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Jean McNeil
Jean McNeil

Jean McNeil is the author of ten books; her novels and a collection of short fiction are published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and co-convenor of the MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia.

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Among the Elephants

Life and Death among the Desert Elephants of Namibia

In March-April of this year as part of a residency at the Environment Institute at University College London, novelist Jean McNeil travelled to Namibia to work on a unique conservation project dedicated to Namibia’s endangered population of desert elephants. Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) works to resolve conflicts between humans and elephant in the arid and semi-arid north-west of Namibia, Africa’s most sparsely populated country. Here, elephant and people alike eke out a living in a landscape of startling beauty but limited resources, particularly water.



People carry too many dramas with them, too much baggage. Johannes, who set up the project we are working on, recounted how he had taken a group of teenagers into the desert a few weeks before. He led them on a five kilometres-long walk in the sun with their heavy packs, then ordered them to put them down. They flopped about, grateful for their sudden unburdening. ‘Walk lightly through life, people!’ he said. ‘Why are you carrying all this stuff around?’

       Ana treehouse It’s just before Easter, early autumn in the southern hemisphere. Before I came to Namibia I’d read about the cold brilliance of the desert night sky. Cradled in the branches of my bed in the Ana tree I see rivers of stars curdling into galaxies. Shooting stars streak across the sky, spewing bolts of greenish light. Snagged on the horizon, Pleiades is punched out of blackness – the Seven Sisters, one of the most distinctive of constellations in the southern hemisphere, it comes with a particularly dolorous story, even by the standards of Greek myth. There were seven sisters who all committed suicide for sorrow at the death of their father, Atlas. The seventh star is named for Merope, who shines dully because in life she shamed herself by having an affair with a mortal.

          I am woken at 4.30am. Water streams down my face. It’s raining in the desert. I sit up and on the opposite platform Trek (middle name: Thunder), a performance artist from Venice Beach, California, sits upright, legs crossed and fully clothed, staring into the wall of dark rock on the other side of the riverbed, like a guru. I wonder if his namesake the thunder will visit us tonight, and think about Johannes’ question to his group of charges. Why travel so heavy, indeed. But who can tell us where to put our burdens down?

          This journey, in search of elusive desert elephants, will be wild and strange but its power will come less than we imagine from the jackals we encounter, the puff adder, the springbok who pronk so delicately through the savannah, or indeed our quarry – elephants. Rather it will be more about us, heavy humans shouldering baggage we didn’t know we had, or are wilfully trying to shrug off, or merely forget about the entire concept of belongings, if only for awhile.


The Prisoner

I arrive in Namibia from South Africa, where I have been living for a few months. Coming from the lavishness of Cape Town, Namibia’s is a solemn and elemental landscape. We fly in on logo-less ancient 737 subcontracted by Air Namibia. The plane is full of deeply tanned men with blue hair and white eyes; they look like people in computer games. The road from the airport to the capital Windhoek is studded with leaping Kudu signs – a collision with one of these large antelopes can total your car.

          ‘Just last week I hit a line of warthogs crossing the road,’ Hans, my driver, tells me, ‘but they didn’t do me any real damage’.

          ‘What happened to the warthogs?’ I ask.

          ‘Oh, they were killed,’ he says cheerfully.

          I see an Oryx standing by the side of the road and cannot believe my luck. ‘That’s not real,’ Hans corrects me. ‘Those are taxidermy shops. So you can stuff what you shoot before you leave the country,’ he explains. We pass several of these taxidermy ranches which cater for bounty hunters, all clustered around the airport like so many last-minute duty-free shops.

          Swakopmund sunsetOver the next couple of days my eye slowly becomes accustomed to Namibia’s monumental emptiness. Still, nothing can quite prepare me for Swakopmund, the coastal town where the conservation organisation I have signed up to work with, Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) has their offices. The Namib desert runs the entire 1,300km-long coast, but it is stripped by a blistering cold sea. The chill in Swakopmund comes as a shock after the hot interior, as does our Bavarian-style hostel, all dark-panelled walls and unfriendly proprietors in Birkenstocks. I walk the streets, taking in the Bismarckian architecture, the wide eventless streets which terminate in towering ochre sand dunes, the faux Norfolk pines and palm trees disguising mobile phone masts. It’s a cross between Baron Munchausen and Tatooine, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker grew up. Before I have been in town ten minutes I hear that the remake of the 1960s television series ‘The Prisoner’ will be filmed in Swakopmund.

