Monday, 23 September 2013

Spectre-like wraiths of Northern Namibia

Damara Dik Dik - prehensile & poignantly beautiful
Northern Namibia's heat-stressed hills resonate an ancient energy and in the jagged fissures the furnace-like breeze recalls the ghost-like laughter of fallen friends & foe from the folly of a futile past. The echoes of The Border are long-since silent & all but forgotten.

The upside of the then South Africa-controlled South West Africa (Namibia since Independence in 1989) and the 'secret war' waged along its northern borders is a road-infrastructure that persists & which permits stress-free access to a rugged, desolate geography which, when coaxed, reveals a beauty unlike anywhere else on earth. In this heat-mirage lurks a fauna treasure-trove & a bird-list largely unique in the sub-region. Alisha & I ventured here for the latest leg of our 800-Challenge.
Ruppell's Parrot - not uncommon & a favourite

African Hawk-Eagle (L) - Ayre's Hawk-Eagle (R)
Two images merged  for interest & comparison

Time-allocation conflicts premised a condensed month-long excursion into two frenetic weeks. Our efforts would be confined to Namibia's northern areas only, excluding Etosha but inclusive of the Zambezi Region, formally known as the Caprivi or Caprivi Strip. 

The strategy was simple - we would devote each sunlit hour to the pursuit of the many endemics hidden among the rocks; on the thermals high above; on the plains below; on or under the flint-like scrub and on or in the gallery-'forests' along the many sand-locked waterways. Later we would glass the perennial Kunene & Kavango rivers for more... 

We were successful, on the whole, based on a generous dose of good fortune and Alisha's relentless determination. 

African Hobby - a breeding resident...??
Grey Kestrel - one of a handful of birds
Other than the distraction posed and the time spent pursuing two hitherto unconfirmed species more commonly found further north & outside the sub-region, we dipped on Augur Buzzard & Angolan Cave-Chat. Unless we return to the Kunene-region's Zebra Mountains, an unlikely eventuality, the localised Cave-Chat will remain forfeit for the 800 Challenge & is, perhaps, the first bird we've called time on before the year's expiration. 

The northern Namibian [Koakoland / Ovamboland] region also boasts a plethora of raptors & owls, from the more commonly seen Booted Eagle to the generally rare Grey Kestrel. Ayre's Hawk-Eagle & an unusually confiding African Hobby were seasonally-rare gifts and evidence of our good fortune.
African Barred Owlet - Kunene River Lodge
Of interest & an intriguing consequence of the region's geographical isolation is the prevalence of disjunct populations of species readily considered more common elsewhere. Whilst the north western race (ovamboensis) of White-browed Scrub Robin is not considered disjunct it illustrates, quite nicely, the many remarkable plumage variations regionally separated individuals of the same 'species' often develop over time. In the case of Orange River Francolin vocalisation is succinctly different too.
White-browed Scrub- Robin [ovamboensis]: Distinctly different
I usually avoid a 'then we went there & then we saw this' trip report believing that the birds are complimentary to the whole experience rather than the experience itself. Even so, on the birds themselves, on this particular trip, I'll offer the following two words:     MAG    NIFICENT!

A smorgasbord of delightful tits & bits from Bare-cheeked Babblers to Rufous-bellied Tits; & from Rockrunner to Short-toed Rock-Thrush. Yes we've seen them all before & notwithstanding the rather mundane yet commonplace 'once seen - once learned' attitude some birdmen suffer, even the most jaded traveler concedes a return visit to this trough..!

Rufous-bellied Tit
Black-faced Babbler
Bare-cheeked Babbler

White-tailed Shrike
Short-toed Rock-Thrush
I could wax-on about shredded tyres in 40 degree heat; or confiscated meat (smoked & vacuum-packed...) at a disease-control barrier; or speeding fines I considered grossly unfair / illegal & specifically targeting foreign travelers; or interesting local custom - red-ochred bare-breasted innocents & some fancy head-gear; or diminutive San people; or bare-footed, bearded proprietors but I will limit, if not prefer, to tell two stories only.

Both stories involve unusual interaction between people & animals and sadly, as it turned out & at the time of writing, both ended tragically.

For comparative purposes only, intent & consequence were spectrum-opposites. In the first incident the animal was lost & in the second, two children were drowned.The intentions in the first were trite & perhaps the consequence of humanity at its best & worst. All things being equal you might be forgiven for concluding differently in the second incident. You may, in fact, decide otherwise..

In rural Africa we expect to apply urban logic whenever faced with a scenario we find unpalatable, intended or otherwise, even if only at first glance. It's grossly unfair & an injustice. People are measured by a standard against which they couldn't / shouldn't possibly comply. Take the procurement of meat for example. A vacuum-packed fillet steak had the same consequence for the donor at origin as awaits the hog-tied village beast.

