Monday, December 19, 2011

Namibia 2011

After spending 30 nights out of the last 41 sleeping outdoors, coming back to Ireland, where the sun is rising at 830am and setting at 4pm, is a bit of a challenge but I'm still on a high after my latest trip to Namibia.

This was my 7th visit there with EHRA, the most trips I've paid to a country I didn't officially live in. And it turned out to be my best trip. As most of you know I left the US after 11 1/2 years in October to give Ireland a try. I figured it would be easier to find a job in Dublin in the new year so after chatting with Rachel of EHRA in Namibia I decided to go back and spend 6 weeks there helping out. This time I was to spend most of my trip as a volunteer project assistant as opposed to working in the office in Swakopmund like I did 2 years ago.

Carol, who was a volunteer I met in Madagascar and who has since become a good friend, had a few weeks to travel right around when I was due to head out so she joined me for the first 4 weeks of the project. I was super excited to share EHRA with another friend, and she's the easiest person to travel with.

For 6 weeks I was to help Chris, a Mauritian with a lovely South African/French accent, who was the lead guide on the project. We became fast friends. The 2 week volunteer cycles are split into a week of building a wall on a farm in the desert to protect a water pump from thirsty elephants, and the second week is spent on patrol, following specific herds of elephants, taking profile photos of them and recording their GPS positions to report back to the MET (Ministry of Environment and Tourism). At the end of the 2 weeks we head back to Swakopmund to pick up the new batch of volunteers. My duties included helping out with the well-being of the volunteers, help them cook over the fire etc and record the elephant and game data when on patrol.

The 3 groups of volunteers over the 6 weeks very all very different and wonderful in their own way. And we had some people who stayed on for more than 2 weeks which was great.

Here are some of the highlights from my 6 weeks:

- remembering my way around Swakopmund, the town where we pick up the volunteers every 2 weeks before heading out to the desert, and where I spent 3 months building the EHRA website exactly 2 years ago.
- seeing the local guys who work at EHRA's base camp again after 2 years, like Adolf, John and Hendrick. And meeting Cool Boy and Mattias who I'd only heard about.
- finishing a wall on one of the farms and starting a new one on a neighboring farm.
- finding a small horned adder when I moved a bag of cement and the next day finding a solarfuge in the same spot - yikes!
- Chris making everyone rope bracelets around the camp fire in the evening, like we're part of his harem now.
- waking up to small rain drops on my face in the middle of the night, wondering if it was going to pour down, but thankfully it never really did.
- being a dirt magnet. Seriously I felt like the dirtiest person there at the end of the day when I was having my wet wipe 'shower' every evening.
- cold ciders at the end of the building day as the sun goes down.
- the local farm dogs who got fatter every day after eating out of our bio pit. They started off at the beginning of the 6 weeks with their tail between their legs when we came close, very skittish - to sleeping on our pillows and snuggling with all the volunteers at night on the build site.
- playing the rake dance, box game and other around-the-fire games in the evenings. We had some very flexible people in or groups, that's all I'm saying!
- having my biggest laugh of 2011 with Bruno (from Holland) over something said that was lost in translation. I seriously almost peed in my pants.
- being there when Rachel's new puppy Zanzi arrived. She looks just like Hannibal who died in April, and the older dogs Kiki and Tsaurab have really taken to her, well most of the time.
- Carol making a chocolate Amarula cake with EHRA written in icing on it - delicious!
- one evening lying around the fire in the desert, when most had gone to bed, 2 of us saw 14 satellites, 5 shooting stars and the most spectacular full moon rise I've ever seen, all in the space of an hour.
- swimming in the elephant drinking dam at base camp at the weekends. Its an algae soaked jacuzzi-sized stone bowl but it was bliss on a hot day.
- going for a sunset run in the desert with Cecelia, Chris and Bruno, who has convinced me to give barefoot running a try.
- climbing a koppie (hill) at the end of day on patrol so we can have a sundowner with a view.
- when shopping for food on Sunday mornings for the group at Uis (a small mining town in the desert) having an ice-cream with Chris for breakfast. The guy eats so much sugar - bad influence on me!
- being told by a local guy that if you leave shoes in Namibia you never really leave. I left my hiking boots behind on the side of the road a year and a half ago for someone to pick up and use, they were too worn for me. I guess that explains why I keep going back
- seeing so many elephants on patrols, including 9 bulls one afternoon, and some of the elephants I haven't seen since my very first visit to Namibia in 2008, like Mama Africa and Voortrekker. They're all doing really well.
- having a baby elephant come up to the car and sniff my arm while I was sitting in the passenger seat. She was so close I thought she would touch me, she just stopped short.
- seeing the 2 new babies in a herd from the Huab river, one about a month old, the other about 2 months. You can still see the hair on their heads.
- camping at Doros crater, one of my most favourite camping spots in Namibia.
- an elephant digging a water hole with her foot in a dry river bed right in front of our car, so close I couldn't even move to take a photo of it.
- remembering some of the wildlife stuff I learned on my Field Guide course last year in South Africa, and having Chris question me on it to jog my memory.
- being able to answer volunteer questions on elephants and how to cook over the fire. I realized I know more than I thought I did, or maybe I just knew more than the people asking the questions :) Still it felt good to be able to help and see how far I'd come since my very first trip.
- being surprised by an elephant when we camped for lunch, we'd spent the morning looking for them, and they found us.
- driving out to the desert in Rachel's car with the 3 dogs in the back, singing loudly and not wanting to be anywhere else in the world at that moment - pure bliss.
- driving the land cruisers for a bit - fun to drive a bigger vehicle like that :) beats my mum's Toyota Yaris.
- Carol's boyfriend came out for her 5th week after she was done volunteering and they took a week long road-trip. On their descent from their 3 day hike on the Brandberg, he proposed!!! YAY
- helping prepare for the EHRA end of year party in the desert, and Rachel giving me my very own EHRA shirt with my name on it.
- on our last patrol, we had both trackers (Mattias and Hendrick) with us so we took a long 3 day drive through the desert. As well as seeing lots of elephants and be surrounded by them while they were chilling and eating, we also were privileged to see:
- a caracal
- jackals
- giraffe
- oryx
- springbok
- ostrich
- zebra
- black rhinos, including a mama and baby who ran right past the car, so quick I didn't even get a photo
- the elusive base camp resident spotted Genet
- baboons

It was an amazing way to end 2011 and I made some new lifelong friendships. I also know I'll definitely head back. As much as I love to travel and see new parts of the world, it the one place that never gets old for me. You can check out my photos here and watch the promotional video I helped put together for the end of year party. It was originally put together by a volunteer called Toby but we edited it down. It gives a really accurate portrayal of life on the EHRA project.

Hope everyone has a Happy Christmas/Holiday and best wishes for 2012!!! Wonder where I'll be writing about next year...