Namibia with Conservancy Safaris (Trip Report – Jan. 2010)

January 16 – Frankfurt, Germany

It was about a 9-hour flight from Denver to the airport in Frankfurt, Germany.  Upon arrival, I retrieved my luggage and transferred via the hotel shuttle (~20 minutes) to the Steigenberger Hotel Frankfurt-Langen.  I walked to the train station and ventured into town for dinner.  After inquiring about my dining options, I opted for Wega which is a very quaint restaurant.  I ordered the old German potato soup and a Hefe-weisen beer, both very delicious!  The weather in Frankfurt was just above freezing and rainy, so I didn’t any exploring around town.  I departed in the evening for a 10-hour overnight flight to Windhoek, Namibia where I would meet up with the rest of my group.

January 18 – Windhoek to Wereldsend

Most of our group arrived in Windhoek in the morning and were greeted by Russell Vinjevold and Tommy Hall.  We had previously been instructed to indicate that we were traveling on holiday rather than for business as the visas for tourists are free (very important).  We had the opportunity to change clothes at the airport and exchange money, however, the ATM didn’t work with my card.  The airport was small, easy to navigate through and very clean.  While waiting for one more person in our group to arrive, we loaded up our group into the two Land Rovers and drove into town for lunch at the mall.  The roads were well-maintained and it was about a 30-minute drive from the airport.  There was a bank at the mall where I was able to get money out in the form of Namibian dollars.  Within the country, the Namibian dollar is interchangeable with the South African rand at a rate of 1:1.  After lunch, we took one car back to the airport to pick up our final passenger and begin our tour.  Most flights into Windhoek arrive in the morning, so we had quite a bit of ground to cover in our shortened day.  

We drove about 8 hours to get up to Torra Conservancy in the Damaraland region where we were met by Garth Owen-Smith and Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn.  We camped at Wereldsend which is the historic base camp of IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation).  Dinner was ready upon our arrival which consisted of a salad, lamb, rice and vegetables.

January 19 – Wereldsend to Sesfontein

Early to rise to travel 7-8 km to see the black rhinos in the Torra Conservancy, which is approximately 300,000-600,000 hectares in size.  There are 20+ conservancies in this region (60+ in the entire country).  We spotted springbok and gemsbok (oryx) along the way and learned that gemsbok are the best adapted antelope for desert conditions due to their ability to cool their bodies.  Once we arrived at the location where we were to begin our walking safari, Tommy briefed us on the behavior of the black rhino.  

   

Black rhinos do not have good vision, but have very good hearing and a keen sense of smell, so we were instructed to follow Tommy’s commands, when he stops, we stop and we will always avoid the “danger circle”.  We had to be cognizant of the direction of the wind and make sure that we kept our distance.  We got no closer than approximately 100 meters and were given the signal when we could take take pictures (due to the clicking of the shutters on the cameras).  We hiked for about two hours following a large male that had not previously been seen in the area.  On our way back to the vehicle, we stopped to learn about various plants and grasses including the Euphorbia and Welwitschia (a plant only found in the Namib Desert).     

   

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVrR2axnSjs]

I also learned that dried zebra (or other antelope) dung is a great substance used to start a fire.  Tommy is very knowledgeable about the country of Namibia with respect to both the people and the wildlife due to his experience as a Conservation Warden.  His first language was Damara which is a language of vowels, consonants, tones and clicks.  His knowledge of this language was very beneficial through this particular part of the country.  Tommy also speaks German, English and some Himba.  

We drove back to the campsite where the quarterly Conservancy Meeting was being held.  Tribe chiefs and other leaders gather on a regular basis to discuss the progress they are making regarding their conservation efforts as well as outlining the direction for the next quarter.

Our destination this day was to travel to Sesfontein.  We stopped along the way to fill up the vehicles with diesel, however, they were out.  We bought some water, soda and snacks and had the good fortune of purchasing makalani palm nuts with our names carved in them.  This was also where Tim purchased a Savannah beer and the Herero woman opened the bottle with her teeth.  

Along our route, we stopped at what appeared to be  pile of rocks that is marked with a bright orange 50-gallon steel drum with a telephone (non-working number, of course).  We were able to take in some incredible panoramic views as well as the ancient phenomenon of the “fairy circles”.  No one knows for sure what creates these circles in the sand, but there are plenty of hypotheses.  

     

We left Wereldsend about noon and arrived at our campsite in Sesfontein about seven hours later.  Our campsite was near the Hoanib River with more spectacular landscape.  

We had bucket showers and pit toilets.  For dinner we had a traditional Namibian braai and porridge with a tomato/onion sauce, then had drinks and shared stories by the campfire.

January 20 – Hoanib River to Puros Conservancy

Another early jump on the day to see if we may be fortunate enough to find some desert-adapted elephants in the riverbeds of the Hoanib River.  We know they were in the area as we heard them upon our arrival the night before.  We weren’t sure if we would be able to go into the area due to parts of the riverbeds being wet.  Our guides assessed the conditions and felt that it would be safe and as we weaved back and forth through the banks, we spotted one of the elephants that Tommy has spent years studying, Clarissa.  She and her clan of five were wandering through the area snacking on leaves and branches.  

