Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Don't Worry", it's Just a Rhino!

Greetings All,
From the top of the Grootberg Plateau you can see the Klip River Valley below and see Hartman's mountain zebra and oryx grazing on the scant vegetation.  I couldn't wait to get down there.

Peggy Viewing the Klip River Valley

At 6:00 AM the next morning we headed down along with our guide, two trackers and five other guests to track the desert-adapted black rhino.  It's hard to imagine that rhinos and elephants can survive in such a harsh environment but they do.  I spotted a lone bull elephant browsing on a Mopane tree.

Desert Elephant Bull

The trackers spotted fresh rhino tracks and headed out on foot to track them.  They radioed us to let us know that a rhino had been spotted in the Mopane thicket about two km away.  We followed the guide in single file to the location and preceded cautiously toward the rhino.  At first I couldn't see her but then her gray shape appeared in the bush.  As I looked through my binoculars I could see a second rhino. Our trackers told us that this was Mercy and her calf Lorenzo.

Mercy, a Black Rhino Cow

We approached to within 30 meters as the rhinos were hidden safely in the bush and weren't apt to come out.  After viewing them for about 20 minutes it was time to head back.

Our next stop was Desert Rhino Camp operated jointly by Wilderness Safaris and Save the Rhino Trust.  The following day Marc and I had a private rhino tracking tour.  We headed out with our guide and three trackers to a more remote location within the 1.1 million acre conservancy in search of rhinos that have not been seen in awhile.  Our trackers picked up fresh tracks and followed them. We watched from the vehicle as they flushed a beautiful cow from a ravine below.  We were in much more open country so were only able to approach her to within 80 meters on foot.  Her name is Musona which means "The Lady" in the local language.  Unfortunately her calf died about a month ago.

Musona, a Black Rhino Cow

What a privilege to be so close to such a rare creature, one of the last free roaming black rhinos on the planet!  Save the Rhino Trust and Wilderness Safaris are working hard to protect these rhinos and so far have been very successful.

The next morning we went tracking again with a large group.  The trackers found another rhino sleeping and again we approached cautiously.

Sleeping Black Rhino

We had seen what a sleeping rhino can do if awoken suddenly.  About a week ago, two guests were driving into camp along with their guide.  As they went around a bend they startled a sleeping rhino, Speedy, and he charged the vehicle piercing the body with his horn inches from where one of the guests was sitting!

Speedy rams one of the Land Rovers

Our trackers told us to sit while he woke up this rhino.  "Wait a minute you want to wake a sleeping rhino up while are sitting only 50 meters away?" I asked.  The tracker replied "This rhino isn't Speedy, his name is Don't Worry and he is very relaxed".  The tracker walked around Don't Worry and he awoke from his slumber.  He got up slowly to his feet watching the tracker then turned his attention toward us.  He looked at us but did not approach.

Don't Worry, a Black Rhino Bull

What a thrill!  I wasn't worried about Don't Worry attacking us.  I'm more worried about greedy humans invading this remote wilderness and poaching these magnificent creatures.  I hope this never comes to pass.

In addition to seeing the rhinos we were very lucky with seeing desert elephants.  We were fortunate to come across three breeding herds, a rare site in this arid environment.   The elephants have to travel long distances to find enough food and water to sustain them.

Desert Elephants

On our last game drive we were on our way to a sundowner spot when we encountered a beautiful male lion sitting next to the road - a rare site indeed!  Lions are often heard but rarely seen in this vast landscape. 

Male Lion

We left Desert Rhino Camp the next day and stopped at Twyfelfontein to see ancient rock engravings made by the San People 2000 to 6000 years ago!  We visited here 11 years ago but our stop was brief.  The area is now a World Heritage Site and we were able to see more panels including this one containing the famous "Lion Man", a creature with human toes, an overly long tail with a rectangular kink and a pugmark at its tip.  It was most likely created as part of a shamanistic ritual.


"Lion Man" Panel at Twyfelfontein

We are currently in the Erongo Mountains getting ready for the drive back to Windhoek.  The Erongo wilderness has been a pleasant surprise with beautiful landscapes, loads of rock hyrax and stunning birds.  Some photos follow.

Erongo Mountains

Rock Hyrax


Rosy Faced Lovebird

Tomorrow we fly home arriving back Monday morning.   That's all from Namibia.  Until our next adventure stay well.
Peggy and Marc

Friday, July 26, 2013

Stay in the Croc or be Eaten by One!

Greetings All,
After leaving Etosha National Park we headed north to visit an Owambo homestead at Ongula.   The Owambo are pastoralists grazing their herds of goats and cattle and growing mahangu.  Mahangu or pearl millet is the staple food of the north-central regions of Namibia.  

Owambo Woman Pounding Mahangu

Able to grow in low-rainfall, high temperatures and low soil fertility, it is eaten in a variety of dishes and drinks, and the stalks are used to feed cattle and thatch roofs. Once grown, harvested and threshed, the mahangu is stored in giant baskets made of Mopane branches.

