by Sven-Eric Kanzler
Click, whirr, click, whirr, click, whirr… several lenses capture the supple movements of a spotted body closing in and racing past. It is only a matter of seconds, but the photographers are ecstatic: they have just bagged a series of shots of a cheetah running at full speed.
The opportunity to watch a cheetah hunt will probably be an unforgettable experience for anyone. It is offered by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) at Farm Elandsvreugde, 44 km north east of Otjiwarongo. This north-central Namibian town is a three-hour drive from the capital, Windhoek, and halfway to the Etosha National Park. Many tourists stop only to refuel or have lunch. They have no idea what they are missing: cheetahs, Namibia’s last colony of the endangered Cape griffon vulture, many interesting features in the town and, of course, the Waterberg Plateau with its nature reserve, hiking trails and places of historic interest.
Earth’s fastest terrestrial animal
Worldwide there are only an estimated 15 000 left. Namibia’s cheetah population of about 2 500 is thought to be the largest and healthiest.
Nevertheless, cheetahs are also endangered in Namibia. Only five per cent live in nature reserves. The other 95 per cent are on farmland, where they often cause stock losses, as lambs and calves are easier prey than game. Many farmers solve the problem with a rifle. The CCF, which is also represented in the USA, Canada and Great Britain, is committed to protecting the big cats.
At farm Elandsvreugde the CCF takes care of orphaned cubs and adult animals that were at risk of being shot. Research on cheetahs and their behaviour is carried out at the farm. Ways to protect the endangered species better are being looked into and at the information centre visitors and entire school classes are taught about the qualities and value of cheetahs. Co-operation with farmers is very important. Together with 11 farmers the CCF is a member of the Waterberg Conservancy, which is 200 000 ha in size and was established to protect the game and natural environment.
The CCF has been open for tourism since the end of 2003. Visitors can watch the animals feeding every day. Twice a week, at 8:00, a winch and bait are used for maintaining the sprinting capabilities of the cheetah. According to the CCF this is an excellent opportunity to take pictures of cheetahs at full speed. The three-hour Cheetah Safari has to be booked in advance. A game drive is offered in the afternoons. It takes three to four hours and ends with a sundowner against the backdrop of the Waterberg illuminated in shades of red. Tailor-made programmes are arranged on request.
A four-wheel-drive vehicle with sufficient ground clearance is necessary for all excursions. The CCF’s Information Centre, however, is accessible with an ordinary sedan vehicle. The centre is open daily from 9:00 to 17:00. Infor-mation boards, charts, pictures and films inform about the fastest terrestrial animal on earth. Income derived from visitors is funding the CCF’s work.
For several years tourists have been viewing cheetahs at Okonjima, south of Otjiwarongo. The AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima is also committed to researching and protecting the cheetah.
In Namibia the Cape griffon vulture is far more endangered than even the cheetah. Only eight to eleven of these birds still occur in the country, in a colony on the western rim of the Waterberg. In order to protect them and to increase their numbers, a foundation – the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) – has been established at farm Uitsig, slightly north of the CCF. Like the CCF, REST also emphasises the necessity to educate the public. One example is the so-called vulture restaurant at Uitsig where visitors can watch vultures feeding. With a bit of luck you might spot a Cape griffon among them. In January 2004 experts ringed 91 vultures at Uitsig. Six were also equipped with tiny satellite transmitters, allowing resear-ch-ers to determine the bird’s exact position, flying altitude and speed at any given time. A Cape griffon is among the six. The aim is to learn more about these useful birds in order to protect them more effectively.
A suitable starting point for watching cheetah or vultures is the town of Otjiwarongo, which proudly calls itself the Cheetah Capital of the World. Many lodgings sport colourful emblems of the big cat, calling for its protection with the slogan Meetah Cheetah. The actual name of the town, however, refers to its suitability for humans and cattle.
Since the early 19th century the area of “Otjiua-rongo” was inhabited by cattle-breeding Herero people. “Otjiua-rongo” is Herero for “the beautiful place with water and green grass for the cattle”. The town of Otjiwarongo was founded in 1906. One reason was the railway line. The Swakopmund-to-Tsumeb and the Waterberg-to-Outjo lines were supposed to intersect in Otjiwarongo. But the Waterberg-to-Outjo link never materialised. In 1915 South African forces occupied the country and in 1921 South Africa received the mandate for the administration of the former German colony and the railway network was never extended. Otjiwarongo nevertheless developed into a commercial centre for the farming community.
Unfortunately only a few old buildings are left. “Locomotive No 41” in front of the station is a reminder of the early years. Built in 1912 by the Henschel Company of Kassel (Germany), the locomotive steamed across the narrow gauge track between Swakopmund and Tsumeb until 1960.The museum (corner Bollmann St./ Libertine Amathila Ave) presents toys, household items, wagons, and photos of former times, as well as a small collection on the history of telecommunication. Opening times: Mon – Fri 8:00 – 13:00 and 14:00 – 16:30; on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays pre-booking is essential.
