Namibia

Searching for the elusive desert-dwelling elephant: a desert safari in Damaraland, Namibia

Namibia’s remote Damaraland is home to the desert dwelling elephant. The herds of the world’s largest land mammals that live here in the Namib desert, have adapted to life in this harsh environment. Looking for practical information on desert elephant tracking? Click here to jump to my tips & tricks for booking a desert elephant safari

The bumpy ride still ahead of us has us worried if we will make it to the campground in time before darkness falls. At the same time, we enjoy driving on this deserted gravel road without any signs of civilization. The barren landscape we were driving through this morning has made way for green hills. The setting sun spreads a golden light over the canopy. Hakuna Matata blasts from the speakers of our tented 4×4. It is a perfect African road trip.

“Stop, I see a giraffe!” “What?” I turn my head around and look at my husband, who’s sitting on the back seat of the car. “Are you serious?” I ask in disbelief. He is. And so my sister, who’s driving, turns the car around and we slowly drive back in the direction we came from. I turn off the music and our excitement has us falling completely silent.

Just a few metres from the side of the road, a tall and slender animal observes our car. We look back in awe. The beautifully patterned skin of the giraffe radiates in the soft sunlight. We get out of the car as quietly as we can to take a better look and it is only after some minutes that we see a second, third and even fourth giraffe enjoying their meal of acacia tree branches and leaves on the other side of the road.

We know that we have to get going, but simply cannot tear away our eyes from this imposing animal and do not want this unexpected encounter to end.

Gracefully, the giraffe we initially spotted crosses the road to join the others. Its length becomes even more clear against the horizon. When he has reached the other side, we reluctantly get back into our car. We have to leave if we want to reach the campsite before nightfall.

An unexpected encounter: a giraffe crossing the road

Just some hundred metres further down the road however, African wildlife calls us to a halt again. On the still sunlit flank of a mountain we spot a solemn desert elephant. The bull slowly roams the hill, its big body disappearing and reappearing from the trees. Its skin appears to be brown rather than grey and we are not certain if this is because of the sunlight or the dust, or simply because we are looking at a rare desert elephant who has adapted to life in the red dirt of the dry land.

We hope to find out tomorrow, when we will start our guided desert elephant safari near Palmwag. But first we have to get there.

The skies turn yellow and orange as if the horizon is on fire. As soon as its centre piece is no longer visible from the earth, soft pink and blue pastel colours paint the sky. Just before dark we arrive at the campsite.

Making our way to the campsite while the sun sets behind us

We watch the flames come up from the crackling wood as we prepare our braai (BBQ) and enjoy our meal under the night skies. We even get to refresh ourselves under a ceiling full of stars in the open air shower of our campsite before we lean back in our chairs to give the universe our full attention.

All good things today make time run faster than we realize and so when I tear away my gaze from the skies and check my watch we are surprised to find it is already midnight. We climb the ladder to our roof tent for another night of camping on top of the car. Better be in time for more elephant (and perhaps even giraffe?) encounters tomorrow.

Camping under the stars

It’s early morning and the hunt is on. We are ready to start shooting elephants. On film obviously.

We have swapped our 4×4 rental car for a 4×4 open tour bus for the day to track elephants with a guide. We cross the campsite to explore the surrounding nature and as the dirt road becomes smaller, we have to dodge the prickly branches of acacia trees that swing into the sides of the car as we pass them. We are lifted from our chairs by the bumps and dips in the dirt road and the rambling sound of the jeep makes me wonder if we are not scaring away the elephants. Some ten minutes into our drive, a crackling sound comes from the board radio. Would someone have spotted the elephants already?

Warning sign for elephants crossing the road

Our guide informs us that the elephants have been at the waterhole in one of the nearby villages last night. And so we backtrack the road and leave the campsite in the other direction.

We have never been so excited to see fresh kaka (faeces). Excited, but not crazy enough to accept the guide’s invitation to have a taste of the moist dunk. He himself however holds up the big brown ball, puts his finger in it and licks it off. Gross!

