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Gladiator, issued in 2003, artist: Helge Denker

Gladiator, issued in 2003, artist: Helge Denker

At the start of this millennium Namibia caused worldwide headlines when biologists found a mysterious insect on Brandberg Mountain which did not fit into any known genus, family or order. In the end a whole new order had to be established – for the first time since 1914. Thus some scientists felt that the discovery of the ‘gladiator’ was as sensational as finding a life mastodon or sabre-toothed tiger.

The predatory insect was nicknamed ‘gladiator’ because parts of it are covered with spiky armouring reminiscent of the legendary warriors of ancient Rome. The name ‘heelwalker’ is also used by some because the insect always points the feet on its hind legs away from the ground and puts down the heels only.

The scientific name Mantophasmatodea is derived from Mantodea (the praying mantis) and Phasmatodea (the stick insect). The gladiator, unlike the praying mantis, grabs its prey with both its fore and mid legs, and in contrast to the stick insect its first body segment is the largest. Nor does it feed on plants.

Between 1.5 and 4 cm long, the gladiator has a size that made many scientists wonder why it took so long to notice this insect. It does, however, live rather inconspicuously: it is nocturnal and prefers to stay in the shelter provided by clumps of grass and rock crevices. Males are smaller than females and have to beat a hasty retreat after mating, otherwise they may get eaten.

The discovery of the gladiator insect turned into a piece of detective work: At the Max Planck Institute for Fresh Water Research in Plön, Germany, Ph.D. student Oliver Zompro is busy examining a fossil insect trapped in a drop of amber which is 45 million years old. He concludes that the insect cannot be classed with any of the known categories and turns to the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. There he comes across a specimen which appears to be related to his object of research and which had been collected in the German colony of South West Africa in 1909. Reason enough for the exciting assumption that an insect, which over the past 45 million years became extinct in Europe, had possibly survived in Africa.

Enquiring at the insect department of the National Museum in Namibia he learns that indeed they have a similar insect – in fact it was received only a few days earlier. Namibian biology student Martin Wittneben found it on an excursion to Brandberg Mountain in north-western Namibia. The tiny creature had come into his camp and he was unable to identify it. This was a very lucky coincidence, as Wittneben had of course taken down the GPS coordinates.

The predatory gladiator insect in its typical environment at the Fish River Canyon. Photo: EduVentures

The predatory gladiator insect in its typical environment at the Fish River Canyon. Photo: EduVentures

Zompro decided to travel to Namibia. In March 2002 he joined an expedition to the Brandberg, jointly sponsored by Conservation International, the Max Planck Institute and the National Museum of Namibia. The team consisted of 16 entomologists from Germany, Britain, South Africa, Namibia and the United States. The scientists were dropped onto Brandberg and began a painstaking search on the stony, arid summit. Zompro collected a dozen of the insects and carried them back to his lab in Germany to study mating, feeding and other forms of behaviour in the insects. Aggressive tendencies became one area of interest — a couple of the insects apparently were eaten during the trip back.

After in-depth research it can be stated without doubt that this insect does not belong to any known genus, family or order. The last time this happened was in 1914. And so another new order was added to the 30 known ones – the gladiator or Mantophasmatodea.

Since then some 20 gladiator species have been identified and divided into 10 genera and 3 to 4 families. These species have so far only been found in southern and east Africa – more precisely in Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania.

In Namibia, by the way, Brandberg is no longer the only site where gladiators have been found. The inconspicuous predatory insect also occurs at the Fish River Canyon. On an expedition arranged in 2006 by EduVentures, an initiative of the National Museum of Namibia, to the northern parts of Gondwana Cañon Park biologists and students unexpectedly discovered three gladiator specimens.

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Here is a hot tip for all Namibia fans: the new road map ‘Gondwana’s Classic Routes’, fresh from the printers. This map features fascinating routes plus recommended accommodation and many exciting stories about interesting places. At the same time it is also an ordinary road map with all the essential information of the official Namibia road map by Prof. Uwe Jäschke and the Roads Authority of Namibia, which is sold by book stores and souvenir shops.

On the map which has now been published by the Gondwana Collection routes for exploring the country’s south and north have been highlighted. The routes are laid out in manageable daily segments with Gondwana’s lodges and campsites marked as overnight stops. Additional accommodation establishments recommended for the north are Mushara on the eastern fringe of Etosha National Park and Waterberg Wilderness on the south-eastern slope of Waterberg Mountain. These are places where Gondwana does not offer any accommodation but which lend themselves as a destination along the route. Pictures and brief descriptions of the lodges on the side of the map help with the choices and increase anticipation.

