Elephants and Invalids... the last six months

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October 24th 2008
Published: October 24th 2008
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my go!my go!my go!

It was delightful seeing the old tusked matriarch push her offspring out of the way so that she too could enjoy a little downtime...
Sitting in a Caffé Nero in London’s financial district with its faceless traffic of suits and double-decker buses, passing the afternoon between lunch with an old college friend and dinner with a former skiing buddy, I feel that Namibia was an eternity ago, a gazillion planets away…

I guess it’s not too surprising. The two months since I returned have been hectic, not only in the sense of time-consuming, but also emotion-sapping - sometimes agreeably, sometimes not. Most of my time has been spent in Edinburgh engaged on tour of duty as a quasi-Florence Nightingale for my post-operative mother. It was Mum’s third joint replacement in nine years and, understandably, she struggled to recover from this one as quickly as she had the previous two. A number of other factors complicated the process, but, without inflicting the detail on you, I can now report that, to my enormous relief, she has turned the corner both psychologically and physically. It was a steep learning curve for both of us, and I was overwhelmed by the warmth and support from her friends and from the range of professionals involved.

My nursing duties were briefly interrupted by a fabulous few days in
elephant playtime at the Gunamib Poortelephant playtime at the Gunamib Poortelephant playtime at the Gunamib Poort

Without doubt, one of the most magical moments of my life, sitting atop a small hill watching all this going on below...
the Laird’s apartment at Brodie Castle near Inverness celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. This was the ultimate internet party. Everything had been arranged from afar at the click of a mouse: from the extraordinarily luxurious and spacious accommodation, to the Tesco’s food deliveries, to the balloons and canisters of helium, to a not-insignificant quantity of alcoholic beverages, to the pre-cooked meals for those nights when we would be most numerous, to the customised tartan runner for the dining table that so easily sat fourteen, to the glorious flower arrangements, to the table decorations... and I’ve probably forgotten a dozen or more other things, all successfully making it to this improbable location in the middle of relatively nowhere.

The guest list comprised my old skiing buddies, many of whom I had not seen since the host’s 35th birthday party or before. (Thank goodness he has such a delightful tendency to celebrate his increasing years.) Scarily - or so I thought beforehand - almost all my friends were now accessorised by children, none of whom I had yet met (unless you count William, the four year old, who had slept through a Hogmanay party I’d attended when he was three months
tales in the sandtales in the sandtales in the sand

This spoor indicated that a family group had met the local male, the individual animals greeting each other.
old). Yet, somehow, these members of the next generation, eight in all, ranging from four months to six-and-a-quarter, did not seem out of place, and watching my friends in their not-so-new roles as parents seemed surprisingly natural. It was a wonderful and special few days: to have “real” time with such good friends, to get to know their characterful and (so far…) delightful offspring, to breathe in large quantities of good near-Highland air, to stay in such impressive surroundings… oh, and to have a jolly good party each night after the kids had gone to bed!

However, I have spent most of the last six months in Namibia, and it was this that I really wanted to tell you about - even from such an incongruous present location - before I hit the road again at the end of next week (destination, once again, southern Africa, you won’t be surprised to learn).

Namibia had experienced near-record rains countrywide during the 2008 wet season, and I landed in mid-April to a still-verdant landscape. Was this really a desert? Wading through chest-high grasses in the usually-arid northwest, I found that remembering the usual barren gravel plains required a little effort. The animals were gratifyingly plump, a welcome contrast to the piano-key ribs of the kudu and even the stalwart gemsbok the previous October. Burdened by their added weight, they no longer bothered to do much more than trot a short distance away if surprised by our vehicles, before looking back to check that we were no longer a threat. The occasional streams trickled over the road, ephemeral rivers now flowed; driving through water here was a novel, but this year, a bizarrely frequent, experience.

As many of you know, the closest I’ve come to a job since escaping the City nearly three years ago has been in my on-off role as research assistant for the Namibian Elephant and Giraffe Trust in its work in the northwest of Namibia studying the movement and behaviour of desert-dwelling elephants. Each time I visit the incredible scenery of Kaokoland, its dauntingly ancient mountains and usually-parched rivers, a harsh but beautiful environment barely tolerant of the Himba scraping together a living here or of tourists poorly equipped in their passage through the area, I’m reminded of our insignificance on this planet, the transience of our time here. This, perhaps perversely, exhilarates me, comforts me.
sunset over the Hoarusibsunset over the Hoarusibsunset over the Hoarusib

This was the first time I'd seen water in the river from this viewpoint
And I can’t wait to come back.

