Namibia. A Naturetrek tour 14-23 February 2003


Trip account written by Julian Thomas




Stuart Holdsworth was the first to mention the Naturetrek tour to Namibia as a possible next foreign trip. I um’d and ah’d a bit, but nearly everyone I spoke to who had been on it had raved about it, so  in the end four of us from Somerset decided to give it a go. The other two were Alastair Stevenson and Paul Bowyer – for all bar Stuart it was to be our first visit to Africa. The other 12 participants (7 men and 5 women) were a good mix of ages and experiences from central and southern England.


Our local guides were Neil Macleod and Charles Rhyn of SafariWise, the company run by Neil and contracted to Naturetrek for this tour. Neil proved to be a good tour leader: he knows his birds well, organised us efficiently to keep us on what was a tight schedule, and was able to sort out problems quickly. Charles is also an experienced safari driver/guide and was excellent company.


This was our first experience of a Naturetrek tour (or indeed any organised tour, as we had all done a varying but relatively small number of independent trips before). Most of the other participants had been on at least one Naturetrek tour before. I can thoroughly recommend this trip, for the mammals seen along the way as well as the birds. It is a budget tour, of course, and the itinerary is necessarily rather rushed to get between all of the main sites. We didn’t have enough time at either Waterberg  or Spitzkoppe to do them justice, for instance, but very nearly 300 species in 7 days’ birding speaks for itself.


It appears that future tours are to leave out Spitzkoppe to give more time at other sites; this is a shame, as several species were seen only there, including the endemic Herero Chat. By the same token, reorganisation of the flights will mean that future participants will have half a day more at Waterberg than we had. Also, at one point Neil was musing on the possibility of a separate tour concentrating on the endemics – he was open that there were better sites for some of these than could be accommodated on this tour.



I used the Collins Illustrated Checklist for Southern Africa by Ber van Perlo for the birds – the illustrations are quite small because of the large number of species covered per plate, but they proved perfectly adequate in most cases, and even occasionally included detail not found in other guides. Of the others brought by other tour members the SASOL guide in particular looked good. I also took the Lonely Planet Guide to Namibia – although I rarely referred to it while there, it would have been of great use if doing an independent trip, and made interesting pre-tour reading in terms of the history, tribal cultures etc of the country.


Food and accommodation

The first four nights were spent in chalets at government rest camps. These varied a bit in size and quality and were fairly spartan, but were pleasant enough and nearly everything worked.


Each camp had its own restaurant area where you could pick and choose your own portions of individual items in buffet style. Overall the food was cheap, mostly plentiful and of reasonable quality, but it is a noticeably meat-based diet there and a strict vegetarian (rather than a fish-eater like me) would have eaten well enough, but would have found the selection limited. Breakfast included selections from both English and German styles, and lots of fresh fruit. The local beers were drinkable (Stuart and I tested them extensively) and cheap (under £1 a bottle).


The Hotel Staebe in Omaruru is pleasant and comfortable, with very good food - they also did rather good packed lunches for us. In Walvis Bay we were again in chalets, but of a different class to the rest camps – much larger and plusher. Breakfast was at a diner which was OK but not special, but the evening meals were at the Raft, a wonderful seafood restaurant in a brilliant setting, on its own little pier standing in the bay. Inevitably more expensive than other places we ate, but still cheap by British standards, and the food was absolutely superb.



There are 13 “endemics” available on this tour – one true endemic (Dune Lark), and 12 effective endemics shared only with Angola. Of these 13 we saw 11 (Hartlaub’s Francolin, Rüppell’s Korhaan, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Rüppell’s Parrot, Monteiro’s and Damara Hornbills, Gray’s and Dune Larks, Rockrunner (aka Damara Rockjumper in Clements), White-tailed Shrike, and Herero Chat), but we missed Bare-cheeked Babbler and Carp’s Tit. Recent rains seemed to have moved birds around, which may explain some of the misses but also almost certainly explain some of the bonus birds we got instead.




Day-by-day account


14 February

Amid terrorist threats and severely heightened security we arrived at Heathrow for our evening British Airways flight to Johannesburg. In the end, apart from a fairly tedious two-hour wait on the tarmac at Heathrow due to a technical problem the journey was long but uneventful.


15 February

Arriving mid-morning at Johannesburg airport we had a little time for some opportunistic birding before boarding the 2 hour flight to Windhoek - Cape Turtle Dove and Blacksmith and Crowned Plovers were to be common sights in Namibia, but were new for me here.


