Rob and I have, in the course of our travels, covered most of Namibia during the four years that we have been here. We would be loath to go back to South Africa leaving any area undiscovered and for this reason we chose the Kunene Region, bordering Angola, as the destination for our latest ten day trip; it being one of the few remaining areas that we had yet to visit.
We have also seen and photographed most of the local birds around Namibia so needed a completely new area to notch up more lifers. The Kunene Region has a number of birds that are endemic to the area, so it was with great anticipation that we headed out of Windhoek for our first stop – Hippo Pools – west of Ruacana on the Kunene River.
This trip would be slightly different in that our good friends, Jo, Des and Gwen would be accompanying us. Jo and Des, new to camping, were keen to experience it for themselves and to try out their newly acquired Oz tent. Gwen, Des’s mom, is an old hat at camping and wanted to spend some quality time out in the bush before immigrating to Australia.
Our journey to Hippo Pools started off on a very positive note when just 150 kms from Windhoek we spotted a pair of leopards on an anthill at the side of the road. This was especially exciting for us, as, try as we might, Rob and I have never been fortunate enough to see a leopard in the wild – not even on any of our numerous game reserve visits. The pair consisted of a mother and baby, but we were only able to photograph the little one as the mother slunk off into the long grass in the hope of diverting our attention away from her cub.
The area was very productive as far as bird sightings was concerned as we saw seven Wahlberg Eagles along the next 100 km stretch of road. Namibian highways can be quite dangerous because of warthogs that feed next to the road, so the verges are kept mowed to enable motorists to keep an eye out for these portly little creatures, as well as other animals like Kudu. Hitting one of them at speed is guaranteed to inflict serious damage to one’s vehicle and one’s health.
We saw so many warthogs, baboons and little buck along the way that we could have been forgiven for thinking we were driving through a game reserve. Birds often forage in these mowed areas along the roadside and we ticked Crowned Lapwings, Black-bellied Koorhaans and Red-crested Koorhaans off our list. We were also pleased to see an enormous Kori Bustard catching a bit of shade under a tree.
Hippo Pools is a community-run campsite on the banks of the Kunene River. There are several well-appointed sites and a clean ablution block. On arrival we settled into a lovely campsite very close to a little beach on the edge of the river and headed off to explore the area. We were camped a few hundred metres downstream from the Ruacana hydro-electric scheme. The water flow of the river is influenced by this scheme and in the early evenings, sluice gates are opened and water rushes down into the river. It raises the level of the river and gives campers the opportunity of listening to the soothing sound of running water as they lie in their tents.
As the sun was going down we were treated to one of the most amazing spectacles that we have been privileged to witness on our camping trips. Red-billed quelea’s flew in to roost on a little island in the middle of the river. For at least forty-five minutes they came in flocks of varying size.
At times the sky was blackened by these birds and as they took their last few synchronized flights for the day, the sound of their wings flapping was akin to that of a strong wind. We sat in awe as literally thousands upon thousands of birds circled around us and landed for one last drink of water before settling down for the night.
We wondered why we had never read any accounts of this incredible phenomenon in write ups about Hippo Pools. It should be a major tourist attraction! Unfortunately these flocks have a downside; they are known to devour entire crops and are considered an enormous nuisance to farmers in more developed agricultural areas. Their departure in the morning is just as spectacular, as they seem to have an invisible control tower telling each flock exactly when to leave.
We were woken early the next morning by the cry of the African Fish Eagle – the ultimate sound of Africa! It was a fitting alarm clock for our environment and we were soon out, armed with cameras and binoculars looking for birds.
We split up and covered different areas of the campsite and surrounds and soon Rob was engrossed getting pictures of a little flock of Blue waxbills, whilst I spent hours chasing Red-headed Weavers in an attempt to get a decent shot. It’s amazing how quickly the time flies when one is photographing the birds and enjoying walking about in nature.
Sometime during the morning we moved to an even better campsite when the occupants departed for their next destination. Although a bit of a mission to move a car with the rooftop tent up and open, it proved a very wise idea, as we settled next to a tree that a group of Madagascar Bee-eaters used as a base from which to hunt insects.
They were lifers for us and very obligingly allowed us to get some beautiful shots to add to our collection. It was fun observing their catching and killing techniques as often several birds went for the same insect. The victor would return to a perch and then smack the insect on the branch before eating it. We had a symphony of smacking all day long as they feasted on the bounty of the riverside. We later learned that the Madagascar Bee-eaters had arrived early this year as they normally only return to the area at the end of October. Our good fortune!
Jo, Des and Gwen arrived from Windhoek in the late afternoon and we spent an enjoyable evening around the campfire watching the Queleas come in to roost, followed by the most amazing sunset. Good food, good company and the African night sounds as background music – this is what makes camping so magical.
The next day Rob and I were back in the bush checking out the birds and wildlife. First on our list was a two meter crocodile that was swimming quite close to our campsite. We were amazed that there were no signs warning people not to swim because of crocs. The only sign that was posted warned swimmers to vacate the water when the sluice gates opened and the water level rose. I wonder how many tourists have ended up as crocodile fodder!
I loved this magnificent specimen of a Namibian Rock Agama.
When we left Hippo Pools we took a short drive to see the Ruacana Falls, but unfortunately it was the wrong time of year as far as water flow was concerned and we mostly saw bare rock face. We could only imagine their splendour at the height of the rainy season.
Hippo Pools is a magnificent spot and well worth visiting. The only downside that we found was that many visitors have no concept of space or privacy and on a number of occasions we had groups of people milling around inside our campsite when they came to look at the view of the river. We would never dream of walking into someone’s camping area like that, but then who are we to say that we own the view!
The next leg of the trip would be Kunene River Lodge.