The Crocodile Ranch is another attraction. Here you learn that the breeding temperature to which crocodile eggs are exposed determines the sex (29 degrees for females, 31 degrees for males), and that the reptiles are killed when they are three to four years old. By this time they have reached a metre in length and their skin is still soft enough for processing. Visitors interested in the socioeconomic aspects of life in Namibia should take a look at the Clay House Project in the township of Orwetoveni where impoverished people are shown how to build houses inexpensively using clay bricks. Since everything from the bricks to the roofing is self-made, a home for a family of four costs only about N$12 000.
The dinosaur tracks of Otjihaenamaparero can be found south east of Otjiwarongo at the foot of the Etjo Mountains. It was probably around 180 million years ago that a dinosaur left its footprints in moist sand. The prints were soon filled with minute particles of clay that turned into soft lime, while the sand turned into hard sandstone. Due to erosion the tracks became visible again on a stretch of about 25 m. They show a claw with three toes, each track about 25 cm long, 18 cm wide and 3 cm deep. The dinosaur walked upright, was the size of an ostrich and is thought to be one of the carnivore (theropod) species.
The Okorusu fluorite mine is situated about 60 km north west of Otjiwarongo. Amongst others, fluorite is used for producing gases that do not harm the earth’s ozone layer. Such gases are, for example, needed for refrigeration. Tours of the mine are arranged for larger groups of visitors. Reservations have to be made in advance.
East of Otjiwarongo a massive table mountain rises to a height of 200 m from the seemingly unending plain. Waterberg is 48 km long and up to 16 km wide, stretching from south west to north east. The mountain is a remnant of enormous displacements of rock layers. Its name, “Water Mountain”, is derived from the many springs emerging on the slopes. Compared with other areas in the country, Water-berg receives quite a lot of rain – on average more than 400 mm per year. The water filters through porous sandstone until it reaches an impermeable layer of rock that is tilted in a south-easterly direction. Springs therefore abound on the south-eastern slope. In places trees and shrubs form lush green paradises.
An area comprising 41 000 ha of the mountain was proclaimed a nature reserve in 1972. The main aim was the protection of the eland antelope, which had drastically declined in numbers. In one section of the park that is open to the public, about 60 species of trees, 200 bird species and 60 species of mammals were noted. Bird lovers are enthusiastic about Rüppel’s parrot, lovebirds, several hornbill species and Black eagles. Game drives onto the plateau, departing at the semi-state Bernabé de la Bat rest camp, situated on the south-eastern slope, are offered by the Directorate of Nature Conservation. You will see giraffe and eland in the park and – if you are lucky – black and white rhino, roan and sable antelope and even buffalo. There is also a “vulture restaurant” where carrion is laid out twice a week, attracting countless Whitebacked and some Lappet-faced vultures to the area.
During the cooler months from April till November the plateau can be explored on four-day hiking tours (50 km in total). Nights are spent in modest huts. The trails are mostly level, but participants still have to be fit enough to beat a hasty retreat to the next rock ledge should they encounter a rhino. Whether with or without a guide you are hiking at your own risk. Guests at Waterberg Wilderness Lodge, situated 8 km east of the semi-state rest camp, can join a hiking tour of several hours to explore the plateau. About 30 ha of the plateau belong to the lodge. There you can admire dinosaur tracks that probably date as far back as the ones at Otjihaenamaparero.
From the rest camp you can also walk up to the plateau (some climbing is involved). In the rest camp the abundance of water is again obvious: in front of the red sandstone cliffs many different types of trees have formed groves. With water so readily available, it is small wonder that a plantation of citrus trees was operated here during German colonial times. The remains of the irrigation system can still be seen. There are many other traces of history as well: the former police station, built by colonial forces in 1908, now houses the rest camp’s restaurant. Photos on the walls inside recount episodes from the past. Below the restaurant is a cemetery where German soldiers, casualties of the war against the Herero in 1904, were laid to rest. The decisive battle was fought at the Waterberg on August 11. The (hidden) graves of Herero leaders are close-by.
Otjiwarongo and the surrounding area are well worth a stay of several days. The following accommodation is within convenient reach: north east of Otjiwarongo – African Wilderness Trails, Frans Indongo Lodge, Aloegrove Safari Lodge and Waterberg Vulture Camp; in and around Otjiwarongo – Bush Pillow, C’est si Bon, Haus Blumers, Falkennest, Out of Africa Town Lodge and Otjibamba Country Lodge; on the south-eastern slope of Waterberg – Hohenfels Camping, Waterberg Guest Farm, Bernabé de la Bat Rest Camp and Waterberg Wilderness Lodge.
This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.