Tony Park explores some of Namibia’s most remote and sun-scorched regions in search of desert-adapted wildlife and finds himself in luck
The chilly Atlantic wind is cutting through my fleece and my gloved fingers are numb from gripping the edge of the open hatch I’m standing in. Saltbushes as high as the roof of the Land Cruiser are whipping its flanks as we race through the dry bed of the Hoanib River. Suddenly we’re roller-coastering through undulating sand dunes. The pugmarks ahead are as big as dinner plates and they’re becoming fresher, crisper by the second. “Lion,” says our guide Elias Viyani. As big cat researcher Dr Flip Stander talks Elias in on the radio the rush of air and adrenaline combined with the mind-blowing landscapes is almost overwhelming.
When we see the lions — three young males and two females — the scene doesn’t compute. They’re padding down the face of a sand dune, almost like they’re at the beach. In fact, they are close to the seaside, and while it’s a potential picnic (there are 15,000 seals at a colony on the Skeleton Coast just a few kilometres ahead), it’s certainly no holiday being a desert animal…
The day starts before dawn. As I step out of my canvas-themed lodgings (‘tent’ just doesn’t do justice to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp), I can hear the drip-drip of falling rain. That doesn’t make sense either: we’re in the desert, in Namibia. As I look up I can see water running off the sail-like roof, proof of what that eerie blanket of fog is bringing with it from the ocean, 64km away: life.
Six days’ travelling from the giant dunes of Sossusvlei to the Skeleton Coast has shown me that there is an awful lot of life in the parched parts of Namibia. The question I’ve been asking guides and researchers along the way is: are the big animals of this inhospitable region — the desert lions, elephants and rhinos — different to their cousins living a life of comparative luxury in Africa’s savannahs and jungles? The answer is complex: yes, and no.
At Sossusvlei, we leave Kulala Desert Lodge on the first dawn of our safari. The dunes turn from purple to red to gold in the changing light, and one gets the sense that this is definitely a destination to admire the scenery rather than a place to see wildlife. “Not so,” says guide Jimmy Limbo. “Look closer at those massive sandy mountains and you’ll see signs of life everywhere.”
There are tracks of lizards and spiders and odd, elongated, sausage-like piles of sand. “Those are tracks of an animal that’s actually moving under the sand: the golden mole,” Jimmy explains. The long mounds are sand that the little creature displaces while burrowing and moving underground, and the gaps between them are where, like a porpoise, he’s popped up for air.
Many types of tok-tokkie beetles (named after the distinct noise they make) scuttle across these lands, too, and Jimmy finds us a specimen of the wondrously named knobbly darkling variety. This little fellow is particularly adapted to his scorching environment: his long legs keep his belly off the hot sand and his rear end sits higher in the air than his front, so that when the nightly flog rolls in from the Atlantic he can turn towards it, covering as much of his body as possible with the cool, moist air. Condensed water rolls down his back and straight into his mouth. Soon after, Jimmy tracks down a Péringuey’s adder. More commonly known as the sidewinder, because of its distinctive movement, this slithering snake has eyes in the top of his head rather than the back so he can hide under the sand while watching and waiting for his unsuspecting prey.
A couple of days later, at a waterhole near Doro Nawas Camp in Damaraland, a farmer is yelling at a herd of 18 desert elephants. Guide Festus Mbinga explains that the man is telling the great beasts to move on; it’s now his goats’ turn to drink. I sense that the literal translation isn’t so polite, but the tirade works and the elephants, for the most part, amble away. Two young bulls loiter, testing each other’s strength, locking tusks. There are only about 600 desert elephants left in Namibia and competition between males for a mate is tough. The waterhole — its trough ringed with a stout stone wall to stop the elephants from damaging it — is a microcosm of life here on the Doro Nawas Conservancy.
A conservancy is different to a national park. Here local people live alongside wildlife. The idea is that the community will share in the profits from tourists coming to see ‘their’ animals, over which they have a strong sense of ownership. Lodges recruit from the local villages, training them thoroughly so that they can enjoy successful careers. Agnes, the manager at Doro Nawas Camp, tells us proudly that over 10 years, she has developed from being a maid cleaning the guest rooms to being the boss.
The consensus among researchers and guides is that the desert elephant is not a separate sub-species of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), but they do act and look a little different. Their legs seem longer and ears bigger, but that could be because their body mass is smaller from eating less. Their feet appear larger, splayed from walking on sand and their tusks are shorter due to nutrient deficiencies. We follow this herd a while and they seem peaceful enough; at least they’ve got water, courtesy of the conservancy.
