In Search of the Namib Desert Horses

Rent a car and drive 75 (125km) miles out of Lüderitz into the Namib Desert? Wild horses couldn't drag us there! Well, actually, they could. We did hire a car and drove 75 miles to view the wild desert horses at Garub… and we're glad we did. wild horses viewpoint

We were looking for an interesting way to spend David's birthday. Our friend, Liz, made several suggestions, all of which we thought were worthwhile ideas. Seeing the wild horses was right up there at the top of the list. It was an unusually cold, very windy, overcast day as we walked up Bismarck Street to pick up a local rental car. We'd packed water and a picnic lunch and headed out on the B4 highway, the only road in and out of  Lüderitz, into the Namib Desert.

namib desert view

The desert begins immediately after leaving the coast with a huge sweeping landscape of sand … a panorama of tawny browns and tans, russet and raw umber interrupted by granite outcroppings. Scrub and hardy desert grasses cling to the desert floor. Sand blows relentlessly and drifts across the road.

sand on the road

We spotted an ostrich close to the side of the road, well-camouflaged until we startled him. He began to run at an amazingly fast pace, feathers ruffled, neck stretched out and his legs propelling him in maximum stride. He certainly wasn't sticking around for tourists.

ostrich running

Miles before we got to the turn-off for the horse viewing area, we saw a warning sign up ahead … Horses  Next 20km. We didn't have to wait long to catch sight of them.

horses next 20 km

There were horses on the right, horses on the left and horses crossing the road in front of us. With a population numbering somewhere between 100-150, these scruffy, lean equines are considered the only feral herd of horses in Africa and the only desert-dwelling feral herd in the world.

wild horses crossing the road in namib desert

There are several theories floating around as to their origin, but even with genetic testing, none has been positively verified.  One theory purports that “they were descended from German cavalry horses abandoned during the WWI when the South Africans invaded.  Another is that they were brought by Nama raiders moving north from beyond the Orange River, whilst a third claims they're descended from a load of shipwrecked horses en route from Europe to Australia. More local (and believable), is the story they were bred from the stud stock of Baron Captain Hans-Heinrich von Wolf."

wild horses of namib desert grazing

Throughout the years, the horses have gathered at a man-made bore hole (well)  near Garub, in the middle of nowhere and graze in the barren lands surrounding it. Though considered “exotics”, since they are not native to Namibia, they've been allowed to remain because of “their ties to the country's history and draw as a tourist attraction.” We found the little, poorly marked turn-off to the Garub waterhole and headed along a bumpy, dirt road into a parking area with a hide. There was not a horse to be seen! Just as well, it was so windy, we could barely open the car doors. It was blustery and cold. David lost his hat twice.

garub hide namib desert

We headed back along the dirt road and were met by a line of horses coming our way. We stopped the car and sipped some tea and watched. They were neither fearful, nor interested in us. They just ambled on across the road and began grazing on the sparse grass.

line of horses in namib desert

We spotted one foal, trailing along behind the herd. He seemed to have a problem with his hind leg which didn't bode well for his continued survival in this harsh environment. We've read that brown hyenas prey on the weaker horses, keeping the population in check.

foal in namib desert

We had only seen brown and black horses thus far, so when we spotted a small herd of white horses gathered under a camelthorn tree, we were pleasantly surprised. We pulled over to observe them. Judging from the look on that horse's face, I guess he was surprised by us, too. He stopped whinnying in mid-sentence!

white wild horses namib desert

I'm not sure exactly what we expected, but we thoroughly enjoyed our short visit with these desert dwellers. Definitely a hard life, but these are free-spirited animals, roaming wild and unfettered and it was a joy to watch them.

Since we were close to the little town of Aus, we headed onward to see what we could see. Stay tuned tomorrow.

Interested in more about the Namib Desert Horses? There's a film entitled Running Free available from Amazon.