About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Augrabies Falls NP; a magnificent South African dryland

I first visited Augrabies Falls, up near the Namibian border in north-western South Africa, back in 2005 and was smitten by it. To the north, in Botswana and Namibia, is the mighty Kalahari Desert. The northern part of South Africa along the Orange River where Augrabies Falls thunders is sometimes known (mostly for tourism purposes) as the 'Green Kalahari', to reflect the irrigation production along the river.

I was travelling alone then but was embarking on the relationship that has come to define the rest of my life, and was determined to share this wild arid land with Lou one day. One of its attractions for me was that it reminded me in many ways of outback Australia, and we both feel passionately about that. Finally, just before COVID changed the world forever and shut down international travel for who knows how long, we managed to get there (and back!). This post is a record of a brief but memorable time there.

The wild wide rocky landscape of Augrabies Falls National Park.

The red arrow marks the approximate position of Augrabies Falls, on the Orange River
some 120km west of the thriving (and not entirely lovable) frontier town of Upington.
The park was declared in 1966 and protects some 50,000 hectares of semi-arid landscape surrounding the Orange River. The focus is the falls which crash 60 metres into a deep gorge which extends for nearly 20kms - and the rock it has chewed away is granite!

I would of course love to show you the full drama of the falls - they were pretty good when I was there in 2005 but that was pre-digital camera days for me - but the area was in severe drought at the time (as was most of Australia) so the falls were a relative trickle.

The falls are accessed by walking tracks and viewing platforms just below the very
comfortable cabin we stayed in. Even in its diminished state the sound of rushing
water could be heard all night, though somewhat muted. The name is an Afrikaans derivative
of the Nama name Akoerebis, meaning 'Place of Great Noise'.
The Nama, who still live in the area and contribute to the park's management, are descendants
of the Khoekhoen (or Khoikhoi) people, nomadic pastoralists who were the original inhabitants of the area, along with the San who were primarily hunters.

Compare this with the photos below, displayed on a board at the information centre, of the same falls during a wet year in 2010!

Downstream are access points to lookouts over the lower reaches of the gorge. Here the river has been temporarily reduced to near-stagnant pools; I don't know how much water is extracted upstream for irrigation.

Echo Corner.

Oranjekom Lookout.
However we were not just here for the water, and as I mentioned earlier the superb arid landscapes drew us right in. There is a series of drives (mostly accessible to non-4WDs, like our little hired vehicle), arranged so that at various points you can take a loop to return. They start with a shallow stream crossing (just shallow enough for us!) where the bushes were always busy with birds. 
A pool in the granite by the track, where birds came to drink.
After that we were in a magnificent arid rocky landscape, where every climb of the road revealed another superb vista. We chose a 66km loop option.

The vegetation is incredibly hardy (as any desert plants must be) with thorny acacias and tough grasses predominating. Succulents are also present (as they are mostly not in Australia), taking advantage of the rare rains to store water.
Slender Milk Bush Euphorbia dregeana; the 'milk' of the name refers to
the caustic milky sap common to most euphorbs.

Probably the most impressive plant of this part of the world however is the striking but endangered Quiver Tree, or Kokerboom, Aloidendron dichotomum in the family Asphodeleceae - a lily family which some of my Australian readers will know for the little Bulbine Lilies Bulbine spp. They are thus one of the few monocots (which are mostly herbs) to form a tree, along with palms.

They can seemingly grow in almost any substrate and are a substantial tree.

This big Kokerboom on the sandy plain is hosting the massive grass nest of
Sociable Weavers Philetairus socius, which breed colonially. We watched them flash in and
out of the nests, but didn't manage a photo unfortunately.
Kokerboom flowers; it's not clear what prompts flowering, but it's obviously not rain.

The most unusual bark of the tree was apparently used by San people for arrow quivers
(they are experts in preparing and using arrow poison), hence the English name.
Beneath the bark is not wood (monocots don't have 'real wood') but spongy tissue
which transports water.
There were gratifying numbers of birds - many of them were around the accommodation and park headquarters, with its enticing shade, plantings and water, but by no means all. The next few were ones we saw by our accommodation, or while sitting on the cafe verandah in the hot early afternoon.
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis, a dapper little dweller of dry rocky landscapes -
just like Augrabies Falls in fact!

Karoo Scrub Robin Cercotrichas coryphaeus; another dry southern African
specialist. African scrub robins are not all related to the Australian robins (or to
North American ones either) but are Old World flycatchers, like the European Robin.
The English naming of African birds is as confusing as it is in Australia.

Sickle-winged Chat Emarginata sinuata; all the comments about the previous bird
apply to this one too, including its naming. It too is an Old World flycatcher.

Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup. This arid land starling has learnt
at Augrabies to hang around the restaurant in hope of handouts or leftovers.

Red-eyed Bulbuls Pycnonotus nigricans are also dryland birds (as you must be to live here)
which readily adapt to human habitations.
Speckled Pigeons Columba guinea are also happy to share our dwelling places, regularly nesting in buildings.
These two were coming for a slightly risky drink at the falls.
Out on the plains and hills birds weren't quite as easy to observe, but they were there. Africa is rich in larks, especially in open country. Coming from a country where there is only one native species, this is a bit of an eye-opener.

Spike-heeled Lark Chersomanes albofasciata, displaying its distinctive 'heels'.

Sabota Lark Calendulauda sabota; sabota is the general word in Tswana (or Setswana),
widely spoken in north-western South Africa, for a lark. 

