Track desert elephants and take part in community development volunteer work in the beautiful Damaraland region of the Namib Desert where the famous desert-adapted elephants roam free. This project is a perfect opportunity for people to really return to basic levels of living, learn simple camp-craft and survival skills and get back in touch with nature; whilst becoming directly involved in spearhead elephant conservation volunteer work.
You can join for 2 weeks up to 12 weeks all year round and we have places all throughout 2014 & 2015 available.
Individuals, groups, families and students doing research all welcome.
Cost for food, transport & accommodation during the project, building materials, fuel, vehicle cost, backup and support starts at £790
This project takes you to the northwestern regions of the Namib Desert, traditionally known as ‘Damaraland’. This harsh tribal wilderness area, runs parallel to the Skeleton Coast National Park, and is home to a small population of desert-adapted elephants. This project is part of a long-term initiative to find solutions to the ever-growing problem of facilitating the peaceful co-habitation between the subsistence farmers, and the desert adapted elephants.
Opportunities to join for 2 weeks up to 12 weeks. The project takes place in 2 week rotations.
Induction and Training
Besides a willing mind, and a strong back, you do not need any special training to work on this project. During your time spent with there, they would teach you the following:
During the first week you cheat the heat and wake up early, for your first cup of coffee around the campfire. After the team member on duty served breakfast, you head out to your project site for the day.
It is likely you will be busy constructing large protection walls around farmers waterpoints, often windmills which are suseptable to damage by passing elephants. You will be constructing alternative drinking holes away from homesteads for elephants and also black rhino. You will also work on other projects such as teaching farmers wives to make paper using elephant dung, doing work on the base camp, helping community members build a tourist camp or fix a rural school.
You head to your camp for lunch and siesta. You could be tasked to update data forms, be on kitchen and camp duty for the day. The evenings are spent around the campfire, eating and talking about the day’s events. You live closely in the desert camp.
The second week is spent out on elephant patrol. You pack some basic camping equipment in the 4x4, and set off looking for the illusive elephants. On patrol you camp wild, and sleep under the stars. You follow elephants mostly in 4x4s, but also on foot, sometimes for hours under the desert sun, and sit patiently observing from some rocky outcrop whilst they laze away in the shade! This the life few ever have the privilege to live.
Over the past 20 years, the population of desert dwelling elephants in the region has grown from as low as 52 members to a current population of over 600 elephants. As a result, elephants have expanded their range to the south and east into territories they have not occupied for many years. Subsistence farmers husbanding mainly cattle, goats and sheep, traditionally occupy these areas. As a result competition for water and grazing has escalated tremendously causing conflict between farmers and elephants. In their search for the source of water points elephants cause extensive damage to windmills, dams, reservoirs, hand-pumps and wells. As the farmers homesteads are normally located close to the water source, secondary damage is also caused and the lives of humans and livestock are threatened.
As a volunteer, you will be carrying out elephant conservation volunteer work, alongside a Namibian registered non-profit organisation that strives towards assisting the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and other NGO’s in promoting a mutually beneficial relationship between the humans and the desert adapted elephants of the northwestern regions of the Namib Desert. Working from mobile base camps in the vicinity of the Brandberg in the ephemeral Ugab River, you will immerse yourself in pioneer elephant conservation volunteer work. This project is not for those interested in bottle-feeding cuddly baby elephants.
Opportunities to join for 2 weeks up to 12 weeks. The project takes place in 2 week rotations.
25 August to 5 September
8 to 19 September - no places available
22 September to 3 October - no places available
6 to 17 October
20 to 31 October
3 to 14 November
17 to 28 November
1 to 12 December
12 to 23 January 2015
26 January to 6 February 2015
9 to 20 February 2015
23 February to 6 March 2015
9 to 20 March 2015
23 March to 3 April 2015
6 to 17 April 2015
20 April to 1 May 2015
4 May to 15 May 2015
18 May to 29 May 2015
1 June to 12 June 2015
15 June to 26 June 2015
29 June to 10 July 2015
13 July to 24 July 2015
27 July to 7 August 2015
Please email Victoria.McNeil@workingabroad.com for any questions on dates.