          That night we are given a project briefing given by Johannes Haasbroek, the South African conservationist who set up the organisation in 2003, and who is EHRA’s operations director. ‘Where you’re going there’s no mobile phone coverage, no internet’, he warns. There is also no electricity and iPods are discouraged. Once we leave for Base Camp in a remote part of Damaraland, it is not practically possible to jump ship. He might well have said: there’s no way out.

          Afterwards we eat at the Tug, a ship-themed restaurant whose wooden deck hangs out to sea, talking of The Prisoner. The youngsters and the Americans among us have never heard of the show filmed on the coast of North Wales where the main character is kept prisoner among giant pink chessboards. Outside, the sun sinks like a meteor into the Atlantic.


Korixas 115

The road is a platinum river. I look out the window until I realise there is nothing to see – no homesteads, towns, landmarks or even fences disturb the eye. Only the silver horizon. In Namibia most roads are gravel and in four or five hours’ driving you might pass only two or three other vehicles. Bleached and sandblasted roadsigns tell us that Torra Bay is 320 kilometres, Korixas, the town to the north of where we will be based, is 115. Hendrik, our 43 year-old Herero elephant tracker, relates local lore on the journey, telling us about the thorn tree which is poisonous if burned. ‘You make a fire with this wood, cook meat. Every body –‘ here he gestures in a circle – ‘dead.’

          DamaralandWe are heading to Uis, a mining outpost whose name means ‘stone’ in Damara. Uis is the gateway to the Brandberg Mountain area, dominated by a towering Ayres Rock-like plateau rising out of flatlands. Shacks made of wood poles line the highway. Gemstones are hawked from here, but all those we pass are vacant. Finally we pass a stall where bare-breasted women covered in ochre sit, mimicking Himba. At the sight of our truck they run out into the road, hands outstretched, breasts bobbing. Hendrik says, ‘their hands are empty! But they have nothing!’

          Anthropologists call the original inhabitants of this area Khoi-san, considered a more culturally appropriate name for the colonialism-tinged Bushmen. This was their land. Now, it is peopled with Herero, Hendrik’s people. Originally a Bantu group from West Africa, the pastoralist Herero migrated steadily southward, arriving in northern Namibia in the 17th century, and over the ensuing 200 years succeeded in driving out the hunter-gatherer Bushman peoples who had inhabited the Namib desert for millennia.

          We are nine volunteers, sticks woven temporarily together like the roadside shacks. We might need this, I think: the reduced landscape, a place of few possibilities. Several of our group have signed up to the project in a conscious bid to change direction in their lives. Among us are two American dancers: Kendra (in fact a Canadian, as it turns out) choreographs and dances in the touring show of the Lion King, and lives a peripatetic life. Charlaine dances for a modern dance company in New York. Maria, a beautician from Gloucestershire, has fabulous skin. Francesca and Robin are bush-savvy teenagers, Karl is a preternaturally youthful computer games developer. Mike, a London investment banker, has brought a box of the finest Havana cigars to the desert; he will in fact become our smoking elephant dung specialist, the only known deterrent to the little mopane bees whose penchant for human sweat will threaten to drive us to hit the vodka bottle, if there were one to be hit. And then there is Trek. Trek is writing a book. He is cagey about his project, but it seems to be a sort of male Eat, Pray, Love. When he was a performance artist he ran against Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California, on a pro-legalisation of drugs and prostitution platform, which sounds entirely reasonable, but he lost.

          We arrive at Base Camp. Where are the huts, I wonder, the tents? I can only see a tree. It emerges that we volunteers sleep on platforms slotted into the branches of a giant Ana tree (elephants love their pods, so our tree bed is often visited by them). The tree constitutes the five-star accommodation; during build week, as our week of volunteer manual labour is called, we will sleep on the ground, bordered by two Land Rovers and a fire in the corner of our camp, which we hope is sufficient discouragement to any animal that might squish or eat us in our sleep.

          ‘Now I’m going to scare you,’ Neil, our group leader, an affable, bush-hardened South African, says on our arrival, perhaps not realising that we are scared already. He proceeds to impart the infamous Safety Briefing. He cycles through the dangers of the bush: along with dehydration and manual labour mishaps, there are spitting cobras, puff adders (snakes could theoretically crawl over us as we sleep on the ground at night, or, much worse, snuggle up to us in our sleeping bags), scorpions, leopard – although they are not normally a danger to humans – before bringing the conversation round to the animal we have come to study and observe.

          Neil tells us the story of Festus, EHRA’s base camp’s nearest neighbour. ‘His brother in law was killed by an elephant last year. He surprised the elephant, and tried to get away by climbing up the rocks,’ Neil points to the rippling rock face on the other side of the dry river, which Trek will soon christen ‘Nipples Rocks.’

          What happened? We ask.

          ‘The elephant came after him.’

          I imagine the man scrambling up the rocks, his disbelief as the animal picks his way through the rockface behind him, trunk swinging with outrage, the moment when the trunk, like a giant snake, encircles his waist.

          ‘I’ve seen an elephant use a lion as a battering ram.’ Neil demonstrates: ‘paw, paw!’ His arm thumps the table. An elephant will entwine an animal, even a hippopotamus, in its powerful trunk, and lift it up and throw or batter it to death. Or it will simply swing the trunk and, with a tonne of torque behind it, pulp your kidneys, or decapitate you. Elephants rarely kill people, we are relieved to learn, only when they are surprised, or angry. We aren’t quite yet sure how to avoid surprising or enraging an elephant, but we hope we will find out soon.

          There was a war here, once. The acronyms and characters associated with it still crop up in conversation and memory, over twenty years later: SWAPO, UNITA, Jonas Savimbi. Then, Namibia did not exist as a nation-state. Then, the elephants in this region were caught between bullets, or slaughtered for food. Now the main threat to elephants comes from the farmers’ fear and exasperation. Still, fear is a powerful foe, and while elephants have no natural predators in the animal kingdom, they are no match for a man with a gun. In this area alone four elephants have been killed recently, shot by farmers seeking revenge for damage wreaked upon their crops and water points. On this trip we will discover another killing, to make a dolorous total of five shootings in this small area. For years EHRA has thrust itself in the middle of these hostilities, in an attempt to negotiate a detente to this stand-off between two species poised at the top of the food chain.


Sand Rivers

Siesta, 1.20pm. Too hot to work. Later, at 3pm, when the heat begins to decline, we will go back to work building a fence for a school in the hamlet of Aniexab. In the shadows, lizards dart. We fall asleep to the gentle crackling of burning elephant dung.

          The Ugab river runs alongside our campsite. Tufts of green river grass sprout from the sandbed, fed on last night’s rain. Many of the main rivers in Namibia – the Fish, Juiseb, Swakop and Ugab – are ephemeral. I like this term; like the elephants themselves, the rivers may be there, or not. It means seasonal; rivers in Namibia are dry for most of the year, bursting into flow only during the short-lived rains. The Herero, who farm their prized horned Indian cattle and Boer goats on communally held land, are completely dependent on these rains to fill their boreholes. Conflicts with elephant are mainly over water: thirsty elephant damage or destroy the farmers’ pumps, or drink their wells dry, endangering their livestock and livelihood and costing money they cannot afford. For many farmers, elephant are like large, extremely dangerous cattle, with the bulk to flatten their crops and terrify their goats.

          The work is hard. It must be 38 degrees, and we have no cold water. We trudge and push wheelbarrows full of cement through heavy sand, measuring out fencepole distances and digging holes deep into the hard clay. Although the school at Aniexab is tidy and painted in cheering colours, children come to class in ragged uniforms and 200 children and teachers have to share two toilets, neither of which flush during the week we are there.

          We lean wearily on our shovels as Neil returns from a meeting with the headmaster. Neil is blessed or cursed with a face that is easy to read. He is frowning deeply.

          ‘We’ve got to move the poles.’

          We stare at him. ‘What do you mean?’

          ‘He wants them in slightly different places so he can drive his car into his compound.’ Neil shakes his head.

          We re-dig the fence, disrobing as much as possible in the heat. Charlaine and Kendra have midriffs like the bottom of skiffs. We are all covered in a layer of sunscreen, followed by grime, followed by sweat, nicely encrusted by a coating of sand. We haven’t washed our hair in days and it is beginning to stand up on its own. ‘It’s a long way from Broadway,’ Kendra observes. Hours later we look up to see cobalt clouds barrelling in from the direction of the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Time to go,’ Neil says. But the rain is already pounding down and we are grateful for the shower. At camp we struggle to rig a tarpaulin in the downpour and get a fire going.

          Slowly, the detail of our normal lives is erased. Life in camp becomes a routine of cooking dinner, cleaning, breaking and making camp, making tea and coffee for everyone in the morning, like a makeshift family. Bush know-how is imparted to us impatiently by more experienced volunteers. For example, the water from the cooler must be drained daily in order to slow the ice from melting, and this water is used to wash our hands with Dettol. Several girls come squawking over when instead I decant it from the jerry can. Sometimes these rituals take on the solemnity of religious practice, sometimes they are chores. You can’t tell which it will be, and this is destabilising.

