During our recent Africa Geographic visit to Namibia, we shared a rather special moment with a family of desert elephants, as they settled down for a mid-morning siesta.
We had just enjoyed an utterly amazing breakfast while perched atop an implausible kopje, surrounded by endless commanding views over the rugged Etendeka lava flows complete with freshly brewed coffee, fruit salad, warm bread, eggs, bacon, sausage… the lot. With everyone already duly impressed and satisfied, it was time to get excited about our program…finding a desert elephant.
So we continued our merry bouncy-bouncy adventure down the track towards the Huab River. It did not take long to find fresh elephant tracks (so much for sweat and slog in the unbearable heat) and our trusted guide had already formed a pretty good idea of where the herd was headed. Crossing the riverbed we gently slalomed past luxuriant Salvadora bushes gnarled false ebonies, feeding kudus, and impressive Anna trees, soon emerging at the opposite bank. A few hundred meters further and the search was over! Ambling towards us, with that beautiful, gentle swagger came an entire herd, 15 strong, of desert-adapted elephants and the show was officially ON!!
The herd had evidently spent the night feeding on a nearby grove of camelthorns that were clad in seedpods, but as the sun rose to the zenith and temperatures rose, the need for decent shade and cool sands beckoned.
Having steered clear off their path, the engine was cut and in the morning silence we watched and listened as they approached; the dragging of their feet on the ground, the sound of limbs, trunks and bellies rubbing against each other, their murmurs and rumblings as they communicated among themselves. Some walked by, determined to reach the river. Others walked wearily, and two young bulls chose to face us playfully. They flared their ears and trunk-slapped themselves silly in the face. A mother and her calf were the last ones to walk by and it seemed that the little one was on an exploratory mission, zigzagging all over the show, whilst mother followed patiently and graciously.
We followed the herd back into the river and settled once more next to a large female feeding on camelthorn pods. Being able to watch their amazing dexterity and ability to pick individual pods, rather than ripping off entire branches was mesmerising and rather moving.
By now the sands were hot, and a young bull joined us in the shade. The matriarch demonstrated how to pile fresh sand on her trunk using her feet, prior to dousing herself with it for some cooling relief. We watched in awe this nonchalant, de-facto demonstration of skills. The younger bull, however, opted for a different approach. He kicked the sands back and forth, uncovered a layer of cooler sand and gently lay down on its side, onto the cooler sands. Slowly but surely relief overcame him, and his breathing changed, just like a human baby’s breathing changes when they switch onto sleep mode, his body relaxed, slumped and became heavily, deeply asleep. A sigh and a gentle snore being the last we heard from this sleeping beauty.
Around the bush, a similar scene unfolded. Here the mother had already lain down on her side but was still kept a watchful eye on her restless yearling. He was fighting the odds, pushing boundaries, just like most children before dreaded bath time, but the heat was now relentless, reason prevailed and his time to lie for a snooze became all-encompassing. He walked up to his mother’s head, down the length of her body and disapprovingly returned to where it started, with a huff and a stomp. Dragging her trunk away from her she opened a gap in front of her, possibly sweeping off the top layer of hot sand, and without skipping a heartbeat the little pachyderm stepped into this safe haven, spun around a few times, dropped and wriggle-nestled itself into the safest place on earth, the caring hearth and safety fortress created between a desert elephant’s chest and her hugging trunk. Minutes later our baby elephant was deep in lala-land, whilst we were wiping off tears of joy, moved by the beauty, serenity and special moment these desert titans had allowed us to share with them.
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