Travelogue of the "Kaoko - Damara Initiative Grütter"

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pure wilderness in Kaokoland and Damaraland Namibia

Travelogue of an individually compiled version of the Kaoko Damara trip to the north-west of Namibia

Guided in a group size of 4 people

I am always amazed at how fit our guests are after these long flights. “It’s the anticipation, the adrenaline,” Moritz said on the way to the first little natural wonder, Birders Paradise, a green oasis between the yellow dunes.

The landing in Walvis Bay is logistically good, but the guests had to deal with a crowded check-in in Cape Town and described it as ”almost stressful”.

When about an hour after landing we already had thousands of flamingos of both species, i.e. lesser and greater flamingo, in front of us east of the town of Walvis Bay, the joy of arrival was perfect. Unfortunately, the optics were still in the suitcase, but this wonderful life could be enjoyed even without a filter in strong winds.

My wife, Lisa, also joined us for dinner. It is nice to be able to talk about Namibian art, modern views of African everyday life and private matters.

After a breakfast in Rapmund, where there is a really good breakfast, even “Swakopmunders go there”, we drove into Damaraland. On the way, in the middle of “nothing”, on the gravel plains of the Namib Desert, I discovered a desert chameleon. This time the optics were ready and the reptile was to be seen, discussed and photographed from all sides… and marvelled at, of course, very much so!

The hike to the rock engravings at Twyfelfontein was touristy, moderate, ok and was then done and done and all was well. There are things you have to see and are happy to do so, that’s alright.
Mowani Lodge is a sight in itself! This view, this sunset and then also a super service including a gin and tonic and a wonderful dinner… Being a tourist is simply wonderful! What a grateful job we tour guides have.

By the way, we were able to observe the desired Benguela Long-billed Lark and Gray’s lark very well.

We continued westwards through thick sand along the Awa-Huab dry river. The first desert elephants took a lot of patience, tracking and time, and we were repeatedly made to stop and take photos by springboks and ostriches between the beautiful yellow blossoming morning stars Tribulus zeyherii… so it was slowly noon. Up the Huab we went, until I saw a great amount of fresh tracks of seemingly fast walking elephants. “Shall I go on… I think it’s worth it”, and soon we experienced a large herd of fast-moving desert elephants in fantastic scenery quite exclusively! Wonderful!

Palmwag! Many years ago, between the macalani palms, the so-called “pad makers” were supposed to wait for the young surveyor, after they had cleared an at least somewhat passable path through the basaltic boulder field with hard work. Once there, the workers squatted on the palm trees and the desert lions lay quietly in the shade.
Here we stopped at Palmwag Lodge and enjoyed the Rosy-faced lovebird in the palms, the chipmunks in the rafters and the various weavers and sparrows at the grass watering hole.
The next morning we set off in the dark on a borderline bumpy road, if you can call it that, to the “Rhino Valley”. With the help and care of two young rangers, we soon tracked down a rhino, which we then “stalked”. Black rhinos are shy and can be very aggressive. So we had to stay under the wind and be very quiet. The rangers ran into the wind, on purpose, the animal, which had already gone to sleep and was actually rather nocturnal, got up immediately and trotted off snootily after a little “rotary modelling”. If poaching continues like this, our children will probably not be allowed to marvel at this animal in such a basaltically beautiful area, but we appreciated it very much.

The drive north started great… somehow the habitat in the small gorge was right and indeed, as hoped, a Herero Chat, in German Namibschnäpper, showed up. It must be mentioned that this bird is, or at least should be, on the top 10 list of all birders making their way to Namibia… and is very difficult to find! Hans-Ueli followed me up the rocky climb until he whistled quite far below and gave a thumbs up and shouted “I got it”. This is how the guest becomes the guide and the guide becomes subservient! After some searching we were able to find the Herero Chat again and take a few good pictures… until Susanne diplomatically advised us to break off the pursuit, as there are also less fanatical birder in the group.