For more information, check out the video with commentary by Russell Vinjevold.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7UHDaXdo-Q]

These elephants are approximately 40-50 years old.  We were also very fortunate to see a sleeping bull elephant, which is not a common occurrence.  We also saw Policeman who is about 50 years old and Floppy who was thought to be dead.  We drove around on game-watch until about noon and then headed on to Puros which was about three hours away.  Our drive took us through some very harsh desert and we saw steenbok, oryx, ostrich and were lucky to see four cheetahs running up a mountain.  This was exciting because cheetahs haven’t been seen in this area.  I was also very impressed throughout the trip with both of our guides ability to quickly and accurately assess (from the vehicle while driving) the tracks in the sand and dirt and give us a rough estimation of how recently the animal had been through the area.  On this drive, they identified the tracks of giraffes, lions, baboons and black rhinos.  Russell said that he has seen only one black rhino in this area and has seen tracks several times, but they are usually several weeks old.  We also passed a watering hole that held drinking water in large storage tanks that had been knocked over by the elephants.  

We arrived at the Puros Conservancy Campsite in the afternoon where we met Steve Braine, an ornithologist and naturalist.  We took a drive through the riverbed so he could try to find some geckos to show us.  Back at the campsite, I had a shower with warm, running water and there were flushable toilets at this location.  For dinner, we had green curry chicken, rice and bean salad, complemented by a recap of the days events.  During the days in Namibia, it is very dry and the heat intense, but at night, it cools to temperatures that warrant a long-sleeve shirt or jacket.  One activity that is not to be missed is the stargazing at night.  There is no light pollution, so there are spectacular views of the milky way and other constellations.  

January 21 – Puros to Orupembe

After a night of noisy jackels, we loaded up and headed toward our destination of Orupembe and knowing we had several stops along the way.  In the town of Puros, we stopped at the village store where our guides purchased chips, tobacco, sugar, maize meal and various and sundry items.  Sara is a Herero woman who owns the shop.  She was dressed in traditional attire which consists of several layers of dresses and a headdress in the shape of a triangle that is representative of the cattle they herd.

Our next stop was at the local school.  The children from the village, both Himba and Herero, begin attending classes at the age of 7 and go until the age of 14.  They do not pay for school, so the teachers may not get paid.  Children can continue their education after age 14, however, they then have to pay and usually have to attend outside of their community which could be long distances away.  Russell gave the chips he had purchased at the local store to the teacher to give to the children as a snack.  

Outside the school, we were met by a truck that held three lion officers.  These officers have been trained and educated on the importance of lion conservation. Our guides inquired about the activity in the area and there is a pride of six that they have been monitoring.  There is one adult male, two young males and three females.  We searched for them as there had been movement earlier in the morning, but were unsuccessful.  We moved on to visit a traditional Himba village where we me several Himba men, women and children.  With a translator, they gave us an overview of their semi-nomadic herding lifestyle and answered the questions we posed.  One very striking characteristic  of this village was their straight, white teeth.  Their diet consists primarily of meat, milk and maize meal and they aren’t exposed to the sugar which contributes to tooth decay.  

              

We drove along for quite a while and came upon a donkey standing near a watering hole that had been blocked off by large branches of a tree.  Donkeys get water once a day and they may travel 7-8 km per day in search of it.  The Himba will sometimes block off a watering hole and leave their donkey near it (not tied up) which will keep the donkey nearby.  In this same area, we saw leadwood trees.  They are very slow growers and some of the trees we saw could have been as old as 800-1,000 years old.  

We drove another good distance before we came upon a man that Russell always stops to see.  He doesn’t know his name, but they have forged a friendship and Russell takes him food staples when he knows he will be passing by.  This time, he gave him some maize meal, sugar and tobacco.   His home literally would be considered by many to be the middle of nowhere – many miles in every direction separate him from human contact. It’s easy to lose track of time and distance as the “roads” of sand seem to go on forever which is a very good reason to have guides that are familiar with the territory.  With the help of one of our guides, we inquired about the last time anyone had been by his home (mud hut) and it had been four weeks which was the last time Russell had driven by.  This man is an expert craftsman at making bows and arrows with metal scraps he finds out in the desert which he uses to hunt for his meals.  

We continued on a couple more hours and reached our destination of Orupembe Conservancy’s Marble Campsite.  Near the campsite, they are currently building a medical clinic which has employed quite a number of people.  This is going to be very important for the people in the region.  There are also plans to build a permanent camp which can be used in the KCS tour.  

January 22 – Orupembe to Marienfluss Conservancy (round-trip)

After breakfast, we began a long journey up to the Angola border which is separated by the Kunene River.  We had some very scenic views of the landscape and traversed some rocky terrain.  Descending one of the passes was a true “off-road” experience.  We did see oryx, springbok, ostrich, giraffe and suricates as well as donkeys and cattle.  The wildlife in this region seem to be a little more sparse, however, given the topography of the region, they very well could have been present and very well camouflaged.  

