Up until around 1998 desert dwelling elephants only sporadically visited the Ugab river from the north, likely following ancient migrating routes. When we did find tracks it was mostly of a big bull in his prime, he got the name Voortrekker, meaning pioneer. The Matriarchal herds however, had still not followed.
Around 1998/99 I was guiding a group from the British group Raleigh International on a two week walk down the Ugab to the coast. They were rough expeditions in those days, no tents, a couple of large pots to cook horrible stodgy pasta in, and otherwise surviving on a seemingly endless stream of cream cracker rations, divided down to the last quarter to stave off starvation.
Camping wild in the open far down the winding canyons, the last thing we expected was to bump into elephants.
Under a large Anna tree, one evening round the fire, a breathless group leader, Jade, came running into camp with her shorts halfway up her knees. With eyes like saucers she shouted in a hushed whisper. “I was having a pee behind the bush an something large fell behind me! Like a dup, dup, dup, and then a rush of water! “
Jade was sharing her evening ablutions with an elephant.
Not good. Pitch black night. In the open. Nowhere to run. A campfire under one large tree. 15 kids and me. God knows how many elephants.
Silently I got them huddled around the base of the tree and stoked the fire in front of them. The sounds where all round, soft rumbles, branches snapping. Unmistakably from of a herd of elephants moving and feeding around us in the dark. And we are crapping ourselves.
As it is in theory my job, I place myself between the closest sounds and the group, brandishing the two lids of our large pots. Ready to be the cymbal player to my own death-march.
To hear an elephant at night is kind of reassuring. You know they are going about their business. When it goes suddenly quite it’s time to panic. That eternal silence when every sense strains to find clues, and my death cymbals tremble out of control in stable hands.
The cow charged in complete silence. Low, trunk tucked in under her chest. The charge you only want to read about. Everything slows down to the pace of those ancient black and white movies, frame by frame.
Frame one, five meters. Que cymbal. Frame two, four meters. Que cymbal accompanied by loud screams. Frames three and four, large object somewhere in obscuring dust. Cymbals and scream reach a crescendo. Somehow the brain decides that it’s a good thing that I cannot see her anymore, and makes some time to reflect on it. And somewhere in that obscuring cloud she managed to pirouette herself back into the darkness. A very, very long three seconds all of that took from start to finish.
The second charge was not that quiet. Somewhere in the background the brain was running a comparison to come up with an accurate description of the sound she was making. How it decided on a walrus having its throat slit with a blunt hacksaw, I have no idea. But that’s what she sounded like. Accompanied by cymbals of course. And the mandatory screaming, that was by my own admittance becoming quite profound.
The pirouette this time however, was accompanied by a dramatic upsweep of the trunk. Or that’s how the brain translated the sudden rush of air past my head. But the brain had time to smile as it realised she is impairing her own accuracy with all the dust created by these dramatic stops and pirouettes.
As I bore quickly, all I can say about charge three and four is: Same old same old. The badly animated black and white movie with glimpses of something large coming and going in a cloud of dust. The suffering walrus accompanied by the cacophony of my cymbals and voiced terms of endearments.
And then, as I was thinking we were starting to get the hang of this pantomime, without making any excuses, she left. In a hurry. In her wake followed the silent grey ghosts that formed the rest of our audience for that evening’s performance. Leaving me with a vague feeling that I somehow missed my calling in life.
Thankfully before I could make any compulsive career changing decisions, i looked down to investigate the warm sticky feeling between my toes. Seeing the blood from my shredded knuckles drip, dripping on my bare feet a meter away from the marks of her last stop, I realised. No, I might be too aggressive to play the cymbals. And my performance clearly did not appeal to such a sensitive audience.
And that, my friends, is how I met the first desert elephants to move into the Ugab River Valley. Mama Afrika’s herd, and the murderous pirouetting cow called Medusa.
This happy group of volunteers continued the work of previous group on building the elephant protection wall at farm Otjongundu. On elephant patrol week they were privileged to see Voortekker with younger bulls and Mama Afrika’s herd as well as other wildlife such as ostriches, black-backed jackals and different antelopes. As it comes to desert elephants interestingly, H2-herd is back in the Ugab area again. The volunteers seemed to enjoy their time, and they even had time for some yoga led by Selina, a volunteer from Germany! Working at a farm is not always easy, as there might be some distractions….but let the volunteers tell their stories:
Tuesday, June 12, 2016
“Tuesday morning we woke up at 05:45 am since we were on duty. We started the fire and prepared tea and coffee for everybody including this porridge we didn’t enjoy. I will never ever eat it in my life. I prefer it with milk and fruits instead. But since we started the day in such an unbelievable place, this was not a problem at all.
We prepared and loaded the cars. But still had time to take some pictures of this wonderful place at the base camp. Approximately around 09 am we were ready to start towards our building site. But luckily, Hamish forgot the spare tire for the van, so we had to go back and pick it up from the camp. On our second attempt to leave the camp we had a magical moment: we saw the elephants of herd G6 passing by the camp on their way to the Ugab river valley.