Endless! On horrible corrugated gravel we rattled northwards until we eventually reached Purros and were allowed to take up quarters at the Okahirongo Lodge, very elegant although situated in the middle of the desert.

It cannot be put into words and hardly any report can do justice to the, in this sense truly breathtaking, landscapes of Kaokoland. I don’t like to use the latter adjective, but Moritz, when we reached the “viewpoint” to the Skeleton Coast Park, just looked at me speechless, mouth slightly open, eyes visibly wide, head slowly shaking this incomprehensible vastness from bewilderment to the ability to enjoy it.
Of course we found the famous “Stonemen”, which were sculpted into the desert by a Namibian long unknown artist*, and rejoiced in the fact that someone else was allowed to see this one at some point; because after almost 109 km round trip we met absolutely NOBODY today and surely saw the most beautiful landscapes this globe can conjure up. We were also able to photograph the hoeschii subspecies of the Gray’s Lark in the classic morning light, find the Benguela Long-billed Lark in the old granite, hear Rüppell’s korhaan croaking for entertainment and, unfortunately, see far and wide the benguellensis subspecies of the Karoo chat.
Those already familiar with Welwitschia are unlikely to notice these small specimens in rocky unfriendly surroundings, but “Day” was well aware of the special nature of this plant wonder and let us spend a good while here talking about botanical evolution and the various historical events that led to the discovery, naming and ultimately veneration of this living fossil.

Up the Hoarusib… see animals! Hardly anyone really thought they could be impressed animal-wise in this arid region, but the scenery makes it possible! Giraffes with colourful background geology, baboons on wide riverbeds, yellow-billed oxpeckers on an old giraffe cow and hours of watching a small group of elephants shaking the camel thorn acacias like apple trees to then scoop up the nutritious pods.
“Day” was his name, our guide, Marianne nodded determinedly when Susanne praised him loudly for his incomparable tracking skills. In addition, he always readily refilled coffee and constantly supplied water from his filled cooler, simply awesome, these drives.

The next day we drove through “no man’s land” to the border of the Skeleton Coast Park in the dry Hoanib River, which lies a little to the south. Steep mud walls on the shore. Above the walls some dunes, which were literally driven over the edge by the wind, creating veritable sandfalls. A large herd of giraffes, they seemed almost unreal tiny in this gigantic landscape, offered numerous photo motifs and a new meaning for naturism was found. Take photos! Check! Correct! Because in this light and with constantly changing motifs, a photographer can let off steam.
The drive went up the Hoanib and several times we were greeted by desert elephants, sometimes more or less friendly. Wild! Wilderness! Pure! The group was thrilled to discover that we had encountered almost NOBODY for days and yet were able to experience an abundance of African large animals, birds and plants in uniquely wonderful scenery.

The staff at Hoanib Valley Camp sang and sang and sang, loud and cheerful we were welcomed and were soon to experience unexpected luxury in the tented chalets. If there is good coffee, I am happy too, and here there was cappuccino without limits with friendly cordial service… there is really nothing missing. Roman, our local guide, a real native Damara, scored with a wealth of knowledge and, above all, a lot of empathy when it came to slightly longer stops during bird watching.
It is always the case that birder simply see more! Another group, which had stayed at the lodge, left a little earlier and went elephant hunting… only we, as we also considered smaller botanical and birding highlights, saw more of what the others were actually looking for, well…

A picnic was prepared for us under a large Acacia albida ana tree. There were salads, chicken strips, quiche and even wine was served. A few pleasantries were exchanged with the other group, the world was improved a little and then everyone looked forward to a few quiet minutes.
At the campfire, loud singing of the Damara “Staff” resounded again and it was really nice to see the hip-swinging Marianne smiling so happily. Roman explained the constellations and how to use the Southern Cross for orientation. He also explained how the Bushmen described the cross as a drinking giraffe, which was nice.