We landed at 2pm and cleared immigration etc at a gentler pace than we might have wished for, but were soon seeing birds - Cape Wagtails, Rock Martins, and South African Cliff Swallows – the latter looked for specifically on Neil’s advice, as we saw them nowhere else. As we pulled out of Windhoek airport a Wahlberg’s Eagle circled in front of us. Roadside poles and wires started to provide us with the first of many Pale Chanting Goshawks (“PCGs”) and Black-shouldered Kites, and myriad Lesser Grey Shrikes. A lucky few in the front bus (which for this day only included me) also saw a Short-toed Rock Thrush fly across the road at a police checkpoint.


The first afternoon was a long drive up to Waterberg Plateau National Park to get into the camp before the gates closed at dusk, so most of the birding done was out of the windows of the minibuses. However, a quick stop for water and fuel at Okahandja provided good views of Red-faced Mousebird, Southern and Lesser Masked Weavers and African Palm Swift. We kept adding species steadily on the drive, including plentiful Lilac-breasted Rollers, a brief Scimitarbill, White-backed Vulture, Tawny Eagle and flight views of our first endemic – Monteiro’s Hornbill.


Something which bemused me that day was the occasional sight of people standing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere holding up unfeasibly large mushrooms. Neil explained that these grow in the middle of abandoned termite mounds, and are considered a delicacy, enough so that it is worth some peoples’ while to toil to extract them and then try to sell them to the occupants of the few passing vehicles. Telling me obviously got his tastebuds going, as soon after he stopped and bought a few, and we all had some as a rather tasty sidedish that night.


Somewhere in the thornveld north of Sukses, a large kettle of raptors prompted another stop, which turned out to be highly profitable. Most of the circling birds were Yellow-billed Kites, with a few Black Kites thrown in, but also mixed in were 2+ Steppe Eagles, a Lappet-faced Vulture, and small numbers of 3 storks  2 Woolly-necked, 4 Marabou and 3 Abdim’s. A large flock (100+) of Abdim’s Storks flew over, a Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill posed on a small tree, the first of many White-rumped Swifts whizzed over, and then we started noticing the smaller birds in the bushes around us – Marico Flycatcher, Chestnut Weaver, Acacia Pied Barbet, and the truly stunning Crimson-breasted Bush Shrike among them. After an action-packed 15 minutes (known just as “the stop”) we reluctantly got back in the vans. On the way to Waterberg Neil reliably informed me that 2 small bustards in flight were Red-crested Korhaans. We only just made it to the Bernabe de la Bat rest camp before dusk, as a heavy rain shower made the dirt approach road distinctly slippery.


Considering how little proper birding we had been able to do, a total of nearly 60 species under the belt already was respectable. The highlights of the evening were some spectacularly large moths and spotlighting an enchanting Lesser Bushbaby in a tree outside our chalet.


16 February

Out at dawn on one of the trails leading up from the camp to the impressive escarpment, we had mixed success with the endemics available here. We heard several Hartlaub’s Francolins but didn’t see any, and only a lucky few connected with Rockrunner. All had good views of Rosy-faced Lovebird, though, and a selection of commoner species – eg African Grey Hornbill, Grey Lourie, a very pretty male Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Purple Roller, Red-billed Francolin – and some also got good views of Three-streaked Tchagra. Back at the edge of the camp, a stroke of luck, as I located a group of 3 Bradfield’s Hornbills, on the edge of their range here. The group enjoyed good views of these and also Southern Puffback, Pririt Batis, Melba Finch, White-browed Scrub Robin, and, heading off to breakfast, 4 Rüppell’s Parrots - another endemic.


A couple of short walks around the camp after breakfast were also productive, a good range of species being seen, including Klaas’s Cuckoo, Fork-tailed Drongo, Marico and White-bellied Sunbirds, another Rüppell’s Parrot, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Pearl-spotted Owl and Bennett’s Woodpecker. But it was time to go again, with another long drive to reach Etosha National Park before dusk. On the way out from Waterberg we were treated to excellent views of Shaft-tailed Whydah, Monteiro’s Hornbill, and Scaly-feathered Finch, and a mixed group of hirundines and swifts including Red-breasted, Greater Striped and Lesser Striped Swallows. A brief Southern Pied Babbler eluded all but a lucky few though, and turned out to be the only one of the trip.