Having been involved in the project for more than two years, I now have a reasonable knowledge of many of the elephants in the area, their identifying features and their characters, and can relate anecdotes of our recent interactions with them. In May and July we had to work hard to find elephants, this year’s extraordinary rains rendering futile any attempt to predict their likely location based on past experience. Expect the unexpected: trite, but true. But in August, we found the extended breeding herd and a couple of the big bulls again, old favourites, old characters reappearing yet frustratingly incapable of telling us exactly what they’d been up to and where they’d been in the last ten months. We could only note new chips on tusks and new tears in ears, and the growth of previous years’ calves. Were any cows pregnant, one or two of the older sub-adult females, or any of the females who had not calved for a few years? We couldn’t tell. Jokingly, in the past, we’ve remarked that one female or another seemed to be “eating for two”, but these animals spend the vast majority of their time feeding in the never-ending effort to take in as much as possible, their simple guts extraordinarily inefficient in the conversion of food to energy. They do not play much, these guys. Simply existing in this environment is time-consuming, and they have been shown to spend significantly less time “socialising” than elephants in other, more verdant, parts of Africa. Yet, late one morning, we sat on the top of a small hill on one side of a narrow canyon, and watched eleven elephants, from young juveniles to the stately matriarch, playing in the muddy waters of a pool left over by the year’s stunning rains. They knew we were there - one false step on the shingled hillside and one of us could even have joined them in the pool - but, that catastrophe remaining theoretical, our presence did not appear to interrupt their games. It is tempting to anthropomorphise intelligent animals like elephants, to attribute human feelings to them, but surely no-one could doubt the sheer pleasure those animals were experiencing as they took a little time out from the business of living. We were simply electrified.

So, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions, what
move over!move over!move over!

We'd just spent a couple of hours without shade in 40 degrees watching elephants... this giraffe could jolly well go and find himself another tree!
do I actually do in my role as “research assistant” when we have volunteers from Earthwatch? (Back in the UK, or wherever else I happen to be at the time, my brain is kept ticking over from time to time with proof-reading and sanity-checking proposals and papers, which I find fascinating.)

The basic itinerary for the Earthwatch volunteers is pretty straightforward.

Day #1: Keith Leggett, the principal scientist, and I, driving separate vehicles, collect the volunteers from Windhoek and drive them to the project’s base camp in Outjo, 3-4 hours’ drive up the road - and on the longer side of that if we’ve stopped to pick up snacks in Okahandja, 60km north of Windhoek, and again for tea and cake at Hanne-Dora’s wonderfully kooky café, Kameldorn Garten, in Otjiwarongo, 200km further on. Shop-talk is postponed; the focus is on settling in and getting to know each other. A braai in the evening introduces everyone to the gastronomic delights of Namibian game and the wine flows…

Day #2: the volunteers are let in gently with a leisurely breakfast at Outjo’s redoubtable claim-to-fame, the German Bakery (recently extended to cope with the regular tour parties that stop by), before sitting down to watch a video about the project prepared by a 78-year-old former volunteer. Keith and I start packing camping kit and food for eleven days in the bush; a little guesswork involved in terms of quantities - will this be a hungry group or not? After the video, we gather round a large table in the shade to talk about Keith’s work in Kaokoland and what the volunteers might expect in the field. I collect various props for the talk, such as an elephant jaw-bone and an old GPS collar, and describe the two data studies that I run. Later I show the volunteers how to put up their tents, and Keith gives them a safety talk and a briefing about bush etiquette. Their heads reeling (at least mine was when I was in their position), the volunteers tend to turn in early: we’re off in the morning.

Day #3: as soon as the vehicles are packed, valuables and extraneous kit stowed at base camp for safekeeping, and everyone breakfasted, we set off, our exact destination dependant on the constraints of daylight hours during this, the cold dry season, and the progress we make on the road. Keith uses a number of different camps along the road, private or community campsites, or rough camping, and I have rarely stayed in the same one twice. I am driving the “old duchess”, a twenty-year-old double-cab Toyota Hilux, very much built for stamina and tough terrain, not for speed or beauty. I love her. She will put up with a lot, and gets me through in one piece.

