Survival of the fastest


Words by Loftus Viljoen. Pictures by Loftus Viljoen and various.

The Wild Horses of the Namib

The sun bakes relentlessly on the wide open landscape of the Namib Desert. Through the shimmering heat waves you see something moving. Is it just a mirage? No, there’s something there. Slowly a ribbon of horses materialises, moving towards the water trough. These are the wild horses of the Namib Desert.

Stories about the origin of these horses have been circulating for over a century. Where did they come from? How did they survive the harsh elements for so long? Well, their story is possibly the greatest survival story ever told. The Namib is a coastal desert which stretches from the west coast of South Africa – where it touches the semi-desert of the Karoo – more than 2 000 kilometres northwards across Namibia into the southern part of Angola. Its width varies from 50 – to about 200 kilometres.

The desert got its name from the Nama inhabitants, and the word means “a vast place”. With an annual rainfall of between 2 mm in the most arid areas to about 200 mm at the escarpment, this is a true desert. It’s some 50 million years old which makes it the oldest desert in the world. Temperatures along the coast are stable, and range between 9° and 20° C; but further inland, conditions are harsher, with daytime temperatures exceeding 45° C in summer. Nights can be freezing.

This is the area that the wild horses have chosen as their home – free to live according to their own rules. They’ve survived here for more than 100 years, despite the droughts of ’91-2 and ’98-9, when many perished.

But we need to go right back to the beginning of the twentieth century to tell their tale. It’s the year 1914 and there are rumours of an imminent global war, but in the German colony of German South West Africa there is great excitement with the news that two aeroplanes are being shipped in. Add this to the fleet of five cars and profits of millions of marks from the mining activities, and you have a place where the future looks bulletproof.

In May 1914 the two aeroplanes arrive: the Otto Doppeldecker (double-wing) and the Aviatik Doppeldecker. Bruno Büchner, Willi Trück and Alexander von Scheele are the first pilots. The idea is to test the planes for an airmail service, and for them to serve as an air force for the Schutzentruppe. On 18 May 1914, Austrian-Hungarian pilot Paul Fiedler sets ashore to wait for his aeroplane, a Roland-Taube steel double-decker, which arrives by steamship a few weeks later.

Buchner then flew to East Africa in it, leaving only two planes for testing. During their tests, the pilots reported to Berlin that neither of the planes was suited for the climatic conditions in South West Africa, both crashing a few times. These planes could not be replaced before World War 1 broke out. Elsewhere, at Lüderitz and at Baron Hansheinrich von Wolf’s Duwisib Castle, horses were bred for racing, and for work: transporting goods and in mining-related activities. From 1904 – 14, Emil Kreplin, the mayor of Lüderitz, had a stud farm at Kubub, south of Aus. The wild horses of today bear a striking resemblance to the stallions of his stud, and those of Duwisib. These characteristics are mostly those found in the Kap- Boerperd, the Hackney and Trakehner. Because of the diamond finds, the German colonial administration declared certain areas restricted. These formed the so-called Sperrgebiet, which extended inland for about 100 kilometres, and to which nobody was allowed access. The surroundings of Garub with its borehole and drinking troughs fell within the confines of Sperrgebiet II.

In early August 1914, World War 1 broke out, and Governor Seitz ordered the mobilisation of the Schutztruppe (1 870 men and 3 000 reservists). Apparently, up to 2 000 horses were kept at Aus. But, on the South African side, some 60 000 soldiers were mobilised; and this army was far better equipped than the German Schutztruppe.

Around the same time, reports include another reference to large numbers of horses: 10 000 South African soldiers with 6 000 horses pitched camp at Garub in March 1915. A borehole there for replenishing locomotives on the nearby railway line had been blown up by German forces, but it was repaired quickly enough. A report, compiled later about the events of war at Aus, says: “In the morning of 27 March (1915) the indefatigable pilot officer Fiedler flew to Garub and caused great bewilderment by successfully dropping bombs onto the enemy camp and among about 1 700 grazing cavalry horses.” The horses scattered and stampeded in the direction of the nearby mountains and into Sperrgebiet II. There was no time to round them up as the South African forces were in hot pursuit of the German forces. Both biplanes were shot at and crashed during the skirmishes, one in April 1915 and the other in May the same year. They were blown up by the German forces to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Baron von Wolf died in action in Europe during the war, and his stud was abandoned in the 1930s. Those horses probably joined up with the horses that had scattered during the bombardment at Aus-Garub, and so the horses of the Namib became feral horses.

A feral horse is a free-roaming horse of domestic ancestry. As such, a feral horse isn’t a wild animal in the true sense of the phrase. However, some populations of feral horses are managed as wildlife, and these horses are often popularly called “wild” horses. Feral horses are descended from domestic horses that strayed, escaped, or were deliberately released into the wild and remained to survive and reproduce there. Away from humans, over time, their patterns of behaviour come to resemble closely those of wild horses. As the feral horses were able to develop and survive in almost complete isolation for 90 years, they may now be regarded as a breed in their own right: the ‘Wild Horses of the Namib’.

In 1986, Sperrgebiet II was declared open and annexed to Namib Naukluft Park. After Namibia became independent in 1990, tourism increased by leaps and bounds, and a shelter was erected at the drinking trough at Garub to give visitors the opportunity to watch the wild horses. Why are we so fascinated by the wild horses? Probably because these horses gained the freedom to live according to their own social rules: they have rediscovered their natural behaviour and adapted to the harsh environment. Wild horses did not exist naturally in sub-Sahara – they were all brought here by man and were either abandoned, or were lost, and then grouped together to live as feral horses. In South Africa, I know of the wild horses of the Rooisand Nature Reserve in the Western Cape (the only wetland wild horses in the world) and the wild horses of Kaapsehoop in the Barberton area of Mpumalanga.

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