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Published: November 3rd 2007
WKM-10 and gemsbok in the Hoanib
The elephant had been shaking pods down from the faidherbia tree, to the obvious pleasure of passing gemsbok. Although he rumbled at them, it didn't seem to put them off taking advantage of the fallen pods and he showed no further signs of aggression.
Job spec: ability to drive and to get on with people (including the boss) essential; knowledge of relevant data collection techniques valuable; knowledge of the local elephant population helpful; love affair with Africa optional, but preferred.
Yes, having slowly made my way up the ladder of the Namibian desert-dwelling elephant project from Earthwatch volunteer last August to assistant/part-time research assistant in May, I was now promoted to the level of full-time research assistant in order to help with the sixth and final Earthwatch project of the year. Keith Leggett, my esteemed now boss (I have to say “esteemed”: he may be reading this!), does not usually take Earthwatch volunteers in October as the research area can get pretty hot, but he had agreed to do so in response to a specific request this year. And he needed a research assistant. Vast amount of arm-twisting not required in my case, as you can imagine. And so I found myself back in Namibia in late September.
The volunteers had been warned that this would be an unusual trip because its main purpose was to prepare for the collaring exercise due to take place later in the month. Because
black rhino in Etosha
This was the first time that I have seen black rhino in daylight, and was the first ever rhino sighting for Jane, one of the volunteers. We were very grateful to him!
of this, we would be visiting the three main areas where Keith’s currently-collared elephants were (we hoped) located, and meeting with assorted people to check permissions and availability for the collaring. These volunteers were therefore going to see far more of the northwest of Namibia than the usual trip involves, but would also do less actual work. And, as ever, the itinerary was subject to change, being dependant on weather, Keith’s inclinations on the day, and - as it transpired - the persuasiveness of the volunteers.
The first couple of days went essentially to plan. We spent the first night at the Okaukuejo research station in Etosha, and found ourselves in the midst of quite a party that evening as Keith invited all sorts of folks who happened to be in the area to join us for a braai, including Etosha’s director of research, a couple of genetics researchers and their gorgeous kids, and the vivacious head of a Namibian HIV/AIDS project and one of her trustees. It was great to meet/catch up with these folks, and started the trip with a bang.
The next day we drove through the off-limits-to-most-tourists western section of Etosha to look for
This guy may not look like much, but he scared Etosha's Director of Research into changing where he'd sleep that night!
an elephant’s GPS collar that didn’t appear, from recent readings, to have moved for a few months. Keith had feared that the animal, being elderly, had died, so we were relieved to find the collar without an attendant corpse: the elephant had simply rubbed and rubbed and rubbed his collar against one of the fence posts until its webbing had finally given up the struggle. Technology did us proud: the collar was within a few tens of metres of the last GPS reading, and we only needed to spend a short time in the baking early afternoon heat looking for it in the bush. Its owner was a vast animal, and the collar might have been a slightly snug fit. Would we be able to find him for the collaring operation, or would he have headed too far north towards the Angolan border?
If it was a privilege to drive through this area and to walk around a small part of it (tourists are prohibited from getting out of their vehicles in Etosha), it was even more incredible to camp here. We set up camp near some hills in the southwest of the park, close by a waterhole, to
which, we were enchanted to see, a large herd of zebra were attracted the next morning, notwithstanding our proximity. Sleeping arrangements proved a little interesting, though. Lion were in the area, both audibly, their deep rumbling roar carrying for miles across the silence of the night-time veld, and visibly, just at the periphery of a torch beam as we made our way to bed. Keith, as usual, was going to sleep on top of one of the vehicles, and the volunteers and I were directed to the safety of the top of the water tower ensuring that we camped about 15 feet off the ground, but Etosha’s director of research, originally intending to sleep on the ground between two of the vehicles, lion notwithstanding, decided to revise his plans after we found a hairy thick-tailed scorpion close by. Not lethal to humans but its sting is likely to cause a reasonable (or unreasonable) level of discomfort. How or whether to answer a middle-of-the-night call of nature, its urgency exacerbated by a chill wind from which we were unprotected on top of the tower, was a conundrum we each had to consider that night! But none of this detracted in the
Bleak and desolate.... and, at that time, worryingly elephant-free...
slightest from the experience of sleeping out. The moon was not yet rising during the hours of darkness, and the star-scape was simply incredible. Were it not for the usually-present risk of lion in the northwest of Namibia, I would happily move out of tents for good on these trips and sleep in the open.
The next day, we moved to the campsite at Hobatere Game Reserve and spent a leisurely afternoon at the Lodge watching wildlife come and go at the waterhole. Unfortunately, the Reserve’s elephant population seemed to have vanished, no longer visible at the waterhole and unresponsive to telemetry equipment. After a similar experience there in March, I was convinced that they must know the sound of Keith’s vehicles and had done a runner. It didn’t bode well for the collaring, unless the noise of the rest of the team’s vehicles would confuse them….
