Okonjima Plains Camp (Africat)
On our second holiday in Namibia, my wife and I had a short stay at the Okonjima Plains Camp.
After an overnight at a guesthouse in Windhoek to recover from the long journey from the UK we headed north, reaching Okonjima, after a two-and-a-half hour drive on the main B1 road.
The Okonjima Nature Reserve, home to the acclaimed Africat Foundation, lies approximately mid-way between Namibia`s capital city and Etosha National Park and covers an area of 22,000 ha (55,000 acres), all of which is surrounded by a 96 kilometre fence.
The reserve is bordered by rivers which are dry for most of the year, or for extended periods even if the rains fail. Okonjima`s main gate is reached via a 10km gravel road that leads off the B1. The Africat Foundation complex, Plains Camp and the other accommodation options are reached 14-16 km later.
A few road signs you don`t usually see in the UK!
You`d have to be very lucky (or unlucky if you`re walking) to encounter a big cat on the road between the main gate and your chosen accommodation as the fence usually prevents any predators from entering the central area. These Warthogs are far less dangerous (and make quite tasty sausages!).
Within the outer perimeter is a 2,000 ha safe area which ensures that visitors can wander around without receiving unwanted attention from the big cats. This inner fence also protects the accommodation and associated facilities at Plains Camp, Bush Camp, Bush Suite, the Omboroko Campsite and the PAWS Environmental Education Centre.
An early afternoon arrival here gives plenty of time for a pre-sunset guided safari, searching for either, Cheetah, Leopard or African Wild Dogs and Hyena.
Although these outings are offered separately, it's possible to see any of these key species on a targeted trip and we stumbled across the small resident pack of hunting dogs after seeing the Cheetah.
Meals are served in the large main building, known as `The Barn`, which overlooks the Plains Camp`s small waterhole where numerous birds, warthog and antelope come to drink. This must be one of the best waterholes in country from the resident antelope population`s point of view as there are no large predators waiting to pounce.
Metal braziers around the dining area, decorated with cut-out animal designs, are lit at night for added atmosphere. After dinner a large owl swooped in, flying low over the surface to land in a nearby tree.
Even the standard rooms have an excellent view over the grassy plains which are studded with some trees and backed by a ridge of low mountains. The large chalets are comfortable, well-appointed and have picture windows looking out over the plains. The view from the chalet was superb and we left the room curtains wide open to give a tremendous panorama of the crystal clear, star-studded night sky. A couple of these small lizards can just be seen on the outer wall of our chalet in the above shot but weren`t too keen on being photographed.
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Our allocated rental vehicle, delivered to our guest house in Windhoek on the first day, was this Ford Ranger 4x4 which proved ideal for the trip. The extra clearance helped with potholes plus the additional height can be advantage at the waterholes in Etosha National Park, especially if there are a few cars already at the best spots. An added bonus is that the Ranger had twin fuel tanks giving a range of around 1,000km before a top-up was required.
Each of the Plains Camp chalets has its own covered parking area. There`s also a hide nearby which we didn`t have time to visit.
Okonjima is perhaps best known for the AfriCat Foundation, a rescue, rehabilitation, research and educational facility whose aim is the long-term conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores. Established in 1993, the foundation started off as a sanctuary for cheetah and leopards rescued from irate livestock farmers.
Although hunting is instinctive in carnivores, many of the rescued cheetahs lack experience due to being orphaned or removed from the wild at an early age.
The nature reserve enables these animals to hone their hunting skills and become self-sustaining, thereby giving them a chance to return to the wild. The captive cheetahs are fitted with radio-collars prior to their release into the reserve, so that their welfare and progress can be closely monitored.
Okonjima`s cheetahs are rescued or orphaned animals which have been re-introduced to the wild, albeit in a vast enclosed area. The animals are collared but even so, sightings are not guaranteed as the cats can easily conceal themselves in terrain that`s totally inaccessible to vehicles. We took a late afternoon drive and a group of three was soon located, chilling out in the shade provided by a clump of trees. Guests, accompanied by the guide, were allowed to leave the safari truck and walk to within a few metres of the animals who were obviously used to human attention.
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An early rise was required for one of the Plains Camp`s two-and-a-half hour Leopard tracking trips. After coffee we set off around 6.30am with Previous, our guide, and a German couple and their daughter in one of Okonjima's Safari trucks. The early start takes advantage of the light and allows guests to return in time for breakfast at 09:00hrs. Our excursion was one of three targeting leopard that morning.
Most leopards live outside protected areas and many are still killed by farmers and trophy hunters. The size of the current population is difficult to estimate and although these animals are opportunists and adapt better than any of the other big cats to encroachment, it's not at all clear how well they are coping. The Okonjima Leopard population is thought to be around 30 animals at any one time but this varies from year to year, depending on births, deaths and adults entering or leaving the zone.
Only four leopard are collared but this often leads to some amazing views when the tagged animals interact with other leopards that manage to breach the perimeter fence. We passed this Common Duiker (below) soon after setting off, with Kudu, Hartmann`s Mountain Zebra and a couple of Giraffes sighted later.
