What is Waterberg Plateau Park ?
The Waterberg is a vast plateau of red rock 42 miles south-east of Otjiwarongo and about 186 miles northeast of Namibia‘s capital, Windhoek. The mountain owes its name to the springs surfacing on its lower slopes and its lush vegetation, creating a rich green, wild, and ecologically diverse park. Waterberg has a rare ecosystem. Indeed, the 156 square miles area was declared a National Reserve in 1972 to protect and resettle endangered species from the Kavango and Caprivi regions where poachers and predators were pushing them to extinction. The park hosts the black Hippotragus, red Antelope, Buffalo and both the black and white Rhinoceros. The cliffs on the western side of the Waterberg Plateau are the only breeding sites of the Cape Griffon or Cape vulture, also known as Kolbe’s vulture. Its neck and head are near-naked. The adult bird has a wingspan of between 7.4 and 8.5 feet and an average length of about 38-45 inches. The Cape vulture is the third largest Old World vulture. In August 1904 the Battle of Waterberg between German colonialists and the Herero people took place in this remote spot. Namibia, then called German West Africa, was a colony of the German Empire between 1884 and 1919. The Germans defeated the Herero army led by Chief Samuel Maharero. In October of the same year, the Nama people rebelled against the Germans, but suffered the same fate. The Battle of Waterberg marked the beginning of a campaign of racial extermination against the Herero and Nama people. It is considered the first 20th-century genocide. The German General Lothar von Trotha, nicknamed the Shark, launched a surprise attack against the Herero resistance fighters while they, along with women, children, and cattle, were still sleeping in tents… The German’s, attacking the sleeping foe and their families and animals, showed no mercy ! A legend records that the day after the fighting the vultures also died… from indigestion. Legend has it that since the morning of August 1, 1904, the battlefield where the army of Kaiser William II massacred thousands of Herero resistance fighters the battlefield still shows traces of blood. Iron and bauxite in the sandstone give the Waterberg Plateau its brick-red color, but not according to the legend…who knows? The best thing is to check all this out in person. So head for the Waterberg Plateau !
How to get to Waterberg Plateau ?
It takes three hours to drive from the Namibian capital of Windhoek (pronounced”Wintouk”), to reach the wilderness of Waterberg. Once past the Omatakos Mountains, which recall the shape a woman’s buttock, the hitherto flat and desert landscape begins to change gradually. The name Omatakos in Herero language means buttocks. The northwesterly of the two peaks is 7,500 feet high. Some road signs “Warthog Watch” appear along the C22 road towards Okakarara, where many of the small, stocky animals can be seen digging along the roadsides. Suddenly, their tail straightens up like a radio antenna (probably connected to African savannah radio), and a family of warthogs decides to cross the C22… perhaps to see if the grass is greener or rather less yellowish on the other side! The long Waterberg plateau appears on the left, with its steep colorful cliffs and eroded sedimentary summit crowned with abundant and lush vegetation. The plateau rises 650 feet above the surrounding plains attaining an average altitude of between 5,420 and 5,580 feet, width between 5 and 10 miles and length of about 31 miles from southwest to northeast. This 156 square mile hidden jewel is an exceptional natural site sheltering rare species some of which are in danger of disappearing. The plateau is made of porous red Etjo sandstone, which gives the steep cliffs a flamboyant color. Moisture is absorbed by the rock or flows along it, becoming springs that emerge at the base of the plateau, hence the name “Water” and “Berg” meaning plateau.
