What’s the first animal you think of when you think of Africa?
I had been in Namibia for over two years, have traveled to different parts of the country (some renowned for its population of pachyderms), have seen road sign warning of elephant crossings, and even saw the thigh bone of a recently killed elephant that was put down for terrorizing a village. But I had yet to see a living, breathing elephant in the wild.
On my various trips around Namibia I’ve seen some interesting creatures, everything from desert chameleons to stately giraffes. I saw a herd of wild horses in the desert outside of Luderitz, a flock of 20 or more ostriches racing up the side of Mount Rössing, a huge colony of seals on the beach of a small island about fifty kilometers into the Atlantic from Walvis Bay, a herd of zebras crossing the road in front of me near Etosha. I’ve seen skittish mouse birds, flocks of gregarious lovebirds, flamboyantly pink flamingos, and an island overrun by penguins.
But not one elephant.
That is, until this passed weekend when some friends and I went to Omaruru. Like many small towns in Namibia, Omaruru depends on tourists. The town started off as a center of trade for the Ovaherero in 1863, but was soon co-occupied by white colonists who established a trading post and brewery, and it became a focus of contention between white settlers and the Ovaherero during the Herero Wars in the early 1900s.
Today the town is a quiet way-station for those in route to Otjitwerongo and the O-Land Regions in northern Namibia. Nearby Omaruru I was surprised to learn that there are two operating wineries. This passed weekend we visited one, the Erongo Mountain Winery which was establish 6 years ago on what used to be an olive grove.
The winery is a relatively small operation producing a selection of whites, red blends, and dessert wines. As is true for most of Namibia, the winery is being hit hard by the ongoing drought. Its vineyards are barely producing and the winery must import grapes from other regions around Namibia and South Africa. The winery is home to a fine restaurant that offers excellent dining in conjunction with wine tasting. Our small group opted for a tour of the winery which included and light lunch and wine tasting.
I’ve toured wineries before so I was familiar with some of what goes into making a bottle of vino, but it was still fascinating and fun to explore the backrooms and hidden crevices of a working winery. A warehouse-like room was lined with huge stainless steel distillers, some operating, while others were being cleaned for a new batch. In another large room juicing machines and other equipment lined the walls. In yet another room, kept cool and dark, were barrels of various types of aging wine stacked to the ceiling and filling the room so that only narrow isles were possible.
Our tour guide told us that the drought has forced water restrictions so that they can only maintain a small grove of vines. Even those looked thirsty, but she assured us they were healthy and productive.
After the tour we were treated to a salad lunch. It was one of the best salads I’ve ever had and I would definitely get it again. That’s saying a lot because I’m not a huge fan of salads. During and after our meal we were served various wines, starting with a chardonnay and ending with a sweet wine that had a distinct chocolate flavor. I don’t care for sweet wines, but that one was very tasty.
Then, full of salad and wine, we left the winery and drove ten minutes to the entrance of the Omaruru Game Lodge. Typical of Namibian game reserves, this one was surrounded by high electrified fencing with large steel gates at strategic points. Once inside, however, it looked as though we were in a resort with bungalows situated within a well maintained area of lush foliage and wild animals grazing just beyond a high wooden barrier.
At 3:00PM my group and several others climbed into a safari truck (a Range Rover modified to carry up to ten passengers in a canopied platform). Our guide, who looked as if he were about to fall asleep while talking to us, said that he’d first try to locate the elephants, which may be hard to do since they range freely over the 7500 acre portion of the 20,000 acre reserve.
As we roamed through that section of the reserve we easily saw signs that elephants were about. Small trees that had been ripped apart laid in ruin along trails stamped with the distinct circular footprint of the large beasts. The elephants destroy the trees while attempting to scratch themselves. Piles of elephant dung litter the area. The only thing missing was a sign the warned, “Here there be Elephants!”
Our guide wove through thick bush, dry riverbeds, and rocky tracks for at least a half an hour, but no tuskers. I was beginning to think I was cursed and would never see an elephant in the wild, but as we rounded a bend on a dry riverbed we hear some rustling in the brush nearby. Through the dense foliage we caught glimpses of massive grey forms. The guide honked his horn and a parade of five elephant lumbered out of the bush. Our guide told us that the elephants are used to him because he brings them fresh cut hay and apples, but they are skittish around stranger and we should stay in the truck. I had every intention of following his request.
Elephants ARE HUGE!
It’s hard to put into words how big these creatures are, especially the male and leader of the group. We watched as the pachyderms chowed down on the hay and apples. The big male was standoffish and grabbed a bale for himself and climbed out of the riverbed to watch over the herd while he ate. He never took his eyes off us. The rest were content to hangout in a tight-knit group and seemed to prefer to stay several meters away. Although one, a young adult male, got curious and decided to see if any of the passengers had food. He came up to the truck, right in front of me, trunk extended, sniffing for goodies. When he didn’t find any he simply turned away. But he was close enough for me to touch him, and I did. His skin was like rubbery tree bark.
We watched the group for a bit longer, then went in search of other animals, which we found in abundance. Zebras, wildebeest, springboks, kudus, ostriches, giraffes, baboons, warthogs were all present, but the best and surprising were the black rhinos. I didn’t know rhinos where on the reserve beforehand and seeing them were an added bonus. Again, massive animals. Like the elephants, the female approached our vehicle looking for handouts, but she didn’t get too close. The even larger male was more wary. He hung back and took his time to approach. Our guide told us he had been the victim of poachers who tranquilized him and sawed off his horn. It had grown back, but the trauma made him cautious around humans.
Before our tour was complete we visited a manmade pool where two hippos bathed and protested our arrival by expelling large sprays of water. Again, the guide provided the animals with lunch and they waded out of the pond to partake. This was the only animal we saw that was not allowed to roam freely and the display reminded me the of the zoo I used to visit when I was a kid in Baltimore. As I recall the hippo display in Baltimore was larger than the one here and you could go to a lower level and watch the hippos underwater. Zoos in the US are pushing to make their animal habitats better suited for the creature they contain, so, though they appeared to be healthy, seeing hippos in such an enclosure was a low point of our tour, but it wasn’t the lowest point.
There was a small herd of wildebeest hanging out near the rhinos. One was loitering near the pack, didn’t seem to mingle. Our guide told us that the animal was injured, snake bite. He maneuvered the truck closer and we could see, even from that distance, that the right front leg near the shoulder was infected. As we approached the lone wildebeest struggled to its feet and hobbled slowly away, wary of us, but its injury didn’t allow it to move very far or very fast. When we stopped, it stopped and collapsed to rest. Our guide told us that he would have to kill it. To leave it to suffer would be inhumane and its injury was far too gone for all but very expensive intervention.
When our drive was over and we arrived back at the lodge the guide disappeared and returned carrying a gun. We all knew what it was meant for. It was not quite the Circle of Life from The Lion King, but more the reality of life in the wild, or at least, in the reserve.
Still, I got to see elephants, up close and personal, and got a taste of what Namibia was like, is still like in some places.