Elephant Spotting in Damaraland

We were promised elephant sightings during our daybreak game drive in Namibia’s Damaraland. I found it hard to believe that someone could ensure locating an elephant during a five-hour window in a massive, rocky African terrain, but I’m so lured by the idea of watching elephants in the wild going about their regular elephant-schedule that I set my alarm for 5:15am for a drive through the wilderness, hoping to spot a gray, wrinkly friend. 

Damaraland is rugged. The entire region is painted in shades of terracotta. It’s the color of the sand. Of the boulders that lie broken across the terrain. Even many of the animals that inhabit the region, like the springbok, kudu and chubby-ground-hog-esque hyrax blend into the surroundings. Located in the north-west of Namibia, the area gets its name from its people, the Damara language group, begetting the romantic title of Damaraland (though “damara” is a name used more for tourism than daily use)

Driving into the region we had our eyes peeled for elephants. Between my husband Carl and I, there are four eyes in the car and all of them are on the lookout for wildlife. We spot a gemsbok hiding from the sun under a tree and some springbok prancing about at sundown, but otherwise the land is still. The elephant inhabiting the region is the Desert Elephant. They’re smaller than other African bush elephants and located only in Namibia and Mali. Sightings are described as “occasional” and looking out over the craggly landscape I wonder if I’d even be able to spot one roaming in the distance, with their dry skin blending into the dry country. 

Our stay for the night is Mowani Mountain Camp, which has since become one of my most favorite stays of anywhere, ever. Our private hut is incredibly Flintstones-esque. It’s built atop a hill of boulders, with a domed thatched roof, massive porch, and windows that look out onto the land below. In the open air main lobby red ombre lizards duck under couches. The dining room is lit by torches at night and tables have a view of the stars. 

My favorite feature of all is the sundowner spot. Guests wind past the pool grotto, wedge into crevices between rock walls, tread upwards then are spit onto a flat-topped rock. It’s dotted with pillows and chairs and has a view of the sun tucking below the horizon. My husband and I sit on pillows, lean back onto a gnarled log backboard and within minutes our drink order is taken and cold beers are placed in our hands. 

Ahhhh’s are heard in every direction — When someone takes a sip of their mojito they let out a satiated ahhh. As someone plunks down into a chair they emit an ahhh of comfort.  When the sun falls below the mountains and the skyline turns plum all guests let out a communal ahhh in appreciation. 

Beers finished, we maneuver back through the rocks and into the dining room for dinner. A twenty-something man tells us what’s on the menu for our four course dinner — smoked salmon, feta and sesami crostinis, choice of kudu or chicken entree, and a citrus meringue. He tells us his name as we order wine, Ńoblé, pronounced with click consonants of the damara language (a language known as Khoekhoe in Africa) and challenges us to say his name back. We fail miserably in our first attempt, but never give up trying. He laughs at our attempts and shakes his head, as if to say this is the 1000th night in a row others have failed at this very task. 

Half-way through dinner Ńoblé asks where we’re from and we respond with the answer we give whenever abroad: “from Pittsburgh, close to New York”. Every now and then we run into someone familiar with the Steel City, but mostly it’s easier to give coordinates based off of New York, just as we used California as a north star when we lived in Seattle. From an international perspective, the rest of the country outside of New York and California is Texas. 

His eyes light up at the mention of New York and he says that out of anywhere in the world, he wants to go to Brooklyn most. He’s even saving to move there. He’s young and beautiful and confident and we tell him they’d love him in Brooklyn. Because they really, truly would. 

As we’re scooping up our last bites of meringue a Mowani team member stops by our table to ask if we’d like to join in on a morning game drive to spot elephants. Our curiosity is piqued, and this is when I ask how likely we are to see them — Oh you’ll see them, he responds. Game on. Sign us up. He said to meet him outside at 6am and I immediately set an alarm.

Back at our hut we sit outside and listen to the quiet. The air is warm, the stars are out and there are none of the usual sounds we’ve become accustomed to falling asleep with, like train cars in the distance or footsteps on the sidewalk, there’s not even a cricket.

Breakfast is laid out in the dining room before the sun rises. Yogurt, muesli, warm bread, jam and fresh fruit are shrouded beneath beaded mosquito nets. I munch on marmalade toast and shiver in my windbreaker. While the days may be scorching, the nights are chilly. Jacket and hat required. 