Namibia map with routes, lodges and stories

Namibia map with routes, lodges and stories

The 40 numbered dots which mark particularly interesting places and sites are a special feature of this map. They include grand sights like Sossusvlei or the Fish River Canyon but also places which have a fascinating story. These places are described with a few lines and a picture on the reverse of the map. Many of the stories are taken from the ‘Gondwana History’ series of books.

The road map Gondwana’s Classic Routes is available free of charge in English, German and Afrikaans – from the Windhoek office and all the lodges of Gondwana, from Mushara and Waterberg Wilderness.

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Imagine Travel | Luxury Tailor-Made Holidays to Africa, the Indian Ocean and Latin America

1. Hot air ballooning over Sossusvlei

Take to the skies and witness the awe-inspiring views of Sossusvlei (The largest sand dunes in the world). A unique and romantic way to tour the dunes and one that will inevitably leave most of you wanting more.

2 : Quad Biking the Dunes

If it’s sense of speed that you are looking for why not try scaling the dunes on a Quad bike. Intense thrills at high-speed and another great way to visit the worlds largest sand dunes and the Namibian desert.

3. Hiking and cycling The Fish River Canyon

Namibia is a great place for guests to enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities including hiking or cyling The Fish River Canyon. This is a great way for guests to spend part of their holiday doing something pro-active and they will also get to witness the stunning views that the canyon has…

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According to African folklore, Leopard stopped sharing his meals and started to hide his kills in trees because Jackal and Hyena weren’t reciprocating his generosity and Leopardess became wary because Hare ate her cubs. One of the best remembered fables of the ages is, however, ‘How the Leopard Got His Spots’ in the ‘Just So Stories’, where Rudyard Kipling elucidates the benefits of camouflage. Leopard looked ‘like a sunflower against a tarred fence’ when he entered the forest from the veld until the Ethiopian kindly painted the five-dotted rosettes which cover the leopard’s coat to this day.
Leopard Panthera pardus, issued in 2009, artist: Helge Denker

Leopard Panthera pardus, issued in 2009, artist: Helge Denker

The fable holds much truth, as it has been discovered that the patterns and colours of wild cats evolved over the centuries to blend into their specific habitat. A leopard will be better suited to the dappled light of its wooded environment, if it has spots. Many other interesting facts about leopards are also not common knowledge.

The word ‘leopard’ stems from the Greek words leōn (lion) and pardos (panther), and the ancient belief that it is a hybrid of both. The genus Panthera, including the other three big cats – lion, jaguar and tiger – is thought to have emerged in Asia, with ancestors of the leopard and lion migrating into Africa. The last common ancestor of these big cats is said to have lived about 6.37 million years ago. The leopard has featured in the art, mythology and folklore of many countries where it has historically occurred from ancient Greece to Rome. Black panthers (uncommon in Africa) are melanistic leopards or jaguars, having recessive genes causing their dark colouring.

As powerful as the leopard is, it is shy and avoids confrontation, and would seem, if one was inclined to anthropomorphise, to have an inferiority complex, often letting lion and hyena steal its kills. If it doesn’t have the advantage of cover and surprise, it will often quickly disappear into foliage; a fleeting image of power and grace.

The most widespread (from Asia to Africa), adaptable and successful of the big cats will also usually avoid high risk situations, preparing to play it safe. Although it is an opportunistic hunter and enjoys a varied diet from insects to antelope, it will mostly target medium-sized animals in small herds where there is a low risk of injury. It is a fallacy that baboons are its favourite food as they are too vocal and dangerous for the leopard to make hunting them a common occurrence. A leopard will also not risk injury by defending a kill.

Deadly surprise for this baboon... Photo: John Dominis

Deadly surprise for this baboon... Photo: John Dominis

Although the leopard is a renowned climber, known to be able to carry prey of over 50 kg up into a tree, which it uses as a refuge and larder, and can often be seen comfortably perched in a tree with legs dangling over the branches, it is also a proficient swimmer. The leopard, Panthera pardus, relies on its stealth to surprise its prey. If it is unsuccessful on the first attempt, it will often give up. It is extremely agile however, and can reach speeds of 60 km/h for short distances.

