Finding a horse burial site in the Namib Desert.
Not many people have seen or know about the mass horse burial site in the Namib Desert, just outside of Swakopmund. We didn’t know that it existed, until we stumbled upon it with our guide, during a quad bike excursion. We were allowed to stop and take photos. As I recall at the time, he told us that many horses died here, but to be honest, I cannot remember if he gave us a full explanation of what happened.
Rows of white horse skulls and bones are lying peacefully in the desert sand. They all have one thing in common – a bullet hole in the forehead. There is always a story behind a story and I decided to see what I could find.
For many years theories were doing the rounds but after investigations, the truth was discovered in the South African Military archives, that dated back to World War I.
Why did so many horses die and why were they shot in the forehead?
The horse burial site and World War I.
The South African Union Defence Force (at the time South Africa was still part of the British Empire) shipped 30,000 horses to South West Africa (Now Namibia) via Walvisbay and Swakopmund. German forces, Schutztruppe, occupied Otavi and the Union Forces occupied Windhoek. Both sides were waiting for the outcome of the war in Europe and in North and East Africa.
During this time, many horses were moved to Swakopmund because the interior suffered a great draught and there were no places for the horses to graze. They were moved closer to the coast in order to feed them with supplies from the ships. The thousands of horses that were moved here, caused a lot of problems for the people from Swakopmund. There were flies and horse manure everywhere. Diseases are more likely to break out when animals are poorly fed, weak and kept in unhygienic conditions. Subsequently, the horses contracted the deadly and highly contagious disease – Glanders. Not only is this disease deadly to animals but also humans. This happened in a matter of weeks and 1695 horses and 944 mules were infected.
What is Glanders Disease? It is a fatal bacterial disease among horses that includes symptoms like coughing, pneumonia, swollen lymph nodes and nasal discharge. It can be fatal to humans. There is no vaccine and the only control is to kill the infected animals.
More than 2600 horses and mules were executed and buried beneath the sand. These horses did not die of Glanders disease but were critically ill and shot. This was not taken lightly and on May 17, 1916, General Louis Botha (Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa and Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces) was questioned in parliament on this issue.
This was a horrific massacre and even the desert does not want to forget what happened. Over the decades, wind swept sand over the graves and exposed the bones. Graves seem to disappear and re-appear. This is a very sad story and I am not sure if I was lucky or unlucky to have seen these graves. An eerie silence remain with the sound of the wind as a sad reminder.