‘Namibia’s wild, free-roaming desert elephants are shy and less accustomed to humans, so give them at least 500 m of personal space.’ Tracks4Africa’s official advice on how to handle possible encounters made it clear that these desert giants are rare and to be given a wide berth. We simply wanted to see one, but after only finding their tracks and dung for days we conceded that the wilds of Damaraland are simply too vast to guarantee a sighting. That was until we heard branches break very close by while relaxing around our campfire in the dry Ugab riverbed. 

The Erongo region, or Damaraland as it was known before, is a beautifully rugged area in central Namibia. It encompasses dramatic mountain-scapes such as the Brandberg (Namibia’s highest peak) and Erongo mountains, dry riverbeds where wild creatures still roam free, a windswept coast teeming with fish, and rocky desert plains. We explored its variety of landscapes and adventures and found much more than we had bargained for. Here are some of our favourites.

Namib Naukluft: rock arches, wide spaces and wild camping 

The Namib Naukluft National Park is a vast place, including most of the Namib desert. This is one of the places where you can find the Welwitschia, the fascinating and hard-to-spell endemic plant that is known as a living fossil. The remote wild camping sites in the northern section of the park got our attention, as it is one of the only places you can wild camp (legally) in a Namibian national park, as long as you get a permit beforehand. We drove along the Kuiseb river to look for the dune lark, the country’s only true endemic bird (we missed it, giving us reason to go back). Venturing north, lunar landscapes gave way to dry and rocky plains and eventually turned to swaying grasslands studded with rocky outcrops such as the bloedkoppie, named after the blood red colour it turns at sunset. Our favourite campsite was set under an ancient rock arch. With the nearest people miles away and the milky way stretched across the night canvas, we cooked a chicken stew and watched the flames flicker against the rocks.

Henties bay: beach fishing, seals and terns

The sleepy seaside town of Henties bay is synonymous with surf angling and therefore had to be included in our itinerary. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the famous and colourfully-named fishing spots such as Sarah se Gat, Bennie se rooi lorrie, and Predikantsgat. The beaches also proved to be a good place for amateurs like us to get their leaf springs rusted in the blink of an eye (locals spray seal oil onto vehicle underbodies to prevent this – now you know). We visited Cape Cross where the intrepid Portuguese landed way before anyone else, although the only settlers that stuck around there are thousands of beautiful (albeit somewhat smelly) cape fur seals. Here we also found large flocks of the endangered Damara tern that are known to breed along this coastline.

Erongo mountains: boulders, vistas and rockrunners 

After stocking up in the quaint town of Omaruru, we explored the Erongo mountains and camped at Erongo Rocks, a beautiful farm set in the heart of the region. With boulders, koppies and rocky mountains wherever you look, this is a hiking and nature lover’s haven. We saw special birds such as the nimble rockrunner, the shy Hartlaub’s spurfowl and the vocal barred wren-warbler. We were wowed by the views and vistas from mountain-tops and humbled by age-old bushman paintings. We even found aardvark tracks and saw a Noki (dassie rat). As the sun painted the hills a rich ochre and we lighted the fire in the rocky boma, a pair of freckled nightjars bow-wowed nearby and the world was at peace.

Ugab river: desert elephants, valleys and camelthorns

A bumpy drive through rocky mountains leads you to a unique and wild campsite in a hidden valley along the dry Ugab riverbed. The Ugab Rhino Camp is one of Damaraland’s treasures. Namibia’s inspiring Save the Rhino trust uses the camp as research base and runs it on a voluntary donation basis. We camped under a beautiful camelthorn tree at the edge of the campsite. As we prepared dinner while long cool shadows cast over the valley, we heard the unmistakable subsonic rumbles of elephants coming closer. Not just any elephants – desert elephants! A small herd emerged from the nearby trees and peacefully browsed their way past our campfire, some fifteen meters away from where we sat quietly. However, when two bulls suddenly decided it was time for a closer inspection of Baloo the Cruiser, they moved our adrenalin levels from ‘this is cool’ all the way to ‘this got real’ in a very short time.

We evacuated to the safety of the car, with no time to close the open canopy at the back. The big boys padded and sniffed all around Baloo, settling at the open canopy with its enchanting smells of food and water. With us watching on anxiously from the sideview mirrors, they proceeded to inspect and unpack our kitchen one item at a time. Kettle, flasks and containers were taken from the canopy and cast aside until they reached the good stuff, dispatching our bread, a pineapple and a packet of crisps with expert precision. One feels rather self-conscious when an elephant evaluates your provisions and setup, what with their high standards and all. Heeding our kind (read trembling) requests to cease their raiding activities, the ellies casually strolled away before they could wreak real havoc. 

We still cannot believe our good fortune with this unexpected experience – a true once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Come to think of it, our entire time in the Erongo region was filled with unexpectedly rewarding and fulfilling adventures. We found postcard landscapes, beautiful creatures and exciting activities. We found spaces and places to breathe, to dream, to wonder. Damaraland, you will see us again! 

Some helpful trip information:

Namib Naukluft NP camping permits: Swakopmund Ministry, Environment & Tourism office (-22.6786, 14.5238)

Henties bay self-catering accommodation: https://www.firstgroup-sa.co.za/desert-rose 

Cape Cross Nature Reserve: -21.7717, 13.9524 

Erongo Rocks campsites: https://www.erongorocks.com/ 

Ugab Rhino Camp coordinates (no bookings): -20.9622, 14.1355