Carl clears out his last scoops of yogurt coated pineapple and we skip from the dining room to the entrance where the safari van is parked. The driver waves us towards the vehicle where a thirty-something couple and pair of retirees are seated. Each couple has their own row to themselves, but are spread on either side to make for the best view. Cuddling up for warmth in the African sunrise may be romantic, but the people are here for the elephants, dammit. 

The game drive should take roughly five hours, with us returning around 11am just as temperature tips from warm to uncomfortable. I expect we’ll see our first elephant somewhere around hour three, but within 45 minutes  we pull upon a party-of-six munching down leaves in the morning sun — Four adults and two calves. The best thing about baby elephants is that much like human children, they’re really bad at everything. I stifle a giggle when a calf attempts to push greenery into its mouth, misses its face altogether, and punches a nearby branch with their tiny trunk. I love them so much.

I was not expecting them to be so quiet. I’d always pictured elephants roaring about — That upon every step they’d bellow out, trunk vibrating. I expected them to be highly animated and aggravated, but these Desert Elephants are so hushed that even as a calf shoves a wad of leaves into its eye it lets out nary a whimper. 

A van from the nearby Camp Kipwe lodge pulls up nearby. I assume that drivers must let each other into herd movements in order for each camp to back up its “elephant-guarantee”. 

Altogether we watch the herd for thirtyish minutes, and I’m surprised when we drive away from our wrinkly buddies. This is the big show after all, but our driver plows towards our second location, a hillside with an amazing view of the surrounding terrain. As we bounce along I feel like I’m on a ride at Universal Studios. This van can defy gravity. When we venture into dry creek beds the car angles downward like a roller coaster car about to careen down a hill. When traversing over large rocks we jutt sideways and I hold onto the handrail on the seat in front of me to stabilize myself. 

Initially I’m concerned the van will roll over (just as I’m initially concerned the mood of the elephants will change and one will go rogue and charge at us), but soon enough I realize these fears are unfounded. The driver has done this hundreds of times and these elephants are wholly uninterested in the khaki colored cars we park about. 

During a coffee break our driver opens up aluminum containers filled with cheese scones and chocolate muffins while telling us about the geography of the area. We learn that the last time the region saw enough rain to fully wet the land was over four years ago and that a lion has been wandering about lately, killing livestock in the night. I can ease my anxieties on charging elephants, but lions, lions I have an irrational fear of in Africa, just as I have an irrational bear fear on any hike I go on in the United States. 

Together we’re all only able to eat half of the snacks provided, and we pack them and ourselves back into the van for more elephant spotting. After a short drive we enter a small village where five elephants are drinking from the local water supply — Their tusks diving in and out of a clay basin in fluid strokes. Four elephants hunch together, while one stands off on its own. It has the most euphoric grin on its face and I’m completely transfixed. Though the quartet of elephants has a calf in it, all I want to do is spend the afternoon with this elephant who seems to grasp the concept of carpe diem within its tusks, fully enjoying each drop of water that lands on its pink tongue. 

Soon the elephants wander back into the bush, tufted tails swinging as they stomp away. It’s just shy of 10:30am and it’s time to head back to camp for a lazy afternoon, but the driver makes a pit stop in town. I’m unsure where we’ve stopped, but within moments several children emerge, excited, from the one-room schoolhouse we’ve parked in front of. I’d gauge the kids at three to six years of age. Some jump up and down waving, others watch us with big brown eyes and shy smiles. Their teacher emerges with them who is met by our driver, the two of them have identical snack containers in hand. They chat together a moment, exchange canisters, then he climbs back aboard. 

In the meantime, the Camp Kipwe van has parked just alongside us and their driver is hopping out to make the same stop. As we pull out I catch eyes with a bashful toddler, one hand cupping his head that’s cocked sideways, the other hand busily wringing at his navy tee-shirt. 

With the day’s main activity complete before noon, the afternoon is filled with naps, books and pool time. My husband and I go on a pre-sundowner nature walk which has no shortage of springbok sightings. The sky darkens in the distance and moments later we’re hit with raindrops. 

Big, fat raindrops that burst off the skin and thud onto the ground. In this parched landscape these drops feel like a celebration. It didn’t rain long enough to wet the earth, but above us hangs a rainbow.

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