Basket for Storing Mahangu
 
That night were were treated to a song and dance performance by the local girls.

Owambo Girls Singing and Dancing


We continued our journey north and then to the west to the Kunene River which forms part of the northern border with Angola.  After not seeing flowing water for nearly two months it was a treat to cruise on the Kunene River.  We stopped on the northern shore (Angola) to take in another magnificent African sunset.

Marc and Peggy on the Kunene River
 
The next day I got up the nerve to go white water rafting.  The rapids weren't big, maybe class I- III but with a twist, we were to paddle our own two-man raft, called a croc through them!

Peggy next to our "Croc"


I was determined to stay in the boat as giant Nile crocodiles ply these waters.

Nile Crocodile
 
Our guides told us that crocodiles didn't like rapids. I hoped they were right.  We were assured that the rapids were easy but when we had to carry our raft over rocks to a canyon just above a waterfall and be lowered 10 feet over the rocky edge to the river below I wasn't sure what we had gotten ourselves into!  Once on the river we had to avoid going over the twenty foot waterfall which we managed to do. Now, the fun began...  We made it through the first two rapids without too much trouble.  On the third rapid we ended up going down backwards.  When we got to the forth, I had lost faith in Marc's navigational abilities and bailed into one of the guide's boat while Marc bailed into another.  We made it through the fourth rapid but the guides made us get back into our boat for the fifth rapid.  They warned us to avoid the big rock in the middle but failed to warn us of a second rock which we managed to get stuck on.  One of the guide boats had to come rescue us.  The sixth rapid was fairly straightforward and we made it through without incident.  We got out of the boats to check out the seventh and most difficult rapid.  It was class IV.  There was no way I was going down it in a two-man raft with Marc at the helm!  We watched the guides negotiate  the rapid, the first losing his passenger, a teenager from Belgium.  The second boat made it through with another daring teenager. We walked around the rapid with the teenagers' mother.  She was worried seeing her son pop out of the boat and go bobbing down the rapid but he ended up with only a few scrapes.  I wish I had my camera to document our journey down the river but we didn't want to get it wet so we only have one photo of us padding on flat water.

Us Paddling Toward Shore

Somehow we managed to make it through six out of the seven rapids without going overboard. While we were loading the rafts onto the trailer, a Himba girl and her brother out herding goats, came to the river to drink.

Himba Boy and Girl

The Himba are traditionally nomads, traveling long distances to find suitable places to graze their goats and cattle.  The previous day we visited an elderly couple and their 10 year old daughter at their homestead near by.  Their home was built out of sticks and mud.

Himba Family next to their Hut
 
We ducked inside to learn a bit more about how they live.  Living in an area with little rainfall, the Himba rarely bathe.  Instead they coat their bodies with otjize, a mixture of ochre, animal fat and herbs.  It protects their skin from the sun and insects and provides some insulation from the winter cold.

Himba Woman applying Otjize


All of their few belongings are made from leather, scrap metal or gourds.  The married women braid their hair and wear a leather headdress and not much else.  When they get married, they wear a sort of apron decorated with cowrie shells.

Himba Belongings including a Pillow in the lower Right
 
After our visit to the Kunene Region we headed south towards the Grootberg Plateau.  
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Great White Place

Greetings All,
We have finished the Mushara Elephant Expedition.  After two weeks at the waterhole Marc and I cataloged 53 bulls, 28 of them known visitors and 25 new individuals.  We also documented 6 breeding herds including several new herds to the area.  We put together a PowerPoint containing photos and identifying characteristics for each bull.

Marc Working on the PowerPoint

For example, Etosha has a big tear in his left ear and a heart shaped tail.

Etosha's ID Page


Jerry has extreme ear folding and sparse tail hair. 

Jerry's ID Page

By the end of two weeks we could refer to our PowerPoint and identify a bull that had previously visited the water hole.

The herds were much more difficult to document.  There are more individuals and when they're grouped together its difficult to single out individuals for identification.  There were however some very distinct individuals such as Wynonna and her calf Liza.  Wynonna has a "W"shaped cutout in her left ear and a missing left tusk. She is part of the Actors Herd.

Wynonna's ID page


Crumpled Ear is a member of the herd named after her.  She has a very obvious crumpled right ear which makes identifying her easy even at night when most of the herds visit the waterhole.

Crumpled Ear's ID Page


Marc compiled a video library of over 300 gigabytes of footage we took during our two week stay. Hopefully this will make it easier for Caitlin, the lead researcher, to find a particular event.

Marc videoing the Action at Mushara


After two weeks, we were not only getting to know the elephants, we were getting to know the lion pride that makes Mushara their home.  The dominant male who I called "Dark Mane", kept us awake many nights with his grunting roars while mating with one of the lionesses.

