The Caprivi Strip
I’m sitting alone atop a Land Rover, with only about 50 metres of open space between me and the irked African elephant. It stares at us and shakes its Hummer-sized head. It flaps its ears, kicks up a giant puff of dirt and dust, and waves its trunk like a weapon.
My guide, Francois, along with the other guests, is below inside the car. He calmly tells me that turning around and driving away isn’t an option. “If we back off, it’ll probably see it as a sign of weakness and begin to charge,” says Francois. “Just keep very still up there,” he adds, as if we’re playing a backyard game with a well-trained pet. I flatten myself and attempt to look like an inanimate object – not an easy task when you’re shaking like a nervous boy-scout.
The angry giant seems to be weighing up its options. To me, it has two clear choices: 1) to calmly and politely walk away and continue its afternoon amble in the sunshine, or 2) charge, knock me off the top of the car and stomp and gore me to my untimely death. I lean back and wait for fate to decide. To tip the odds in my favour I do my best impersonation of a set of roof-racks while I wait. Where on an elephant’s body are its genitals located? Its feet. Because if one stands on you, you’re fucked.
At long last, the creature makes its move. Unfortunately, though, it goes for option number two, and starts towards us. Until this point in my relationship with Francois (that of guide and guest), he had shown himself to be an ever-calm, helpful, knowledgeable, caring and compassionate character. A true, cigarette-smoking, Coca-Cola-drinking, clean-his-nails-with-his-pocket-knife bushman. Fearless and entirely unflappable. The type of person you scrutinise in hope of exposing a weakness that can never be found. Now, under pressure, I wonder if he might become somewhat flapped. He pokes his head out of the window, turns it to the side and softly speaks. “OK,” he says, and casually leans back into the car. OK?! Nothing more. Is it a question? Is it a statement? Is it a farewell? Is it the least apt encapsulation of a situation I have ever heard? I begin to panic. “Francois, I’m panicking,” I offer. “OK, OK,” he replies, as if to emphasise the inadequacy of the word by saying it twice. I figure I’m doomed. I do, however, detect a tone in his voice that is similar to someone who is ever-so-slightly flapped, and briefly revel in a minor victory. “I’m still panicking,” I add.
It is now that Francois deploys our last and only line of defence against the encroaching creature: he begins rapping loudly on the side of the car door with a screwdriver and beeping the horn. Banging and beeping. This is all we have. It’s at this point that I wish I had religion. Suddenly, though, the elephant stops in its tracks. It shakes its Turkish-rug-sized ears, looking confused. It seems it doesn’t like loud noises. Sensing a turning of the tide, I, too, begin banging like a lunatic. In a mad huff, the elephant stomps the ground violently, turns around and trots off angrily in the opposite direction. I live for another day. But this is only day two. Why is an elephant’s trunk at the front of its body? So it doesn’t put peanuts in its arse.
Welcome to Hanyini Research Station, Namibia. Throw down your bags, don your boots and khakis, douse yourself in mozzie repellent, and make yourself as comfortable as possible. This will be your home for the next two weeks. If you’re looking for an African outback adventure, far from the hordes of camera-toting tourists on super safaris (far from anywhere, in fact), this is your place. This, without a doubt, is an adventure of a lifetime.
Situated in the Caprivi Strip – the thin strip of land that juts out of northern Namibia about 450 kilometres eastwards, between Botswana, Angola and Zambia – Hanyini is a fully functioning research station that hosts Biosphere Expeditions guests on volunteer conservation vacations. Biosphere’s mission is to promote sustainable conservation and preservation of the world’s wildlife. They do this by getting together serious scientists with everyday folk like you and me. It’s a hands-on holiday that allows business people, teachers, waitresses, journalists, mechanics and many more to step outside of their day-to-day lives and play a role in creating a sustainable future for a particular species or habitat in a far-flung locale.
Hanyini was founded by partners, Francois de Wet and Julia Gaedke, of the Wildlife Community & Development Fund (WCDF). In conjunction with Biosphere Expeditions, WCDF is looking at ways in which the local people in and around the Mamili National Park can coexist with predators like lions, leopards and hyenas. As it stands, the local people – whose major (and very meagre) source of income is derived from cattle farming – are losing a sizeable percentage of their herds to hungry beasts with big teeth. The locals, in turn, are protecting their livelihoods by shooting these incredible creatures.