All projects run from the Monday morning on the starting date, to the Friday afternoon of the finish date. Participants can book a minimum of one two-week slot, or multiple slots, up to three months (six slots) maximum. It is advisable to arrive before the departure date, and give yourself enough time to reach the airport for your flight out. All accommodation before and after project dates is at your own cost, as is the optional weekend at the end of every 2 week slot.
Camp & Transportation
The mobile base camp is set up at each project site, which will be as comfortable as possible! You will be accommodated in two man tents or you can choose to sleep under the stars. Washing facilities are limited but a ‘bushman’ shower will be made available. Toilet facilities will be in the form of long drops (enclosed and private). Meals are prepared by you on a rotational basis, over the open fire, and eaten around the campfire together. You are supplied with basic, but balanced food with adequate vegetarian options. Whilst on patrol, you camp wild, and sleep under the stars on your bedrolls with mosquito nets. No showers or toilets out there, so roughing it. You need to get to the assembly point in Swakopmund (we give advice on this). From the first day of project until your return to Swakopmund, all transport is supplied.
Your project manager is first aid qualified, and has years of experience in handling problems in the field. Namibia has first world medical facilities available, and first-rate emergency service. It is compulsory for volunteers to have medical insurance cover for evacuation and repatriation. We also require you to complete a medical form. Please note that the area of operation is regarded as malaria free, but if you are traveling on afterwards, consult with your physician.
You can fly either into Walvis Bay, which is a 20 minute drive away from Swakopmumd or to the capital of Namibia, Windhoek which is a 3.5 hour drive. Often flights will be routed through Johannesburg or Cape Town and if flying in from the UK, Frankfurt. We can arrange all your airport transfers and there are safe and reliable services available. We can also give you advise on what airlines to search for the best deals.
Watch a video below showing day to day life on the project:
Raw footage of an encounter with mother and baby elephant, taken by volunteer Lizzie Peck:
See below for a film made about the project on the Travel Channel, called The Ethical Hedonist:
Below, a slideshow made by a volunteer, Elsa, giving a really good idea of what the volunteer experience is like - 2 weeks in Namibia. Life at camp. Building the well wall. Barbequeing a whole lamb. Driving through amazing landscapes of nothingness and finding elephants...
Below is an interactive map showing the location of the project:
Namibia is in South West Africa, bordering on South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Zambia. Most of the work that the project does is concentrated in the North West region of Namibia, known as Damaraland. This is one of the areas of Namibia that is seeing an increase of wild Elephants returning to habitats that they have not lived in for hundreds of years. The project base camp is located on the Ugab River, Northwest of Uis and Northeast of the Brandberg Mountain.
These areas used to be inhabited by nomadic bushman hunter-gatherers, of whom there is lots of evidence in the form of thousands of rock paintings and engravings. Now, beyond the fringe of permanent settlements, only nomadic pastoral farmers, and tourists venture. This area is still regarded as one of the last true wilderness areas left on earth!
Mark Jameson was a volunteer during October 2013
My first trip to Namibia and a wonderful experience. Build week was challenging but fun, my favourite job was the rock run though I don’t think I could ever compete with Mattias in a rock lifting competition. Everybody worked hard and we got as much of the wall build as possible hopefully the next group will finish it. Whilst I enjoyed build week the real highlight of the trip for me was patrol week, following the elephants and at times having them very close to the vehicles checking us out was one of the best experiences of my life, they are without doubt one of the most intelligent species on earth, but someone needs to tell Voortrekker to stop showing off.
I would recommend this trip to anyone who has a love for wildlife in their hearts. All the guys who work on the project are fantastic and have an in-depth knowledge of the Namibian wildlife and the issues they face.
The project is run by wonderful people and I hope they are around for a long time to help conserve one of planet earth’s most iconic species.