Day #4: there is nothing to delay us after packing up the vehicles, and we hit the road again, this time for the final 80-100 km to Purros campsite on the Hoarusib river: a short-ish distance, but along a challenging road, and the journey tends to take 3-4 hours. Purros is to be home for the next 4-5 nights, the exact duration dependant on how many elephants are in this river. We settle in and unpack the vehicles completely, except for my dung box and the emergency toolkit, before taking a well-needed rest over the heat of the day. Even in this season, temperatures can easily reach 35-40°C in the middle of the day - the elephants don’t do much at this time of day; why should we? (Usually we
why I don't sleep out in the Hoarusibwhy I don't sleep out in the Hoarusibwhy I don't sleep out in the Hoarusib

Elephant spoor outside my tent early one morning
take the volunteers out during the middle of the day at least once during their time with us, just to prove that the elephants are indeed doing absolutely nothing.) Then we head out to see who’s around…

Day #4 afternoon - day #7/8, and day #8 afternoon - day #10: the general plan each day that we are in the rivers is to leave camp early-ish in the morning (typically between 7.30 am and 8 am), return for lunch and a siesta, and then go out again anytime from 2.30 pm to 4 pm depending on when we’ve got back in the morning and whether there is dung to analyse, and stay out as long as daylight hours reasonably permit. However, this being the all-bets-are-off year for locating the elephants, we found ourselves packing the vehicles for all-day trips more often than not because we were having to travel such long distances up- or down-river in search of animals. We didn’t have enough fuel or time to get back to camp in the middle of the day, so we took lunch, books, diaries and camping chairs with us. I was deeply unpopular one day because I was attributed with
checking us outchecking us outchecking us out

This young-ish bull was unusually nervous with us; likely another elephant who had been traumatised by time spent in communal lands
the failure of the kettle to join us on the road. Provide The Principal Scientist With Large Quantities Of Tea At Lunchtime is numbers one to ten of the project’s ten commandments; my name was very large quantities of mud. However, I improvised a container from an old drinks can that I found under my seat in the car, and laboriously heated half-mugs of water at a time. I won’t say that I was entirely forgiven, but I think I received a suspended sentence for my crime!

As and when (hopefully) we find elephants, work begins in earnest. The volunteers in Keith’s vehicle do a five-minute study, recording in detail the behaviour of one elephant at five-minute intervals for as long as the animal remains in sight, and those in my vehicle do a two-minute study, recording at a high level the behaviour of all the elephants we are watching (i.e., feeding, walking, resting, water or social activities). Where there is a large group of elephants, identifying exactly who is doing what on the two-minute time-point can be quite challenging, and I help out in differentiating juveniles from sub-adults, and sub-adults from adults, and logging the behaviour of one
new kid on the blocknew kid on the blocknew kid on the block

a previously-unseen young bull elephant
age-range category. Where the group we are watching is smaller, I can focus on my own projects, logging (and if possible, photographing) identification characteristics of different animals, and expanding my guide to vegetation in the area. Typically, the two-minute study is done on a thirty minutes on/thirty minutes off basis because it can be quite demanding, but this year we spent so much time looking for animals we tended to run the studies continuously to make up for the lack of data.

And of course, there is the fun bit - the dung studies… If any of the elephants defecates while we are observing them, the time and quantity of defecation is logged and, when safe to do so (I don’t really like to ask an elephant to move on so that we can look at his dung…), one volunteer and I go and weigh the entire defecation, and collect two boli (dung-balls), one for moisture analysis and one for seed analysis. Meanwhile, Keith keeps a cautious lookout for the dung’s maker and his/her mates, if required, or, if the animals are too close, he and I will go and do the necessary without the volunteers. The moisture analysis bolus is put into a string bag to be weighed at regular intervals, and we leave them at the camp to be re-weighed the next month, making for interesting camp decorations in the meantime. At a later date - in the afternoon or early evening - the volunteers will pick carefully through the other bolus to extract whole and weevil-ed seeds for washing, weighing and logging. (There are no harmful pathogens in elephant dung but, for some reason, people tend to prefer to wear rubber gloves to do this...)

I find it fascinating that so many goings-on in nature leave their mark. Keith’s tracking skills were tested this year, and it was extraordinary how footprints, damage to trees and other vegetation, and the colour, consistency and temperature of dung can be so informative, telling the story of the night’s activities as, in one case, an elderly lone male elephant walked 30+km downriver, apparently only to feast on the pods of Ana trees. At another point, we came across the spoor of a lion kill: the drag marks as the prey was pulled into the bushes by a large adult for safe consumption, and the paw-prints of excited cubs prancing
after the morning ablutionsafter the morning ablutionsafter the morning ablutions

WKF-11 leads her family off to find some food after ten minutes' splashing in the pool
alongside and of another adult or two alongside. Remarkably, we actually came across these animals one day: a gorgeous near-black-maned male moving leisurely into the sunlight, two lionesses ahead of him and three cubs playing along behind, two daringly jumping up at him. These desert-dwelling lions are rarely seen - even Keith has only seen them half a dozen times in his 10-12 years working in this area - and we were speechless with excitement.

