A visit to the Gordon’s Bay Yacht Club last month for the opening of an art exhibition, followed by a breakfast gathering on Women’s Day, introduced me to some of the extraordinary photographs taken by Somerset West photographer Miona Janeke, of the wild desert horses in Namibia.
What had started off as a three-week journey, a number of years ago, with the sole purpose of photographing these hardy, beautiful horses, turned into a sojourn lasting seven months, where Mia – as she is known – remained, drawn inextricably by the stark landscapes, and their swift-footed inhabitants.
“The country, its people, and Namibia’s phenomenal and unique wild horses have mesmerised me. I saw the thirst in their eyes and the burning desire to survive,” Mia said.
Her quest to find the spirit of freedom led her to this parched land, which was rewarded by an incomparable experience, living up close to these wild horses, quintessential to our northern neighbour’s arid vistas.
Miona holds a BA degree in Applied Design from the Stellenbosch Academy of Graphic Design and Photography, and this had been her first exploration into nature photography.
About 12 years ago, I was also given the opportunity to fly up to Namibia in a very small aircraft, enabling the pilot and I to land on the hard, rocky roads at will, and explore.
Seeing some wild horses – first from above, and then on land, right in front of us – remains one of the highlights of my life, and as I work on Bolander every week, a photo I took of young stallions jousting is in front of me.
Mia’s experience was not as fleeting… she camped out, as her journey unfolded with a mind of its own, sleeping in her bakkie, and photographing these untamed spirits as they navigated terrain, sure-footed, tenacious in the face of inhospitable conditions, surviving and thriving.
Horses have always been a part of Mia’s life, growing up on a farm in Ladismith, KwaZulu-Natal, where she recalls spending her childhood on horseback.
She was introduced to the allure of the wild horses of the Namib by her grandfather, a great horseman himself of Irish descent. He shared tales of these magnificent creatures, entrancing Mia, which planted the seed of intention, to make the journey to see them herself.
These horses are the ultimate survivors, reminiscent of the mustangs of the American big sky country.
Their origin story is not conclusive, but genetic testing points towards their likely ancestors being the riding and cavalry horses, from German breeding programmes, released during the early 20th century, and WW1.
For the past century, they have roamed free in the Aus area, and their numbers relatively small.
Mia headed towards them in her small bakkie, with food, camping gear and plenty of water. Her days started early, and ended when darkness settled in, and other than a few tourists, she was predominantly alone.
She’d photograph them at the waterhole, or moving about in the small herds, dealing with the scorching hot, and blessedly cool evenings, where the canopy of stars kept her company.
Mia’s isolation juxtaposed the horses’ isolation, and she observed their determination to survive − and thrive − despite the hostility of their environment.
Her photography was a combination of art, angles, compositions, and story lines, a case of placing oneself in the midst of one’s subject, working with colour and light and movement, and above all, the sense of awe and wonder at the creatures she observed.
Mia has plans to continue capturing the images of wild and feral animals, and at some point wishes to head to France, Mongolia and America to do so.
The elephants of Namibia are also a subject she would love to photograph, also to raise awareness of the fragility of their existence.
Mia has a passion for conservation, and through the lens, she hopes to not only educate herself and serve her passion, but to also bring to light − so to speak − the necessity of custodianship and protecting the habitat that is these sacred spaces, and the beings that belong there.
● Below is from Mia’s book Spirit of the Wind – A photographic celebration of the wild horses of the Namib Desert…
I went on a journey. Solo. Bought a ‘bakkie’ (pick-up van, as we call it here in South Africa), packed my camping gear, and set off on an impulse that I did not myself fully understand. I just knew that I had to go.
As I set my sights on the arid reaches of country north of Cape Town, I felt the powerful tug of a place far away where wild horses roam.
Days later, far beyond the Great River, I stopped. Here, I thought, should be my destination. I have, I realized, driven two thousand kilometres on my own, through ever bleaker desolation. Here my dream will be realized.
I stared over the nothingness. Mirages danced in the distance. A dust devil stood on its tail nearby. I turned off the engine, and with it the air-conditioning that I had been so clever to install.
I looked left, then right, then straight ahead again. I opened the door into a blast of scorching air and emptiness all round.
I realised that I have never been ‘alone’’ until this moment. What was I thinking? No cell-phone reception! No radio reception! My adventure has begun…
The air burned my face as I set foot onto the hard-baked sand. Yes, over there!
That must be the waterhole; I would find them there, I was told. And I had timed it perfectly for a late afternoon arrival, when the light would be at its best and the time was right for equine thirst to be quenched, I was told.
I stood in the blazing afternoon heat and no shade could be seen anywhere, all the way to the horizon: just sand, dust and endless expanse.
Except for a tiny corrugated iron shack, incongruous in the emptiness. There, on a rusted old drum, sat an ancient man staring disinterestedly past me.
“Is this where the horses come?”, I ask. “When did you last see them?” He slowly shook his head – and that was that.
Somewhat deflated, I walked down to the man-made watering place so I could at least tell the folks back home that I had been there, seen it, seen their tracks, even if I had nothing else to show for it.
