Damaraland Camp: Namibia’s Desert Elephants, the Landscape and Ancient Art

As our small aircraft approached the airstrip near Damaraland Camp I was struck by the similarity of the landscape to the American desert Southwest. The wide, flat table-top mountains have those familiar, exposed, horizontal layers of colored rock. But, unlike the American southwest, the rusty red earth is dotted with green euphorbia, white ash bushes and the occasional, lone shepherd’s tree. The contrast between the red earth and the gray of the ash bushes was striking.

In contrast to the rocky, red earth are vast sandy areas with rolling hills and Ana trees (acacia) following the dry river beds. Out on the horizon, at what looks like the end of the earth, is the Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain. Brandberg means fire mountain in both Afrikaans and German and refers to the mastiff’s color in the setting sun.

The sparsely-inhabited area lies about 30 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean and 160 miles north of Swakopmund. In the 30 minutes it took to drive from the airstrip to camp we had the most enjoyable introduction to this new desert landscape.

Damaraland Camp – Peaceful, Quiet, and So Beautiful

The camp is nestled among red, rolling hills. Damaraland Camp is relatively small; only 10 thatched bungalows. Our bungalow sat on the side of a hill with a view of the valley beyond. And while our days were busy, we were in the safari vehicles early every morning, when we were in camp it was quiet thanks to its small size. In addition to our group of 14 there were only a couple of other small groups in camp. We loved having the place to ourselves.

The central dining room, complete with a fire place, is open air — as is the bar area. The pool is directly adjacent to the bar and the fire pit is just beyond the swimming pool.

A unique feature of Damaraland Camp is the boma, a fenced enclosure used for dining on some evenings. The path to the boma was lit with lanterns and a large fire pit held a roaring fire. We sat around the fire, drinks in hand, soaking up the warmth of the fire before dinner. It was a magical evening.

Damaraland Camp is located within the 352,000-hectare Torra Wildlife Conservancy. The conservancy was established 1998 and is managed by a group elected by its inhabitants. Conservancies generate income from tourism and are a way to protect wildlife while allowing local people to maintain their way of life. Damaraland Camp was the first Wilderness Safaris camp in Namibia and is a partnership between the company and local people who staff the camp.

It was odd to see local farmers’ cattle grazing in the same area as the desert elephants. One night I was awakened by what I imagined was a thundering herd of zebras. When I told our guide about the experience he politely smiled at my description and said it was only a local farmer’s herd of donkeys that pass through camp on a regular basis. My version is so much more colorful!

As with every other camp, we were up early in the morning for breakfast and in the safari vehicles by 7 o’clock. Our guides, Abner and Chris, were incredibly knowledgeable about not only the wildlife but the complex geological history of the region. The remote location gave us a wonderful opportunity to drive through new landscape every day on the way to either tracking desert elephants or viewing other natural wonders in the area. I never tired of the views and loved riding in the open vehicles, even if it was very dusty at times. Every day was a bad hair day, but in the best possible sense!

Desert Elephants — A Peek Into Their Lives

Time spent watching these desert dwellers was the highlight of my time in Namibia. Desert-adapted elephants appear smaller in comparison to the African elephants we saw in other parts of Africa though they are all the same species. Desert elephants have a smaller body, but longer legs and broader feet to help them navigate the sandy desert. Our guides told us they sometimes see these intrepid elephants at the top of hills, proving just how agile they are.

Elephants in other parts of Africa are known to be particularly destructive of trees. Not so with the desert-adapted elephants in Namibia who have learned to feed on trees without killing them. They only partially strip the bark from trees and only knock over trees that are already dead.

Our guides were careful to keep a respectful distance from the herds, we kept our voices down and the elephants mostly seemed not to notice our presence. We watched several elephant families browsing on thorny acacia trees and other shrubs. Watching the baby elephants interacting with each other, their mothers and siblings was heartwarming. Nearby, we watched two teenagers sparing with each other. They appeared to be having great fun.

Peering through this window, even so briefly, into the lives of these beautiful animals still leaves me feeling emotional and very thankful for the opportunity to see how they live. Not too many years in the past elephant numbers in the area reached a critically low number due to poaching. Thanks to recent conservation efforts elephant numbers have increased.

Twyfelfontein — Ancient Rock Art

The name means uncertain spring in Afrikaans and the local Nama/Damara people call the area Uri-Ais ( or /Ui-//Ais written to include the clicks) which translates to jumping waterhole. The names describe the intermittent nature of the spring. Of course, the history of Twyfelfontein dates back at least 5000 years prior to its being named by Afrikaner settlers in the mid 1940s. The presence of the spring in what is otherwise an arid region drew hunter-gatherers to the area.

The area is a jumble of large, flat sandstone rocks and boulders which provide the surfaces for the images that total more than 2000. The images are a combination of what local hunter-gatherers saw in their travels and religious or ritualistic images. It seems every rock surface has become a canvas for artwork. The area is strikingly beautiful even before viewing this amazing artwork and the area is Namibia’s first World Heritage site.

More Natural Beauty — Petrified Forest, Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes

Petrified forest — the fossilized tree trunks that lie here were washed to the area in an enormous flood about 260 million years ago when Namibia was part of the ancient continent Gondwana. They were subsequently covered with sediment and over the millennia became petrified. These ancient trees are early relatives of present-day confers which have never grown in the area.

Among the dry and dusty rocks we spotted many of Namibia’s national flower, the welwitschia plant. These long-lived plants can survive in these desert conditions for over 1000 years and have only two, leathery leaves that emerge from a central woody core. Over time the leaves split giving the impression of multiple leaves. These plants are found in this portion of the Namib desert northward into Angola. They are curiously primitive looking.

Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes — these two natural sites are close together. Burnt Mountain looks like, you guessed it, a pile of ash. Kind of underwhelming, to be honest. Organ Pipes was a bit more interesting. The pipes are dolorite formations, that are about 120 million years old, and look like dozens of fence posts stacked on end along a small gorge — or organ pipes — take your pick.

An Early Morning Walk, Then Goodbye

Our final morning in camp we had the option of taking an early morning hike or sleeping in. Of course, we got up early and joined the small group. The morning was chilly and cloudy; it had rained just a bit overnight.

Chris guided us on a walk in the hills around camp where we watched the sunrise, saw the fog retreat from a nearby river bed and spotted several of those donkeys I suspect clambered past our bungalow a few nights earlier. We were even rewarded with a rainbow…in the desert! The Perfect punctuation mark for the most amazing stay in Damaraland Camp. I would go back again in a heartbeat.

Desert rainbow



  1. Michelle Williams

    Wow! I never really know what to say as I read along your journey but wow! I am so appreciative of you sharing it with us. It just seems so incredible. I hope to follow in your foot steps someday.