Kunene River Lodge is a short journey of 56 kms from Hippo Pools. When driving on dirt roads it may seem like an advantage having only a short distance like that to cover, but the drive was through such rugged and picturesque landscape that I was quite disappointed when we arrived at our destination so soon.
The road followed the river for most of the way and we were treated to glimpses of the Makalani Palm-lined banks, which gave the journey a tropical feel. When we left the river, we drove through stunning Mopani trees still clad in their autumn coloured leaves, waiting for the rains to summon forth their summer foliage.
We passed Himba settlements along the river and marveled at their simple yet harsh lifestyle. Every settlement we drove past had children who waved vigorously at us, their friendly smiles lighting up their dark little faces.
Kunene River Lodge is a veritable Garden of Eden and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing that this had been the sole destination of our ten day holiday. Set below a canopy of indigenous trees and shrubs it can only be described as idyllic.
We were given campsite no. 7 – a stunning spot right on the river under enormous leadwood and jackalberry trees. From here we could see Angola just metres across the river from us.
Not long after arrival we were greeted by the resident vervet monkeys, who proceeded to use their well-honed thieving skills and made off with a packet of rusks that Gwen had brought along. We later learned that they had become such a nuisance that the owner had resorted to shooting them with a paintball gun. He said he realized this was probably a futile attempt at solving the problem, but it served to chase them off temporarily. Jo’s contribution was to build this dirty great catty which was big enough to load with a monkey and shoot it clean across the river!
The birdlife at the lodge was outstanding and we immediately booked an excursion to try and see the elusive and rare Cinderella Waxbill that is only found in this area. Peter, who was to lead the tour, said that we would have to hike at the hottest time of the day in the hopes of finding them. Seeing Cinderella Waxbills was the motivation for coming on this trip in the first place, so we were very hopeful when we donned our biggest hats, grabbed lots of water and set off at midday on our quest. We walked along a semi-dry river bed for about half an hour before Peter heard the soft calls of the Cinderella Waxbills.
We crept up close to a bush halfway up a hillside and, sure enough, there were about three of them deep in the bush. We managed to see them clearly but were unfortunately not able to get a photograph. The best we can do to show you what they look like is by printing KRL’s logo :
We considered ourselves really lucky to have seen them though, as many who had come before us were not as fortunate.
Back at the reception area, Peter showed us a Cinderella Waxbill nest that he had found a few years before. He had watched the little family hatch and grow before removing the nest some months after they left. Little is known about these birds, so all information is gratefully received. Peter’s knowledge of birds is exceptional and he made a wonderful guide.
Obviously the waxbills were lifers for us, but we also managed to tick off a couple more. The Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush breeds well in the grounds of the lodge and we spent many happy minutes following them to get photos. Their call is quite distinctive so once you hear one, it is pretty easy to locate it as it forages for food in the undergrowth. Rob managed to photograph some Red-necked Spurfowls in a field next to the campsite so the trip was proving quite successful as far as first-timers were concerned.
The Bare-cheeked Babblers were there in profusion and, although they were very nervous, I eventually got a couple to sit still long enough for a photo. Apart from the Swamp Boubou’s, Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Golden Weavers and Grey Go Away birds which were very evident around the campsite, we also saw Black Crakes, a Bearded Woodpecker and lots of Meve’s Starlings. One didn’t even have to go out looking for these birds as they were cheeky enough to come into the camping area to look for food.
It was a bitter blow for Rob when his longer lens, a Sigma 70-300 mm zoom, packed up on him. His 500mm lens is still being repaired and this is his back-up. This is not the sort of loss one needs when on a birding trip! He gained some consolation from the fact that he was now forced to spend time just observing the birds instead of trying to photograph them.
This amazing bat was in a tree just metres from our tent.
The Lodge has an enormous wooden deck that juts out over the river – an awesome spot to have a cold beer and watch the Red-billed Queleas come in to roost in the reeds opposite, or to catch a glimpse of the Malachite and Pygmy Kingfishers as they fly into the reeds. As the sun goes down the Cormorants and Egrets skim along the water on their way to their roosts.
On our last night there we took a short sundown cruise along the river, and as darkness fell our ‘captain’ cut the engines and let us drift slowly back to the Lodge. The peace and calm that descended over the river was tangible – none of us wanted the trip to end. It’s interludes like these that make one appreciate an African evening.
The Lodge doesn’t only cater for campers, but has a number of luxury bungalows and rustic chalets for visitors. The swimming pool is a necessity and is well-used. For the more adventurous, the staff offer white water rafting excursions. All in all an excellent spot for a short or (preferably) long term visit.