A bit like Peter Matthiesen and his wonderful book The Snow Leopard, relating his vain quest through the Hindu Kush for the elusive leopard, never to find it but writing a wonderful book about the importance of the quest.
Sometimes, he suggests, ‘tis a better thing to travel hopefully than top arrive’.
I sat down on the cement slab and stared toward the horizon, now intensely aware of the silence pressing on me.
How many people on the planet have ever experienced utter, deafening silence? I kicked up some dust to check my hearing. The sound was grating, intrusive.
I could hear my own breathing. But slowly, in a chain of measured heartbeats, I sensed myself becoming transfixed by the implacable desolation around me.
A fleeting instant of bliss and wonderment passed through me. Is this what the ancient man at the shack feels like every day? Or ever?
Then came the sense of awe. A distant rumbling had me scanning the empty skies.
Thunder with not a cloud in the sky? It grew louder, the ground began to tremble.
I peered into the heat-waves trembling towards me from the horizon, creating images that morphed into liquid galloping horses.
The pounding of hooves came nearer, and a cloud of golden dust rose in the light of the setting sun. The liquid forms solidified into the surreal silhouettes of horses running full-tilt for water.
A hundred meters short of the waterhole they slowed to a halt. Ears pitched forward, some with muzzles to the ground and others sniffing the air, they apprehensively checked me out.
With the sun in my eyes I dared not blink, not wanting to miss a movement. As the dust settled I snapped out of my daze and realized that I was what was stopping them from their water.
I backed away slowly and as they cautiously passed, I saw the thirst in their eyes and the burning will to survive.
They lowered their heads, some keeping a wary eye on me. Swallowing down the cool water in long gulps, they quenched their thirst.
I turned to smile at the man by the shack to share this special moment with somebody, anybody, but he was nowhere – he had vanished.
Was he a mirage too? A fabrication of my mind to contend with the silence and isolation of the desert, never before experienced?
I will never know.
So I stood there, nursing my happy smile, and my thoughts reached back almost twenty years, to my grandparents on our farm in KwaZulu Natal telling me stories of these very horses.
The wild horses of the then South West Africa, in the Namib desert. Stories that were probably somewhat romanticized. But what would you expect when their origin is “steeped in mystery”, it is said.
Since that time, it had been my dream to find them. And here I am.
My grandfather was of Irish descent and a great horseman. From him I have my love of horses as well as my horsemanship, such as it is.
He has long since passed away, and sadly the farm was sold along with our beloved horses. But he left me stories, memories, knowledge, and an intense passion and love for these powerfully elegant animals.
The legacy took hold of me and has lived and grown in my heart ever since. And perhaps it was my childhood years in semi-wilderness that have led me to believe that I can sometimes hear the call of the wild.
I wanted to know more, but until recently I was oblivious of the fact that another adorer of horses had spent many years of field research working on a doctorate about the wild horses of Garub – the very animals I was seeking out in the Namib.
Nor did I know that this learned lady, Telané Greyling, had joined forces with fellow horse-lover Mannfred Goldbeck, an enthusiast who had researched and documented all the explanations of the horses’ origins, and that the result was a splendid book, Wild Horses of the Namib Desert, an “equine biography” told by Ron Swilling.
In the book the authors strive to uncover all the secrets about these animals, their provenance, their extraordinary powers of survival, their adaptations to a cruelly unwelcoming environment, their behaviour.
They have greatly inspired me and enriched my love and encouraged my striving to capture something of their essence through the lens of my camera, and I owe most of my insights to them.
Well into adulthood and after graduating in photography and design, I would still find my grandparents’ tales and stories floating back into my dreams.
Dreams of hard sun in my eyes, golden dust and glimpses of pounding hooves and long, swishing tails.
I started having vivid visual images of animals I have never seen, and they invaded my dreams.
The day came that I knew I had simply pack up and go. Waking up one morning to a resolve that had been shaped in my dreams, I traded in my VW Polo for a small pick-up truck, bought a chunk of foam mattress cut to fit in the back of my ‘bakkie’, and packed my camping gear and my camera.
“Only three weeks, Mom” I said. On the morning of my departure, I will never forget the words of my mother’s life partner who grew up in Namibia when he leaned into the window to say his goodbye: “Remember – the nothing grows very high there”.
So I headed North with little more than a map of Namibia and no idea precisely where I was headed.
I overnighted in a safari base camp on the banks of the Orange river where I had a view deep into Namibia on the far side, my heart racing at what I sensed awaited me there.
The camp belonged to old-time friend a safari guide who’s planted his tracks all over Africa for more than fifteen years.
I flattened my map on his bar counter, handed him a pen and asked him to draw me the route to the horses.
He drew the map, adding an obligatory stop at a place called Beta, home to “the best apple pie on the continent”, he assured me.
I was to spend some weeks sleeping in the back of my bakkie under a thorn tree below the breathtaking dome of uncounted billions of stars in a black sky.
Supper made on my campfire consisted mainly of sweet potato (sometimes the only fresh veggies available in the desert) and whatever meat I could get from the local farmers.
