Monday, May 25, 2009

“Postcards from Angola”

May 09

These last few weeks have been very uneventful for us as the craziness of the last few weeks of school takes over. I am doing three online courses – one is due to finish soon, the other two have just started. But a much bigger drain on my time (to the extent that it is literally taking up all my spare time) is that I am putting the school’s yearbook together – virtually single headedly, although Bill has stepped in to help with some of the organisation that still needs to be done. We are making a digital yearbook & I have never made one of those or even a normal yearbook before (which is one of the reasons why it is running so late in the year).

Anyway, we are not doing much other than just surviving it seems. But the big treat this week arrived yesterday from my sister Pam in Australia. She has been working on making a video as part of her job (she is a librarian in Brisbane). When she discovered she needed to make a video, she decided to use our life in Angola as her topic. Yesterday, she sent me the final product – the video labels has slipped a bit in the uploading & downloading process, but what a treat – to see a 5 minute summary of our time here this year. We both love it – thank you Pam!

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Etosha Pan "Sea"

Another (non-edited) video from Namibia. You can see just how wet the Etosha pan was. This was taken in two different locations, with the second half shot out the moving car. In the first half you get a glimpse of the state of the car! It was so covered in mud that we had to get it washed twice (once to clear the plates and the lights & again at the end of the trip) before we could hand it back. Everyone who saw us after we left Etosha could tell that's where we'd been by looking at the car.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A slice of carnival

It's a bit late, but this gives you an idea of the craziness of Carnival. This was taken not long before we went home for the day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Zebra video

Here are some of the many zebras we saw in Etosha. The first part shows lots of them at a waterhole (where we stayed for the first two nights) and then the rest are the zebras we encounted on a drive in the afternoon. The zebras were standing around, with many of them leaning their heads on each other's backs. You can hear more camera clicking in the background!

Leopard Video

Here is a short video of "our" leopard in Etosha. Neither of us are a great fan of video - we much prefer to take photos (you can hear me on the soundtrack), but it gives you an idea of how quickly it disappeared into the grass once it left the road - watch for the tail. Moral = never leave your car as you just don't know what's out there!

Namibia: Birds & other creatures

May 09

One of the surprises of Africa is the enchantment of the vastly under-looked animals that you come across in your holiday. I have never been a bird watcher & don’t even own a pair of binoculars, but I love to try to take photos of the birds I see, because they are so accessible & their behaviour is so interesting. They call attention to themselves with their bright colours or in your face antics. They are often much less skittish than the mammals are, their small size & tendency to hide behind branches makes photography a challenge. I also find reptiles totally fascinating – as a kid I used to hunt for skinks under rocks in the hills behind our house & keep them for a day or two. But we don’t have much in the way of flashy or big reptiles in NZ (& no snakes of course) so maybe that’s why I enjoy seeing them so much now. On this trip we saw the cutest ever gecko & my first ever chameleon.

Our favourite birds are raptors & we saw several different kinds. Typically they sit on the highest tree they can find, looking out for something to eat. The biggest one we saw was a juvenile Martial eagle. We also saw several secretary birds, but I never managed to get a decent photo.

Apart from the secretary birds striding through the grasses, we saw several other large birds that mostly stay on the ground. Ostriches of course, and Kori Bustards (the heaviest flying bird in the region) and Northern Black Korhaan’s which stand on a rock in a clearing and make such a racket that you can recognise it even when you can’t see it.

We also saw some storks, and lots of smaller birds that hung out close to the side of the road where we were able to see them. We saw huge numbers of weaver birds & some small birds that flew in huge flocks that attracted lots of attention from some of the smaller raptors. (You can see them flying above the Abdim’s stork). We also saw Guinea fowl
with young chicks (not the most intelligent of birds when faced with traffic), more water birds than we expected (all that rain & the flooded Etosha plain). We also saw lots of lilac breasted rollers every morning.

We saw the most reptiles when we did the “living desert” tour in Swakopmund. ( This was to see the “little 5” & it was enormous fun! We saw a couple of Peringuey's Adder’s which were just hanging out under the bushes for some shade, a baby & larger Palmato Gecko, which Tommy (the tour leader) somehow found burrowed in sand dunes. These little geckos are nocturnal & have transparent skin & will die if exposed to full sunlight. But by far the cutest gecko’s I’ve ever seen. We also saw
a sand diving lizard and a FitzSimon's Burrowing Skink, which is both blind & legless. But
the highlight for me was the Namaqua Chameleon – we saw 2 adults and a baby one. Tommy had collected some beetles to feed them – their tongues are amazing & they are so fast! And, they really do change colour! Just so cool!

Outside of this tour, we also saw various other reptiles – a couple of snakes including a very scary black mamba crossing the road in front of us. Also we lots of agama lizards & various other geckos & even a terrapin. We even saw the odd frog (amphibians in such a dry country seemed very incongruous).