Mtoti [African Clawless Otter] - Shamvura
Mark & Charlie Paxton from Shamvura Camp are, first & foremost, people with their hearts in the right place even if, at first glance, they appear a touch eccentric, by urban measurements. Goats, guineafowl, dogs, trees of remembrance & otters clamour at the feet & arms of both guests & owners for their daily fix of TLC all organic life seemingly demands. Whilst it makes for a memorable experience, the antics, in which the menagerie features strongly, are no less unusual than the bare-footed, big-toe-etched sand-scribbles of the Kunene Namibian lodge-proprietor further west; much further west..
Souza's Shrike
A short while ago locals 'found' another young African [Cape] Clawless Otter and as before (3x) the Paxtons accepted the now-orphaned otter for what I assume & I stress this point, was some reward. Mtoti, as she was dubbed, flourished on a diet of good intent & milky fish. Her canine companions accepted her into the owners' bed; guests accepted her in the pool and all was well. Her antics were enjoyed by all, none more so than by my own family.

It was with extreme sadness that we subsequently learnt of Mtoti's death. Our condolences to the Paxtons who considered her nothing short of kin. She lies buried, along with the other, mostly long-lived pets, under the remembrance tree overlooking the river from which she came. Without abrogating from the tragic events as they unfolded & as I write this, I can't help wondering why so many otter 'orphans' emanate from one small stretch of river.
Pygmy Goose - male
Returning to South Africa from Namibia via Botswana for Pel's Fishing Owl and some R&R behind a fly-rod for nembwe (bream) & tigerfish, we fell foul of rural Africa's timetable once again. This second incident will live-on in our memories for, I suspect, a very long time and for reasons less sure than I might have been before the incident.
Nile Crocodile
We were based at 'New' Drotsky's [Shakawe, Botswana] & by new I mean bloody awful.. The creaking, wooden monstrosity ['The Lodge'] & its accompanying wooden chalets, a long-iron away from the river & in scrubby bush, is a poor substitute for the charm of old Drotsky's, a putt away from the water's edge & in a natural, well-established garden dominated by towering trees.

Notwithstanding my irritated backward glare from the bow of the boat as the pre-fabricated lodge thankfully vanished over the papyrus-drenched horizon, this water has my ticket. Birds hum a deafening lullaby; crocs splash and tigerfish titillate. Following on from a morning session, interrupted by a cold lunch & a snooze, this particular afternoon started no differently. Reels screamed laughter & joy, teeth snapped & the bravely-fought were returned safely from whence they came. The Pel's Fishing Owl we had sought at first light stood stoically for the afternoon's shoot.

Meanwhile, no more than a short-cast upstream from where we played the drift, rural Africa demanded audience. Local people hastily gathered at the water's edge & although the rural African's audible reaction to an incident is usually muted, at best, we could tell from anxious faces that tragedy would accompany us home this afternoon. As we later learned the incident had transpired immediately behind us on the opposite bank.

A father & two children, as water-resident people usually do, had crossed the river in a wooden makoro [a canoe hewn from the trunk of a single tree eg: Sausage Tree] to collect reeds which they would later sell or use themselves in their home. Unbeknownst to the father & his boys they had inadvertently stumbled into the personal space of a hippopotamus bull which immediately attacked the boat & her occupants. The father made shore but the boat floundered & the two boys were lost, presumed drowned.

Our boat was later boarded, with permission, by the local police & we joined the army in a fruitless search late into the night. The boys & the bull had vanished as had the curious crowd from earlier in the afternoon. Friends & family stood silently in hope but dispersed immediately, almost trance-like, on confirmation of the worst. We're not unaccustomed to death in its many forms, far from it, but I remember returning home that night in reflective contemplation. Beneath our boat the river's flow had not diminished. Pods of hippo gathered in morbid murmur & watched us pass them by. The land was quiet but for the ordinary sounds of life.

PS: - I had video footage, post-incident, but it seems a little crass to keep. I haven't. In isolation we'd had a great day on the river. We had, in all likelihood, spent more in boat fees than that family might have earned in a year's toil. Much later that evening I carried that thought to bed.

As I write this two things come to mind. The first was from my boat skipper who in answer to my 'will they shoot the hippo..' shrugged & said: 'This is Africa. This is how it has always been & this is how it must be. We take from the river & the river takes from us..' The second was my late-night knee-jerk urban measurement of worth & associated misguided guilt. The boatman's wealth is the river, inclusive of its bounty & its dangers. If in fact the privilege to spend a few days on the water had cost me a resident boatman's annual toil, then by extrapolation & by my measurement, given that the boatmen spend the entire year afloat, are these people not more favoured than I could ever be? Isn't it strange that 'the world' doesn't see it that way...?

Next morning the makoros plied back & forth ferrying reeds, gathering nets - as they had done yesterday & if the world allows, they'll do tomorrow. Up above, low-flying military planes scoured the river in vain hope or perhaps just in performance of their daily duty. Hippos looked on & the birds thrilled the sunrise.