Namibia and Botswana: The Living Desert and Okavango

Namibia is a land of exceptional diversity. The rocky Namibian escarpment dominates the backbone of the country, while the desolate Skeleton Coast and adjoining red dune sea of the Namib Desert fringe the Atlantic Ocean. The north holds Africa’s most spectacular ephemeral wetland, the Etosha Pan, part of a national park of the same name. Further east the deserts give way to moist woodland in the club-shaped Caprivi Strip. The Caprivi and adjacent Botswana hold the panhandle portion of the Okavango Delta, a world-famous watery oasis spilling onto the Kalahari sands. With such a diversity of habitats, a trip to this country cannot fail to produce a wealth of exciting birds.

See many more photos on our Flickr site.

Day 1: Windhoek. After the airport pick-up, we head out to a nearby reserve to look for our first specialties, Monteiro’s Hornbill and Carp’s Tit. The Augeigas River acts as a magnet for a variety of multi-colored desert-dwellers including Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Crimson-breasted Boubou, Rosy-faced Lovebird, and Violet-eared Waxbill. We overnight in Windhoek.

Day 2: Windhoek to Spreetshoogte. Leaving Windhoek we make our way towards the dramatic Namibian escarpment. Here we will search for Pygmy Falcon, Southern Pale Chanting-Goshawk, Sociable Weaver, Lark-like Bunting, and Chestnut Weaver. In the evening we arrive at the spectacular Spreetshoogte Pass where we spend the night perched above the Namib Desert.

Rosy-faced Lovebirds are delightfully common
Rosy-faced Lovebirds are delightfully common (Iain Campbell)

Day 3: Spreetshoogte to Swakopmund. Descending the escarpment, we comb the gravel plains of the seemingly empty and wild Namib Desert. We should see some great birds, including Ludwig’s Bustard, Rueppell’s Korhaan, Burchell’s Courser, Gray’s Lark, and Tractrac Chat. We take a detour via Homeb, a fascinating area where the stony gravel plains meet the red dune sea at the Kuiseb River. This oasis attracts some interesting species including the Orange River White-eye, Bokmaikeirie and others. This area also gives us our only chance to see the Welwitschia, a bizarre plant that is regarded as a living fossil. We complete the day at Walvis Bay watching Cape Gannets plunging into the icy Atlantic Ocean.

Day 4: Walvis Bay. Today we explore the fascinating and famous Walvis Bay lagoon. The waters are tinged pink with Greater and Lesser Flamingos, large pelican formations, and tern flocks. The backdrop of the desert dunes makes for dramatic scenery. Cape, Bank, and Crowned Cormorants sit atop the largest guano platforms in the world, and the endemic Damara Tern may drift by.

Southern Carmine Bee-eaters nest in colonies of 100s in the Okavango
Southern Carmine Bee-eaters nest in colonies of 100s in the Okavango (Ken Behrens)

Day 5: Swakopmund to Omaruru. In the early morning we head towards Spitzkoppe, a series of impressive granite inselbergs rising from the desert plains. Here we shall search for Herero Chat, Namibia’s most elusive endemic. Other birds occurring here include Augur Buzzard, Pied Barbet, and Pale-winged Starling. Later we drive to the boulder-strewn landscape of Omaruru, where our lodge is nestled in the midst of the mountains. One of the highlights of the trip, it is not only exquisitely beautiful, but the grounds are heaving with Namibian endemics.

Day 6: Erongo. As the early morning light strikes the red rocks, we will be perched atop a boulder waiting for boisterous coveys of Hartlaub’s Francolins and rock-hopping White-tailed Shrikes to put in an appearance. While we are waiting, we should be serenaded by the melodious Damara Rockrunner, a stunning songster that scuttles over rocky slopes. There is still some debate as to whether this odd bird is better classified as a rockjumper. Later we will venture down to the sandy riverbeds in search of cackling Violet Woodhoopoes, Damara Hornbills, and turquoise-bellied Rueppell’s Parrots. Imitating the vocalizations of a Pearl-spotted Owlet should bring in a bunch of passerines including Pied Babbler, Dusky Sunbird, Black-chested Prinia, and more. With luck one of the Anna trees will hold the sizable Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl.

A Lion and a Southern Oryx act out a timeless drama of life and death in the savanna of Etosha
A Lion and a Southern Oryx act out a timeless drama of life and death in the savanna of Etosha (Ken Behrens)

Days 7-9: Etosha NP. Today we reach the renowned Etosha NP, where we will spend nights at two different camps, each with a floodlit waterhole, and one more full day in the park before we leave at dusk and overnight in Tsumeb. Our days will be spent exploring the various habitats including the Etosha Pan and Andoni plains. There is much to see here, including a variety of bustards, francolins, coursers, eagles, and vultures. After the sun sets, the wildlife festival gets into full swing at the waterholes, which are visited by numerous big game including Lion, Black Rhinoceros, and African Elephant. At dusk, flocks of hundreds of Double-banded and Namaqua Sandgrouse arrive in an unforgettable melodious downpour. Even birding around the camps can yield an excellent variety of woodland birds, including Southern White-crowned Shrike and African Scops-Owl.

