We enjoyed our time at Bloedkoppe Rock and in the sand dunes near our home, but we were craving the more dramatic landscape of desert elephant country.
A couple of days later, we decided to visit Brandberg Mountain to see where the desert elephants were at that time. We quickly saw evidence of the recent heavy rain. The desert had been transformed into grassland. High, feathery, silver-tipped grass swayed in the wind, covering hundreds of kilometres, and the trees and shrubs were all in flower. Each bush beside the dirt track was heavily weighed down with hundreds of ‘goks,’ the giant armoured ground crickets that had emerged with the rain. Each would have fit comfortably over the palm of my hand. They were maroon on their backs and legs and bright green on their undersides. When we came too close, the goks shrieked and chirped at us. Looking down the road, we saw that there were hundreds of them covering every plant. The goks were remarkably considerate of each other’s space and had organised themselves into single file on each branch, where they fed on the bushes unceasingly.
Our once familiar dry Ugab Riverbed was completely changed. When the rains from inland flooded the Ugab a couple of weeks earlier, the rushing water uprooted giant trees and bushes and carried them downstream. The tracks in the sand had been totally obliterated and there was no sign of the elephants whatsoever. We found some hyena tracks, which I had not seen in the Ugab before, but no sign of any game. The elephants, like all the other animals, were suddenly faced with an abundance of water and no longer needed to remain in the riverbed. They had dispersed.
We drove through the soft, moist sand of the riverbed until we reached the first wetland, which was truly wet for the first time in years. A small stream of water ran along the sand and the resident baboon family had taken advantage of the abundance and wandered farther afield, like everyone else.
Austin and I thought that if we could drive the four-wheel drive Mazda across the little stream of water running over the sand and continue on up the riverbed, we might have a chance of finding the elephants somewhere on the other side. We climbed out of the Mazda and walked along the sand a little way. It seemed solid enough to drive across, so we got back in the car and gave it a shot. The Mazda went three quarters of the way across the sand and then it became stuck! Our wheels spun out under us and sent wet sand flying in all directions, so I got out of the car to remove some of the weight while Austin continued to attempt to back out. As I watched the wheels, I realised they were disappearing into the muddy sand at an alarming rate and I had sunk in up to my knees in the short time I had been standing there. Lifting my legs was difficult. The sand possessed incredible suction and it was an effort to wade through it. The Mazda wouldn’t budge, so Austin gave up trying to drive out and began digging the wheels out with the spade we always kept on hand for such situations, but the more he dug, the more water pooled around the wheels.
‘We’re going to need some branches,’ Austin told me. ‘See what you can find – quickly! And be careful!’
‘Don’t worry,’ I joked as I took off my muddy shoes, which were becoming a hindrance. ‘If I come sprinting out of the trees with a charging elephant on my heels, you’ll get some great photos!’
I ran through the squelching stream into the bush that lined the side of the riverbed. Large branches had been swept down by the floodwaters when the rains came and they were scattered throughout the bush where the water had left them when it receded. While keeping an eye out for baboons and elephants, I grabbed as many branches as I could carry and dragged them back to the riverbed. I gave the branches to Austin and he broke the sharp sticks off the branches with the handle of the spade and shoved the branches under the Mazda’s sinking wheels to try to keep them above the muddy water. This resulted in a small improvement, so I went back for more branches. On this next trip, I searched a different area of the bush and found a car door that had been swept down in the flood. This time, I came across a thin but almost complete dead tree and although it took me twice as long, I managed to drag the entire thing back to the riverbed and we used bits of it to help prop up the tires, which had sunk even deeper into the sand while I was gone. The underside of the car was now buried in the sand, so no matter how much wood we shoved under the tires, we had no hope of driving out unless we could lift the car. We had only a small jack with us, rather than the high-lift jack we would carry if we were expecting to drive through such extremely wet conditions, and we had to find something on which to place the small jack that would stop it sinking into the mud when it lifted the weight of the car. Austin and I ran together through the water further up the riverbed until we came to the home of the baboon family, who luckily were still out. We took a few of the many large rocks from the base of the small cliffs and carried them back to the car, where we placed them under the jack. Austin wound the jack up and began to lift the car, but the rocks sank immediately and almost took the jack with them! By this time, we were preparing to abandon the Mazda, take whatever water we had with us and begin the long trek down the riverbed on foot to the nearest lodge.
