My volunteer experience

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My volunteer experience

Postby jimshu » Sat Aug 02, 2008 10:43 pm

In this thread perhaps others could post an account of their volunteer experiences.
I have been asked to review my recent volunteer stint with EHRA-Elephant Human Relations Aid, an organisation based in Swakopmund.I joined this after our Cape Town to Windhoek GAP tour in July.


Learn more about EHRA here-http://www.desertelephant.org/whoweare.php


EHRA works directly with the local community in protecting vulnerable structures from damage. EHRA believes education is an important tool in safe guarding the future of desert elephants and therefore also helps in supporting local schools with efforts ranging from rebuilding toilets and showers to building a computer network from donated computers, to educating pupils on the environment, local ecosystem and in particular the desert elephants.


My 2 week experience with EHRA saw me join another 15 very different individuals, age range from 21- to late 60’s ,8 male, 8 female.


Week 1 saw us move up to EHRA’s base camp in the Ugab riverbed,just downriver from the C35 crossing where we would sleep in huge ancient Acacia tree platforms, or underneath on the ground in the open air with the milky way as our ‘roof’.


First night there,5 of us guys, yarning and having a few last beers before bed, around the campfire.Suddenly, one looks up,and -


’Shush you guys.There’s an elephant right behind us!”


Looking behind me, a huge lone bull had silently walked right up ,in the dark ,and begun browsing the branches of the very tree we were under.Only 12 metres away, and well within the range where an elephant would charge.


‘Voortrekker’ as we became to know him,a 45-50 year old, eyed us up disdainfully, and having given us the message about keeping raucus behaviour down in his territory, then ambled around the side of our camp,a few metres off where others were sleeping, and then continued on, zig zagging across the riverbed, selecting dessert from various acacia and mopani trees either side.


So then that week was building week.First, to finish a rock wall around a locals water storage tanks, in a little community, right beside the C35,before one crosses the Ugab, if heading north.You may spot the result of our effort,about 100 metres off the C35, on the left, just across the road from a number of Herero craft stalls.


During building week there, we were to camp deeper in that valley, under the stars, blessed with a full moon, and cooking over the campfire.


Having completed our wall there, off we go deeper into the area, to lay foundations for a wall around another main water pump station .And setting up another camp in a new picturesque place.




After a 2 week tour travelling with my wife on a GAP Adventures tour from Cape Town,via Fish River/Sosussvlei/Sesriem/Walvis Bay/Swakopmund/Etosha/Windhoek, I really enjoyed having the time to explore one area of Damaraland without driving 4-500KMs a day.We were able to travel the dirt tracks that criss cross the area, visit Herero and Himba families in out of the way valleys, track elephant herds from watering point to another.And each night to sleep rough under the clearest African skies.


Second week is spent patrolling,tracking and recording elephant numbers, and GPS sitings.We found individuals, small groups and a herd of 14.


Apparently, another small herd has moved into the area from the East and this is causing a further heightening of tension with local people.Locals are scared of the elephants, calling in the MET to send a ranger in.We came across the ranger 3 times, and heard the volley of shots he would fire to scare the herds away .So whereas EHRA patrols 18 months ago would have elephants confidently walk right past their patrols, recently elephants would charge them whenever they were too close.Problem is the MET actions are making the elephants more skittery and therefore aggressive around humans now.


Incidentally, calling into the shop ‘The Pink Palace’ one day, we were told by a local that an elephant had charged a donkey cart, and killed 4 people that day near Khorixas.


And while on patrol, we met up with a community leader, who was calling for a meeting with EHRA to discuss concerns.Seems the word is being spread that the elephants are coming because of EHRA.Now EHRA track the elles, and will often shoot around to another valley because they know a herd is heading over there.So locals may observe EHRA arrive up and waiting, and low and behold, the elephants turn up!


So there are real issues there.Considering elephants just want to go about their business of feeding,raising their young, and then finding a water hole.And growing numbers of people also want to water their herds of cattle, and flocks of sheep and goats, there is a growing conflict.


Mopre water points, wells, bores and pumps might help the situation.But that means money.And then they all need protection works from elephants.


So herein lies the importance of EHRA’s work.




Finally on our last patrol day, we visited Gariseb.school and kindergarten at Anixab.


EHRA has been working with A. Gariseb Primary School in Anixab on the Ugab River for the last few years. They are working with the school to improve facilities for the 200 children who attend and have set up a partnership scheme with King Alfred's School in London, UK.


http://www.desertelephant.org/a.gariseb.php


15 kids from King Alfred School in the UK had been visiting the week we were there.




This has been a great experience and truly a unique way to get under the skin of a country and it’s people and issues.And 15 people have become lifelong friends I hope.


Can’t wait to go back.


