Damaraland is one of the premier geological destinations and something of a Mecca for those passionate about rocks. I can't pretend to have much knowledge and although Dudley has been reading 'Geology for Dummies' and trying to educate me on intrusions and extrusions and metamorphic versus sedimentary rock, I still find it mostly a mystery. Anyway it does not matter, the sheer natural beauty and desolate splendour, the varying textures, patterns and hues within the landscape are enough to make it worth our while. This is the home of the ancient welwitschia plant, acres of lichen fields and some of the most dramatic and impressive landscape scenes in Southern Africa
We headed for Brandburg and the desert elephants. On this visit we would miss Spitzkoppe and Twyfelfontein but time was getting tight.
If you leave the coast at Cape Cross and turn inland the road leads through the desert plains past Messum crater . The initial landscape is of rocky plains but with a bloom of subtle colour from the fields of lichen unique to this area. Lichen is a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi, the fungi providing the structure and the algae photosynthesise to provide energy. They vary in colour from red and orange to grey and black and cling to the surface gravel. They use humidity from the air and are at their most impressive early in the morning when they unfurl to catch the morning mist. They provided a subtle wash of colour to the rocky plains at the start of our route
Once through the coastal dunes the landscape became more rugged. Messum crater is southwest of the Brandburg plateau. It is a natural amphitheater where there was once an active volcano, 22 km across and ringed by concentric circles of mountains. There is a salt pan at its base and some rock carvings. There are plenty of beautiful sites for bush camping but we carried on towards Brandberg before finding ourselves a deserted gully up against the mountain to spend the night in the company of rock dassies and eagles. If we return we will definitely spend more time in this section and bush camp longer. The full moon prevented night scrapes sadly but this would be an awesome spot for star trails in the right moon phase.
Welwichia mirabilis is the oldest plant on the earth and unique to Namibia. As we entered Damaraland from the skeleton coast it was dotted around the rocky desert plains, a strange, giant tangle of burnt fraying green gray leaves. In fact there are only 2 leaves on each plant but they grow long and tangled and fray and split giving the appearance of many more. Research suggests these ancient plants can live more than 1000 years and are related to the conifers. They are incredibly hardy and probably derive their water from the coastal mist, just like much of the ecosystem in this coastal desert.
Uis is small town south east of Brandberg and started life as a tin mine. The mine was a South African enterprise during Apartheid when tin was a scarcity because of sanctions. It was closed abruptly when Namibia got independence leaving it a ghost town. Now it survives on tourism. A local entrepreneur did well when he bought the old mine and most of the houses at a premium price. He has developed an industry making bricks out of the tailings and also sold a lot of the houses to foreigners as holiday homes. There are so many nationalities living in Uis they call themselves the United States of Uis!.
We stayed at the Brandberg Rest Camp as we have been there before. It is basic but has a clean well equipped camp site and a sparkling 25 m pool which is a welcome sight in the searing heat. Also it is run by a friendly eccentric chap called Basil, the Namibian equivalent of Kingsley Holgate, and about as colourful. He likes to tie on his bandana and track desert elephants and he will, for a modest N$100, take you on a tour of the tin mine for sun downers. He is clearly very knowledgeable about the area but the trip up the mine dump in his land cruiser was notable for the rather alarming noise coming from the prop shaft and his complete disregard thereof.
Well a big part of the incentive for visiting Damaraland for us was the chance to see the desert elephants which migrate through the area between June and December. We were keen to see if we could find them, emboldened by our success up in Kaokaveld. Basil assured us we would find them if we just travelled the Ugab river bed, and so next day we saddled up the beast and set off. Not knowing where were were going led to some spirited discussion about the best route but we eventually found our way to a river crossing. The river is dry and there are many routes up and around the river course. Most of the farms seem abandoned which testifies to the harsh conditions and lack of water. As it happened there was a burned out car next to the road and so we hopped out to get a few grunge shots. This was fortunate as we then picked up ele footprints and after yet another spirited discussion as to which way they were going ( surprisingly difficult working out which way a round ele footprint faces!) we set off downstream.
The going was tough, thick sand and rock but we were entranced by the scenery despite the heat and discomfort. There were a fair number of cows and evidence of overgrazing but about 1 hour into the river bed we turned a corner and there they were. Initially it was a small herd of juveniles and females, but then we picked up a bull further along. At this point we lost the main herd but noticed that cows and donkeys were trotting out of a small narrow gully fairly consistently. Thinking they must know something we crept up the gully which then opened out onto a marshy outcrop with water, and there were our eles again. Unwittingly we had stumbled onto the well kept secret water hole. The rest of the day we continued down river until late afternoon. The river is dotted with Ana trees and the eles often reach up on tiptoe to catch the juicy pods.
Next day we moved camp closer to the river to allow us to track them every day. Particularly we wanted to catch them in good light as, by the time we found them, and we did find them each day, it was midday and harsh. In fact the bull was in camp with us on 2 nights but still elusive in the good light. Such was our desperation we decided one evening to try to see if we could see them from the top of a steep koppie which I assured Dudley must be a well used lookout. I am not sure what I based this knowledge on as we had not seen anyone else climb it but that's where the desperation part came in!
Well it did give a good view but it was a one way lookout with no way down which led to a tense and sweat soaked 320 point turn on a pinnacle at a 45 degree angle in the fading light to get back down the way we had come. The turning circle of the beast is not really its strong point!
However perseverance payed off and on the forth day we found them next to camp in the early morning light. Later that day however they crossed the river onto the plains and were gone beyond even our, now well honed, tracking skills. They disappeared without a trace. It was humbling to realise how lucky we were to find them for a few precious days.