Trip Report: Exploring the Succulent Karoo Biome

A WEEK OF SOUTHERN SPLENDOR

September 2020 by Berenike Behrens

Steve is writing a series of field guides on the Namib for which he needed a few more photos and he is assisting with the atlassing of butterflies in Namibia. So, after spending five months in lockdown in Swakopmund we took the first chance available and we headed to the South where the flowers had been blooming in full force. It was the first time in thirty years that the flowers provided such a grand spectacle, and although we only caught the tail-end of the season we were still amazed by the beauty and sheer variety of flowering plants in this arid land.

It was an absolute privilege to be able to travel with naturalists Steve, Louise and Sean Braine. Even Merlin, our six-year-old nephew, blew my mind with his knowledge on butterflies. Not only is he good at catching them, which is more difficult than it seems, but he can also identify them from a mile away and will happily tell you the common and scientific name of each species. His enthusiasm is contagious and his love for nature and its beauty is obvious, just as it is for the rest of the family. Being naturalists their interests and fascinations reach all aspects of nature and every plant, insect, reptile, mammal, bird and mineral sparked excitement.

Starting from Swakopmund we travelled to NamibRand, Lüderitz, Oranjemund, Aus and eventually took a different route back to NamibRand before backtracking to Swakopmund. The drives between destinations were often interrupted as we would regularly stop and scout the area for anything interesting, taking photos, drinking tea and catching butterflies for the collection.

Our overnight stops at the spectacular NamibRand Nature Reserve, which is looking very dry, provided views of Oryx, Springbuck, Ostrich, Hartebeest, Hartmann’s Zebra and even a Cape Fox.  A night walk on the first night led us to find a few Giant Ground Geckos (Chondrodactylus angulifer namibensis), but not much else. We also saw Pale Chanting Goshawk, Sociable Weavers, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Familiar Chat, House Martin, Red-eyed Bulbul, Cape Crows, Ludwig’s Bustard and Tractrac Chats. The serene landscapes, sunrises, sunsets and night skies here are simply breathtaking.  It is every photographer’s dream.

On our way to Lüderitz we found our main target species of butterfly, the Teare’s Copper (Aloeides tearei), endemic to Namibia and a possible new species of Aloeides that Steve has sent to Steve Woodhall, the author of Butterflies of South Africa, to be identified. Watch this space for a possible Aloeides brainei. Some of the plants we photographed along the way include Slender candelabra-euphorbia (Euphorbia avasmontana), Lithops karasmontana bella, Pig’s Ears (Cotyledon orbiculata), Tiger Aloe (Gonialoe variegate) and a number of the flowering daisy species, such as the Yellow Calendula (Gazania Lichtensteinii). We also had great views of the Karoo Girdled Lizard.

While having lunch at the Garub waterhole, which was created for the wild horses, Sean and I went off in search of the Barlow’s Lark. Despite not finding any larks we saw several Ludwig’s Bustards and on our way back we were graced by a herd of wild horses coming in for a drink. The horses and their wild behavior of running and fighting against the stark desert backdrop provide excellent photographic opportunities.

We stayed in a cozy B&B in Lüderitz that is situated in the bay and overlooks Shark Island. Stairs take you right down to the calm waters where we investigated the rock pools and photographed African Black Oystercatchers. The weather was unusual, wind-still and overcast, which created a gorgeous atmosphere. We ended the day with seafood at the good-value-for-money Diaz Coffee Shop & Oyster Bar.

Before leaving Lüderitz we drove along the peninsula towards Halifax Island where uninhabited buildings from a derelict guano mine, are now being used by the African penguins for breeding. We had great views of African Oystercatchers, Cape, Crowned, Bank and White-breasted Cormorants, Hartlaub’s Gull, Cape Wagtails, Tractrac Chats, Ruddy Turnstones, Greater Flamingos, South African Shelduck and a Whimbrel.

Some of the plants we found along the way were Larrylechia marlothii, Sarcocaulon patersoni and salmoniflora, Othonna furcata and several Stapelia species.

From there we quickly stopped in at Kolmanskop Ghost Town where we spent the next two hours photographing the derelict buildings without another soul in sight. The former diamond town, which is slowly being swallowed by sand dunes, has approximately 35,000 visitors a year. So, to be the only people there was a great privilege and an eerie experience.

