Thursday, 9 March 2017

Namibia 2017 Part 6. Rhino tracking..... on foot!

This was the day I had been looking forward to for a long time. The excitement of getting close to one of these magnificent beasts was something I would treasure forever, well provided we found one! 
There are no guarantees and we didn't expect one either, they are wild animals after all and unlike some places they don't have electronic tracking devices on them although if it gives them extra protection I wouldn't mind if they did.
Our alarm went of at 5.00am, we were due to leave at 6.00am. In fairness to the Lodge they lay on a full and proper breakfast from 5.00am onwards. As it happened there were only 4 of us taking the trip so plenty of space on the vehicle.
The early morning light was quite spectacular
Rhino trekking
The outlook for the day looking very promising indeed!
Rhino trekking
It was a fairly long drive from the Lodge to where we would begin searching so the first stop was an opportunity for a loo break.
This is it.
Rhino trekking
You have been warned!
Rhino trekking
Claire can't decide if she can hang on for what could be hours!
Anyway, after everyone has decided we move on and to my surprise suddenly come across a small settlement in the middle of nowhere.
Grootberg Lodge
The anti-poaching unit have made camp here.We pick up a couple of the team who will accompany us so there are now 4 "guests". 2 trackers, 2 from the anti poaching unit and 1 driver. Not quite as much space in the vehicle now but it didn't last for long. 
We stopped, flushing what I think was a Lanner Falcon in the process (*I have since been informed this is in fact a female Amur Falcon which is a bonus for me as it's a first!)
Lanner Falcon  Falco Biarmicus
Two Black-backed Jackals soon made off from a nearby otherwise hidden location too. Another first for me!
Black-backed Jackal

The trackers and the A-P team all got off and spread out to look for tracks, we carried on driving coming across a Zebra 
Mountain Zebra
and a pair of Kudu as we went. ( Another first, things were looking up!)
We went so far then the driver turned the vehicle around and headed back the way we had come. He had received a message that the trackers had found a Rhino.
This was great news. We were with them in minutes and we were ushered a short distance to a safe viewing point on top of some huge boulders.
There she was, she's called Elizabeth, and in my opinion she's beautiful.
Black Rhino
We had been warned to keep as quiet as possible as they have good hearing, they also have a good sense of smell but very poor eyesight.
Black Rhino
The wind was carrying our scent directly to her and she was obviously a bit nervous. She moved back a bit.
Black Rhino
Luckily not too far away though. I don't know how long we stayed to watch, probably no more than 5 minutes as we didn't want to disturb her and she was obviously not happy we were there. She moved behind a bush and just stood there and there was little point in staying longer. We had however had some terrific views and a chance to get very close to her too. Perhaps within 30 metres.
All this and it was only 9.30 a.m.
It was a very magical but also a very poignant experience. Isn't it tragic that these stunning animals are killed to satisfy an ignorant,stupid, inadequate somewhere in some far off place. Whoever creates the demand though cannot surely be uneducated. They have to be rich. What's the matter with these people. Words fail me.
Thankfully there are some who do their best to protect them.
Anti-Poaching Unit