Breakfast I had no choice but to share with hundreds of sociable weavers; turning to fetch milk from my cooler, I would return to find nothing but a few crumbs left of my muesli.
Their fear of humans were trumped by their need make the best of a free meal in the desert, which I suppose is how the fittest survive.
Before sunrise I would be following the horses because by 8am the heat became so severe that I had to retreat to the shade of my Acacia tree.
With some field mice and lizards to keep me company until the late afternoon with its cool breeze I could then follow the horses once again until after dark.
It was in these days that I lived my dream through the lens of my camera, an eye that sees what the mind has imagined and, if you get it right, captures it.
In these pages I offer some of the images that made my spirit soar.
My magical time alone with the horses came to an end as the rainy season slowly made its way South. Again I took the long road North.
Driving through some heavy rains on gravel roads where sometimes you wouldn’t encounter another soul for days, there were times when I thought I would be stranded, or worse – upended, as the heavy rain, mud and eroded roads time and again had me slithering towards disaster.
Somewhere along the by now all but impossible route I met some ‘bush pilots’ who offered me a room to rent and hands to try and salvage my bakkie.
By a combination of sheer luck and willpower we got my pick-up (and me) to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. I was then prepared to vouch that my bakkie had the heart of a Toyota Landcruiser!
What is there to say about the horses after the superb book of Goldbeck and Greyling?
I am neither a poet nor a scientist, I see myself as an artist with my camera as my brush and canvas, using light as paint. I offer to you my journey, my interpretation, my passion through the use of my photography, another of my passions.
Briefly, then, with due acknowledgement to the writers of Wild Horses of the Namib Desert, a few lines about the horses of Garub.
Even to Greyling and Goldbeck, there remains much that is impenetrable.
It’s hard to say exactly how these horses ended up in such an inhospitable place. Locals will tell of a shipwreck off the coast of Lüderitz in which the horses on board broke free and swam to their survival; other stories tell of the man who owned the Schloss (castle) Duwisib and who went to fight in the war, never to return.
His widowed wife, overcome with sorrow, cast open the gates and chased the horses into the desert. She returned to Europe and left the castle deserted.
It is also believed that when the First World War ended, cavalry abandoned their horses to fend for themselves in the desert.
In parallel to these events, motor cars became part of the scene and many people simply let their horses go.
There is a more logical and researched explanation to their origin. From 1909 to 1920, the mayor of Lüderitzbucht had a stud farm at Kubub near Garub, very close to where the horses still live today.
It is believed that he abandoned his horses after losing all his wealth in the depression years. The horses were not contained in fences and must have moved on to better grazing and water sources in the Garub area.
Along with the stud farm group, abandoned Shutztruppe, Union troops and settlers’ horses and railway workers horses are all believed to have formed a herd.
When the Lüderitz railway was still active, the horses would get water from the way stations.
This area of Namibia is well known for its extreme weather conditions, mercilessly hot summers – with droughts that can last years – and bitterly cold winters – some years even snow.
Given the enforced isolation of living in a restricted diamond area dubbed ‘Sperrgebiet’ by the German colonial rulers of yore, there was protection from hunters, with their only natural enemy being spotted hyaenas that mainly take out the sick and the young.
With the discontinuation of the railway, the need for water for the trains also dried up. After a few water troughs, the one that waters the horses as we know it today, was built late 1991.
A borehole drilled by local farmers some time ago, there being no natural water sources in this arid area. The waterhole is also frequented by the free-roaming game in the area, like gemsbok (oryx), jackal, hyaena, kudu and other denizens of the desert.
Goldbeck and Greyling tell of the horses’ inventive adaptations to their nutrition-poor environment. There is some grass, yes, as well as some shrubs and herbs.
But in a triumph of the concept of recycling, these horses also consume their own manure. As horses don’t digest cellulose as effectively as ruminants such as cattle, they gain high- energy food from their nutrient-rich manure.
They are shaped into a social structure that is appropriate to their living conditions, consisting of breeding groups and bachelor stallions, with a fair amount of dispersal and exchange between breeding groups occurring.
Among the various other features described by our two writers are leadership, competitive behaviour, breeding behaviour and co-operative activity.
They give a fascinating description of body language, including their posturing, greeting ritual, and their extraordinary dung-pile ritual accompanied by sniffing, squeals and displays of strength.
Combat occurs, but so too playful behaviour and signals informing an approaching horse how welcome or otherwise his attentions are.
The authors conclude with reflections on the future of these herds, and means of doing justice to their high cultural and historical importance and their present-day value as a tourist attraction.
I stand in awe of the dedication that went into about two decades of monitoring and studying these tough, extraordinarily well-adapted animals.
My few weeks with them in the desert might pale into insignificance by comparison, but those days are for me a sequence of memories to be treasured always.
My contribution is to offer my pictures in the hope that an inkling of my joy and enjoyment will come through in these images.
I went on a journey, but as the memory recedes and the reflection continues, it becomes more mystical with every passing day.
● To buy prints of Mia’s horse photography, contact her at email firstname.lastname@example.org