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Volunterring in Namibia:Tracking elephants,Hiding from Rhinos

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Volunterring in Namibia:Tracking elephants,Hiding from Rhinos

Link to this post 01 Sep 07

Volunteering in Namibia: Tracking elephants, hiding from rhinos and building very big walls

The Independent

01 September 2007

There's a deep unearthly rumble nearby in the gathering darkness. "Sshhhh!" comes the call. Everyone knows the drill. Around the fire, the chattering stops. The cooks lay down their knives and spoons. We all stare at each other, dead still, our ears quivering. There's absolute silence, apart from the "Prrrrp!" of a tiny Scops owl in the camelthorn tree above our heads. Another answers it, further away. We're just beginning to relax when there's an almighty crack of splintering wood. The cooks jump. An elephant's there all right, and it's eating the kitchen's infrastructure.

One of the camp leaders takes charge. He beckons the cooks, who creep towards the rest of us. We get up from around the fire and tiptoe away to a safe distance as the elephant munches its supper: a sizeable portion of the ana tree that overhangs the kitchen area. It's covered in little twisty pods that elephants find irresistible. We wait. The elephant – or elephants, it's impossible to know – are in no hurry. We have to stay absolutely quiet for our own safety until they deign to move on.

It's thrilling, of course, and adds a real sense of immediacy to the task in hand. The camp belongs to Elephant-Human Relations Aid, or Ehra, and is tucked away on a bend of the dry Ugab riverbed in remote, dusty Damaraland. Our visitors are some of the few remaining elephants that roam the desert and semi-desert of north-western Namibia. This is not a national park; the elephants are in competition for limited water supplies with subsistence farmers who scratch a living from the arid soils. The aim is to smooth the uneasy relationship between the two. By helping to protect their precious water pumps, Ehra persuades the farmers to live in peace with their larger neighbours.

In the morning, we get on with the reality of protecting a pump: porridge at dawn, followed by a bumpy ride to the site, where we buckle down to hefting rocks and mixing cement. We're building a circular wall that will stand two feet wide and eight feet tall when it's finished, with one little gap through which a slender farmer can slip.

I happen to love building walls, especially with the random shapes offered by rocks. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but more satisfying because of the solid end result. Even if I didn't, it would be hard not to succumb to the pleasures of this place: days soaked in sunshine, the workload lightened by laughter. I've joined seven other volunteers for my fortnight with Ehra, and they're a friendly bunch from a fascinating range of locations and backgrounds. I join forces with Sara from New York to work on our own bit of wall, and in between swapping life stories we discuss which rock's a reject, and whether the cement is too wet.

Over the course of a week, our muscles harden and our tans deepen. We head back to camp in the evening, tired and happy, to relax around the fire. Most of us have supplies of warm beer or rough red wine, which slip down very nicely after the day's exertions. The plentiful food is cooked up by us volunteers on a rota system. Newbies are paired with old hands, which is just as well: cooking for 10 on an open fire takes a bit of getting used to. When we fall into exhausted sleep, it's in little wooden A-frames that are open to the elements, the elephants and the stars.

Despite the joys of building walls, everyone's looking forward to the second week: we're going on patrol. This is a vital aspect of Ehra's work.By constantly monitoring the elephant populations, they act as a deterrent to would-be poachers and irate, trigger-happy farmers. The patrols also provide a clear picture of the herds and their numbers, which helps to convince the government – which has the power to issue hunting concessions – that the elephants are too few to be shot.

For the volunteers, it's a safari with a difference. Piled into two Land Cruisers with the minimum of kit, we are given four days of roughing it in some of the most remote and rugged corners of Damaraland. For me, there's an added bonus: I'm going to get off-road driving lessons. My fortnight here is actually part of a three-month trip that began in Cape Town, where I bought a 4x4 complete with roof-tent. I haven't really needed the 4x4 aspect yet, but I will in Botswana, and the Ehra guys say they'll show me a trick or two.

After a brief survey of the Ugab, where the elephants oblige by coming straight towards camp, we head north towards the astonishing rock-art site of Twyfelfontein and veer off-road towards another dry riverbed, that of the Huab. The landscape becomes ever more rugged – we're driving over jagged vertical rocks – and for some reason that still eludes me this is where I'm allowed to take the wheel. Sweating slightly (and not just from the heat), I do my best; but minutes later, a loud hissing noise accompanied by a chorus of sniggers has us out of the vehicle and staring at a very flat tyre.

