I hope you’re ready for some more Africa talk! This one will be fully loaded with elephants, I promise. This time we’re focusing on patrol week, which is the reward week for building the wall during build week. Patrol week is basically what it sounds like…we headed out in two trucks to try to find elephants. REAL ELEPHANTS. In the wild.
More or less, it was the main reason I wanted to go on this trip. That being said, these were real, wild elephants, so no, we didn’t get to touch them. Elephants are actually fairly calm creatures and they don’t want to hurt you unless they think that you will harm them or the herd. Attempting to touch them would be a bad idea. We did get to see them in their natural desert environment…and let me tell you, it’s so much cooler than the zoo.
I would do a “day in the life,” for patrol week, but every day was different. The set up was the same…breakfast, pack up camp, patrol patrol patrol, lunch/nap/rest time, patrol patrol patrol, set up camp, dinner, bed. But it was so much more than that, so I’ll try to explain the best I can…
We spent a lot…and I mean A LOT of time driving in the trucks. We had two different trucks to ride in, and we stuck with our same group all week, switching to the other truck after two days to be able to experience being in the front truck vs the back truck. The roads in the Namibia desert aren’t necessarily the greatest…nor are they really roads at all, as we drove through the sand and rocks quite a bit. The ride was quite bumpy, and we quickly learned that one of the best way to experience being on patrol in Namibia was to “car surf,” by standing up and just holding on, giving you some leverage over the constant bumps while seeing some fantastic views. There’s not really a better way to describe than with a video…
I don’t sing in this one, I promise…
We didn’t do a lot of talking while on patrol…mostly a lot of looking around. Sometimes we sang, but most of the time our Portuguese jukebox named Raul served as our radio, keeping us entertained at almost all times.
We spent much more time looking at the changing terrain instead of looking at elephants because those big guys can be really hard to find! Even when you do find them, the trucks might not be able to make it to them, or they might scare them away. But the desert and the rocks are actually quite pretty, so it wasn’t too bad.
So, my first ever real camping experience was in New Hampshire earlier this year. I survived…we also camped right next to the car, and showers were available (and I used them). This camping…was definitely different. We carried everything with us in the trucks, including food, water, and bedrolls. When we were done driving for the day, we found a spot that would hopefully keep us safe from the animals, and we camped there. Right there on the ground. Gather some food for a fire, make a fire, go to the bathroom behind a bush. Or just somewhere in the dark. No showers. It was awesome.
The best part was camping under the stars without a light in sight. I live in Manhattan, and it’s safe to say that we don’t really have stars here. (At least of the bright shining balls of fire kind.) I’ve also never been to the southern hemisphere before…so a different set of stars! I always laid with my glasses on for a bit before taking them off to fall asleep because looking at the stars was so awesome. I even saw a shooting star once, and you could see the Milky Way. Life is good.
what to do when you see an elephant
The elephants are coming, I promise. Before we went on patrol, we were given a little run down in what to do when the elephants are around. For the most part, elephants don’t want to hurt you unless you give them reason to. Also, they have really bad eyesight (I feel for them, I do too!), so unless you move, they don’t really know that you’re there. So, when elephants are around…don’t move and don’t make noise. If someone is sleeping, don’t wake them because you don’t know if they’ll wake with a scream. That’s about it. If they still see you, I can’t be of much help because that never happened.
We asked Hendric (one of our build week experts) if we would see elephants while on patrol. He told us, “You will see elephants unless you close your eyes.” He wasn’t kidding.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…incessant pictures of elephants. I make no apologizes for the number of pictures. I’ll just say, “You’re welcome.”
Ugab Small Herd
We found the Ugab Small herd on the first day on patrol, in the afternoon. We ended up driving into the wetlands which is where the elephant tend to be, as they want to find water. Mattais drove up and pointed…at first I couldn’t figure out what he was pointing at. Then, I saw elephants. It was kind of like the first time I got up on a surf board at surf camp, and my first pictures are so blurry from excitement. Seven elephants in all…four adults, a six year old, and two babies (one three months old, one two weeks old).
And a video…why not?
