Namibia – Guardians of the Game
By David Adams – Co-Founder, Arcadia Expeditions
Here Arcadia Co-Founder and Expedition Leader David Adams tells the little-known story of Namibia’s ‘Guardians of the Game’. David led 10 clients on Arcadia’s 2019 trip to Namibia – what follows is a fascinating insight into just three-days of this unique expedition. We will be running two departures of this expedition again in 2022.
Rivulets of fine dust stream through the breaches in the door and window seals to blanket everything in soft red talcum. In the rear of the land rover, miniature drifts build up in every nook and cranny, only zippered or airtight seals prevented it permeating our gear and food supplies. Unsettled by the waddle and sway of the 4×4, the dust hangs in the cabin, a breathable soup – the taste of the ancient landscape through which we travel. Gears crunching, we slue out of the last of the dust bowl and with a bump the wheels find purchase and we leave the dust spiralling into willy willies on the hot afternoon wind. On either side of the barrel strait road, an ancient lava plain spreads away from us for ten kilometres and more. But for lonely acacia, we are the only object on a vast savanna sea, its distant shore a range of craggy granite outcrops. The whole vista is so large you detect the curvature of earth.
In the over exposure of sunlight this great plain seems devoid of life. Then out of the heat haze come distorted and dismembered spirits, over balanced pendulums that, immerge and remerge from the shimmer of grasses to finally take the form of Giraffe, their necks out of step with their bodies in slow-motion as they too the lope away from the car. Then come springbok; golden brown, elegant and placid until the shock of our presence ripples through the herd and their raised tails flash alarm and they bounce up and seem to float on our wake. We slow through a depression as we come upon oryx – a magnificent bull with his females and their adolescents. Alert to, but undeterred by our presence, their focus is a point off on the plain. “Cheetah” says Festus Mbenha (our local guide and driver) excitedly after a few seconds. “See, there are four, a mother and three young, the Oryx have seen them”. For long moments I see nothing, then, almost nonchalantly, the cats break their camouflage and stroll out of cover. After a last glance at the Oryx, they stroll away, perhaps as impressed as we are by the spear-like horns of the formidable antelopes.
“The animals have returned”, Festus says with a smile as we move off. “For years there were no cheetah up here “. He explains that in the 1970’s the sand rivers that lead down to the Skeleton Coast were filled with elephant, rhino and lion and large herds covered these high plains. Then the war for independence came and South African security forces armed the local Herero and Himba with old .303 rifles to defend themselves against Angolan based South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) guerrillas. “I don’t think they shot one guerrilla”, say Festus without expression. “They used the guns for poaching and decimated the game. The only reason rhino survived in Kaokoland was because of the shortage of ammunition amongst our people”. South Africans and Namibians also played their part – Army colonels conducted private safaris from helicopters, finding sport in the slaughter of game with automatic weapons.
In the late afternoon we make camp in ‘Himbaland’. We’re three days drive from Windhoek and two hundred kilometres of wilderness separates us from the closest town of any note. Well-fed and watered, we sit around a low fire that brings in the African night and Festus tells us of his people, the Herero and their nomadic cousins the Himba. In the 1830’s, wanderlust and the notion of a fertile ‘promised land’ in the North impelled the ‘Vor Trekkers’ (migrating Boers) to set out from South Africa across the deserts of Namibia in search of an Eden. Like the luckless mariners shipwrecked on the barren reaches of its Skeleton Coast, the last of these much-romanticised settlers perished in a world as alien as any on earth. Though what was terrifying desolation to the white man had been a bastion for indigenous Africans, who for millennia had lived in isolated harmony with their savage land.
Originally from East Africa, Festus’ ancestors began migrating south-westwards (very likely fleeing Arab slavers) around 1500 AD and entered Namibia from Angola roughly 300 years ago. In the late 1900’s those living in areas accessible to the white man were forced to adopt European culture and religion and encouraged to cover their nudity. Today Herero women still effect the same fully gathered skirt, high tightly gathered bodice and leg-o-mutton sleeves worn by the first settlers. While spectacular, the dress is wholly unsuitable in the hundred degree plus heat.
The next morning finds us deep into the ranges and the track we’d been following had just run out. We manoeuvred slowly along a wide ‘lugga’ (dry riverbed) shaded by the ubiquitous acacias and huge desert figs. The first sign of habitation is a ruined settlement on a low rise – much of the wood cannibalised and carried off for new construction. Another bend reveals a mixed herd of goats and long horned cattle that spill down from the far bank and concentrate in a mob in the riverbed. Intrigued, we pull up and walk over to investigate. Bleating and grunting at our intrusion, the animals part to reveal a deep-water hole sunk into the river-bed, on the rim a hollowed out log makes for a generous water trough – now rapidly being sucked dry. Soft laughter comes down to us through the figs and two hundred metres away an elegant figure appears and comes down to the sand. As she draws closer, I realise she had shadowed three women walking in single file behind her. “The line indicates seniority, the dominant women always leads”, says Festus as they drew near. Their appearance is astonishing, so naturally beautiful and striking they appear to have been drawn up from the land itself, each the personification of mother earth.
Their skin is not the deep brown of the Herero, but a delightful red ochre, a natural makeup of butter fat, pigmented with powdered mineral oxides covering their bodies. As they reach us, I smell the combination of fat and fragrant commiphora gum (biblical myrrh and an aphrodisiac) that softens its aroma. As they settle a few metres away and speak with Festus I begin to study them. Their wide smiles reveal front teeth filed to form an ‘A’ shaped gap, while long mud encrusted braids frame their stunning faces and stream down onto strong smooth shoulders (along with headpieces of soft animal skin, these deadlocks indicate their married status). Suspended on a heavy necklace of beaded ostrich eggshell, a white conch pendant rests between their bare breasts (traded all the way from the East Africa Coast, Festus tells us this is their most treasured possession).
