Before visiting the SADC countries of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe last year, we were told by everyone who had been there before that we’ll see thousands of elephant.
We didn’t doubt them, as it is, after all, home to the largest remaining population of elephants in the world.
As our luck would have it, we drove through Botswana for three days without seeing a single animal. Forget the elephants, we didn’t see even an impala. (We did see endangered vultures pulling apart a roadkill cow, though.)
As we entered into Namibia through the Mohembo border control and into the Caprivi towards Katima Mulilo, we were gatvol.
We were travelling with my parents and their friends – a group of mid-forty-year-old Afrikaans farmers who were as desperate to see a buck as they were for a decent plate of boerekos.
By the time we reached Namibia, trekking through the sand, 2 400km away from our point of departure in Cradock, the thought of seeing elephants was about the only thing motivating us to drive on.
Camping on the banks of the Okavango River the first night in the Caprivi strip in Namibia, I realized this was not the first time my dad and some of the other men had been in this part of the world. The previous time they were here, though, they were 18 years old, and not so much interested in spotting elephants.
The Caprivi strip is one sought after piece of land in sub-Saharan Africa, bordered not only by three countries, but also four African river arteries, the Okavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi. But its rich natural heritage, it seems, is also its curse, as this 105km-wide stretch has seen a significant amount of conflict over the past couple of decades.
It was during the 1965 – 1994 operations, when the South African government sent troops to fight SWAPO (the South West Africa People’s Organization) in the area, when my dad and his pals, along with thousands of other 18-year-old South African boys, fought in the Border War here.
We set up camp in the Mahango Game Reserve close to the Botswana border our first night in the Caprivi. As the fire crackled, one of my dad’s friends recalled a night spent here, in the very same bush, some 26 years ago.
“I was on the night shift, patrolling the area,” he remembered, “when I got a horrible feeling that the enemy was surrounding us”. SWAPO insurgents, he said, had the upper hand as they knew the area well, and had prying loose on the South Africans from the thick bush.
Snapping a dry twig between his fingers, he demonstrated the sounds he heard that night, when he thought they were ambushed. “In my mind, I could see them trying not to make a noise as they maneuvered past the bushes towards us.
“I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” he said, but managed to walk into the night, finger shaking on the trigger of an automatic gun. “When I finally got the guts to put on my flashlight, I was standing two metres from an elephant!
“These things can be anywhere,” he said pointing to our dark surroundings, referring to our current search for the ‘enemy’.
That night in my tent, I was woken by a giggling hyena scavenging in our camp. As I lay awake, slightly spooked by the hyena, I thought of the war that once tormented this strip – and those who lived here then. I might have dosed off and dreamt it, but I could have sworn I heard gunfire in the distance…
The next day we were as adamant as ever to see elephants.
As we were driving thought the dense thicket looking for the elusive giants, we drove past a dilapidated little concrete building, consumed by the trees and grass in which it was first erected.
My father whipped out the walky-talky from between to two front seats as if he’d just seen an elephant. “Hendrik, Hendrik kom in…” he summoned his comrade in the vehicle in front of us. “This must be where 32 Battalion was stationed”.
As if back on the “grens” (the border), as they called it, they tried to establish the layout of the old army camp in intervals on the two-way radios – each radio-holding party adding a bit of info between screeching bleeps and standardised communications like “copy that”, “loud and clear” and “over and out”.
There are no real roads in the area, and you pretty much drive where it looks like there was once a track…
And then it happened. An elephant bull came charging out of the thicket, about a hundred metres ahead of us. It stopped in the track, looked directly at us with flapping ears, and then turned around and sped off again, stopping to look at our vehicle once or twice as it ran away.
We thought it strange, but concluded it must have been an agitated bull in musth.
Futher down the track, we stumbled upon another sort of army camp – this one, though, was still in use…
As our vehicles stopped on the premises, a friendly looking, AK47-bearing, army-clad man came walking up to us, greeting us in fluent Afrikaans. He told us they were stationed out here to monitor poaching. “We arrested some suspects just last night,” he said. I thought of the gunshots…
“It’s better now, but people were killing the elephants as they pleased here after the wars,” he said. For the elephants, the war has never stopped.
“The elephants are traumatized. They’ve seen too many wars. And elephants never forget, you know.”
*We did see elephants in the end, hundreds of them. But spotted only the rogue bull in the area where the South African soldiers were once stationed.