The final group of my photos are the invertebrates “bugs” as Bill calls them. I realise most people just swat at them, if they notice them at all, but I find them beautiful, or if that is stretching it a bit, at least fascinatingly ugly! I saw great bugs (huge bodies over 5cm long with even longer antennae) all over the fence posts in Damaraland. I can’t find anything like them in my insect book, so maybe they are just juveniles (very big ones). That area was also where we saw our only scorpion. But lots of very pretty butterflies!

Since we’ve got back to Luanda, the main excitement in our life is that Bill has got a new Honda Falcon 400 motorcycle. We bought helmets in Windhoek on our last day there, so now we have relative freedom of movement. Bill is loving it! We’ve made several spontaneous trips into the city & although we have hit some very heavy traffic we have been able to get through it without problems (I hate weaving through traffic). The road conditions are also a bit scary but Bill is being as cautious as possible.

We are in our last month of school but it is a hectically busy time. Last weekend Bill took his team of soccer boys to Johannesburg to play in an inter-school competition. Despite the overall very young age of the team (more than half of them were young enough to play in the next division down) they won the international school round, but were no match for the much older & more experienced local teams.

I’m trying to put the yearbook together on time (& having to take some release time off school to do so) & reports etc are fast approaching. We are very ready for the year to end & to see family again.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Namibia Holiday: Mammals

May 09

Big mammals are what everyone thinks of when they hear the words “African safari” – lions, elephants, leopards etc. Due to the uncharacteristically wet weather this year , the “big 5” pretty much eluded us. The reality was long days of driving, peering into thick bushes & long grass, desperately trying to spot animals, often fruitlessly, but then we’d go around a corner & there would be some magnificent animal standing right there on the side of the road, making the effort more than worthwhile.

On our first morning in Etosha we’d been driving for about an hour (along pretty wet and muddy roads) when our first “close encounter” happened. We were heading for the toilet (areas in the park that are fenced off so it is safe to get out of the car to use the facilities), and just 10 metres from the entrance to the toilet, we rounded a corner & there was a leopard in the middle of the road! You have no idea how exciting spotting a big cat so close is. We both grabbed our cameras & tried to get photos as “proof” (with the car stopped in the middle of the road). The cat didn’t stick around for long – he continued to cross the road (& this is the creepy part) he walked into the grass at the side of the road & within 20 seconds had completely disappeared from sight. We knew it was there, but no matter how hard we looked – we moved the car to get closer – we never saw it again. It made us realise just why you are never supposed to get out of the car in the park – you just don’t know what is lurking in the undergrowth. By the time we got to the toilet, several other cars had arrived there as well – everyone was so jealous we’d seen a leopard.

A similar thing happened on the next morning – we’d gone to check out a waterhole (no animals as usual) and were on our way out (same road as the entrance) and as we came around a corner, there was another leopard in the middle of the road – but this one didn’t move away, instead, after watching us carefully, it proceeded to sit and drink leisurely from a big puddle in the middle of the road. We were able to get great photos – it kept a close eye on us, but once it finished drinking, it sauntered off into the long grass – with its tail held high, it’s black & white tip was the last thing we saw of it just 4 – 5 metres from the side of the road.

So by now we think we have “early morning cat luck” and on our last morning in the park we were driving along the main road next to the Etosha plain, when out the side window I spotted a big male lion striding along the grass. Once more there was no one else around – we had the lion to ourselves. We could hear him “talking” (not as loud as a roar), but couldn’t see any other lions around. So, as far as the big carnivores go, we think close encounters with 2 leopards and a lion all to ourselves is pretty good. We were delighted with the photos we got.

The only other big carnivore we saw was a spotted hyena – similar story, came around a corner & it was standing in the middle of the road, but this was at the end of the day rather than in the morning. We actually saw the same one (we assume) twice, within 15 – 20 minutes.

The other reasonably big carnivore we saw lots of, were the black-backed jackals. We first saw one close to the seal colony, but later saw many more in Etosha. Actually, they are very cheeky and were walking around the restaurant at night trying to steal scraps of food! Despite how ubiquitous they turned out to be, we saw several playing in the wild & got some really nice photos of them.

The seals are the other big carnivores we saw, but as I said before, we found the colony noisy and stinky and the weather too cold for us to hang around for long. And with so many of them just sitting there, there wasn’t much excitement (no thrill of the hunt).

Apart from the carnivores, I guess most peoples image of the African plains are the herbivores – antelope and zebra and giraffes. These we saw plenty of! Just no elephants or rhinos. The rarest antelope we saw was a roan antelope (very briefly) at Waterburg.

Springbok we saw everywhere, and in the Eastern side of Etosha we saw lots of black faced impala also. We also saw lots of wildebeest and a few hartebeest. We also saw some small antelope (Steenbok and Damara dik-dik) – definitely close encounters on the side of the road as they were well hidden by the tall grass.

