Namibia, A Road Trip – 3 – Damaraland
A thatch-roofed stall(?) harboured what looked like a colourfully dressed child – that turned out to be – a doll?!? An abandoned, derelict car caught our eye, its skeletal remains somehow seemingly apt in the harsh landscape.Late afternoon, we arrived at Wilderness Safari’s Damaraland Camp. It is located in the Torra Conservancy of the Huab Valley, in the Kunene region, with the soaring peaks of the Brandberg mountains all around. We were given a ceremonious welcome song and dance by the smiling and friendly staff.The camp has luxurious rooms, a pool to cool off in, a huge lounge cum dining area that has hand-crafted board games, quaint decor and a little gift shop that is filled with beads, baubles and other local knick-knacks.Dawid, our local guide, was a friendly and knowledgeable person. He took us on a sundowner drive to one of the hillocks of the Etendeka plateau. This gave us an opportunity to try our hands at photographing the incredible landscape.This plateau is 78,000 square kms. The basalt rocks originated 132 million years ago just before the Southern African continent split from South America. Molten lava spewed from the earth and finally cooled into a sheet about 2 kms thick! Broken bits of rock show vividly the volcanic activity of aeons ago.Dawid entered enthusiastically into our plans for an astrophotography session the following evening and drove us around to scout for an appropriate location that would provide an interesting foreground.
Dinner that evening was in the boma – a fenced enclosure on the periphery of the camp. We were treated to a traditional dance and meal. The speciality was a local bread baked on the open fire served with a stew like soup.
Early next morning we drove past the location we had found the previous evening, to catch the sunrise against the backdrop of these naturally carved sandstone hills.All of us pitched our tripods around the area. A patient wait provided this – a slightly fanciful rendering of the silhouette of a woman wearing a glittering nose-ring?A lion’s head?As the sun rose we were treated to splashes of colour – in the sky, on the rocks, on the ground.We left this special place very reluctantly, promising to return that night, and headed towards the Huab river to look for the famed desert adapted elephants.
The day was very sunny and temperatures rose as we drove around hoping to find the animals. The rivers and rivulets were completely dry and often cracked barring a few damp patches here and there.Yet the land offered a beauty that spoke to each of us and kept us spellbound for hours on end.The brown landscape was broken up now and again by bright bursts of colour.Some of the animals listed in the guide books include the gemsbok or oryx, greater kudu, springbok, lion, cheetah and black rhino, apart from the elephant. But we saw practically no animate being except ourselves and, occasionally, a few birds though we did see tracks in the sand to prove that wildlife existed in plenty. Still, we began the “safari” encountering this little beauty.After a brief halt on the dry river bed for a belated breakfast, we resumed our search. Around noon, we were ready to give up and began retracing our drive to camp. While we were disappointed, we were not surprised. These animals are extremely shy and difficult to spot, not to mention being better than chameleons when it comes to camouflage. Just then we met another vehicle full of guests from a different camp – all wearing large smiles. This suddenly raised our hopes and not falsely too. They had encountered the behemoths – just around the bend!
Suddenly they were all around us, a breeding herd, calm and undisturbed by our excitement.Feeding peacefully.Apparently they follow their own ancient trails across this vast desert and form tracks that ensure there is no wanton destruction in the path they take – for us to marvel at and perhaps learn from.
As they walked along, we followed, our cameras going crazy. The path they were following wound around a hillock. Dawid decided to drive us – cross country – to the top. We got a birds eye view of this family walking majestically towards the river.While these elephants are not a different species, they are a different ecotype. They have adapted to survive in marginal conditions. They feed on the sparse growth along the ephemeral rivers that dot this area or grass when it rains. As they move between these rivers, they have to traverse the vast desert and even dunes. In fact, these animals have a home range that is about eight times that of other African elephants! They are occasionally forced to drink only every fourth day to avoid treks to fresh sources. Sometimes they dig waterholes that serve other animals that follow in their wake. They have learnt not to be as destructive as their kin and do not fell or debark the sparse trees as much. In fact, drought and fire kill more trees here than elephants – in the ratio of 1:7!
As we watched, the family decided to take a break from their long walk and stop in the shade of the few trees,using each other for rest and support …giving themselves a cooling dust bath …After spending more than hour with them we reluctantly headed back to camp, elated with our successful morning. We left them with this last goodbye (wave?) from one of them …As we drove along we saw more hillocks that were covered by sand. Dawid told us that the sand shifted continuously and what is a rock face today would likely look like a sand dune when the wind blew in the appropriate direction.For all the lush vegetation that we could see,and there were plants growing in difficult terrain …some of unusual shapes and sizes … (Euphorbia Damarana)it was impossible to ignore the sheer volume of sand.We could never forget that we were very much in a desert.After lunch and a brief rest, we were ready and enthusiastic for our evening out with the stars! We drove back to the sandstone hills – and discovered a noisy and large group of people camping at the base of those beautiful rocks! There was no way we could photograph stars with all the light these campers were going to have!
We drove a little distance away and walked around to look for an alternative location where we would find the pitch darkness and sharp silhouettes that we craved. There was plenty to admire in the fantastic formations and colours that these mountains offered us.As the sun went down we began our celestial adventure. While we have seen the milky way and the millions of diamond bright stars over different parts of Africa, we were completely stunned by the night sky over Namibia. There are literally no words to describe what we saw.And this is what our cameras revealed to us the next day when we sat down to “post-process”.After a sumptuous and lazy breakfast – the resident friendly cat who was supposedly “a fussy eater and did not like strangers” was more than happy to share our cheese! – we were sent off with another song and dance onto the next leg of our adventure. Our destination was Swakopmund for the night. But before we got there we had a whole day of driving with plenty to marvel at en route!