No wa­ter for ele­phants

Life is tough for dwin­dling jumbo herds in north­west Namibia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - EMMA GREGG

RUS­SELL Vin­jevold, our guide, breaks into the sop­pi­est of smiles. ‘‘Will you just look at that lit­tle chap!’’ To many bush-hard­ened south­ern Africans, a baby ele­phant shel­ter­ing un­der its mother’s belly is not nec­es­sar­ily some­thing to get gooey about. Af­ter all, many parts of Africa have more ele­phants than they can han­dle, and tiny, shy, week-old ba­bies with im­prob­a­bly del­i­cate-look­ing trunks soon grow into tree-wreck­ers.

But in the arid Kunene re­gion of north­west Namibia, ele­phants are rare enough for each new ar­rival to seem spe­cial, and our guide is look­ing as proud and teary as if he’s de­liv­ered the an­i­mal him­self.

Beau­ti­ful though this sec­tion of the Namib Desert is to visit, it’s a tough place to be an ele­phant. Kunene is not ex­actly fer­tile: the most its ochre and bone-coloured sands can muster are patches of sun-bleached grass. Rain is a pre­cious thing. The tem­per­a­ture can soar above 45C, the heat so dry you barely feel your­self sweat­ing. And given that an ele­phant could drain a sa­fari camp plunge pool at one sitting, it’s amaz­ing that these thirsty crea­tures can sur­vive here at all. A small, hardy pop­u­la­tion of about 600 clings on by stick­ing to the mopane-shaded riverbeds that score the Namib from east to west, snaking across to the Skele­ton Coast. Most of these chan­nels are less than 160km long; drive along one or camp be­side one, and you’re likely to see a herd or two. The dry chan­nel we’re ex­plor­ing, the Hoarusib, is typ­i­cal. For a few days be­tween Novem­ber and March, rain pum­mels the crum­pled moun­tains west of Etosha and the river floods with vi­o­lent force. For the rest of the year, it’s parched. But the Kunene ele­phants are canny enough to cope.

It’s be­lieved that ele­phants can map out far-flung wa­ter­holes in their mind’s eye, pass­ing their knowl­edge from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The Kunene herds take this to the next level: they can pin­point un­seen sup­plies so ac­cu­rately that you’d think their tusks were di­vin­ing rods. ‘‘This river may look bone dry to you,’’ says Vin­jevold, switch­ing the en­gine of our four-wheel-drive back on, ‘‘but to these guys, it’s a 50km oa­sis.’’ With that, he drives us to a spot where the baby’s herd had ear­lier been goug­ing at the sand to dig down to the wa­tertable. Hav­ing drunk their fill, they con­tin­ued along the riverbed as ca­su­ally as a fam­ily of shop­pers cruis­ing a busy mall.

Vin­jevold is the fixer be­hind a tourism ini­tia­tive, Con­ser­vancy Sa­faris, that is owned by the Himba and Herero peo­ple. They are pas­toral­ists who share this chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment with the ele­phants. Like them, they have had to adapt to its de­mands.

The Kunene re­gion is breath­tak­ingly re­mote but tourism is not new here, and the Himba and Herero know they’re part of the at­trac­tion. The stan­dard pat­tern is for sa­fari com­pa­nies to breeze in, camp for a few days, and breeze out, paus­ing all too briefly to ad­mire the land­scapes, the wildlife and the lo­cals — the Herero women in their vo­lu­mi­nous cot­ton frocks, and the Himba with their ochre-daubed hair and skin.

Con­ser­vancy Sa­faris aims to change this by wel­com­ing vis­i­tors as guests, rather than passers-by, and en­sur­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate pro­por­tion of their cash ben­e­fits de­vel­op­ment projects that pro­vide fresh wa­ter and ba­sic health care.

So much for the the­ory; it nev­er­the­less takes a leap of faith to en­trust your hard-earned hol­i­day funds to a com­pany owned by a scat­tered group of herders.

How­ever, while trips with Con­ser­vancy Sa­faris may not be cheap, they’re not the gam­ble you might think. An­ders Jo­hans­son, a Swedish phi­lan­thropist, has pro­vided a gen­er­ous loan. And, with the sup­port of lo­cal ex­perts in tourism, wildlife and land man­age­ment, the firm is run by a pro­fes­sional team.

‘‘We’re not in­ter­ested in or­gan­is­ing lux­ury sa­faris that are all style over sub­stance,’’ Vin­jevold says. ‘‘One thing . . . that peo­ple seem to crave is au­then­tic­ity. By of­fer­ing an in­sider’s view of this amaz­ing re­gion, we can make our trips mean­ing­ful.’’

So far, they seem to have the bal­ance right. Nights are spent un­der can­vas in pic­turesque sites: a camelthorn glade one day, a nook be­neath a sun-baked escarpment the next. The tents and the camp­fire food are su­perb in a back-to­ba­sics way. Pleas­ingly, you’re not pam­pered with em­bar­rass­ing ex­trav­a­gances. Let’s call it eth­i­cal camp­ing for soft­ies.

Vin­jevold is an ex­pe­ri­enced sa­fari guide with just the right attitude, who­takes care not to up­stage the gor­geous land­scapes. When we see an­i­mals, we watch them qui­etly, tak­ing our time; when we en­counter peo­ple, he in­tro­duces

us and lets the con­ver­sa­tion take its course. He also has a fas­ci­na­tion for in­dige­nous an­i­mals that is ut­terly con­ta­gious.

Ele­phants are not the only crea­tures to eke out a life here. Ev­ery so of­ten, as we roam the desert in the 4WD, Vin­jevold’s hand twitches on the wheel and we know he’s about to point out some­thing new: gi­raffes framed against a rugged hill­side or a flurry of os­triches tear­ing through the haze. Both have evolved to sur­vive on the mea­gre quan­ti­ties of avail­able wa­ter.

Oc­ca­sion­ally we spot an oryx shel­ter­ing un­der a tree, and dis­cover that these dazed-look­ing gazelles can turn off their sweat glands to con­serve mois­ture. We learn about the species of bee­tle that sur­vives by do­ing hand­stands so that droplets of dew will run down to its mouth. Lions live here too, and, thrillingly, we find some; they have sussed out that if they lurk in the un­der­growth near the Hoarusib gorge, sooner or later a herd of spring­bok will wan­der through.

Best of all are the geckos, even though their sur­vival strat­egy is more mun­dane: when the sun is up, they hide in sandy bur­rows. By day, there’s no sign of them, but at sun­set you can hear them call­ing — a bright sound, like two stones chink­ing to­gether — and at night you can pick out their beady lit­tle eyes with a torch.

It’s still early days for Con­ser­vancy Sa­faris, but it has al­ready scored an­other first with the open­ing of Etam­bura, claimed to be Namibia’s only com­mu­nity-owned lux­ury camp. Cre­ated by Trevor Knott, a lo­cal ar­chi­tect with a flair for weav­ing his de­signs around plants and rocks, it is set on a hill­top in Oru­pembe, one of the re­motest con­ser­van­cies in Kunene.

Each of the five thatchedroofed build­ings has in­spir­ing, wrap­around views of the sur­round­ing hills.

The com­mu­nity picked the name Etam­bura, which sim­ply means ‘‘see the rain’’. For a desert peo­ple, that’s about as pow­er­ful an ex­pres­sion of op­ti­mism as you can imag­ine. Emma Gregg was a guest of Air Namibia and Kamili Sa­faris. kamil­isa­faris.com kcs-namibia.com.na wild­aboutafrica.com

PHOTOLIBRARY

Tribes such as the Herero share a parched, chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment with ele­phants

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