Freezing, adrenaline pumping, but fighting the rising fear, I turn my head slowly to see a monstrous black shape just 12 metres away, silhouetted in the moonlight next to the very tree we were sitting under. Alan and Earl froze also. Our first night at Base Camp on the Ugab River bed, Damaraland, Namibia, and we guys are yakking around the dying embers of the braie, late at night, getting to know each other as all strangers would. Now we four were caught off guard, up so close to a huge bull elephant with no chance of getting away if he'd chosen to charge. Those few beers we'd had wouldn't have helped us move either......
How on earth does such a huge animal walk up behind you so silently?
Strangely my fear subsides, and I began to appreciate the moment. This was unique. This was so unexpected. This was what I'd come for, an adventure! Time seemed to slow down as I sank into the moment, just to absorb every second, because there's never going to be another time like this again.
What a welcome they'd put on for their new volunteers at Base Camp!
Give us a thrill like this , and we'll want to come back for more.
Just a few hours earlier we’d been given our Safety Lecture by our Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) patrol guides, advising we 15 new volunteers never to approach within 100 metres of these beasts. They will charge. Recent encounters between elephants and locals, competing over scarce water supplies, had left the herds skittish, and there had recently been human casualties. Time to test their encounter theories now because this bull had walked right up so silently…..
2 short weeks prior I’d flown Qantas Airlines with my wife to join a Cape Town to Windhoek, Namibia, GAP Adventures tour. Then I had kissed Kay goodbye in Windhoek, as she continued on the tour through Botswana on to Victoria Falls. But I was free, off on my adventure. Getting right out of my comfort zone, joining a volunteer project with EHRA, an organisation at the coalface of human/wildlife conflict.
Volunteers, (you pay for the privilege of working hard..) are the key in enabling EHRA to build rock wall protection around village wells and water tanks, to stop desert elephants breaking down facilities in their hunt for water. Namibia, for most of the year is arid, with only a 2 month rainy season. Namibia’s desert elephants have adapted to this harsh environment, browsing the mopani thickets, and digging seep holes for water in the dry sandy riverbeds. But village or farm wells and tanks are irresistible, bringing them into conflict with locals. Just 2 months earlier, a local had shot and wounded an elephant while driving the small herd off. Soon after the herd had cornered that local, chased him up a kopjie, and killed him. They say elephants don't forget......
We built our wall. We cooked over campfires. We chatted and learnt about each other as the fiery orange African sun set over the stunning Ugab River scenery. We slept in sleeping bags on the ground and gazed up at the brilliance of the Milky Way covering the heavens. We didn’t mind not showering for 5 days! And we fell in love with the country.
But now it was just survival! “What the hell do we do if he walks right through the camp? There’s no way we can get out of his way!” We had been instructed to freeze and make no move towards that could be interpreted as a threat. It seemed like ages sitting there,watching this huge elephant browse the tree we were under. I was hoping his calmly eating, was a sign he was comfortable with us. There was still the fear he would continue straight towards us through our camp. The local herds have often demolished parts of the camp on the way through. Strangely, my fear had vanished and I found myself enjoying every moment of being so close to the big bull of the area that we would later identify him as. This was Voortrekker, the bull that around 20 years ago had lead his small herd down from the Etosha area to re-establish the desert elephants in their old home range, before they were hunted out. This was his territory, and he was letting us know it.
Calmly, Voortrekker began to browse on the very acacia tree we were sitting under, keeping a stern eye on we, the intruders in his territory. Then with a look as if to say “Keep the noise down you guys. This is my patch.” he turned. Hitching up his baggy pants, he ambled away as silently as he'd arrived at our camp, across the dry, sandy riverbed to the other side of the valley where he continued to select dessert from other foliage.