I should also mention that I admire Deidre,over 60 years young, spending 6 weeks on the project .Then moving on to 2 other volunteer conservation projects during her 6 months Africa experience.Gosh there’s some gutsy people out there!


Jim
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Re: My volunteer experience

Postby thecakeisalie » Fri Dec 12, 2008 3:46 pm

Jim,
Great stuff here. I came across this while reading the other post about interesting travel web sites, and to be honest, I'm now bumping this high up on my "to do" list. This looks like my kind of vacation!

Did I read correctly that the fee for a 2 week stint is 480 pounds (GB)? And what was daily life like around the camp (meal, chores, amount of work hours, rest times, etc.)? I've done a fair bit of volunteering, some of it rather labor intensive, so I don't mind getting my hands dirty, just curious about the nuts and bolts of the whole operation. Would love to hear more about this! Thanks!
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Re: My volunteer experience

Postby jimshu » Fri Dec 12, 2008 5:13 pm

The fee is what is advertised.There's a discount for the first project though.
That's not too bad for room and board in Namibia for 2 weeks!
Building water protection walls is not as bad as it sounds.Quite fun with everyone chipping in to do what they can.The guys/guides on the heavy rocks.Mixing the mortar and barrowing also.But some of the girls were stuck in there.Get a good group going, and that wall just builds itself.
I reckon a project like that would make an excellent corporate managers team building exercise....or GAP moderators bonding trip!Heh GAP???

And pitching camp under some huge ancient old mopane or acacia tree,each night was as back to nature as you could get.Stack up some fallen timber, cooking in cast iron pots, taking turns daily with the chores,having to take a shovel when you needed to squat, setting fire to the veld and burning up 45 acres of scrub accidentally (because you are supposed to burn your paper rather than bury it!) yep, it is a pretty wild experience.
No we did not burn up the veld.But I did hear that a new volunteer did the week after.Caused quite a wild fire.

And sleeping on the ground, beside the campfire, under the clearest starry skies,wondering who drunk all the Amarula Cream that you'd bought, and waking up every hour or so because you were sleeping in the middle of an elephant path was great.Yep I could do it all again.
Second week is patrolling for ellies.Recording all their positions, numbers, movements etc.Now if you really enjoy scenery, being out in the wild, rough camping,you'll enjoy it.But that can get a bit repetitive for some,especially if you can't find any ellies.
But I found that very rejuvenating.By that I mean it was just wonderful to be in such a remote location, doing nothing, but observing and experiencing nature, the trees, the insects, plants, even the rocks.Namibia has incredible rock structures and types.
Some people have little interest in the usual, ordinary environment that surrounds them.But others can find wide diversty in the plants and terrain that they move through.So I'm never bored.Find me an anttrail and I'll be occupied.
So guess what finding elephants means then?That just sends me.They really are the animal that much of Africa's environment evolves around.
You can actually see it when on patrol.In elephant areas, the Mopane trees are broken, but resprouting.And become bushy from the ground up because nature's pruners have been doing their job.And there will be a full range of generation of all plant life, from cm high seedlings struggling to survive through to the next rainy season.To bushes of all heights.

But when we moved into areas where locals,Himba and Herero were grazing their goats and cows the plant life changed.
Here elephants avoid if possible.But all the mopane trees were single trunked, very tall, but absolutely bare from the ground up to where they bushed out at the top above grazing height.So if you bent down, you could see for miles under the bushy canopy, because all the low growth was eaten out.No seedlings, no young generation trees coming on.So eventually when the old trees do die off naturally, what will be left is barren desert.
This is man's effect on the environment.
So elephants can teach us a lot about our environment and good stewardship.Don't overgraze!
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Re: My volunteer experience

Postby jimshu » Fri Dec 12, 2008 6:33 pm

I've done a fair bit of volunteering

Your turn now TICKLE. :)
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Re: My volunteer experience

Postby jimshu » Fri Dec 12, 2008 6:51 pm

And if you do,here's a Christmas pressy for you...
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Re: My volunteer experience

Postby thecakeisalie » Fri Dec 12, 2008 7:52 pm

Sounds fantastic, I'd love to give it a shot. Small issue about time off of work, but at least the price is right! And of course I would have to do a trip down the Skeleton Coast and into South Africa after the two weeks of volunteering, so that's another week off...

First things first. I'll be tackling Kilimanjaro in August 09. Combined with a week in Hawaii and a week volunteering (not sure of the destination yet), I'll definitely be out of vacation days for '09. Time to take up teaching, get 3 months off every year...

As for my volunteering gigs, long story short, I've worked with my church's senior high group for a number of years and we often find ourselves in the Yucatan peninsula, shoveling concrete. In July. If you want to know what that feels like, grab a shovel, a bucket of water, a bag of cement, some rock and sand, and mix it together while sitting in your oven. :wink:
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