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Text & Photographs Jaco Bekker
The first time I ever saw an elephant in nature was shortly after having seen Jurassic Park on the big screen. My heart exploded and so did my imagination. The big guys are awesome.
A few years back Steffi and I were flown out to Damaraland for a photo shoot – as models. I usually prefer to be on the other end of the camera, but it’s Damaraland and I’m not one to decline an opportunity to visit such a geological wonder.
The idea behind the shoot was to promote certain lodges as romantic getaways for those couples who can’t actually afford to go to Mars. The geology is as unique as it is ancient. There’s nothing more enlightening about our planet’s age than taking a stroll through the rock-strewn terrain of Damaraland. The geology of the area speaks to one’s being and to one’s heart. Also, wear shoes, sharp edges everywhere.
…and there is life, “big life” as I like to put it. The photographer’s job was to frame the tourists (Steffi and yours truly) against the Damaraland backdrop, with a desert elephant either next to or in the vehicle. Needless to say we got pretty close to the big boys.
We came upon a large herd on our first day of shooting. It is here that I just want to point out what most of us know, but what a greedy few refuse to believe – the best way to shoot an elephant is with a standard or high-end camera, not a gun. Leave those murderous notions at home. Just like people would enjoy having you around for a quick chat or a beer, observing those guys and gals roam freely in what appears to be a desolate environment is far more rewarding than not having them around. Just saying.
We parked our vehicle, while the photographer circled around us to get the perfect shot. I believe standing still rendered us invisible, as the elephants got close enough for me to smell their earwax. It was as frightening as it was exciting. Our driver would gracefully speed off before they climbed into our vehicle.
That’s a fabrication, of course. They were docile, peacefully walking along a dry riverbed. They did, however, intimidate us by pointing at their feces. They know how to throw. It’s a matter of respect, you see.
They had babies with them. They weighed more than the heaviest person alive, but babies they were. And they were kicking around the dung like a soccer ball. It was utterly heartwarming to see these desert Dumbos amuse themselves while the adults kept a watchful eye.
We were humbled by how accommodating they were. Never did I feel like they would flip over the car and tap dance all over us. That’s not who or what they are. From what I could see they were just a bunch of parents and friends taking their kids out for a stroll.
Elephants aren’t the only larger-than-life animals traversing the hard surface of Damaraland. The elephants weren’t nearly as elusive as the desert rhino, which we couldn’t find at all that time around. We did find a trail though, which led us on a bit of a goose chase- a goose chase that paid off in the most spectacular fashion.
You see, Namibian tour guides have binoculars built straight into their eyes. It’s standard practice. While Steffi, the photographer and I were looking for rhinos, our driver/tour guide/human telescope spotted something that was close to a thousand kilometers away.
“There’s a lion over there,” he said. “Where?” We all asked in unison. “Over there,” he said, pointing to a speck hiding in the shade of a bush about two to three kilometers away. Needless to say we didn’t believe him, until he handed us his eyes/binoculars. It was a lion.
We were perched high on top of a hill. It was much easier to see the lion. After about 10 minutes, the guide decided to get closer. He did however ask me to stay behind and keep an eye on the lion’s movements. He gave me a walkie-talkie and a pair of binoculars, while they tried to get closer in the safety of the vehicle. I’m pretty sure he was just using me as bait.
After the tensest stare down I’ve ever had, I ran down to the vehicle. The lion didn’t move (I was very thankful for that). We bulldozed our way through the rough, rocky terrain to get closer to the big cat.
It was a young male, sporting a marvelous rough mullet. I know it’s a mane, but the lion looked far too rebellious to call it that. We got a lovely view of his choppers every time he yawned. He didn’t seem to care about our presence. He just cared about the peace and quiet of the land.
My reference to Jurassic Park wasn’t simply to compare the sheer size of the desert elephants to long-extinct animals, but my fear that one-day people will only be able to see these creatures as computer generated characters in a film.
Creatures in Damaraland deserve respect and all our efforts to keep them free from human danger. This article doesn’t attempt to raise awareness of poaching by reminding the world that these animals might soon disappear from existence, but rather that they are still here and that we can still do something to help them.