Sonia volunteered on this project in October 2013
Where do I start? It has been an amazing two weeks and I wish it wasn’t coming to an end. Build week was hard work but a great learning experience. We started building a new water point wall for a farmer that had been “visited” often by elephants. We all worked within our own abilities and everyone - staff and volunteers - helped each other out. Duties ranged from mixing cement, sand and aggregate (to make concrete) to collecting rocks for the wall to stacking the rocks and concrete up to form the wall. In the evenings we took turns cooking. I was a little worried about food, being a vegetarian, but realized quickly that I had no need to be – between Thai green curry, veggie potjie, (veg) spaghetti Bolognese etc. It was quite luxurious, I must say. The volunteers ranged from students to accountants to graphic designers, from different countries and across all age groups. It was a great mix and everyone was really friendly. It was a great chance to interact with people from all walks of life.
During patrol week, we spent the week following the elephant herds to observe them and collect pictures and data for the project’s records. I found out that staff on the project share the information with the Namibian government so it’s really valuable work being done to protect the species. The highlight of patrol week for me was when three elephants came right up to our jeep, looked at us, sniffed the jeep with their trunks and walked on. Such a special moment I’ll never forget.
Special thanks to Chris, Mattias and Marius for making this such a wonderful trip for us all. Between Chris’ insight and enthusiasm, Mattias’ brilliant sense of humour and Marius’ extensive knowledge on everything under the sun, it really was the perfect combination. Thanks, guys-you were truly fantastic!
All-in-one, a very insightful trip. I’ve learnt a lot about nature, Namibia, elephants and discovered so much about myself. The best moment for me? Staying up every night to watch the stars in the sky, it was truly magical. One fine night I saw a shooting star for the first time. And I made a wish.
This was a life-changing experience. My only regret is not staying longer.
John Scaife - through the eyes of his lens, journeying through endless skies and the wild arid desert of Namibia in February and March 2013
Courtney Gallant spent 2 weeks on the project in February 2013
To start our first week, we all headed out to finish a protection wall we started earlier in the year. The feeling of pride that comes finishing a wall never seems to fade and it becomes a tangible feeling as everyone stops to admire their work. Smiles, nods of approval, high-fives and cheers of approval pass between friends who days before were strangers.
We finished the wall on Thursday morning and set out to start another. The feeling of pride and accomplishment that everyone felt on Friday afternoon was even greater than before. In less than two build days, we had transformed what was a five foot slap hat in the ground that passed as a well into a flat, ground level stone well. It’s really incredible what a group of inexperienced people can accomplish in such a short time, working together. To know a few days of work can make someone’s life better is a beautiful feeling and instantly all the bruises, blisters and sore muscles make you smile, reminding you what an amazing thing you’ve helped to accomplish.
After a weekend spent relaxing at pool side in Uis and at camp, it was time to set off on patrol. And what an incredible patrol! We drove over 300km, 4x4 driving through the desert, seeing more of Namibia then I ever expected to see in one patrol week. This patrol week really opened my eyes to the stunningly diverse wilds of the area. One day we were driving through a wetland, through grass that rose above the 4x4’s, where we all certain raptors parked. We even stopped for a quick dip in a waterhole! Well, some of us did. Another day we found ourselves driving through deserts best beautiful area compressed of stones. All stones everywhere. Hills of stones twisting and turning on itself, glistering in the sun. Another night we camp at the base of the Brandberg, some of us even climbing up a little. Spending a night and morning looking up at the mountain is something I will never forget. Our week was filled with diverse wildlife, from ostrich and springbok, steenbok, kudu and Oryx to zebra and a warthog. The highlight of the week was a surprise sighting of a black rhino.
The past two weeks have been incredible and I couldn’t be happier than to have spent them on the project.
