Sunday, February 20, 2011

NAMIBIA ............A PILGRIMAGE TO ERINDI GAME RESERVE


2010 was a year in which not much planning was done so scouting for new locations was high on the agenda because all the popular photography destinations were fully booked. In 1986 we were privileged to have lived in Windhoek, Namibia for two years and ever since then whenever I am asked the question “where would you like to live if you could choose”  I would have to say that I would pack my bags in a second if the right opportunity came along and hightail it to Namibia.  So, while watching good old National Geographic Channel one lazy Sunday afternoon an episode of Into the Pride was screened. When I realised I was looking at Namibia my interest was naturally piqued. Dave Salmoni the “lion tamer” was irritating to say the least and I found the pride of lions much more fascinating. Then, when I researched the reserve and found that it is a mighty 70 000 hectares with only one Lodge on it – I was more than interested. An email asking for rates revealed that because I wanted to stay for longer than 4 days the rates were most favourable. So, on 17 July we found ourselves winging our way to Windhoek. Then a 3 hour transfer to the reserve and we were most impressed. For those of you looking for comfortable digs....this comes out being really impressive. The rooms are built around a manmade waterhole which is a bit iffy to say the least, but on the other hand it certainly gives you so much to look while you are in the room that you don’t really want to go to sleep! The cons part of the Lodge is that it is very commercialised and with about 100 beds you don’t get much personal attention but, I was here to see the animals.
On arrival in Namibia I recommend that as you alight from the plane you lift your head to the skies. The term azure blue takes on a whole new meaning when you see the unpolluted skies of Namibia. It was like returning to a good old friend and I could feel a sense of homecoming creeping into my bones.


Our first drive produced the golden light, but it was wintertime and as soon as the sun started setting the wind developed quite a bite! However, as we were “old hands” we had come prepared and out came the buff, ski gloves and ski jacket.
A backlit waterbuck at a waterhole set the tone for the rest of the stay. The waterholes at this reserve are clear of any trees and are thoughtfully excavated so there should be good opportunities for unhindered shooting. The other highlight of the afternoon was a visit to a sociable weaver’s nest. (I so prefer the Afrikaans term vergadervoel – it is so much more descriptive). And to make it special there was a little pygmy falcon perching on a dead branch right next to the nest just waiting for my camera. Symbiotic relationships are such an integral part of the bush and each time we visit a new reserve we find another relationship we weren’t aware of before. 



We then sped off to another waterhole to see if we could make use of the last light. During this visit to Namibia it seemed as if we were literally Chasing the Light (cf David Noton’s phrase) as every drive we had vast distances to cover on this huge reserve. We were, however, well rewarded for our efforts. We came across a white rhino perfectly positioned for the imminent sunset. While we backed off to give him space and time to relax we could focus on the activity around the waterhole where there was a journey of giraffes quenching their thirst. I managed to get “that shot” time and again of the awkward pose of the giraffe head framed between the legs!! And even the light played along here. Very satisfying indeed. Then it was back to the rhino and in the dying light the shutter did not stop.


The following morning we first took a turn at the boma where they have a captive breeding programme to increase their numbers of wild dogs. As a wild dog (BIG BIG) fan I was interested in the programme and learned that their whole pack was decimated one afternoon during a thunderstorm. Lightning wiped out 14 dogs all at once! They now have two alpha male and female pairs breeding and as soon as the numbers are large enough they will release both packs – one on the northern side of the reserve and the others on the southern side of the reserve.  This, in my opinion will hugely increase the appeal of the reserve and add to its diversity immeasurably.

We then got a call (the inevitable radio) that there was a lion sighting nearby so off we sped to see! And there was Brutus (of Into the Pride) working really hard for his dinner. He had chased a warthog down a hole and was proceeding to dig him out. What a sight. Dust and dirt flying all over. And then, after an interminable time he managed to reach the warthog and got his breakfast all sorted out! We were able to watch the whole thing. And this is what is, at the moment, for me as a photographer, the magic of a place like Erindi. No millions of other vehicles and you can sit and watch the whole thing from start to finish. Indeed it is a very good reason to go back there.