The red, flat-topped Etendeka Mountains of Damaraland provide a striking backdrop for photographs of elephants and scenic sundowners, and prove that not all desert habitats are wild seas of sand alone. This is tough country for man and beast, but the conservancy model makes life marginally easier for all. Sadly, we miss seeing black rhino at Doro Nawas. We’re treated to an equally impressive sight that night, however, when staff members roll our beds out on to our balconies so that we can drift off to sleep gazing up at the truly magical spectacle of the star-studded desert sky.
I’ve tracked white rhino before in South Africa with armed rangers, but the conventional wisdom there has always been that the irascible black rhino should be avoided when on foot. Not so at our next sojourn, Desert Rhino Camp in the Palmwag Conservancy, where the trackers — funded by the international Save the Rhino Trust — are not only on foot but also unarmed. Guide Johan Cloete shows us some fresh spoor and soon after is summoned by the trackers to walk us in. Using hand signals, we’re motioned to no more than a hundred metres of a rhino called ‘Don’t Worry’. We’re told to sit down and enjoy the show.
Desert rhino are almost the same as other black rhino, but they’ve made some important adaptations to their harsh environment: they’re able to feed on the Euphorbia damarana, which is poisonous to most other animals. Unlike other rhinos, which need water every day, desert rhinos can survive about 72 hours between drinks. They’re also excellent climbers, able to scale mountains to catch a cool breeze or forage for succulents. The lodge helps fund the researchers and trackers, allowing the rhinos to be continually monitored, and giving tourists an excellent opportunity of seeing them. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works.
I wasn’t optimistic about my chances of seeing a desert lion on my drive to the Atlantic from Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, our final stop. After all, there are only about 150 of them remaining. But progress has been made here: back in 1998, when Dr Stander first started researching these magnificent animals, there were only about 20 left. His intensive monitoring has aided in their protection, although they still face the threat of death from angry farmers when they move through the conservancies and take livestock. Like the other big desert animals they have to work hard and travel big distances to find food and companionship. One lion famously took a 3000km trek that included crossing the Kunene River into Angola and back again. The three majestic males we see on their way to the sea are part of a coalition of brothers known locally as The Five Musketeers. They’re already legendary hunters, using the dunes as cover and launch pads to attack their unsuspecting prey. Nearby, we pass the remains of an unfortunate oryx.
On our final game drive in the desert, east along the dry Hoanib, I’m surprised to see a herd of half a dozen giraffe, faded in the dense mist. Desert adapted giraffe are lighter in colour than their plains-dwelling cousins and spend most of the time with their heads down, not up, feeding on seedpods that have fallen from the ana tree. Elias diligently follows tracks of a couple of brown hyenas, but these notoriously shy, shaggy nocturnal dwellers continually elude us. We’re in for a final pleasant surprise, however: as the fog clears we come across another herd of elephants and three more young lions from a different pride. They boldly stalk the elephants, practising the skills they’ll need to survive. Life is tough for any animal in the desert, but Namibia’s lions, rhinos and elephants are still out there, roaming wild and free, surviving against all odds.
5 Tracking Tips
• In conservancies, stay at a lodge or use a local operator that has access to areas where lion, elephant and rhino are likely to be found.
• If you’re driving yourself, park further from wildlife than you might normally. The animals here are wilder and more wary of humans.
• If you make it to the Hoanib River, the President’s Waterhole is a great place to view elephants.
• A well-equipped 4WD vehicle is recommended for exploring desert areas. Passing traffic is minimal, so travelling in convoy is advisable. A satellite phone is also handy in an emergency.
• Don’t forget to look out for the small creatures, too, from the knobbly darkling beetle to the Péringuey’s adder.
• For a guide to other desert wildlife, visit travelafricamag.com.
• Getting there Wilderness Explorations (the overland arm of Wilderness Safaris) runs road expeditions in Namibia. Alternatively, you can travel independently in a 4WD. Wilderness Air flies between the camps.
• Where to stay The writer stayed at Kulala Desert Lodge, Doro Nawas Camp, Desert Rhino Camp and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, courtesy of Wilderness Safaris and Swagman Tours. For self-drive travellers, Palmwag Lodge is an excellent base: it has chalets and administers rustic campsites in the conservancy. The old German military outpost Fort Sesfontein is an oasis within easy reach of the Hoanib River.
• When to visit Daytime temperatures are at their mildest in winter, from May to September, though nights and early mornings can be chilly in the desert.
• Further reading For more information on desert wildlife, visit desertlion.info, savetherhino.org and desertelephantconservation.org.