Francois, a scientist, is a big cat person. Julia, an anthropologist, is a people person. In their love for each other, the land, the animals and the people, and for the sustainable future of this region, they are working on how to solve this complex human–predator conflict. The greenhorns like you and me not only bring vital funding and people power to the project, we are also invited to help find solutions to this multifaceted situation. From tracking, counting and documenting animals (including scat samples), to building bridges and cleaning the camp, Hanyini is a real, roll-up-your-sleeves adventure. German fetish holidays aside, there are few vacations where you will find yourself with a group of strangers huddled around and discussing the shape and consistency of a desiccated turd. Fewer holidays still will render you so enthused with the said poo that you’ll photograph it and write down its GPS coordinates in a log book. It’s all part of the experience.
If day two finished with a close call with the world’s largest land-based animal, day one at least began on a less adrenaline-filled note. After arriving – an all-day adventure in itself that involved border crossings, buses, cars, boats and trucks – we ‘check in’ to the camp (all guests in rustic, yet secure, bungalows; me in a big, old canvas tent) and get to know our surroundings. As the sun starts setting through an ancient camel-thorn acacia, over the flat and dry African savannah, and we tuck into a delicious meal on a candlelit table in the al fresco camp kitchen, I think to myself two things. First, I have found a place of vast beauty. Second, the everything-in-Africa-wants-to-kill-me business is not something I’m going to worry about. I have nothing to fear here. All my previous apprehension has gone. Maybe it’s the wine. Not long after, Francois walks in with a serious expression on his face.
“OK everyone, I need you all to listen in for a moment,” he begins. “I need you all to be very careful when you leave the table tonight and walk back to your cabins.”
I look around at my fellow guests – an eclectic mix of young and old from across the globe – their eyes wide with expectation and mouths filled with half-chewed food, not wanting to chew again until Francois delivers his news.
“Neil has just been charged by a leopard.”
Half-chewed food is gulped whole. Mine is spat back onto my plate. Neil, one of the guides, has just had a leopard run at him – with razor-like claws and teeth bared – in an attempt to attack. This, mere metres from where we dine on spaghetti and oven-baked olive bread, with nothing but candles between us and the unknown dark. There are no electrified fences or armed guards here. Just two strands of wire with some cowbells hanging from them.
“Luckily, Neil didn’t panic,” says Francois. “He kept calm and he’s fine.”
We go back to our meals. I take care of any panicking Neil may have neglected to do moments earlier. I don’t sleep well that night.
To paint Hanyini as a place teeming with life-threatening wild beasts doesn’t accurately capture the entire picture, though. Yes, there are the odd moments of terror, but, for the most part, this expedition is an absolute joy. Our days are spent in the hot sun, working and learning and revelling in the adventure of it all. We conduct game counts from the vehicles and on foot. We track animal prints in the sand. We build bridges. We meet with impossibly poor local people and, through an interpreter, discuss with them their worries and woes and views on conservation. We spend nights sleeping under the stars, with hippo’s honking in creek beds nearby. We track animals with radio collars attached. We walk, drive and boat through the bush like it’s our very own adventure theme park. At the end of each long and hard day, we all converge at the camp kitchen under the giant sausage tree and, while the sun goes down, we discuss the things we’ve seen and learned that day. The cool beer and the sunsets give these afternoons an almost dream-like quality.
By the end, I almost come to terms with my elephant phobia. Each night, herds of them choose to congregate directly behind my tent, with only sun-worn canvas and two strands of wire between us, and I still sleep like a log. On my last morning at Hanyini, I crawl from my tent, sleepy-eyed and barely clothed, to relieve myself against a tree. As I begin my morning wee, I become acutely aware of something watching me. I turn my head to find a giant elephant about three metres away, its trunk waving towards me over the wire fence. I casually finish my business and bid it good morning. Fear is a funny thing. What did the elephant say to the naked man? “How the hell do you drink with that?”
South African Airways flies from Australia to Johannesburg, with connections to Livingston, Zambia, just a short drive from the Caprivi Strip.
For accommodation in Johannesburg, go to Tsogo Sun for hotel options.
Biosphere Expeditions offers science/conservation adventures across the globe – from Africa to South America, Europe to Australia.