Turmoil of war

There have been several theories proposed over the years as to the origin of the wild horses. The two most likely stem from the period between 1915 and 1925. During World War One, Union of South Africa troops were stationed at Garub. Reports from the time make reference to 10 000 soldiers with 6 000 horses who pitched camp on the dusty expanse at the edge of the Namib Desert. They relied on the water from the borehole that was used to replenish locomotives at the nearby railway line and supplement the water for the town of Lüderitz.

The German forces had set up a stronghold in the hills at Aus, 25km to the east. The base comprised a series of entrenchments, supply routes, a radio mast and housed two planes, which bombed the Union camp intermittently. The last attack was on the 27 March 1915 to mask the Germans’ retreat, scattering the Union horses.

A German report stated:

In the morning of 27 March the indefatigable pilot officer Fiedler flew to Garub and caused great bewilderment by successfully dropping bombs onto the enemy camp and among about 1700 grazing cavalry horses.’

(Hans von Oelhafen: Der Feldzug in Südwest 1914/15, Berlin 1923)

It is thought that the Union forces might not have had sufficient time to catch all the dispersed animals before advancing on the retreating Germans, although some soldiers would have remained at the camp after the troops moved off.

Another more probable theory appears to be the missing puzzle piece as to the origin of the horses that formed the core of the wild horse population. Emil Kreplin, who was the mayor of Lüderitz from 1909 to 1914, had a stud farm at Kubub, south of Aus. Here, Kreplin bred workhorses for the mines and racehorses for the flourishing town of Lüderitz that had boomed in the diamond rush sparked in 1908. In photographic evidence of the Kubub stud horses, unearthed by hobby-historian Walter Rusch, there are remarkable similarities in conformation and characteristic markings between the Kubub horses and the present-day wild horses showing traces of Hackney, Trakehner and Shagya Arab breeds.

Kreplin was interred in the Union of South Africa during the hostilities and later lost his fortune in the depression years in Europe. It is assumed that during or after the war the horses, ownerless and not contained by fences, would have begun to scatter, leaving the overgrazed Kubub area in search of better grazing and following the scattered rainfall. They would have eventually made their way to the permanent water source at Garub, becoming wilder over time and linking up with any remaining Union horses and any other abandoned horses in the area.

‘Namibs’ as a breed in their own right

Substantiated biologically and historically, the theories can thus be brought together. Any horses that were abandoned in the turmoil of war would also have gathered in the area around Aus, finding water at the springs after the rains and at the Garub borehole.

The horses lived in the protected Sperrgebiet diamond area, which provided safety from hunters and horse capturers. From as early 1908 the German colonial administration had established a restricted area, which extended about 100km inland, and was strictly controlled. Garub and surrounds were part of Sperrgebiet II. Nobody was allowed access to the area, with the only exception made periodically from the 1950s until 1983 in times of serious drought to provide emergency grazing for farmers.

Garub’s borehole was maintained by the South African Railway (SAR) for their steam locomotives until the 1960s when diesel replaced steam. Afterwards water was pumped for the railway workers who maintained the track and their animals. From 1977 Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) maintained the drinking trough and covered the cost to ensure that the horses were kept watered.

In 1986, that section of Sperrgebiet II was incorporated into the Namib Naukluft Park.

For 100 years the horses were able to develop in almost complete isolation, generation by generation, through seasons of drought and abundance, becoming a pure breed through decades of natural selection. They are now regarded as a breed in their own right, the ‘Namibs’.