When we planned Adam’s birthday trip to Namibia there was one place I insisted we visit, and that was Erongo Wilderness Lodge. I had visited four years previously when I did a boys’ weekend away with two of my good mates and Tommy. The purpose of the visit then was to make sure we cleaned up on all the Namibian near-endemics and that purpose hadn’t changed much four years later.
I had seen all the birds on offer at Erongo and so had Tommy, but Adam needed to tick all of them himself. And since it was his birthday I felt it right to celebrate it where the birds were the best.
But four years ago I didn’t know what to expect of Erongo as a place, but now I knew a lot better, and I certainly wasn’t just recommending we come here only for the birds.
To me, Erongo is one of the most special places on the planet.
I will acknowledge that it is expensive but it is so worth it. It is situated in the Erongo Mountains about 10kms to the west of the town of Omaruru and since we approached Erongo from our three days at Etosha we had to drive through the town before getting to the road to Erongo. Omaruru is a quaint little place and is possibly the closest Namibia has to Barrydale, with its little coffee shops and artisanal market-type stores. There was much oohing and aahing from the ladies in the back seats (Jeanie and my mother) and there was much talk about coming back to Omaruru for a cappuccino.
I did wonder whether we were on a road trip or an arts festival.
Anyway, it was the only time we went through Omaruru as the two ladies found the charms at Erongo Wilderness Lodge to be too pleasant to leave.
The beauty of Erongo is that you feel as though you are transporting to a self-contained world. The lodge is surrounded by an amphitheatre of large granite domes and the only road in is through a narrow gap in two of the domes. We parked our “taxi” at the designated parking lot and bundled all our luggage into the game drive vehicle.
Such was the volume of the luggage we carted around with us, that Adam, Tommy and I had to walk the 800m driveway to the lodge, but that was fine by me. After a long drive to get to Erongo nothing soothes the soul quite as much as that walk. As you pass the first rock faces you enter the secret valley which is filled with the screeching of the loveable lovebirds that have found this corner of earth to be just as much to their liking as it was to ours.
The restaurant and reception area are virtually bolted to the side of a huge jumble of boulders and the “welcome iced tea” was only beaten by the welcoming Yellow-bellied Sand Snake that towered above us as we walked through to the restaurant to enjoy the views from the deck. It was a new reptile for me and it was a good sign of what was to come at Erongo.
Erongo is not a place that requires a great amount of planning to enjoy. There are several spectacular walks that cover most of the large inselbergs that surround the lodge and stretching your legs on those trails ensures you cover most of the available habitat and see most of the birds.
We did the Baboon Trail on our first afternoon and happily ticked our first Rockrunners (there would be plenty more to come); we then tackled the Eagle trail on our first morning, nabbing the Hartlaub’s Spurfowl on offer and a few more Rockrunners and then it was the long hike to the bird hide in the afternoon followed shortly thereafter by a hike up to the sundowner spot with the entire family to admire a spectacular sunset and the full moon rise over the eastern plains.
The walks are not frenetic with bird activity but there is always something to see and a bit of patience generally delivers all the specials. We had tons of lovebirds, White-tailed Shrike, spectacular views of my favourite hornbill (although I am yet to visit Thailand), Hartlaub’s Spurfowl and Rockrunner.
There are also a few birdbaths and drinking holes and they provide a wonderful attraction for the lovebirds, estrildids, canaries and buntings, and just sitting still for several hours (okay, minutes for me) produces plenty of wonderful photo opportunities.
I think, though, that the real attraction of Erongo is the situation of the accommodation. Each of the luxury tents is situated on the north facing rock face below the Eagle Trail and they all are, more or less, self-contained. They each have their own private verandah with deck chairs and, in most cases, an outdoor shower is pushed back into the surrounding rocks. The tents are spacious and light and the views cannot be beaten. Appropriately, my parents were allocated the honeymoon suite. My use of the word “appropriately” is not meant to be a sarcastic one, as it was their 46th anniversary on our first night there. The honeymoon suite is set that much further apart from the other tents and although a slightly longer walk to get to, the privacy and the views are unparalleled.
Despite the plushness of the accommodation I find it difficult in any wonderful place to sit still for too long. The secret valley was the source of many birds for us but we had to pay a visit to the Omaruru River to look for two of the endemics that we had come for. We needed to find a Ruppell’s Parrot as well as a Damara Hornbill. The road west towards Uis crosses a riverbed about 12kms from Erongo and this was the site where we had been so lucky with the those two hard-to-find endemics. They are not available at all in the lodge area and the parrot prefers the large dead trees alongside the river (for nesting holes) and the hornbill is partial to the sparse woodland on the flatter plains. It was a bit of a bust as we trudged through the achingly soft river sand in the riverbed and chased ghosts as we thought we heard each of our targets on either side of the river. The screeching we thought were parrots turned out to be many more lovebirds nesting on the electricity pylons and the cluck-clucking of a hornbill was just an ordinary Southern Yellow-billed.
