Posted on Thursday, 11 December 2014
Truly wild adventures are particularly difficult to have nowadays but spending time looking for desert wildlife in Kaokaland in North West Namibia is just that. This area is not a National Park, but rather a conservancy area where wildlife roams free.
We chose to camp for a number of days in the Hoanib Riverbed with our main goal of seeing a desert elephant. We know how difficult it is to see a desert lion so this definitely was not an expectation we set ourselves. A tiny population of around 120 to 150 elephants live in this large desert area and inhabit a number of dry river bed systems. They feed on numerous vegetation options that are able to grow by tapping into the water table below. Mountain springs as well as a very limited number of man-made & maintained waterholes provide enough drinking water to sustain these elephants. It is interesting to note that these particular elephants have been observed to go as much as five days without water, so they do also have special adaptions for living here.
An even smaller population of desert dwelling lions are also found here. These highly adapted lions have huge home ranges. The famous Terrace Male used to travel from Namibia to Angola (even crossing the Kunene River) with his home range being approximately 122,000km2. Sadly, conflict inevitably occurs and this lion was shot earlier this year when he was close to a village settlement. This is a huge loss to the lion population in this area as he was one of only two adult males in this area at the time. In these conservancies it is a constant battle for local villages and the wildlife to peacefully co-exist. But, there are a number of people in these communities who are fighting for the wildlife and it continues to be important to visit these areas so that a value is placed on the wildlife. As sad as I am to have to write these words, if it pays, its stays…
The Hoanib River is flanked on either side by rugged mountain, the strata layers and jagged peaks with massive sand dunes at the base providing dramatic and picturesque backdrops for the desert dwelling elephants. There are said to be just seventeen “permanent residents” in the Hoanib made up by two matriarchal herds (of six and eight members each) and three bulls. Other elephants do from time to time move into the area if conditions are favourable, but seventeen elephants in a 70km long river bed does not guarantee you will find them easily.
We headed west after leaving Etosha National park and although The Hoanib is only 100km as the crow flies we were reliant on the way the road took us and we arrived just over six hours later. The scenery as we crested The Grootberg Mountain Pass and drove into Damaraland was magnificent. It was extremely dry with not a blade of grass but I always find beauty in the extreme, harsh desert environment with all the red, brown and tan colours amalgamating together.
As we left Sesfontein and approached the Hoanib we were quickly reminded why so few elephants live here and why so few people visit here. The conditions are not for the faint hearted. The temperature was 44C and the hot wind was howling with dust and fine river sand being kicked up and blown into every part of the car, and ourselves, unimaginable. My clean hair began to resemble straw much too soon for my liking! We have also heard of the exact opposite conditions when the dense Atlantic fog rolls in creating freezing temperatures and not being able to see more than 50 meters in front of you. I am not sure what the more desired climatic condition is!
There are no campsites here and after checking in with the conservation office in Sesfontein before entering the Hoanib you are able to camp anywhere in the area. There are no facilities so you need to be completely self-sufficient by carrying all your fuel, water and food supplies for your stay. There might not be any facilities but it is one of the best experiences you can have camping in the absolute wild, very far from civilisation and in the company of Springbok, Gemsbok, Giraffe, Elephant and some special desert lions. You certainly can’t get closer to nature than this and the night sky puts on an incredibly spectacular show for those with a spirit for adventure and solitude.
40 kilometres down the river bed we came across the herd of six elephants. The sun was already starting to slip towards dusk so we decided to set up camp and be ready for them in the early morning. The great thing about being able to camp anywhere meant we could stay close to the last sighting and this would give us a good chance of finding them early the following morning.
This is exactly what happened at day break the following day. After finding them at dawn we were able to climb up to a high peak which would give us a bird’s eye view of the herd as they browsed and ambled around down beneath us.
The view was spectacular as we watched the herd of six majestically strode down the riverbed with the first of the morning rays of sun illuminating their slow passage. We were both very conscious of trying to take in the splendid vistas that surrounded us and stretched way into the Namibian wilderness.
After spending a couple of hours with this herd we decided to press on in an easterly direction. Just a few kilometres down the river bed we came across the herd of eight, and they were on a collision course with the herd of six!
We tried to judge where they would meet and quickly scrambled up another small peak hoping the elevation would be a good vantage point for when the two herds would come together, as well as trying to disturb them as little as possible.
