Khaudum National Reserve was marked as a destination for us as it is said to be the wildest park in Namibia.
Lonely Planet ref: Few tourists visit Khaudum as the tracks are unmaintained, hard on the vehicle and facilities are “rudimentary”. Elephants have destroyed what look like were once nice campsites.
After coming from Etosha where the elephants are used to visitors, we had to re-adjust back to wild elephants again. We were given accounts of elephant and hyena attacks on people in the park.
The Khaudum elephants tended to move away as soon as they saw you, or let you know your presence is not appreciated. We tried to keep our distance, with an eye on escape routes, but fast exits would be impossible if trapped by thick scrub in the deep bumpy sand tracks.
To get to the park, there is a 3hr (60km) sandy track. It is soft and deep immediately as you turn off the bitumum. The deep sand tracks continue throughout the park (take plenty of fuel).
*Namibia Wildlife Resorts asks visitors to travel in a two-vehicle convoy and be self- sufficient in food, water and spares. Caravans, trailers and motorcycles are prohibited.
We spent hours driving in the self steering sand ruts being thrown side to side to side to side, plus kangaroo hopping resembling donkey kicks when judgment or concentration lapsed.
Go slow…., try fast for a while…., try going slow again…..; it was long and hard going on the poor car.
Over the last few weeks we had driven tracks with miles of horrid Namibian bulldust, some as wide as 6 lane highways! Whilst the bull dust bogs were shorter in Khaudum, the dust plumed out from the wheels then ran down the windows like rain. Others threw dust clouds that completely blocked daylight, temporarily turning the inside of the car into darkness – wow! Extinction of the dinosaurs went through my mind.
We turned into a track, the wheel ruts were very wide and deep from trucks. Our car could only travel in one wheel rut at a time, the other wheel up on the sand mound.
This made the car lean either left or right and scratch along the bushes on the side of the track ☹. It was thick scrub so we kept going on the lean and scratching the car, Frankie said “I hope this is going to be worth it”.
Finally we came to a clearing, where we saw a helicopter. They were spotting elephants for relocation to Erindi, a private game reserve. They invited us to join them the next day to capture 2 bulls, they even brought extra fuel for us so we could join in the unexpected adventure ☺.
Khaudum National Park, with 5000 – 10,000 elephants, is overpopulated for its area. Erindi and the park have been negotiating and planning for 7 years to relocate 200 of these elephants to the game reserve.
We had to be at their base at 7am, therefore we had to leave camp at 5:30am.
Rule#1 – Do not drive in the dark – Broken.
You could see so much elephant activity in the area, I was worried we might encounter elephants on the way and be delayed, but we were lucky none were on the track at that time and we only saw 5 big hyenas. Many of the animals in this park seem to be bigger than ones we had seen in other areas.
(The elephants here are said to be the biggest in Africa. In fact, Erindi found their standard elephant transporters were not big enough to accommodate the Khaudum bulls and they lost a few days production, in the beginning, as they had to pause operations to get height extensions added to the transporters)
We travelled with Ruan, who is the game manager of Erindi. I had the best seat (but forgot my camera☹) and was sitting up front with Ruan (whoops I had pushed Paul, the owner of Erindi, into the back of the ute). Ruan was coordinating the operations, so we were the first truck in the convoy! He was like an octopus, talking back and forth to the chopper on one radio, then the other trucks on another radio, plus driving (shame I cannot understand Afrikaans).
As we were coming up the track, we could see the helicopter herding the darted bull towards the track. The elephant crossed the track and the chopper stopped him going too far, trying to keep him close to the track.
The elephant was ready to lie down so we pull off the track towards it, with all the other trucks following. The elephant had now stopped. We were first to him and parked right there and got out. Wow! He was standing there leaning backwards with his front legs out straight, slowly leaning further back more and more. We took some photos. Then he dropped to a sitting position with his front legs still straight. I wondered if they all go to sleep this way. Once he had sat down they pushed him over onto his side.
It was all go! Guys were clearing bushes with chainsaws, the 2 vets were attending to the bull, a stick was put in his trunk to hold it open, measurements and data was being taken, and he got “95” graffitied onto his bum. It’s a 2 crane job, the 2 cranes and a flat bed were already in position, straps were put around #95 and the 2 cranes simultaneously lifted him. The flat bed backed in and together they all skillfully positioned, lowered and laid him down so he was lying on his side, centered across the flat bed. He was tied down and Job Done!!
The chopper took off to find #95’s friend. It was herding him but this time the elephant needed to lie down before they could get him close to the track so we had a bit of a bush bash to get to him.
This time Ruan pull up to the side of the elephant and jumped out. The chopper had dropped off the 2 vets and they were already attending the elephant, which was sitting in a crouching position. Ruan had put some straps around the elephant and jumped back in, he then pulled him over onto his side. Wow, everyone knows what they have to do and the team can immediately deal with every situation (Elephants have to be lying on their side or they could crush their lungs).
Same deal, the chainsaw guys were clearing, the cranes and flatbed backed into position, data recorded; #96 is lifted and expertly laid down onto the flatbed. Impressive coordination!
With #95 and #96, the convoy was ready to make its way back to base for wake up and transfer. I was on the flat top with #96 and Maria, one of the vets. I was looking around for a secure hold for the journey, they told me it was ok to sit on him! Heheheh, I wondered if #96 would mind, and thought I’d better just lean against him to brace myself. But his body was really relaxed and wobbling so I had to be careful not to step on his ear with each bump and gear change. He was having a wonderful snooze and SNORED VERY LOUDLY all the way! Pretty funny.
Once back at base there was another display of no fuss coordination as they smoothly transferred sleeping #95 into the wake up crate. Here the vets administered the anti dote and he was helped to his feet, and then moved to a transport crate for the trip to Erindi. Same procedure for #96.
It was a sad day for the team, as Sept 30 was the last day of the relocation season as the weather starts to get too warm for the well being of the animals. The teams smooth operations had transferred 96 elephants in just 6 weeks. The only down time they had were a few days at the beginning of the season to add the height extensions to the crates. The remaining 104 elephants will be collected next season.
For Frankie and I, it was a privilege to watch firsthand, the professional collection of #95 and #96, and we thank Paul and the Erindi team for the extraordinary opportunity and experience.
Staff and guests of Erindi were already reporting seeing the other elephants as they were settling in well.
There has been quite some media interest about the whole project by the likes of BBC, National Geographic, etc so hopefully we may see some programs about the project.