After a relatively peaceful night, lions again roaring in the distance but only a solifuge (a harmless, fast-moving type of arachnid, confusingly - as it isn’t a spider - also known as a red Roman spider) and the persistent buzzing of teddybear beetles to bother us round the campfire, we hit
the road north. Our destination was the Omusati area, a harsh, unforgiving landscape dominated by thornveld and dust pans. Keith needed to visit the local conservancy’s secretary and wanted to check the local waterhole for elephants. One out of two ain’t bad: the secretary was in, the elephants were out, their place around the waterhole taken by the local population of cattle.
The original intention for that evening had been to stay in the area, but, during the morning’s drive, Keith had been worked over by one of the volunteers who, with her husband, was keen to visit Angola and add another country to their existing tally of 70-80…. So we continued north. The next morning, fresh from swimming in the Kunene River the night before, we went to the Ruacana Falls and illicitly hopped over the border into Angola, just as we had done earlier in the year. It was fascinating to see this area under such different conditions. Back in March, the Falls had been at their most resplendent and our campsite only a few yards from the swollen river’s edge. Now the Falls were barely a trickle and hardly deserved their name; a swim necessitated a
hundred yards’ walk first. Still, that didn’t affect the ease with which we could fulfil Rhonda and Robert’s wish: a scramble up a rock and a hop over the last strand of the surprisingly insubstantial wire fence that forms the border, and we were in Angola. Cue photo-opportunity and the relevant rituals to add a country to their (though I maintain that you have to spend a night in a country before it qualifies; “marking” it, animal-fashion, doesn’t count!)
Rather than return the way we had come, a somewhat uneventful, long, straight stretch of tarred road, we turned west and continued on a gravel road along the Kunene to Swartbooi’s Drift before turning south towards Opuwo and Seisfontein. This route was stunning, taking us through red rock hills and lush river-side vegetation with unexpected (at least as regards that more customary of the rest of Namibia) wildlife in the form of a particularly sizeable crocodile sunbathing on an island in the river and, on the far side, vervet monkeys busying themselves with whatever vervet monkeys do in the cool hours of the morning, past the monument to the intrepid Dorsland trekkers who passed this way en route their new
lives in Angola, and through an improbable number of Tolkein-esque baobabs, the latter to the great delight of Nicola, our Zimbabwean-born volunteer, for whom these monsters were evocative of her childhood.
That night we were back on - for me - familiar territory: the fabulous expanse of the Obias plains where nothing bar the little kopjes we camp beside breaks the golden grassy vistas stretching away to the mountains on three sides. Only us and a few skitterish gemsbok under the moonless starry night. Oh, and a strong cool westerly wind which had several of us borrowing warmer clothes from the well-prepared Robert for whom Alaska is the more usual haunt, and huddling around the camp fire.
The next morning we drove the short distance downriver to our campsite just north of the Hoanib river, set up camp and prepared to do some work when the heat of the day permitted. Here the elephants were prepared to play ball, and we had an excellent four days’ travelling up and down the river in pursuit of our pachyderm subjects, encountering them sufficiently often for the volunteers to begin to learn the animals’ identifying characteristics. Amongst the animals that we
saw most frequently, we were delighted to see the area’s three targets for collaring a couple of weeks’ later: WKM-14 who due to have his collar removed (on the grounds that he was a boring animal for these purposes, moving only between the Hoarusib and Hoanib rivers, his movements dictated - wisely - by when the bigger guys weren’t around); WKM-10 who was due to receive his third collar in recognition of his standing as Africa’s furthest moving elephant on record, covering approximately 650 km a year; and WKM-20, a young bull whom Keith only sees a couple of months a year, so collaring him should reveal where he goes in the interim. In fact, WKM-10 seemed almost to be seeking us out, being the first elephant we found on this trip, and then appearing each day, twice as we were on our way back to camp for the midday break, and - finally and appropriately - in the late afternoon of our last day. I was to have the honour of re-collaring him: it was quite something to think that the next time I saw him would be seriously “up close and personal”.
However, I must confess that
Sighting Of The Trip did not go to an elephant, although, if it hadn’t been for our watching elephants, we would have missed it. Late one afternoon, as we were scrambling up a steep rocky hillside to continue our study of three bulls who were heading off across the plains, Keith spotted a leopard emerging from the bushes. Wary of the vast pachyderms heading in its direction, the leopard cautiously walked away and leapt up onto a rocky outcrop as if to recce the surroundings. For more than half an hour, we were treated to a generous display, the leopard stretching, yawning, lying down, sitting up and then slowly stalking off in the evening light in search of the evening’s dinner. This was a truly wild animal in its natural surroundings, an extremely rare sighting in an area that, predator-wise, is dominated by an expanding lion population. We were simply blown away.
As is customary, we were rewarded for our four days in the waterless Obias/Hoanib area with a trip to Ongongo, a glorious set of springs that converge into a waterfall that plummets into a plunge pool before, as a bubbling stream, continuing down the valley. It had
been a great trip, with an excellent and fascinating group of people: as the closest I’ve come to a “real job” in the last 20 months, it takes some beating!
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