Tuesday, December 11, 2007


A caracal.

Earlier this year I visited Namibia. For Audi cars. Here's what I wrote about it.

Saving the Desert Elephants

It's a wild and spine-tingling moment. The elephant is staring at me in a curious, slightly malign fashion. She's so close I can count her long eyelashes; one quick charge and I would be skewered, by a tusk, to the American authoress sitting next to me. I guess that would make us a kind of writerly kebab.

Why am I so disconcerted? It's not like I've never seen elephants before - I have. I've seen them in zoos and safari parks. I've even seen them in the wild - in the outback of South Africa, for instance, where they are so common they constitute a nuisance.

But this elephant is different, and maybe it's this difference that makes her unnerving. She's a Namibian desert elephant - one of the tiny number of elephants that have adapted to the savage climate and hostile landscapes of this furiously beautiful south African country. And what's more she's endangered: and it's part of my job to save her. Even if she is freaking me out with her shrewdly glaring eyes.

The group I have joined, in the harsh terrain of Namibia's virtually untouristed Damaraland, is called EHRA. It stands for Elephant Human Relations Aid. The agency was founded ten years ago by Johannes, a tough, sardonic, onetime South African soldier with unrivalled knowledge of this terrain - and a very long pony tail. He's sitting right now at the front of our four wheel drive, reassuring us that the elephants won't charge.

I'm not totally convinced.

EHRA's ambition is to save the precious desert elephants. They aim to do this by smoothing the troubled relationship between man and beast. The difficulty faced by the elephants is that they need water, and lots of it, to survive in this arid land. A thirsty elephant can consume hundreds of litres of liquid every day.

Naturally, the elephant herds gravitate to the richest sources of water in Damaraland. Which just happen to be the wells and pumps used by the local tribesmen and subsistence farmers.

The result is conflict. The elephants suck up the farmers’ water, and then the angry and desperate farmers go out shooting elephants - to save their livelihoods. If this continued for long, there would be only one outcome. No more desert elephants.

Which is where EHRA comes in. The agency recruits volunteers from all over the world to rescue the elephants - and have the holiday of a lifetime in the process. These volunteers spend a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of three months reconstructing water sources - building walls to protect the solar-powered boreholes - so that humans and elephants can learn to share the water. The "ellies" are given access to the water at various points, which saves them from damaging the actual pumps; the homesteading farmers get plenty of good clean water from a renewed and safeguarded source. And everyone's happy.

Everyone, that is, apart from me. I'm still being stared at by a wild mammal approximately the size of a post office. We're sitting in our open-topped 4WD down a shady sidecanyon. The herd of elephants we have encountered are busy scoffing their way through an entire tree - branches, bark, leaves, and all. Now we have interrupted them during lunch and they don't seem too chuffed. Can't say I blame them. Eventually the elephants give a snort of disdain, and slowly move on down the gorge, caressing each other with their trunks all the way.

For several more hours we track and assess the elephants as they move about the desert. It's a gruelling but exhilarating experience. The sun is hot and the mopane bees are annoying, occasionally we get bogged down in the sand of the arroyos, but I also know that I am a hugely privileged observer of one of Africa's last and greatest wildernesses.

As countries go, they don't get much more untamed than Namibia. A vast land almost as big as western Europe, Namibia boasts some of the world's driest deserts, sunniest mountains, and weirdest wildlife. On the extraordinary, fogbound Skeleton Coast - where the hot waterless desert meets the cold Benguela sea-current - there are beetles which stand on their heads, 2000 year old trees which burrow into the sand, and lions which hunt springboks in the life-giving mist.

Further inland are the plateaux - full of hyenas, jackals and ostriches which run across the barrens like alarmed Victorian spinsters. These interior regions of Namibia are also home to some unusual human communities. Like the Basters.

The name of these people literally means "bastards". Yet the Basters wear this apparently pejorative name with pride: because it tells them of their unique background. The Basters are the crossbred descendants of strapping Dutch settlers and petite Khoisan tribesmen who intermarried in the 18th and 19th centuries. The unusual lineage of the Basters makes them extremely beautiful - cocoa coloured, high cheekboned, sometimes blond yet simultaneously dark. They speak pure Renaissance Dutch and are fiercely Lutheran. They also like a drink.

But there are many such tribes in Namibia - ex-imperialist Germans, Lhosi, the herding Herero, nomadic Himbas, Caprivians, Owambo, Kavango. The nation is a patchwork of ethnicities, white and black, Christian and animist, African and European.

Here in lonely and beautiful Damaraland - between the coast and the mountainous heartland - the tribesmen are called, yes, Damaras. And they are just as intriguing as any Namibian ethnicity. The women sometimes go bare breasted; sometimes they wear big, vividly coloured dresses with bizarre flat hats. The Damara people are friendly, charming and aware of the specialness of their land and the elephants it harbours. They just need a little help to balance their precious ecosystem.

Help which they are going to get from me. Well, when I say me, I really mean everyone else in the group I have joined. The fact is, I have missed the first week of the two week EHRA rotation - and it's the first week when all the building work is done. The second week is dedicated to tracking and monitoring the ellies, and exploring the wilds of remotest Damaraland.

As we make camp that night - building our own fires, laying out our sleeping bags, barbecuing our meaty dinner, sitting around the roaring flames drinking whisky in the African moonlight - I confess to the rest of the group that I'm glad I missed the building week. Because it sounds too much like hard work. This rough camping is quite tough enough for me, without the need to construct rockwalls every afternoon.

