In Search of Desert Elephants in Namibia

We drive on from the coast of Swakopmund and watch the landscape transform from palm-tree lined avenues and manicured gardens to the minimalist beauty of the desert region, Damaraland. Striking rock formations, low chains of weathered hills and caves adorned with ancient rock paintings regularly attract visitors to the area. We wanted to explore the huge tracts of Damaraland’s ephemeral river beds in search of something special- the infamous desert elephant found in only two African countries, Nambia and Mali.

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Getting on the 4×4 safari vehicle, we meet our head tracker, Mattias Kangumbe. Working for a local NGO, Mattias has kind eyes, a wide smile and strong arms like a tree trunk. His enthusiasm for elephants is infectious and his knowledge feels encyclopedic. Before setting off, we learnt that Namibia’s desert elephants have smaller bodies and longer legs compared to a bush elephant. Their larger feet help to provide greater traction on the sandy terrain, as they trek for long distances in search of food and water.

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During our game drive, we witness Damaraland’s stark but beautiful landscape. The arid setting is made spectacular by unique granite rock formations peppered with desert vegetation. We are navigating off road, mostly driving through dry river beds where Mattias could spot elephant tracks with incredible insight and precision. “The elephants have wandered far today!” he stated with a twinkle in his eye.

DSCN6323.JPGWe take a lunch break beneath a tree to shade from the fierce Namibian sun. A spread of locally produced game meat and freshly baked crusty rolls is shared between us. I’m hopeful that the afternoon drive will be fruitful and that we’ll have the chance to spot the desert elephants as we journey on.

Delving further into the desert wilderness, our vehicle twists, turns and grumbles under the rough terrain. After passing through a maze of long reeds, we find ourselves in a secluded granite gorge. It feels like no-one has ever set foot here before. There is a hushed whisper and an urgent gesture from Mattias. Situated approximately 30ft away from us is a desert elephant!

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We watch the elephant saunters towards us with a gentle and inquisitive in nature. His dusty brown skin and intelligent gaze focuses on the safari vehicle as we watch in amazement. Mattias carefully switches off the engine as we absorb the intimate moment of observing such a rare creature in its natural habitat.. “This is Vorestrekker” whispers Mattias. Having guided for over 10 years, the small desert elephant population had all been given names by the safari guides. Noticing a movement behind the vehicle, we suddenly encounter a herd of five to six elephants traversing across the landscape. “This small one is called Cheeky!” exclaims Mattias excitedly, pointing to the elephant closest to us. With hushed eagerness, we observe the elephants in the barren wilderness. A long and dusty drive takes us back to camp, as we take in the remarkable memory of seeing wild desert elephants in Namibia.

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Trips Tips 

  • Contact EHRA (Elephant – Human Relations Aid). They are a wonderful Responsible Travel outlet and a conservation charity that aims to find long-term sustainable solutions to the ever-growing problem of facilitating the peaceful co-habitation between the subsistence farmers, community members and the desert-adapted elephants.
  • We stayed at the Ozondjou Trails, a tented camp that provides excellent access to spot desert elephants, the camp itself is proud of its green credentials, they tell us that it is built in such a way that it could be taken down or relocated at any time with no lasting effect on the environment. All power is solar generated and water is provided from a solar powered borehole.

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