Via Opuwo, where we stayed overnight to relax, we headed straight north to the famous Epupa Waterfalls on the Kunene border river.
In Opuwo, my guests walked a few hundred metres to the supermarket to get nuts and biscuits “for the road”. I was aware that they would probably be “sold something”, but that a group of Swiss would come back with such a big bare-breasted pursuit was a hearty laugh. There was a rumour that I had “done it on purpose”, simply for my own entertainment, but that was not so, it was still funny, very much so.

The Kunene, crushing full, plunges the full width of the Epupa Falls over the oldest rock in Namibia. The purple Epupa gneiss shines beautifully. The numerous baobab trees that grow on the rocky outcrops of the falls are now all bearing leaves. Thousands of macalani palms, many fig trees and dense riparian vegetation frame the falls like paradise. I have already experienced the falls as a trickle, not very impressive and quiet, but now the roar is so loud that we can hardly talk, so the whole thing is indeed intoxicating.
Was it really a good idea to choose the well-known Epupa Falls Lodge “overlooking the falls”? I think so, because the noise was much less disturbing during sleep than the oppressive humid heat.
I watched as Susanne spoke to the waitress. Susanne speaks a clean Queens English, which in its distinctly fresh-clean form and sound didn’t want to match her tired heat-beaten expression at all. Sultry heat, you like it dry, hot or cold, it doesn’t matter, but dry please!

Owen, the local guide at Epupa Falls Lodge, fulfilled our every wish. Finding an almost authentic Himba village is indeed, due to the modern influences of modern times, a bit of a challenge. As I knew that Moritz would like to have a realistic insight into the world of the Himba, dealing with the cattle was very important to me. Earlier than usual we were on our way and arrived shortly after sunrise in a small very sympathetic village, where Owen held an audition for us. He was able to describe the history of the Himba carefully and realistically and acted perfectly as an interpreter. A pretty Himba woman was milking some cows, another was preparing unadulterated ocre fat for anointing, the next was shaking a calabash filled with milk. The children were very amusing with their games and the atmosphere was calm and serene. I crept up the hill a bit, hoping to spot a few longed-for Red-necked spurfowl Birds and Red-billed Francolins. Although other bird species such as Violet-backed starling,Scarlet-chested sunbird and many others were swarming, the hoped-for species stayed away. The romantically called Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush, is a must-see here and I was able to make Hans-Ueli happy with it, even if “only from below”, as this bird likes to live right up in the palms.

Up in the palms, a griffin screamed pathetically loud. A cave harrier brought his teenager, still dark brown instead of a beautiful grey-blue colour, something reptilian-like to eat. The young bird ate greedily and eventually moved from palm to palm in such a way that several photographers, even those with “normal” cameras, gathered, holding their lenses upwards.

As my colleague Dieter arrived very late from that direction, i.e. from Ruacana, I already suspected a catastrophic condition of the path along the Kunene. In fact, they struggled around the high-pressure waters of the Kunene and only managed the short distance in 6 hours. So we preferred, to be on the safe side, to drive directly via Opuwo to Hobatere… unfortunately you can’t always have everything and have to play it safe. Thats Africa! Not for sissies! As the T-shirt of the lodge owner Koos Verwey appropriately said.

The morning game drive was quite “quiet” as the guide whispered softly. Apart from a few Ludwig bustards and springboks, nature was meagre. On the other hand, some animals, including graceful Kudu antelopes, were to come to the local watering hole during breakfast and the memory cards could look forward to more material.
Verreaux’s eagle-owl, Greater kestrel, Bonelli’s eagle, Greater kestrel and a breeding Tawny eagle… there you go! At the waterhole, two Little sparrowhawk darted between the mopane trees, sending the birdlife into short panic.

The afternoon game drive was held without me, the mood was probably good because of the light.
In the garden of the lodge, the obligatory Bare-cheeked babbler and other endemics were still photographed and we could leave with a good sense of achievement.
On the way “out” I looked for the new “split” of the partridge francolin, the Kunene francolin, as found earlier, but it was just too dry… the drought does not allow habitat for such species.

