With only about 200 remaining, Namibia’s desert elephants are a rare sighting. Tracking and finding them is a coup for any nature lover
It’s bone-dry in Damaraland. This scorched-earth place appears completely inhospitable to man and beast; it’s a place where rain has forgotten to fall for a very long time. Nguni cattle eek out an existence here, walking in single file along the dusty road this morning to graze on scrubby brown bushes and a sprinkling of dry grass. How elephant survive in these reaches is mystifying. Food and water are far-flung, so herds have to travel vast distances to find sustenance, making it tricky to track and see them.
Word from the bush vine today is that a group of desert elephants was on the move last night, headed in our direction. We are hopeful, even though the animals could be anywhere across this vast desertscape.
There are just two groups of true desert-dwelling elephants in Namibia, and they live in areas receiving less than 150mm of rainfall per year. The Hoarusib-Hoanib group and the Huab-Ugab group together only total about 200 animals, so finding these hardy pachyderms is a challenge. The Hoanib and Hoarusib river elephants literally move between these two rivers; the Huab and Ugab river population moves between the Huab and Ugab rivers. The latter is the group we’re looking for.
The early morning sun is dowsing Damaraland in butter-yellow light as we drive towards the Huab River. Elephant tracks are unusual, round prints – and they are criss-crossing the road surface this morning. “It seems they walked all night to get here, because they were last seen yesterday very far from here,” says guide Brian Schaefer.
Desert elephants can walk 80km at a time to get to water. And they can smell water too – up to a metre underground – so they dig for it in riverbeds. They will dig up water pipes too if they sniff water in them. Still, desert elephants drink far less frequently than other elephants, and can go up to five days without water. Cows with calves can go two days without drinking. When they do find water, they make up for lost time, drinking all they can muster.
It’s another 20km before we see elephant tracks again. They’re heading in the direction of the Hoab River. “These are definitely tracks from last night,” says Brian as he leans out of the Land Cruiser to take a closer look. “This dung is quite fresh too.” The tracks have us hopeful, so we follow the dirt road through a remarkably neat Damara village and continue heading towards the river. In Namibia, “river” is a contradiction in terms, since virtually none of them boast a drop of water; “riverbed” would be more fitting.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” shouts Brian with sudden urgency to our patient driver. “Just look at this,” he says, leaning far out of the car and pointing to tracks in soft sand. “Can you see the little ridges on the surface of these tracks?” he asks. “That’s how fresh they are. The ridges are imprints from cracks in the elephant’s foot pads, and the wind hasn’t had time to smooth them off yet. I believe the elephants walked here today, just hours ago. They may be very close by.”
We sense we are getting warmer, closer to the prize. But still the area is vast, and the desert elephants are few. We smile at each other with anticipation, and drive on and into the dry Hoab riverbed.
This riverbed is so dry, the surface is corrugated and rock-hard. Thorny acacia trees line the banks and provide a smattering of welcome shade from the sun. It’s winter but already hot by mid-morning, and we drive on slowly.
“I can smell them,” says Brian, his eyes combing the riverbanks. “And I mean literally.” All aboard the vehicle are silent and scanning for signs of desert elephant. “There,” whispers Brian, pointing at an acacia tree. “Just legs, but it’s an elephant.” Then more legs appear and more, into the middle distance. The herd is browsing the thorny acacia trees, refuelling after a long night’s walk.
The vehicle stops in the middle of the riverbed and the driver cuts the engine. There is not a sound: the elephants dine silently, and we watch in hushed wonder. They are busy trawling both riverbanks, so we’re surrounded by the Huab-Ugab group. We soak up the experience of seeing these uniquely adapted animals go about their business in the unusually arid environment.
Half an hour passes. The elephants seem blissfully unaware of our presence. Being downwind from them helps. Peacefully, they dine on thorny acacia, strip a little bark, and teach youngsters in the herd some table manners. It is incredible to be privy to this wild world. They appear calm and gentle, but are tenacious and very feisty if encroached upon. These are truly wild elephant, unfettered by fences and constantly on the move in search of food and water.
“Let’s have some coffee and rusks,” says Brian, handing us steaming cups to enjoy. We sip and dip rusks and watch, still in quiet awe. An elephant stands on its hind legs to reach a greener branch, which is an unusual balancing act for this large animal – something of a bush circus trick.
Further along on the riverbank, we spot dark mounds and edge closer with the vehicle. As we approach, an elephant lifts its head a little and shakes its ears. This has to be one of the most unusual wildlife behaviours we have ever encountered: an elephant lying down, sleeping. They have positioned themselves on the slight incline of the riverbank, so they are able to get up again. They’re so exhausted from their overnight journey that they hardly acknowledge us, and sleep on in the half-shade of the thorn trees.
Interestingly, Namibia’s desert elephants are genetically identical to Etosha and savannah elephants. They are not a sub-species – just savannah elephants that have adapted to desert conditions. Their legs appear longer and their tusks thinner, but it’s an optical illusion. The reality is these elephants are permanently on a diet and only eat about half the food of Etosha elephants – not by choice, but because food is in short supply. They’re skinny elephants.
On the left bank, we watch an elephant cow patiently teaching her young one how to strip bark from a tree. It’s done gently, not too much is taken. Somehow these elephants know they need to tread as lightly as possible in this food-scarce environment. It seems trees also know they need to sustain elephants, and the Ana tree in particular recovers well from debarking (which would kill other trees). The desert elephants also have much lower birth and survival rates, and cows nurse their calves years longer than herds living in lush areas.
These are all ingenious adaptations to living in harsh conditions, as too is climbing mountains to stand in the cusp between hills to cool off in the breeze that blows there in the afternoons. Another way elephants cool down is to take water out of an oesophageal pouch and spray it behind their ears. They will also urinate on sand, then scoop the slurry over themselves to keep cool. Damaraland, lest we forget, is smoking-hot in summer.
We let sleeping elephants lie, and turn slowly back to the lodge to seek shelter from the sun. The elephants don’t even register our departure. For 35km nobody says a word; everyone is pondering the profound experience we have shared with each other and a relaxed herd of rare desert elephants. They are the ultimate survivors – proof that if you can adapt, you will not die. Actually, you may even thrive.
WHEN TO GO You can visit Namibia at any time of the year, although the summers are very hot.
WHERE TO STAY Mowani Mountain Camp near the Huab River, six hours northwest of Windhoek, combines barefoot luxury with daily game drives along ancient dry riverbeds. Visit mowani.com.
GETTING AROUND Namibia Tracks & Trails in Windhoek offers tailor-made luxury, touring, camping or self-drive trips. Visit namibia-tracks-and-trails.com.
WHAT TO PACK Binoculars, cameras, sunscreen and a hat are essential. Also bring some rehydration salts for super-hot days.
GETTING THERE SAA flies to Windhoek daily. Visit flysaa.com
For more information, visit namibiatourism.com.na
WORDS Keri Harvey