On towards Etosha, and the drive produced yet more PCGs, Lilac-breasted Rollers, Fork-tailed Drongos, another Tawny Eagle and the first Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters. At Otjiwarongo we stopped to pick up water and snacks, then made a productive visit to the local sewage ponds: a variety of wildfowl included Spur-winged Goose, White-faced Whistling Duck, South African Shelduck, Red-billed Teal, and Red-knobbed Coot, while waders included our first 2 Three-banded Plovers. After our lunch stop, watching Black-chested Prinias, Namaqua Doves, and nesting Southern Masked Weavers, we headed north towards Tsumeb. Species noted on the drive included 3 Wahlberg’s Eagles together, 3 Shikras, a group of 9 Red-footed Falcons perched in a tree, and 3 European Rollers.


Mid-afternoon we called in at Lake Otjikoto. A sinkhole, it is one of the very few totally reliable water sources in this part of the country, and was fought over several times in colonial days. It also apparently has its own endemic species of fish! Paul B saw an African Paradise Flycatcher briefly, but most had to content ourselves with Pied Kingfisher and Southern Pochard.  Our only Brown Snake Eagle showed well in flight soon after leaving Otjikoto, but was trumped a short while later by an adult Martial Eagle perched on a low tree close to the road. Truly magnificent, and for Stuart and I in particular, high on our want lists, so we were very happy.


A Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting posed just before the entrance gate to Etosha, along with several pairs of Long-tailed Paradise Whydahs, then we were in the park, and the pop-tops went up on the buses. Between the gate and Namutoni camp we had our first views of Giraffes, Burchell’s Zebras and Black-faced Impalas (another Namibian endemic!), and I found the first of several Red-billed Hornbills. I got to like hornbills, a lot.


Within Namutoni camp, Red-billed Buffalo Weavers were nesting by the restaurant, and a brief walk around the grounds towards dusk produced a Jacobin Cuckoo, 4 Red-faced Mousebirds, Blue and Black-cheeked Waxbills, 3 Southern Puffbacks, 2 Chestnut-vented Titbabblers, 2 European Golden Orioles, a Golden-breasted Bunting, and a flock of 30+ Banded Martins. Mammals included a confiding Warthog and at least 2 Black-backed Jackals roaming the camp.


17 February

A few in the group visited the waterhole at dawn and were rewarded with views of Green-backed Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron. The rest of us sorted ourselves out in time for the pre-breakfast drive along the Dik-dik trail. A Black Cuckoo was calling in the camp as we were leaving, but only a few of us got unsatisfactory views.


On most days our busload travelled with Charles, but on this drive we were with Neil. I was in the front seat (and remained so for several days despite offering it up, as the others preferred to be able to stand up and view through the pop-top). Swings and roundabouts as to which was better, as I got the best views of 4 Black-faced Babblers (our only sighting) that morning, but missed out on a Southern White-crowned Shrike. Seen well by all were Brubru, 2 Golden-breasted Buntings, 2 Long-billed Crombecs, and several Kori Bustards and Helmeted Guineafowl, but we only heard Crested and Swainson’s Francolins.


After breakfast, with Charles now driving our half of the group again, a brief stop just outside the camp gave us Cardinal Woodpecker, as well as Jacobin Cuckoo and Black-cheeked Waxbill again, but only Charles saw the Swainson’s Francolin which ran across the road in front of us. At a largish area of standing water we all had excellent views of the first 2 of 7 Greater Painted Snipes that day, and our bus scored with Lesser Moorhen. Also showing well were 5 African Spoonbills, Glossy and Sacred Ibises, and various wildfowl. Then we passed through a scrubbier area and started to see smaller birds again – Sabota, Monotonous, Rufous-naped and Spike-heeled Larks, Dusky Sunbird, Southern Anteater Chat and Ashy Grey Tit all showed well, as did the first of several Double-banded Coursers. New mammals along this stretch included Greater Kudu, Oryx, and Red Hartebeest, as well as the inevitable herds of Springbok and Blue Wildebeest. Then, just as we were returning to the camp for lunch, we came across 3 Ostriches. Years of seeing them on TV simply had not prepared me for just how big they actually are!


While bird activity was of course much less during the heat of the day, it never ceased entirely, so after a much-needed siesta (during which both Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures flew over our chalet and a White-bellied Sunbird showed briefly), some members of the group gathered at the waterhole for a productive little session, with good views of Black Crake, several African Marsh Warblers, Cape Reed Warbler, and 2 Water Dikkops. Then at 4pm it was out on the road again, doing the Fischer’s Pan/Twee Palms trail. A Great Spotted Cuckoo showed well near the camp, but otherwise it was much the same birds for a while, with Crowned Plovers and Sabota Larks much in evidence, plus Kalahari Scrub Robin. An African Barred Warbler singing out in the open (unusually) was appreciated, especially by the second bus as we had dropped well behind again and were pleasantly surprised that it was still there when we arrived.