We arrived at the White Lady painting around 11 am. and directly started to build up our campsites in a valley nearby, beautifully situated next to the Brandberg Mountain. We had lunch and afterwards started our working at the building site. This was quite a lot of fun, because every participant did their very best for the success of our work. In particular we created a new foundation for the water tanks – at least we started it. We went back to the campsite earlier and there EHRA showed their competence in providing really delicious food for so many people. Even we were able to prepare an excellent meal with chicken and butternut for the group.
Later on the evening ended in a relaxed way while sitting around the fire……..”
Friedhelm and Martin (Germany)
Wednesday, June 13 2016
“We woke up at 06h00 to prepare the breakfast for everyone…..We started with making fire with dry baby wipes from the day before. This burned very well with the small wood. For the porridge, we cooked less oats than the morning before because some of us hated it and still hate it. So for some of us, the day started with frustration…but with a smile on the face for the majority.
At 8 o’clock we started with carrying stones, mixing cement, sand runs – always trying to follow the rules, which means: no beer at lunch for Fred, using the right shovels for mixing cement, learning how to lift rocks without breaking your back, not using these soft and lovely wheel barrows to carry rocks.
On our first break which was supposed to be short became longer when we realised that we ran out of water. So we had to wait for Mattheus who went to refill the container. Then, when the water arrived we hardly came back to work and make cement again to build a foundation for water tanks. At 12:30 we went for lunch, which was the perfect timing because we became to suffocate under the sun of noon. After eating, we rest in the freshness and shade under the roof. None the less, some of us had enough energy to climb the mountain next to the camp.
So in the afternoon we continued with our work. We started in the morning till it was time for dinner. Fred was happy now because it was already 5 o’clock and he was allowed to drink a (not so cold) beer :). We cooked lamb tagine for the meat eaters which took 1½ hours on the fire – too long for the empty stomachs around the fire. The vegetarians had lentils instead of meat which was ready after 25 minutes but they were kind and waited till everybody had something to eat. Was a perfect dinner to end this amazing day at Brandberg Mountain.”
Maren and Louisa
“There are some seriously confused roosters around here, the action kicked off at 2:50 a.m., then they realised their mistake by 3 and went back to bed unlike us. The duty team arose at 5:45 to commence preparation, Mattias was instantly promoted to porridge captain, much to our relief, the decision was justified on the basis that we all got to enjoy porridge without sand. Breakfast passed without any events and it’s now 07h30 and we have only been told off 5 times – we are pleased with our achievements.
The day’s work begins, three rock runs were completed. We were all surprised at how excited and possessive you could get about rocks. We all look for different things when searching for a special rock – the good news is that they come in many different shapes and sizes, so there was a rock for everyone.
Ashleigh loves big rocks…
P.S We had to go for a hospital run and got stuck in the sand.
“Shifts were also taken in cement mixing as everyone learnt their own style, under Jill’s guidance. And the wall steadily grew in size as Matthias stoically masterminded its construction. For a change lunch was cheese, ham and salad sandwiches and leftovers, then during a post meal snooze the farmer arrived requesting a lift to the hospital for a pregnant lady. All was well and we were able to have an extended siesta as Hamish turned into an ambulance man. As we grasped the opportunity to improve community relations, by way of thank you they stole our beer out of the truck! It’s no wondering the locals love EHRA!
Upon return from his good deed Hamish led a party on a sand run. We managed to get stuck in the riverbed with a full load. Hamish’s eco-training immediately kicked in as he tried to phone his mom. Alas no reception, so Ashleigh stepped into the breach – positive attitude and innovation saved the day.”
Thursday 16th June 2016
“The lack of signal and Wi-Fi combined with being in the most remote and beautiful places just brings us closer to nature. Today is the last full day of building week, surprised of how far we have come, currently at 4 fact!
Day was one of warmer morning’s hard works – blood, sweat and tears but worth every moment. Great food – porridge and coffee – everyone actually wakens early with duty. Pair Alice did a great job fire making. She was very proud. Good job – lunch was ham/cheese sandwich dinner chicken and dinner was chicken moambe – delicious, the peanut butter was an interesting ingredient. Vegetarians vs. carnivores. It is an incredible terrain, dry desert, great, dedicated, very hardworking and passionate about the task -people, young folks and so much energy in a group. I am privileged to meet and work with them.
Scorpions, spiders and lizards are just some of the unique species we find during rock collection, making sure we return the rock to protect the individual from the killer sun. At the end of the day we were all excited for a cold beer and amazingly good food cooked over the fire. We finished the productive day with an hour of yoga before dinner, it was a peaceful end to the day.”
From Alice and the “annoying snorer”
Monday 21st June 2016
“My second patrol week and it just gets better and better! After tracking for 2 hours we found a mixture of individuals: an adult cow named Medusa and Roo (who fostered Madiba the baby male), as well as Tsaurab and Voortrekker the 2 males. These individuals do not make up a herd as they immigrate throughout. The usual aspect of these individuals is that 3 unknown males were present with them and viewing their behavioral differences towards us and the cars were particularly interesting
Voortrekker is a beautiful bull, with the largest tusks I have ever seen. He walked between the cars allowing us the opportunity to get close.
