Desert Elephants - moonshine

by Brent Daniel and Donna Nespoli :: and

As I look back through the photos, I'm astonished at the number of sunrise shots we've got — given that I'm rarely up before 9am under normal circumstances. But, you know, ... Desert Elephants! Notice Donna's attire: t-shirt and shorts. We had nice warm fleeces and wool hats that we left in the room, ... then spent the rest of the drive fantasizing about. The desert's cool in the morning. And the cool air especially pools in pockets in the bottom of drainages and riverbeds, the places Desert Elephants like to hang out.

Our guide, Nico, grew up here in Damaraland, shepherding sheep and goats within the vast landscape as a young boy. Can you imagine, as an eight or nine year old, having your father tell you what to do if you met a Cheetah (whack it on the ass with a stick) versus a Lion (try to stare it down) versus a Leopard (run like Hell), then send you off in the company of a couple of dozen bleating prey for the day? As all our guides did, Nico had a deep connection to and passion for the land that we were very grateful he was willing to share with us for a couple of days.

Catching a glimpse of Desert Elephants, first requires finding them. This particular morning that meant a 20km drive through a lunar landscape over to and then down the Huab River (at present just a dry river bed).

Oh, and getting stuck. And then unstuck.

We eventually passed through the tiny village of De Riet, originally settled by a small community of South Africans that had fled the apartheid regime. For the record, these folks are amazing, thriving in a landscape where most of us wouldn't last more than a day or two. They live well over a 100 km from the nearest town down questionable dirt roads, with the last 10-15 km on "roads" that aren't even remotely passable without a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance.

As the original refugees from South Africa had made their way along the Huab River one of their elders had passed away. The others arranged a hasty burial that evening, guessing in the overcast darkness at the appropriate orientation for the grave. When the sun arose, they realized the body hadn't been buried in the intended direction, an ill omen for their further travels. And so they stayed, and have until this day. And in the cemetery there's a single grave that faces a direction different than each of the others.

We caught up with some of these folks as we made our way along the Huab riverbed.

They were collecting the seed pods of a tree that was once considered a species of Acacia, but as since been reclassified ( ... and whose name I can't remember for the life of me). The pods are a favorite of both their livestock and Desert Elephants.

And we did eventually find elephants! No matter how many times I pinch myself, and admittedly how long the journey there, it's still amazing to me that you can travel to a place where these amazing creatures still simply roam the land, stripping leaves from the Acacia with their curious trunks, raising their young, standing in the moonlight. Elephants. Incredible!

Desert Elephants are currently believed to be social groupings, rather than a distinct subspecies, of the African Elephant, though often a good bit smaller than their counterparts in regions with more abundant resources. Though once more widespread, groups of Desert Elephants are currently found only in northwestern Namibia and Mali.

Amongst the group was a mother with a two-month old baby boy. Cutest. Thing. Ever. He won't be ready to eat on his own for many months, so each time they'd move to a new tree, he'd just lay down and take a nap. When mom was ready to move on she'd stick her trunk in his ears, or give him a good kick. He'd pull himself to his feet and follow her off to the next tree.

There were also a couple of kids that seemed to be thinking about making baby elephants of their own, though it wasn't quite clear she was really having any of it yet.

We watched for an hour or two until they moved off to other pastures and we began the trek back to the lodge, ourselves.

We couldn't figure out how to get him in a suitcase for the trip home. Totally would've brought him...