Near Twee Palms we found 2 Marabous, at least 15 Kittlitz’s Plovers, some nesting on the edges of the gravel road, and 3 Chestnut-banded Plovers. Another small waterhole further on produced 2 Spotted Dikkops; while trying to set my scope on them I found a male Northern Black Korhaan! We saw several more of these truly stunning birds that afternoon and over the next two days, but I never tired of watching them – definitely one of my favourite birds of the trip. On the way back we located a further 2 Lesser Moorhens, very unusually for Etosha and much to the relief of the first bus, 2 Yellow-billed Egrets and 2 large rafts of Black-necked Grebes. Then, just before the dash back to the camp before the gates shut, we came across a single bull Elephant. The only one we saw, but what a one – magnificent!


As was by now regular, most of the group drifted off to their chalets shortly after dinner and the nightly log call, but Stuart and I sampled several of the local beers, joined for a while at least by Neil and Charles. The swapping of stories and sharing of experiences between us added a very enjoyable extra dimension throughout the trip.


18 February

Dawn at the waterhole provided few birds, but the Black Cuckoo finally gave itself up to the whole group while we were waiting for the gates to be opened. We tried the Dik-dik drive again, but it was also very quiet. Both francolins were heard again, but the only sighting was a Swainson’s Francolin that Neil saw in his door mirror, running across the road behind our bus! Not all gloom though, as we had fantastic perched views of 3 Giant Eagle Owls and a Tawny Eagle, 2 Dusky Larks, and brief views of an African Wildcat. Then, when the second bus stopped for more photos of Giraffes close study of a red-billed hornbill proved it to be the recently split and endemic Damara Hornbill! I got a real buzz out of this find, tempered a bit by only one bus seeing the bird.


After breakfast on we went, heading towards Okaukuejo camp at the western end of the park. A few Groundscraper Thrushes showed well as we left Namutoni, then not long out of the camp we found some other visitors parked and watching something – Lions! The four lionesses were impressive enough, then we spotted the male resting under an acacia bush – again years of wildlife programmes on TV did not prepare me for the sheer size of him. A brilliant experience.


A few hundred metres, 2 Wattled Plovers and a group of Banded Mongooses later, the starter motor on our bus jammed yet again. I had got used to occasionally getting out and pushing over the previous day or two (against the rules in the park, but needs must), but now to have to do it when I knew there were lions about, and on the day when it was our turn to pull the baggage trailer too….. For some unfathomable reason, the rest of the bus felt disinclined to help out other than with “encouraging” comments.


The drive to Halali camp provided more Ostriches and Kori Bustards, but unfortunately no Blue Cranes. Raptors were well represented, with an adult male Bateleur the best, but also a Gabar Goshawk, several Greater Kestrels and several flocks of Red-footed Falcons. Two African Golden Orioles were another welcome sight.


Neil had told us he was worried that the birds weren’t really playing ball (although we were still seeing plenty enough to keep us happy) and we failed yet again at lunchtime at Halali with Bare-cheeked Babbler and Carp’s Tit. It wasn’t a wasted stop though. Left to our own devices, the group split up and found a variety of birds, including Marabou Stork, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, European Golden Oriole, and Grey-hooded Kingfisher, and we all had good views of 5 juvenile Violet Woodhoopoes and a Southern White-crowned Shrike. Meanwhile Neil and Charles had been staking out roosting owls; 2 African Scops Owls and 2 Southern White-faced Owls duly showed well, the former both right by the restaurant area.


By now we were at the more arid end of the park, so a trio of Double-banded Sandgrouse were not too surprising, and as we headed towards Okaukuejo we could regularly see the main Etosha pan – vast, bare, barren, and inhospitable. But on the edge of it at Salvadora came one of the best birding moments of the trip.

We were watching a few of a large group of Red-capped Larks when the other bus shouted “distant Secretary Bird”. Shimmery views followed, but then we drove round and came across a pair of them, much closer. Brilliant, weird birds, stalking slowly through the grass. A pair of Northern Black Korhaans just added to the scene.


The other star bird of the afternoon couldn’t have been more different - the delightful little Rufous-eared Warbler. We only had the one chance at this bird, which favours low heath-like vegetation, but one responded readily to the tape and sat up jauntily in the open for us.