Hiking is the best way to discover the Waterberg unique ecosystem
“Knock, knock, knock…” everyone knows the sound made by the famous Woody Woodpecker as he hunts with his beak for insects prey in the trunks and branches of trees. This Woody le Pic (in Quebec) or Piko, le pivert (in France), may not be the character created by Walter Lantz in 1940, but is surely a distant cousin, saying “Wa penduka” (hello in the Herero language). It is time to admire the sunrise. This morning, a group of baboons roams in search of a breakfast that careless campers have left unattended for a few seconds… While some baboons grab a few sweets here and there, others are content to yawn (tough waking up after a rough night ?), exposing their teeth with an almost fierce look. After these morning antics, it is time to start the short ascent of the Waterberg plateau. From the beginning of the hike, we feel like we are moving through an invisible door to a secret kingdom of nature where dense vegetation envelops us on all sides. A Kirk’s dik-dik with its silver rump keeps a kind eye on us from a grove of trees full by birds. This small antelope measures between 14 and 18 inches in height and weighs no more than 16 pounds. It’s one of the world’s smallest antelope. The dik-diks’ name is derived from the noise it makes when threatened. It has a pointed mobile snout allowing it to turn in all directions and an upper lip in the shape of a trunk giving it the profile of a tapir. After long motionless observation, the dik-dik suddenly rushes off and disappears into the shadow of trees and shrubs. We continue our ascent on the rocky trail following steep walls and passing multicolored eroded rocks and entangled trees–stunning scenery undoubtedly shaped by benevolent mountain gods? A last small slope leads to the top of the Waterberg plateau. After a pleasant hike of about 40 minutes, we reach the end of the trail at Mountain View. The panorama is worth the effort. We stand at the edge of the cliff with a striking view of the endless savannah of the Kalahari Desert, a monotonous, flat landscape, lined by straight tracks. No house is in sight; no unevenness holds the eye..
Discover the flora in the Waterberg Plateau Park
I pause to fill myself with the beauty of this infinite scenery unfolding before my eyes until I cannot take any longer. I turn from contemplation to explore the red sandstone plateau and its abundant vegetation. The grey-green vegetation contrasts with the redness of the rocks overlooking the plain. Some trees seem suspended above the orange walls; others stand at the edge of the precipice while still others, like this wild fig tree, delicately wrap themselves around a rock, giving it thick and irregularly leafy hair. We can almost imagine the divine arms of the nymph Daphne embracing this heart of stone ? The vegetation of the Waterberg is lush, dense and very diverse. There are about 500 species of plants. The plateau is a true reservoir for endemic plants, for different species of acacias (including Acacia mellifera), lilacs, and weeping willows and many varieties of lichens. This lush vegetation contrasts again and again with the aridity of the Kalahari Desert. When the rocky depressions of the plateau fill with water during the rainy season, aquatic plants and even turtles appear! The colors of these cliffs are sumptuous, offering vividly colored sandstone ranging from light to full flamboyant reds. The giant termite mounds found here are true architectural masterpieces. The fauna is not to be outdone. We meet a family of banded mongooses, easily recognizable by the transverse stripes that adorn their fur. While searching for their food, the striped mongooses keep in touch with each other by continually chirping… a real henhouse’s dream! (“Poulailler’s song” from the french Singer Alain Souchon). Wouldn’t that be a Meves’ Choucador over there peckin’ at some termites, ants or other beetles ? Waterberg Plateau Park offers incredibly unique natural and animal shows, and this is only a foretaste…
Waterberg Plateau is a natural fortress for conservation
Let’s move on to the main course and discover the exceptional fauna of the Waterberg Nature Reserve. Given the fragility of the ecosystem and the dangers posed by wildlife, the reserve has been largely inaccessible to visitors since 1989. Access follows strict rules. The plateau is accessible only on guided excursions in 4WD vehicles; private vehicles are not allowed. These guided visits take place early in the morning and in the late afternoon. The region is home to a diversity of natural habitats between the acacia in the savannah surrounding the plateau and woodlands higher on the plateau. Baboons live on the rocks around the plateau, while bushes on the slopes are home to Kirk’s dik-dik, damans, and other warthogs. If they play hide and seek in the bushes, another part of the fauna flies over it. The park shelters over 200 different species of birds, including the Cape vultures and the Black Eagle. Trees and shrubs on the plateau are home to Giraffes and Common elands (Tauretragus oryx) also known as the Southern Eland or Eland antelope. These are spiral-horned antelopes and sexually dimorphic. Male elands have dense fur on their foreheads and a large dewlap between the throat and chest. They are considered one of the largest antelopes in Africa. Despite its domestic bovine appearance, massive appearance and great weight the Common eland runs very fast! The female weighs between 660-1,320 pounds and the male between 882-2,077 pounds, and sometimes even more. The female, much smaller than the male, can reach a speed of 42 mph. She can also jump up to 8 feet from a standing start, 9 feet for the younger ones. The Common eland feeds on the most nutritious shoots and leaves by tearing the leaves with its lips and breaking the branches after twisting them with its horns… Rather clever, no? Another magnificent antelope inhabitant of the Waterberg Plateau is easily recognizable by its coat (black for the male and dark brown for the female) and face marked with white on the sides. A black line runs from the forehead to the muzzle. The black Hippotragus (Hippotragus niger) or Sand antelope is not really an antelope since it does not belong to the family of the antelopes but to the family Bovidae. The male is more massive and taller than the female, weighing about 518 pounds as opposed to 490 pounds for the female. The male attains a height of 46-55 inches at the shoulder, while the female is slightly shorter. They both measure approximately 81 inches lengthwise. The black Hippotragus is sturdy and robust in build. During a fight, the black Hippotragus continues to defend itself even when forced to the ground. If the female is a little less imposing than the male in size and weight, she is also endowed with magnificent long ringed horns, which arch backward. Females are up to 40 inches long, males 65.
