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Published: October 6th 2009
the boys hanging out together
WKM-13 and WKM-14 chew the fat in the shade away from the midday sun
Sitting here in Windhoek, listening to jazz on the radio and watching the dying rays of the sun on the hills of Avis, our three weeks and 6,200 km round northern Namibia and north-western Botswana seems a very long time ago, although we got back less a fortnight ago. I’ve been procrastinating about blog-writing, initially on the basis that I needed to sort out (and, ideally, rationalise) my 1,000+ photos, but latterly without such a good excuse though many distractions. The muses have not, I hope, abandoned me; I’ve simply been delaying summoning them to my assistance, caught up in the paperwork and logistics of a friend’s move to Australia, a whirlwind of social engagements, an inconvenient stomach bug followed by a dose of a ‘flu-like thing, and, of course, preparations for my next trip. But I get ahead of myself.
It was a trip that we made up very much on the hoof… or, rather, at the wheel. The original intention had been to spend a couple of months driving from Windhoek to Nairobi, ideally going the long way round Lake Victoria, through Rwanda and Uganda, before reaching a temporary respite at a friend’s place in the Rift Valley
and then driving on to Mombassa to ship the vehicle, or, perhaps, driving back to Windhoek through Mozambique… But, as I’ve said before, the best-laid plans…
And this time, it was a pretty unarguable change of circumstances that made our plans gang pretty seriously agley…. My would-be companion and occasional/erstwhile boss on the Kaokoland elephant project, Keith Leggett, had accidentally - or so it seemed - got himself a university research position back in Australia which inconsiderately had the audacity to demand his presence somewhere north of Broken Hill by the middle of October. With the promise of a real salary after a year of dramatically-diminishing funds for his project here in Namibia, it was an offer he couldn’t, realistically but very reluctantly, turn down. The paperwork and logistics of his relocation to western New South Wales after twenty years in Africa sadly then curtailed the time available to us to a mere three weeks.
First stop was, without any hesitation or debate, the elephants of Kaokoland. I’ve written extensively about my experiences with them in the past, so I’ll keep this on the short(-ish) side. We confined ourselves to the Hoanib, the more remote of the two
elephants in the evening light
WKF-4 and WKF-19's group make their way downstream
rivers in the research area, and fly-camped each night to give us complete freedom of movement in our search for the somewhat elusive pachyderms. That said, we did find ourselves camping in the same place two nights in a row, no doubt to the pleasure - after his initial bemusement - of one of the local inhabitants, a surprisingly fearless Cape fox who came out to inspect us the first night, and then enjoyed our leftover rice the next night… or, rather, he enjoyed the wee mammals attracted to this surprisingly rich feast (by desert standards), pouncing on the rice-eating mice. At our final night’s campsite in the area, we were loudly and repeatedly berated by a large troop of baboons for our temerity in invading their territory. Indignant that we hadn’t moved off at the first echoing bark from the dog baboon, they started hurling rocks down the cliff at us, but we were fortunately too far away for them to have any impact except entertainment value. Had they been closer, we might well have moved off. You don’t mess with these guys, owners of the longest canines in the animal world… and smart enough to search for the
source of pain when shot, to the extent of pulling out their own guts in their hunt for the bullet. (Well, I asked a friend for an interesting fact about baboons while I was writing this, and this is what he offered: I feared it would be a little too colourful for my largely office-bound audience, but felt obliged to include it. Thanks, Tristan!)
