Lodge Review: Kunene River Lodge, Namibia

The Kunene River Lodge is a birder’s paradise located on the Nambian bank of the Kunene River across from Angola.  I’d like to say that getting there is half the fun but not being used to rough gravel roads, it was quite daunting for me, but I managed in the rented Toyota Rav4.

They offer various accommodations from campsites to a-frame chalets.  This one was ours.

These beautiful little cabins are quite large and very comfortable for a couple.

Nice roomy walk-in shower

This deck has dining tables and can also be a good place to relax and watch birds.

The spacious grounds between the chalets and the camping area.  There is a pool in the rear that I forgot to get a photo of.

Dinner was our first meal and it was really good.  They offer 2 choices, this time I chose pasta and my husband chose steak and chips.  I love the bird placemats!

Here is the same deck in the morning where we hung out from the early hours to watch birds until it was time for breakfast.

Generous and delicious breakfast

More bird placemats!

The camping area attracts monkeys hoping to steal food.

Sunrise over the river

Souvenir hat with the Cinderella Waxbill logo, we each bought one!

Credit cards are accepted which was nice as we needed to pay for the meals, hats and the sunset cruise.  This is a beautiful place and I only regret we couldn’t have stayed longer.  The sunset cruise is a must (review to come) and I wish they had offered the morning cruise as well as the birding is really fantastic here!  You can book on their website or be on the lookout for discounts on booking sites like Orbitz as we got 15% off an already discounted room!

Off The Beaten Track – The Road To Kuenene River Lodge

Most of the roads in Namibia are good tarred roads but once you get off the beaten track, it’s quite another story!  For a city-dweller, the road to Kunene River Lodge can be quite hair-raising!

It starts off easily enough leaving Ondangwa after breakfast, nice tarred roads.

You do need to watch for traffic jams!

Animals can wander on the road so you need to pay attention, not drive too fast and avoid traveling at night.

Random town enroute

The turn-off to Ruacana (not much there) with the petrol station on the right.  There is a small shop for snacks and drinks but no restaurants.

It’s advisable to fill up despite the price as you don’t want to run out of fuel in the bush!

We met a South African couple in the petrol station so we just followed them as they wee also going to Kunene River Lodge.

The road becomes a rough gravel road which was do-able in the Toyota Rav4 but I was nervous  the whole way as I am not used to them.

Following someone made the trip pretty dusty but I was glad to have a safety net of someone else knowing we were there.

At last we arrived!

This is the return trip to Ruacana, then onwards to Kamanjab.  We left the lodge and hit the gravel road where the lodge turn-off is sign-posted.  At this point, we turned left to go back to Ruacana.

There were local Himba people going about their daily business.

Slowly, slowly!

That’s Angola across the river.

Small Himba villages and random houses.

There was a fork in the road a ways back and we took the wrong turn and ended up on a horrific road.  I knew something was wrong as the road hadn’t been THIS bad on the way in!

Luckily we managed to turn around and find the correct road.

A beautiful Burchell’s Starling is watching something.

More Himba people

Yet another unmarked fork in the road, this time we went left and it turned out to be right but I was nervous the whole time!

Another option, I didn’t see anyone here though.

Getting close to Ruacana!

I have never been so happy to see a factory and tarred road in my life! 

After re-fueling at Ruacana, we headed down the main road towards Kamanjab, a nice tarred road all the way!

Approaching Kamanjab which would be our pit stop for the night.

Etosha National Park Part 2 – Afternoon

Continuing on from Part 1:  It’s lunch time and we have now arrived at Halali Rest Camp for a break to eat our packed sandwiches and have a look around, also use clean facilities!

It’s located 9kms down a side road.

We had a drive around first to suss it out and find the best picnic spot.

Plenty of tables here and you can drive right up to them!

Always nice to have a peek at the Tourist Shop!

Opening and closing times are always posted at each gate so we made note that we had to exit the park before 5:30pm.

Not much going on at this time.  This is a typical gravel road in the park.

Springbok

Spotted Thick-knee

African Grey Hornbill

Starling

Lilac-breasted Roller

We finally made it to Namutoni Rest Camp and decided to have a look and take advantage of the last facilities before the hotel.

