Following on from two nights at both Doro Nawas and Damaraland Camps, the third part of our journey will see us flying north to the Palmwag Concession and the Desert Rhino Camp.
The scenery is nothing short of spectacular and a 24-70mm lens will help you capture some interesting aerial views of the region.
The southern parts of the 450 000-hectare (1 111 935-acre) Palmwag Concession are made up of rolling, rocky hills, flat-topped mountains and stark plains. The Palmwag Concession is a conservancy in Damaraland in the Kaokoveld (Kunene) region of north-west Namibia. Considering the proximity of the concession to the Skeleton Coast National Park and true Namib Desert, this area is home to a rich diversity of wildlife.
Early morning fog, which is generated by the icy Benguela Current in the Atlantic Ocean meeting the warm desert air of the Skeleton Coast, drifts inland over the Namib Desert, and is a reliable source of water for the flora and fauna in this incredibly harsh environment. The Etendeka Mountains dominate the scenery: impressive flat-topped outcrops coloured ochre-brown.
Dry river-courses like the Uniab River cut through the landscape and occasionally fill with water. The terrain is rocky but often covered with fine golden grasses and interspersed with large Euphorbia damarana bushes, which are endemic to the area.
Other fascinating plants in the Palmwag Concession include the odd-shaped bottle tree, shepherd’s tree, ancient leadwoods, salvadora bushes and the unique welwitschia, a bizarre plant with two large leaves that grow along the ground over hundreds of years. Palmwag Concession’s freshwater springs support healthy populations of arid-adapted wildlife. Good numbers of Hartmann’s mountain zebra, southern giraffe, gemsbok (oryx), springbok, kudu, dwarf antelope (such as steenbok and klipspringer), scrub hare, comical meerkats (suricates), inquisitive ground squirrels, black-backed jackal and small spotted genet can be seen.
This concession is also rich in reptiles including Kaokoveld sand lizard and Anchieta’s agama. A major drawcard for the region is the presence of the largest free-roaming population of desert-adapted black rhino in Africa, as well as a healthy number of desert-adapted elephant. The Palmwag Concession also holds the core of the rarely-seen desert-adapted lion population of north-west Namibia. Cheetah and leopard are sometimes sighted roaming through this vast, unspoilt area.
Our first afternoon here will be spent exploring the area close to camp as we head up to a suitable vantage point to take in the scenery and enjoy a golden sunset.
We typically set out in the morning on game drive vehicles, behind the Save the Rhino trackers, who keep records on where and when rhino have been seen in the region. I'll be sharing more on the work of the save The Rhino Trust in a separate blog post but essentially, the concession is divided up into 4 zones with viewing being dedicated and limited to one individual from a single zone per day.
Desert adapted Black Rhino are very sensitive to disturbances such as vehicles and have been shown to avoid areas where vehicles travel regularly even if the habitat in that particular region is highly desired. It is for this reason that the rotational zone system was introduced, reducing vehicle traffic in the area and ensuring that the rhino are able to behave as naturally as possible in this harsh and arid environment.
During our stay we were allocated to zone 4, the largest and most remote of the four zones, for our morning activity.
Heading out from camp we headed north, following the Save the Rhino trackers who got a head start and were already checking the springs in the region for any fresh sign of rhino movement. Our search for the desert adapted black rhino provided a number of photographic opportunities with sightings of Oryx, Springbok, Lappet-faced Vultures and Black Backed Jackal.
By mid morning neither our team nor the Save the Rhino trackers had picked up an any fresh spoor. We stopped for a coffee break and admired the scenery.
By lunchtime it became clear that this was going to be a long day but our group remained in high spirits as we enjoyed a packed lunch with the trackers from the Save the Rhino trackers in a river course.
Everything in this region has adapted to the fact that less than 100mm of rain falls here in the course of a year.
Whilst our search for the seemingly illusive desert adapted black rhino continued, we stopped to appreciate the sheer size of a massive Welwitschia. This bizarre looking plant consists of two leaves, a stem base and roots. That is all!
Its two permanent leaves are unique in the plant kingdom. They are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling, and they just continue to grow and are never shed. They are leathery, broad, strap-shaped and they lie on the ground becoming torn to ribbons and tattered with age. The stem is low, woody, hollowed-out, obconical in shape and sturdy.
Carbon dating tells us that on average, welwitschias are 500-600 years old, although some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old. Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years. Growth occurs annually during the summer months.
Our search continued and, after 9 hours of searching the Martian landscapes we saw our first Desert Adapted Black Rhino. The nervous Cow and Calf made their way across the rocky foot-slopes of one of the many mountains.
It was during our attempt to relocate the pair that we came across, by complete chance, another cow and calf in a far more suitable position for an approach on foot. Along with the Save the Rhino trackers we checked the wind, assessed the landscape and cautiously made our approach.
With the wind in our favour we positioned ourselves on a rocky shelf above the watercourse and savoured the moment that had taken the vast majority of the day to materialise.
We spent about 15 minutes viewing the pair before retreating back to the vehicle, leaving them completely at ease despite them having picked up on our scent at one point.
Jono and I both agreed that being allocated zone 4 made this experience all the more interesting and rewarding. We had seen a lot of what can only be described as a massive expanse of rugged and seemingly hostile environment. yet, here, in the middle of the desert, black rhino populations are not just doing well, they are thriving.
Then, as if seeing these creatures in this sort of environment wasn't enough, to have the privilege of being able to approach them on foot takes the experience to a whole other level.
We climbed back on the vehicle with smiles brimming from ear-to-ear and started the long journey back to camp.
The will of the wilds had other plans though as we rounded the corner to find yet another desert adapted Black Rhino.
We had gone from seeing no rhinos in the course of 9 hours to encountering a 5th rhino within an hour of seeing our first pair.
Again we made our approach on foot, settling on a raised rocky ridge in the shadows downwind from the impressive rhino cow.
We watched for about 5 minutes as she slowly made her way along the edge of the dry river-course about 80 metres away from our position when suddenly, the wind changed and she caught our scent.
Her posture changed immediately and her curiosity was obvious.
She adjusted her path and began to walk directly towards us.
Her approached intensified and her charge stopped just short of around 15metres from our position with the trackers ensuring that she was not getting any closer.
It was one of the most memorable moments on safari that I had experienced in a long time and one which I will not forget in a hurry.
During our 3 nights stay at Desert Rhino Camp we will enjoy at least two rhino tracking activities with the team of trackers from Save The Rhino Trust and not all of the tracking efforts are as long and as challenging as our first day. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a second morning of tracking before flying out of the camp and on this occasion, we had found, approached and photographed a rhino by 09:00 in the morning.
Our long and challenging day in the field added so much to the experience and made me realise just how special it is to even catch a glimpse of these remarkable creatures in this environment.
Over and above the Hartmann's Mountain Zebra, Oryx, Springbok and other smaller creatures, the area often produces sightings of the Desert Adapted Elephants which visit the springs scattered throughout the concession as well as Lions which move along the dry river courses as the move between the Skeleton Coast and the interior.
Desert Adapted Black Rhino remain our focus for our 3 night stay here with our next location in the safari providing perhaps the best possible ending to the itinerary with its diversity, beauty and luxury.