During the day, we drove slowly up- and down- river, spoor-tracking in search of elephant. Although we saw the spoor of the large breeding herd, we never managed to catch sight of them and spent most of our time with the two “lads”, WKM-13 and WKM-14, good-looking males coming slowly into their prime. WKM-14’s claim to fame a couple of years’ back was that, as he had failed to do anything more interesting than wander up and down the Hoanib in the 18 months since being collared, he had been deemed “too boring” for the expense of a GPS collar and had therefore had his collar removed during October 2007’s collaring exercise… whereupon he promptly disappeared for the next ten months. Never work with children or animals, I think someone once said… WKM-13 enchanted me
impressionism in the bush
Elephants at Tsoanafontein, Khaudum. The odd light effects were caused by the bush fires in the area.
by performing his “circus animal” trick, not once but four times. In the quest for the desirable, nearly-out-of-reach Faidherbia branch, he gradually and deliberately shifts his weight backwards… raising first one foreleg and then the other… finally stretching up, balanced only on his hind legs. He is the only animal in the research area known to do this, and it’s an impressive display. Not surprisingly, after investing so much effort in pulling down the target branch, he then guards it assiduously, and spends the next half hour slowly but thoroughly stripping it. WKM-14’s efforts to get a piece of the action for free are met with warning rumbles, and WKM-13 moves his body around to block his friend’s advances. WKM-14 is left with only an odd twig or two when WKM-13 finally decides he’s had enough.
What to do next was, in part, in the hands of the Namibian police force, or, at least, its traffic division. This wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds: in this part of the world, you need a police clearance certificate before taking a vehicle across international borders, and we were still hoping to have time to dip a toe or two into Zambia
a rare sighting
roan antelope at Soncana waterhole, Khaudum
and Botswana. But therein lay a saga all by itself. We dropped the papers in at the cop shop in Otjiwarongo on our way north and were told to come back a week later. A week later, we came back. Thrice. The first time, we were told the daily fax of clearances had not yet arrived from Windhoek; could we come back at midday? We did… this time to be told that the clearance had not actually been requested the previous week. Oops. And a few more entertaining expletives… but “This Is Africa, Baby” and there’s even less point losing it with customer service agents, especially cops, than in the West. But somehow this particular Ovambo cop developed an infinitesimal guilt trip about messing us around (probably helped by the fact she apparently fancied Keith, propositioning him later in the week, with the charming assurance “I only do white men!”), and promised to fax off the request ASAP; could we come back in two days’ time? We decided to give her three days, and headed up to the northeast of Namibia to explore Khaudum National Park, just south of the Caprivi.
Even after three years here, more on than
off, I still managed to assume that anything beyond Otjiwarongo and below the vet fence, which divides the country in an effort to preserve the disease-free nature of the cattle and other ungulants to the south, must be within a manageable short-day’s drive of Otjiwarongo. Khaudum, however, on the border with Botswana, is a more than seven hours’ drive away at its nearest point, with the last 45 minutes or so to the gate on narrow, sandy, single-track roads. And that, for us, was one of its main attractions. We saw only three vehicles in the forty-eight hours we spent in the Park, and, of those, two only appeared at “our” campsite the night before we left.
The landscape reminded me of Botswana,: flat, scattered with scrubby mopane trees, and very sandy. You are warned only to tackle the National Park in convoy: there is so little traffic that if you get stuck there’s little chance of being found for a day or two. And these tracks aren’t for the faint-hearted. While we scoffed a little at this degree of caution after driving the ephemeral rivers of Kaokoland, it’s as well to warn off the would-be-hardy types, and the
young bull at Shiambi waterhole, Khaudum
northern section of the Park is reputed to be much tougher. Time constrained us again, but we gave ourselves two nights in the Park, staying at its southern campsite, Sikereti. From the register, no-one had visited in a couple of days, and the junior warden on duty seemed a little unsure what to do with us and our money. However, the campsite had been well- and recently-frequented by another form of life… hyena. Thoughtfully, each individual campsite is provided with a well-built wooden hut which, if not lockable, is, at least, latchable against curious animals, as well as being well-insect-netted, giving us a pleasant respite from the insects and the heat in the middle of the day. As for the hyenas, the German trio of tourists nearby our first night cooked meat on an open fire which brought in the animals, at least to the edge of the circle of light thrown by their camp, though no further. We elected to cook by gas, and to take extra precautions when moving round camp after dark… and the only problem we suffered was a reduction in our biscuit supply thanks to an improperly closed provisions box and persistent squirrels.
