Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Stalked by a sneaky elephant

Namibia is home to what have become known at the 'Desert Elephants.' The whole idea of desert elephants has been somewhat mystified by the tourism industry and others. But they are behaviorally special elephants, that do live in a hyper arid Desert.

The elephants are found in Namibia's remote northwest. Over the last 10 years of guiding in Namibia, I have come to learn a little about these elephants.

The desert elephants have seen their share of trouble. Namibia has only been independent for just under two decades. Before that there was fighting in the north, South Africa vs. Angola. The northwest saw a lot of trouble with troops shooting at wildlife, including rhinos and elephants. Since then, these elephants have had to contend with increasing human contact in the community areas, as well as the explosion of 4wd culture in southern Africa, and even things like Quad bikes (or ATVs) have had an impact.

Despite these issues, these elephants are not running as scared as the elephants I got to know in northern Kenya as a child during the bad poaching times. But they are wild and don't always like people. They deserve respect.

The story then...well, years ago I was doing a camping trip through the area. I was camping in Twyfelfontein. Those early years were such fun. I loved the camping trips at the time, I still love camping. In those days it was wild. My first year in Namibia I counted 99 nights that I slept outside (that doesn't include tents or in vehicles.)

On this particular night I was camping in Twyfelfontein area, in the Aba Huab campsite. Dinner finnished, my camp assistant and I cleaned up and went to bed. I had been busy, and didn't really take a good look around at the spot we were in.

I slept in my bedrole, on the top of the trailer that we pulled behind our safari adapted Toyota Dyna truck. I always find that I still lie awake a while on these nights. Often guests go to bed at about 8h30 on camping trips. I can't do that. So I have learned a little about astronomy and look around.

Now, I am not one of those people with sounds of the night paranoia (most of the time.) But as I lay there, I noticed a shape off to the right, far enough back behind my head that I couldn't see it. It couldn't be a tree - trees in this area are mainly Mopani trees, and they don't form a nice round shape.

I looked a little harder...was it? Must be? A large elephant standing behind me. A really big one. And it was close.

I got those short but heavy rushes that go through your body at these times. The feeling that you want to jump off the trailer, but the relization just as quickly that that isn't the right thing to do.

My mind went to work for a while. It was an elephant, surely. I have even seen elephants move through this campsite before. My firt time camping there, they had taken out the water pipes coming from the tank on the roof. Not showers that morning. I knew the elephants were here, and this could...no, it was one.

What was it going to do? I didn't know. I thought, it is probably better not to move. I had a friend (or old boss) who was fixing a borehole motor one time, and while sitting there working, fully focusing on the porblem of the parts he was fixing, didn't notice the elephant coming up behind him. His back was to the fence, using the fence post as a back rest. The elephant stuck it's trunck in, smelled him, and then left him alone.

Would this elehant do the same to me? It could just as easliy pick me up and throw me to the ground. But elephants usually show some bad feelings if they don't like you there. It's quiet manner made me believe that this elephant was just passing through and amazingly, had taken some time to sleep (elephants basically just stop for a while as their way of sleeping.)

I relaxed and actually started to enjoy the encounter. It hadn't killed me yet, I thought I would be alright. And in the morning I could show my guests the tracks. It would be really something if it did stick out it's trunck and smell me. I still didn't move. I lay still until I started to doze off a little.

I fell asleep. I woke up hours later. I was still nervous to lift up my head and have a proper look, but I was sure it would be gone. I looked. No, still right there. This was strange. I got scared again. Why would an elephant just stay there. I got worried in a way that one does only at 4h30 in the morning. I tried to crane my neck around. It still looked just like an elephant. But it hadn't moved all night.

Some time later, morning sounds as people were waking up in other campsites. People were walking to the bathroom like normal. Didn't they see the elephant. I risked it, with the first hint of light, and had a look....

It was a bush. A nice round bush. I even looked fro tracks. Nothing. I had been so sure in the night.

Desert elephants have been one of the great conservation successes of the north western part of Namibia, and this is especially so because of the work of many private individuals and ngo who have helped create areas like the Etendeka and Palmwag Concseions, as well as those who helped form the skeleton coast park and most recently, all the work to create community concessions.

Footnote: This post is entered into a competion on Problogger

Monday, August 25, 2008

Break down, down, down, down.

