The wild horses of the Namib Desert

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Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Their survival remains a treasured mystery

Text By Beccy Mair | Photos Paul van Schalkwyk 

Wild horses? In Africa? Everyone thinks of encountering lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. But it’s true; there are also wild horses. How these magnificent animals came to be in Namibia and how they survive the hot, dry, hostile climate has all the ingredients of a myth. But their legend hasn’t grown through generations of tale telling. It has many beginnings, each arriving at one perfect end. 

Around 150 feral horses roam the plains of the Namib Desert, complete with a new generation of foals. Through their grim determination to live, they evoke a sense of wonder and admiration for their gallant survival.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Their backyard is 350 square kilometres of desert, but you can view them one kilometre north of the B4 and 22 kilometres west of Aus.

An easy-to-reach viewing station built at Garub Plain lures them with a modern water tank, put there especially. They share it with the indigenous locals; gemsbok, springbok and ostrich, travelling miles to reach it every few days. The horses drink first, the gemsbok wait. Then, according to a pecking order laid out in front of me, the ostrich are last to quench their thirst. Compared to ‘normal’ horses, the desert-adapted ones move more slowly, sweat less and can survive without water for five days. Their immune system is apparently so complex that it aids recovery from almost anything out there in the wilds.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

I arrived with no preconceptions, just my camera and a love for all things equestrian. I stood in silent appreciation, exhilarated to the core. Up close and personal without invading space or privacy, these wild, spiritual and majestic animals made me feel sublimely insignificant. Timeless hours passed, I looked out onto a life that was wild and carefree, and was envious. The shutter of my camera was on quick release as I tried to grasp in a single frame this, their enigmatic life.

Two thirds of the Namib’s horses gathered in that one spot, seemingly oblivious to our presence. A foal, fragile yet robust, wary yet as wired as any baby to indulge in short bursts of energy, had his mother and the whole herd looking out for his welfare.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

We witnessed a fight between two striking stallions. A lone male approached with a confidence bordering aggression. He tried again and again to muscle in, but was met by the leader of the group and shown the door in no uncertain terms. Both horses reared up onto their hind legs, curled back their lips and put on an extraordinary display of horse hierarchy and dominance.

All around me, shutters on cameras clicked and whirred, framing horses in action, dirt swirling around their feet, their agression inflicted through powerful kicks of the front legs. The glare of the sun ricocheted off the near-white landscape, making my eyes water, but glare or no glare, my cheeks were wet with tears of awe. Nearby, one horse limped. Its injury looked serious and would no doubt cause it to die sooner than is fair or right, but nature is sometimes cruel. I still hope that he made it.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

How did these horses arrive in Africa? There are several theories, none proven, that give them their mythical status rather perfectly. Obviously not indigenous, they were most likely brought from Europe.

There’s talk of a well-off German, Baron Hans-Heinrich von Wolf, who built Duwisib Castle, 160 kilometres north of Garub, for his American wife and set up a stud there. Could the desert horses be descendants of stud-farm escapees?

Or maybe they are descended from survivors of a late 19th-century shipwreck at the mouth of the Orange River. A delivery of thoroughbreds had left Europe for Australia but had never arrived, their boat becoming yet another skeleton on Namibia’s notorious Skeleton Coast. Did these horses live and make their way north in an outstanding dispay of survival of the fittest?

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Another theory is that they are descended from cavalry horses shipped from Europe in the First World War. With no war left to fight, did they manage to make a life for themselves in the desert?

Whatever their true origin, they are from thoroughbred stock, because every horse looked sleek,  fit and vibrant with health. Their coats shone like molten velvet beneath the hot African sun, highlighting every muscle on their lean, athletic bodies. Long, unkempt manes shouted feral and untamed. Free to be wild and thriving on it.

These handsome animals have adapted miraculously to a barbaric climate of extreme heat and drought. Their count of nearly 300 dropped to around 80 with severe droughts in 1992. Today’s increase to 150 is a massive success, demonstrating the horses’ boundless stamina and drive to survive.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

The Namib Feral Horses’ Trust oversees their welfare, filling the water tank daily. The dry season is best for viewing because there is little water to be found elsewhere in the desert. For those who want to learn more about the legend that is these desert horses of Namibia, head for the excellent tourist information centre found at the turn-off for the B4 to Aus. You can’t miss it, as the outside of the building is painted pink.

The centre, which provides information in English and German, is run by the community, which benefits from the profits. Expect a warm, friendly and enthusiastic welcome. There are toilets and refreshments and I can recommend the buttery ginger biscuits – one bag just isn’t enough – not to mention the exemplary apple pie at we wolfed down on our way back at Solitaire. It was baked by Moose, whose baking according to traditional German recipes is famous throughout Namibia.

The story of these desert horses of Namibia is one of survival fit for a book of fairytales, yet a long way from being confined to just a page or two. Some are set on getting to the root of whence they came. However, a romantic part of me hopes that nature will supersede science and that their origin and secrets of survival will remain a treasured mystery.

Beccy Mair is a photographer and travel writer based in England.

Flamingo April 2008

Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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