who's for a drink?
a large breeding herd rushes towards Soncana waterhole, Khaudum
what about animals out in the veld? What did Khaudum have to offer? In a word, ELEPHANTS. After the paucity of pachyderms in Kaokoland, we were about to be seriously spoilt. For sunset the first evening, we visited Tsoanafontein in the southwest corner of the Park, and were immediately rewarded with a huge amount of elephant activity around the waterhole. Some elephants were moving off, thirst already sated, skin refreshed and cooled with water and dust; others were still drinking and playing in the mud; in the distance, still more were approaching the waterhole. Next morning, we ventured north and found ourselves in the middle of an elephant Mecca, tracks leading off into the bush at every angle, spoor and dung clear evidence of well-used waterholes. At Shiambi, we found a large group of 30 or so already ensconced. Clearly the waterhole here takes a while to re-fill; the herd stayed milling around for a good couple of hours, with the usual entertaining interactions. A young bull tried to approach the water, but was discouraged repeatedly by the large dominant male and the bolshier females; an elderly cow and her sub-adult offspring were chased off by a couple of the
another rare sighting
sable antelope at Mahango National Park
younger cows; juveniles played on the fringes of the group or suckled their mothers. That afternoon, we returned to Soncana, a waterhole where, in the morning, we’d found the first of a trio of rare species of buck for this trip, a dozen roan antelope, an exciting sight in itself. From the surrounding spoor, it looked certain that this was also a regular elephant waterhole and, sure enough, we were rewarded with the sight of a large breeding herd, spread out in a long line, almost galloping towards the water. Once again, there must have been 30-40 animals coming and going in the warm evening light. We started wondering about these animals: where do they come from? Where do they go? To what extent does Khaudum have elephant resident here all year long? But the answers were not about to emerge on this trip, and we moved on.
Having finally obtained the necessary police clearance, we headed north again, this time all the way up to the Caprivi Strip, that unexpected pan-handle of land that, politically, belongs to Namibia, but which is geographically, biologically and anthropomorphically closer to Botswana; its largest town, Katima Mulilo, is closer to the capital
who's looking at whom?
buffalo in Susuwe National Park
of Zambia than the capital of Namibia. Wetlands dominate, thanks to the Quito, Kavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi rivers, and evenings are accompanied the disgruntled grunt of hippo and a chorus of frogs. Birdlife is more numerous and more colourful, including the gorgeous carmine bee-eater and a wide array of waterbirds. Here we are in communal lands, infinitely closer to the “real” Africa than the long stretches of sanitised, human-less fencing of the commercial farms south of the vet fence.
And here we found Bwabwata National Park, recently-formed from a number of existing smaller national parks and game reserves, stretching the length of the pan-handle and a little beyond at both its easterly and westerly limits. In the former Mahango National Park, now Bwabwata West, we found the second of our rare species of buck, the majestic sable, as well as hippo, curiously out of the water and foraging in the grasslands, even though it was the heat of the middle of the day. Lechwe, baboons, hamerkop and a variety of wading birds kept them company. In Susuwe, now effectively Bwabwata North-East, a couple of hundred buffalo lurked in the bushes and the dust of the late afternoon, and
through the trees...
elephant in Bwabwata National Park
our third rare buck species, tsessebe, made a brief appearance. Both north and south of the Katima road, we found the ruins of old army camps on land now claimed by the new National Park; Angola is only a few kilometres away, after all. South of the Katima road, we had another inundation of elephant, this time several dozen blocking our exit from the park as they emerged from the wetlands to be bathed in the pink-orange light of a late African afternoon. Fortunately, they were benign enough and tolerated Keith’s brief diversion cross-country to avoid driving through them.
Almost reluctantly, we tore ourselves away from this idyll and headed east: next stop, Katima Mulilo for fuel, and then the border crossing to Botswana at Ngoma. While we might have run out of time to dip into Zambia, we had commitments in Botswana...
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