The only real damage is to my pride, of course. The Ehra team has the tyre changed in seconds, and then we're off again, down to the riverbed itself, where I'm taught how to cope with deep sand. But respect for the elephants comes first. Whenever we near a herd, the assistant leader takes over, just in case. Engines are switched off and we watch, in awe and silence.

After a night spent sleeping around the fire, the next day sees us out of the vehicles altogether and scaling a barren mountain range. Johannes, Ehra's leader, has worked out the route taken by a small group of elephants, and wants to approach them from a different angle: on foot. He says we can stay with the vehicles if we want, as it's going to be a tough march. What? Is he kidding? We can't wait to set off.

He's not wrong though. It is a tough march, at a punishing pace, through rocky gullies and over a series of mini-summits, with the heat rising. But the reward is something special. At last, we near the elephants, and creep towards a vantage point behind some rocks. In a gully below are three females and two young, one of which is lying down in the shade of his mother. She can't move without disturbing him, so she stands still, just her ears fanning to and fro in the shimmering heat. It's such a remote spot, without a scrap of vegetation, but they seem at peace, and part of the desert's stillness. Anxious not to disturb them, we converse in whispers before creeping away.

Our onward route takes us through an ever-changing landscape – the desert in all its forms. On a flat gravel plain, we spot rare mountain zebras; where there's sparse vegetation, small herds of springbok graze. We've begun our roundabout journey back to camp when the leading Land Cruiser stops. We all jump out. Johannes has spotted something that he's determined to investigate: the fresh tracks of a black rhino.

Black rhino, more pugnacious than their "white" cousins (they're actually much the same colour; the name "white rhino" comes from a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word wyd, referring to the width of their mouths), have something of a stronghold in northern Namibia but are still a special sight. The chance of tracking one is cause for great excitement. After a brief lecture about the importance of silence, we all troop after Johannes, trying not to let our boots crunch on the sharp mica gravel. We're a bit hopeless, and before long we're ordered to take them off. Now stealing along in our socks, we spot the edgy rhino and are told to stand totally still. It knows we're there. Holding my breath, I watch in alarm as a wasp makes its way inside a friend's T-shirt. The tension mounts. We mustn't move – but this is one unhappy rhino. Suddenly, it gives a snort and charges... away from us. We sigh in relief; the wasp receives its freedom.

The patrol's nearly over, and with it my time at Ehra. But for me, there's one adventure left. I'm given the chance to drive through the duneveld, which consists of deep, red, undulating sand. It's stunningly beautiful, but there's not much time to take it in: momentum is the key. Tearing along in the second vehicle, co-volunteers clinging to the open-topped back, swerving around aardvark holes... it's all tremendous fun. I emerge on the other side feeling much as I have the whole fortnight: dusty, exhausted but exhilarated, too.

Traveller's guide


The only direct flights from the UK are on Air Namibia (0870 774 0965; which flies from Gatwick to Windhoek three times a week.

Alternatively, flights are available from Heathrow via Johannesburg with South African Airways (0870 747 1111; or British Airways (0870 850 9850;

Volunteers need to get to the pick-up point of Swakopmund on the Namibian coast. South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Cape Town, with connections to Walvis Bay, just down the coast from Swakopmund.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; or Pure (020-7382 7815;

There are both bus and train services between Windhoek and Swakopmund.

You may want to consider driving. Bear in mind, however, that your vehicle will not be in use while at Ehra, and it is expensive to hire cars in Namibia. This option is only worth it if you're fitting Ehra into a much bigger trip.


Ehra (00 264 64 504 183; runs projects on a rotational basis – one week building, one week on patrol – so volunteers can sign up for a fortnight minimum (three months maximum). Two weeks cost from £400 per week, full board but not including flights to Namibia.

Further information about the project, and many other short- and long-term volunteer operations around the world, can be found through Global Vision International (0870 608 8898; ).

A two-week stay starts from £855 through Global Vision International, which includes transport and full board accommodation but not international flights.


Namibia Tourism Board: 0870 330 9333;

Article at the following link:

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