, White-backed Mousebird, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Cardinal Woodpecker and Monteiro’s Hornbill.

Daan Viljoen was still under revamp and not conducive to much exploration. Singletons travelling on their own might be intrigued by the overwhelming female welcome at the gate…..! Nevertheless we drove the mandatory loop through the reserve in search of White-tailed Shrike and Rockrunner. Neither was conspicuous. We did, however, notch up both ‘Bradfield’s’ as in lark & swift. Trip list commendable 167.

Day 3 Windhoek – Walvis Bay via C28 through the Khomas Hoghland & Namib-Naukluft [335 km]

Anybody who has driven this road will tell you it’s long. I agree. What they won’t admit, maybe, is the overwhelming feeling of scenery-inspired awe. Realised personal insignificance is honesty in its purest form. The Khomas Hoghland, at 861m, descends into the desert of the Naukluft in a mere 250 km. The beautiful sunrise over Windhoek’s fading twinkling lights was all but erased by the sunset over the burning red sands of the Namib. Some say the sands sing a song of silence. Others suggest just the faintest hum. Locals claim this song’s of life. Either way it’s a show-stopper.

The birding was pseudo-fictional too. Notables included inter alia Orange R Francolin, Great Sparrow, Dusky Sunbird, Red-headed Finch, Rock Kestrel, Rosy-faced Lovebird, White-tailed Shrike, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Lappet-faced Vulture, Carp’s Tit, Rockrunner, Augur Buzzard, Sociable Weaver, Stark’s Lark, Lark-like Bunting, Sociable Weaver, Ruppell’s Korhaan, Tractrac Chat, Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark, Gray’s Lark & Namaqua Sandgrouse.

The first 30km or so of the C28 is tarmac. The last 30km between Swakopmund & Walvis Bay is also tar. The 280km, in between, is gravel. Years of RSA travel has ingrained an inherent fear of anything not tar [That notion too is sliding into yesteryear when you see some of the pot-holes in and around JHB]. In Namibia, however, it doesn't take too long to note that the gravel roads are quite easy to drive on, particularly at birding pace. White-knuckle driving is symptomatic of things other and not the state of the road. This can, however, lull you into a sense of false bravado…. At the 110km mark ex-Windhoek, on the left-hand side of the road, is a boulder strewn cliff which drops away into what appeared to be the devil’s very own. Naturally it was here that we found our first Rockrunner of the trip.

We all know that a 400mm lens refuses the eye when a lifer’s on hand. [Get closer boy!] Flagrant disregard for all things natural [e.g.: gravity] is also commonplace as doors are flung open. Eyes bulge and teeth grind [breathe son – you’re turning blue]. When you’re like me though you get as close to the subject as possible before DFO [Door Flung Open]. Only when we had unwittingly roared into the abyss and teetered on the brink of catastrophe [2 ½ wheels on planet earth – the other 1 ½ wheels soaring like eagles over the valley] did I realise that a DFO from BH would require a pre-flight check. Careful analysis of BH’s wordless, blue-lipped scream proved demeanour not usually in the pre-flight manual. Lip-reading comes easily to me. An 'F' in Portuguese [Alisha is Latino] and other preferred extractions from the alphabet, always carry a 2 meter death-to-all warning. I was well within range & took that as cue to gently, very gently. return from whence we’d come. A ‘where’s the Rockrunner gone’ inquiry might have triggered an ear-flattened charge.  As perceptive, as ever, I resisted that thought!

For a while BH seemed particularly interested in what seemed to be some faraway spot on the earth’s curvature? [Note to self: - Have eyes checked] We drove in silence for the next hour. Birding is not for the faint-hearted! [Children & drivers should always be accompanied by an adult at all times]

For those of you thus inclined, look for Damara aged turbidites, Naukluft Nappe geology and Nama sedimentary rocks. These contain Namacalathus, the first hard skeleton animals on planet earth. Stromatolitic carbonate reefs include some of the oldest fossils of hard skeleton animals known.

Nearer the Naukluft, beyond the Sociable Weaver’s nest on the left and the pair of Ruppell’s Korhaan on the right, we stumbled upon our first flocks of Stark’s Lark. Interesting birds those & reminiscent of Emperor Qin’s buried Terracotta Army. Flocks of 50 birds, or more, stand motionless, perched statuesque & always into the wind. For the botanists the occasional Welwitschia mirabilis is always noteworthy.

We arrived sometime later at Lagoon Loge [no not lodge but loge – French s.v.p!] in Walvis Bay, just in time for the sunset. Supper at The Raft rounded off the intrigue. Salt air, gulls and guano our heady accompaniment for the night. 

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