Because the leopard is a solitary animal, there is the chance that males and females may miss opportune periods for mating. There is, therefore, no specific breeding season, and ovulation is induced by mating.

A master of camouflage and stealth, the leopard’s secretive existence has ensured its survival. Although its tracks may be observed in many areas, it is rarely seen, remaining elusive like an apparition, dream or vision. When walking amongst the trees, in the mountains or in the Fish River Canyon, you may have the slight unsettling feeling that Leopard is watching from above, perfectly blended into his mottled background.

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Once upon a time a giant snake dwelled in southern Namibia. Every so often it devoured the sheep and goats of the people and finally they decided to kill the snake. Armed with spears and accompanied by their dogs the men set out for the hunt. They encircled the snake, kept it at bay with torches, shot arrows at it and thrust spears into its body. Even though it was a giant snake it stood no chance against the superior numbers. In its death throes the snake tossed and turned, tearing deep furrows into the ground.

Nama legend about how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Source: mural in the Cañon Village

Nama legend about how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Source: mural in the Cañon Village

An old Nama legend explains in this vivid manner how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Geologists offer a more prosaic but no less fascinating explanation. It also involves an epic death struggle – though not of a snake but of a super-continent and it does not happen overnight but goes on for hundreds of millions of years…

Once upon a time in the area of today’s canyon there were deep fissures in the earth’s crust. Some 350 million years ago part of the surface caved in along those fissures and a rift valley, about 20 km wide, emerged. The Fish River chose the rift for its bed. Due to the low gradient the river meandered through the valley in wide loops – also called a meander belt.

The ancient southern super-continent of Gondwana disintegrated some 120 million years ago. South America and Africa drifted apart. The rims of the African fragment rose – Namibia’s interior is a high plateau even today – and with it the drop to the sea level. Starting from its mouth, the Gariep (Orange) River dug deeper into the earth and the Fish River, its tributary, followed suit on the high plateau in southern Namibia. Thus its shallow meander belt turned into the Fish River’s winding system of gorges.

Fish River Canyon, (5 Cent), issued in 1981

Fish River Canyon, (5 Cent), issued in 1981

Standing at one of the viewing points on the edge of the canyon you are able to visually relate to the geological explanation. You are on the shoulder of the rift, looking onto a plain below – the floor of the rift valley. The plain is also termed the ‘upper canyon’ and the meandering gorges that have been cut into it are the ‘lower canyon’.

In total the Fish River Canyon is about 160 km long, up to 27 km wide and 500 m deep. It is seen as the second largest canyon on earth – after the Grand Canyon in the US. Hot springs are found in some places on the canyon floor: at Sulphur Springs, several kilometres south of the main viewing point, for example, or at the Ai Ais spa.

The canyon is situated in the Nama Karoo on the western fringe of the summer rain area. Rainfalls are unreliable and limited to small areas at a time. The annual average is around 80 to 100 mm. Thus the gorges of the Fish River and its tributaries have served local inhabitants as lifelines for hundreds of years. Rock engravings testify to the presence of people in ancient times. In the 19th century missionaries wrote about groups of Nama living there. From 1890 onwards the Nama were displaced first by German settlers and later by South Africans. Now they live in places like Warmbad, Keetmanshoop and Bethanien. Efforts to protect the canyon started relatively late, if compared to Etosha National Park in the north, for example. The canyon was proclaimed a national monument only in 1962 and a nature reserve in 1968.

'Hell’s Bend' in the Fish River Canyon at the main viewing point. Photo: Gondwana Collection

'Hell’s Bend' in the Fish River Canyon at the main viewing point. Photo: Gondwana Collection

Looking at the canyon landscape it is hard to believe that is was – and still is – utilized for livestock farming. Many farmers, however, were forced to give up due to overgrazing and a prolonged drought. As a result a private nature reserve, Gondwana Cañon Park, was established on the north-eastern boundary of the national Ai Ais Richtersfeld Transfrontier Park.

The famous 80 km canyon hike from Hiker’s Point to Ai Ais (5 to 6 days) is part of the national park. In Gondwana Cañon Park hiking tours with or without mules are offered in the wilderness of the canyon landscape some 40 km north of Hiker’s Point.

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Striking, with their distinctive black and white stripes, zebras form part of the wonderful array of African wildlife that makes a visit to a national park or a hike through the mountains so fulfilling. A visit to an Etosha waterhole wouldn’t be the same without our attractive equine friends, nor would a walk through the Fish River canyon be as wild or wonderful without the clattering sound of hooves on rock as a zebra group escapes to the safety of a lofty vantage point.