The grounds are very nice here and since it was getting cooler by the time we got there some birds were out and active.

There’s a cool fort here but the shop was closed.

The museum was open, free to enter and had some interesting exhibits about the park.

Even the Go-Away Birds here are friendly and didn’t tell us to go away!  They get along with starlings too!

I missed the shot but interesting colour combination on this bird!

Getting close to 5pm and not wanting to miss the curfew, we drove on to the exit gate.

While I normally don’t approve of road-side bird sellers (meaning real birds), these ones are perfectly fine.  I even bought a few birds from one of these guys!

Headed down the road to Ondangwa where we would spend the night before continuing on to Kunene River Lodge.  Gorgeous sunset!

 

Etosha National Park Part 1 – Morning

Etosha National Park is one of the highlights of any trip to Namibia, whether you are birders or not.  It’s very easy to explore the park on your own as the gravel roads are well-maintained, can be done in a sedan car and there are signposts at all intersections.

In the map below, I have highlighted our route for a day trip in yellow.  We entered at Anderson Gate, drove through via Okaukuejo, stopped at Halali for lunch, then continued on to Namutoni Gate to exit just before the park closed.

We were up at the crack of dawn to be the first ones inside the gate, an easy 10 minute drive from Eldorado Guest House & Camping.

First in line at Anderson Gate!

Once they opened, we were given a form to fill out and told to pay at the office in Okaukuejo.

Sunrise brought the birds out!

Okaukuejo Rest Camp is in a large complex with an office, restaurant, shops and all kinds of accommodation from tent spaces to cabins. 

Get this map & bird book at the gift shop. I’ll be using it to identify the birds below since we didn’t have a guide with us.

Get down to the watering hole as quickly as possible to catch the early birds and animals.

We saw a lot of these beautiful little birds – Shaft-tailed Whydahs.

These cabins are near the watering hole and there were quite a few tourists hanging out here.  We couldn’t get a room here as it was full and here was the evidence.

Cape Turtle Dove

Shaft-tailed Whydahs in flight.

Red-headed Finch

Sociable Weaver

Crimson-breasted Shrike

African Red-eyed Bulbul

Starling

Red-headed Finch

Crowned Lapwing

Oryx

Black-crowned Tchagra

Northern Black Korhaan

Blue Wildebeest

Fork-tailed Drongo

Purple Roller.

There actually isn’t a real toilet here, just pull up a bush!

Ostrich

Blue Crane

Kudu

Oryx Pied Crow

All this before lunch!  We turned off towards Halali Rest Camp to find a picnic area.

“Follow me to Halali!”

Lodge Review: Eldorado Guest House & Camping

If you can’t actually stay inside the park, this is the next best thing.  Eldorado Guest House & Camping is only 8 kms from the Anderson Gate so you can still be one of the first ones in Etosha NP.  It’s easy to find, just follow the signs.

When traveling in the bush, always leave a gate the same way you find it.

With the sun setting rapidly, we were trying to check in while we could still see the property.

Reception and restaurant area.

The garden is very nice.

This is our cabin, I just loved the stonework! 

The private BBQ on the patio.

The stonework was all through the room with a very cool bathroom feature.

For self-caterers, there is a microwave, kettle and fridge.

We didn’t get a chance to swim due to late arrival and early departure but they do have a very nice pool.

For the price we paid (using Orbitz 15% off coupon) this was an amazing bargain so check your online travel agent portals or you can book with them directly.  It’s a great place to stay and very convenient to Etosha NP!

The Namibian Road Trip Begins

As I mentioned before, the only practical way to see Namibia is with your own rental car.  In most cases, if you stick to the beaten paths you will be fine with a sedan car so that is what I booked with Hertz.  So when we arrived at WDH after the delay of the previous day, we were pleasantly surprised to be upgraded to a Toyota Rav4!

As usual, we did the walk around inspection with photos.

And we were off and running!  It was nice to finally be able to drive ourselves, go at our own pace and do what we wanted!

The first part of the trip is from Windhoek to the border of Etosha NP, the blue dot just before Okaukuejo..

This was our grocery stop.  No, we did not buy any guns but I thought it was strange to see a gun shop right next to a supermarket!

