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For nearly 80 years, all but unknown to man, a herd of German

horses have lived in an African desert, with scarcely a blade of grass

or drop of water to sustain them. This is their extraordinary story

ALMOST EXACTLY six years ago, passing the time on a train journey in France, I noticed a short news item in a magazine: "A herd of wild horses is said to have been spotted in the heart of the desert, in Namibia... Abandoned by the cavalry of the German army during the South African war [of 1915], they have survived ever since. Their survival was kept all the more secret due to the territory they were spotted on being strictly out of bounds ever since diamonds were discovered beneath the sands in 1907..." That was all, but for some reason it caught my imagination. I had always been passionate about horses, and this report seemed to epitomise all that was romantic about them. Horses living wild in the empty desert, unknown to man? Could it really be true? And, if it was, why had it not been reported before?

Various friends who studied horses allowed me to ferret through their bookshelves and pick their brains. The response was not encouraging. "You must realise," said one expert, "that if these horses existed in the desert, living in a wild state, they would already have been researched, like the Mustang was in the US and the Brumbies in Australia." The report, in other words, was mere rumour, a myth born of wishful thinking. Yet my obstinate curiosity, like a child's, refused to be put off. I wanted it to be true; and what if it was?

After two years of wondering, I resolved to see for myself. I was none the wiser about the horses: no one in Europe seemed to have heard of them. But I did at least know slightly more about Namibia. In 1989, I had not even known where it was. Now I knew it as one of the last great wildernesses, a country twice the size of Britain with just 1.5 million inhabitants; a country whose desert, the oldest in the world, runs the entire length of its western flank, for 700 miles - but whose coastline, thanks to the freezing Benguela current, is fog-bound and full of sea-lions (and known as the Skeleton Coast because so many ships have been wrecked there). The desert itself is one of the most hostile environments anywhere, with ground temperatures ranging from -5C at night to 70C by day, and marauding hyenas and leopards adding to the dangers facing human intruders. And, yes, the Germans were there, from 1884 to 1915 (it was known as South West Africa during their often brutal rule); and, yes, diamonds were found there, and still are, scattered among and beneath the sand. But horses? It all seemed as improbable as ever.

Yet scarcely had I arrived in the capital, Windhoek, than my hopes received a boost. A civil servant at the Ministry for the Protection of Wildlife gave me information on a scale I had not hoped for: "In 1990, nearly 200 horses drank at the watering-place. The ranger in charge of patrolling the area made this estimation last year. But that," he added, "is all we know."

It was enough. Here was confirmation: there were horses. I would go into the desert to look for them.

IN THE Nama language, "Namib" means "the land where there is nothing". This is a fair description of the Namib desert. Stretching from the Orange river in the south to Angola in the north, it comprises more than 270,000 sq km of dry sand and stones, including some of the highest sand dunes in the world. A few scraps of vegetation punctuate the vast waste, but it is almost impossible to imagine anything living here. In the summer, from dawn onwards, the ground is like hot coals, and the burning sun destroys everything.

Or almost everything. A few strange creatures have adapted to the conditions. There is a little beetle, for example, that catches the condensation from the coastal fog on its wings each morning before the heat disperses it, then lets the drips trickle into its mouth. The brain of the large antelope, the oryx, is irrigated by a special network of veins that enables it to survive the hottest of temperatures. There are also moles, hyenas, Springbok deer and ostriches that have developed extraordinary anatomical features to survive. But German horses? Could they survive there? And - equally important, from my point of view - what about humans?

In Windhoek I was told all sorts of horror stories about the desert: about men being devoured by hyenas as they slept beneath the stars, and about stalking leopards, and scorpions, and the merciless heat. None the less, it was not unheard of for explorers - or government-sponsored rangers - to venture in there, and, since much of the area in question was no longer a restricted zone, the Ministry for the Protection of Wildlife assigned me a guide, Wilfried, who drove me into the desert.

After some 120 miles of dusty, featureless track, Wilfried set me down, on a hill a short distance from the watering-place where the previous sighting had occurred, and helped me to set up camp. We were not far from the road, but in Namibia that means little: the road was miles from anywhere. Then Wilfried drove off, leaving me alone in the land of nothing. Apprehensively, but feeling too excited to be properly afraid, I settled down for the night.

A distant rumbling woke me. The horses were coming! The shades of night disappeared before them. An entire family was galloping across the vast sandy plain. I grabbed my binoculars and gazed, rapt: their shaggy silhouettes stood out against the sand, as if carved from the wind thrown up by their hooves. They seemed to be rough, powerful beasts, with shining, stretching muscles and long tangled manes, careering along in a wild gallop, the sand spurting from beneath their hooves in golden showers. Suddenly, they halted. They had seen me: a stranger had entered their desert. Then, after a pause, they were off again, until, a few metres from the watering-place - which turned out to be the remains of an old man-made trough - they halted, as one. Their goal had been reached.