Day 10: Tsumeb to Kavango. We’ll spend some time looking for Black-faced Babbler before driving on to Kavango.

White-fronted Bee-eater nests near our lodge on the banks of the Kavango River
White-fronted Bee-eater nests near our lodge on the banks of the Kavango River (Ken Behrens)

Day 11: Kavango. The morning will be spent exploring the Kavango area for herons, ducks, skimmers, pratincoles, and other waterbirds. A stop will be made in the broadleaf woodlands near Popa Falls, which support uncommon species like White-breasted Cuckoo-shrike, Green-capped Eremomela, and Rufous-bellied Tit.

Day 12: Kavango to Okavango Delta. Following the Kavango River south towards Botswana, we begin to encounter Okavango birds, including Hartlaub’s Babbler and Swamp Boubou. In Mahango the river begins its splendid outpouring into the sands of the Kalahari, and we search the open floodplain for Slaty Egret, Rufous-bellied Heron, and the regal Wattled Crane.

Malachite Kingfishers are a big hit during boat cruises in the Okavango
Malachite Kingfishers are a big hit during boat cruises in the Okavango (Iain Campbell)

Day 13: Okavango Delta. The extensive reedbeds in this sea of papyrus are directly adjacent to our lodge, and home to a wide variety of herons, egrets, and kingfishers, as well as Chirping Cisticola and Southern Brown-throated Weaver. A number of rare or difficult species are regular here, such as the highly sought-after foxy-brown Pel’s Fishing-Owl. White-backed Night-Herons are also occasionally seen stalking the river’s edge.

Day 14: Shakawe to Kavango. We return to Kavango in Namibia.

Day 15: Kavango to Windhoek. Depending on what birds we still need, our return route can explore either the woodlands near Rundu or make for the impressive Waterberg escarpment, where the birding can be as spectacular as the scenery. We end the day in Windhoek.

Day 16: Departure. Today we leave the sunny city on our international flights.

Gemsbok, with the Etosha pan in the background
Gemsbok, with the Etosha pan in the background (Ken Behrens)

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. We’ll want to be out early, around 6 am, and stay out to around 5 pm, in order to take advantage of the best times of day for birds and mammals. Where possible, we will use the middle of the day to rest up, or travel between localities. There will be a few days that are full days in the field. There will be only a handful of optional outings after dark to search for owls and nightjars; these are normally done just before dinner and seldom last for more than an hour (typically between 6–7 pm). Namibia is a fairly large country and there are some long drives required, but the roads are very good. The longest drive is about 9 hours on day 15, with drives of 4-6 hours on at least three other days. There will be packed lunches on many days; but sitting with a packed lunch for a siesta under a tree is often a far more relaxing way to do things than spending a long time driving back to camp for lunch, only to head out again in two hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Almost all the birding is done from easy roads or tracks, or from a safari vehicle. The maximum amount of walking will be around 2 miles (3 kilometers) on a few days.

CLIMATE: Pleasantly warm, though some mornings can be coolish, but it is dry and overall the weather is a delight (usually 55°-82°F, 13°-28°C). Rain is highly unlikely, but not impossible. In the north and in the Okavango it is a little hotter (usually 59°-87°F, 15°-31°C).

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent; all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. Electricity is available everywhere 24 hours a day. Internet is fairly widespread, but not available everywhere. The lodge on the Kavango is a little rustic, but well placed and still some of the best accommodation in the area.

PHOTOGRAPHY: If you are a casual photographer, you will love this trip! Birds are cooperative, and mammals are easy to take pictures of, and visiting many places where birds are common, tame and easily seen, there are plenty of opportunities for the casual photographer to indulge and enjoy shooting. If you are a serious photographer however, you may wish to consider our Namibia Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: We often run the set-departure tour in September, when the birds all begin breeding and some of the Palearctic migrant have arrived. Also, it is the end of the dry season, when the mammals are being drawn into the many waterholes that are present in Etosha; it is the ideal time to see a great combination of animals. This trip can be run as a custom tour at almost any time of year, and in the austral winter (May – August) the mammals are excellent, while in austral summer (November – March) it is significantly warmer and the mammals are harder to find, but the birding is excellent. Custom tours can be tweaked to make the most of any season.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of South Africa, USA, Canada, UK, most of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Visas are required for citizens of India, China, and much of the remainder of the world; please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help. Travel requirements are subject to change; it’s a good idea to double check six weeks before you travel.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 15; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 16 (if you have a very early flight on the last day, you may miss the included hotel breakfast); reasonable non-alcoholic drinks with meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding bird tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 15; one departure airport transfer per person specifically on the departure day (transfer may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 15 in a suitable vehicle (depending on group size it may be driven by the tour leader); entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; 2 boat trips – one on the Kavango and one on the Okavango Panhandle; a printed and bound checklist to help you keep track of your sightingsd (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters at hotels (if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

Gallery of the Top 20 Birds of Namibia: