One of our fabulous volunteers, Sue, has recently returned from her trip to aid the conservation of the Desert Elephants in Namibia - alongside her daughter Olivia, it is clear that they had an amazing time! So much so, that Sue just had to share her experience with us, telling us all about what they got up to and how this trip has changed her life. Check out Sue's experience in her very own words below.
I had been looking for an adventure that was suitable for myself and my 24 year old daughter Olivia to go on. We researched several different projects and decided on The Great Projects' Desert Elephants In Namibia scheme.
The only concern was whether we were both fit enough as the description stated that build week was 'physically demanding' - we figured that we didn't have to have superhuman strength, just a good level of fitness, and we both go to the gym so decided that was probably good enough. Turns out we were fine!
We flew an indirect route, from London to Dubai, Dubai to Johannasberg and finally Johannasberg to Walvis Bay. We were met at Walvis Bay by a taxi driver who the project team had arranged for us, and who then drove us to Swakupmund to the guest lodge. The majority of our group were also staying there, and it was great to meet our fellow volunteers, from all over the world. The group was an age range between 18 and 55, some who had traveled with friends, some on their own, with one thing in common: a willingness and dedication to work to protect the desert elephants of Namibia!
The next morning we set off on a 5 hour drive, through the vast Namibian desert to get to base camp, and it was absolutely amazing.
It had a camp kitchen with a long social table for meals, a raised fire pit and an array of pots and pans for cooking over a fire. There were also two toilet huts a short distance away, two showers ingeniously located in caves behind rocks and the sleeping accommodation. The sleeping area was the biggest excitement...how often do you get to sleep in an Ana tree in the desert?!
The tree had three platforms with one platform having cover, but Olivia and I were on one of the platforms without it.
Because of this, I will never forget the first night in camp resting beneath the brilliant golden glow of a full moon, when silently at around 10pm, a herd of elephants led by the matriarch (sorry fellas: the women lead, the young blokes follow!) passed under our sleeping platform and made their way along the dry river bed, which is the superhighway for animals. A short time later, after we thought they had all passed by, the bull of the herd, Benny, walked past and stopped to make eye contact with us on our platform. Seeing such an enormous and beautiful animal close up in their natural habitat will always be unforgettable.
After one night in base camp, we packed up and headed off to a local farmer's land. When we got there, we set up our camp and sleeping area, our kitchen area and a toilet tent - quite civilised, really!
The next morning we started work digging out the foundation for a wall around the farmer's well. There was evidence that the farmer and his family had experienced damage to their house caused by the giants.
Elephants' keen sense of smell helps them find water up to 12 miles away; they often wave their trunks in the air, gathering scent particles that give them not only the smell of water, but which direction and about how far away it is. The intelligence of these animals is truly, at times, unfathomable, but they have total disregard for anything that gets between them and the water. Unfortunately, this makes them nuisance animals at times, and the project team work hard to improve the relationship between elephants and humans to ensure that both can coexist in harmony.
The project staff also work with land owners and children in schools in Damaraland, because not only were the family living in fear, they had taken to sleeping in a tent on a hill to ensure their safety. Therefore, teaching the children that elephants need to be protected and not resented is essential to ensuring the animals’ survival, whilst simultaneously trying to make life easier for the indigenous communities too.
The build week was hard, but as much as it was difficult it was just as rewarding!
It involved collecting rocks from the desert landscape around the farm, loading them onto a vehicle to drive the materials back to the well which we were aiming to protect. Using sand from the desert (there was certainly no shortage of that!), as well as cement and water, we slowly constructed the wall which needed to have very strong foundations of nearly a metre-thick as to ensure that it withstood the strongest of elephants.
The wall had to circle not just the well, but a tree too, and we managed to build the wall to about half the height it needed to be in the time that we had, which was an amazing achievement!
At the end of the week, we headed back to base camp and we were taken to the nearest town and had the opportunity to buy craft items made by the Himba Tribe. Himba women especially, as well as Himba men, are famous for covering themselves with otjizepaste, (a mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment) to cleanse the skin over long periods due to water shortage and protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate of the Kaokaland, as well as protecting against mosquito/insect bites. This gives the skin and hair a reddish hue, which can be quite striking!
This felt like a truly authentic taste of the culture here, and what made the town particularly exciting was that there was WIFI! It's always nice to have a little taste of home in the midst of the wilderness!
After a couple of nights in base camp, we packed up and headed out on patrol week.
This involved driving along the dry bed of the Ugab river in search of the five or six herds that exist in the region. The aim of the patrol week is to record the elephants' movements to monitor their condition. The trackers here are experienced in 'reading' the footprints and the dung markers to be able to gain information regarding the animals that are nearby.
We were lucky enough to see five different herds, with the largest compiled of eighteen gracious elephants after two herds merged together.
Interestingly, the matriarch of the amalgamated herd is usually the eldest female and in this case, her sister became second in command. I guess her elder sister still gets the chance to boss her around!
We also saw black rhinos, which are extremely endangered, as well as zebra, springbok, Kudu, baboons (they are the early morning wake up call) and giraffe.
Each day throughout the trip, we started early at sunrise with porridge and coffee, all made by the team members. Dinners were made by the team members, too, and were surprisingly very good! We ate chicken, springbok, beef and lamb. Vegetarians were fantastically catered to, as well.
Each night was spent in a different location, no shelter, literally sleeping under the stars. The night sky was magical. I have never seen the Milky Way before, or shooting stars or satellites going overhead, but that was all visible to the naked eye, and something I will take away with me forever.
Olivia and I had an adventure to remember, we came away with really special memories and a whole set of new friends. I know I will meet up with some of them again - not sure where, not sure when, but it will happen. Namibia will always have a special place in my heart.
Thank you The Great Projects for a truly great project. I urge you all to join, too!
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