No water for elephants
Life is tough for dwindling jumbo herds in northwest Namibia
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
Tribes such as the Herero share a parched, challenging environment with elephants