2014 – Field Trip Namibia

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2014 – Field Trip Namibia

Field Trip Namibia – 2014

In the thirty-five years that I have been involved with reptiles I have travelled more than one million kilometres in Africa in search of snakes, lizards, tortoises and frogs. This includes a trip to the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda with Dr. Colin Tilbury to find a rare chameleon where we walked into a bunch of kids with blood-red eyes and AK47 rifles; a six week reptile survey of Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique with my good friends Bill Branch and Mo Rodel where we had daily encounters with elephant and the odd hyena. Another memorable trip was to Mulanje mountains with Bill Branch and Michael Cunningham where we found massive chameleons and a new species of frog. And the giant of dwarf geckos – Lygodactylus rex. And more recently I spent a month in Angola with Bill – the new African frontier for interesting reptiles and lots of new species to be discovered. I have just returned from a pleasant Namibian reptile research trip with Aaron Bauer – the godfather of herpetological research, Bill Branch – South Africa’s leading herpetologist, Matt Heinecke – an evolutionary biologist and Jackie Childers who studies under Aaron. We have done several reptile surveys in Namibia over the past ten years, visiting various parts of the country even twice a year.

The average trip lasts about three to four weeks and we will travel more than 7,000 km per trip. We have now covered most of Namibia with a few exceptions – on of them being the Brandberg. It’s a logistical nightmare – a steep climb and no water once you reach the top. Aaron Bauer is a professor at Villa Nova University in Pennsylvania with a particular interest in geckos. He does genetic work on reptiles and has a keen interest in family relationships and classification. He has published over 500 scientific papers and has described more than 100 reptiles from various countries. Including Pachydactylus maraisi, a darkcoloured gecko with light speckles that occurs north of Henties Bay which he named after me.

Most of the interesting and problematic areas for reptiles in Namibia have been visited over the years and the purpose of this trip was to fill the gaps and find as many reptiles as possible. In addition to the scientific work that Aaron does, he was also collecting data on Namibian reptiles and amphibians for a new popular book ‘The Reptiles and Amphibians of Namibia’ that I am also involved with. And I always need photographs of reptiles as does Bill.

We usually drive to Windhoek in a day, leaving Pretoria early morning and cross into Botswana to tackle the boring donkey-riddled Trans-Kalahari, but this time we entered Namibia via Ariamsvlei for our first stopover near Grunau where we stayed at the guest farm Vastrap. It was freezing cold and the vehicle’s windscreen was iced up every morning. Despite the weather we did quite well and found several Bibron’s Geckos (Chondrodactylus bibronii), some Karasburg Tree Skinks (Trachylepis sparsa) which the locals call ‘Turke’, a Namaqua Mountain gecko (Pachydactylus montanus), Knobel’s Rock Agama (Agama knobeli) and a bunch of Western Rock Skinks (Trachylepis sulcata). After purchasing some excellent biltong from Riaan, the owner of Vastrap, we headed for Windhoek to pick up Bill who flew in from Port Elizabeth and then headed for Gobabeb Research Station where we spent a few nights. The next Herpetological Association of Africa conference will be held there later this year and we needed to discuss logistics with the staff at Gobabeb. We couldn’t do any collecting as our permits were not for national parks, but we did manage to photograph a bunch of Giant Ground Geckos (Chondrodactylus angulifer) and Namib Webfooted geckos (Pachydactylus rangei). We scratched around on the dunes but the Peringuey’s Adders (Bitis peringueyi) eluded us. They often leave tracks in the soft dune sand and if you can get there before the ever-constant wind covers the tracks they are easy to find. It is a stunning area and well worth a visit – gravel plains and red dunes with the sound of Barking Geckos as the sun sets.

From there a 225 km trip to the guest farm Weltevrede near Solitaire. But one cannot pass Solitaire without feasting on their famous apple strudel and despite the recent death of Moose, the king of apple strudel, it was as good as ever.

