600 Bird Species!
Dave was driving. He is a very dear, but absent-minded professor who is passionate about birds and trees. These are wonderful passions, but not when you’re driving! We decided to do a raptor bird count, so were noting every raptor seen, the time and place where we saw it, and what it was doing. Dave could name every one of them, even from a distant silhouette. But it’s disconcerting to have the driver turning around in his seat to catch a better view of a bird circling high overhead. Then he would rummage under his seat for his bird book, or reach into the back to grab his binoculars. I’d ask, “What are you looking for—can I get it?” Eventually, I took control of the book so I could look things up. We saw five eagles: the colorful Bateleur, Marshall eagles (the largest in this area), tawny eagles, black chested snake eagles, and brown snake eagles. There were also some of the hideous scavenger Marabu storks as well as Harrier hawks, lots of kites, and the regal pale chanting goshawk. There was also a group of ten white-backed vultures. Seven different vultures occur in Namibia. Birding is daunting here as there are roughly 600 species that occur in Namibia!
Dorotea’s Medicinal Plant Project
Our primary purpose was to visit our student Dorotea Nakatana who is doing her freshman internship in Kongola on the Kwando River. She is about 18 and wouldn’t weigh 100 pounds sopping wet. I had her in class last semester and she was shy and giggly. This semester, she seems so much more grown up. We met her at her tiny “house” which is just a cement block building with no windows. It takes courage to do an internship like this. She is two days’ drive away from her family, she doesn’t know the local language or anyone in the area, she has to make most of her own decisions about her research project, and her study sites are way out in the bush where she’ll have to find some means of transport to get there. It’s like a mini-Peace Corps project and all students at the Dept of Nature Conservation have to do these somewhere in the country. Most of them work for an NGO or agency while doing their internship. Dorotea took us to the Kwandu Conservancy to visit her study sites. The conservancy would like her to inventory the devil’s claw plants they have and decide how many they can harvest this year. Devil’s claw is a traditional remedy for pain that has found favor for use in racehorses suffering from arthritis. Eventually, it is also being tested for use in people. Hundreds of pounds of the tubers are dried and sent to pharmacies each year and they are worth hundreds of thousands of Namibian dollars to the conservancies that harvest them. In order to harvest the plant sustainably, they must determine how many are in a given harvest area and only harvest 2 tubers from a each plant every three years.
We drove over very rough roads to get to one of her sites. Just getting there will be an effort for her. One of the people she’ll work with is Hoster (his photo is below), who is the coordinator of the devil’s claw harvesting effort in that conservancy. In addition to doing her project, Dorotea will be responsible for knowing the trees in the immediate area and the names of the birds that are most common. Dave asked the name of a particular tree and Hoster, who didn’t realize we were quizzing Dorotea, came out with the common and scientific names of the species. He did not even finish high school. I asked how he knew the scientific name and he said he’d always been interested in trees and when he saw a tree book, he tried to memorize the scientific names. Hoster also knew the medicinal uses of different plants. He dug up a huge tuber from one plant that he said is very good for treating malaria. By burying the tuber in another spot, he was able to start another plant of that species. I enjoyed talking with Hoster and his boss, Charles, so much that I decided I would do a case study on their conservancy, even though I hadn’t been planning to do that particular one. I want to get to know these two people better.
Monika Shikongo Fights Poachers
Next we visited an Honors Student, Monika Shikongo, who lives in a hut in remote part of Babwana National Park where she works as a ranger. Monika wrote an excellent paper in my class last semester on whether it is ever necessary to cull elephants to protect habitat. She concluded that it should only be done when there is obvious habitat damage over an extensive range.
Monika is short and stocky and has a deep, gruff voice. All the better to deal with poachers, who are increasingly common in this area. In 2011, five elephants were found slaughtered with the front of their faces sawed off to get their ivory tusks. She and a few other rangers patrol for poachers regularly and almost caught one group, but they got away thanks to the superior horse power of their Toyota Land Cruiser. This 26-year-old woman is dedicated to conservation and is passionate about stopping poaching. She lives alone in the dense woods, although there are others living nearby. I asked if she was ever scared living alone with poachers around her. She said she wasn’t, even though she knows they would shoot her on site if they thought she was going to try to stop them.