And last but not least…Gatsby:
(like a) G6 Herd
I was totally happy with seeing the Ugab Small herd…but there were a couple other herds to be seen, with more elephants and rumors of other baby elephants. On the second day, we drove around allllll day and almost called it quits on finding elephants. We made one last effort and drove up along a grassland area. Mattais got out of the truck and we tried to follow, but he turned to us and said, “No, you stay, I die first.” With 28 years of tracking under his belt, definitely a man to listen to. Eventually he waved us up onto a sand ridge, and the G6 herd was in front of us. They were further away than we saw yesterday, but still awesome to see. A baby hid under its mother most of the time.
It was getting quite dark after watching the G6 herd for about an hour, so we quickly found a place to camp, cooked some dinner (sausage and mash!), and then settled into our campsite for the night. Another evening of star gazing before falling asleep.
All was well until about midnight when I heard some snapping and cracking in front of me…I’m pretty much blind without my glasses on, so I got nervous as to what the sounds could be. I learned to keep my glasses in my sleeping bag with me, so I fished them out and put them on…to see an elephant eating a tree in front of us. Maybe 30-40 feet away. He was happily chomping along at the branches and bark, and I looked around to see other people in the group had already been awakened by the noise. One person in our group had been trying to sleep with ear plugs and an eye mask…which made perfect sense until one of the group tried to awaken her (see the rules above!), and she awoke with a bit of a scream.
At this point I was convinced we were done for, but the elephant (who we later learned was named Voor Trekker) looked at us for a few seconds before going back to eating the tree. After awhile, he appeared to be moving on…but he came closer to us. Maybe 15-20 feet away. That’s close in elephant terms, and I was the closest to him on the tarp we were sleeping on. The fire was a little offset so it wasn’t between him and him. Pretty sure I started visibly shaking, and shouted whispers of, “Don’t move! Stay still!” went throughout the campsite. I thought we were done for, not because he would attack us, but maybe because he would simply start walking toward us and accidently step on us. Logical, right? He took a few steps closer to us, peed and pooped (very loud when coming from an elephant…), and moved on.
I got a hug from Raul who was sleeping next to me, and then we all went back to sleep. Well, only for a few hours, as he came back around 4:30am to munch on the tree some more. I was definitely much calmer this time around and he didn’t come near us at all. I don’t think everyone woke up like last time, and it was still a little difficult to fall asleep after he left.
The next morning, Voor Trekker was the talk of the camp…who woke up, who fell back asleep, and who had an escape plan ready if he came any closer. Jokes flew about how we stuffed oranges in people’s sleeping bags (elephants love oranges) and who would get thrown to the elephant first.
After our little scare with Voor Trekker, we carried on to find more elephants. We were on patrol to find Mama Africa, the biggest herd and the only one we hadn’t seen yet. Mattais took us to some grasslands that he was pretty sure had them, but that it would be really hard for the trucks to get to. He walked up a bit to see what he could see, and eventually we all followed. We got closer and closer to the herd, but it was decided that we wouldn’t be able to see them without driving around, so we turned around to go back.
We headed back towards the trucks with Mattais leading us…when he suddenly turned around and pointed towards the rocks, yelling, “Go!” and pointed towards the rocks and bushes. Someone asked what was going on, and he responded, “I’ll tell you later, just go.” We apparently weren’t moving fast enough because again he pointed to the rocks and yelled at us to move.
An elephant was coming our way and our trucks weren’t anywhere close…so we darted through some bushes (I wish I had worn pants…) and high tailed it up the rocks that bordered the grasslands. Because if you can’t really escape an elephant, then you get high and out of sight. I’ve never climbed a rock so fast in my life. (I also overreact, oh well.)
From our perch, we had a nice view of Benny, a young bull, on his way to meet up with one of the herds.
There he is!
He walked passed us, no harm, no foul. Mattais decided it would be safest us for us climb back to the trucks along the rocks…which added about an hour onto our trip since we did a little rock climbing only to realize how impossible it was…and then retracing our steps entirely back to the trucks. But at least we got a little adventure and a workout in…
the three bulls
After seeing Benny, the plan was to try to drive around the mountain to find the elephant herds, which takes quite a long time since the roads are rocky and you don’t move too fast. We drove to the Save the Rhino Trust camp and staked out a spot under some trees to rest…plus, it gets too hot to drive the trucks around in the middle of the day. I was taking a nap on one of the benches in the truck when someone woke me up and pointed…our buddy Voor Trekker was back! The SRT camp has a water hole that the elephants like to come to. He spent some time there before walking about ten feet next to us on his way to another water spot by the SRT office. He was so close, which led to lots of shouted whispers of, “Don’t move! Stay still!” He mainly just ignored us.