Weltevrede was productive and we caught several Bibron’s geckos (Chondrodactylus bibronii). This successful gecko is very quick to adapt to disturbed areas and favours outbuildings, especially where security lights attract them. We got a single beautiful Western Three-striped skink (Trachylepis occidentalis), several Variegated skinks (Trachylepis variegata) and a Western Thread snake (Namibiana occidentalis) – a great find and one that I needed photographs of. So the honour of catching the first snake of the trip went to the good Dr. Branch. To get to some red dunes we had to travel several kilometres on a dirt road with very long grass growing on the middelmannetjie. I was concerned about fire and commented that I needed to stop the vehicle away Giant Ground Gecko Karasberg Tree Skink Web-footed Gecko Western Thread Snake from grass to prevent the exhaust from igniting the grass. On the way back we crossed the main road and as we drove towards the chalets we smelt something burning. As I looked back in the rearview mirror I noticed smoke coming from the dirt road. I stopped the vehicle and everyone ran back to put out the fire on the dirt road which was restricted to the middelmannetjie. It was put out rapidly before the farm could go up in flames. I immediately looked under the vehicle and it was on fire with sparks coming from burning wire. I slid under the vehicle and with hands full of soft sand managed to kill the flames before serious damage was done. It took me an hour or two to clear out grass from the underside of the vehicle and to repair the wiring but we were good to go the next day. Our next stop was the farm Omandumba near Karibib – a beautiful bushveld area with massive rock outcrops and sandy areas with lots of sand lizards of the genus Pedioplanis – ideal as Jackie is doing a study on sand lizards and needs material. It was a productive area and we found lots of reptiles including many Namaqua Sand lizards (Pedioplanis namaquansis). They run around in rocky sandy areas and if approached find the closest thorn shrub and then continually run around to the opposite side, well out of reach. There were many skinks as well as beautifully-marked Velvety geckos (Pachydactylus bicolor) and super-fast Barnard’s Namib Day Geckos (Rhoptropus barnardi). They live on large rocks and are extremely agile – near impossible to catch. And very well camouflaged. I managed to find one of the Shovel-snouted snakes (Prosymna sp.) in a rock crevice and we argued as to what species it may be. A thorough scale count will resolve this issue. Aaron asked us to look out for the Damara Flat gecko (Afroedura africana). These geckos are easily identified by their double-toe arrangement and live in very narrow rock crevices on big boulders, preferring shady areas where rain seldom gets to their hide-out. After many days of searching we managed to get four specimens. The nearly burnt-out truck Shovel-snouted snake that feeds on reptile eggs. Unusual toe of a Flat Gecko We headed for Outjo where we booked into Etotongwe Lodge. Most of the area was bushveld but with river beds and a few rock outcrops. There were lots of skinks – big Ovango Tree skinks (Trachylepis binotata) that live in holes in trees, and a variety of skinks on the ground. Matt saw a large Western Giant Plated lizard (Matobosaurus maltzahni) but despite several attempts never managed to capture it. But he did spot a beautiful Western Stripe-bellied Sand snake (Psammophis subtaeniatus) which fled straight up a thorn tree. We surrounded the tree, did a bit of shaking and eventually managed to capture it. Bill got a Dwarf Angolan Sand snake (Psammophis angolensis) close-by – not a snake that we often encounter. There were lots of Common Namib Day geckos (Rhoptropus boultoni) but also not easy to capture and very quick to get into the nearest rock crack. While searching along a rocky ridge a disturbed a large Western Striped-bellied Sand snake and it quickly disappeared into a large rock crevice. I patiently waited for it to emerge and within about 8 minutes the snake slowly popped it head out of the crevice and with flickering tongue it slowly emerged but never got close enough for me to catch it. As I moved closer it disappeared back into its crevice and never came out again. Bill was close by and caught a beautiful Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis) with shades of pastel light and dark grey. Our final destination for the last few days of field work was Ohange Lodge in the Otavi district and we were joined by Luke and Ursula Verburgt. It is a stunning venue with lots of game that visit a water hole and salt lick close to the chalets and with grassland areas as well as rocky outcrops. We collected several skinks and Namib Day geckos as well as a Bushveld Rain frog (Breviceps adspesus) which I found under a log using my stump ripper – the ultimate field work tool. These frogs always look so darn grumpy. Matt encountered a fair sized Black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) and did the sensible thing – watched it from a safe distance. I was a few hundred meters further down the same rocky ridge and spotted a Viperine Rock snake (Hemirhagerrhis viperinus) basking on a rock near its crevice. This is by no means a common snake and only the second one I have ever seen. I approached it slowly and managed to get my hand on the snake without it even moving. The other guys had come across a large Rock Monitor (Varanus albigularis) that had escaped by climbing about three meters up a tree.

I had Myself with Bill and the monitor lizard Miserable-looking Rain Frog Viperine Rock Snake the task of climbing the tree and managed to shake it out. It was a beautiful specimen, well over a meter in length and we had a lot of fun photographing it. We posed it on a rock as well as on some logs and it sat perfectly still, barely blinking. Even when we released it, the prehistoric-looking lizard remained perfectly still feigning death. We ended up with over 50 species of reptiles and managed to capture several hundred specimens – not bad going for winter and it compared favourably with the 80+species that we usually find in summer. Both Bill and I had extended photographic sessions daily and I filled two 32 gigabyte memory cards on the trip. We left Windhoek at 06:00 in the morning and made it home before midnight. Another memorable trip.