Most of the trip is on the main highway which was in excellent condition although they did have some road works going on which made us slow down a bit.

We stopped in Outjo to top off the tank, it’s cheaper here than it would be in the park.

And then it was back on the road, headed to our first stop and making it just before sunset.

 

Planning A Birding Safari To Namibia

Namibia is a very user-friendly country with fantastic national parks and good roads so it is a great choice for a novice eco-tourist.  You can rent a car, drive yourself around or join a birding tour, whatever suits you best!  The parks here are much less crowded than those in South Africa but the wildlife is amazing!  Birders can look forward to seeking 706 species of which one is endemic.

Namibia’s gateway airport at Windhoek is very small and doesn’t have as many airlines as other safari destinations but careful planners can still use their miles to get here.    If you have limited time and finances you will really have to make some tough decisions on how many parks to visit. It really helps if you know what species are your priority. For some people this may be raptors or trying to check off all the endemics. For me it’s always parrots first, then songbirds, then other birds and mammals.

Rosy-faced (aka Peach-faced) Lovebird at Kunene River, Namibia

 

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see. I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that. Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I always check bird sightings on eBird, you can see my full guide on locating bird species .

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more. The trip reports will show you which parks you need to concentrate on. Once you have this, you can start contacting birding tour operators or safari companies that are well-recommended for quotes.  If you are traveling on your own, it’s worthwhile to note when the birding groups will be in the area as they will have the best guides already reserved and you may not even find accommodation.

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

I had 2 definite target birds – Ruppell’s Parrot & Rosy-faced Lovebird.     My research revealed that the Lovebirds had a large range all over Namibia and were possible in Etosha NP, the Kunene River area near the Angola border and Omaruru area.  Ruppell’s Parrots were being reported at Huab Lodge.  Since I was prioritizing parrots knowing that plenty of other bird species would be in the same habitats I chose these locations:

ETOSHA NP:

Rosy-faced Lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis)

Plus it’s the major safari destination in Namibia!

KUNENE RIVER LODGE

Rosy-faced Lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis)

Slim chance for Cinderella Waxbill, a local speciality.

HUAB LODGE

Rüppell’s parrot, Poicephalus rueppellii

OMARURU AREA

Rosy-faced Lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis)

Here is a map showing the locations.

 

 

HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR OWN BIRDING SAFARI

A rental car is essential to visit the national parks in Namibia.  The public transport is very limited and only has buses between main cities and minivans linking smaller towns.  A few car rental firms to check are Hertz, Avis and Europcar.  Use coupon codes that can be found on Flyertalk to get the best deals.  In most cases, the roads (even gravel roads) are ok for sedan cars but in some cases you need at least an SUV if not a 4×4.  The road from Ruacana to Kunene River Lodge was hard for us in a Toyota Rav4 but we took it slow and made it.  A 4×4 would have no trouble at all, don’t try it in a sedan.

Doing a self-drive safari means you have to rely on your own bird spotting and identification skills.  I found an excellent book in the gift shop at Okakuejo Rest Camp in Etosha which has pictures of the most commonly seen birds and animals which was a huge help!  The book also has maps and helpful info, I’d say get one of these books straight away.

If you stay overnight in some national parks, check with the local rangers about guided day and night drives.

Namibia has many accommodation options for all budgets such as campgrounds, backpackers, budget motels and high-end luxury lodges.  As this report progresses you will see examples.  Before heading off to the bush, it’s best to stop at a supermarket in Windhoek to stock up on drinks, snacks and food for anything you plan to cook as it will be much cheaper.  Always top up the fuel when going through any reasonable sized town.

VISA FOR ZAMBIA

Good news, visitors from 52 countries do not need a visa to enter Namibia, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and USA!

BEST SEASON TO TRAVEL

There’s a couple things to consider, the weather and potential crowds.  I always check the weather on Weather to Travel.  Namibian weather was a priority as I knew the places we were visiting would be difficult to reach if it were raining.  May is in the dry season and we enjoyed good weather throughout the trip.

 

If you have “must-see” bird species, always check eBird to make sure the birds are being seen that time of year by other birders.