Common Duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) are widespread throughout west, central, east, and southern Africa, basically everywhere on the continent south of the Sahara, excluding the Horn of Africa, and the central and western rainforests. Also known as the Grey or Bush Duiker, this small antelope will eat a varied range of food including broad-leaved plants, bark, flowers, fruits, seeds, fungi and tubers. Somewhat unusually for an antelope species they will also eat insects, frogs, small birds and mammals, and even carrion. Provided they get water from the food they eat, Duiker can go without drinking for very long periods.
There are two species of Zebra in Southern Africa, the Plains or Burchell's Zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) and the less common Hartmann's or Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) pictured below. As the names suggest they occur in vastly differing habitats although they are known to occur together in areas where plains and mountains overlap. A third species, the Grevy's Zebra, also known as the Imperial Zebra, is found solely in East Africa and is the largest and most threatened species of the three.
Hartmann`s Mountain Zebra is found only in far south-western Angola and western Namibia. They prefer to live in small groups of 7-12 individuals. Living up to their name, these animals are agile climbers with the ability to survive in arid conditions and steep mountainous terrain. The main identifying features are that their stripes are thin, all black and close together. The stripes also go all the way down the animals` legs, unlike those of the common or Burchell`s Zebra. The latter species also has distinctive but less-vivid dark brown lines between the black stripes.
The reserve stretches toward the foot of these distant mountains.
Into the Leopard`s domain: although there are a couple of high fences, including this electrified one, to keep the big cats out of the walking trail areas, the animals have been occasionally spotted in the safe zone, possibly after climbing a tree near the perimeter and jumping over. After entering the secure area, we drove to a lookout point to try for the initial track but only a very feint response was heard, indicating that one of the magnificent big cats was several kilometres away.
Our Guide, Previous, is a Zimbabwean who now works on the Okonjima Reserve.
The leopard population on the reserve varies from year to year but usually stays close to thirty, only four of which are currently tagged. Collared animals are occasionally seen interacting with those yet to be collared. While we were out on our leopard trip, the occupants of one of the other safari vehicles watched a tagged male hurriedly drag his latest kill, a warthog, up a tree when a non-tagged female appeared.
A pair of African Hawk Eagles took-off from a tall tree as our safari truck approached. It was the first time Previous had seen this species in the area. Crimson-breasted Shrike and Go-away-birds were also spotted. The Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, more often referred to as the `Flying Banana!` *
Previous made numerous stops to fix a location and eventually narrowed the animal`s position down to the vicinity of a dry riverbed.
With thick scrub and vegetation bordering each bank, it was impossible to tell which side the animal was on. Had our target been over on the hillside opposite, there was absolutely no chance of a sighting. After a tense few minutes, however, a magnificent female Leopard wandered onto the sand just in front of us, heading in the opposite direction.
Previous, said she looked quite agitated and, aware that she had a 4 month-old cub, was concerned that something untoward may have happened to it. The big cat disappeared back into the scrub, once again fortunately for us, on the lower side of the riverbed.
We drove over the rough ground, trying to intercept her path and after a few minutes, she reappeared with her cub in tow!
We had a some great views as mother and cub explored their territory together, even walking right past the safari truck a couple of times. The cub practised its ambush techniques at the bottom of a termite mound before moving on...
Guests on one of the other leopard excursions told us they had great views of a collared male leopard devouring a warthog carcass. Unwilling to share his meal, he quickly hauled it up into the branches of a tall tree when a non-collared female appeared. The other truck drew a blank.
The trap shown here has fallen into disrepair but is very similar to those currently used to capture leopards for tagging. Once the trap`s baited, staff can monitor it via CCTV and, following activation, immediately check to see what`s inside. If it`s not a target species, or if the animal has already been collared, the door can be opened remotely, allowing the animal to wander off.
In addition to cheetah and leopard, Okonjima is home to Hyenas and a small pack of African Wild Dogs. The latter animals are classed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and it`s estimated that there are only around 6,600 adults left in the continent, the majority underdeveloped. The decline of these fragmented populations is ongoing, due to habitat loss, human persecution, and disease.
This carnivore is actually a member of the dog family, and healthy adults usually measure in the region of 750mm at the shoulders with males slightly larger than the females. Each individual has a unique coat pattern, which makes it possible to identify every animal in a population with certainty. Known as the alpha pair, the dominant male and female are the only individuals to breed in a Wild Dog pack. Other members forego the right to breed and act only as helpers. As large litters of 12 or more pups are born, the female cannot suckle offspring for too long so, from the age of three weeks, milk is supplemented with regurgitated meat brought to the pups by other pack members. A litter is safeguarded in burrows.
Wild Dogs hunt in packs, when all members will collaborate in a team effort to chase and wear out their intended prey to exhaustion. Small to medium-sized animals are usually targeted with Impala being favourite, however, in East Africa Wild Dogs have been known to hunt prey as large as Wildebeest and Zebra. Once the animal is brought to a standstill, the pack moves in and tears the unfortunate creature apart. In some areas the predators do take livestock, but this is a fairly rare occurrence.
From the main gate at Okonjima, it took around three-and-a-half hours to drive to Mushara Outpost, just 8km away from Etosha National Park's Von Lindequist Gate. Our journey time included a fuel stop and a few minutes spent at a police checkpoint. The traffic cop seemed quite impressed that we'd been to Namibia before and after a quick look at the scary photo on my driving licence, waved us through.