We saw large herds of zebra, but one day we came across a whole lot just standing (on the road) but with them all resting their heads on each others backs. Very strange!

We also had lots of close encounters with giraffes – we first saw a parent & baby on our first days driving out of Windhoek. When we were at Waterburg, we were in hides to watch the waterholes and salt licks & we had our packed breakfast watching a group of giraffes at a waterhole. Nothing looks more awkward than a giraffe trying to drink out of a pool in the ground! Even the baby ones look awkward, and they are much closer to the ground.

At the other end of the size scale were several delightful small mammals that we saw along the way. The banded mongooses we watched trying to cross the road without losing any of their babies along the way (so they stuck to each other like glue). The animals that were the most fun to watch were the ground squirrels which act more like a meerkat than a typical squirrel (except maybe for the squirrel in London that punched Bill in the nose last year). But they have no traffic sense at all and we even saw one family with its burrow in the road!

We also saw a couple of young suricates (these are also called meerkats) and some rock hyrax.

So, despite the weather, we really did see a lot of African mammals, and we got some great photos too. We can’t wait until we can go back & see how our luck runs next time.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Namibia Holiday: Scenery

May 09

Sorry – I have got further & further behind with these so-called “weekly” updates, so here is an attempt to do a bit of a catch up.

We had three wonderful weeks in Namibia – an incredibly beautiful country that is easy to travel in and has so much variety. We hired a car to drive ourselves around, and the sense of freedom was very liberating. We had pre-booked our accommodation, so it was simply a matter of following the map & stopping wherever we liked to have a break or (most often) take some photos. The drives were quite long (probably our only complaint) which meant we arrived in some places disconcertingly close to dark. We also got up at the crack of dawn almost every day – something I don’t think we’d planned to do before coming on this holiday. But the upside of long days is that each one was so packed full, that all sense of time became dilated, so within just 2 days, we felt we’d been on holiday for ages. Needless to say, we both took hundreds and hundreds of photos, so I’ve decided the only practical way to deal with them all is to do this update in instalments based on photo topic (what other way is there?).

So first is scenery – the back-drop to everything that follows. Our photos just don’t do justice to the variety and spectacle that we saw. Bill wouldn’t let us stop every time I wanted to take a photo – as he rightly pointed out, if we did, we’d never arrive anywhere!

The other thing that was so special about our trip is that Namibia has had the heaviest rains this year for 10 – 20 years! So what we saw in terms of plant life was truly exceptional. Wildflowers were in bloom everywhere. The grasses were about 1 metre tall – impacting on visibility for when we were trying to see animals in game parks. The incredibly beautiful sand dunes of Sossusvlei were covered in grasses of the most beautiful shade of grey/green. We realised that our experience on this holiday was probably quite unique in terms of a “typical” visit to Namibia - & although it had some down sides (in terms of the animals we could see in Etosha in particular), overall we felt very privileged to be able to see the country so green and lush.

We started our trip in Windhoek (after a long but not too unpleasant day in Luanda Airport) – just an overnight and then after some shopping (remember we only ever shop for food in Luanda, so that in itself was a thrill), we set off along some minor roads to our first stop, not far from the sand dunes of Sossusvlei. The trip was a good 6 hours drive (which we didn’t know in advance), and the scenery changed dramatically along the way. We passed a lot of “farmland” with not that much to see in the way of livestock. We did see baboons, giraffes, ostriches, a secretary bird, a marabou stork and various small reptiles and mammals along the side of the road. We hadn’t expected to see any “animals” as such until we got to Etosha, so it was a real thrill.
The place we stayed that night was in one of the most beautiful locations you can imagine – nestled in around hills with stunning scenery in every direction.

We had the first of our incredibly early wake up calls the next morning – around 4:30 am for breakfast & a packed lunch to take with us. The drive in the dark was a bit hairy (the roads were unsealed) but we got to the park entrance in good time for the gates to open (we blew it a bit by not knowing we had to stop and buy a permit & had to backtrack, but we didn’t lose much time). The sun was just coming up as we drove into the park – it was just so beautiful! We thought we were just going to see sand dunes (this shows how busy we were before we left – no time to do any decent research!) so we amazed to see first ostriches and then springbok. Then, thrill of thrill, we spotted some oryx (gemsbok). The scenery was just stunning – we stopped at a look-out point and ate our breakfast, and watched as colourful hot air balloons went up into the sky.