When on Safari, don't break down in the middle of nowhere. Don't do it. But if you do, it's going to fit in nicely there with your travel stories of Africa.

I was driving a Land Rover 110 TDI to Swakopmund from the south a number of years ago. I had three quests, very quiet people. And a heavy duty, 'Off-Road' trailer. Heavy duty, that is, except these little ridicules little axle stubs on it. While crossing the Kuiseb River and the canyon lands beyond it, about three centimeters (lets say an inch) of it broke off. This was enough to send the trailer's wheel, hub and all, forward and traveled along next to the car. I slowed to a stop. I was relieved to see the wheel was going to cross left and would hit an uphill, and probably fall over there and stop. As it started to slow on the incline, it started to fall over, only to be bounced up by a rock, and with fresh momentum, start down hill, over the road, and way down a little Canyon. I felt this to be a little problematic. I said very little (still using basic English words.) The quiet guests said nothing.

I stopped and started dealing with the turn of events. First, the radio. To far out to reach Swakopmund where we had our base at the time. Then I focused on getting the tire. This was some job. It really is a heavy thing just to life a large four wheel drive tire up. To get it up the side of a little canyon is a little heavy duty. Some nature conservation guys came past and gave me a hand. Dust, sweat, and a little axle greese. I smiled. The guests said nothing.

I already could see from the begining that there was no road side fix for it. I couldn't weld the axle, and wouldn't have taken a risk like that in any case. The Kuiseb road is busy, and so enough there were a number of cars passing us by, each with a solution to our problem. Eventually the plan became: 1. Remove the stuff from the trailer 2. Pack what I could on my vehicle. 3. Find a good person to take the rest.

Simple plan. Trouble number one. I had a mass of camping equipment. Nobody passing along had space for this kind of stuff. Finally a stroke of luck, a lady with an empty horse carriage thing. She took a lot of my camping kit on to Swakopmund.

Number two: The trailer didn't want to come off. This took time. Finally, with help from another nice dude, we got a trolley jack under where the old tire was, to level the trailer and using my jack from the car, we managed with effort, to get the hitch to come out. It half burried the jack. It was one of those jacks that was a really bad idea from landrover at the time - the screw mechanism one? Don't know it...well it doen't work.

Anyway, Land Rover free, we could continue. Now with extra stuff loaded inside and on top and now without a trailer and with the jack left under the trailer were it dug itself in with removing the trailer from the car. I figured we would be in radio range soon and we would be able to get some help from our office.

We packed up, the day getting a little late now, and moved on towards the coast. I explained what my plan was. The guests didn't say anything.

10 km started to radio. Nothing. 20 km, nothing. 30...sounded like I may have had a response? Couldn't say for sure. Just a little further and we could be in good radio range.

BANG!!! The heavy load was just to much for our tires and one send out a burst as it blew out. My words were not so English any more. The guests may have mumbled something.

I tried the radio; surely we were close enough now. "swakop base, swakop base come in for Vernon"...."swakop base, swakop base, come in for Vernon"...

Finally the reply: "swakop base standing by for Vernon"

I started to explain my problem. The reply..."talk in shorter bursts...connection poor."

"I'm 130 km from Walvis Bay"
"I broke the trailer's axle"
"At the Kuiseb"
"I sent the stuff on"
"I am 35km from where I left the trailer"
"I have had a blow out"
"I left my jack under the trailer"

My boss, good man, who I think is hiding away in the bushes after the stress of managing five of us guides, got a flat bed trailer organized. I managed to stop a car with tourists and borrowed their jack and changed the tire. We moved slowly on to swakopmund. My boss passed us later. The only vehicle he had was a landrover forward control...very, very slow. He didn't throw anything at me. Good man

One last little thing happend. We had a flat tire in Etosha. The car was still loaded heavy and I was changing the tire with the guests still in the car... there had been lions around there. The screw bar of this silly jack bent out. I reacted fast enough to shove the new tire in to the wheel mound, ballancing the car on it. I had to stop tourists for the second time in the tour to borrow a jack. I felt a bit of a jack...

The guests said nothing. I was never to sure if they were a little freeked out by it, scared of me? Or were they just tough or super trusting that their guide would find a way out? I will never know...unless they return to do another tour with me. I'll have a good old bottle jack, with a high lifting jack for back-up, don't you worry.