Some elephants did come to the water, we could also briefly observe mountain zebra and kudu and the odd giraffe also showed up, but Hobatere was disappointing this time. On the last trip we were able to observe cheetahs and lions, but these experiences are not programmable and nature cannot be ordered…

After some lectures about fungus termites, different species of chestnut in various geologies and profound talks about plants, agriculture, farming, charcoal and even politics, we moved into the valley of the Ugab Terraces. The Vinger Cliff loomed over us from afar! Photo stop in the Mopane savannah, satisfaction at Vingerklip Lodge, hike in sweltering late afternoon heat. We saw no mammals, I had to resort to tracking and botanical features.

It was good that the Sabota Lark, the Pririt batis and another Pearl-spotted Owlet provided entertainment… so we could all tackle the steep climb to Eagles Nest Restaurant with new ares on the memory card.

The wonderful view from Vingerklip Lodge’s “Sundowner Point” was celebrated with gin and tonic and too many selfies.
No sooner did we sit down in the restaurant when I distantly heard the screeching call of the Orange River Francolin. Hans Ueli and I immediately rushed off to follow the call… indeed, we found a total of 7 animals. Unfortunately it was already dark, but a date early the next morning was immediately arranged.

The sun didn’t rise, but we were already up again, on the plateau, and as if on cue, the wonderful chickens were scrambling near the viewpoint.
I noticed that the Bushman’s Lake Myrothamnus flabelifolius was greening. So there must have been some rain up here. This was probably the reason why Orange River Francolins were to be found here. Again and again we saw small groups, probably two dozen in total, and took photos at the drop of a hat. Wonderful! This is great birding, how trusting they are…

The Erongo Wild Lodge is situated in the middle of the Erongo granite landscape, naturally and idyllically nestled between the rock spheres. Hundreds of hippocampi show themselves trustingly easy to photograph on the smooth rocks. Our goal today is definitely the sought-after Rockrunner. A hike in the afternoon showed the beautiful landscape and… far below I noticed the familiar zrrrrrr zrrrrr zrrrrr, which is the warning call of the Damara Rock-jumper. Some might consider it unethical or even indecent to play a bird’s song to attract it. In Namibia, it is almost impossible to “get to the birds” without this trick. Unfortunately, just like today, at this time when many birds are not interested in other intruders, because they have already finished their annual breeding, they do not react at all to the so-called “taping”. We had to fight hard for the birds several times on this trip, by looking and listening even better and sharper and being out in the bush even more, just to be successful.
As not everyone in the group, although this is not meant to sound derogatory, all were EXTREMELY interested in nature, could muster the same amount of enthusiasm for every little bird, we had to walk a tightrope.
Hans Ueli put forward the very true theory that the tolerance of a group could be measured by the biomass and colours of a bird and we were quite careful to linger on inconspicuous species, even if they were interesting for us birder.
But it all worked out great… it even went so far as to point out overlooked fowl.
On the hike up to the southern slope of the lodge, the view, which was to be similar the following day, left everyone speechless! You could literally feel how all the gazes into the distance were accompanied by thousands of thoughts and small longings were not voiced. We talked a lot about fairytale trees Moringa ovalifolia, balsam plants and various acacias. We also talked about grass quality, how the rumen of a ruminant works and how farmers think and act about the nutrition of their animals.
We watched a Jackal buzzard and looked forward to dinner.
It was to be much more entertaining than expected as we were humorously entertained by a couple at the next table… the classic… say no more!
Erongo Wild Lodge is a good choice for those interested in nature, as the tented chalets have been “carved” into the granite rocks close to nature and you are entertained by many cliff slippers, agamas, lizards and birds on the way to your room.

At Omandumba Farm we visited the Living Museum of some of the San Book people, who give an excellent account of their way of life, trapping, making arrow poisons, rock paintings and their meaning and culture. The group enjoyed it very much! Of course, some had already been on my blog and “knew their way around”.