I always say to the boys that “dipping” is an important part of birding and if they were all so easy to find there would be no fun in it. Here poor Adam had dipped and Tommy stayed comfortably at least two birds ahead of him. Incidentally, we actually nabbed the Damara Hornbill the next day as we were driving from Erongo to Swakopmund about 20 kms west of the lodge.
I also always say that no birding trip is ever wasted and so we followed a number of bird parties which had a few shrikes, prinias, batises, tits, eremomelas, tchagras and brubrus. I also told the boys to focus their attention to the ground for any new reptiles and that certainly paid dividends with two new reptiles for the trip in Bushveld Lizard and Wedge-snouted Skink. The lizard was a lifer for all of us and Tommy was extremely adept at finding them and eventually we had seen the male and the female and managed to snap a few pics. They are lightning fast across the ground and only stop when concealed in the thorny undergrowth so the pics never really do any justice to their beautiful colours. The skink was added as a new reptile after the trip was well over when it was tentatively identified by me and then confirmed by someone who actually knew what they were talking about when it came to reptiles. We have really battled to get our ID’s right with the reptiles but we realise that these things take time.
Our two nights at Erongo went by just way too quickly and we were all disappointed that we had not chosen to spend three nights here instead of two but we had things to do in Swakopmund and the show had to travel. We did manage a few other critters while we were there which included a few more reptiles and a pretty cool mouse that joined us for our memorable sundowners.
It must be said that if you are needing to see some of the tricky endemic birds there is nowhere better on the planet for Hartlaub’s Spurfowl and Rockrunner and the Monteiro’s Hornbills are the most obliging that we found on our trip. It is also a photographer’s delight with well fed waterholes that provide a stream of opportunities during the warm part of the day.
Even though we have sucked most of the good birds out of Erongo in two visits here we will definitely be back again someday, if not for anything else than to immerse ourselves in its tranquility.
Although not Erongo-specific it is worth mentioning the travel between Erongo and Swakopmund, our next destination. We took the road less travelled and instead of barreling down to Karibib and then hitting the main highway west to Swakop, we decided to meander our way through the Erongo mountains, heading continually south-west until we reached Spitzkop and then taking the last drive across the plains before reaching the coast.
I was determined to visit Spitzkop, not only because it was a beautiful place, based on my previous memories of it, but there was the matter of a Herero Chat we needed to find for Adam’s list and since Spitzkop is a whole pile of rocks I guessed it would be a good place for some reptiles as well. Unfortunately it was a bust from an Herero Chat point of view, which wasn’t a great surprise to me as it is no longer the dead cert locality for this species. In fact, it has never been that reliable anyway and so I had made sure Adam maintained the appropriately low level of expectation for seeing it as we drove up to the tribal land that houses one of Namibia’s most impressive landmarks.
It was also almost a bust from a reptile point of view as we arrived in the heat of the day, which is ideal for reptiles, but not as ideal for tired moms and daughters that have been bouncing in the back of the car, along the back roads of Namibia for several hours. There had been no frilly table clothes on offer at quaint little coffee shops and the roadside trade wasn’t exactly shopping mall standard, so by the time we reached Spitzkop, the nerves were justifiably frayed and our searching time was going to be severely limited.
Well, thank goodness for our customary roadside lunch stop. I convinced the family that we should park next to a large boulder and have our picnic under the midday glare of the towering inselbergs. To be fair, I was offering them luxury, as there was a small little acacia tree shedding a fraction of shade under which we could park. Most importantly we were right next to a nice warm slab of rock which delivered yet another reptile lifer for us in a Giant Plated Lizard.
I was almost sent into the same foul mood as the rest of the family as by the time I got to see the lizard (after slicing tomatoes and cheese for our picnic) the boys had chased it under the shade of a rock and it absolutely refused to come out. I felt like there was a ticking time bomb as I waited for the lizard to emerge and the rest of the family wrapped up the lunch stop. When my darling Jeanie (gun to my head) was ready to go I was going to have to bolt, lizard photo or not.
I made it by the skin of my teeth as it finally stuck its head out from under a crack as the car was being warmed up to leave, with or without me. Unfortunately I really didn’t have time for a full body shot. That was a little pity as it really is an impressive animal, almost being monitor sized but given the circumstances I was taking what I could get.
I took what I could get and we soon hit the road to the cooler climes of Swakopmund where the ladies would be let loose on restaurants, coffee shops and shopping malls.
For the next instalment of our trip please click here.