The rest of the drive to Oranjemund was incredibly scenic and our excitement grew as we eventually reached the Orange River. We drove alongside the river on a winding road keeping our eyes peeled for anything interesting and were eventually welcomed to the diamond mining town by several Oryx, Oranjemund’s most famous inhabitants.

Our self-catering chalet was situated in a small oasis surrounded by dune fields. The garden hosted Cape Robin-Chat, Southern Fiscal (nominate race), Red-eyed Bulbul, Red-eyed Dove, Orange River White-eyes and several other common bird species. We also had a Jackal and several Oryx visiting the gardens.

An early hike into the dunes the next morning provided two Namaqua Dwarf Adders (Bitis schneiderei), Cheiridopsis verrucosa and Cephalophyllum ebracteatum.

Despite the strong wind we opted for a short drive up the river mouth and were awarded with views of an African Fish Eagle hunting, a juvenile Black Harrier, Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola, Purple, Grey and Goliath Heron, Hadeda Ibis, Cape Spurfowl, Cattle and Little Egret, Little and Bradfield’s Swifts, White-backed Mousebirds, Lesser Swamp Warbler and Pied Kingfisher.

Merlin organized a surprise birthday party for his Uncle Sean. The excitement was too big and Merlin could hardly hold it together. So with a bit of acting a very ‘surprised’ Sean was treated to good wine, good whiskey and good music.

While Sean and Merlin did a bit of fishing the next morning, Steve and I were able to add Little Bittern, African Stonechat and Malachite Sunbird to the list.

Our next destination was the Geisterschlucht Cabin at Klein Aus Vista where we would spend the next two days exploring the Gondwana Sperrgebiet Reserve and the adjacent lands. Surrounded by mountains and rocky outcrops the secluded self-catering cabin is situated approximately 6km from the lodge and you get a wonderful feeling of isolation here. There are six well-marked hiking trails taking you to the most scenic spots on the Gondwana Sperrgebiet Rand Park and we immediately started exploring the area.

During our time here we saw Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Layard’s and Chestnut-vented Warbler (Tit-babbler), Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Damara (Black-headed) and White-throated Canary, Bokmakierie, Pale-winged Starlings, Verreaux’s Eagles, Rock Kestrel, Cape and Lark-like Bunting, Familiar Chats, Dusky Sunbird and Karoo Prinia. At night the eerie screeches of the Barn Owl echoed all around us.

We found several Giant Ground Geckos and heard thousands of barking geckos, but were unable to find any. Other reptiles included Nama Padloper (a lifer for all of us), Knobel’s Rock Agama, Southern Rock Agama, Ground Agama, Western Rock Skink and Karoo Girdled Lizard. Unfortunately, the snakes eluded us. On the mammal front we saw Cape Short-tailed Gerbil, Namaqua Rock Mouse, Western Rock Sengi, Four-striped Field Mice, Dassie-rats, Rock Hyrax, a couple of Rock Rabbits and Bushveld Gerbil (Tatera leucogaster).

Merlin spent his days running after butterflies and managed to find Banded Gold Tip, Sulphur Tip, Namaqua Sandman, Teare’s Copper, Silver Bar, Meadow White, Zebra White, Orange Tip, Painted Lady, Brown Playboy and even a Grass Jewel Blue.

We only found several Hadogenes scorpions and one other species that Steve sent in to be identified.

There are too many plants to mention, but here are a few that got us excited: Spiny Geranium (Pelargonium spinosum), Desert Geranium (Pelargonium xerophyton) and Pelargonium cortusifolium; Yellow Bushman’s Candle (Sarcocaulon crassicaule), Kersbossie (Sarcocaulon patersonii) and Sarcocaulon salmoniflora; Cyanella ramosissima and the gorgeous Tiger Aloe (Gonialoe variegata).

The highlight of the trip was the hour we spent at the nearby field of Cyanella lilies. The grand mountains turned into layers of various shades of blue silhouetted against the setting sun. The last rays of light illuminated the golden grass and pink and purple lilies. And to top it off we were treated to the cacophony of thousands of barking geckos calling all around us. It was truly magical.

On our drive home we managed to find Karoo Korhaan, Pink-billed Lark, Lark-like Bunting and Grey-backed Sparrowlark, to mention a few bird species. A low positioned nest next to the road allowed us to see four Greater Kestrel chicks.

All in all it was a great trip with great food, lots of wine and fantastic people.