Day #8/9: depending on how many elephants are in the Hoarusib river, we move onto the Hoanib river for two or three nights. In August, we ran into a knowledgeable tour-guide in the Hoarusib who told us he’d seen “about twenty” elephants in the Hoanib a couple of days earlier. This encounter being on the second of three days on that trip when we saw no recent sign of elephants at all, we could hardly wait to move on. Not only did we find many of our “usual” elephants for the first time in nearly ten months - including the stunning WKM-10 whom I’d had the privilege of re-collaring last October, and who is the furthest (recorded) moving elephant in Africa - but we
yesterday's guy and today's manyesterday's guy and today's manyesterday's guy and today's man

The elderly WKM-3 (on the left) is barely allowed to drink from the waterhole at the same time as the impressive WKM-10
startled some newcomers. Driving along the Hoanib our first morning, we saw a cloud of dust in the distance. Either it was a vehicle driving fast along the dusty riverbed, or…. Yes, it was a herd of nine elephants, clearly very, very skitterish, presumably the result of being in communal lands where they would have come into conflict with people and, perhaps, have been shot at. Thanks to one of the volunteers having a telescope (this was the trip of four birder-volunteers, which had, initially filled us with foreboding - they did realise this was an elephant project, didn’t they?), we could clearly see that none of them were animals we knew, but, even with the telescope, we could not log enough about elephants skulking in bushes 500m distant to identify them in sufficient detail for the database. We would have to hope that they settled down over the coming months and that we would see them again in closer proximity.

The drive over the “high plains” from the Hoarusib to the Hoanib is stunning but demanding. Again, it is only a relatively short distance - perhaps 90 km - but it takes a good 4-5 hours. Because of the lack of elephant sightings, we drove down the Hoarusib for about 20km first, to see if we could find any more elephants before leaving the river, turning up a tributary and up onto the plains. I love that drive. Each time I do it, I spot new features in the landscape, and can slowly piece together the geography of the area in my mind. For the birders of the August trip, it was their last big chance to spot their feathered friends for a few days. With twenty or more elephants waiting for us - we hoped - in the Hoanib, they were given free rein to bird-spot on the way on condition they focussed on large pachyderms once we got into the river.

These guys were serious in their twitching, introducing me to the terminology - a “list” (being species they were hoping to see for the first time on this trip), “ticks” (as they check off new species), and species that they’ve already “got” (as in “a triple-banded plover? Oh I’ve got that one”) - and making it sound, for all the world, like a glorified game of bingo. I found it a little strange, I
dung, glorious dung...dung, glorious dung...dung, glorious dung...

Fascinating stuff... even if I find myself in the minority with this view!
must confess: were they not interested in watching the birds, beyond simply making an identification and moving on to the next one? Mind you, they were good, and, a little shame-facedly, I found myself asking for a copy of the full list of species they had seen on this trip so that I could use it in my latest project, a description of birds, mammals and reptiles likely to be, or actually, seen in Kaokoland.

At the end of the day, I admired their patience and tenacity. Much excitement arose on the day we saw an African crake: a migrant to this area, it was a good two months’ early, according to the panoply of bird books that we had between us (yes, I’d even bought my own in anticipation of the birders’ arrival); and again when we saw a Sousa’s shrike. This last bird was not supposed to be here. Like, really not supposed to be here. It is rare in Namibia at the best of times, and is only supposed to occur in the Caprivi region several hundred kilometres to the east of Kaokoland. Blown off-course by the recent easterly winds, perhaps, albeit blown a long, long, long way off-course….? Sadly, a (professional) bird expert subsequently concluded that it was, in fact, a juvenile fiscal shrike (I love the idea of a “fiscal” shrike… who thinks up these names?) “of the northern race because of the very white supercilum” (don’t say my blogs are not informative), and therefore perfectly entitled to be in Kaokoland. Shame.