We dropped Dorotea back at her place and headed for a campground deep in the woods next to the river. It was 6 pm by the time we started looking for Nambwa Campground west of Kongola. The first sign looked like it was painted in 1942 and was scarcely legible, but we thought it probably pointed toward the right fork of the rough track. The sandy trail snaked through the trees, up and down with tight turns. Dave was in a hurry to reach the camp before dark closed in on us. We flew around a corner and nearly collided with an ELEPHANT! The beast spun around lightning fast, faced us with ears out (a bad sign), ran toward us and trumpeted. People tell you that elephants can make mincemeat out of big trucks, let alone little bakkies. Dave threw it into reverse and backed around the corner. We waited several minutes, then slowly crept back around the corner. It was getting dark and it is amazing how something as big as an elephant can fade into the woods just a few feet from you. We could just make out its silhouette through the trees. We sat a few more minutes, then Dave gunned it and we flew past him. “He charged!” I gasped.
“No,” Dave said. “That was a mock charge.” Well it looked real enough to me!
We met three more single elephants, two of which also turned to face us, one of them coming quickly toward us, ears out and trumpeting, while we swiftly backed away. Next, we saw the hind end of a hippo as its great bulk slipped and struggled to get out of our way. I was seriously scared and felt sorry for these animals.
“Dave, you are going too fast!” I insisted. It’s not easy for me to say how to drive around elephants. He certainly has more experience. But it seemed only logical that an animal would be alarmed when a bakkie flew around a corner right behind it. Dave was clearly irritated by this upstart Alaskan telling him how to drive. “I am NOT going fast,” he argued. “Besides, they can hear us coming and we’re running out of time to get to camp before dark.”
I didn’t wish to be rude, but also didn’t wish to become one of those stupid tourists you read about who get trampled—car and all—by an elephant after doing something really dumb. I finally said emphatically, “SLOW DOWN” as we entered each blind corner.
It was getting so dark and the woods were so thick we could hardly see even with our bright headlights. We slowed down around a corner and a female hippo was standing ten feet in front of us. Luckily, there was no little one by her side. We waited several minutes watching calmly munch on leaves until Dave roared the engine a few times and her huge, shiny, purple body ambled off. Another corner was up ahead, I said, “SLOW this time!” and Dave inched the pickup forward. I have better night vision than he does, and I said, “STOP!” before I was even sure if I saw something. But up ahead about 15 meters an entire family of elephants was browsing on the trees. My heart was pounding. There were several older females and some very young ones. We counted 12 elephants as they slowly crossed the track in front of us.
There was another fork in the road. The sign on the right was devoid of paint and all that remained was a bare piece of metal. The other sign had the name of an unfamiliar lodge. We took the right fork and drove for what felt like an hour. The ground here was low and marshy, with puddles in the middle of the road. The puddles got increasingly deep before we emerged on a large grassy plain. There before us was a large pond with at least 7 hippos in it. Two ENORMOUS hippos in the group were fighting—charging each other with their massive jaws open almost 90 degrees. I should have photographed them, but we were just 40 feet away and I was too scared to think of photos! One of the behemoths stopped the fight and started toward us. Dave said, “Aren’t they fascinating?” “Fascinating” is not the word I would use to describe this big hulk moving toward us! Looking back on it, they were fascinating. Had I been more confident that the big one wouldn’t attack us, I would have found it much more fun.
We drove on for another 20 minutes with no sign of a campground and deeper and deeper puddles to cross, so we turned around and headed back. The hippos seemed calm by then, and I got a few photos of just their ears and noses above water, but nothing as dramatic as the two with their huge mouths open. At 10 pm, to my great relief, we were back on the main road toward Kongola.
The moral of the story? From my perspective, the lesson is that you mustn’t drive fast in elephant and hippo-infested woods, particularly late at night. I suspect that Dave would say the lesson is that you shouldn’t take a whimpy Alaskan with you when you want to do just that!
But Dave and I got along great on the trip and there were no hard feelings about our difference of opinion on how to drive around elephants.
Camp Cooking, Namibia Style
We found Mazambala Campground and signed up for a spot. We were the only ones in the camp and the ablution block was dirty and full of big spiders. I’m not thrilled to see the spiders, but I’m tolerant of them now. However, I am always careful to look for snakes in the ablution blocks as people are fond of telling you how snakes like to curl up in the shower or sink or next to the toilet.