Then the fun started – maybe it was the heat. The sandgrouse had already been briefly misidentified but quickly resolved, but we had more trouble with an immature Red-necked Falcon. Then, in the same spot the first bus saw a Steppe Buzzard (one of many), but our bus saw what appeared to be a juvenile African Hawk Eagle. Except that they’re not supposed to be there. But it looked more like one than a Buzzard, and we know our Buzzards. On the other hand Neil knows African Hawk Eagle rather better. Pass.


As afternoon turned into early evening, we went beyond Okaukuejo camp in search of more target species, and more controversy followed – a courser initially identified as Temminck’s turned out to be the rarer Burchell’s Courser, then a ringtail harrier caused more debate until most were finally happy that it was a Montagu’s Harrier. In between we had good views of several Pink-billed Larks, and Pied Crow slipped on to our lists almost unremarked. Running late, we charged for the gates, a big bump causing the pop-top on our bus to shut spontaneously (luckily everyone was sat down at the time). A large and spectacular thunderstorm followed us in, somewhat fittingly.


At Okaukuejo camp a dusk visit to the floodlit waterhole was productive, with 3 Spotted Dikkops, a Water Dikkop, 2 Three-banded Plovers and at least 4 Double-banded Sandgrouse coming in to drink. Better was to come later, though, as we trooped back down there after dinner to find 2 Black Rhinos standing at the water’s edge! Simply amazing, magnificent beasts. A Giant Eagle Owl was perched on a dead tree nearby and a male Rufous-cheeked Nightjar hawked over the pool. A brilliant end to another good, if sometimes rumbustuous, day.


19 February

A pre-breakfast walk around the camp produced a variety of birds, including Sociable Weaver, Brubru, Acacia Pied Barbet, Ashy Grey Tit and Pririt Batis, and the flock of various hirundines and Little Swifts whizzing around included one of only a few Brown-throated Sand Martins seen. A few of us also saw a female Pygmy Falcon, but it quickly disappeared again. Neil’s now familiar assertion that we “will see more of those” as a gee-up to move on proved to be right (as it was usually, but not always), and several of these delightful little falcons showed later in the day.


Soon after we left the camp a group of about 25 Grey-backed Finch-larks flew over the road and we enjoyed good views of a Red-crested Korhaan. Big raptors included 3 White-backed Vultures in a roadside tree, another Tawny Eagle and an excellent immature Martial Eagle. Our bus scored again, this time with a pair of Fiscal Shrikes desperately mobbing a Yellow-billed Kite that had chosen their nest bush to sit on while eating a snake. We took our last looks at Giraffes and Zebras, closed the pop-top at the Andersson gate, said goodbye (and thanks) to Etosha and headed out on to the open road.


The habitat along this road must have been different in a way that I couldn’t pick out, as the species mix was different – Red-backed Shrikes predominated on the wires, and there were several Southern White-crowned Shrikes and Pygmy Falcons to be seen too, along with plenty of European Bee-eaters. Some of the regulars were there, though - Lilac-breasted and occasional Purple Rollers, Fork-tailed Drongos and sentinel-like PCGs. We mostly passed these by, but stopped for a Diederic Cuckoo which flew across the road and perched on a nearby bush.


Okimba Lodge, near Outjo, provided us with an excellent lunch and some equally excellent birding – among the species seen were African Paradise Flycatcher (a much-appreciated stakeout for this beautiful bird), another Diederic Cuckoo, White-backed and Red-faced Mousebirds, Groundscraper Thrush, Crimson-breasted Bush Shrike, Marico Sunbird, African Barred Warbler, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Greater Striped Swallow and White-browed Sparrow Weaver. A Black-cheeked Lovebird was well out of its range, though, and presumably of dubious origin.


On the road again in the afternoon, and back to mainly Lesser Grey Shrikes on the wires. Occasional Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters enlivened proceedings, and we gripped back Fawn-coloured Lark (which is as dull as it sounds, unfortunately) on the front bus. Raptors included an immature Gymnogene and 2 fine adult African Hawk Eagles (which handily dampened down most of the controversy from the day before). Also, a regular sight along this road was the favoured mode of transport for most local people: a rubber-tyred cart pulled by one to three donkeys, which Charles affectionately called a “Kalahari Ferrari”.


We reached Omaruru and birded along the riverine woodland and at the sewage ponds, finding another Damara Hornbill, Pearl-spotted Owl, and several Lark-like Buntings (also as plain as it sounds). Some then took the opportunity to rest and freshen up at our hotel, but a few of us kept birding, doing a circuit round the hotel which included the dry riverbed. It proved to be a worthwhile session, including 6 White-backed Mousebirds, a Honey Buzzard, an adult Gymnogene, a male Bearded Woodpecker, and a pair of gaudy Violet-eared Waxbills.


