The Waterberg National Park

© View of infinity across the Waterberg Plateau

In Namibia, towns are few and far between. 'Town' is too strong a word perhaps for the isolated pockets of civilization that cling to the fraying edges of the Namib desert. However, Otjiwaronga, in the north of Namibia, rightly deserves the name.

From Otjiwaronga to the Waterberg

In the language of the people of these parts, the name of the town comes from the Herero for 'a good place.' And so it is. A good place to stock up, fix your car and stop off for bratwurst and brochen at the German deli and bakery before heading for the Waterberg National Park, 80 km to the east.

This park is a haven for Namibia's most endangered species and is also a birdwatcher's paradise. History, too, has left its mark. The road swoops past acacia woodlands and large anthills as the plateau rears up on the left. As you approach, the land, in sympathy, seems to respond with undulations of its own, aloe-studded mounds and rounded kopje ridges.

The Waterberg Plateau National Park

The plateau which gives the park its name is of compressed sandstone formed some 180 - 200 million years ago. The bristling ridge stretches westward for more than 300 km. The sandstone on top of the plateau soaks up surface water giving rise to a number of fountains at the foot of the southern plateau.

Reliable water in the midst of the perennial dryness creates a 'species sink' and over 200 bird species have been recorded including the only surviving breeding colony of Cape Vulture. The 40 549 hectare Waterberg Plateau Park was proclaimed a wildlife reserve in 1972.

Its initial intention was to preserve the eland antelope. Eland numbers had declined because of unchecked hunting as they crossed commercial farmland. The eland having made a come-back, the park focuses on protecting Namibia's currently most endangered species such as the black rhino, hartebeest, tssessebe and sable.

Before the area achieved protected status, the birds and the animals of the Waterberg shared their habitat with the wandering San, and later, Damara and Herero herders. In 1896, the German colonial powers established a police post at Waterberg and, in 1908, a fully-fledged police station.

This continued to operate until 1955 despite the change in colonial administration. Today, the red-brick building in the foothills of the Waterberg does duty as a restaurant.

Mammals of the Waterberg

We opt for the well-spaced campsite rather than the closer confines of the chalets. The campsite is set under acacia trees at the base of the plateau, a rocky spine rusty in the setting sun. In the best camping tradition we eat supper under the velvet-spangled sky.

With the aid of only our gas cooker and a wok, we dine on a gourmet Chinese stir-fry; carrots and beans, green pepper, water chestnuts and sprouts, in a spicy Thai sauce, over rice. You wouldn't find better in Bangok, if I do say so myself.

The next morning we explore one of the hiking trails that trace the foot of the southern plateau. We amble through evergreen forest with the long roots of wild figs twined around massive red boulders that fell from the summit of the sandstone ridge who knows how long ago? In the dense shade of the lower reaches of the plateau, we spot a pair of Damara dik-dik.

These tiny browsing antelope are only found in northern Namibia and southern Angola where they have adapted to the dry climate. They are thought to be independent of water.  A few centimetres taller at shoulder height than the blue duiker, smallest of the antelope, the diminutive dik-dik is normally shy.

However, the pair we came upon, seemed accustomed to human passersby and didn't flee at our approach but merely continued their breakfasting. Of the other 30 mammal species in the Waterberg NP, most are to be found above the plateau. A game drive or the three-day hiking trail offers the opportunity of sighting leopard, cheetah,giraffe, black rhino and buffalo along with a variety of antelope.

Birds of the Waterberg

Soon after our encounter with the dik-diks we manage to successfully identify our first LBJ or 'little brown job' in birding speak. Thus, I can, with confidence, introduce you to the Grey-backed Bleating Warbler. Like its name suggests, this tiny bird is lead-grey above with mossy green wings ,dull greyish-white underparts and an orange-brown eye.

Partial to drier woodland, the bird is found in northern Namibia, Botswana and throughout the whole of Zimbabwe. Its Green-backed cousin, preferring moister climes, occupies the east coast of southern Africa from South Africa's Garden Route north to Mozambique and beyond.

We also successfully ID a Marico Sunbird, iridescent under the irrigation sprinklers on the lawn outside the restaurant. We add a Whitebellied Sunbird and a Whitebrowed Robin to to our checklist. A Scimitar-billed Woodhoopoe and a Violet-eared Waxbill cross our path before an up-close-and-personal encounter with the uncommon resident Rockrunner or Damara Rockjumper.

This large robin-sized warbler is only found in northern Namibia and south-western Angola. Our enthusiasm at identifying a Swallow-tailed Bee-eater prompts the immortal observation that we must have 'bee-eaters in our bonnets.' A condition many birders would recognise, I'm sure.

History of the Waterberg

We climb to the top of the plateau which is not as energetic as it sounds as, at 250 m, it is not very high. On our way up, a group of baboons is making free around the upper rest camp and chalets, delving in the bins and harvesting grubs from the lawn.

As we ascend the summit, we pass another group of baboons relaxing on the rocks in the mid-morning sun. We watch them from the top as they move down the hill and through the bush. Upon our return to the campsite, the rubbish bins have been overturned and we catch the culprits literally red-handed.

The enterprising primates have managed to open our cooler box and are lunching on our tomatoes, dexterous pests that they are. On our descent from the plateau we took the so-called Francolin path named for the Red-billed Francolin common in these parts.

This path merges with the mission walk, so-called for the mudbrick ruins of the old mission station. There are other reminders of the past here. A well-maintained German cemetery commemorates the battle between the German colonial soldiers, the Germs Schutztruppe, and the local Herero, who were decisively defeated in 1904.

If the graveyard is anything to go by, the Hereros did not surrender quietly. The long rows of headstones are of young men in their early twenties, buried long ago and very far from home. The Waterberg National Park is an arresting place in more ways than one.

by Laurianne Claase
South and East African Safaris
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