We departed Lüderitz long before the sun rose, the icy morning chill visible on our breaths. Packed up and huddled in warm jackets and beanies, the car was loaded with tangible anticipation of what awaited us about 90km’s east into the heart of the Namib desert.
We didn’t speak much as we reluctantly left this beautifully forgotten town; a place etched into our memories for all time. We tried to adjust our eyes to the absolute darkness of the desert as it rushed by, the only certainty the stretch of pitch-black tar road illuminated by the car’s lights.
We didn’t want to call it by its name, in fear of losing the magic to disappointment. We all knew where we were heading and why we collectively rose so early on one of the last days of our Namibian holiday. We were hoping to see them with child-like faith, coming down to the water at the first break of dawn.
Sunrise in the desert
The sign to the turn-off rose out of the sand dunes just as we became comfortable with the indescribable darkness of the desert. I pulled over in the neck of the road and all of a sudden our ears were ringing with the nothingness of silence as I switched off the engine.
We slowly – almost sacredly! – left the car to allow the vast expanse of the pre-sunrise Namib desert to swallow us whole and fill our lungs with crisp night air. We could see the mountains etched darkly against the first rays of light, slowly turning the expanse into warm pastel colours. Except for the crunch of sand underfoot, it was so quiet I could hear the blood rush through my veins as it tried to stabilise my plummeting core temperature. I breathed out white clouds of frost, but just the thought of seeing them was worth the slight inconvenience of cold and dark.
We watched the sun rise over the desert, each caught in their own thoughts. It was probably one of the most serene views I’ve ever experienced, yet I’ve never felt smaller, more insignificant than in that precise moment. I was surrounded by a landscape over which the sun rose every single morning for the last 55 million years. Tiny, I tell you.
The wild horses of Garub
With the sun finally peeking over the koppies, lending bright colour to everything it touched, I slowly steered the heavy car over an incredibly bad stretch of sharp, rocky road to the viewpoint. Each minute felt like hours, and the short kilometer to our destination felt like days of trekking through unchartered territory. We bravely continued down the path which felt more like a rockslide than a road, quietly praying that we don’t snap an axle. Magic was waiting on the other side of probably the worst gravel road in all of Namibia. We continued to scan the horizon for billows of dust as we have the last few days before, but the veld was empty and desolate, except for a small concrete waterhole fed by a natural underground spring.
With our hearts in our shoes, we parked and took up our places in the shelter overlooking the waterhole, cameras and phones in hand, in case the desert decides to wake up. We knew they weren’t promised as they’re not kept by human nor fence, and that a sighting of the wild horses of Garub was a favour only bestowed by Lady Luck herself.
We sat quietly for about a half hour, scanning the sandy waves for signs of movement with our binoculars. We looked at each other and shrugged, eyes down, as the magic started to make way for the incoming sense of disappointment.
But then, a fluffy tuft of dust to our far right. And another kick of dust to the right of that. And another and another. Still too far to identify, we crossed our fingers that it was them. Within minutes, the immediate horizon was speckled with dust clouds, and, if you held your breath against the impossible silence of the desert for a few seconds, you could hear it: the rhythmic clopping of galloping hooves. They were coming right at us.
The smell of water
After filling their night thirst with fresh spring water, and with the growing heat of the morning sun on their backs, the wild horses of Garub lost their skittishness and stood around companionably. There were still more cantering down toward the water just beyond the first ridge, as the dust cloud continued to give away their location. They made their way down to the water in single file, the foals tucked safely between the legs of the adults until they were close enough to smell the water. At that point, the orderly descent broke down into playful kicks and trots, interspersed with whinnying greetings and snorts.
A close encounter
As the sun moved higher in the sky, the horses moved upward toward the shade of the shelter, where we still sat hours later with bated breath, wrapped in a real-life documentary. There was no trace of disappointment to be found – the magic of the Garub horses was quickly restored with the sighting of that first tuft of dust. With soft, rounded nostrils and sweeping tails, they came right up to the ledge to greet us. I could count their whiskers, hear their even, relaxed breathing. Some nibbled at dried up chunks of Namib tsamma, a type of wild melon that grows in the unforgiving red desert sand and offers valuable nutrients to its inhabitants. Some partook in communal grooming rituals or general frivolities, whilst the most curious of the herd rested their heads on the cool cement ledge, keeping us under (a very close!) eye.
We’ve hardly spoken to each other at this point – trying to convey our excitement with our eyes and hands, silly scared to frighten them away. I signaled the others that we should try and count them, but I lost track somewhere between 70 and 90. There was nobody else there, just the four of us, left speechless and believing in the good in the world as time stood still before us.
I had to make a conscious decision to put my camera down, so not to only experience this moment through a lens. Temporarily shed of the constant need to document and record everything, I stood between the gracious heads of two beautiful caramel horses with white-bleached manes, and breathed it all in.
I wanted to remember this moment until my last breath. The vastness of the naked, moon-like landscape, the silence that pierced your ears with its nothingness, the surreal sight of these long-forgotten animals left to their own defense against nature and human, the smell of the dust as they flicked their impossibly long tails across the sand. Their manes were tangled and unkempt, yet their coats were glossy and smooth in stark contrast with their rocky surroundings. We didn’t allow ourselves to reach out and touch them, but a few of them gave in to their curiosity and gently wrapped their satiny muzzles around our fingers, seemingly equally as enthralled as we were.
The gamble of Garub
I must’ve done something right to win the favour of Lady Luck that day. Many people search for years for just a glimpse at these majestic, wild horses of Garub, with nothing to show. Many people spend days at the viewpoint, yearning for movement on the horizon. Many locals confess that they’ve never seen more than a handful at a time, and mostly at a distance. And yet, we were rewarded with the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the oldest desert on earth, surrounded by a herd of uncountable feral horses, not kept by human nor fence, and all we did was show up.
Second photographer: Timothy P. Gibson
Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored in any shape, way or form. I traveled to Namibia in July/August 2022 as part of a family holiday. All thoughts and opinions expressed herein are solely those of The Little Hedonist (Amilinda Wilkinson), given in good faith and in no way influenced. It’s always a good idea to check opening times, rates and roads before travel. All images, unless otherwise stated/credited, are also my own.