When we were collecting the rocks, I saw a car bonnet sticking out of the sand another few hundred metres up the riverbed. I suggested to Austin that if we could dig the bonnet out, it might be wide and flat enough not to sink into the sand if used as a base for the jack. We decided to try this, and spent a very long time digging the car bonnet out of the sand. When Austin was finally able to lift it clear of the riverbed, he went back through the mud to the Mazda and grabbed a coil of rope he kept as part of our camping gear. Austin tied the rope around the bonnet and the two of us managed to drag the bonnet all the way back to the Mazda. By this time, we had been working under the hot sun in the riverbed for three hours, and we were exhausted. We agreed that if this last idea didn’t work, we would have to begin the walk down the riverbed before it grew too dark.
Austin used what energy he had left to shove the bonnet as close to the Mazda as possible. Then we placed some rocks on the bonnet to heighten the lift of the jack, and Austin began to wind the jack up. After a while, the bottom of the car cleared the sand, and we shoved even more wood, and our spade, under the wheels. These things promptly disappeared under the water, but on Austin’s final attempt to drive the Mazda out, the tires somehow managed to grip the branches and with Austin’s careful steering, the car shot free of the sandy sinkhole. After almost three and a half hours, we were out! We used some of our water supply to wash all the mud off our arms and legs, and then we drove back up the riverbed the way we had come.
We made camp under a large camelthorn tree, and as night fell Austin built a fire and I unpacked the picnic food from the cooler in the Mazda. We opened a couple of cold beers and sat around the fire while the potatoes and the pumpkin we had brought with us cooked in the flames. As it got darker, insects appeared in the riverbed that I had never seen at Brandberg before. The rains had caused the emergence of plagues of locusts, goks, praying mantis, beetles and all manner of creatures that suddenly descended on us in a huge swarm! An entire army of goks came marching across the sandy riverbed, attracted by the light from the fire and perhaps by the scent of our food. Many of the goks were identical to the ones we had seen covering the vegetation earlier in the day, but others were bright red and black and these seemed particularly attracted to the fire. Austin used a stick to gently bat the goks away from the flames, but some walked straight into the fire and died before we could prevent it. Locusts the size of small birds surrounded our camp, and they flew into us with such speed that it hurt! Grasshoppers, mantis and hundreds of beetles settled on our hair and clothes. Eating the food we had prepared became impossible because the insects got to it first. Our plates were covered in beetles. They were in the butter container, in the potato salad and all over the sliced tomato. When I reached for my beer, I found that the bottle was lined with goks who were all competing to reach the opening at the top. It was not long before the combined weight of the goks tipped the bottle over, and the goks then congregated around the puddle of beer pooling at their feet. They drank until there was almost nothing left. Those goks seemed a little slow and did not chirp as much after their great beer feast, so I wondered if the alcohol had affected them. There were so many goks surrounding our camp site that walking among them without stepping on them was almost impossible. I held the torch while Austin gently batted the goks away to clear a path for us around the fire.
Within minutes of switching on our hand-held torch, the light beam attracted a creature we’d encountered at Hardap Dam only a few months earlier – a solifuge. A young, light brown nocturnal solifuge that was several centimetres long sped across the sand so fast it was difficult to keep it in view. It came straight for the torch light, and wherever we moved the beam, the solifuge chased after it. The solifuge turned to our feet at the first sign of movement, and we tucked our pants into our shoes to avoid an intrusion. At this point, Austin and I did something we have never done before or since. We abandoned camp. With no sign of the elephants, and the camping experience from hell unfolding before our eyes, we called it a night. We scraped what little remained of our insect-infested dinner off our plates and placed it on the sand at the edge of our camp site. The goks immediately zeroed in on the food, demolishing it at lightning speed. We shook locusts and praying mantis off the remaining firewood and tied the wood to the roof carrier, packed our little picnic table and chairs back into the Mazda, and drove out of the riverbed. It must have been about 10pm by that stage, and we were still removing beetles from our hair when Brandberg Mountain was far behind us in the dark.
The long drive through the desert back to Swakopmund mostly consisted of trying to avoid the thousands of goks that had gathered on the sand track to feast on other goks, which had been run over by the few trucks passing through the previous night. The heat had also brought out the large-headed geckos; we found nine of them in the track on the way home. We climbed out of the Mazda each time to catch these stocky geckos and move them into the safety of the high grass by the side of the track. They were absolutely gorgeous, most about ten centimetres in length with spectacular gold eyes. Only one young male gecko tried to bite, but Austin caught him gently behind the head and carried him into the grass as well.
We got home in the early hours of the morning and decided to leave our next trip to Brandberg until the insects had moved on.
To be continued in Chapter 31, when we are called to the Australian Consulate in South Africa for Austin’s visa interview…