This blog would not be possible without superstar photographer and film maker Tiffany!
When asked, I’m not quite sure how to describe my experience in the Namibian desert with EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid). If I had to put it in one sentence I would say that I’ve never worked so hard, been so dirty and yet so satisfied to fall asleep under the night sky. With the exception of one night of rain, I was completely charmed by the most alive stars I have ever seen. No light pollution, just an occasional headlamp from a late night trekker on their way to the designated pee alley.
My large dose of satisfaction came with the simplicity of our mission and the almost total dependence on nature and each other. Other than lunch mid-project, in a small town while staff replenished supplies, we were totally in nature – no phones, no internet, no walls, no doors.
EHRA Namibia (https://www.ehranamibia.org/) helps build peaceful relationships between desert elephants and communities. “Elephants, livestock and humans are sharing the same waterpoints, which not only sparks conflict, but also results in human and elephant fatalities.”
The mission is to implement practical solutions that help combat elephant-human conflict by building protective walls around waterpoints, educating locals on conflict mitigation tactics and continuous monitoring of the different elephant herds.
Our time was divided into three ways of working and living. Base camp, work week’s permanent camp and a nomadic existence during our week of tracking. It started with a delightful night at base camp where we organized everything to depart for the work week site. Base camp has a huge wonderful tree house where we slept with snorers on the far end. I don’t snore but it turns out that I have conversations in my sleep with Jacob. Odd – I don’t know a Jacob!!!
We were so naive! Choose between sleeping in trees or an already assembled tent, a makeshift kitchen, permanent toilets, showers. Styling with headlamps we trotted out our urbane camping flair, dreaming of our effortless commune with nature. The morning did nothing to dissuade our dreams with coffee or tea delivered to us in our sleeping bag. We eventually learned that this lovely tradition was followed by hard labor and a hot desert sun.
Toilets – #1 and #2!
After a breakfast of oats and toast we packed up and started to load our trucks. The wheel barrels, shoves and tools indicated that our dreams of effortlessness may have been premature.
For personal use, a small backpack with a change of clothes and some essentials was a challenge for some, but it turned out a second set of clothing was unnecessary use of space (more later). After packing the trucks, normally a full day’s work, we headed to our campsite for work week. After a few hours of driving we arrived outside a small community where a water source and solar panel required an elephant proof wall. Everything that was packed came down (not by itself) and the camp was set up for the next 5 days.
We will get use to the hard labor and desert sun! Not today……
WORK WEEK. Under the hot desert sun we built a wall! First, we dug a 4 foot trench, filled it with rocks from the desert and mixed sand and cement to fill the trench and make a solid foundation. From the beginning we were schooled on the notion that this wall would need to discourage large desert elephants from getting to the water supply and solar panel housed by it.
The seriousness of our wall was confirmed when, Barb, on her way to our makeshift toilets, encountered big boy PORTHOS, a 3O year old alpha male with a chip on his shoulder (more about Porthos later). We spent our lunch watching him scratch an itch on a 20 foot tree. Many in the group had not experienced an elephant in the wild. It was more fun watching their faces than the farting, itching Porthos. His performance, although a bit sophomoric, was award winning and perfect for the audience, after which, we got our first lesson in elephant tracking from fearless leader Fabio. If reincarnation is legit, he was an elephant in a past life.
WORK WEEK ……And boy did we work!!!
Now that we had a foundation it was time for the wall. Porthos confirmed the need for a high, strong wall so we got busy!
The 21 friends from MN eventually divided work into three areas – sand/cement mixers, rock collectors/transporters, and wall designers. After making the rounds in each job, Lori and I settled on being permanent rock stars. Heading up to the hills behind our sight we collected and loaded rocks of all sizes and shapes, vaulted on to the loaded truck to the site, and emptied them at the base of the wall for the designers. I never counted the number of round trips! Each time we were joined by a mix of others from our group. Around 4:00 PM school kids from the village joined as rock stars and I had to keep close track of my work cloves and hat.
Gus checking the work!
Thanks work week. Dirty, hot and scraped up, I have never had a firmer core!
In the village we discovered a shop with a cooler. Following a day’s work we found our way there for cold beer and coke. Lori and I got a liter of coke and passed it back and forth like a couple of junkies. Not sure if the cold or sugar was more addictive. Each day we wiped out the proprietors supply and she happily reported to Fabio that she now has money for a new addition. This was clearly a WIN WIN.
Day four we took an afternoon break to visit the school. Way cool! It was surprisingly convenient to stop for drinks on the way to our campsite.
Learning the local language.
