Baron of the barren

In Namibia, the rare desert elephant survives where few others can   Damaraland-The vista from a desolate table top mountain, littered with scorched red rock and hardly a plant, seemed to stretch forever across the wilderness. A morning mist caused by the clashing air of the icy Atlantic Ocean and the hot arid desert created ever-changing colors of purple, blue and pink that covered an ancient landscape that dates back more than 250 million years. Far below, a sand river with a severely damaged, sparse riparian forest gave us hope that our quarry, the rare desert elephant, might be spotted. That was our motivation to go on safari to southern Africa’s driest country. The plan was to trek during the dry winter season to view and photograph elephants and other hardy desert animals such as springbok, oryx and ostrich that exist in the harsh countryside. “The elephants are getting moisture from tree branches and from a bore hole at the only village in this vast region,” said Daniel, our local guide, who seemed to know every mountain and passageway through the wilderness, where dirt roads can be obliterated by drifting sand and distant landmarks provide the only sure direction. As we moved off the mountain past petrified trees and down to the valley, we discovered footprints of elephants, as many as 10 animals. “Their prints go this way,” said Daniel, who showed the extremely large outlines of the adults and the ascending sizes of females and juveniles. “They’re moving fast and were here not very long ago.” Acacia and much taller Anna trees had been literally ripped apart by the elephants. Vegetation, what there was of it, had been hedged and stomped upon. The Huab River Valley appeared void of animals, except the occasional springbok. Walking was not a problem here. The region cannot support lions or other predators that could have made us their next meal. The air was silent. We searched for miles on the sand and under the escarpment of the burnt mountains, but failed to encounter elephants. “How can we lose an elephant, let alone a group of them,” I asked, naively. “They can disappear as if the dry woodland and desert swallowed them up,” Daniel said. “We must keep going.” We traversed up a treeless draw that harbored only low scrub and succulents. Near the top, we could hear elephants uprooting the plants, seeking water and nourishment. The beasts were doing their best to survive on what appeared to us to be a barren hillside. Then the largest of the clan appeared, all by itself, with the crimson mountain flanks presenting a scene that filled our senses. Mission accomplished. Just as dramatic a sighting to my wife, Alexandra, and I were rock etchings made by ancient Bushmen some 5,000 years ago. At Twyfelfontein, it’s a place not a town in the primitive outback, we encountered thousands of etchings – all of animals – carved with quartz rock into the granite. Even during mid-winter in July, the midday sun was unbearably hot. We walked on petrified sand and hardly uttered a word. Only in Namibia, a democratic country that was formed in 1989 and only after a 19-year civil war, is this kind of African experience possible. The country, with its arid land that cannot sustain human life in most parts, is about twice the size of France. Only 1.8 million people live here, making it among the least-populated countries in the world with just more than two people per square mile. English is the official language. Farming makes up half of the economic base. There is uranium and diamond mining, fishing along the coast and a burgeoning eco-tourism and hunting industry, though the U.S. makes up only 5 percent of its visitors. Greater than half of the rhinoceros in the world are found in Namibia, and the black rhino is one of a few endangered species that is gaining in numbers due to strong national conservation efforts. At the Ongava Game Reserve located next to Etosha National Park, we encountered both species of rhino. But the contrasts of nature were, perhaps, the most overwhelming part of our journey. At Sossusvlei, we discovered an enormous clay pan flanked by red sand dunes, the largest in the world, that reached as high as 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) and stretched approximately 80 miles to the coast. The immense dunes, with razor-like peaks, had developed over millions of years by wind that continuously tranformed their contours. The dunes stood alone against the cloudless, blue sky with the ever-wandering oryx often being the only living creature in sight. Alexandra summed up our Namibia safari succinctly: “It’s so beautiful, pristine, wild and diverse, without many people.”

September 2010
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