Volunteer John from the UK gives his feedback on the project
Trying to snapshot my four weeks on the project is like trying to frame the stunning landscape here, amazing pieces you will leave out and the photo is never quite “it”- with that proviso let me try to pick a few favorite scenes. The slow changing scenery from desert to Damaraland strewn with little rock hills & still green trees that have have no rain for over a year. This is the land we patrolled in and loved. The anxious arriving in camp, what will it be like? Well thought out, at one with its surroundings and delightfully functional. Realizing one can drink 8 or 9 liters of water in a day wrestling and loading cement and juggling a wall to stand around a well we were proud to build – all in a modest 40˚c! And then the land it creeps up on you, the size, the space, the stark relief, then suddenly you are rolling carefully along a riverbed on top of a 4x4 (the guys amazingly do hardcore 4x4 off road and track at the same time) and then a whisper goes up-an elephant. And the ore kicks in. See the photos read the words, but an elephant starring at you, sometimes a car length away, then tossing its head and leading her her baby away back to the bush is an image I will keep for a long time. Thank you guys.
Volunteer Delaara Salic describes her time on the project in February 2013
Hello everyone! After being here for one month, I will take home some of the most treasured memories, ones I will have for life! It’s hard to explain the experiences that you have, the friends you make and the lessons you learn, the feeling of a great accomplishment, to travel alone, yet be at one with your surroundings and to be around like minded people is truly a special feeling. Build week is hard work, especially in the hot afternoon sun, but knowing you are making a difference in the elephants and the peoples lives, and helping the locals build a relationship with the elephants so they can both be safe, you are making a difference, and that’s something to be proud of.
My two patrol weeks have been so different, the first with a lot of elephants, the second with none, but both were so special and unique, especially the second, we saw zebras, kudus, springbok, Oryx and the rare black rhino, sooo incredible! The landscape has been the most contrasting and beautiful I have ever seen. The rivers and the rock formations and the sky, the places we have camped have been phenomenal! I also haven’t laughed this much in a long time, a huge thanks to the people I’m with! There is so much to squeeze in that I can’t even try, let alone know where to begin, but on one note, the staff has been incredible, so knowledgeable, and great to be around. I have learned so much from them and this experience, I can’t wait to tell everyone of this experience, and I am so sad to leave, but I will end on the on the greatest thanks from the bottom of my heart!!!
Cameron Pelz, from Canada, writes about his building week in January 2013 (photo of base camp to the right)
After two and a half days of traveling, cramped into the economy section of three separate airlines it felt great to begin the build process on our first day out. The mornings here are beautiful, with a cool breeze and the sun shining. It’s the kind of weather that makes me eager to work hard and accomplish something.
We drove to the worksite with everyone cramming into the open top jeep, enjoying the cool wind and spectacular scenery, and began to work on a half-finished wall around a well. It was quickly apparent just how difficult the work could be, shoveling sand, hauling rocks, mixing cement; but with plenty of water and frequent breaks, the morning went by rather quickly.
After a long lunch break to allow the heat to subside (not nearly as much as we would like), we got back to work with slightly less of a spring in our step. Hot water has never tasted better as we sweated it out into the late afternoon, and at the end of the day, there was never a more deserving time for a cool beer from the shop on the way home to camp.
When you see a completed wall that you have built together with a group of people that only days earlier were total strangers, there is a bond that’s created that. It’s hard to define! People from such varied locations and backgrounds come together for one common goal, and to see the results of your labor brings a sense of bride and achievement that personally is unmatched by prior endeavors. You are truly helping people and the appreciation is apparent. I have met people that I will never forget, and I will always consider friends, no matter how many miles may separate us after this is all over. Patrol week is next, and I can’t wait to continue on with this lie changing experience.
Carrie Reubens, Volunteered in December 2012
This has been an amazing couple of weeks! Build week was a test of strength and wills. Working hard in desert heat, mixing cement and hauling rocks bigger than my head, not to mention the endurance test to withstand dust and sand getting everywhere. Sounds tough, but nothing feels better than finishing up a hard day of work with a bunch of strangers all bound together by a common dirtiness, and enjoying a cider and good conversation.