There is no formal campsite in the Hoanib: this is proper rough camping. Toilet facilities are a distant bush of your choosing (though you are permitted not to go too distant after darkness falls); ablution facilities are effectively non-existent, though, if one of the water tanks at the Mudurib river’s bore hole is overflowing, we take advantage of water that is otherwise going to waste and have an impromptu splosh. Strip if you like, but there are occasional passing vehicles, and we were amused to see one poor woman trying to have a splash while the boyfriend failed to stand between our passing vehicles and his lady’s modesty. (No, we weren’t being mean: it was an amusement born of “there but for the grace of God…”).

Amenities may be of the purely natural variety, but food continues to be good. Keith cooks most of the trip meals in advance and then freezes them. (As a concession to vegetarians, he cooks the sauces and meats separately, but “vege-o’s” can only have one dig at the pan, as it were. The sauce is warmed up first and, after the vegetarians have had their platefuls, the meat is added. Second helpings for veggies are therefore limited to the pasta or rice cooked alongside.) The sauces are all different, although of basically two varieties - tomato- or mushroom-/cream- based - and you can guarantee that no two meals during the year will be the same, the precise ingredients of each dish dependent on what Windhoek’s supermarkets have in stock that month, as well as the inclination of the cook.

Day #11, we finally drag ourselves out of the river, reluctantly accepting that we are starting our gradual trek back to “civilisation”.

As a reward for three or four days’ water-free camping, we stop overnight at Ongongo Falls, an improbable oasis in the desert where half a dozen springs converge into a narrow waterfall and create the most stunning natural plunge-pool. Everything we have taken with us into the bush is filthy with the dust of Kaokoland (and a couple of minor dust storms will usually have assisted in this regard), so it makes little difference if you stop to change into a swimsuit or walk straight in fully clothed. Either way, the sense of cool water on skin is magical, the red dragonflies dance, the lizards sunbathe… and the resident terrapin hides, lest he be tracked down and briefly subjected to the scrutiny of half a dozen Earthwatchers.

As we have usually arrived at the Ongongo campsite by lunchtime, the afternoon is time off for everyone. If the shop at Seisfontein has managed to provide Keith with approximately the right ingredients, he spends some time preparing a goat curry (which I’m told - and not just by him - is very good). It’s a last night under the stars for me - one of only two nights during the trip when I’m allowed to sleep out, the chance of night-time encounters with elephant and lion being non-existent here - and I fall asleep to the chatter of crickets and quelea in the reeds, the burble of the stream and an occasional dog-bark… the latter a sad but sure sign we are
it pays to keep your eyes peeled...it pays to keep your eyes peeled...it pays to keep your eyes peeled...

...even on the way back to base camp. A sharp-eyed volunteer spotted this cheetah enjoying a spot of R&R as we drove back to Kamanjab
back in some form of civilisation...

Day #12: back to base camp in Outjo, which we usually reach by a late lunchtime, stopping en route in Kamanjab for cold soft drinks and snacks, and anything we need for the evening’s braai. After unpacking the vehicles, everyone draws breath… and heads for a very welcome hot shower.

Day #13 is washing day. Everything that has been bush gets washed, dried and put away for the next trip. The vehicles get TLC by way of the air compressor zapping dust out of nooks and crannies, the vacuum cleaner sucking up as much as it can, and a good long blast with the hose. Tents are re-assembled, swept out and washed. Mattresses are hung up and the dust - or some of it, at least - beaten out of them. Everything else is scrubbed and left out to dry in the sun. Dinner is cooked by the volunteers, although, if they feel this is too much like hard work, they take us out instead.

Day #14 is the volunteers’ day off, but we offer a trip to Etosha so, depending on the numbers (and Keith’s and my respective inclinations), one or other or both of us will get up early to drive the volunteers to and around Etosha for the day, before a final meal out at the Etosha Garten Hotel - typically, a final dose of game meat for the departing Europeans and Americans.

Day #15: back to Windhoek, taking volunteers to hotels or the airport… and, for Keith and myself, the start of a couple of days’ downtime before preparing for the next contingent…

Thanks to the vagaries of Earthwatch, it looks sadly as if the project will not be taking volunteers through this route next year. Another casualty of the present economic climate, perhaps? Who knows. But my involvement may well continue (at least, I hope so), when I’m not in other countries or doing other things…

Many plans, many ideas, many dreams… and, no, none of going back to the Real World anytime soon…

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Red Rock campsiteRed Rock campsite
Red Rock campsite

(one of the campsites we use en route to the Hoarusib)

17th February 2011
sign-post for Purros campsite

I want to thank all of you for making purros camp site to look so nice. the picture's are nice pls keep the good work.

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