For today's blog, we're handing the pen over to our friends at the Deserts Elephants In Namibia project. Who better to tell you all about what it truly means to be a conservation volunteer, than the folk who join our dedicated altruists in working hard for the animals week in, week out? Many thanks to Rachel Harris for her words!
Week 1 - Build Week
Every Monday marks the start of each project, so the volunteer group leaves Swakopmond to spend the night at the EHRA Base Camp (EHRA standing for 'Elephant Human Relations Aid'), a wonderful and exclusive organic camp on the banks of the Ugab River. Elephants often stroll through here to eat from the trees - in which, the volunteers sleep soundly in its protective brances on a large wooden platform. How close to nature can you get! Once morning rolls around, the camp's 4X4 is packed and the group head out to a local farm to set up camp for the week to begin the protection wall project.
6.00am – The volunteers on duty wake up first, make a fire and deliver tea or coffee to the group in bed! Then, a selection of porridge, toast and cereal is made to get everyone ready for the day’s activities!
7.30am – During the first week the volunteers are on build week, so they are based out at a local farm and will spend the week building a large stone wall to protect a water point from elephant damage and to secure water for the people and their livestock at the farm. We try and get working as early as possible so most work is done before the heat of the mid-day sun starts! The various tasks include mixing cement in wheelbarrows - normally two people will take on this task and take it in turns (and by the way, this is a great task for the arm muscles!) Then rocks and sand need to be collected, which normally involves jumping on the 4x4 and heading to an area close by to collect them. Other members of the team begin to build the wall!
10am – The group will have a break for 20 minutes or so to eat a nice juicy orange and relax in the shade!
12pm – The volunteers on duty will head back and prepare lunch. Normally there are lots of yummy leftovers from the previous meal but we also make sandwiches with ham, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, mayonnaise, even make a peanut butter and jam! There is more fruit on offer too. Once everyone has eaten it is time for the traditional African Siesta! We try not to work through the heat of mid-day, so everyone is able to snooze, read and relax until around 2-2.30pm when work resumes!
2.30pm – Back to the build project.
4.30pm- The duty team will finish building activities before everyone else and head back to the camp to start preparing the evening meal; everyone else will start clearing up and be back in camp to relax around 5pm. Once back at camp, people to tend to clean themselves up with a quick ‘wet wipe’ wash, change into comfy clothes and then grab beer, wine or tea and sit around the fire together whilst dinner cooks.
7pm – Time for dinner! The kind of meals we prepare are always a great surprise to everyone! From roast chicken, spaghetti bolognese, Thai curry, stir fry, even a lamb tagine - and not to mention delicious apple crumble and custard! Everyone is helped to make the food by the EHRA staff. The next duty team will begin their tasks with the washing up from the evening meal.
9pm – Everyone sleeps under the amazing Namibia starry skies, counting shooting stars and spotting satellites until you fall into a well-deserved sleep after a hard day’s work!
On Friday afternoon, the group returns to base camp. On Saturday there is the chance to pop to the eccentric old mining village of Uis, where there is a rest camp with a restaurant and wifi! Sunday is spent in our base camp, and in the morning there are jobs for everyone to do such as tending to the veggie garden, cleaning the elephant drinking dam or cleaning and repacking the equipment ready for patrol. In the afternoon, everyone is free to relax and even explore the area around camp. A favourite pasttime is to climb to the top of the cliffs to watch the sun go down – a stunning view! On Sunday night there is a briefing about patrol week, and the group leave early on Monday morning for the main event - a week with the elephants.
Week 2 - Patrol Week
The daily routine of patrol week is quite similar to that of week one, however it's back to basics for camp as only the bare necessities are taken on the patrol vehicles!
6.00am – Once again, the volunteers on duty wake up first to make a fire and deliver tea or coffee to the group in bed, Once everyone has eaten, breakfast is cleared up, bedrolls are rolled up and packed back on the cars, ready to start tracking for the day.
7.30am – Everyone climbs onboard the 4x4 cars and we head off to try and track the herds. On each patrol we have a different aim: this could be to collect dung samples, update identification photos, GPS movements to establish patterns, check on a new born elephant, check on conflict reports at farms, check on the condition of elephants if they have been in conflict incidents, take photos and form reports for the government. We work in three different areas where there are ‘resident’ herds of elephants so each patrol differs.
12pm – The elephants tend to rest by 11.30-12.00 (who can blame them?) and we do not like to disturb them during their siesta, so we also take a break at this time until the elephants start moving again. Again, the volunteers on duty will prepare lunch and after this everyone stretches out in the shade on the tarpaulin and indulges in an hour or two of sweet relaxation!
2.00pm – Back on the cars and off we go to continue an afternoon’s elephant tracking. Along the way, the EHRA team will teach the volunteers about tracking, especially how to track elephants, but also how to track the other animals in the area. There are zebra, springbok, oryx, kudu, giraffe, hyena, lion and even black rhino to see! We also GPS and note numbers of any wildlife we see during the patrols.
4.30-5.00pm- Around this time we will start looking for a great place to camp for the night. Often we are camped in a stunning, idylic location to watch the sun go down, and after this everyone heads to the warmth of the camp fire.
7pm – We make slightly quicker meals on the patrol week, so things like a comforting spaghetti carbonara or sausage and mash are on offer! Everyone spends the evenings chatting and relaxing around the fire before heading to their roll mat and sleeping bag whenever sleep calls!
Everyone sleeps outside under the stars on the tarpaulin together. The patrol week is a really special opportunity to sleep wild in the desert and spend a week without seeing any other people, shops or even having cell phone reception - a complete removal from ordinary life, and who doesn't want to get back to the simplicity of nature sometimes?! Often the EHRA staff will give talks on the stars for those who are interested. Elephants can walk by the camps in the night, but are often so quiet you only see the evidence in the morning!
The patrols are from Monday morning until Thursday afternoon. Thursday night is spent back at the stunning and secret EHRA base camp, recapping the wonderful time the whole volunteer team have had. On the Friday morning everyone bids goodbye to the desert, then head back to the Skeleton Coast town of Swakopmund.
Does a life with nature appeal to you, sleeping under the stars as gentle elephants meander by? Think this project is for you? Check out the Desert Elephant project page to find out more and get involved!
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