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to Franco, with thanks

From the desert elephants of Damaraland to the dead trees of the Namib and the red sands of the Kalahari desert, from the coastal charm of Swakopmund to the endless plains of Etosha, we covered a lot of ground during our two weeks in Namibia. Before we attempt to do justice to this beautiful country’s striking landscapes and incredible wildlife, we’d like to start our travel tales with a word of thanks.

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Over the course of almost three years in East Africa, we have gone on a lot of safaris – in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda; self-drive, guided, walking, on horseback, and even on camelback. Generally speaking, and with the notable exception of the excellent Porini Masai guides in Kenya, our guides have been mostly pedestrian. Every once in a while, a guide managed to distinguish himself, but usually it was in a bad way.

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The one we had in Tanzania for our visits to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro is a prime example. “Vulture!” he would shout excitedly any time he spotted movement. Sometimes he would be only a little off – the object of his attention would prove to be a bird, and sometimes even a raptor – a falcon or eagle, for example, though rarely an actual vulture. Other times, the cause for excitement turned out not to even be a bird, as happened when he screamed, “vulture,” and slammed on the brakes in front of a pair of jackals.

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And then there’s Franco, our Wilderness Safaris guide in Namibia. We’re not being hyperbolic when we say that following this trip we will compare all our future guides to him. Courteous to a fault, knowledgeable, pleasantly soft-spoken, proactive – Franco’s list of admirable attributes proved boundless. A young father himself, he was excellent with Munchkin. And best of all, he clearly enjoyed what he was doing for a living – so much so, in fact, that we sometimes wondered whether he was having even more fun on our trip than we were. His good humor, at any rate, was contagious.

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He and D hit it off instantaneously over a mutual love of birds, and in this respect Franco truly proved his worth. The final count is still pending, as D has only sorted through about half of the 5,000 photos we took over the course of these two weeks, but given his preliminary estimate and the list he kept with Franco’s help, we photographed about 165 different birds on this trip – roughly a quarter of all the bird species recorded in Namibia, and more than we had managed to capture during two years of safaris in Kenya. At least 100 of them are new to us, which is all the more impressive considering we skipped the Zambezi region where most of Namibia’s birds reside.

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There were many little episodes that attest to Franco’s skills, dedication, and passion for his job, of which we’ll mention two. After failing to find the elusive dune lark – Namibia’s only true endemic – during our initial foray into the Namib desert, Franco proposed to D to return to the dunes before sunrise the following morning. They did and found a pair of skittish dune larks just as diffuse sunlight began to filter over the mountains in the East. D snapped a few pictures. For most guides, this would have been enough to call the outing a success. Instead of returning to the breakfast buffet that awaited at the lodge, however, Franco stopped D in his tracks – “Let’s hang back and follow them a bit – you’ll get much better pictures once the sun is fully up.” He was right, of course.

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And then there was the pearl-spotted owlet we found in the dry riverbed where we stopped for lunch on our way to Damaraland. “I don’t see any, but this is where they like to hang out,” said Franco after quickly scanning the nearby treetops, before adding, “Get your camera ready – I’m going to use that dusky sunbird to flush one out.” He started to whistle softly, but insistently, emulating the owlet’s call. Nothing happened at first. Then, all of a sudden, there was a flash of black feathers as the small sunbird that we had seen flitting around made a beeline for one of the nearby trees. A rustle of wings, and an owlet shot out of the foliage in rushed panic, settling down in a different tree a hundred feet away.

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That successful find, and the many other spectacular birds D surely would have missed without Franco’s help, will ensure that we’ll recall this trip fondly for a long time to come.

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