After lunch we located the elephants, but doing it by foot. We walked up the diverse landscape of rocks to view the elephants from a different angle, it was a highlighting moment.
Fight off between a dog protecting his goats and the elephants was amazing, continuous barking and head shaking concluded in the elephants relocating.
Sitting by the fire, sharing our thoughts under the stars, what a way to finish the day.”
Tuesday 22nd June 2016
“That was an amazing day!!!
In the morning we’ve seen the big males who were chilling in the sun. Then we drive for a long long long time without seeing nothing at all..In the afternoon we went to the riverbed and this was the best moment of the day and for me of the patrol day week. We were standing between a huge group of elephants (twenty I guess)!
They came very close to us and one touched Hamish! It was an incredible moment.
Then we went to a lodge in the desert to get some beer with the group (who were in the car of the big Mattheus) and then we just told silly jokes until the sun goes down.
Thanks a lot for this journey, this was for the moment the best that I ever had.
Frenchie girl, Zoe
P.s Sorry for my English, I will try to get better 🙂
The volunteers from this group were once again a diverse pack, from Germany, United States, Switzerland and United Kingdom. Some of them are continuing with us, so you may hear their stories later as well. They started their journey on the building week, helping at a farm close to Kamanjab. This is a place where elephants are often seen at. The group was working hard, restoring the Farmer’s water points- one big and another smaller one, especially beneficial for smaller animals and elephant calves. They also dug the Farmer’s water pipes under the ground, out of Elephants reach. Volunteers enjoyed their time at the farm, and the story tells that the Farmer’s family taught them some archery and even baked delicious cupcakes for them, what a nice treat!
Here is how our volunteers describe their experiences:
Week 2 – Start of patrol week:
Our interesting and fun group is now mixing really well, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group. There are 9 of us in total, with Donna and Mattias finishing our group.
After a successful build week and a relaxing weekend spent at base camp, today was the start of patrol week! Rising early and organising the trucks, we set off down the Ugab River in search of the elephants. After lunch, at about 2 pm we spotted our first heard, climbed to the top of the nearest peak to observe from above. What we originally thought as a herd of 4 elephants actually turned out to be a large herd of females and babies, Mamma Africa’s herd, who died about a year and a half ago and was now Medusa’s herd.
Following them down the river for the afternoon was absolutely amazing, and it was exciting seeing these wild animals in their natural habitat. Once we left the herd, our truck, driven by Mattias, got stuck in the sand, for a few minutes. Caspar and Chris dug the tires while we all kept an eye on the two bulls who were about 10 meters away. Everything got a little exciting when Tsaurab, one of bulls, got incredibly close (and a little angry) at the other truck. Mattias started to clap to shoo him away and both trucks set off for camp. Enough excitement for one day! What will day 2 of patrol be like?
Thanks EHRA, Chris, Donna, Mattias for an amazing and once in a lifetime trip.
Tuesday February 16th
For starters, Taggie’s handwriting is very nice!
Today was our second day of patrol week. We drove A LOT today! In the morning we saw several springbok herds, a pair of Ostriches and several types of Kahran.
Shane also says we saw: Ludwig Bustard, and eating chat. We later saw a giraffe skeleton followed by some Rhino skin. We saw several Rhino tracks, but no Rhino…maybe tomorrow! After passing the Doros crater we saw a herd of mountain Zebras and several Oryx along with another Ostrich.
We are now at camp and we started the evening off with popcorn. Arguments ensued over sweet vs salty popcorn. Then Chris burned the last batch. HAHA! We’ll be sleeping in a cave tonight and taking turns on watch throughout the night…we really hope there is nothing that comes through that we need to wake others over :)!
Dawn and Grit
Wednesday, Feb 17th
3rd Day of Patrol week starts at 6 am with a hot cup of coffee. After breakfast we are packing up for elephant patrol. We have driven 3.5 hrs until we finally reach the Huab river. On our way there we see quite a number of Zebras and Springboks. After arriving at Huab river we struggle a bit finding a fresh elephant track. But before tracking elephants we are collecting elephant dung for Chris’ vegetable garden at the base camp.
After lunch we continue tracking elephants. We are finding four elephants belonging to the H1 herd. Since the H1 herd has a new born baby we are keen to find the rest of the herd. We are meandering through the Huab riverbed until we find a fresh track. Following the track we are spotting a big Ostrich herd (15 ostriches), a herd of 30 Oryx and a herd of 70 Springboks. Finally we found the rest of the H1 herd. But we are surprised by the number of elephants, we counted some 20 elephants. According to Chris the herds H1 and H2 had met. Chris recognizes two new babies, so in total we had the luxury to watch four babies. We could also watch two young bulls fighting. We are all very lucky and happy about the nature life we were privileged to witness today.
The day ends with a nice dinner at camp fire and an examination run by Chris focusing on elephants. It was another great day!
Thanks to Donna, Matthias and Chris
19th February 2016
The last 2 weeks was awesome. We helped a farmer here at Kamanjab and had the chance to see the new babies in Huab-river.