Keep Away from my Woman!


 The cubs would visit in the morning and "Bent Ear" would stare at me with an intensity beyond curiosity.

"Bent Ear"


On our last morning a very pregnant  "Bob Tail" paid us a visit.  With her missing tail she looks more like an overgrown bobcat than a lioness.

"Bob Tail" 

After the project, we spent 3 days exploring Etosha National Park on our own.  The park is dominated by the immense Etosha Pan visible from space!  In the language of the Ovambo tribe Etosha means "great white place".  This natural mineral pan was first formed over 100 million years ago. About 16,000 years ago, the Kunene River in Angola would have flowed all the way to Etosha, forming, a large and deep lake. But the river would later change its course due to tectonic plate movement and head for the Atlantic, causing the lake to slowly dry up and leaving the salt pan behind.

Peggy on the Pan

The first afternoon we visited one of the public waterholes.  To our surprise, a breeding herd of elephants came in.  We enjoyed watching them at close range.  As we were leaving another herd came down the road.  We backed up but could only go so far.  We watched with held breath as they drew closer and closer.  Marc didn't want to start the truck and startle them so we held our ground.  They passed within 20 feet of us!  My heart was beating wildly, that was close, a little too close.


Too Close for Comfort!

Our next herd encounter was the following day at a waterhole called Halali.  The waterhole is fenced and the viewing is from some rocks about 20 feet above the waterhole so we were completely safe.  It was fun watching the interactions and a young bull dust bathing or trying to.  He kept blowing the dust in his eyes instead of on his back.


Dust gets in your Eyes

Despite the drought, the animals appear to be doing well.  There is still ample food in the park and water is pumped to numerous waterholes.  How such massive creatures, elephants, rhino, eland and giraffe can sustain themselves on dried grass and leaves is beyond me. Some of our favorite photos from Etosha National Park follow.


A Large Eland Herd Drinks at Mushara 
 
"Blond Mane"
 

A Gang of Giraffe
 
Male Steenbok
 

Black Rhino


Spotted Hyena

We are now heading north to the Kunene River on the border with Angola.  We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Part of the Herd

Greetings All,
A few days ago we got to view an elephant herd from the bunker.  The bunker is a concrete structure built into the ground 20 meters away from the waterhole.  There is a slit in the front through which you can view and photograph animals that come to the waterhole.

Marc Photographing Elephants from the Bunker  

It's an amazing experience to watch an elephant herd approach from ground level.

Slit Ear's Herd Approaches

The herd that came in is known as Slit Ear's Herd, named after the matriarch that has a large slit in her left ear.  The herd is made up of around 24 individuals.  Herd composition is broken down by size and age.  There are 4 full grown females, aged somewhere between 15 and 45 years, five 3/4-sized individuals aged between 10 and 15 years, six 1/2-sized individuals between the age of 3 and 10 years, seven 1/4-sized individuals from 1 to 3 years old and 3 babies less than 1 year old in the herd.  They stopped at the trough to quench their thirst.

The Herd Drinks from the Trough

Elephants drink a lot of water, about 225 liters per day!  Then can suck up to 9 liters in their trucks at a time and squirt it into their mouths.  We aren't seeing the same herds at the waterhole everyday but they seem to show up every 2 to 3 days.  Once their thirst was quenched, they turned their attention to us.  One inquisitive member of the herd stuck his trunk down into the hatch of the bunker through which we entered.

Trunk in the bunker!
 
Another curious fellow peered at us through the hatch.
 
I See You!


We were quite safe in the bunker and could enjoy being part of the herd.  Slit Ear kept a watchful eye on us.

Slit Ear Keeps an Eye on Us

The youngsters approached the bunker trying to figure out who these strangers among the herd were.

Come out, Come out Whoever you Are!


A teeny baby just weeks old was tucked safely under mom's belly.

Elephant Calf
 
Typically a single calf is born every 4 years after a nearly 2 year gestation.  They are cared for by their mothers and other young females in the herd called allomothers.  Babies wean after 6 to 18 months but may nurse up to 6 years.
 
Slit Ear and her Calf 

Gazing into the eye of an elephant, you get a sense of how intelligent they are.  I wondered what she was thinking.  It's hard to believe that elephants are poached for their ivory.  When I think that this mother who so lovingly cares for her baby and is a member of a family can be killed just so someone can have a trinket made out of ivory, it's makes me angry.  When will human compassion and willingness to share this planet with other beings outweigh our greed and self importance?   


Eye of an Elephant

After about 45 minutes the herd disappeared back into the bush.  Two male Springbok were seriously sparring.  One was actually lifted off the ground by the other and landed on the ground with his leg caught in the victor's horns!


Springbok Males Sparring
 

It was time to return to camp before more elephants showed up at the waterhole.  We'll see what secrets the elephants will reveal in the days ahead.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc