Before I left Namibia in early April, Keith Leggett, of desert-dwelling elephant research project fame, had asked if I’d be interested in coming back to work on his project in May when he and his new research assistant, Juliane Schaub, would be taking the year’s first Earthwatch volunteers into Kaokoland. I didn’t need asking twice! My role was primarily to help Juliane with the volunteers setting up and running the camp, and with local geography, as I’d been in the area a little more than she had at that point. I guess you could say I was to be the general dogsbody, but I was a very, very willing one, jumping at the excuse to go back to Kaokoland, particularly as Keith and I had not managed to get there in March, thanks to the late rains.
As it happened, with Keith’s approval, I expanded my role into something a little more tangible: updating my existing identification notes - both for my own benefit and others’ - and preparing a first cut of guidelines for identifying vegetation in the research area. These guidelines are to serve a dual purpose: to provide information to future volunteers about the flora around
view across to the Himba village from the first lookout
This plain was covered in grasses last year - admittedly dry, golden grasses, but enough to provide food for the visiting herds of cattle. This year: no grass, no cattle.
them, and to help in identifying what elephants are feeding upon when this is required for the behaviour studies. (For anyone who knows me at all well, it may be of some amusement that I should create such a project for myself, plants/flowers/”weeds” not being one of my strong points!) Yes, in IT-speak, I had two “deliverables” to prepare at the end of the project, and it was oddly gratifying to be poring over textbooks and a laptop to put all this together last week. Keeps the brain and the IT skills ticking over, anyway!
We had a remarkably good group of volunteers this month, each of whom was interesting in their own, very different ways, and all of whom gelled together and with the three of us to an unexpected and very welcome extent. Briefly, there was Lawrence, an English hydro-geologist who has spent a number of years working in sub-Saharan Africa and is looking for an excuse to do so again (most pertinently so far as I was concerned, he’s spent three years in Malawi in the late 1980s); Patrick, nicknamed, initially, my “doppelganger” - he’s an Edinburgh- and Trinity, Cambridge-educated ex-historian, now IT lawyer (and yes,
evidence of the one recent rainstorm in the area
The blush of green here was in stark contrast to the barren wastes of the rest of the landscape: clearly a rainstorm had blown through this small area very quickly.
we discovered that we had several acquaintances in common… serious small-world stuff!) - although our paths have diverged in that he’s been inhouse for a while and is in the process of moving back to Edinburgh whereas I’m, well, doing other things…; Mary, a member of Earthwatch’s Boston staff, who has spent time on thirty projects in the last 4-5 years and has responsibility for Earthwatch’s Africa-based and diving-related projects; Sandra, a nurse and former dairymaid from Switzerland, who is absolutely delightful… and very patient, as she needed to be when teaching me German - at my request - on our longer journeys (still, she will have had her revenge: I gather my accent is now somewhat Swiss-German to the amusement of a couple of German and Austrian friends in Windhoek!); and Kristin, a quiet but charming East Coast American, now living in San Diego, who, despite her tender years (30) has been on five other Earthwatch projects and has the enviable job of working for a bookstore.
Unfortunately, the elephants weren’t quite so co-operative. During our four days in the Hoarusib, we had to work hard to locate them, Keith interpreting spoor and the rest of us scanning
the ground and the surroundings for telltale movement of branches and grey shadows. Although we found one herd there, together with our favourite bull, WKM-10, they moved up and down river a surprising amount over our time there, clearly unsettled, probably because the bull was still in musth and in quiet, but persistent, pursuit of the two adult females. I was disappointed to see nothing of WKF-12’s or -18’s groups, the source of some interesting behaviour in October, including “Nancy”, the subadult male who was still suckling his mother (and whose mother was more remarkably still allowing him to suckle), and the shilpit wee calf that genetics have since confirmed to be the offspring of the dead WKF-17, who was struggling to suckle his grandmother, WKF-18, and who is almost certainly now dead.
In the Hoanib, we went two days without seeing elephant. Even the spoor seemed limited and at least a day or two old, and Keith feared that the big herd here might have chosen this time to move north, back to the Hoarusib. However, our third morning was rewarded big time. We first caught sight of the extended herd - a loose association between four adult
females, two of whom, with their respective offspring, seem to keep their distance from the other two, but nevertheless still move in conjunction with them - a little upriver from where we were camped, and we could then follow them slowly downriver over the course of the morning. At one point, we parked the vehicles just off the main riverbed, and quickly scrambled up a scree-covered hillside. No sooner had we sat down and begun to recover our breath than the matriarch of the extended herd, WKF-14, and her oldest daughter, WKF-15, rounded the corner below us with their four offspring, followed not long after by another cow and her near-fully grown daughter. It was a moment to savour, WKF-14, possibly catching our smell or the smell of the vehicles, rumbling a low warning to the rest of her family, and the eight elephant walking slowly by, perhaps fifty feet away from us. The fourth female, with her two offspring, was intermittently visible on the other side of the river. THIS is what studying elephants is all about: you may get longer sightings, but very few better sightings, than this.
That afternoon, we couldn’t escape them! Sod’s law: when
you DON’T want to see elephants, they’re out in full force. We had to get to the Mudurib waterhole to replenish our water stocks, and to take a self-indulgent splash under the standpipe. The temperature was still hitting 40 degrees in the middle of the day, and it rarely dropped below 28 degrees by the time we headed for our respective tents in the evening. Overtaking a group of elephants who are on the move is not easy, particularly when we were a mini-convoy of two vehicles! We also had to make sure that, when we eventually did get to the waterhole, we were exceptionally speedy, so as to ensure that, if we did run into the elephants on our way back to camp, we could at least see them; dusk was falling early now. Yes, there’s no pleasing some people!
The landscape was looking very different. Unlike much of the rest of Namibia, Kaokoland had had no rain this year. The dry, golden grass-covered plains of last year’s Hoarusib were transformed into barren expanses where it seemed as if an infinite number of miracles would be required to generate any kind of growth. But just upriver we could
see a small blush of green: one rainstorm must have swiftly traversed the valley, its exact extent clearly mapped in the scattered new growth. However, it was not enough to tempt back the livestock: the river was mercifully completely free of the cattle and goats that had been so numerous here last year, though the odd donkey was still around to have a half-hearted run-in with the elephants.
The weather had also done for one of our old campsites. The gorgeous source of shade in the Hoanib river was no more: shattered by winds and possibly lightning, the tree was now too dangerous for us to camp nearby. Instead, we camped up one of the Hoanib’s tributaries, the Obias. Here there is an ancient acacia providing a little comfort from the sun, but our main source of shade from the early afternoon onwards is provided by the nearby cliff-face. This huge red/pink rock had Patrick-the-mountaineer yearning for his ropes and crampons, but he and others had to be satisfied with short hikes around the valley and its mountains in the afternoon heat.
True to custom, our four days in the no-water/no-facilities environs of the Hoanib was rewarded on
the way home by an overnight stop at Ongongo. Here several springs emerge close together and form a pretty waterfall which drops into a crystal-clear oasis. Jumping in fully clothed is a reasonable option - your clothes will be in as much need of water as the rest of you - but this time I was better prepared and had wriggled into my swimsuit - everso discretely! - on our way there. As usual, there was wildlife to entertain us: Keith found a couple of the resident terrapins to introduce to the punters (you could practically see the think bubble above their heads, “Not YOU again!”); Juliane delicately waded in, camera held high above her head, to try and photograph the local bats; and I was enchanted to meet an inquisitive skink that came over to nibble my bracelet and then my fingers.
All too soon we were back in Outjo, the cool half-hearted rains on the road back that final morning a stark contrast to the hot gale-force easterly winds and accompanying sandstorms of the previous day. In the space of 48 hours, the hot seasons were over, replaced at last by Namibia’s cold dry season.
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