As one would expect with such a tiny population these two herds seem to know each other well. I don’t know how often their paths cross but the meeting was a joyous one. The two herds came together to form one group with the juveniles being the most excited. Two different pairs wrapped their trunks around one another and spent many minutes smelling and touching each other. It was an absolutely heart-warming moment to witness.
After the niceties were exchanged both groups of juveniles began to play fight by pushing each other around and making a huge amount of noise. While this was happening the two matriarchs paired off together and seemed to hold a private conference together. It was very interesting and I wonder what information was exchanged between them… I guess this is how the bush telegraph works!
The Incredible Hulk
The two herds spent the entire rest of the day together with a bull hanging around on the outskirts.
The adult females didn’t seem too excited to have him in the vicinity and would often show their annoyance by shaking their heads and ears at him.
There was one female in particular that he was enamoured with. She had obviously gone in oestrous and the attraction to her was too much for him to bear, he was never far behind despite her not so subtle hints to leave her alone. It was plain to see that he was becoming increasingly frustrated and we both felt pretty sorry for him. It meant that he finally had to resort to extraordinary tactics and by rifling around in a dense bush of vegetation he came up with what surely would be a game winner for him.
He had come across a dead Mopane tree and proceeded with the most impressive stunt. Mopane wood is very dense and thus very heavy but with seemingly no effort at all he grappled it between his tusks and lifted it above his head in order to lift up the whole tree and drape it across his back.
We could not believe the feat we were witnessing and I mentioned to Chris that I would definitely be interested if I was that female elephant! But, she showed him no interest at all even though the poor guy performed the task another two times. I guess she was playing hard to get… Not only was it an incredibly impressive sight to see, it was also extremely interesting to observe the obvious frustration the bull was feeling.
The following day we stopped at the dead tree that now lay in the middle of the river bed and by trying to move it, and trying to slightly lift it, we estimated the weight to be around 300-400 kilograms.
We were privileged to see both the matriarchal herds and two of the bulls over the next two days as they moved east down the river bed. One of the memories that will stay with me was the endearing sight of elephants sleeping on the ground. Only a few do it at a time as the rest of the herd remains aware of what’s happening around them, but it is quite something to see, and not something I have seen often. They are such huge animals and yet they seem so vulnerable as they lie sleeping like that.
We were delighted at the amount of time we got to spend with the elephants and could have gone back home being completely satisfied but when you give yourself the opportunity to see wild things, you never know what can happen!
When we left the “incredible hulk” bull elephant sunset was fast approaching but we thought to check the waterhole one last time for the day. As we approached up the steep embankment we were greeted with the most glorious sight; five young male lions drinking in the beautiful late afternoon light, with desert dunes and a desolate valley the backdrop… We couldn’t believe it, true desert lions!
Desert lions are different to any other lions we have come across. Due to the constant conflict with people they are extremely sensitive and do not do well with any disturbance. Unfortunately our approaching 4x4 did slightly disturb them even though they had already had a good drink. It signalled them to walk off and even though we desperately tried to get into a spot to photograph them as they marched across the desert plain (in beautiful light) we just couldn’t make it. We had to be satisfied with less than perfect images but the sight in front of us was something I will never forget. What a truly stunning sight and privilege to see.
The fate of these five males, known as The Five Musketeers, is vital to the desert lion population. There are so few adult males left and they need to reach maturity to be able to sire new cubs and keep the population strong.
Their journey to adulthood is currently being documented by an extremely dedicated and passionate couple. We were fortunate to meet Will and Lianne Steenkamp who have spent the last 18 months in conjunction with The Desert Lion Conservation, filming The Five Musketeers and their pride.
The documentary is called “Vanishing Kings, Namibia’s desert lions” and will be aired in July 2015.
Will and Lianne showed us some of their footage. It was so beautiful it actually left a lump in my throat… This is definitely a true blue chip natural history show that you need to look out for.
The home range of the lionesses is 22,000km2 and these youngsters are currently at 18,000km2. It can apparently be many weeks that this pride is away from the Hoanib Riverbed, and when they are here it is generally only for a few days at a time. So, we were very lucky to have timed our visit here with their presence. They had made a giraffe kill which kept them in the area and we were able to see them again the following morning and evening.
Both sightings were fantastic and afforded a few images depicting desert lions in their environment but quite honestly just having the chance to see the lions was a highlight that we never imagined would happen.
Our last sighting was especially magnificent as the five kings of the desert slowly walked past our car, crossing the desert valley, with the sky tinged a soft pink signalling the end of the day, and the end of our stay in the desert…
And PS… Did I mention the desert leopard we sighted on the way out?! :)