So what do birds and horses have in common? (Apart from wings, obviously.) If you answered “Nothing”, then you don’t know about Namibia’s wild horses, which continue to exist on a wing and a prayer.
When I was at university and all my worldly goods fitted into a backpack, I had a horror of being dependent on anyone. I imagined an impossibly idealistic Flower Child existence where people lived in communes, growing vegetables, milking cows, virtually spinning and weaving their own cocoons to live independently of the materialistic money-grubbing commercial world. I soon discovered that hippies are as materialistic and selfish as anyone else. My misplaced allegiance was gradually transferred to the animal kingdom. This, as it turned out was another misconception, because domesticated animals are among the most dependent beings on our planet. Take horses, for example. Some people actually believe you can put a thoroughbred out to pasture and it will fend for itself. I would laugh out loud if the consequences weren’t usually so heartbreaking.
The birds of the air are probably the antithesis of our domestic animals – so independent. Take thrushes and robins, my favourite examples. They are seldom seen on a bird table. They simply don’t seem to “need” us humans. (Except to scare off a cat with a water pistol.)
It is their marvellous independence that makes me think of Namibia’s wild horses as mysterious, miraculous beings – like the winged horse Pegasus. They have achieved the impossible by surviving without human intervention for a whole century in desert terrain near Aus, where temperatures can reach 45°C (113°F). Their numbers may vary (naturally) from 85 to almost 300, but they continue to survive, and have developed distinctive characteristics (like their slow measured gait that helps them conserve energy) to withstand their harsh environment.
Because of the variety among these feral Namibian horses, it is thought they are descended from the remnants of several thousand cavalry horses belonging to both German and South African regiments that camped in a 30 km radius of Aus during World War 1. It is believed that when the South African camp was bombed, some horses escaped, only to join up later with horses abandoned by the retreating Germans forces. Fortuitously, a well had been dug at Garub to supply water for the steam trains, supplementing the meagre natural water sources in the area. What also protected these horses was the discovery of diamonds at Kolmanskop, which led to the proclamation of a large restricted area where they could roam freely without competition from other livestock for many decades.
During my daughter’s recent cycling tour of NZ, she sent me a book of poems from Central Otago by Brian Turner. It’s called “Elemental” and has some some wonderful pieces. Nothing expresses my sentiments better than these final stanzas of his poem “Bird Land” (wish I could quote it in full): “… I’m urged to say I feel the need to share this soiled/ and stressed little planet we live on,/ and scrap over, with more than just my own// bloody-minded, apathetic, destructive, complacent/ kind, am urged to stand up like Moses/ and say, ‘As you do to the least of these,/ so you do unto me …’ until the end of our time.”