Upon arrival to the Kunene River, we got out of the vehicle, stretched our legs and were able to use the facilities.  This is the site for the new permanent lodge KCS is building.  This was a very long, hot drive.  Roundtrip it was about 11 hours and I’m just not sure as a day trip it is worth it.  Once the new lodge is built, an overnight may be more appropriate.  One thing I found interesting on this drive was that with the vast open spaces, they have notable landmarks – the painted oil drums.  We returned to our campsite at Orupembe for dinner which consisted of potjie which is a stew of beef, potatoes and carrots with a side of couscous.  

January 23 – Orupembe to Sesfontein

We began this day at 7:00 with breakfast and conversation with people from a nearby village (with the help of an Himba interpreter).  We loaded up the vehicles and drove to the location where a new school is possibly going to be built – they are still awaiting some decisions.  We met the man who will be the school teacher, his name is Basta.  We met some of the children that will attend the future school and Russell gave them laminated photos of a group of them with school books from the last time he was there.  It was incredible to see just how excited and proud they were to see a picture of themselves!  

Along our drive, we saw some vultures flying over something on the ground.  We stopped to investigate and happened upon a fresh ostrich kill.  Both Russell and Tommy spotted cheetah tracks, so we all got out of the vehicle.  Tommy walked us through his assessment of what happened, where the ostrich was running, stumbled and was taken out by two cheetahs.  We followed their tracks to an area under a shrub where he believed they stopped to rest in the shade after eating the meat from one leg of the bird (which is quite a bit of meat).  Something must have startled them (probably us) and they got up, started walking, paused and then began walking at a much faster pace.  We searched the area and saw one of them very briefly – their camouflaged coats provide them excellent protection as they blend into its surroundings.  We loaded up and continued on passing several springs called ogams that are seriously important places in the desert where wildlife can stop for a drink.  We stopped for lunch at “bear rock”.

            

We continued on in the direction of Puros on our way to the Skeleton Coast.  We arrived about 3:00 in the afternoon and stopped to talk with the lion officers.  They informed us that Dr. Flip Stander was in the area and very concerned about the lion situation.  There was a pride of six lions in Puros; one adult male, three adult females and two young males.  The two young males had been causing trouble in the area as they were requiring a significant portion of the food the females had been hunting.  In a month’s time, the females would require the equivalent of eight oryx, with the adult male they would require a total of the equivalent of 10 oryx and with the two young males, they would require a total of the equivalent of 17 oryx.  As a result, the lions had been going into the village and scratching at the doors in the village looking for food.  The people in the village work with Dr. Flip Stander in making decisions on how the situation is to be handled.  They had tried several times to relocate the young males, however, they always found their way back to Puros.  The decision was made to try to relocate the females to see if that would resolve the issue, so plans were put in place to move them.  

A little history on the two older female lioness’, Murado and Tawny, they are seven year-old sisters the Dr. Flip Stander found walking up the Hoanib River 4 1/2 years prior.  They appeared to have been beat up, but it wasn’t clear whether by males or their mother.  Their mother still lives in the Hoanib River with their other sister.  It is suspected that it was the mother that beat them up and sent them on their way because she couldn’t feed them.  

As part of the research that Dr. Flip Stander does, he has permits for springbok.  In order to relocate the females, the plan was to bait the lions so that Dr. Stander could dart the females.  They needed two springbok, one for the males and one for the females.  The springbok that were chosen were older males that were likely out of the breeding pool.  Dr. Stander was able to dart Murado first and wanted to dart Tawny next because she was more difficult than the 2 year old Mayo.  Mayo and the males kept walking between Flip and Tawny, so he wasn’t able to dart her and after several hours, proceeded to dart Mayo.    In order to try again for Mayo, two more springbok were required to occupy the males.  Dr. Stander also drugged one of the livers with a sedative specifically for Mayo in hopes that would aid his effort.  In the meantime, we loaded up the other two lioness’ in the truck in preparation for transport to the Skeleton Coast.  Flip took the time to speak with us about the lions, allowing us to see their teeth and paws, touch them, show us the fingernail-type hook on the end of their tails, and smell their feet (they are musky).  At 2:15 AM, after 11 hours of drama, we had to get on our way to the next camp to put us back on track to make it to back to Windhoek in time to catch our departing flights.  Dr. Stander’s intention was to stay and wait for an opportunity to load the third lioness.  It took us about two hours to get to our next camp, Ganamub Mountain Camp.  Driving up to the camp, we spotted an African wildcat and two zorillas.  

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sumimcOLOnU]

January 24 – Sesfontein to Swakopmund

After only about two hours of sleep, we had yet another delicious breakfast, loaded up and started on our way to Swakopmund.  We entered the Skeleton Coast at Torra Bay.  We passed several shipwrecks, lichen fields and salt pans.  This is also the storied location of raw diamonds, sometimes referred to as blood diamonds.  We also stopped at Cape Cross Seal Reserve to see the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals.  Clients also have the alternative option of flying, rather than driving, back to Swakopmund.  We also learned that the previous night’s efforts were unsuccessful, however, they would continue in their conservation efforts.

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