Another good day, although inevitably with less new birds than in previous ones, and we were still missing several endemics we thought we would have seen. The morning would be the last chance at some of them, and we were not that hopeful. It was, however, to end up being a memorable day!


20 February

Dawn saw us already out by Erongo Wilderness Lodge, near Omaruru, and to our relief we were soon watching a single male Hartlaub’s Francolin perched high on a rock. Thankfully, it stayed until the light was good enough to see all the relevant fieldmarks. No Rockrunners there, but we all had excellent views of 2 White-tailed Shrikes - another endemic and a really smart bird.


After a good breakfast, and a slightly too leisurely packing up, at the hotel we were back on the road, with me in the back today as Alastair wanted some time up front. Our first stop was at a rocky outcrop by the Khan River (as usual a river in name only), our last possible spot for Rockrunner.  After only a few minutes of intermittent taping Neil waved, and the rest of us left the roadside to join him. I made it in time to see the bird well, living up to its name, but then it quickly disappeared. Thankfully it was refound a few minutes later and showed well to all on the top of the outcrop. The sense of relief was palpable. We also had good views of a further 2 White-tailed Shrikes and Charles and I saw a brief Three-streaked Tchagra, but a group of calling babblers (probably Southern Pied, I was told) refused to show.


Near Karibib, Neil’s home town, the local airstrip provided us with a variety of larks but nothing new. Once in Karibib, Neil took the opportunity to get the starter motor fixed on Charles’s van. Some of the group used the time to do some shopping, but the rest of us got a good hour or so’s birding in at the local golf course, including Familiar Chat, Yellow-bellied Eremomela (instant winner as the most tongue-twisting bird name of the trip), Fiscal Shrike, Scimitarbill, Plum-coloured Starling, Lark-like Bunting and lots more White-rumped Swifts. Alastair also had a very brief view of a probable Short-toed Rock Thrush.


Even after being picked up, however, we still had time to lounge around and buy drinks and snacks in the town centre, as the van wasn’t ready. Opportunities to observe normal human life in Namibia had been rare, cossetted as we had been in the tourist-oriented national parks. A consistent message gained from the Lonely Planet Guide was that Namibians are very proud of their country. A trivial but typical example of this was that there was no litter to be seen on the streets of Karibib, a busy little town – imagine that in any town or city in Britain.


In the short time we had in Namibia, however, we could only barely scratch the surface of the country and its people. There are social problems and grinding poverty, even though Namibia is prosperous in comparison to many African countries, but we saw little of them from our cocoon. Over the next few days it was more noticeable at times, though – for example, a shanty town in the desert where people scratched a living unearthing small gems and selling them to the tourists, or a cemetery where yet another funeral was taking place, regularly as a result of the AIDS epidemic. But these scenes were usually seen fleetingly from the bus windows, and were gone, and we “rich” Europeans could quickly turn our thoughts back to our trivial hobby.


At last the bus was ready, but we were over two hours behind schedule starting out for Spitzkoppe, an isolated volcanic spike of a peak at the end of a low range called the Pondoks, rising above a stony desert plain. We couldn’t stop for much on the way, but Paul B was on particularly good form that day and found us both our next endemic - 4 Rüppell’s Korhaans (a quite gorgeous bird in an understated way) - and a pair of Namaqua Sandgrouse. Unfortunately for the front bus, Neil decided not to turn back for the sandgrouse because of the time constraint – one of the few times that his “we’ll see more of those” turned out not to be true. A Chat Flycatcher seen by all was dull by comparison, but still welcome.


We finally arrived at the spectacular Spitzkoppe sometime after 2pm, and immediately had a huge slice of luck. Still in the buses, we stopped to look at a Klipspringer standing on the rocks above. I was enjoying a cracking male Mountain Wheatear (one of several here) when two smaller birds landed on a nearby boulder - Herero Chats! A bird whose English and scientific names inextricably link it to Namibia and one of its main tribes, and which is only available at this site on this tour, it was the endemic I most wanted (and was least likely on paper) to see. The strong light made the views less brilliant than they could have been at what was fairly close range, but all the relevant field marks were still visible and I was a happy man.


