Riverboat Birding

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As if game drives in a vehicle aren’t bad enough, someone has invented boat trips. The worst part of this is that it gives an even better opportunity for lodges to entertain (keep busy) their guests with another form of boredom. One advantage is that boat trips have less dust. Maybe the drives originate from the cruise and not the other way round, but in the end it doesn’t really matter, it is all the same. After this interesting article I might be banned from all lodges (with rivers) in Namibia, but sometimes one has to get these things off your chest.

The one wonderful thing is that Namibia does not have that many rivers, so river cruising is still bearable. As mentioned above, all the ugly things of game drives are also applicable to boat cruises, but there are in fact a few terrible things to add to the misery of such an outing. For those lucky people who have never been on a boat trip, there are some things that you should know to make sense of this piece of crap (this story).

There are a few items necessary for a boat cruise. A boat (you will be surprised), a guide/boatman (most often the same guy with the same surprises), a river, birds (no surprises) and guests (the ultimate surprise). Unfortunately, all of these items have their own pros and cons, so I will discuss each analytically, scientifically and in full detail.

The river is probably the most important for obvious reasons. One can go on about how deep and wide it is, how strong the current is and how many bends and sandbanks there are, but I do not want to be stupid or sound negative about rivers at all. Essential to mention is that the depth is probably the most important factor, otherwise you will get stuck in the sand.

As far as the boat is concerned, there are a few very important points worth mentioning and examining before you get on board. It must float, preferably with a working engine (onboard), except if it is a mokoro. The size will give you some clues on what to expect. Over 20 seats or a double-decker: you are in for a sundowner cruise; to be avoided unless you are an alcoholic/narcissist. A 5-10-seater is dangerous because then you might end up with other guests (will address this problem later). Ideally a two or maybe three-seater with only two passengers, not 100. For a bird photographer, such as myself, space is unfortunately very important for all my accessories – like my wife Helga. This might sound chauvinistic/derogatory towards my wife, although you have to classify her somewhere in the greater scheme of things, and having expensive equipment herself, like the tripods, lenses etc. we can just as well put her there.

The boatman can at times (most of the time) also be the guide. He/she is probably the most important item on the boat. He must be able to drive the boat, fix it and keep it afloat, not get lost and not have a history of poaching and speeding. He must know everything about the river’s dangers lurking under the water.

Of special importance: he must know the way back to the lodge, even after dark. As far as his birding skills are concerned, he must know where to find all the birds. If the guests happen to have an opinion on a species’ identification, he must respect it, even when the guest is wrong. He must laugh at my jokes even though they might not be that funny. While on the boat he must not talk on his cell phone, take his own pictures/selfies, not do any fishing on the side and definitely not try to jump slalom over hippos to avoid/cause casualties to his passengers. In exceptional cases he must be able to drive along with birds in flight at their own speed (see: photographer).

The guests are in fact my favourite topic, for all the same reasons as with game drives. They are actually the most important item on the agenda, and not on the boat. The absence of co-passengers is the ideal situation. There are a few exceptions, the most important being Helga (see: items). She must be there to pass me a drink (drugs may be the road to nowhere, but at least it’s the scenic route), a lens or flash, wipe the sweat from my face, apply some more sunscreen to my face, adjust my chair and just be nice to me under these very trying and demanding circumstances.

As for other humans/tourists on board, they have a tendency to complain about the photographers swearing and taking all the best spots, and they also tend to get irritated when a photographer wants to take another picture (number 2500) of the same bird while smoking, to make the catastrophe even worse. Guests often talk too loudly, chasing away million-dollar birds (Dodos), or just behave like birders/photographers (bad people). Reading all these important but trivial points the reader might think I am an unsocial/antisocial person, but these are unfortunately all very real and valid points to consider.

In conclusion I must mention that it will be very unlikely that you will ever see any river/seabirds without a boat, and a river view will give you a completely different and exciting angle to birds, animals, plants, even fish, except if you are an African Jacana who can walk on water or an African Darter who can see under the water. There is nothing as depressing as good advice, so for all my boat-loving friends and enemies: “It’s always worth the journey!” Worth mentioning is that boat trips for bird-watching are one of my absolute favourite activities, so if you book your next holiday/lodge make sure they have a boat/birding trip, and rivers on the agenda.

This article was first published in the Summer 2019/20 issue of Travel News Namibia.

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