White-throated Canary Crithagra albogularis. Yes, there are plenty of 'real' wild
canaries out there, including this one from the dry south-west of the continent.
And of course there are plenty of birds of prey out there, waiting for an unwary animal - mammal, reptile, bird or insect, depending on the size of both predator and prey - to make a mistake. Here are a couple that we admired.

Immature Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus on a distant ridge top.These are huge powerful
predators which will hunt hares, hyraxes (see below), small antelope, jackals, large reptiles,
guinea fowl, bustards - pretty well anything in the medium size range.

Pale Chanting Goshawks Melierax canorus feed on smaller prey including mammals, birds,
reptiles, insects and even carrion across dry southern Africa.
Which brings us to some of the other animals; given that we didn't go out at night, we did quite well there too, though reptiles were a bit thin on the ground. Surprisingly this included the famed lizards which swarm around the rocks along the falls walks - they certainly did so around my feet on the previous visit. This time though, doubtless because of the drought, they were few and scattered. Luckily there were still a few though!
Augrabies Flat Lizard Platysaurus broadleyi; the sun wasn't cooperating with this photo (!)
so we can't really appreciate his glorious colours. His remarkable shape, for slipping into
safe rock crevices, is evident however.

Angulate Tortoise Chersina angulata by the road;
this hardy small tortoise is sadly threatened by the illegal pet trade, apparently.
Fortunately not this one, I imagine.
I mentioned hyraxes earlier; these are odd and endearing little characters, most of whom live among rocks - and whose closest (albeit still distant!) relatives are elephants. There are five living species, all in Africa. The most best known of these is the Cape Hyrax Procavia capensis, found widely in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. As we walked along the tracks to the falls, young hyraxes were chasing and tumbling on steep rock faces above a sheer drop to the waters. Not their elders though.
Rock Hyrax dozing on some comfortable granite in the late sun.
There are quite a few mammal predators in the park, up to the size of Leopards, though unsurprisingly we didn't see those. We did enjoy a couple of species of mongoose, which I find delightful.
Small Grey Mongoose Galerella pulverulenta which was cautiously investigating
the situation in bushland alongside the restaurant, after most people had left.

Yellow Mongoose Cynictis penicillata in a now quiet late afternoon picnic ground.
Like the previous species, the Yellow Mongoose is comfortable around humans.
I'm a fan of antelopes (as I am of most wild animals!) and Augrabies hosts a good array, though none more handsome than the big strong Gemsbok, one of six species of desert-loving oryx.
Gemsbok Oryx gazella, at home in the wild rocky landscape of Augrabies Falls.

Red Hartebeest Alcelaphus caama - another big, and generally solitary antelope.

Kalahari Springboks Antidorcas hofmeyri nibbling on a very hard and thorny shrub.
You'd think that going to South Africa might mean automatic springboks, but they're not
quite that easy. In recent times three species have been recognised rather than just one - this one,
an eastern South African species and one from Angola.

Cape Klipspringer Oreotragus oreotragus. This stocky little character is one of my
favourite antelopes, specialising in cliffs and rock outcrops, a sort of African
rock-wallaby. Augrabies is one of the best places to see them, as they are common in the
park, including near the vehicle tracks, and are not fazed by traffic.
New biochemical and genetic tools have now allowed us to recognise 11 klipspringers,
rather than just one!

Finally I was delighted when we came across giraffes in this desert landscape; I'm always delighted by giraffe encounters but this was quite unexpected, as I'd not seen them here previously. Whether this was just chance, or due to increased population or even a recent reintroduction, I can't say. As I say, a delight though.
Southern, or Cape Giraffe Giraffa giraffa.
Not just springboks can defeat the thorny plant protectors; these huge browsers
seemed quite immune to them.

I hadn't really thought of giraffes in a desert, but these certainly seemed at home.

Augrabies Falls is probably not on most travellers' South African 'to do' lists; if you're interested enough to be reading my blog though, I reckon it should definitely be on yours. Especially after a rainy season!

A couple of sunsets, enjoyed from the verandah of our cabin, to finish with.

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Flabmeister said...

You said "Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup. This arid land starling has learnt
at Augrabies to hang around the restaurant in hope of handouts or leftovers."
At Tarangire National Park in Tanzania a species of Starling (I think Red-winged, but it is 20 years ago) came into the restaurant, in quite large numbers to get food at the source. That was the same Park where wild elephants grazed about 3 metres away from the wazungu having a cleansing ale before entering said restaurant!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ian for a wonderful post. I too fondly remember this park. And for us it was our first ever trip to Africa, back in 2001 - so a 20-year nostalgia trip for me. (And as Kathy has already said on your Facebook post, we were camped here on 11 Sept, when patchy news broke of the terrorist attacks in USA. As we were heading into the Kalahari, there was no TV so we weren't aware of most of the horror until a week or two afterwards. Another even that changed travel significantly. John Goldie 14-4-21.

Ian Fraser said...

Thank you both for this - just back from the Blue Mountains and catching up.
Martin, I think the Tarangire NP restaurant starlings were probably Superb. Another truly wonderful park. I suspect that the wazungu are kept a little further from the elephants these days - not that I'd need encouragement to keep my distance!!
Hi John. What an excellent intro to Africa; mine was two years later, but also involved the Kalahari. On that 11 Sept I was running a tour in SWWA and recall people running across the cabin park in the Stirling Ranges to bombard me with horror details the moment I stepped outside the cabin early in the morning. Fortunately all my associations with Augrabies are positive!