Namibia may not be at the top of your safari bucket list, but it should be — especially if you care enough about African wildlife to put your muscles where your mouth is. During a two-week stint with the NGO Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), volunteers can make a tangible difference in the survival of elephants and subsistence farmers by constructing an elephant-proof stone wall around a water source — removing the incentive for farmers to harm the desert creatures in order to protect their precious resources. Volunteers also have the opportunity to track and monitor the wild elephants, camping under the stars in the Damaraland region of Namibia.
Damaraland, on the fringes of the Namib Desert, is a stark landscape of rolling hills and veld, punctuated by spectacular granite rock piles that look as if they’d been dropped by brawny giants. Never far from sight are the thickets and ribbons of forest that mark the bed of the ephemeral Ugab River. The Ugab’s subterranean water has enabled humans and wildlife to survive in this harsh region for centuries, but not without conflict. EHRA’s mission, in cooperation with locally managed community conservancies, is to mitigate that conflict for the benefit of all.
Many modern ailments result from sedentary lifestyles, and there’s no better tonic than building stone walls. EHRA’s volunteers are not all young athletes — men and women in their 50s, 60s and even 70s join the effort. Week 1 is sweaty, dirty hard work, with joyful camaraderie and good food. Around the cook fire at night you might learn how to find the Southern Cross and how to cook “pap”— maize porridge. You may even pickup some of the clicking sounds of the local Khoekhoe language.
At the end of the week, the crew returns to base camp on the bank of the Ugab River, which is usually dry as a bone, unless you have an elephant trunk with which to dig for sub-surface water. Camp is a delightful place, with a tree house sleeping platform, a couple of hobbit-house domes, composting toilets, and even hot showers. The weekend provides a chance to clean up, relax, and hike up the kopjes across the river for a magnificent view.
Week 2 is safari week. The team camps in a different spot each night, tracking the elephants from a respectful distance and observing their behavior. Desert elephants are the same species as their Serengeti cousins, but they’re adapted to surviving on less water. They’re smaller, with proportionally longer legs and larger feet, and their family units are smaller than average.
It doesn’t matter how many elephants you’ve seen in life, it's hard not to smile when one crosses your path. Herds are led by a matriarch, and include females of all ages and young males until they reach puberty (around 12). The bulls wander on their own, popping in for a visit when breeding calls. Unlike herds in the rest of Africa, these are free-roaming elephants — there are no game reserve or national park fences to keep them in — making the experience all the more authentic.
Watching the calves flip-flop after their towering mothers is a delight. Watching them attempt to use their trunks with undeveloped prehensile precision is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Observing the whole herd at a local water trough, slurping, rumbling, trumpeting, and farting is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
At the end of each day, you set up a simple camp and watch the ridiculously gorgeous African sunset while dinner cooks over the fire. Under the expansive night sky, it's easy to remember what a tiny being you are in the grand scheme of things and how uncomplicated life can be.
How To Do It
These days any volunteer trip in Africa worth its salt is not free. EHRA’s program is competitively priced at 850 GBP (approximately $1,215) for two weeks, with a price reduction if you opt to stay longer. It’s a small organization with super helpful staff who will advise you on accommodations and transportation to their site in Swakopmund. The cost is all inclusive once you arrive in Damaraland.