Looking For Larks

Taking a trip through Okahandja, Okaukuejo, Otjozondjupa and more wonderfully unpronounceable places

 

Ever since Monty Python’s skit ‘Ethel the aardvark goes quantity surveying’, I’ve wanted to see an aardvark. Fellow traveller Steve Edwards, however, was obsessed with finding a dune lark. Spotting the most elusive of Namibia’s 20 lark species would be like finding treasure, said the professional safari guide and owner of Musango Safari Camp in Zimbabwe.

The thing is, in Namibia, there’s something for everyone of any age. This country of 825,615km² has exceptionally diverse landscapes and extraordinary fauna and flora. So, on a 17-day tour there in November, our private Namibian safari guide Charl Schoombee kept his eyes peeled for larks, aardvarks and everything else in-between. In a converted Toyota Landcruiser with a pop-up roof and air conditioning, our party of eight 60-something year- old Zimbabwean friends had a truly epic humour filled adventure. We met at the Windhoek Luxury Suites, and our ‘Zimmer Tour 2020’ reunion (postponed twice thanks to COVID-19), planned by safari consultant Chris Worden of Footsteps of Livingstone and handled by Namibia Tours & Safaris, was finally on.

Just coasting

The six-hour drive between Windhoek and Swakopmund revealed excellent roads, long stretches of scrubby bush, scree, blue sky, brilliant sunshine and quaint dorps. Swakopmund, a town of German colonialera architecture, was shrouded in a chilly blanket of fog, but the Swakopmund Luxury Suites were warm and welcoming. In the Walvis Bay lagoon, Mossie Mostert of Laramon Tours threw fish into the air and, instantly, a huge great white pelican thumped onto the catamaran. An excited seal followed in the boat’s wake, even as we picked up speed. It was loving the ride – and the free fish. The three-and-a-half-hour marine cruise revealed hundreds more Cape fur seals wallowing and basking on a shore, plus penguins, dolphins, a sunfish and even the fin of a humpback whale. Ocean Conservation Namibia states that the Cape fur seal population along the entire coast is around 1.5 million, with a huge breeding colony at Cape Cross headland on the Skeleton Coast. Later, in two 4x4s, we drove to a lagoon where there were thousands of lesser and greater flamingos, plus pied avocets, terns and countless more waders feeding in the shallow, nutrient-rich waters. Further afield were pink salt lakes, the astounding hues created by salt-tolerant algae and a chemical reaction taking place.

On target

Our mission in the towering windswept sand dunes of the Namib-Naukluft National Park was to find the dune lark, Namibia’s only 100% endemic bird that hatches, matches and despatches in this specific stretch of desert. Guides Ekkehard Bollinger and Rene Mervins found a Palmero gecko, a sidewinder snake, oryx, ostrich, Rüppell’s korhaan and a Gray’s lark, but the dune lark proved elusive. Up and down crazy dunes in this sea of sand we enjoyed looking for larks until finally, in the late afternoon light, Ekkehard spotted two in a scrubby clump of sand and grass. Steve was ecstatic. The cherry on top was the ostrich with 12 chicks, just around the corner, totally oblivious to our presence.

Rocks star

North of Swakopmund is the Moon Landscape, a dry desolate area of hills, rocks, sand and what appears to be little else. Yet, it is alive with hardy plants such as Nara melon, firebush, dollar bush, lichen, and of course the extraordinary living fossil, the two-leafed Welwitschia mirabilis, of which some specimens are estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500 years old. In the Damaraland region in north-central Namibia, the luxury tented Mowani Mountain Camp is built on wooden platforms and skilfully intertwined with the natural surrounding granite boulders. From the lodge’s viewpoint, the setting sun torched the kopjes gold then orangey-red while we sipped cocktails and reflected on a few facts: that Namibia’s official language is English while Oshiwambo and Afrikaans are more widely spoken; and that it has a population of around two million – as opposed to similar-sized Pakistan’s gob smacking 220-plus million. Wow!

Near Mowani is Twyfelfontein, an area of red ochre rocks containing one of the largest concentrations of rock engravings in Africa. The well-preserved carvings created by San hunter-gatherers on flat and upright slabs represent animals, fish, birds and humans. While driving in a dry riverbed not far from the lodge, we spotted a herd of desert-adapted elephants browsing beneath some mopane trees. When they nonchalantly moved off, they came so close to our vehicle that we could hear their stomachs rumbling. En route to Etosha National Park, at Khorixas, is the Petrified Forest National Heritage Site of ancient, fossilised trees, 100-250 million years older than us. From there, it’s an easy drive to Okaukuejo Resort, one of only six lodges inside the park, all owned and managed by the parastatal Namibia Wildlife Resorts. The waterfront chalets overlooking a floodlit waterhole were perfect for viewing game throughout the day but, as the sun set, the silhouettes reflected on the pan’s water were truly magical. Incredibly, one night, five critically endangered black rhino with intact horns sparred playfully at the water’s edge.

Panning out

We spent six nights in Etosha, driving slowly through this immense flat saltpan of white, pale gold, blue-green shades and brilliant clear blue skies dotted occasionally with puffy white clouds. There were vast herds of zebra, springbok, wildebeest and other plains game, plus elephant, oryx having a fierce duel, ostrich couples sheltering chicks in the shade of one outstretched wing and plenty of birds (Namibia hosts about 688 species). Etosha extends over 22,935km², roughly the size of Wales. The pan is almost always dry but, in the southern parts, waterholes are scattered throughout. From Okaukuejo to Halali Resort and onto Namutoni Resort (built around an old German fort), most of the gravel roads were good, others seriously corrugated. The government-run camps offer tasty basic food and comfortable accommodation. Outside Etosha National Park is the astounding Hoba meteorite, the world’s largest known intact meteorite as a single piece, measuring 2.7m across and weighing around 60 tonnes. Made of an alloy of iron and nickel, it landed some 80,000 years ago in the Otjozondjupa region. The next two nights were at Okonjima Plains Camp in the 22,000ha Okonjima Nature Reserve, famous for brown hyaena, cheetah, lion and leopard, and home to the AfriCat Foundation, which started out rescuing orphaned or injured cheetah and leopard but now places the focus on research and conservation through education. Using radio technology, guide Denny tracked a leopard while, all around us, dark grey thunderclouds formed into magnificent dramatic African skies. Springbok sheltered from the downpour in a forlorn clump under an umbrella thorn tree, a giraffe skittered across the road in an ungainly panic after a lightning flash and a thunderclap set a herd of wildebeest scampering off. At the end of the trip, getting out of our Windhoek beds and onto the road at 4:30am for the Airlink flight to Johannesburg was possibly the most exhausting thing we did! Our tour wrap-up, then: lark species spotted – 14; aardvarks – 0; distance driven – about 3,000km; and memories to last a lifetime – 10,000.

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