Patrol week was rewarding around every corner. The landscape continuously changing, and pleasing to the eyes while grasping to the land rover for dear life as it went down the desert terrain, always on the lookout for signs of life. Tracks, nests, poop, then a kudu or an oryx would catch your eye and captivate you for a few seconds until it ran off.
Whenever the truck slowed down, we knew it was go time. We climbed a koppie overlooking 10foot tall reeds to view the Ugab herd of elephants. Later we parked in the path of the Huab herd and watched in dead silence as they feasted on branches just 50 feet away. Three of these brave ones came right to our vehicle and were so close, I think I could reach out and touch them! They are truly beautiful creatures.
We snuck up on a rhino, observed giraffes, springbok, vultures and jackals. We came across an oryx carcass recently devoured by a leopard, and even followed lion tracks for a spell. This has been a wonderful experience, and the things our guide taught me about survival and the animals and insects around us will never be forgotten. Can’t wait to come back soon!
Elsa from London, Volunteered in December 2012
What an amazing project this has been to work on. Build week was one of the hardest, sandiest, dirtiest, hottest yet funniest weeks of my life! Great people, great learning, great, great project.
On the whole, this project has given me experiences, sights and memories that will stay with me forever. I don’t think I ever felt as free as I did sitting on top of the land rover on the 1st day of patrol week taking in the amazing landscape of Namibia.
Carolin Gunther, Volunteered in November 2012
It’s really hard to summarize the great 2 weeks I had on the project. It was such an amazing, incredible and breathtaking experience! It was so far the best time I have had, it’s a great project and does important work. That was very important for me when I was looking for volunteer projects. This project exceeded definitely all my expectations! 2 weeks was too short!
Eating and cooking around the campfire, sleeping under the stars and watching them (I’ve never seen so many shooting stars before), having a great time with new friends, building a huge wall and of course looking for the elephants and watching them for hours - every second will stay in my mind for the rest of my life! Thanks to the wonderful group I had around me! We had a great time in the beautiful Damaraland!
Emiel, from Amsterdam, Volunteered in December 2011
These 2 weeks have been so much better then I could have imagined. I've spent a long time in Namibia, but there is no better way to experience the wilderness of Damaraland and to do something good as well.
The building was tough and tiring, but I was left satisfied as the sun set on our finished wall – that will hopefully do a good job reducing conflict. I guess I was lucky to join the last group of the year, as this patrol week was incredible. Riding through the incredible desert landscapes, on the roof of the 4x4 and sleeping out in the wild was a formidable experience. To top it off we saw so much game! A Caracal crossing the road and a rhino with a calf close by. Not to mention all the many elephants that walked by the car.
Mattias and Hendrick are incredible people and the best guides imaginable. And Chris is a real man of the bush.
Julie, from the UK, volunteered in December 2011
So often I have thought to myself, I don't want this to end. The scenery in Namibia is so diverse and the landscape more, wow, then I can ever of imagine. Build week was the finest example of teamwork I have experienced. The cameraderie and shared passions for wildlife has been very enjoyable. Hendrick and Mattias have given us an unforgettable African experience. I couldn't have hoped to meet nicer funnier or more intimate people!
Claudia from Germany, gives her feedback on the Desert elephants project
4 Weeks have passed and I feel very “homey” in Namibia and the desert. The project gave me the opportunity to show me how to push my limits – working physically hard while the sun is burning your skin, no shower for 5 days, back pain from lifting huge rocks and mixing cement and working in a team with people you don't know. But its all worth it – seeing a wall being built to finish, enjoying great meals after a long day around the fireplace, stargazing at night and great night talks on the shared sleeping tarp. I really enjoyed Mattias' and Hendrick's stories at the fire at night. Patrol week is priceless. You can't get any closer to unspoiled nature – the scenery's are great and being in the middle of what seems to be a Sunday’s elephant herds outing will always stay on my mind. Thanks Mattias and Hendrick's great trekking skills we came so close to these very gentle giants who can track us humans so much more than we know already. Needless to say that we were all jaw-drop-amazed by the sight of 4 black rhinos, oryx, kudu, scorpions, giraffes, baboons, zebras and many more animals. It's all worthwhile waking up at 6h30 with coffee in “bed”. Thanks to the project for letting me drift away from the problems of civilization and showing me how important it is to make a difference by protecting the desert elephants. Mother Nature is all we have and each and every one of us should learn how important it is to protect our planet with all living beings in it. This project can give you this opportunity. There is no better way to experience the true meaning of becoming one with nature and yourself.