The next lion sighting was even more thrilling. We had just visited a waterhole and were heading South when Paul noticed that a giraffe was hotfooting it out of the area. We drove no further than a few more feet when there they were heading for the waterhole. Backtracking we headed for a prime seat and waited. And I was able to get some more of those “shots” of lions at the waterhole. This group turned out to be the stars of Into the Pride. Cleo, the chieftaness who did not like Dave Salmoni, and had started stalking him, plus Winnie who had had cubs. We were well positioned for the shoot and once again, we were not really disturbed by another vehicle. We were with the group from 8.30 until almost 11am.









That afternoon we decided to return to the same waterhole as our ranger was convinced they would still be there and lo and behold there they were. Softer light, some great roaring and play made it all worthwhile. Then we had two white rhinos join them at the waterhole and we were treated to a chase by the cubs who decided that taking on two rhinos would be thing to do!








Another highlight was following a leopard sub adult who is the subject of more research and although collared and not really good for photography we were part of the habituation programme which in itself was a new experience.
When we had arrived at the reserve our ranger had asked the standard question of what we would like to see. He was a little surprised when the Big Five didn’t come up and of course, the standing joke for us is to ask for a cheetah chasing a pangolin. We added an aardvark to the list and then one of my favourite animals the little DikDik. Towards the end of our stay we were rewarded with the DikDik sighting. Stunning opportunity and really close up. The only aspect of this sighting that slightly spoiled the affair for us was a Spanish family who had brought along their teenage daughters who made a huge racket on the back of the vehicle. Private vehicle, private vehicle kept on playing off in my head as I tried to zone out of the noise.
I also need to mention the Kudu horns. The kudu males in this reserve have horns! Gorgeously developed with at least 3 turns – trophy specimens! And of course the aardvark. He came to the waterhole outside our room every night at about 10pm he would come shuffling in – but the orange tinted spotlight at the hole made photography impossible. But, a sighting nonetheless.  Another one that got away was the black rhino. Erindi is home to a lot of rhinos both black and white and the rangers emphasize the fact that they will not let anyone know how many they have because of the poaching currently going on. I truly hope that this is enough to keep them safe.




On the fourth night of our stay our ranger made a suggestion that we should go and camp out at the waterhole where the lions were resting and we simply park there and wait to see what happened. We positioned ourselves on the dam wall – set up the drinks and snacks and settled in for the wait. We didn’t see much action other than a pod of wallowing hippos and a foolhardy giraffe who wandered off in front of the lions but while we were sitting simply soaking in the ambience and atmosphere of the African bush we were treated to the call of a Pearl Spotted Owl and the memory of this remains as one of the most rivetting in our African Odyssey. There are no words to describe the sheer magic of the moment. This feeling stays with you forever and it is what you search for each time you return to the African savannahs. It is what the poets describe as the Soul of Africa and we are indeed privileged to be able to experience it.
The lack of elephants in this reserve was noticeable. However, we had visited just too early. The rangers were all abuzz with excitement because they were about to be a part of a huge project the following month. 100 Etosha elephants were being moved to Erindi. The excitement amongst them was palpable and you could not remain disassociated from their banter about who was in line to be a part of the project.
There was a downside to this trip and I think it deserves mention here because I believe the owners of this very special bit of Africa should take notice. The rangers are under instruction to return their guests to the Lodge by a certain time (dictated by the Kitchens) and if they fail to do so they are then “punished” by having to wash dishes in the kitchens. It is my considered opinion that someone needs to set the priorities right here. The guests come to see the animals and not the diningroom or the kitchen. In fact, even if the food was of a mediocre standard (which it was not) it really would not distract from the experience as it is not the prime reason to travel thousands of kilometres. The animal experience is what matters! And this reserve has the potential to tick off every box in that regard.

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