Although a zebra has a unique pattern of stripes as each person has his/her own individual fingerprints, it is possible to distinguish between the two southern African species at a glance. (The third zebra species, the larger and more mule-like Grévy’s zebra, inhabits the semi-arid grasslands of Ethiopia and northern Kenya.) Burchell’s or plains zebra and mountain zebra have more than their environments to separate them.

Equus zebra hartmannae (7 Cent), issued in 1980, artist: Paul Bosman

Equus zebra hartmannae (7 Cent), issued in 1980, artist: Paul Bosman

The most obvious way to tell the difference between the two is by their stripes. The mountain zebra subspecies, Hartmann’s zebra, like the Cape mountain zebra of South Africa, has solid stripes while Burchell’s zebra, seen in abundance on the grasslands of Etosha National Park, has additional faint stripes superimposed on the white and referred to as shadow stripes. On closer observation, it will be noticed that the Hartmann’s zebra stripes don’t join on its stomach and continue down to its hooves, whereas Burchell’s stripes extend onto its underparts and often fade towards its hooves.

There are two more obvious differences. Hartmann’s zebra Equus zebra hartmannae has a grid-iron pattern across the top of its rump and a prominent dewlap on its throat. Equus burchellii lacks both of these features.

The stripes tell the difference between Hartmann's and Burchell's zebra (below). Photo: Ron Swilling

The stripes tell the difference between Hartmann's and Burchell's zebra (below). Photo: Ron Swilling

Sometimes overlapping, the two species favour different habitats. Burchell’s zebra prefers arid savannah with access to water, while Hartmann’s is found in central and southern Namibia in the rugged terrain of the mountain escarpment and adjacent flats.

Hartmann’s zebra live in small breeding groups of four to five animals comprising one stallion with his mares and foals. They are difficult to spot against their mountain terrain but evidence of their presence is seen in their kidney-shaped droppings, the zebra paths that meander up mountains and their rounded tracks that are etched into the dusty soil. A barking ‘kwa-ah’ alarm signal can sometimes be heard as a group agilely negotiates a koppie. The stallion stands for a few moments behind his family as the rear-guard before trotting off with the others.

Burchell's zebra. Photo: Ron Swilling

Burchell's zebra. Photo: Ron Swilling

The better known species, Burchell’s zebra, is more social than its shyer cousin, congregating in large groups where there is good grazing and often grazing alongside other species like blue wildebeest. Being habituated to people in Etosha, the herds provide ample opportunities for photographs and to observe wild equine behaviour.

These odd-toed ungulates are the quintessential African animal. Their apparent healthy plumpness even during drought, partly caused by the fermentation of bacteria in their gut, adds to our glimpses of an Eden from long ago. The feisty equids are hardy survivors in the fluctuations of the natural world where the eyes of predators are never far away. A new-born foal can stand within fifteen minutes and can run with the herd within hours of its birth. In addition to the protection that their striped patterning may allow, their powerful kick can deter a lion, break a jaw or kill a spotted hyena.

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In partnership with Namibia Post Limited (NamPost) Gondwana now offers personalized stamps at three of its accommodation facilities. The ‘real’ postage stamp shows one of Namibia’s attractions and is attached to a blank stamp for a picture of the buyer’s choice, e.g. a portrait of themselves.

The personalized stamps are available in units of five. Stamps offered at Etosha Safari Camp show animals at a waterhole in Etosha National Park. The theme chosen for Damara Mopane Lodge is the nearby World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein and the stamps of Namib Desert Lodge feature Sossusvlei. Stamps with the Fish River Canyon will be available at Cañon Roadhouse from the middle of September.

 

Stamps with a personal theme

Well-known Namibian artist Helge Denker, whose postage stamps won the Stamp World Cup in 1999 and 2003, came up with the idea for designing Gondwana’s stamps. They are N$ 6.40 each, which is the postage for a postcard to detonations overseas.

The production of personalized stamps at our lodges is quite easy. Guests’ pictures can be taken at the reception or guests can bring their own pictures on a flash drive. With a special printer the pictures are then reproduced on the blanks of the existing sheet of stamps. It is an uncomplicated procedure which takes about five minutes. The price for a sheet of five personalized stamps is N$ 55.00 and a different picture can be used for each of the five stamps.

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