Moments on the road

September 14th 2009
Published: October 8th 2009
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bottoms up!bottoms up!bottoms up!

elephants at Shiambi waterhole, Khaudum
Bush television. Watching Damara hornbills scrape at the sand and through the leaf litter in their patient search for insects. One dozily flies over my shoulder, so close I could feel the air displaced by its wings, to clatter noisily into the window behind me with a hornbill’s seemingly typical fascination for their image reflected in glass. How often did I look out of the windows at the Cheetah Conservation Fund to see yellow-billed hornbills berating their reflections?

Or the half-dozen porcupine coming in for their multi-coloured evening repast at Porcupine Camp, just beyond Kamanjab. A sludgy hillock of elderly porridge was swiftly waded through and devoured, the usual delights of oranges and other fruit ignored for once; a porcupine equivalent of caviar, it appears… except that we tend not to wade into our delicacies feet first.

Or a dozen or more kudu drinking at the waterhole below the window of my room at a friend’s lodge, Bush Baby Safaris near Grootfontein, their images perfectly reflected in its still water; animals, landscape and reflections all bathed in that fabulous, warm, pink/orange light of the late African afternoon. And, later, the stars of the show, a pair of white rhino appearing at the edge of the waterhole’s floodlight to munch unconcernedly at the short-cut grass as we watched from the hillside above, drinks in hand and seated comfortably around the outside bar.
- - -
Leaning back against a tree, the fire crackling in front of me, at campsite no.3 at Falls View Community Campsite in the Caprivi. I can’t remember being more content, more at peace. The roar of Poppa Falls behind me has a hypnotic, comforting and timeless air about it, punctuated by bird calls and the gentle chittering of crickets waking up now that the sun has well and truly set. There’s still a warm tingle to the air, but the light is fading fast. I am prolonging the afternoon as long as possible, postponing my shower a few minutes more, less to give the “donkey” even more time to heat the water than to take advantage of every last second of daylight, at least at this end of the day.
- - -
What a tranquil, timeless - a frequent, but reassuring, word that comes to mind for me in this part of the world - African scene, all 200+ degrees of it. In the far
sod off, it's mine!sod off, it's mine!sod off, it's mine!

giraffe and gemsbok at the Mudurib waterhole
distance, a small herd of buffalo, maybe fifteen or so. Off to my right, a large herd of female kudu. A solitary male lechwe grazes in the long grasses of the wetlands only fifty metres away. A number of other lechwe are scattered around, a couple of the females lying down, practically invisible to the naked eye. Over to the left is a group of impala, interspersed with warthog, and, beyond them, a dozen or more hippo out of the water, foraging on land despite the heat of the middle of the day. Bird-wise, we have squacco heron, egrets by the dozen, yellow-billed and saddle-billed stork, sacred ibis, spur-winged geese, occasional darters drying out their wings; African jacana stalk the waters.
- - -
The sound of elephants breaking branches. The cry of the fish eagle. Both so much Africa, but, in combination, incongruous for me.

At the bizarrely-named Bum Hill Campsite, at the edge of the Kwando River, the sounds become even more complex. I give up trying to doze on my log, not because I am afraid I’ll fall off the narrow, rough-hewn bench, but because I am too distracted by the multitude of bird-calls around me.

unexpected sign at a roadside stall in Damaraland
The abbreviated seagull-like cry of a pair of fish eagles soaring above. The songbird melody of the black-eyed bulbul. The still-anonymous short monotone whistle. The quacks and honks of ducks and geese out on the water. The disjointed, un-avian-like chatter of another unknown, the melodic equivalent of a broken geometry set, a combination of unmusical linear and angular sounds. The occasional splosh of a fish dipping back into the water, or of a kingfisher diving. But what really has made me sit up is an insistent tapping on wood… Sure enough, a cardinal woodpecker is busy on the tree above where Keith is also failing to nap… And now a nearby hippo population is making itself heard, though not yet seen.