          Cooking at sundownCooking for the group on an open fire which threatens to fizzle out from rain brings other pressures. We don’t have the ice capacity to store cold drinks, we are dirty and hungry and physically tired and not sleeping that well as we try to get used to sleeping on the ground. As it turns out, the dancers weren’t prepared to rough it quite so much. Kendra tells me, ‘When we got the information a couple of weeks ago, we were, like, we need to bring sleeping bags?’

          Easter passes unmarked. We wanted to have a chocolate egg hunt but the chocolate would melt into liquid before we found it and then we would discover only a pile of scorpions gorging themselves on an unexpected feast. On Easter Sunday I sit in the hot work shed, my laptop connected to the shaky generator which gives us an hour or so of electricity each week. It is hot in the workshed but the sheer novelty of being in an inside, private space seems to be important. For company I have an old Land Rover manual, a dusty optometrists’ eye test chart, and a lizard. The lizard’s head is rubber orange, his body the colour of concrete. His head twitches as he exterminates flies, then threatens to leap onto my laptop. Neil comes in and tells me that the week before a zebra snake slid into the shed. All the lizards scattered. I stay in the workshed until the generator runs out, keeping a wary eye on the door.


Night Visit

Back at Base Camp after build week, Johannes comes upon camp like the storm – ‘stir it like this! Here!’ he shouts, taking the ladle and showing us how to keep the beef from singeing in the superheated cast iron cauldrons we use to cook on the fire. A lanky Afrikaaner with a string of amulets around his wrist and a packet of Camels permanently lodged his shirt pocket, Johannes likes to scandalise us with his virulent opinions: ‘You Americans,’ he harangues Trek, Kendra and Charlaine in his Lady Bracknell voice, ‘you’re all brainwashed! You’re fed crap!’ In his spare time he tinkers with wind and solar energy and each year sails a dhow he has built himself off the coast of Zanzibar. His idea of a holiday is to go paragliding in Angola. Everything about him says: if you stand still in the same place for too long, you will sink.

          Rachel Harris, Johannes’ partner and co-director of EHRA, comes to the dinner table at 10pm. ‘The elephants are here,’ she whispers. Johannes lights a cigarette and grabs himself a goblet of red wine – a man with his priorities in the right order. We file silently behind him, crouching round the corner of one of Base Camp’s geodesic huts.

          We smell them first – a straw-and-mud scent, not at all unpleasant. As our eyes accustom to the dark, forms congeal from the half-moonlit night. A group of giant gleaming charcoal animals appear, dark as the night sky, drinking from the pool EHRA has built to ensure water for the animals as they migrate through the river bed. Johannes sits crosslegged on the ground, clasps his hands together and makes gurgling noises identical to the low rumblings emanating from the elephants’ throats. When they answer he cackles with delight.

          Elephant close upElephant are the largest land animals alive. Their size is part of their enchantment – everything about them is outsize. They are very intelligent, on par with cetaceans and non-human primates. To anthropomorphize animals is to miss the point, but the fact is that elephants and humans have much in common. Experiments with mirrors show that they have a high degree of self-awareness. The African elephant also uses the two ‘fingers’ at the end of the trunk with the dexterity of a human hand. Elephants also recognise each other, mourn their dead, and live in tight-knit social groups defined by kinship relations. They have intimate, complex communications, often using infrasound, producing alpha waves at a low (12-35 Hertz) frequency inaudible to the human ear, but which can travel up to seven kilometres. ‘If you spend 40 minutes with elephants you find yourself falling asleep,’ Johannes says. This is because, in the human brain, alpha waves are associated with meditative states.

          That night by the elephant pool we listen to these ‘stomach rumblings’ – actually throat vocalisations. ‘These are used for communication between the herd,’ Johannes explains. The unique trumpeting sounds, where an elephant takes in air and blows it through the trunk, can mean alarm, surprise, or pleasure. That night, as we watch them milling by the elephant pool, they sound hesitant. Johannes confirms they were having a dispute, possibly about where to go next. ‘Ever since the shooting they’ve been uncertain.’

          Suddenly, one of the cows swivels her head toward our group. Her ears billow out, and she thrusts her head up. She starts to move toward us. ‘Get back, get back,’ Johannes hisses, and we trip over each other as we seek refuge behind the geodesic hut, which had looked so solid before but suddenly looks no match for an elephant. The cow stops, and returns to the rest of the herd. As they move off the air ripples with their silent communiqu?s. This is what I will remember most about the elephants: their relationship with night; how they melt into the darkness, cohere out of it, like phantoms.