We drove (on a sealed road) for about 60 km to reach the start of the dunes themselves. We didn’t want to take our car on the soft sand, so went in with a “taxi” instead. By this time, the sun had come up and the sunrise light was pretty much gone, and a wind had got up, making the whole scene very sandy. We were just wandering around when we saw an oryx walking out of the sand storm towards us! We were able to get fairly close!
Bill decided he wanted to climb up a dune (really not a good idea in those sorts of winds), so we choose one, but it was so unpleasant at the top that Bill quickly retreated back down out of the wind & I decided I could live without getting to the top.

We walked to a valley full of dead acacia trees, which was very photogenic, but by then it was getting pretty hot, so we decided to return early the next day on our way to Swakopmund, and .head back to our accommodation for a relaxing afternoon.

Actually, we climbed a hill behind where we were staying to try to catch the sunset from there, but when we came home we found out we had a flat tire! It was too late by then to do more than change it for the spare, but it meant that our plans to drive back along the dunes would have to be postponed until we got our tire fixed.

There was a service station open from 6am so we were able to go right in & get the tire checked. Unfortunately, the tire has multiple punctures and was deemed “stuffed”. We had to buy a new tire (we had tire insurance & rang Avis first to authorise it). Despite some mucking around, we were able to go back into the park & catch some more photos before setting off on our trip to Swakopmund. It was another long drive, but also incredibly scenic. We passed the tropic of Capricorn along the way (for the second time on our trip).

Swakopmund is on the coast, and is right on the edge of the sand dunes. We were staying in a place that overlooked the desert from the upstairs balcony. We also had internet here for the only time on our entire trip. We had 3 nights, so the first day we took it pretty easy, exploring the town & getting permits to visit a couple of places we wanted to see.

That afternoon we drove back an hour the way we’d come the day before to an interesting rock outcrop, with the plan to catch the sunset. We had a ball there – great photography & some raptors (kestrels & an owl) and even a snake to keep us busy!

The next day we went on a “living desert tour” – absolutely one of my favourite things we did on the whole trip. The aim was to find the “little 5” – chameleons, snakes, dune lizards etc. It was great!

That afternoon we drove out to the “lunar landscape” area & explored that. We were staying in a self catering apartment, so we also ate really well while we were there.

The next day we left for Damaraland – we went via the seal colony further up the coast. It was very foggy & actually cold (as well as smelly – we didn’t stay very long). We did see our first jackal on the way though!

The scenery again was stunning & we stopped along the way for me to buy a doll from a road side stall. The women there were dressed in their traditional clothes (Herero and Himba) and they let us take some photos.

We also stopped to see a petrified forest, which was moderately interesting, but set in beautiful scenery. The place we stayed out was another stunning location and we caught the most wonderful sunset that night.

The next day we went to Twyfelfontein to see the San (bushman) rock drawings. We felt we were rushed around way too fast, which put a damper on our visit. The scenery in the area though was stunning.

The next day we headed off to Etosha National Park. We’d been hearing from people travelling in the opposite direction to us that the game viewing was far from typical and spotting wildlife around the waterholes was pretty difficult. We arrived at the park around lunch time (one of our shortest driving days) and on our way to the resort we took a short detour off the main road & to our delight we saw a giraffe within 5 minutes & a zebra and a springbok up close just a few minutes later. We sat and ate our lunch there (in the car) & decided that we were going to be lucky (as always). We soon discovered that the stories we heard we correct, there was so much water in the park (just lying in puddles on the ground) that animals didn’t need to risk going to a waterhole to drink, & in the three to four days we were in the park, we hardly saw an animal at a waterhole. We got up early every day so we could start driving as soon as the gates opened at sunrise, had a rest around lunch time & then headed out again for an afternoon drive. We think we were really lucky with what we saw – because the grasses and bushes were so high, we couldn’t see much past about a metre from the roadside, but that meant that what we did see, we saw up close! We didn’t see any elephants (much to Bill’s disappointment) or rhinos, but we saw two leopards and a lion! We were really delighted with what we got to see & as for what we didn’t – we’ll just have to go back for another holiday!

The biggest surprise was the Etosha pan – normally a dust bowl, we saw an ocean! Instead of animals, we saw ducks and waterbirds.

After Etosha, we stayed at the Waterburg Plateau – a huge rock with steep sides where the most endangered animals (eg rhinos, roan and sable antelope) are kept. Although we took a safari, we didn’t see any rhino, although we did see a roan antelope. Around our unit we had dwarf mongooses and Dik-dik – the smallest of all the antelope & surely the worst of names! We climbed up to the plateau for the sunset view, which was very impressive.

Then it was back to Windhoek for some essential shopping & the next day we flew out – Bill to Tanzania to spend a few days with the boys & myself back to Luanda & school.

We loved Namibia & truly hope that we can visit again – maybe during the dry season. What bliss to be able to communicate easily with the people we met, be able to buy almost anything we wanted (for very reasonable prices). Our 3 week holiday felt as if it had lasted forever!

Here are links to some of Bill’s photos from our holiday. (He takes better pictures than I do!)