Have you ever had a travel experience that you consistently refer back to, that you always find a reason to bring up in conversation? For me, that trip is the two weeks I spent volunteering with Elephant Human Relations Aid in Namibia in the summer of 2013. Once I started traveling (mostly around Europe, with a quick trip to Costa Rica sprinkled in for good measure), I set my sights on Africa. I wanted to go, and I wanted to travel there with a purpose. For one thing, I didn’t have the funds to throw at an exotic safari, and for another, I wanted a truly meaningful experience. I spent months researching various "voluntourism" options (more on this, and the ethics involved, in a future post), and was becoming discouraged that I wasn’t finding the ‘right’ one.

As luck would have it, in 2012 I reconnected with a former colleague who had recently started a job at a high-end, boutique tours company; for fun, I had a look around the website. All of the trips were far out of my price range, but one in particular caught my eye – the option to spend two weeks in the Namibian desert, volunteering with an elephant aid organization. You know that feeling people say you’re supposed to get when you walk onto THE college campus you’re going to spend four years of your life on? I never had that experience on any college tour, but I did when I read about this organization.

Building a wall in Damaraland.

I did some research into EHRA, specifically as to whether they are a reputable, well-run organization. I’d be flying in from 10,000 miles away, so it was key to me that my time and money would be well-spent and responsibly used. After multiple email exchanges with EHRA’s office manager, I dove in – the following year, I’d be realizing my dream of going to Africa. I made plans to borrow camping gear from dear friends, and began searching for flights for myself and the friend who decided to join me on this adventure.

Our group in front of the wall.

After six months of planning and multiple trips to REI for the required gear, it was finally time to head to the airport. After 30 hours, three flights, and two consecutive nights sleeping upright in British Airways Economy class, we arrived in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. The following day, we’d be taking a four-hour scheduled taxi to Swakopmund, on Namibia’s coast, but the rest of the day was ours…not to explore, but to attempt to stay awake until a time at which it would be reasonable for us to pass out. We made it to 9pm, which I was impressed by. I can honestly say – to this day – that the 12 hours of sleep I got that night are among the best I’ve experienced. Full stop.

The following day, we got into the taxi, met two fellow volunteers, and then…I slept on and off for the duration of the journey. I’m only mad because I’m pretty sure I missed out on seeing giraffes on the side of the road. Our time in Swakopmund was spent getting to know the rest of the volunteers (there were 12 of us in all), making sure we had all our supplies, and getting a safety briefing. One general piece of advice – if you don’t like spiders or snakes, best to schedule your trip for winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Fortunately, July falls in winter in Namibia, so we knew there was less of a chance we’d come across these aforementioned poisonous foes. Even despite the snakes and spiders, I was so excited to head to base camp the next day.

Camp for build week.

The way that EHRA structures its two week-long volunteer trips is as follows: week 1 is spent somewhere in Damaraland, building or reinforcing walls that protect water sources from elephant damage. Aside from illegal poaching rings, another issue affecting elephant conservation is human-wildlife conflict. Despite the fact that Namibia is the third most sparsely populated country in the world, elephants and humans both need access water and resources, and both tend to congregate in areas where these are available. The walls that EHRA builds, made of concrete and locally-sourced rocks, ensure that elephants are able to safely access this water without damaging the lifeblood of the local farmers and their animals. EHRA also runs a PEACE project, which works with local populations to educate them on what to do in the event they come across an elephant – the work they do is so important, and I can’t wait to volunteer with them again.

I should probably mention here that while I was fortunate enough not to come across too many creepy-crawly critters (save for this gem, who was attracted to our nighttime fire), I did manage to get lost in the desert. Without water. Or sunscreen. Oops? You see, after leaving Swakopmund, we traveled to EHRA’s base camp in Damaraland for a night there before we left for our build site. Upon arriving at our build site, part of the group walked over to a nearby rock formation for a view of the landscape. After lunch, a fellow volunteer and I decided to do the same. As our guide was sleeping, we told the others where we were going but neglected to let him know – mistake #1. Mistake nos. 2 and 3 involved the aforementioned decisions not to bring water or reapply sunscreen. The thing about the desert (at least, in this part of Namibia) is that it’s quite uniform – the same-looking scrubby trees, the same-looking farms with small buildings sprinkled about, and the same-looking goats that never stay in the same place for very long. We made it to the rock formation (as the landscape is largely flat, and the rock formation is not, this wasn’t difficult), but upon arrival realized we were totally disoriented and had no idea how to get back to camp. We wandered back in the general direction of camp (or so we thought), but once we came upon a fairly well-traveled dirt road we’d not crossed before, we knew we were off our mark.

Our saviors in the desert.

After a couple hours of sitting under a tree and watching cars speed past, we came to the dispiriting conclusion that the group was not out desperately searching for us, and had at this point already started working on the wall. Cars had zipped past, and a donkey cart driven by two farmers had plodded by, but that was it. When the donkey cart started making its way back, we decided we had to act. We approached the cart, and asked the two farmers if they spoke English; fortunately, they did, and they knew about EHRA and our group’s location. Grateful and relieved, we asked them to point us in the right direction;  they insisted on driving us. We hopped on, and five minutes later were back with the group. Our guide was understandably furious, but I was so relieved I almost didn’t care. Eventually, things got back to normal and we didn’t wander off, unless we were going somewhere as a group. Hey, I learned my lesson! I also started realizing that my time away from the pressures of everyday life, and away from social media, were really good for me. I’ve struggled off and on to really be myself – I’m definitely a people pleaser – but the two weeks in Namibia allowed me to let go of any expectations and accept myself for who I am (getting lost in the desert and all).

More in my next post - Namibia, Part 2: Finding Myself Under African Skies...