Each woman wares skirts of soft buckskin held up by an iron beaded belt, while similar beaded anklets and spiral copper armlets form an impressive finale to long slender limbs. The senior women’s name is Waitira and Festus tells us she’s agreed to take us to meet the head man, her husband. As we move off, she adjusts the straps of the sling on her back that snugly hold her son, a healthy ball of fat little Michelin man covered in the protective ochre of his mother. As we follow Waitira through the stony outcrops, Festus explains that Himba society functions on a system of double decent whereby most people belong to a patrilineal clan and a matrilineal clan, thus giving rise to complex rules of marriage – though Festus adds that these rules do not extend to extramarital sex, on the premise of ‘what the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve about’.
Tjambiru is old, he does not know his age, he is a Himba chief and once he was a poacher. He sits at the entrance to his home, a simple domed hut made of a bound sticks plastered with mud and cattle dung. Another six huts, slightly smaller than Tjambiru’s, form a circle around a central livestock corral of thorn and acacia branches. As Festus had instructed us on our approach, I was now careful not to cross the invisible line between Tjambiru’s dwelling and the sacred fire opposite, this is hallowed ground and his realm alone. Instead we politely passed behind his hut as the women take up a position some distance away.
For more than half an hour Festus engages in traditional small talk before Tjambiru agrees to let us make camp nearby in exchange for a quantity of flour and tobacco. Negotiations completed, I ask about poaching and there follows a long exchange between he and Festus. “Tjambiru killed six rhinos but now he does not poach. He says, without the animals it is lonely here”. As a Westerner, it’s almost instinctive to feel resentment towards ‘a poacher’, but Tjambiru is hardly the ‘wealthy profiteer’, though the rhino horns he collected would have undoubtedly ended up with such a person. Tjambiru saw trafficking in animal products as a way to feed his family in difficult times. As traditional herdsmen, there is generally no need for the Himba to supplement their table with wild game and as nomads, possessions have little meaning and less use. In Kaokoland it has been the extremes of war and the hardship of drought that largely lead to local poaching.
For the animals however, the future looks considerably brighter. Until relatively recently, wildlife conservation had largely excluded local communities. Game park tourism meant profits for the authorities but little for the local people. Poaching continued because there was no incentive or possibility to build a ‘future’ with the animals. In Kaokoland and Damaraland to the South, one-time poachers like Tjambiru are now guardians of the game they once hunted as part of an extraordinary revolution that is taking place. Wildlife and its habitat are being conserved by involving the indigenous people in the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and from that involvement, giving them a direct benefit from the wildlife among which they live.
Gnarled shepherd trees and huge baobabs, some perhaps 3000 years old, dot the edges of the plain as we make our way to the Hoanib River where we hope to encounter some of the game now under the program’s protection. In the arid river gorge, dunes pile up against the crags like windblown snow and our overworked engine startles a dozen ostriches that thunder away upriver. Then more giraffe, this time not the distant distorted forms of the plain but observing us from just metres away through the foliage of bushed acacia. Only their great nobbled heads give them away, their mottled necks just another thick bough. Below, the tree trunks show the first sign of desert elephant great bare patches testament to their rubbing and scratching.
The next bend reveals a huge bull elephant already coming across the river towards us, one hundred metres behind him another emerges out of the acacia thicket onto the sand. On a mission, their pace and direction does not faulter and Festus manoeuvres the land rover so as track with the elephants rather than impede them. As the valley widens, the bulls climb up the steep side of the riverbank and disappear. Two hundred metres further on, wheel ruts in the sand indicate a path for us and Festus guns the engine and we roar up the bank onto a wide flat river terrace. No more than fifty metres away the bulls have stopped, with their dusty backs to us they suck up litre loads of precious water from a shallow cement pan. Festus explains that it’s one of a number of IRDNC bore holes dug to supplement the animal’s water supply during the drought. Festus moves the land rover obliquely towards the well to give as a better angle to photograph and for long wonderful minutes we watch these two desert goliaths drinking their fill before the lead bull sprays a glorious arc of water over his back, turns and ambles back towards the river. As his companion follows, there is movement in the treeline on the far side of the river. More elephants, four females and a gaggle of adolescents and tiny calves that spill down the bank onto the sand. Festus slowly takes down into the bed once more, this time to within metres of the matrilineal herd and for the next half hour we delight in the antics of the calves and their family along the shaded riverbed.
Namibia’s conservation model has enabled the elephant population to expand from just over 7,500 in 1995 to 24,000 at present. What’s remarkable is that the restoration of Namibia’s wildlife has been achieved not in national parks or game reserves, but on indigenous owned and operated conservancies. However, the treat to the Namibian elephant population continues because of the continued loss of habitat due to cyclical periods of drought and most concerningly, the rising incidences of human-elephant conflict. The indigenous custodianship of these lands and their wildlife is ancient – more than 30,000 years old. Testament to this relationship is the rock art of Namibia carved laboriously into the sun-baked slabs of the crumbling red escarpments by the ancient San (Bushmen) and Khoi Khoi (Hottentots). For all our sakes, let us support these initiatives and enable this extraordinary relationship to continue.