Although we were still well behind the clock, with the main target already under the belt we could afford to enjoy our packed lunches in the shade, then quickly search for the birdlife still moving in the searing heat. White-throated Canary, Pale-winged Starling, Rock Pigeon, and Yellow-bellied Eremomela were all seen well, and Charles and I each saw Layard’s Titbabbler briefly. A flash of white over the peak betrayed the presence of a smashing adult Augur Buzzard, briefly joined by a pale phase Booted Eagle. But barely an hour and a half after arriving we had to be on our way, picking up Karoo Chat and Stark’s Lark as we went; the front bus also saw 2 Bokmakieries briefly. The stars, however, were a pair of Rüppell’s Korhaans with a young chick, right by the road, causing a busload of hardened birders simultaneously to go “Aaah!”


We were back on tarmac soon after and driving fast southwest. We stopped so everyone could get good views of a Tractrac Chat, but all other birds including several other Tractracs and at least one Familiar Chat were brief sightings as we flashed by, attempting to make up time as we headed for the coast. Both Hartlaub’s Gull and Kelp Gull flew over as we drove through Swakopmund, before arriving just after 6pm at a bare coastal plain just to the north of the town. There we saw the last of 6 new endemics for the day - up to 13 Gray’s Larks were picking away at the sand and sparsely scattered salt-tolerant low shrubs. They were very pale and quite the cutest lark of the trip.


Unfortunately the drive had been too much for Charles’s bus and something in the engine had blown. At least it happened where it did  - a major breakdown at Spitzkoppe doesn’t bear thinking about, and on the road would have been little better. Charles whisked the other busload away early to our overnight stop in Walvis Bay (it’s pronounced “walfish”), while Neil whistled up another minibus. One of the extra advantages of having local guides (and a good local mobile phone network), though a little unlucky on the other half of the group who were denied some quality birding time. Meanwhile we were stranded at a good birding spot, and made full use of it.


On the salt lagoon hundreds of Cape Cormorants and White-breasted (Great) Cormorants were complemented by a large mixed flock of Greater and Lesser Flamingos. Waders included familiar Palaearctic species such as Curlew Sandpiper and Turnstone, but also 8 African Black Oystercatchers and small numbers of White-fronted Plovers. Several Damara Terns were fishing in the lagoon, a single Black Tern flew by, Kelp Gulls were overhead and a few Little Egrets were in the shallows. As the light was starting to fade at last our replacement transport arrived, and the final new birds of the day were 2 Eastern White Pelicans on a beach at dusk on the way to Walvis Bay.


21 February

After a leisurely breakfast in town, we were driven to a small quay where we met Niels of Mola Mola Water Safaris for our 5 hour mini-pelagic trip. A couple of Crowned Cormorants were on pilings by the quay, and several more White Pelicans were around. Large numbers of terns fishing in the bay seemed mostly to be Common Terns, but we did also pick out a few Crested Terns distantly. We didn’t need to go far out before we came across the first Cape Gannets and White-chinned Petrels, but the real hits were the mammals: Cape Fur Seals, two of which came on board the boat to be fed fish by Niels, and Heaviside’s Dolphins, which rode along with us just under the prow for a while, giving excellent point-blank views to those who braved clambering out there.


A weather system had passed through recently, and once we got outside the bay itself the swell increased dramatically. Three of the group were ill (unfortunately including me) and several others looked rather peeky – Niels was kind and supportive in a bluff sort of a way, but obviously thought we were wimps. We didn’t see as many birds as hoped either, only 2 European Storm Petrels, for instance, and 2 probable Wilson’s Petrels (they certainly looked like Wilson’s, of which I’ve seen a few, but I was a little preoccupied at the time), but close views of Cory’s and Sooty Shearwaters and Pomarine Skuas made up for it (I think). A single Great Shearwater was, surprisingly, unusual for here. Suddenly, then came the major, only half-hoped-for prize, a single African Penguin which stayed around the boat for several minutes. I was instantly as happy as my stomach would allow.


By the time we were back in the bay again I felt well enough to eat some of the lunch provided, and we had brilliant views of Bottlenosed Dolphins riding with the boat. Also excellent were the closeups of Cape Cormorants breeding on old boats in the bay, and a couple more Crowned Cormorants, but the appalling smell made me a bit queasy again, so I was glad to get back on land at last.


After a short break we were off again, minus two of the group who were still feeling too ill, out into the desert. A Namaqua Chameleon in the road was an interesting diversion, then a brief stop at a small water compound yielded several Cape Sparrows (the males are gorgeous) and a few Common Waxbills. We parked up at a predetermined spot, and almost immediately Paul B found a pair of Cape White-eyes showing well. We tramped a short distance into the low dunes, where we found Dune Lark relatively easily. An endemic of very restricted range, it was the last of the big targets. After a couple of brief sightings one showed very well, singing perched and in flight. We also all finally managed to get really good views of several Grey-backed Finch-larks.