Along the sandy trails of the Waterberg Plateau, one discovers the rich diversity of the fauna as they move and gather around water holes, essential to the survival of many species. The African buffalo or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is a large African bovine. It must drink daily and therefore depends on perennial water sources. Despite its exotic cow-like appearance, with its almost black brown coat, African buffaloes are very dangerous animals… At the slightest alert, males do not hesitate to attack at a speed of up to 36 mph! The adult male African buffalo’s horns have a very characteristic feature. They have fused bases, forming a continuous bone shield across the top of the head referred as a “boss”. Apart from humans, the African buffaloes have few natural predators. They are perfectly capable of defending themselves, even killing a lion. This is why it usually takes several lions to hunt an adult buffalo successfully… Buffalo hunting was once a sport and an act of bravery [sic]. It is among the big five-game of animals in Africa, which are the most difficult to hunt on foot. In December 1933, for example, Ernest Hemingway killed his first buffalo with his friend from Key West Charles Thompson. In an autobiographical account of his 1933 trip to Africa, “Green Hills of Africa” published in 1935, Ernest Hemingway describes his encounter with the buffalo,
« There were a wooshing snort and no movement, not a stir in the reeds. Then there was a crashing further away, and we could see the reeds swaying with the rush of something through them toward the opposite bank, but we could not see what was causing the movement. Then I saw the black back, the wide-swept, point-lifted horns and then the quick-moving, climbing rush of a buffalo up the other bank. He went up, his neck up and out, his head horn-heavy, his withers rounded like a fighting bull, in fast-strong-legged climb ».
The herd size of buffaloes varies from a few dozen to hundreds of individuals, but some older bulls live alone. They are nicknamed “dagga boys”. The word “dagga” means “mud” because these solitary buffaloes tend to roll in the mud to protect themselves from harassing insects. Gathered in herds, the buffaloes fear neither anything nor anyone… However, one could meditate on this little fable, which would not have displeased a certain Jean de La Fontaine “The Buffalo and the Giraffe”,
“In the sunny savannah, in the
Middle of the scorched earth,
A giant African buffalo approaches at a trot.
Inflated with power and in size,
Disdainful of the whole scene,
Desperate to find food!
He searches everywhere, in all corners and nooks,
To fill his oversized belly.
This haunting and unrestrained quest
Made him doubt his abilities.
Suddenly, near a mound,
A giant vision made him ridiculous.
His vanity took a hit,
But he saw it, he wasn’t crazy!
Perched on four long stems,
surmounted by a giant torso
And a neck of vertigo
A ruminant giraffe of pleasure,
Collected leaves at leisure.
Why have I got such a big neck
Says the pot-bellied black buffalo!
Swallowing his disdain for everything but himself,
He addresses the serene giraffe.
This place, for you Madam, seems in every way fertile,
But for an African buffalo, perfectly sterile.
Don’t you see how high up you are finding
Herbs of a beautiful size?
Here says the giraffe, the grass grows very poorly,
You’ll have to look in another valley.
But I see nothing in this immensity,
From your perch could you not guide me?
Big girl, the giraffe accepted with pleasure,
And led our hungry friend
Into a privileged country
No matter what your stature,
There is always someone higher than yourself”.