OTHER HELPFUL RESOURCES

NWR Resorts – this is where you book accommodation at the rest camps.  They fill up fast so you need to plan in advance.  I missed out as the camps (budget options) were full on our dates so we had to use alternatives which I will be explaining in detail.

BOTTOM LINE

Namibia is a great choice for both newbies and experienced birders as the infrastructure is so good for travelers.  Everyone speaks English, it’s a safe country, no malaria and you can do it on a budget!  There are wonderful birds and animals to be seen, Namibia never disappoints!

Getting To Namibia With Airline Miles

Most frequent flier programs place Namibia into the Africa (southern) zone.   Most people will arrive here via JNB in South Africa and then get a flight from JNB to WDH.  Namibia does have some interesting direct flight options such as Qatar Airways via DOH, an excellent use of AA miles!  I already have a blog with my recommendations for which programs to join if you are new to the world of miles and points.

The major gateway city for Namibia is Windhoek (WDH).    Once you have been in the miles and points game for awhile, you will get a feel for which airline to use where but if you are just starting out Wikipedia will show you all the airlines that fly into Windhoek.  Since it is a small list I can even fit it all into one screen shot!

ONE WORLD OPTIONS

Comair (British Airways subsidiary) flies from JNB.

Qatar Airways flies from DOH.

STAR ALLIANCE OPTIONS

Ethiopian flies from Addis Ababa

South African flies from JNB.

SKYTEAM OPTIONS

KLM flies from AMS.

NON-ALLIANCE OPTIONS

Air Namibia is the national airline but they don’t partner with anyone so it’s a cash basis only.

HOW MANY MILES WILL IT COST?

Every airline member of the 3 main alliances has it’s own frequent flier program. Examples are in my East Africa post.

AVIOS (BA OR IB)

Many people like to combine South Africa with Namibia if they have the time and money.  In this case, Avios can be a great bargain priced at 10,000 Avios but keep an eye on the fuel surcharges as they can sometimes make the redemption a bad deal.

Avios

 

Overview Of Our African Trip – April/May 2017

You gotta do a Godmother proud and we started off right in Etihad’s wonderful business class thanks to Virgin Velocity points.

Then we had a couple days layover in Dubai to shop and sightsee.

Next it was off to Entebbe, Uganda on Kenya Airways using Flying Blue miles.  We stayed at the Lake Heights Hotel and hired local drivers to take us to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, a day trip to Mpanga Forest and a Shoebill Safari.

Then we flew to Addis Ababa & Lusaka on Ethiopian Airways, then to Windhoek on South African Airways courtesy of United Mileage Plus points.

In Ethiopia, we had a 2 night stay at Lake Langano at the Hara Langano Resort, then 2 nights in Addis Ababa at the Ghion Hotel with a day trip in hired car to Menagesha Forest.

In Zambia, we used public buses to get around and started off in Livingstone where we had a day trip to the Machile IBA to see the Black-cheeked Lovebirds, then to Mfuwe for an amazing safari in South Lungwa National Park.

Finally it was off to Namibia for a massive road trip to Etosha National Park, Kunene River, Huab Lodge and Omaruru for some independent birding.

We returned to Brisbane on Qatar Airways in business class thanks to AAdvantage miles with a connection to BNE on Qantas from Adelaide as QF don’t fly to Brisbane.

The whole thing looked something like this.

So sit back, relax and enjoy the birds of Africa and learn how to do this trip using miles and points!

Back From Africa, The Godmother Was Amazing!

Although I have had posts appearing each week automatically, actually we have been in Africa on the “Godmother of all African Adventures” so I have missed over a month’s worth of happenings in May.  Not to worry, I am sure there will be more good deals in June!

I had to deal with “stuff” like replacing my 4 year old laptop and transferring my life over to the new one and I haven’t really gone through the photos yet.

For the time being, I will maintain my reduced posting schedule of 4 posts a week until I get caught up at least.  The Africa series starts Monday and I plan to keep posting Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

We went to 4 countries – Uganda, Ethiopia, Zambia and Namibia, each one amazing and totally unique!  We had layovers in Dubai and Doha while flying to and from Brisbane and flew business class in Etihad and Qatar Airways thanks to miles and points.

Did I outdo myself from the “Mother of All African Adventures”?

Here’s a teaser, see for yourself!