If you really want to get off the beaten path, head to northern Namibia, home to the famous desert elephants and the Himba people. Bay’s Nick Smith did just that, on a two-week expedition across the vast expanse of the Namib desert, driving from Windhoek to Angola…
You don’t expect to have trouble with water in the desert. Not unreasonably, you expect deserts to be hot, sandy and dry. If you remember your geography lessons well, you might even expect them to be cold, icy and dry, because Antarctica is a desert too. But for the most part, when we think of the word ‘desert’, our minds will lazily drift to peach-coloured dunes, lonely date palm oases and mysterious ancient peoples in indigo-dyed tagelmusts, trudging along endlessly on camels. And so, to find myself in Africa’s vast and empty Namibia shortly after the heaviest rainfall in living memory meant that all the desert clichés were soon thrown out of the window. “Welcome to Namibia,” shouted a huge, bearded man with arms like tree trunks as we shook hands at Windhoek airport. “It doesn’t normally rain like this here.”
The huge, bearded man with arms like tree trunks was my guide. Rejoicing under the name Caesar Zandberg (literally ‘King of the Sand Dunes’), this tough, ex-South African army, rugby-playing desert tracker was going to be my constant companion for the following two weeks as we drove northwards to Angola across the mighty Namib desert to photograph desert elephants for the Daily Telegraph. I’d been assured, when I met him in London to plan the expedition, that he was the most experienced outdoorsman Namibia had to offer – “he’s Africa’s Ray Mears, don’t you know?” interrupted his publicist helpfully – and with Caesar on board nothing could go wrong. These mysterious giant pachyderms, that reputedly disappear like ballerinas exiting stage left at the Royal Opera House, would be virtually eating sticky buns from our hands by sunset.
The sky was bible black and the news was bad. “We won’t see elephants on this trip,” bellowed Caesar as we peered through the double-speed windscreen wipers on his gigantic Toyota Landcruiser off-roader. If it hadn’t been for the pair of soggy tawny eagles soaring over the Otjihaveraberge Mountains, I would have found it hard to believe I was in Africa at all. Over the following hour Caesar explained the scale of the problem. You see, he said, what makes desert elephants (or, more correctly, ‘desert-adapted’ elephants) different is their innate ability to seek out water over vast distances along ancient pathways, knowledge of which they’ve somehow managed to inherit from their ancestors. There aren’t many of them – maybe as few as six hundred – and Namibia’s Damaraland, where you’re most likely to find them – covers tens of thousands of square miles. Normally it’s a fiddly job to find them – which is where Caesar (and his long-suffering assistant Simpson) comes in – but with this much rain the job will be impossible. “For the desert elephant, rain is like winning the lottery. It doesn’t happen very often, and you go nuts when you do. Why would you bother visiting your ancestral water holes, when you could be wallowing in the stuff over there?” he pondered, waving his arm vaguely in the direction of some mountains to the east – mountains that seemed a long way distant and without any obvious promise of elephants. Finally, he said: “you do the math.”
The key to successful travel is to always remain optimistic, and so I took a leaf out of the book of the desert elephant and adapted. Yes, it was going to be difficult to explain to my editor at the Daily Telegraph how I’d managed to completely fail in my mission. But on the other hand, I reasoned, while we’d fallen at the first fence and were effectively out of the race, there were two weeks in which we could catch up and prove that Caesar’s analysis of the situation had been wrong. We’d stick to the plan, which was to drive north from Windhoek along the long straight roads to Otjiwarongo, where we’d turn left and stock up with provisions at the town of Outjo, strike north-west to the village of Kamanjab, at which point we’d leave all roads behind us and make an improvised south-north crossing of the Namib before finally ending up somewhere on the Kunene river that marks the border with Angola. Along the way, we’d seek adventure where we may, and if the desert gods favoured our quest, the rain would stop, and the elephants would come out to play.
I was feeling a little less poetic by the minute as we hacked along the flooded highways for hours on end. And by the time we got to the Africat Foundation at an old cattle farm called Okonjima close to Otjiwarongo I was jet-lagged and saddle-sore. Africat is Namibia’s equivalent to Battersea Dogs Home where, instead of distressed domesticated canines waiting to be rehoused, you have big cats in the form of cheetahs, lions and even an 80kg adult male leopard called Wahu. Most arrive as orphans after their mothers have been shot by farmers (there are 7,000 farms in central Namibia), and some will eventually be returned to the wild in protected areas such as the nearby Etosha National Park. Those that can’t be rehomed are kept at Okonjima where their job is to assist in educating anyone that will listen about the sorry plight of Namibia’s big cats. Local people don’t like them, and neither do the country’s farmers, who don’t seem to understand that Namibia’s wildlife is a huge natural asset. Namibia is in the bottom half of the list of the world’s wealthiest countries, which means it needs foreign currency in the form of cash, and the best way to get it is from tourists. These are the people that will pay through the nose to see the safari ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, cape buffalo and elephant), but won’t pay diddly-squat to see empty game reserves. As the sun was starting to make a comeback, we decided to stay at Okonjima for a few days to allow the roads time to dry and to take photographs of the animals.