Death in the Afternoon

The following week we go out on elephant patrol. A serious purpose underpins our game-viewing: we are taking part in a long-term census of the elephant population. The figures EHRA collects are given to the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), with an overall goal of protecting a vulnerable population.

          On our second day we drive into another sandy riverbed. It is afternoon and 40 degrees in the shade. ‘Over there, under the tree.’ Neil says to Hendrik in Afrikaans. We think he has spotted the herd we are trying to find, but he is frowning again. As we drive toward the river we see an elephant lying on the ground. Elephant never lie down, unless they are ill. We pull up to a stop fifty metres away. Johannes and Neil get out to inspect. A heavy, sweet stench wafts into our nostrils on a light wind.

          Identifying dead elephant‘They’re getting decimated, aren’t they?’ Rachel says, confirming our suspicions. She holds the elephant identification book in her hands but Johannes and Hendrik cannot immediately identify the dead elephant by the usual methods: ear flaps, tail hairs, footprint. We clamber out to inspect the corpse. In the heat of the afternoon, the smell of 10,000 pounds of decomposing flesh is a challenge. A huge pile of maggots feed on what used to be his neck. He has been dead now for at least ten days; shot by an irate farmer, likely wounded and then dying a slow death of his injury. I imagine his lonely last minutes alive, lying down by himself in the dry riverbed, desperate for the shade of the tree. There are angry tears in Johannes’ eyes. This is very personal, here. We have come upon the corpse of a friend.

          Johannes and Rachel leave us to take news of the death and the elephant’s tusks, which have been left intact, to the MET. Our group carries on to find the small G6 herd, which is known to be in the area. After a solemn, hot day of driving, our skin shredded by thorn bushes, our throats parched, we give up looking. At the precise moment we stop chasing them, the elephant find us. As we set up camp at sundown, we hear the gunshot sound of branches being snapped in two. We look up to find we are surrounded by the G6 herd. Hendrik gives the signal that we must stop cooking supper and seek safety in the trucks. We watch as the herd files by in the darkness.

          That night is sleepless, at least for me. I bed down on the outer perimeter of the group next to the Land Rover and am woken several times in the night by scampering sounds right behind my head, which turn out to be a jackal sniffing around our camp. The jackal doesn’t bother me – the only thing I actually fear in the desert, I have found, is snakes. The puff adder in particular. Lazy with its own power, the puff adder knows it is venomous enough to kill a human being with one bite. This is why it usually fails to move, until you are on top of it.

          The next day we nearly drive over one. Hendrik stops the jeep abruptly, and we all get out to peer at the snake, keeping a respectful distance. Eventually I work up the courage to step down from where I have been standing on the jeep’s bonnet to get a closer look. The snake is a lovely marbled orange. With a distinctive eyebrow-like ridge on the forehead, he looks like a frowning elder statesman.

          ‘These guys strike at 300km an hour,’ Neil says.

          ‘Right, time for me to go then.’ I turn around and walk straight into a Camel thorn, or wag-‘n-bietjie (‘wait awhile’ in Afrikaans). Christ’s crown of thorns was made from the same genus as this bush. I look down to see thorns have inserted themselves an inch into my skin. The puff adder curls behind, waiting to strike at the speed of a jet departing the runway, and I’m developing my own personal crucifixion complex impaled on a thorn bush. Neil ferries the snake out of our path on the end of a stick while Hendrik kindly unpicks me from the wag-‘n-bietjie.


Wait Awhile

April 6th (?) I write the date in my notebook, then doubt my mental calendar. I have left my diary behind in camp and I begin to be unsure of the day of the week, the date. On patrol days pass agreeably, at once similar and unique, differentiated by some daily drama.

          Last night the wheel fell off the Land Cruiser – not just the tyre, but the entire wheel, including the wheelbase. It looked as if the chassis was finished, but after three hours the bush mechanics – Hendrik, Neil and Johannes – had reassembled it, having to make a part from scratch. Then as the car was being jacked up the jack slipped. Neil had pulled his leg out from under the wheelbase just in time. Last night around the campfire, Hendrik told us a chilling story. ‘I was attacked from behind by a leopard once.’ He and his companions had no gun. They had dogs, though, and managed to batter the leopard to death with their bare hands and a club. Hendrik shows me the ridged scar tissue on the back of his head, where the leopard nearly peeled his skull open.

