Text and photographs Pompie Burger – Main photograph: Green-backed Heron ©Pompie Burger
Imagine planning a birding trip to Namibia, and having to choose only one destination. Fear not. To back up and increase your tick list a few notches, you can probably not do much better than Kunene River Lodge, situated on the banks of the Kunene at Swartbooisdrift, halfway between Epupa Falls and Ruacana Falls.
The possibility of seeing nine of a possible 13 endemics is not the only reason for choosing this destination. You will probably also see specials other than the endemics that will have you slobbering for days on end.
As you might have realised by now, I am not that good a birdwatcher. Looking for little brown jobs never seen before, getting up at three in the morning to crawl under thorn-infested trees among poisonous creepy crawlies and fighting off dangerous animals is just not my style. I would prefer the comfort of a campfire or, even better, my bed.
On the topic of dangerous, my first outing to this region was in the early eighties doing my army service as a doctor, based at the Ruacana Airport for three months! I realised only on a recent visit (to show my kids where I had performed my brave acts) that the side I always thought was the dangerous side (the side from which the enemy might attack us) was actually the safe side.
Since then – in 2011 – they discovered an Angolan Cave Chat (Xenocopsychus ansorgei) in the Zebra Mountains. Obviously this makes for good birding if you are on 999 and can show your T-shirt to confirm it.
My first trip to this area was preceded by sleepless nights, while revelling in how I was going to be the first photographer to take a perfect shot of a Cindy, which is what they call the Cinderella Waxbill (Estrilda thomensis) in these parts. There was also talk of seeing a Grey Kestrel (Falco ardosiaceus), not to mention a Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer), which is seen exclusively here and, with its somewhat lighter plumage, belongs to the race afer.
And it doesn’t stop here. There’s the Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush (Cichladusa ruficauda), a special for this region, especially common around the tall, graceful makalani palms along the river banks. Last but not least there’s the possibility of seeing a Bat Hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus).
But let’s not get too carried away. The essence of this story is that it’s never been told, because we left after two days of not seeing any of these specials. At that stage I knew at least which was the danger side. I also knew that it would be my last visit to this area because of a combination of multiple disappointments while there.
To summarise, my thoughts are personified in the infamous words of T.W.T. when he looked at the lift of my spare tyre. Fortunately my Owambo helper told me: “No, it was just not working!” Fact is, Kunene River Lodge was fixed.
On our arrival at the camp site, our bird-watching effort was rewarded immediately by the sight of a breeding Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath) on the other side of the river (the danger side). The constant melodious whistle under the shrubs alongside our camping spot turned out to be that of a Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush. This special was, in the end, a faithful companion during our stay. Finding its nest on the wall of one of the chalets behind an ornamental basket was just another bonus.
Apparently this was a ploy is to get out of the Swamp Boubou’s (Laniarius bicolour) hunting territory. The Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) had apparently just arrived from its long trip from Europe and was already harassing the small birds in the camp, looking for its own spot to do its breeding. The Groundscraper Thrush (Psophocichla litsitsirupa) couple had settled quite comfortably on the little lawn in front of the bungalow, while the consistent calling of the Madagascar Bee-eaters was haunting us. Although not visible, this promised much excitement to come.
Along the banks of the river bordering the campsite, you can hear the White-browed Coucals (Centropus superciliosus) continuously calling to each other. A visit by a Yellow-bellied Greenbul (Chlorocichla ventris) and its steady calling kept us guessing as to which of the various bulbuls it could be. In the end the diagnosis was that it was a Stripe-cheeked Greenbul (Andropadus milanjensis), a species never seen in this area before, but who cares?, especially after a beer and a cigar around the campfire. The calls from outside the camp were mostly from the local donkeys, apparently also in their breeding season, but their calls could not really compare to those of any of the local avian population, unless you’re somewhat of a masochist.
The expedition to look for the Cinderella Waxbill was very special. Driving up a riverbed (on the instructions and map provided by Peter) we suddenly came upon a trickle of water, which we followed on foot. The trickle became bigger, until we eventually reached a waterfall (which, when described by Peter earlier, I had written off as a ha-ha waterfall). But there it was, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by massive fig, camelthorn and combretum trees, with the odd bottle tree in between. There were lilies in bloom after the recent rains that added to the magic of the area.
We came across a group of Bare-cheeked Babblers (Turdoides gymnogenys) which entertained me – or perhaps it was the other way round – for quite some time. In the process of following them on foot and stomach, I saw an African Golden Oriole (Oriolus auratus), White-bellied Sunbirds (Cinnyris talatala), White-crested Helmet-Shrikes (Prionops plumatus) and Violet Wood-Hoopoes (Phoeniculus damarensis)… and a donkey. Apparently some of our fellow tourists from the USA thought them to be cute little ponies!
Rachelle, who was waiting at the vehicle, had a group of Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters (Merops hirundineus) entertaining her with their flying abilities. When she became bored, she used the calls of the Cindies on her cellphone, trying to attract them while we were sweating it out at the waterfall. Unfortunately the only reply she got was from a group of goats and a Himba lady who wanted sweets (the Himba lady, that is).
The closest we came to seeing a Cindie was a Cinnamon-breasted Bunting (Emberiza tahapisi). The cin and the size were close, but unfortunately not close enough. Apparently they had occupied the camp during the drought, amusing the tourists and staff. Obviously you do not really need a GPS reading and super-strong binoculars. It’s more about the timing of your visit to see these beauties.
The boat trip on the Kunene is a must, not only because of the scenery along the river. Although the water is quite dirty compared to that of the east-flowing rivers of Namibia, the protruding rocks are fascinating, the rapids exciting and the trees and vegetation along the river beautiful.
On the river bank we saw a combretum of over 600 years. The birding here is exceptional. We finally saw the Madagascar Bee-eaters (Merops superciliosus) at their nesting site and an African Harrier-Hawk (Polyboroides typus) in one of the makalani palms. A Diderick Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx caprius) allowed us so close that I had to lean back a bit to get him in focus. Some exciting ticks were Green-backed Herons (Butorides striata), African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta), African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus), Carps Tit (Parus carpi), Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus) and Little Bee-eaters (Merops pusillus).
While I was doing my second boat-birding trip the next day, Ian and Rachelle did a bit of white-water rafting, which turned out to be a lot of fun. The birding was not that good though, probably due to their speed rather than the birds not being present.
The much-promised Bat Hawk, Macheiramphus alcinus, was not in at the time of our visit to its favourite tree, but we did see other raptors. On our way back, I saw but did not photograph my first Red-necked Spurfowl because they were too quick for me.
Peter promised me that we would definitely see them at the camp at dusk and dawn. I thought ja, that’s what they all say when the sun gets a bit hot. That evening we went for a two-hour drive looking for them, without any luck. But when we drove back to camp, there they were – four Spur Fowls minding their own business at the gate of the lodge.
The Afrikaans for Cinderella is Aspoestertjie! No comment on that, but going all that way really was worth it, and my first impression a few years ago was proven very wrong, as my friend at T.W.T. told me: “Die ding is nie fxct-up nie, hy werk net nie mooi nie.” (The place was not fxct up, it was just not run properly.)The clock did not prevent us from finding the magic of Kunene.
Originally published in Travel News Namibia Winter 2014