As they began to drink, more horses began to arrive, from all around. Soon there were 30 of them trying to get to the water, jostling and pushing. The dominant males tried to herd their mares. An inquisitive young horse came a little too close. The head of the family came charging up with a haughty air. There was much kicking and jostling; then the young horse, which was about three years old, retreated, head lowered as a sign of submission. Shortly afterwards, a sudden cry interrupted the general neighing. A chestnut foal with four white ankles was desperately turning in all directions. Its mother came up, pushed it close to her and, her feet planted firmly in the sand, presented her teat.

The scene exceeded my wildest expectations; and, in the days that followed - and on the numerous subsequent trips to the desert I have made in the past four years - there was much more to come.

In my neutral-coloured clothing, I would wait for the horses to appear, posted on my promontory beside the camp. Around 50 of them usually came each day. At first I thought they were all bays, but this turned out to be a mistake. It was just that, from where I stood, the glaring white light wiped out any colours. I also had a tendency to magnify their size. In fact, even the most powerfully built adult males measured no more than 15 hands (about 5ft to the withers); one of several ways in which the horses seemed to have adapted to the environment. They were - and are - entirely dependent upon this single watering-place. Yet despite the heat, the drying wind and the lack of vegetation, they can go several days without visiting it, several days roaming without water.

To learn more, I needed to get closer to them: to take a thorough count; to define their sex, judge their age, spot the peculiarities of their coats (many had white marks on their rumps); to see whether their manes fell left or right and spot any tufts on their necks or scars on their bodies. Slowly but surely, they grew more trusting of my presence, while I, in turn, grew more sensitive to them. Sometimes I would even accompany them on their journeys, walking behind them, sharing the same sunsets and sleeping beneath the same stars. First we went to the old diamond excavation 4km from the camp; then to the old railway station; then on longer trips lasting several days, for which I had to carry supplies of food and drink. Despite the heat, I found the conditions just about tolerable. And, in time, my patience bore fruit: the strange herd became a familiar herd, in which I could identify various different families, each with its own characteristics and habits.

BACK IN Windhoek, meanwhile, I searched through the archives of the Ministry for the Protection of Wildlife, and, piece by piece, the story of the horses of the Namib unfolded. The first clue was a reference to an officer of the Kaiser's called Baron Hans Heinrich von Wolf, a wealthy horse-lover who had bought a 50,000-hectare farm on the fringe of the Namib in 1907. Then I found a photograph album, in which stallions and mares arrived at the Baron's farm by train from South Africa and by boat from Germany. The descriptions accompanying the pictures informed me of their origins, their breed - and the peculiarities of their coats: white marks on their rumps, just like those on the Namib survivors.

Next I learnt about the origin of the horses' watering-place. In 1908, the Germans built a railway through the desert. They needed water for the steam-engines, and so they dug a well at a place called Garub. This was patrolled by their cavalry, whose horses were supplied by the Baron. The well was supplied from ground water that flowed through pipes five metres below the sand. Garub became a station in the middle of nowhere, with a German stationmaster.

In 1915, the South Africans invaded the country and overran the Kaiser's cavalry, bringing the German colonial era in Namibia to an end. After the end of the First World War, the South African soldiers left Garub, but the German horses stayed, left to their own devices. According to my civil servant friend, "The troops left, and Garub's new stationmaster and his family became the only people allowed into the diamantiferous zone. They led a solitary life with their goats, keeping a trough supplied with water for them." Then diesel engines replaced steam engines, and Garub became a wholly forgotten place, its station a crumbling ruin. But the descendants of the German cavalry horses never strayed far from the old trough, as they roamed for grazing among the sparsely scattered tufts of grass. That is where they are today. And that is where, since our original meeting, I have spent most of my days with them, close to the cement block sheltering the filling tap.

TODAY I am sure of my facts. There are 276 horses and foals, grouped into 49 families and male groups. They are not wild horses - they hardly exist any longer - but feral horses: creatures that have returned to their wild state although stemming from domestic breeds. They are still largely unknown to man, but more people are aware of their existence now, in France and in Namibia.

I return to the desert for several months every year, and I hope that I will continue to do so for a long time. I have had disturbing experiences there: an encounter with a leopard, and another with a snake. But my most vivid memories are happy ones: of getting close to a foal for the first time, for example; or of a shower of rain that, once, brought instant spring as the desert become covered in green shoots, while the horses pranced in the damp, orange light.

This is the strangest herd of horses in the world; but, like all horses, they repay patience. My obsession has, in many ways, been a solitary one. It has never been lonely. !