After Voor Trekker left, we drove down a little bit and ended up finding the G6 and Mama Africa herds, but it was hard to see them. We drove again not too far from camp and found all three bulls (Voor Trekker, Benny, and Chicky) together doing their eating thing. (Elephants basically eat all the time.) We could get close to them and got some excellent view time.
G6 and Mama Africa
After seeing the bulls, we knew that G6 and Mama Africa were close, so we headed back up to the SRT camp to wait for them to come up to the watering hole…because it’s the desert and elephants like water. We sat and talked about how people want to shoot the elephants for their ivory and their meat (elephant meat! really??) and to protect their crops, but they don’t realize that a longer term investment in their farm would be better. It’s all about the now. As we were talking about this, G6 and Mama Africa showed up.
Sixteen elephants in Mama Africa, plus two bulls, Seven elephants in G6. That’s a lot of elephants, and some really, really cute little babies (some only two weeks old!). We watched them at the water pit for a bit, shooting water on themselves and drinking. An elephant can hold up to 12L in its trunk…crazy! Watching the babies was awesome…sometimes they would get their trunk stuck in their mouths, or they would stick their trunk and tail out at the same time while putting their ears out to the sides. So fun.
A tourist van drove up behind us as we got in position to see the elephants, and we made charades at them to tell them to shut off their engine. The father got out and said that they wanted to drive past us, to which Mattais replied, “You see that up ahead? That’s a problem. Your truck with be destroyed.” I don’t think the man was so happy, but a herd with babies? Don’t get close! Although we certainly did…they know the EHRA trucks and that we won’t hurt them, plus the guides know how to approach them in the trucks, so we definitely were able to see them as close up as you can get in the wild.
And some video action…
The herd slowly moved down to where the three bulls had been earlier to find something to eat. We followed, of course…
So many elephants! All right there! Definitely an awesome week, and we got to see all three herds that live in the area….with babies! We even named one of the new babies, Rachel, after one of the EHRA workers who had yet to have a baby named after her. Hopefully Rachel (both of them!) will have a long life in Namibia.
putting those survival skills to use
We had one last camp in the middle of nowhere (except for base camp) as we camped at the SRT camp for the night. (How many times can I say “camp” in one sentence? Moving on…) Another night under the stars…where I had dreams of baboons attacking us. Ah, life in the wild.
We packed up the next morning and made our way to base camp…which ended up being the scenic route with a few hiccups along the way. The main problem being…we ran out of gas. This is an annoyance in a metropolitan area, but in the middle of the desert…this is a bit more of a problem. We sent off our other truck to get more gas…who then ran out about 10k from the gas station. Luckily EHRA has friends who brought us gas, but it ended up being a five hour stint on the side of the road. In the desert. By this point, we had gotten quite good at setting up camp, so we made some shade for ourselves and set up a fire for coffee and tea…and eventually lunch.
We hung out for a long time, and the only animal we had to fend off was the only scorpion we had seen all trip. Basically, we just used a shoved and moved him far, far away. Survival skills, check.
After the other truck returned with gas (and cool beverages…and chips!), we headed on our way. It was the long way back, so we got in another day of car surfing…and this beautiful sunset.
that’s a wrap
We headed back to base camp, where we had one final night in tree house. (Did I mention we slept in a tree house? Because we did. Every kid’s dream come true.) We headed back to Swakop, our main city and point of departure being saying bye to new friends. (I will come visit, or at least run marathons in all your respective countries…)
Final group shot!
Goal in life…see elephants…check, check, triple check. I never thought I’d like camping and not showering (and not running!) so much, but it was fun experience that is definitely the direct opposite of life in Manhattan. (The first thing I do when I get home from work is shower…so many germs!) I’ve loved elephants ever since I was a little girl, and it’s definitely a dream come true to see them not in a zoo.
Have I sold you on EHRA yet? Get more info here or sign up at Discover Outdoors! (Note: I don’t work for either, nor do they pay me to say these things…I really just had a lot of fun! And I love elephants…)