Both weeks, we each carried a back pack with a change of clothing (rarely used) some wipes and a few essentials. Additionally, we had our bedrolls to keep from sleeping directly on the ground – a surprisingly luxurious front row seat to the stary nights!
A side note – no showers during work week so no reason to change clothing. We did carry wipes in our very limited packing, but it mostly took only the top layer. My priorities became floss, brush and wipe the sand from my eyes! When we showered on the weekend at base camp, it took four soapings to get my legs clean. While I’m on the topic of hygiene, between work week and tracking week, we got our – one and only – glorious shower at base camp. So digging into our left behind bags for clean undies and shampoo was pure delight. Glistening noses and clean hair, we were barely recognizable descending from the outdoor showers above the camp. I patiently waited near the end of the line, spellbound by each transformation. Anticipation has never been so grand.
The effort of packing and unpacking, plus having space for us and our gear on the trucks, meant conserving space for essentials. Our kitchen required two grates for cooking over the fire, food, cooking pots, eating dishes and utensils. Both weeks we carried water for drinking and cooking. Week one we needed many shovels, wheel barrels, water containers for mixing cement/sand, and assorted tools. All needed to be loaded and unloaded plus cleaned at the end of the work day. Yep, hard work but increasingly satisfying.
On our first night we numbered off into five duty teams managed under the iron fist of Curtesy, an intern from the university majoring in natural resource management. Despite her bossy stinker personality we all fell in love and were heart broken when she couldn’t join us tracking week. We took turns yelling her signature “DUTY TEAM” but it just wasn’t the same.
A team’s duties started with dinner dishes and the next morning they delivered coffee tea to each person at their tent or sleeping bag at 6:15 AM. That meant, up early, setting the fire to boil water for drinks and oats, and flipping bread over the grill for toast. The team cooked, cleaned and served breakfast, lunch and dinner then passed the baton with dinner dishes! Gus, Scott, Milo and I were the dream team. Our first night we had a serious sand storm for dinner. Delicious mashed potatoes and spicy chicken were served with a side of sand. We were so relieved to pass on dish duty to the beauty team.
We finished work week with the foundation and two level of the wall complete. A reluctance to leave a job half done was met with the implication that the group following us would have an average age much lower than ours. So, on to base camp for two days of luxury and super-duper showers!
Saturday was unpacking and reorganizing …… SHOWERS. Sunday we went to a nearby town to replenish supplies, dip in a pool, use internet and enjoy lunch (not prepared by a duty team) with cold draft beer! It definitely qualified as heavenly!
TRACKING WEEK ……here we come elephants!!!
Now tutored in self-reliance, we packed the vehicles for our nomadic week tracking elephants. Our loan encounter with Porthos during work week elevated the excitement to engage with the desert elephants.
Tracking week was nomadic. We packed and unpacked each day and slept on tarps on the ground or in one of the tents set up for those who preferred to be inside – not me. Concern, about losing the buff bodies we achieved during the hard labor of work week, quickly disappeared.
Tracking week workout … good for the core! Packing, unpacking, set up tents, take down tents, cook clean, enjoy the camp fire and fall asleep to the stars!
You can get fascinating information about Namibia bush elephants on the EHRA website (see above). We were focused on five resident matriarchal herds in the Ugab and Huab River regions. Porthos was the alpha male for one of the herds until Benny came along, challenged and defeated him. Now he was left to roam the desert alone. And he was pissed!
An SOS came from a village where Porthos had his way with their grain and water supply. Darn Porthos – after a full day of tracking him with no elephants in sight, the long faces were too pathetic to ignore. At dinner Fabio announced that we would leave Porthos to his roaming and head to a known heard the next day.
The first herd encounter was magical. We settled in to watch them eat, talk and eye us to make sure we were enjoying their show. One of the females walked up to Kristin (in the truck) and touched her leg with her trunk. Perfect! Kristin planned our trip and had a lifelong dream of seeing elephants. There were tears. She will tell her grandkids about that touch.
I swear the elephants knew about our work from the previous week and were greeting us as partners. After a bit of showing off they marched right toward us with perfect eye contact and parted just as they reached our vehicles. It was powerful.
During the week, we had several elephant and community encounters, learned how to track the elephants using foot prints and poop, and reveled in a sliding party on a giant sand dune.
But the last day we had to find Porthos! A major detour on our way to base camp we were able to track him and report the sighting. Because of our deadline, we got only within a half mile before we had to turn back.
Kristin on his trail!
We found the elusive Porthos but he quickly slipped away!
From afar, I could see his pleasure in letting us know that we were simply amature trackers heading to a nice hotel with showers!