Luckily, our attention is quickly focused on another big thing. Round circles of around 20 cm in diameter are imprinted in the dry, red sand. We follow the footprints of a herd of elephants, hoping it will lead us to them. We are lucky to find a lead like this, as unlike the common African elephant that lives in Etosha and Kruger, the dwelling desert elephant only drinks once every three days. Let’s hope we can catch a glimpse of them now they have quenched their thirst and are on the move again.

The guide drives on with considerable speed and we are launched from our chairs to considerable heights. We continue dodging branches which makes the ride adventurous but also rather uncomfortable. But obviously, this is exactly the way we want our guide to drive. Anything to see those giants.

And there they are… moving at even higher speed than we are. A group of around fifteen elephants is crossing the valley towards the mountain in front of us. I am surprised by their speedy movement. Are they on the run?

We take some photos and then hop back into the jeep to hopefully see them coming down the hill on the other side of the mountain. Bouncing along the road, we excitedly scan the bush for a glimpse of one of the elephants.

Suddenly they appear in our sight just some twenty metres away from us. Our guide zigzags through the foliage to keep up with them. The elephants reduce their speed to a leisurely walking pace as soon as they have crossed the hill. We come to a halt in the valley to watch them on from a distance. They calmly flap their ears to cool themselves and the group splits up. Our guide explains the elephants are now at ease because they feel safe on this side of the mountain. Even with the little calf in the group that’s walking as close as possible to his mom, moving in and out of the space beneath her feet.

Desert elephants

The elephants use their trunks to throw dust over themselves to keep their enormous bodies cool in the heat of the sun. And with that, we have the answer to the question we asked ourselves yesterday: their brownish colour is not the colour of their skin but the colour of the sand that they cover themselves with.

In awe, we watch the giants and cannot help but wish to be a bit closer. It is a good thing though that we leave the groups alone. It just makes it crystal clear that we have to invest in binoculars as I now have to use my zoom lens to see just how cute the little ‘ollie’ is from hundred metres away.

When both groups of elephants start to move to the far side of the mountain, the show is over for us. Back at the campsite we swap the bumpy seat in the jeep for a comfortable sun chair at the swimming pool, built into the rocks just like all other campsite facilities that blend in well with the natural surroundings.

We conclude the easy afternoon and evening with some star gazing from our own campsite and continue doing so from under our private open – air shower.

How to arrange a desert elephant safari in Namibia

How can I book a desert elephant tour?

When you visit the rock carvings in Twyfelfontein, you will most probably receive offers from locals that are willing to arrange a tour for you on the spot. We however decided to join the tour organized by Grootberg Lodge (the more affordable Hoada campsite we stayed at some 20 km further north is also owned by Grootberg Lodge) to have plenty of time and thus increase our chances of a sighting.

You can book the tour in advance through their website or sign up upon your arrival. Elephant tracking comes at a cost though, we paid the equivalent of $100 per person for the activity. (Does include a very nice lunch :))

What is the difference between an African elephant and a desert elephant?

The desert elephant is actually the same in terms of physical appearance as its relatives living in more habitable areas. Historically, there has been much speculation about whether or not the desert elephants were a separate species or at least subspecies, but scientists now agree that that’s not the case. Desert elephants do however differ in behaviour. ‘Regular’ African elephants quench their thirst on a daily basis, while the desert dwelling elephant has adapted to the dry lands where water is scarce and can do without water for a couple of days. Since the elephants are aware of the limited supply of trees as well, the destruction of trees commonly seen in elephant inhabited areas is very little in Damaraland.

Is a sighting guaranteed on a desert elephant tour?

Unfortunately, no. The manager of the campsite we stayed at was not lucky enough to see any of the elephants when she joined the elephant tracking tour. The elephants are wild and free to roam wherever they want. Chances to see them increase when they have payed a nightly (very unwelcome) visit to a village to drain the local water tank. Locals will then inform the guides about the direction in which the elephants were travelling the last time they crossed their lands.

How do I get to Damaraland?

Damaraland is only accessible by car so you have to rent a car, but really you would not want to explore the region any other way. You can drive from Windhoek or Walvis Bay/Swakopmund and the latter route is especially beautiful. We arrived in Palmwag after a long but lovely day driving from the red rock formations of Spitzkoppe, via the rock carvings in Twyfelfontein to Hoada Campsite.

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