So after a couple of hikes where we went after the Damara Rock-jumper, Hans Ueli was observed in the shower (it’s an open-air shower, the bathrooms are open) by a Damara Rock-jumper couple… and vice versa.
Up in the central area is a heavily overgrown bird bath, with hundreds of Rosy-faced lovebird and a few Monteirotokos feasting.
In the evening, the Spotted Nightjar could almost be observed at close quarters. Great laughter broke out when a Freckled nightjar mistook my head for a post (one can certainly understand that) and briefly sat on me. What was interesting to me was how quietly, lightly and cautiously this elegant night hunter flew. It seemed to me as if a moth sat down on me….
The wonderful whistle / call of this nightjar was to accompany us to sleep, I love this place.

“machupichu” “machupichu” “machupichu” finally! Before sunrise, hardy francolins are already drawing attention to themselves. We walk quickly and purposefully up the granite plains until we hear them again, and then higher up the mountain again. To finally have the Hartlaub’s spurfowl in the binoculars is a real sense of achievement and requires some birding work. The group already knew about the supposed kinship between Rock hyrax and elephants, because I had already mentioned that. Wondering conversations about teats between the forelegs, internal testicles, padded feet and finally a live match to a basking sheep rat brings us to a place where we can sit and “listen”. Birder’s do this!… they sit and wait and listen… and are always rewarded. We hear the Damara Rock-jumper again! When it appears on a rock in front of us, whistles melodically and puts its tail attent, everyone is just amazed and even the non-birders successfully set their lenses to horizontal. How beautiful it is, once again.

At Ameib Farm, the Erongo is at its most beautiful… this is due to the Bull’s Party, a collection of gigantic spheres in an endlessly immense granite wall landscape. Susanne confirmed this highlight repeatedly. As Ameib Ranch is a guest house, the romantic last-night-out-in-a-lovely-place remained in the background and we enjoyed the giraffe and Damara dik-dik observations in the “green place”, i.e. Ameib in the San language.

Swakopmund you paradise! First a good coffee at Two Beards, where, as my Swiss guests correctly remarked, they serve “just as good coffee as at home”. Knowing how spoiled Swiss coffee drinkers are, that’s high praise!
We also swung by Sandy’s gin distillery briefly until it was finally time to head back to the hotel and everyone could have a bit of a holiday.
The evenings were of course spent in the usual popular fish restaurants and no wishes were left unfulfilled. Unfortunately, Moritz had a slight upset, the nuts for lunch had probably been on the shelf at Opuwo for a little too long, but this had quickly subsided, fortunately!
The next day, some of the group went on a boat trip and we went birthing at the lagoon. The migratory birds were already gone, but Damara terns were easy to spot and of course we gave up counting with 130 000 flamingos. The plovers and little sandpipers in their splendid plumage were beautiful to see and a white-fronted plover chick climbed under its father’s wing.
On the boat, the show of pelicans, cuddling seals, thousands of which could be smelled at the colony, and slavering gulls. The boatman, Walter, is getting on in years, so perhaps he can be helped.
I noticed a Kelp gul with a bright yellow eye, which is unusual, but ornithologist Marc Boorman confirmed the abnormality and the expected Herring Gull had much longer wings as a migratory bird anyway… you learn something new every day.

As my guests flew from Walvis Bay, a totally relaxed arrival and departure was guaranteed, so no Windhoek capital stress.
Long goodbyes are not for me! You get used to your new friends and saying goodbye is hard on the stomach, but after 28 years I’m already good at the quick departure into my private everyday life, even if it’s just like these good people, often very hard.

*Trevor Nott, a handyman from Omaruru, built the camp for Gart and Maggie Owen-Smith at Onjuva in Kaokoland. On days when he had “less to do”, he built these artistically designed and meaningful cairns at interestingly chosen sites.

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Extensive gallery of the trip