The sewage ponds on the way back into town were very productive (and came complete with a tower hide!): lots of Hartlaub’s Gulls with a couple of Grey-headed Gulls thrown in, 2 Purple Gallinules, various wildfowl including a female Maccoa Duck and a drake Cape Shoveler, and yet more flamingos and pelicans.


With the end of the trip looming, we were starting to wind down. We spent the rest of the afternoon looking around the seafront and lagoons in Walvis Bay itself. Many of the waders were familiar trip list padders –  Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit - but also 2 Marsh Sandpipers on the lagoon behind our bungalows. A large flock of Common Terns on the seafront also included Damara and White-winged Black Terns and a single Caspian Tern. A last walk around the bungalows before dinner produced a small but varied list of species: Three-banded and White-fronted Plovers, Damara Tern, Cape Wagtail, White-rumped Swift, and African Marsh Warbler. The serried ranks of sand dunes behind the lagoon are a pale shadow of what the real sandy desert areas must be like, but looked inhospitable all the same.


Dinner was for the second night running at the Raft, so after the traditional last night photos etc, we again ate wonderful seafood to the backdrop of another gorgeous African sunset and a raft of 100+ Hartlaub’s Gulls roosting just outside the windows. With a certain amount of envy we said goodbye to the Norfolk contingent (Dave, Pauline and Peter), who had shared our bus all week and were staying on for an extra fortnight independently, and got to bed relatively early.


22 February

Our last day in Namibia and a very early start (5am) to be able to fit in the drive back to the airport and as much birding as possible, so one last chance to see a spectacular African dawn. We fitted in breakfast and a brief drive round the golf course in Karibib, but nothing new. Brief stops along the road were mostly for raptors, including White-backed Vulture and Black-breasted Snake Eagle, but mostly we pushed on, eager to give ourselves maximum time at Windhoek sewage ponds.


One memorable stop, however, was at a market at Okahandja to buy souvenirs. The “old hands”  backed off and stood in the shade, but I had promised my mum to bring her a souvenir back, so threw myself into the fray. It was lucky I knew what I wanted and could be firm, as the stallholders were persistent, though not threatening. I still probably paid well over the odds in terms of local price for two baskets, but they were still very cheap by British standards, so what the hell. Watching Alastair struggling to return to the bus with an armful of carved animals and a trail of traders behind him thinking that they might also get a sale was very funny, though (sorry, mate). Of course the old hands were also laughing at me, so there you go.


Finally we arrived at Windhoek sewage ponds, which was an excellent site, adding several new birds for the trip (and some extra lifers for most of the group): Reed Cormorant, African Darter, Red Bishop, White-throated and Pearl-breasted Swallows, Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Osprey, and brief views for some of Striped Crake. Plenty of wildfowl too, eg South African Shelduck, Southern Pochard, Red-knobbed Coot, and Red-billed Teal. The male Red Bishops were amazing things, crimson powderpuffs on whirring wings, like huge bumblebees as they displayed around the reedbeds. But all too soon our time was up and we were off to the airport.


We still had time after checking in to say our goodbyes and heartfelt thanks to Neil and Charles. Neil coped admirably with all that the trip threw at him: not just the normal stuff of leading a tour and doing a lot of driving, but also the problems with Charles’s bus, the birds not behaving as they might either, having to resist the temptation to pop in to see his wife and young son when in Karibib, and as a final indignity suffering from a dose of stomach trouble. No wonder he was stressed at times, though always still professional. And I will not forget Charles – it would be fun to visit him and his wife one day. No pain, Charles. (“No pain” means no problem, no worries.) They had to leave us to meet another Naturetrek group on the incoming flight and go do it all over again.


We waited until the last minute to see a last few Namibian birds. Predictably they were the aerial species: South African Cliff Swallow, Greater Striped Swallow, Rock Martin, and Little Swift. When we saw 2 majestic Wahlberg’s Eagles circling over we decided that was a fitting bird with which to finish the trip, put our bins away and got on the flight.


Seven days and one hour after arriving in Namibia, we took off and left it, possibly never to return – so many other places to go. What a brilliant place, though. The birding wasn’t quite over; as the plane taxied at Johannesburg airport those on the right side saw 2 male Red-collared Widowbirds displaying over the grass just off the tarmac. An unexpected bonus to warm us on the long flight home.


23 February

Heathrow at 6am on a cold, overcast winter’s morning was a bit of a shock after all that, but we all enjoyed the trip immensely and immediately started planning where to go next.

Species list


(Species in square brackets were recorded by various other members of the group, but not by me.)