Namibia’s Desert Elephants

Another adventure with Frikkie von Solms – off the beaten track, deep in the wilds of Namibia in search of desert elephants.  For this trip, we headed away from the coast, north east into the mountains of Namibia .  My Namibian guide book says that this area, Kunene Region,  is one of the last of the true African wildernesses and, I quote, “this isn’t a place for the casual or inexperienced visitor.” Well, Frikkie is the best, so I had no fears.


As we drove along the winding dirt roads through the mountains I saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Parts of it reminded me of other places, but this land is absolutely unique in the world.


What I loved most was the sense that the mountains went on into seemingly infinite dimensions of distance and color and the skies were wide and endlessly changing.

The more we moved into this land, the more my soul awoke and expanded into the openness.

I love this view best of all because you can see the road disappearing into the horizon …into light

We arrived at the remote lodge, Khowarib, late in the day.  The lodge is nestled at the base of this towering bluff we I took a photo of the next morning.  We were told that an old leopard lived in one of the several caves we could see in the face of this cliff. On this morning, however, we were embarking on a search for DESERT ELEPHANTS.  Frikkie headed west,  taking a narrow little road  which wound around and around up and through the mountains.  It was paved with loose, sharp rocks.  At one point, Frikkie remarked, “well, this is something like a road.”  I wrote down his irony in my battered  notebook as we drove along.  You can tell from my writing how bumpy the ride was:

We eventually came down into a wide grassy plain.  In the foreground, a herd of springbok; in the back cattle grazing.  The cattle are owned by local farmers who who do not have fenced in areas for their livestock.  We frequently saw wild antelope intermingled with domestic animals in this area.  Can you spot the one springbok looking out at us? and the one below?

As we continued  through that wide valley, Frikkie spotted vultures circling a spot in the distance on the other side of the road.  We got out to take a look, walked across the field and discovered a kill – a springbok – which had been brought down, probably by a cheetah.  It had been there for maybe 48 hours and had been feasted upon by all manner of creatures.  I once happened upon a mountain lion kill, a deer, in the mountains of northern California and I remember I felt I was entering a sacred space – a space where the sacrifice upon which all our survival hinges had taken place yet one more time.  I felt the same thing looking at this cheetah kill as I respectfully observed the delicate legs and hooves of the springbok, the shallow bowl of blood cradled by her rib cage and heart space – even her eyes taken by the birds.

Frik was heading for a section of the Hoanib River which lay behind these mountains.  Were there signs telling us where to go, telling us the names of places?  Of course not.  This is actual untamed wilderness.  The river bed became our road.

This is what it looked like behind those mountains – more rugged mountains and a river bed below these trees and grasses and reeds growing  all along the bank.

Frikkie  pointed out that the condition of these trees was a sign that elephants were somewhere in this area.  We got out of the car carefully and nibbled at our lunch snacks.  Frikkie made sure we remained upwind so that our human scent would not disturb any wildlife.

Walking around in the sandy clay of the riverbed we found ELEPHANT TRACKS!  The recent, unexpectedly heavy rains in Namibia meant that this river had water in it now. The elephants were here for the water and the vegetation.  Would we see them?

What you need to know about seeing elephants in the wild, particularly desert adapted elephants, is that although they are large and powerful, they move very quietly.  If they are among trees, you will not see them, even  though they may be quite close to you.  Then, all of a sudden, they appear.  And that is how it happened for us on this day.


These three were the first we saw – a young male, a young female, and a baby. I caught my breath with wonder at seeing them there before us.  The appearance of these three youngsters were an indication that the rest of the family was likely nearby.  We stayed with  these desert elephants for the rest of the day, observing them in their natural habitat, thrilled by how close we were, how privileged we were  to be in this wild, untamed place. 


Elephants walk with unhurried deliberation.  I remember when I stayed with the two lions, Zion and Trust, at Harnas wildlife refuge in 2012, how I would walk up and down the fence with them, following their pace, getting  the rhythm of their walking into my body, into my heart.  It was similar on this day.  I matched my heart to the elephants’ steady, thoughtful plodding.  To this moment, I still feel these elephants walking in my heart and it fills me with peace.  For the most part, they are actually silent in their movements,  so if you asked me what it sounded like, I would say, it reminds me of the deep music of the cello – the cellist,  Jami Sieber, composed an album entitled Hidden Sky which is dedicated to elephants.  She captures perfectly what the elephants sound like.

A youngster walks alongside an elder.  I love the old elephants, the wrinkles in their skin, the years of weathering written on their bodies.  The worn tusks on this one indicate much tearing down of trees for food.  Notice the patch to the right of his eye.  He has taken a dust bath, coating himself to protect his skin from the sun.Because of lack of habitat, desert elephants have learned to survive in areas without extensive grasslands.  They are able to walk up narrow mountain paths on rocky trails, stepping between large stones. They move gracefully and with an elephantine grace.


notice how this elephant’s back legs are crossed. Frik pointed out that this is a resting position. It shifts weight off one foot to give it some relief from being pressed onto the hot dry earth and from bearing the weight of that massive body.



feasting on greens with something like a smile and maybe taking a peek at us – notice the eye.

there was a strong, warm breeze all day – strong enough to lift an elephant’s ears.  Notice the veins on the back side of the ears.  I believe she’s about to give her self a trunk load of dust.


when we saw these wet elephants we decided to go look for the location of the water.  After bathing, the elephant, with his or her trunk, will fling sand and dust on themselves to protect their skin from the harsh sun.  This probably also helps account for their brown color.


Beneath the right bank of this section of the Hoanib river,  rain water made a large pool which the elephants deeply enjoyed all day long.  Notice their tracks in the foreground.
For all the five-six hours we were there, the elephants seemed to take no notice of us, but just as Frikkie was turning the car in order to head back, this little guy let out a shrill trumpeting and came charging at us! I snapped a photo not even knowing what I was aiming at.  Luckily the little one swerved aside without hitting the side of the car.  He quickly joined his mother who seemed unperturbed by the event. I imagined him saying, “Hey Mom, did you see me charge? Wasn’t I awesome? Didn’t I sound like  thunder? Bet I scared those humans.”  Were we the first humans this little guy ever saw? the first car? In any case, he is wise beyond his years to be wary of humans. 


The shadows were growing long and we had a long drive back the way we had come to get to our lodge. We estimated that we had seen at least 23 elephants in this river bed.   As I watched these magnificent beings walk away, I was filled with gratitude. Being with these elephants who have learned ways to survive and thrive in desert conditions amplified for me the sense that we share the earth with other nations – Elephants are intelligent, value their communal bonds with one another, spend years raising their young, mourn their dead. We have so much to learn from them. As with all wildlife, their futures are uncertain which makes any moment we meet them an immense gift and a poignant elegy.
As we drove along in the river bed looking for the place we had made our way down, we saw this baboon.  When I saw the photo I had taken, I thought how fitting it was that the baboon was in shadow – almost like the memory of a dream.

The wind had blown all day and a thunderstorm was gathered heavy above us on the way back to the Khowarib lodge.  The light created by the storm magnified the beauty of the landscape rendering the colors deeply vibrant and the air intense with the electricity of storm.The lowering sun sent its last beams of this day on the shadowed land.we could see the rain ahead of us….As we headed into the night  we spotted a lone zebra on the hills. Was he waiting to dance in the rain?