Posted on Tuesday, 15 October 2013
The Kaokaveld is the North Western region of Namibia. As it is a very harsh and arid desert environment it has very few inhabitants and is considered a wild and remote place, perfect and just the kind of experience we were looking for! Our main objective was to look for desert animals and take in the astounding beauty that we had always heard about.
Up to about 30 years ago it was something of a myth that elephants lived in the desert and only very few people had actually seen them. Now days their desert population has increased and they are much easier to find. There are a number of dry river bed systems that they traverse looking for food and water.
Our plan was to base ourselves at Purros, a very small village home to 261 people! The community runs a campsite here and also provides guides for tourists that are visiting the area. The campsite is an oasis in the desert and without doubt the best campsite in Namibia. We camped under an enormous Winterthorn tree and enjoyed the cool breeze that was blowing from the Atlantic through the desert from 40 km away.
Left Fang, The Ocean Elephant
Late on the first afternoon we went up to a lookout point where we spotted our first two desert elephants below… both Chris and I were extremely excited to see our first ones! The next morning and afternoon we were able to find the two of them walking down the Hoarusib river which is flanked by dramatically steep gorges and has seepage water flowing through it.
They were not fazed by our presence at all and mostly continued on their slow path and slow feeding. We were later chatting to a tour guide who guides in the area. Tim knew this old female elephant with the skew tusk very well. In fact he had assisted the BBC in their desert elephant documentary and during the filming they had tracked and followed this elephant all the way down to the coast. This is about a 70km journey from Purros and she is one of only a few elephants that make this journey the whole way to the beach. It is not clear why she does this but there seems to be a specific type of bush here that she feeds on…
All Roads Lead To..?
What I have not mentioned before is the horrifically bad road we took to get from Sesfontein to Purros. It was a mere 100kms which we thought would be an easy drive and that we would arrive in time for breakfast! We were soon to discover what teeth chattering really meant as we bounced and shuddered our way along a very beautiful drive with spectacular scenery. It may have been beautiful but it took us four hours to drive the first 50kms!
Anyway, due to this road we decided to drive back the long way which meant diving down the Hoarusib River, across the Ganias Plains and back up the Hoanib River to Sesfontein. Again this was an incredible drive taking us through steep mountain gorges and across endless plains of nothingness. The area has not had rain for 3 years and is now in a terrible drought. What are normally grass plains is now just gravel and stretches as far as the eye can see.
Eventually we reached the dry Hoanib River and within a couple of hours we had found a lone bull elephant and a small family of 2 adult cows with young calves. The habitat here depicted a far more desert environment and we felt that we could have some great photographic opportunities.
So besides wanting to spend time with the elephants in any case, we decided to wait with them until we got some intense late afternoon/early evening light.
A Magical Experience
As it got later in the day the small elephant herd climbed up the river bank and walked into the mountainous habitat that surrounds the river bed. Chris is very good at anticipating animal movement and behaviour and he felt there was a small chance they would walk around the base of the mountain and then across a magnificent desert plain.
In order to get a good view we drove around the back of the mountain and then climbed up a small koppie (small rocky outcrop) and waited. They are naturally wary of anything different so we had to wedge ourselves between the rocks and remain completely still. As we looked at the beautiful sight below us we hoped like crazy that the elephants would walk this path.
After waiting an hour and half we could not believe it when the first elephant came slowly around the corner. They stopped perhaps only 40 meters below us and continued to feed for the next hour or so completely unaware of our presence.
Once they had finished they proceeded to walk across the dramatic desert plain that we were so hoping they would do!
We could not imagine that we would have another experience to top that but just as we were driving off we spotted the lone bull as he too was about to walk up the valley gorge. The light was only getting better as Chris climbed up another koppie and spent a magical 20 minutes watching him from above.
Wow, wow, wow … I think it will take a lot to beat this truly special experience we were privileged to have with these desert elephants...
We decided to spend the last three nights of our trip in a very special place on the Kunene River which forms the natural border between Namibia and Angola. Serra Cafema is a Wilderness Safaris camp in the very north west of Namibia and even after extensive travel worldwide I have to say this is the most beautiful place on the planet! Serra Cafema is situated about 50kms from The Skeleton Coast and from a number of viewpoints you can see the duneveld as it stretches towards the coast.
I came across a beautiful piece of text written in 1963 in "The Windhoek Advertiser" that I think very aptly describes the desert here:
“It is a desert coast that stretches for some 1,000 miles, a coast of shifting sand dunes, a coast that “walks,” month by month, year by year it slowly marches into the sea, a coast of sand storms, a coast of icy cold nights and searing hot days, a coast of Skeletons- this is the coast of South West Africa (Namibia)”.
The area is very remote and sparsely populated due to its harshness and besides the camp you may only come across a handful of Himba tribesmen and women. We had always been told of how spectacular this place is but I have to admit I was not quite expecting something so remarkable.
On the drive from the airstrip to the camp we were taken down a 45 degree slope that is kind of the welcome to Serra Cafema, and it just gets better from here.
We did have some very tough sights as well. With the area being in a drought the Gemsbok (Oryx) that live here are trying to survive in extreme conditions. The only water available is the Kunene river where they must evade crocodiles and then walk the many miles over desert sand dunes and even mountain flanks back to the desert plains to try forage what little grass is left to eat. Many of them are very weak and carcasses are abundant leaving no doubt that rain is needed very soon.
This does mean however that others prosper, in particular Brown Hyenas. We were lucky enough to come across them on 2 mornings. On the second morning we got very close to 3 of them and we had a very special 30 minutes sitting very quietly with them. It’s not easy to see brown hyenas so this was yet again another special experience on our trip. Far from being aggressive these animals seemed almost gentle in their investigation of us with a very cautious approach followed by a relaxed 20 minutes or so of them watching us from no more than 10 meters or so. Without any aggressive display they then eventually moved off up an incredibly spectacular granite outcrop, almost like they were long haired undertakers walking into the sky after their nights cleaning of the earth.
The dunes that surround Serra Cafema are blonde, a slight change from their red cousins at Soussusvlei. Each day the gemsbok need to walk through the dunes on their way back from the river. We had to be extremely cautious and quiet in order to have photographic opportunities of this. The only way we could get it right was to wait in the dunes, without moving or speaking until a small herd would pass by. I actually liked the no speaking part… It was a great opportunity to experience complete silence that we never have in the cities.
But the absolute highlight of our stay was the astounding views and scenery. It is difficult to describe because you also need to feel the place and hear the silence for a true appreciation.
All I can say is that starring down across desert plains from the top of a mountain, flanked by blonde sand dunes that seem to stretch on and on before being greeted by more mountains will remain ingrained in my visual memory forever!
I commented to Chris that it does not feel like we are in Namibia, in fact it does not feel like we are anywhere because it’s not like anywhere else, it just feels like we are in Serra Cafema … and that’s a unique feeling…
And so ended a magnificent month in Namibia…