Pressing on, the single-lane tarmac highways turn to smartly-graded gravel roads, that quickly disintegrate into dirt tracks heading into the communal lands that make up the northern Namib. This is one of the great deserts of the world, a 1,200 mile-long stretch of wilderness that reaches from South Africa along the Atlantic coastline right up to Angola. As it becomes clear that we’ve finally left the last remnants of human existence behind us we take stock of our surroundings. The first thing to really hit me was that our Landcruiser was loaded to the point where we literally couldn’t get anything other than our team of three explorers in it. There were jerry cans of petrol, huge water containers, two freezers stuffed to the gunwales with meat and fresh vegetables. There were medical supplies, mountains of camping gear, spare parts for the vehicle, camera and tripods, tools, maps, radios and cooking equipment. The second thing I noticed was that the desert was green. Like a billiard table. There were flowers everywhere, poking out of the pinkish-grey gypsum gravel, and as the sky started to turn blue, Caesar expressed his approval. “You’re lucky to get flowers in the desert like this. Some of them will have germinated from seeds that have been waiting for water for forty or fifty years. Some of the cactuses are a thousand years old.”
And so began the expedition north, where the landscape slowly changed while time started to stand still. We took a route through Damaraland up to the Kaokoveld and up to Hartmann’s Valley, camping in shrubland and on dunes. Some days the land was wide open, while on others we picked our way through vast rust-coloured outcrops. But every day there was the constant battle with great brown transient rivers that came crashing down from the mountains. There aren’t supposed to be rivers in the Namib, but with the recent deluge (apparently, rain fell at the rate of a year’s worth every hour) – the terrain had become treacherous, and we spent several hours a day looking for safe places to cross. All the time keeping our eyes peeled for elephants, we climbed mountains with our binoculars to scan the landscape. But to no avail. One morning I got up before dawn to make coffee for the crew. Waiting for the water to boil, I noticed a pile of elephant dung outside Caesar’s tent. I wasn’t imagining it, and as soon as the tracker appeared, he confirmed that it was, as the old joke goes, warm and there was plenty of it. “Yep,” he said ruefully: “some-times they walk through the camp to see what’s going on.” Finding it hard to believe that elephants, desert-adapted or otherwise, had been wandering about in our camp at night, I inter-rogated Caesar on the subject, in answer to which he told me that they are curious creatures. Besides which: “we might not know where they are. But they sure know where we are.” But why didn’t we hear them, I asked. “They’re very quiet.”
We pack up and head north to pay an unscheduled visit to some local people called the Himba. They’re a tribe of about 50,000 dispersed semi-nomadic livestock herders whose territory is dispersed around the Kunene river that separates Angola from Namibia. Perhaps they’re fed up with people arriving out of nowhere for no reason other than to photograph them, so it’s understandable that they have a reputation for giving visitors a lukewarm reception. But they obviously know Caesar well, and as he exchanges news with them, I make friends by giving the men of the tribe packets of Marlboro cigarettes, playing football with their kids and buying ostrich-shell trinkets. After a few hours they agree we can take some photos, with one woman in particular more enthusiastic than most, showing off her braided hair that had been bound together with otjize paste, a mixture of buttermilk and ochre. They show us around the circular village and their mud huts. As we drive away, I’m not sure if I believe him when Caesar tells me that they’ve all got bank accounts and mobile phones. “The desert is a strange place,” he tells me.
By the time we reach our journey’s end, the desert has turned to sand of apricot colour, the rain has become a blurred memory, and the flowers are dying. We reach the small safari-style Kunene River Lodge on the south bank and celebrate finishing our desert crossing with an ice-cold beer, hot showers and more beer. In the afternoon we go for boat trip along the river to look for alligators. Despite there being no one around, Caesar carefully navigates us close to the Namibia side of the river. I ask if we can land on the other side and walk along the bank so that I can say that I’ve set foot in Angola. “You can if you want,” says Caesar. “But I won’t carry your body back to the lodge. You’ll be shot before you take two steps.” Peering into the dark jungle opposite I imagine that it’s just about possible that there are restless border guards who’ll take a pot shot to relieve the boredom.
Dawn rises and we’re back in the Land-cruiser, only this time, it’s a short haul to the village of Opuwo, where there’s a small airfield and from where I’ll bumpily fly in a Cessna back to Windhoek. As we say good-bye, we make a few jokes about not seeing any elephants, and how, if you really want to look at it from a pessimistic point of view, the entire expedition had been a complete failure. “What’s going to happen about your article?” enquired Caesar. “Oh, I’ll think of something,” I replied.