The response to my confession is unanimous and dismayed. Every single member of the group - which ranges from gap year student girls, to thirty-something actors rediscovering themselves, to that lady authoress of a certain age - is adamant that the building work is essential to the whole grubby, challenging, punchy and enriching experience that is EHRA. As the gap year girls explain to me, it's during the wall-building in the hot African sun that the group dynamic is established. People learn to rely on each other (or not), they find out each other's virtues and weaknesses, they establish friendships and develop camaraderie, and all of it under the determined alpha male gaze of Johannes and his facilitators.

'We were so good at building the walls,' one girl breathlessly tells me, 'we actually ran out of cement!'

The others laugh around the fireside. There is certainly a very strong esprit de corps in this group. There are catchphrases and nicknames, in-jokes and gossip. This isn't a "holiday" for someone who dislikes close contact and teamwork: you're forced to rub along - but in a good way.

Nor is this a "holiday" for someone who needs their creature comforts. The food is basic but nourishing. There’s no showers, and the toilets are the nearest thorn bushes. If you want refreshing snacks you'd better bring them with you. The same goes for cold beer and wine - you may stumble across tribal liquor stores - then again you may not. But if you like to chill out with a nice Merlot after a hard day's elephant tracking, or a long afternoon mixing cement with a Zimbabwean artist, then my advice is to pack a couple of decent bottles in your rucksack, along with your sleeping bag, bedroll, wet wipes, loo paper, etc etc etc (the staff at EHRA will advise you on essentials. It’s quite a long list).

Surprisingly, one thing you probably won't need - even though I've packed one - is a mosquito net. The desert is generally too dry for mossies, which means you get to sleep out, in the open, underneath the dark African skies.

And what an experience it is. I've never seen so many stars, sprinkled across the blackness like a Tsarina's diamonds. The moon is a scimitar of silver. And every ten minutes or so a shooting star scores an exuberant gold slash across the heavens. It's such a giddy feeling I want to stay awake, but the day’s exertions and the tots of whisky have defeated me. I fall asleep to the sound of the mild desert breeze in the acacias.

Mornings at EHRA start early. Before dawn David the "Zimbo" artist is up and about brewing coffee. Lucy from Dublin is on breakfast duty (people take it in turns to make meals, do dishes, clean up, and so forth); as the sun peeps over the desert horizon she starts making the porridge. Soon the whole camp is alive with people scratching and yawning.

And it's not just the camp that's alive. As we have an hour to spare before we light out for the wilderness, I take a stroll into the bush. The dry wooded riverbed next to our camp is buzzing with critters. Guinea fowl trot from rock to rock. Songbirds warble in the tamarisks. Duikers, oryx and other antelopes skitter in the distance. And then I see a curiously bounding animal, ears pricked and eyes burning - it's a very rare feline called a caracal - all tawny and sleek.

When I go back to the camp I tell the others excitedly of my sighting. They are politely enthusiastic but maybe not that impressed. Some of them have already seen leopards, and there are rumours of lions hunting black rhino just a few kilometres downriver. This is real wild Africa - raw and glorious.

Soon we are back in our jeeps and heading into the toughest territory of all. For several hours we sloosh our way through a remarkable and hidden gem of the Damaraland desert - the wetlands.

It seems contradictory, to have an emerald swamp in the middle of a desert, but Namibia is laced with underground rivers. Indeed if these subterranean waterways didn't exist those water pumps wouldn't work half so well. Sometimes these aquifers rise to the surface, and when they do they create long green ribbons of life, in the middle of the sunburnt wilderness.

The sensation of driving down these linear fens is unique. Like tunnelling into Eden. Reeds crack against the cars, waterbirds flee the splashing wheels, more than once the vehicles get stuck in the sucking black mud and have to be towed free. And when the cars give up, the volunteers wade down the water course, worrying about leeches.

At last we emerge onto dry land. Almost immediately, Johannes spots some telltale spoor - big balls of elephant dung, as fibrous as a vegan's breakfast. The desert ellies are nearby.

For an hour we track them, on foot. The sun is setting. It seems we are out of luck. But then we turn a canyon corner - and run smackbang into a dozen elephants gathered around a waterhole. This is Mama Africa's herd, named for its dominant matriarch. The encounter is edgy. Big elephant ears are twitching. Johannes tells us the animals are nervous.

As darkness falls we beat a sensible retreat to the car. But again, as we drive along, we run into the animals. And this time it's serious. They are snorting. Johannes cuts the engine. He tells us that the ellies can get violent at night - they hate disturbance. In the twilight one of the female animals, Medusa, actually drops her head - and then she charges.

Hearts stop. I am sure Johannes is going to be pinioned on a tusk. Someone screams. But it's just a mock charge. A warning. With a shake of her head Medusa gives us another angry glance - before trotting back to her herd. We have survived.

That night we camp out of danger, up on the plateaux. When the sun rises I rub my eyes and look around the camp. We are lost in the middle of astonishing scenery - an endless vista of blue-tinged mountains and dreamy dunelands, threaded by tracks made by migrating elephants.

It's an awesome and uplifting sight. And it suits my mood. Because I am happy. In my own tiny way I have helped to save this landscape - and this ecosystem. I feel good, rewarded, and remarkably virtuous. And you don't get that buzz after a week in Marbella.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Hi Sean,

I like the article. Realistic - except: We are NOT ex-colonialist Germans! We are Namibians of German extraction - and proud of it!