Now it’s dusk, and the birds have, for the most part, quietened, their place in the orchestra of nature taken over by a variety of frogs. Most noticeable is the “bell frog” as I name this one. It sounds like a high-pitched cow bell. The usual croaks abound as well; any crickets are thoroughly drowned out. But the sporadic bass, provided by the (as usual) grumpy-sounding, and still un-seen, hippo is the highlight for me. They were grumbling away while I showered this evening - happy memories of my first-ever outdoor shower at the Busunga Plains camp in Zambia, loudly accompanied by a choir of hippo.
- - -
Coming back to camp at lunchtime one day to find that, not only the biscuits, but also the carton of juice, had suffered from the attentions of small rodents. I was enchanted at the way they’d tackled the juice. Barely a drop had been spilt from the newly-opened carton, judging from the lack of evident overflow below, so I can only assume that our rodent friends sipped their way down the juice as they nibbled their way down the surrounding carton. And the way that they had munched through the carton was nearly perfect, tiny tooth marks meticulously edging the small pieces of cardboard now decorating the surrounding sand. I pasted one into my diary.
- - -
Wild-camping a short distance off the road in Botswana. Finding a small pan or sufficient bushes to disguise our existence from passing traffic a kilometre or two away. When the rumbles of the surprisingly numerous truck traffic die away, we could be anywhere. A lion roars in the far distance. Just us and the wildlife… and the comforting, if crackly, presence of the BBC World Service, updating us on Premiership scores and international horrors. It was in the timeless (yes, that word again) wilderness of the Hoanib that I first heard of the Indian terror attacks last November; “incongruous” doesn’t begin to describe the confluence of news and surroundings, never mind the confusion of emotions arising as I envisaged Leopold’s Café, the Taj Hotel, the synagogue, the train station…
- - -
Not forgetting friends, their warmth and generosity. The impromptu, anecdote-filled and Chateau Libertas-fuelled dinner party at Hobatere Lodge: happy memories of Christmas and Hogmanay for me; happy memories of dozens of like evenings for Keith. The lavish farewell spread laid on by Deon and Jaenny, kick-started by glasses of sherry (which looked just a little too much like shots of Jagermeister...) and, some indeterminate time later, wrapped up with a second round of generously-portioned Irish coffees… Beers and stories round the fire at Wild Dog Camp, the established research scientist passing on his wisdom and experience to the next generation, be they French, American, Batswana… The typically warm welcome at Kameldorn Garten every time we passed through Otjiwarongo, whether
discreet signdiscreet signdiscreet sign

Sikereti campsite, Khaudum
it was Trish filling us in on local news, Hanne-Dora glittery-eyed about her recent trip to Canada, Danella shyly telling us of her latest achievements in the field of African music, or a “new kid on the block”, newly arrived to research community conservation efforts and picking Keith’s brain and contacts… Coffee with Tico and Lesley - new friends for me but old friends, not seen in a dozen years, for Keith - catching up as if we’d been there all along, coffee gradually developing into lunch and offers to stay the rest of the weekend… A frustratingly brief natter with Debbie in Maun: we should, rightly, have gone back for another evening of red wine and reminiscences, but, sadly, believed it was too urgent to head for the border…

And, for me, this last week in Windhoek, huge thanks to Debbie in Brakwater for sharing with me her wonderful part of the country, her idyll… not to mention her five horses, six dogs and the dozen, very junior, leopard tortoises… or, when we visited various of her friends at the weekend, the 12-day old brown hyena cub, the small brown house snake, the two young hand-reared white rhino,

elephants at Shiambi waterhole, Khaudum
the 3-month old zebra foal being brought up with a horse foal, and a few more dozen dogs and cats… My new flatmate’s dog was distinctly suspicious of this veritable casserole of smells when I came home that weekend.

Namibia, I’ll be back. Don’t know when. But I’ll be back.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


get a beak-ful of thisget a beak-ful of this
get a beak-ful of this

redbilled hornbill at Sikereti campsite, Khaudum
office detritusoffice detritus
office detritus

outside the office of the Ministry for the Environment and Tourism, Susuwe National Park
golden antelopegolden antelope
golden antelope

impala in Susuwe National Park
you lookin' at us?you lookin' at us?
you lookin' at us?

warthog showing an uncharacteristic level of interest in us in Mudumu National park

impala in Mudumu National Park
a glimpse of local human lifea glimpse of local human life
a glimpse of local human life

village near the Katima Mulilo road in the Caprivi
looking for supperlooking for supper
looking for supper

tawny eagle in Bwabwata National Park
road blockroad block
road block

baboons in Bwabwata National Park
at last!at last!
at last!

I've been trying to photograph these gorgeous birds, lilac-breasted rollers, for as long as I've been coming to Africa and this one finally rewarded me by perching so that the light fell just right...
camouflage in the grassescamouflage in the grasses
camouflage in the grasses

African wattled lapwing
more elephantsmore elephants
more elephants

evening light in Bwabwata National Park
checking to see if we've left anythingchecking to see if we've left anything
checking to see if we've left anything

vervet monkey arriving a little prematurely as we pack up camp

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