Austin returned from Swaziland and during his film break, we went to Brandberg to photograph desert elephants. After two-and-a-half hours of driving from home, we reached the dry Ugab Riverbed around 1pm and spent the whole afternoon searching for elephant tracks. There were still giant armoured ground crickets, or ‘goks’, everywhere, but far fewer than we had seen at any other time since the rains. It seemed all that were left were several hundred of the largest goks; most had disappeared. We travelled to the first wetland, which was still covered with very shallow running water. We didn’t want to risk getting stuck in there again – some of the branches we used to haul the car out the last time were still exactly where we had left them two months earlier but most had sunk into the mud. The baboon family was once again absent, so we doubled back the way we had come and drove out of the riverbed and onto the open desert plains surrounding Brandberg Mountain. Temperatures were in the thirties and as always, the scenery was spectacular. Between high rocks, we found a further entrance to the riverbed that would allow us to bypass the wetland, so we turned in there and travelled to the windmill-powered concrete water reservoir.
There would normally have been baboons all around us by this stage, but we saw none at all. The only animal we encountered was a steenbok, a small antelope about half a meter high at the shoulder and weighing around 11 kilograms. The steenbok was light brown all over except for the white fur on its stomach, and it had a very small tail. It was absolutely gorgeous, but the absence of other animals as we approached the reservoir was beginning to concern us. Austin and I parked beside the reservoir and looked up at the windmill. It was broken, and so was unable to pump water out of the bore hole in the ground. It looked as though the windmill had collapsed on itself, and that it had happened some time ago. Austin climbed the stone wall surrounding the concrete reservoir and looked over the edge, and I went up after him. All traces of water were long gone. The reservoir was completely dry, and the only sign that animals had once relied on this water source was the skeleton and fur of a young baboon that had fallen in, probably trying to reach the last remaining water, and been unable to climb out. The body lay on its side, and I figured by its size that it was probably the baby I had seen months ago, when it was still being carried around by its mother. Austin and I were sorry we had not been there while the baboon was still alive – simply placing a large branch into the reservoir would have been enough to allow the young baboon to climb out. I couldn’t help but imagine how distressed its mother must have been, looking into the reservoir but unable to reach her offspring. Eventually the young baboon would have weakened and become non-responsive, if it didn’t drown in what little water might have been left at the time. We could smell the last of the decomposing flesh as we looked in. We left the reservoir and travelled out of the riverbed between the high rocks and onto the open plains again.
We covered 72 kilometres around Brandberg that afternoon in search of desert elephants and found nothing but dung that was weeks old – no tracks whatsoever. It appeared that the elephants had left Brandberg and perhaps travelled north.
It was our six-month anniversary since getting married, so once the sun set we set up camp under a camelthorn tree facing the mountain and shared a bottle of champagne, listening to barking geckos calling around us. We slept in the back of the Mazda with the boot door open so we could stretch our legs, and we didn’t get much sleep that night. The goks clambered all over our campsite and got into everything, chirping as they went. The desert was freezing at night in the winter, and the air was so cold and dry that it hurt our throats to breathe. By morning it hurt to speak and swallow, and we were sneezing and snivelling. It seemed we had caught colds literally overnight! We woke up at dawn and Austin photographed Brandberg Mountain as the sun touched it and turned it pink. Then he climbed back into the car and slept some more while I pottered around the camp site. When Austin awoke a short while later, he found himself tipping water-engorged goks out of our recently cleaned cooking pots while I made tea and coffee. I divided the remainder of the previous night’s dinner, a boiled potato, between each of the five goks in camp, which immediately began feasting. Then I poured out the water I used to brush my teeth. Two goks immediately began to fight over the water as it sank into the sand, shoving each other with their long legs and chirping, so I went to each gok in turn and gave them a drink of water. The goks forgot their nervousness of me entirely as they gorged themselves on the water with the same single-minded purpose shown by all desert animals, while Austin jokingly referred to my efforts as ‘food aid.’ Having found no sign of the elephants the previous day, we weren’t in any hurry to get moving and we didn’t pack up camp until around 9am, when the air finally started to heat up. As we drove away, a herd of goats belonging to a tiny local village passed our camp in the company of two small, thin dogs, consuming all the vegetation in their path. One of the dogs had recovered from an encounter with a trap – its paw was hanging by a thread of skin to a broken leg, but the wound had long ago closed. This dog kept up with the goats by limping along on its other three legs.
We drove around Brandberg Mountain and photographed a basking female agama lizard that was sloughing and looked as though she was gravid. She resembled an Australian bearded dragon except for her lovely mottled colouration, and she let me come close enough to almost touch her before she moved away.
That morning we drove down the riverbed in the opposite direction to the day before and saw another car in the riverbed coming towards us. It was a white Toyota Landcruiser with a Windhoek number plate and a World Wildlife Fund sticker showing the familiar giant panda logo on the door, and it pulled up alongside our Mazda. A Caucasian man in a green collared shirt and white cap bearing the same WWF logo was driving, and there was an indigenous African man in the seat beside him. In the back sat a brunette Caucasian woman wearing sunglasses and another indigenous African man. The driver nodded to us and wound his window down.
‘Have you seen elephants?’ he asked.
‘No, we haven’t yet,’ Austin replied. ‘There are no fresh tracks where we’ve come from and the closest reservoir has run dry. The herds will have to go elsewhere for water.’
The man in the back leaned forward in his seat and tried to take control of the conversation, but he simply echoed Austin’s statements. I wondered if he had been hired as some sort of guide. We went our separate ways after only a minute or two.
‘We’ve never seen them here before,’ I commented. ‘I wonder what brings them to the riverbed.’
‘They might be conducting research,’ Austin replied. ‘The problem is that when outsiders come into African wilderness areas intending to help wildlife, they don’t always accomplish anything because they are not familiar with the animals and their habitats.’
‘I hadn’t thought of it that way,’ I admitted. ‘I guess good intentions are nothing without a comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem. Problem is, how do you know what you don’t know?’
‘It’s a problem,’ Austin replied, ‘because most outsiders don’t live it. They’ve been sent out to observe these animals but they only see them from the surface. It takes years of experience before you have any true understanding of what you’re looking at.’
With Austin’s words in mind, I recalled the vehicle and its occupants. It seemed from their spotlessly clean appearance that the people we had encountered a moment earlier were just starting out. Although they had not seen any elephants where they had come from, Austin knew that didn’t necessarily mean anything and decided we should explore that part of the riverbed anyway. It was there that we saw the first fresh elephant tracks and dung belonging to a large lone bull. He had crossed the riverbed within the last twenty-four hours, probably during the night, and fed on a camelthorn tree, pulling branches to the ground with his trunk. The parts he didn’t eat were wilting on the sand. I had learned to obtain a reasonable amount of information from footprints with regular practice – the likely size of the elephants, how many there were, which direction they travelled and roughly how long ago, but I was no match for Austin, who had further honed his skills while filming his latest African episodes. He examined the condition of severed branches and wilted leaves to determine approximately how recently the elephant removed them from the tree. Austin knew there was an elephant close by!
To be continued in Chapter 34, when the actions of others almost cost us our lives…