The guides wouldn't tell us how many Rhinos there were... for obvious reasons. They did tell us that they were relocated from Etosha to what was seen as a safe environment 13 years ago. Surrounded by mountains it was decided this place would be ideal to help protect them but the risk is always there and several Rhino's have met a grisly fate in this district.
To add to the risk from poaching, for the last 7 years there has been a critical lack of water which has created a food shortage for all the wildlife living there.
After we left Elizabeth we drove around for another 2 hours or so and found very few signs of life but quite a lot of dead carcasses, mainly Zebra.
Rhino can and do survive better than most as they can eat a wider variety of leaves and grasses, other species are less fortunate.
With mammals seemingly non existent we did spot a Skink, well the guide did.
Skink   Grootberg
 Up in the air a pair of very distant  Verreaux's Eagles
Verreaux's Eagle    Aquila Verreauxii
and the brilliant flash of colour on the other side of the valley caught my attention and I asked the driver to stop.
Violet-backed Starling    Cinnyricinclus Leucogaster
With only a 100-400 lens a full frame camera, even with a 1.4TC added, it was along way off for anything more than a record shot.
Violet-backed Starling    Cinnyricinclus Leucogaster
I must admit I was feeling frustrated at the lack of opportunities. 
We picked up some fresh Rhino tracks but despite them telling us they were less than an hour or so old we didn't pursue them. Instead we headed away and found a spot for lunch which was way out of the valley and on the way back to the lodge.
That was it then.
I have mixed feelings about the whole trip.
We actually saw more wildlife on the way back and much closer to the Lodge
Giraffe   Grootberg
A small herd of Giraffe as well as a large troop of Baboons.
Chacma Baboon    Grootberg
We were back at base very early afternoon.
The morning's adventure had cost us £250. A fair amount and off the top of my head, probably the most I have ever spent on a single event ( topping the £90 it cost to watch Liverpool loose the League Cup final at Wembley last year!). 
You can't compare the two of course. Standing watching the Rhino, even if it was only for a few minutes was something very, very special. I had been humbled in it's presence to be honest, ashamed and hugely annoyed at what mankind can and has done to them.
I guess my expectations hadn't been met in other ways though. We had only walked 30-40 metres from the vehicle to see the Rhino, hardly a trek. We had seen very little wildlife at all and the whole trip was over pretty soon.
On the other hand, if there is little in the way of wildlife there is little point in carrying on looking. The aim to show us a Rhino had been met so why go looking for another and in turn disturbing it.
I reasoned with myself that if the £250 went towards Rhino conservation it was worth every penny. Hopefully it does.
A few days later I spoke to some people who made the trip after us. They were out until 6.00pm having not found a Rhino until late afternoon. They had also walked for miles to the point of exhaustion. They though felt satisfied with the experience.
I guess the more the effort the more the reward.
Anyway, the good news I guess was that I now had a free afternoon back at the Lodge for a bit of birding!
On our arrival we had been warned not to stray away from the paths that lead to the huts/rooms. Lions were present. A Zebra kill had taken place in front of one of the rooms only a few days ago, the lions had also been known to visit the swimming pool for a drink. Really?
Believe what you may. There were certainly Zebra very close to the rooms
Mountain Zebra @ Grootberg Lodge
I felt that the hype about the dangers was more to do with the attempt to push us towards a guided walk. Anyway, I didn't bite and I didn't stray very far at all.
I spent an hour or two hanging around waiting to see what might turn up on two wings, especially hopeful of fly-by eagles but it was very quiet indeed.
The Rock Hyrax came out of their hiding places in the boulders below the restaurant balcony and despite their size managed to not only climb the trees but have thin branches support them.
Rock Hyrax @ Grootberg
They seem to survive on a diet of these leaves
Rock Hyrax @ Grootberg
I was using the 600mm and tripod to photograph them which was a total overkill as you could walk right up to one and use a phone camera if you wanted to. They are so used to people.
One or two of the birds seem likewise. The African Red-eyed Bulbul being one of them.
African Red-eyed Bulbul    Pycnonotus Nigerians
While I'm trying and failing to get an unobscured shot whilst one is sat in the tree, Claire takes shots with her phone when it shares her table at the bar looking for crumbs !
The Pale-winged Starling co-operated a little better.
Pale-winged Starling  Onychognathus Nabouroup
Wandering off to the car park I had a brief encounter with a couple of birds, one escaped my camera, the other gave a very brief opportunity. 
Carp's Tit   Paris Carpi
I have decided it's a Carp's Tit but I might be mistaken. Could be Southern Black Tit. Either way it doesn't matter really. This was the only one I saw in Namibia as far as I was aware and it's a first!
Our next door neighbours chalet seemed to attract a Mountain Wheatear but it steadfastly refused me a better photo opportunity.
Mountain Wheatear    Oenanthe Monticola
I was beginning to get frustrated. I'd been in Namibia for nearly 5 days now and hardly taken a decent shot of anything.
If there wasn't anything about I would go and find something elsewhere so informing Claire I was taking the car off I went.
The lodge has a waterhole a few hundred metres from the buildings and to my delight there was a Kudu there taking a drink. Excellent!
Kudu @ Grootberg
It was obviously malnourished poor thing. You only had to look around and see the total lack of vegetation. It was soon joined by a troop of Baboons, must have been 20 or 30. Probably the ones we saw earlier had come up out of the valley.
Chacma Baboon    Grootberg
The big male kept an eye on me whilst having a drink
Chacma Baboon    Grootberg
In terms of distance and view point this was probably the best waterhole we visited in the whole of Namibia. At last the photo opportunities were coming my way.
They must be eating enough to breed though as there was a very young one amongst them.
Chacma Baboon    Grootberg
The light was starting to deteriorate as the skies clouded. Although fitting the Kudu in the frame was tricky with a 600mm lens, for the Baboons it was perfect.
I decided I had to tell Claire what she was missing, besides it was no longer sunbathing weather so I popped back to the room to tell her. She decided to join me in the car. 
By the time we got back the Baboons had moved away from the water but we were soon joined by the rest of the Kudu family.
Kudu @ Grootberg
We now had three youngsters as well as two adults.
Kudu @ Grootberg
One of the adults munched on a few leaves but for the youngsters they were probably out of reach.
Kudu @ Grootberg
We noticed both adults visited and licked at a something on the ground. I presume it's a salt lick provided by the lodge.
Kudu @ Grootberg
After all had had their fill of water they wandered off. We weren't quite done yet though!
Speckled Pigeon   Columba Guinea
Both a Speckled Pigeon and a Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark made visits.
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark  Eremopterix Leucotis
Again, they would be the only ones I would see in Namibia so on a numbers game it was a success.
The dark skies started to drop a little rain so we decided to head back to the lodge and a pre-dinnorial drink.
Grootberg Lodge
Once again we took in the stunning view but it was starting to look a bit menacing.
Grootberg Lodge
Within a few minutes the views were almost totally obscured and the heavens opened.
Grootberg Lodge
Mass panic as all the guests head towards shelter!
That evening instead of enjoying a sunset we stood around the wood fire by the bar but it gave us all a conversation point and once again we were one of the last in to dinner having spent time sharing our adventures with other guests.
With hindsight, again our late arrival the previous day and now rain meant that our time in Grootberg from a photo point of view had been more limited than expected. Getting up and out at 6.00am meant the morning had passed by there too.
The next day we were moving on heading towards Etosha N.P. 
My luck would change there for sure.

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