Namibia, Botswana & Zambia Aug 09—25, 2014
Posted by Geoff Lockwood
The coastal pre-tour gave us the usual spectacular sightings of thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingos, as well as a number of endemic and near-endemic larks and chats. Migratory shorebirds were starting to arrive, and the most unusual sighting of the tour was of a party of three Broad-billed Sandpipers feeding in the Walvis Bay Saltworks. This species is a regional rarity in southern Africa—and this was the first time we have recorded it on these tours. Another unusual record was of a pale-form Booted Eagle, a species not normally recorded on the coast, hunting over the Kuiseb Delta at the start of the tour.
Our flight to Huab Lodge for the start of the main tour took us over the extensive deserts of the Skeleton Coast past the Brandberg—the highest peak in Namibia. Passing low through a gap in the hills, our home for the next few days was laid out before us and our final approach brought the first Southern Oryx of the trip. An afternoon drive up-river brought views of a number of bird species including thrushes, hornbills and, perhaps, our easiest views of the localized Violet Woodhoopoe on any of these tours. The following days at Huab added a range of special sightings, particularly of the interactions of a pair of African Hawk-Eagles with two majestic Verreaux’s Eagles, as well as spectacular, ultra-close views of a pair of Hartlaub’s Francolins and a range of endemic and near-endemic birds, mammals, and reptiles.
Our decision to push through as fast as possible on our trip by road to Etosha paid off really well as we were able to enjoy a late lunch overlooking the waterhole on the edge of Okaukeujo Camp. Over the next few hours we were treated to the spectacle of various antelope and a total of 87 elephants coming in to drink and bathe. Being able to observe their interactions—their greetings, dominance displays, and care of the young calves at close range—was a highlight of this tour. When a large bull in full musth arrived, the three males waiting their turn at the outflow simply moved back, allowing him access to the water. After drinking his fill the bull moved off, out to the edge of the light—only to return when no less than 4 different small breeding herds arrived at the water. For the first time on these tours, we were able to observe how he systematically checked each of the cows to see if they were receptive.
As if this unique window on elephant society and behavior weren’t enough, we also had our first-ever Brown Hyaena come in to drink, as well as a total of 7 Black Rhinoceros, a Spotted Hyaena, and a single White Rhinoceros. The Black Rhinos also treated us to some wonderful behavior. Two bulls charged backwards and forwards, huffing and puffing loudly right through the waterhole as they competed for dominance while, off to the side and almost unnoticed, a female lay down to suckle her large calf. With all of the action going on, most of the people at the waterhole missed the strange mewling sounds coming from the calf. Eight Giraffe arrived after hovering cautiously at the edge of the light-spill. These normally graceful animals awkwardly spread their legs till they could reach the water and began to drink, regularly starting upright to check for danger. What an introduction to the magic that is Etosha! The rest of our stay in this special reserve was marked by superb sightings of new birds and mammals, including a sighting of a White Rhino striding purposefully across the backdrop of the pan, as well as several sightings of Lion. At Klein Namutoni waterhole we watched entranced as a pride of 20 of these tawny cats lay enjoying the last of the sunshine. Far from the typical “lying around” behavior Lions are known for, we watched as the cubs played, mock-fought, and stalked each other. A five-month old cub decided to tackle a group of Giraffe that were observing the scene from a safe distance and went galloping towards them…and after a few seconds of apparent disbelief, the Giraffe galloped off.
Our drive through the small Mahango Game Reserve in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip was slightly rushed but introduced a pair of nesting Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls, numbers of new and colorful birds, as well as new antelope species such as Red Lechwe, Common Reedbuck, and Buffalo. Pride of place goes to the great sightings of a group of Roan Antelope. The reserve also gave us a foretaste of the birdlife we would be viewing for the rest of the tour.
Nxamaseri Island Camp, our home for the next three nights, is beautifully situated amongst tall Jackleberry trees on one of the secondary river channels. Highlights of our stay were exceptional, ultra-close views of a pair of Lesser Jacanas and a male Greater Painted Snipe right next to our vehicle on the way into camp, as well as best-ever full-frame scope views of an amazingly cooperative Western Banded Snake-Eagle. Our day-trip to the Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site also produced sightings of four Dark-chanting Goshawks, a species that we have missed in recent years!
Xakanaka was experiencing yet another exceptionally wet season, with many of the tracks we usually use closed due to flooding. Much of the game had also moved away and we had to travel much further on our game drives this year. In spite of this we had superb views of a pair of Pel’s Fishing-Owls perched together, with extended repeat scope views of these glorious Okavango icons; close views of a family of statuesque Wattled Cranes feeding close to our vehicle; and a number of smaller bird species new for the trip. It also gave us great close views of more Lions, this time on a zebra kill, and also of two different Leopards only yards from our vehicle. Another highlight was being interrupted during dinner to watch an enchanting group of Lesser Galagos as these tiny nocturnal primates leapt gracefully through the branches above our heads.
After last year’s disappointing water flow in the Zambezi, when most of the spectacular Victoria Falls was dry, we had almost perfect conditions on this tour. Most of the cataracts were flowing, but the volume of water was not so great as to obscure the falls with the resulting spray. On our flight into Livingstone, we had been given permission for a “quick overflight of the falls” which, because of other air traffic, turned into three passes over this natural wonder. There is no better way of understanding the sheer size and majesty of the “Smoke that Thunders,” and this was only the second time that we have been fortunate enough to be allowed to view them from the air! After a quick lunch, we walked through the grounds of the hotel to view the falls. After marveling at the spectacle from across the chasm below the falls, we made our way to the eastern end of the gorge to watch a spectacular African sunset paint the spray rising from the falls in shades of gold, copper, and red. A truly awesome way to wrap up an eventful day!
Our early morning boat trip on the river above the falls brought close views of Hippopotamus as well as stunning views of three African Finfoot, spectacular fly-pasts by very cooperative African Skimmers, and a host of other great birds. An exhilarating dash through the rapids down to our hotel wrapped up what is always one of the highlights of these tours. In the afternoon we took a game drive through the Mosi oa Tunya National Park, enjoying great views of a Collared Palm-Thrush, as well as ultra-close views of a herd of Cape Buffalo as they moved past our vehicle. The highlight of the afternoon, however, was the chance to approach a group of three magnificent White Rhinoceros—a cow with an eight-month-old calf and a magnificent bull—on foot. These prehistoric-looking animals were impressive when we saw them first at the floodlit waterhole at Okaukeujo in Etosha…but now, with them only 40 yards away, we could really appreciate their immense size. When the dozing bull bounced to his feet it was like looking at a totally different animal! Poaching pressure on Africa’s rhinos has reached frightening levels, and our group was under the watchful eyes of two armed guards, part of the full-time detail that stays with these magnificent animals. A brisk walk to the falls on our last morning brought superb views of 5 Schalow’s Turacos feeding, calling, and bounding agilely through the trees around us—a fitting way to wrap up a great tour!