We built a fire to cook lamb chops, vors and the “termite mound mushrooms” (they have another name I’ve forgotten) we purchased. People here want a BIG wood fire every night when out camping, even in dreadfully hot weather. I don’t understand this in a country that worries about deforestation. They also insist on a braai, which means grilled meat. Tuna and noodles cooked on a camp stove would be sacrilegious. Just getting a wood fire hot enough to cook the meat takes an hour or more. Also, while the meat and vors are generally delicious, I don’t like to eat much meat, especially when it’s dripping with fat. But I keep my mouth shut and eat the National Dish, which is actually very tasty.
I enjoyed the way fruit bats whizzed overhead as we cooked. Another bat makes the exact sound of a bobcat backing up: beep, beep, beep. I was looking around for the equipment when Dave told me it was just a bat. We enjoyed a beer while looking at the pond below our campsite. It seemed the perfect place for crocodiles, so I wanted to keep an eye on it, even though it was down a steep bank. Do crocs climb steep banks? I need to find out. We didn’t get to bed until midnight, but I enjoyed the frog music as I went to sleep. I could swear it was a marimba band, very good–never a wrong note–but with a limited repertoire.
The regional center of Caprivi is a town of about 25,000 people called Katima Mulilo, or Katima for short. We stopped at a large open market where lots of strange vegetables, beautiful cloth, and carvings were for sale. In addition, Elephant Energy had a booth. This solar light company makes excellent solar-powered reading lights and torches (flashlights). I bought a solar torch that has a clip so you can hang it in a tent or wherever and it charged on the dashboard of the bakkie in an afternoon. Seems the perfect thing for Namibia.
We also went to a nice coffee shop that offered espresso, lattes and smoothies. How did such drinks get to such a small town about 18 hours northeast of Windhoek? I don’t know, but we certainly enjoyed the stop. We met a very knowledgeable South African woman who has worked on conservation projects in this area for over ten years. I wanted to learn more about the Salambala Conservancy south of Katima on the Botswana border, where I will be doing a case study and where she has worked many times. She knows of several translators who could interpret for me as almost no one in Ngoma village speaks English.
We drove to Ngoma and found the conservancy office, but by then it was late on a Friday afternoon and it was closed. That was okay, as I just wanted to see the area, but did not have time on this particular trip to do interviews. I was most interested in getting a feel for the place so that I’d be more comfortable coming back by myself. One thing I did not like was that the conservancy office was surrounded by at least 5 noisy shebeens (bars) and lots of broken glass. I was glad to find that out before coming to the place on my own in a few weeks. I now know that I would not feel comfortable camping alone in Ngoma!
We headed back to Katima where we stayed at Namwi Camp, on an island in a channel of the great Zambezi River. This is the most beautiful camp I have ever seen. The grounds were lovely and the ablution block was large and spotless. Best of all, we had a site overlooking the river. Despite the “Beware of Crocodiles” signs, I slept very well in the big, sturdy canvas tent. When I woke in the morning, it was raining softly and the big channel of the river was very impressive. If this was just one channel, imagine how large the entire river must be. Dozens of colorful songbirds serenaded us and I saw a chameleon near the tent. When he was on the grass, it was almost impossible to see him and I almost stepped on him. He rocked back and forth at least 3 times before taking each step. Apparently they can run fast when necessary, but why rock several times for every step? That seems strange.
As we drove back toward Windhoek, we passed two tiny women roughly 5 feet tall each carrying at least 50 pounds of fire wood on their heads. Dave thought it was probably from mopane trees. This wood is heavy even when dry, but the wood they were carrying was freshly cut and would have been extremely heavy. Note the little cushions they have on their heads to help support the load.
Popa Falls Camp on the Kavongo River
Popa Falls is not actually a falls at all, but just rapids on the Kavongo River. The Kavongo starts in Zambia, flows through Angola and then forms the boundary between Angola and Namibia before turning south where it forms the Okavango River Delta in Botswana. This is one of the world’s few rivers that never make it to an ocean, but instead have a delta in the interior of a country. The Okavango Delta is said to be one of the most productive habitats on the planet. I visited there briefly with my son last summer and hope to go again next July.
