Thursday, November 27, 2008

Elephant encounters (Nov. 24, 2008 - Twyfelfontein, Namibia)

Today was a day we will never forget. It started with Raymond mentioning at breakfast that we should be on the lookout for elephants as we drove, as they are frequently seen in this part of Namibia. We had no idea what was in store for us.

We pulled out of our bungalows in Swakopmund in the morning, disgruntled with the rain that had moved in and ready to get back to the desert. We drove north along the coast for a while, with a whole lot of nothing on both sides of the road except the occasional shipwreck on the beach... a common sight around here thanks to the dense fog that often blankets the coast. Eventually, we turned east and traveled inland, reaching the end of the clouds and the start of the hot sunshine again. We made a quick pitstop in the town of Uis, which was once home to an operating tin mine. Our eyes were peeled for wildlife, but all we saw were the usual springbok and ostriches. The road became rough and bumpy, and the topography became rocky hills with flat treed plains between them. The occasional tiny stick shack was spotted on the side of the road, which we were told was home to the native Herero people, who still live a traditional life out here in the middle of nowhere. Raymond pulled the truck over at one of them, where a woman with two children and a baby stood by the road in their traditional outfits, with a small shack set up behind them selling home made crafts. Their clothing dates back to the Victorian era - big poufy dresses made of colourful fabric with matching strange hats that have what almost looks like horns sticking out from the front. I bought a small stuffed leather elephant that the lady had made, which I thought would make a cute Christmas ornament. (Later, I realized how appropriate the elephant theme was...) Ken took a picture of her family with me in it, and just as he was getting ready to shoot, she shoved her baby into my arms. Alrighty then! So I held this sweet little baby with a cute little loin cloth over his soft black baby bum. I have mixed feelings about tourists interacting in this way with such traditional cultures, but I suppose they are being resourceful by making themselves accessible to tour groups that drive past, so I guess everyone is happy.

We pulled over for lunch at a wide spot in the road, and Raymond showed us elephant tracks in the dry riverbed nearby. They were huge! The biggest ones were about 12 to 18 inches across, and there were baby ones too, about 5 or 6 inches across. It was so exciting to see evidence of wild elephants! (Again, if only we knew what was coming...) He also showed us elephant dung, which, as expected, is enormous. Each plop in the pile was about the size of a big coconut, and the pile was about 10 coconuts in size. Holy crap! Interestingly, it was easy to tell that their digestive systems really don't work well, because most of the dung was composed of intact stalks of grass.

We pulled into our camp site a few minutes later, which turned out to be right on the bank of the same dry river as our lunch stop. We set up camp quickly and then drove to the site of the Twyfelfontein rock engravings. The hills here are a series of sedimentary rocks, topped with sandstone, that are flat topped and steep sided. Approximately 5000 to 6000 years ago, the San Bushmen used pieces of quartz to carve out images of animals on the sandstone surfaces, both high up on the cliff face and on the many pieces of sandstone that had broken off and tumbled to the ground. Anthropologists hypothesize that the purpose of the carvings were both functional (i.e. a map of nearby watering holes) and educational (to teach children about animals). Most of the carvings we saw were in excellent condition. Images included elephants, giraffes, lions, antelope, rhinos, hippos, penguins, flamingos, seals, and various animal and human footprints. It was pretty interesting to see early artwork that was created back in about the same era as the ancient Egyptians.

When we got back to camp, Raymond took a bunch of us on a walk up the riverbed in search of elephants that were reportedly nearby. There were tracks everywhere, of all sizes, and so we followed them. Raymond kept checking the dung piles for freshness, but all of them seemed to be old. The elephants tend to walk on the dry riverbed for the easier walking, so we followed it with high hopes. After about an hour of walking, we decided to go just 10 minutes more before turning around. No sooner had we said that, somebody whispered "HOLY CRAP!!!!" and pointed toward the trees lining the riverbed. My heart jumped into heart attack mode when I saw the large panel of grey moving slowly behind the tree, not 30 feet away. We were standing beside elephants! We quickly dashed to a clump of trees on the riverbed and watched with gaping jaws as eleven elephants emerged from the trees and made their way down onto the riverbed about 100 feet in front of us. We looked at eachother with huge eyes, realizing how incredible this was. Our hearts raced and our hands shook as we tried to snap photos of the massive beasts right in front of us. We counted four huge adults with long tusks and wrinkled, saggy skin, plus four adorable little babies and three young adults. I just couldn't believe we were sitting there looking at elephants in the wild - it was an exhilirating experience!

The herd moved slowly down the riverbed toward camp, and once they were a safe distance away, we followed quietly along the bank, out of sight. We sat in silence for a while watching the babies play fighting and the adults flapping their ears and pulling leaves off the trees. Finally, we decided we should make our way back to camp, and quietly walked back across the riverbed to give them a wide berth. When we were about half way across, one of the large males perked up his ears, lifted his head, and looked straight at us. Not a good sign. What followed was a sign I will never forget - a loud trumpeting sound from his trunk, directed at us as a warning to get out of his territory. I was petrified that he would charge, but thankfully he just turned around and walked away. We quickly crossed the rest of the riverbed and continued perpendicular to their path so that we were completely out of their sight. Only then did we give high fives all around and blurt out how insanely amazing and terrifying that was, both at the same time!

When we got back to camp, everyone was shocked at what we were telling them. Barely ten minutes later, the entire herd came plodding down the riverbed in full view of our camp! But they turned off and went up to the water cistern on the bank to steal some water from the farmer's stash. The people who didn't come with us were equally amazed just to spot wild elephants. The whole group was ecstatic over dinner (cheese fondue over the camp fire!) except for one girl who was in the washroom and missed the whole thing. We didn't see them again after that, but there's a good chance they will carry on and meaner down the riverbed tonight, walking right past our tents. This has to have been the most incredible, authentic experience we could have hoped for in Africa - meeting elephants face to face in their natural environment. It was beyond words. Oh yes, and the day got even more perfect, as we cooled off under an outdoor shower with a bright starry sky overhead. Life is grand! And now I can look at my little Herero elephant and remember our encounter with wild elephants that now tops our list of incredible life experiences.


  1. what an amazing day!!! I'm happy to hear you found a nice memento from the village, and that you took something away from that family besides just a photo.. Now your christmas tree will remind you of that day! Can't imagine how exciting/terrifying the elephant encounter must have been. Could you not hear them first? I'd bet that a herd of elephants aren't the quietest things out there :)

  2. That was the crazy thing - there were 11 elephants super close to us and they didn't make a sound as they walked. If you had your eyes closed, you wouldn't even know they were there. Those big padded feet are like giant pillows i guess!