          In the morning we head out for our final day with the elephants. GPS stuck to the windscreen, bedrolls stacked on top of the driver’s cab, petrol sloshing inside the jerry cans, we set off, knees around our ears, crammed in to the Land Rover. We park the trucks among the herd on high ground, from where we can see the flowering brought by the last of the summer rains. It is so soothing to be among the elephant. They swish and munch, blow dry mud over their bodies. We sit in silence among them, listening to them breathe, knowing that just under the threshold of our hearing, entire conversations are taking place.

          RaphaelEveryone who consciously goes to see animals in their natural environment is, I wager, seeking inspiration as well as spectacle. Perhaps they are trying to regenerate awe in their lives. Elephant deliver all this, but also a strange dimensionless longing, not very different from desire. They are animals going about their business of feeding and reproducing and survival, but somehow being near them opens up an inner space we didn’t know was there and perhaps mistook as an effect of the vaulting landscape we found ourselves in.

          Wait awhile, indeed. Back at Base Camp Trek and I debate the gestalt of the desert (he is the sort of guy who questions you about Spinoza while washing dishes with a headtorch). We agree that because we have no distractions in the form of gadgets or communication with the outside world, experience seems to sink deeper into our pores. In our normal lives, we wonder, are we burnt by the vanity routinely used to sell us new objects, experiences, distractions? Are our lives so partitioned by attention deficit disorder caused by technological distraction that we have lost the ability to linger in the moment? We itch in expectation of that email, that text message, that television image that will grip and impassion us for a moment only, abandoning us anew in the permanent desert of the present, prisoners of anticipation.

          Every journey has its inherent drama, the narrative within, waiting to be revealed. In my weeks with EHRA, the truth, the real story, resides inside individual moments – a glance, shifting allegiances, the rough transitions between annoyance and acceptance which characterises group living. Later, I will remember my time in the Namib desert in a manner entirely different to how my memory usually works. It will come to me in retrospect as slabs of emotion, stamped with the basic elements of our world: elephants, landscape, desert, rain. Two shooting stars at 2.30 the night the jackal kept me awake; the gleam of elephant tusks in the moonlight; bats strafing our sleeping bodies, swooping in and out of the darkness; the way the temperature drops and the wind comes up just before dawn, as if the sun were drawing from the world all heat and energy to fuel its arrival.

          On the Friday we return to Baron Munchausen town in ‘The Coffin’, as Johannes calls the restored Desert Rats-era Land Rover used for transporting volunteers back and forth to camp. We have definitely changed in the time we have been away: our tolerance of each other, of the heat, of the hard physical labour, and – most of all – of the mopane bees, has been tested. A romantic relationship has been formed, one which fractured our little family. In the dead elephant bull we have been given a dramatic illustration of the issues at stake. We teeter between exhaustion and exhilaration. That night in the Swakopmund hostel I have a dream that we are going on patrol. I must get up and make coffee and tea for everyone and pack my bedroll. But when I wake I am in a bed, there is a roof over my head, and for the first time in two weeks I am utterly alone.

          I realise, then, the true value of this project. It has to do with learning about elephants and the desert, of course. But crucially, in the way the project has been designed, EHRA has allowed us to actually become elephant, to mirror all that is honourable and instructive about their way of life. The key lies in the temporary family which our proximity and interdependence has brought about. For two weeks we have prepared meals for each other, sharing resources, relating as a group. We have been prised from our iPod lives and gained pride and satisfaction from looking after ourselves and each other in an unfamiliar environment.

          On our last evening in the desert we sit around the bonfire, the sand river just beyond its red pewter halo. The dark feels empty, even hungry – for rain, for the dinner plate footprints of the elephant as they pad through its dry rivulets. Where are the elephant? Now that we have seen and known them, I feel their presence everywhere, even if as an absence. They are out there, somewhere, gathering for their long trek to the horizon. Rain comes again that night, and the desert springs to life.          


EHRA (Elephant-Human Relations Aid) is a not-for-profit organisation based in Swakopmund, Namibia. They organise volunteer placements of durations ranging from two weeks to three months. The work varies, but in any two-week period the first week is usually dedicated to building drystone walls around farmers’ water points or other construction projects in local communities, with the second week devoted to observing the elephant in their natural habitat. To contact EHRA email Rachel Harris at or see


With thanks to the Environment Institute at University College London for their support of this trip, and in particular to Professor Mark Maslin.
















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