While Popa Falls itself is not very impressive, it is interesting to camp on this mighty river that feeds the amazing delta. Popa Falls Camp has been in existence for decades, but is now managed by Namibia Wilderness Resorts, a semi-public entity that is notorious for corruption, high prices and bad management. The women’s ablution block smelled of ancient mold, and spiders were clearly at home there. The boards and thatch on the outside were rotting in the wet weather and the lights didn’t work. There were about 15 campsites crowded together in a small space next to a swiftly flowing channel of the river. We were always the only ones in each campground on this trip. While it’s nice to have an entire campground to yourself, it is a bit unnerving when the darkness and woods are so thick all around you. If there were robbers about, there wouldn’t be any help available.
We decided not to build a fire that night, but set up our chairs where we could watch the river. It was pitch dark, but a lovely temperature and we had a bright fluorescent light that plugs into the cigarette lighter. We were sitting there enjoying cold meats and cucumbers (I’m not much of a cook) and a nice glass of wine. There were lots of jungle sounds and several mosquitoes. Although the mosquitoes (or “mossies” in Dave’s lingo) carry malaria in this area, they are nowhere near as thick as they are in Alaska. You might see 5 of them in an entire evening! But we did put on the mild mosquito dope that they sell here. It’s not Alaskan-strength, but it seems to do the job.
While we were enjoying the peace and quiet, we saw a light over in the woods that was coming closer. We were far from any houses or people and it was unsettling to see a light coming our way in the pitch dark. Slowly we could make out that it was a man with a gun over his shoulder. I took a deep breath and yelled, “Hello?”
“Hi,” he shouted. Do thieves say hi?? As he came into the light, he introduced himself as Magnus, the security guard. He told us his job is to patrol for crocodiles and hippos that are too close to the tourists during the night. “Last night I saw a huge croc lying right here where you are sitting now. It was HUGE. ” His job is to fire his gun over the heads of crocs and hippos when they are too close to scare them off. He showed us the big bullets he carried for this purpose.
I asked if there was really a crocodile here the night before, or if he’s just trying to scare us. “There really was one right here,” he said, stamping on the ground and pointing. “I saw it and I shot my gun and scared it off.”
He said goodbye and continued on his rounds. I asked if he could just sit near us all night, since we were the only campers, but he shook his head and walked away. Dave and I found ourselves studying the water intently, looking for crocs and hippos. I mused that the campground might hire Magnus just to say that to tourists because it adds to the excitement of being there, but Dave thought he was telling the truth.
A storm was brewing and suddenly let loose. I have never heard louder or more frequent thunder in my life and it rained like a fire hose. We dashed around the camp putting things away and jumped into the tent. I was wide awake worrying that we were just 20 feet from the river channel and there was no bank to hold the water if the river rose. If it rained hard for long, we could end up under at least a few inches of water. Secondly, I could hear lots of hippos grunting in the darkness. They sound just like loud pigs! Third, I wondered if there might be a crocodile out there. Dave insisted that crocodiles and hippos don’t bother you as long as you’re in the tent. I regretted drinking that wine and wondered if my bladder would hold through the night. It was raining so hard and occasionally loud cracks of thunder made me leap. Not much sleep that night!
But the rain finally stopped early the next morning. We were covered with mud, the tent was sopping wet, my sleeping bag had sand and mud in it, the river was much higher but still several feet from us, and there were hippo tracks nearby. But I didn’t find any crocodile tracks, so I was literally a Happy Camper!
We headed back to Windhoek that day. We stopped and got a latte in Rundu, which is generally considered a very rough town, but it was the finest tasting latte ever. Nothing like a sleepless night to make a good cup of coffee taste great.
Back in Windhoek
It’s always hard when I come back to Windhoek. I have to get to work on classes and research and that weighs on me, the excitement of the trip is over, and there isn’t the constant company that I have when on the road.
Still, the weather in Windhoek lately is delightful. It’s clear and sunny in the morning and invariably rains at least a bit every afternoon or evening. The temperatures are generally in the low 80s during the day and low 60s at night.
I started taking a Pilates class, which is excellent. The instructor grew up in East Germany and married a black lawyer here. She’s tall and slim and could easily be Suzanne Lyle’s twin sister. Suzanne teaches yoga in Fairbanks and the two look and sound so much alike it’s uncanny.
I also signed up for fresh organic vegetables once per week. They would turn anyone into a vegetarian. I feel more at home here every day. My only complaints are that my kids and friends are SO FAR away and I would like faster and more reliable internet. But I would happily stay here another year if I could afford to do so. I have lots more to learn about Namibia and many other countries in Africa to explore. A whole continent beckons!
Please write! I do miss home and love to hear any news!!