Steph from the UK recounts her time on the project so far
I've had such a magical time during the last 4 weeks! First of all who would have thought that you can cook such amazing food on an open fire from porridge in the morning to a leg of lamb at night! Every meal has been delicious and has definitely made it worthwhile getting up at 6am every morning!
The 3 adventurous trackers, Mattias, Hendrick and Chris were fantastic. They guided us to so much wildlife which was so unpredictable, like rhinos, giraffes, caracal and the different elephant herds!
One thiny I will not forget is the “wag ? bietjie” trees. They are lovely and wild to view, especially when the sun is bouncing off the rocks and glimmering through them, however the sharp thorns are painful and live up to their name of “wait a while”! Once they have hooked themselves on to your hair or clothes during build week or tracking weeks, they just don't let go!
The whole experience will be unforgettable. I’ve met such amazing people and had such a fabulous time.
Thank you to everyone!
Giselle from the USA, joined the project in December 2011
It's difficult to sum up all that has happened in the past 4 weeks. It's actually almost alarmingly impossible, but I will do my best. Upon arrival at base camp, I discovered my first night would be spent sleeping in a tree beneath countless, crystal clear stars. Unbelievable! The following week was spent teaming up with incredible people from around the world to build a wall around a water tank and break down the walls of each other as we formed unbreakable friendships. Week 2 was relaxing. We traveled around Ugab river tracking the elephants. One day we saw three herds at one time! (G6, Mamma Afrika and Ugab small herd). As week two neared its end, it was understood that most of the fantastic people we met would be leaving and a new group to enter. I really didn't know how the upcoming two weeks were going to compare to the previous life-changing ones. I need not to worry. New friendships were formed and another wall was finished. The fourth and final week was …..i can't find the ….... right words to completely explain it without understating. Not only did I see elephants, I also saw 4 black rhinos, 2 giraffes, herd of mountain zebra, many ostrich, springbok, kudu, oryx and much more. With some of my own words mixed with Kingsley Hotgates' wife's I can honestly say that I fell in love twice while I was here, first with the project, then with Africa. I have a new yearn to be apart a part of this beautiful country and all that it has to offer. Thank you for helping me start a new era of my own. I look forward to the day I return.
-”Live for today because it won't be like tomorrow”
Cristina Melchion, from Italy, describes her experience on the Desert Elephants project
Everything went well! I met a lot of new people, everybody was very nice. I learnt many camping activities like making a fire, collecting wood, making breakfast and dinner, and how to pay attention to dangers.
I improved my English, I spoke with local people, I danced with them, I learnt a lot about local culture because I participated in a township tour, I did sandboarding, I had another bad but very interesting experience with local transport (you don't leave until the bus is full!!! so you never know when you leave and when you arrive!).
I followed elephants for two weeks: how amazing it was!!!! We were very very near to them. We managed to build two walls: I learnt how to make cement. I enjoyed the desert and its views....but I, most of all, enjoyed my stay with local and non local people, the people always make the difference, people as friends, as colleagues, as travel mates, always make the difference in the places you visit. I learnt a lot from them. The project is not only an association which tries to make peace in the Namibian desert between farmers and elephants, but I think there is a more profound purpose behind it: learning to share everything, to collaborate, to stay together and learn to face difficulties together, something that in modern society is lost.
So definitely I don't regret my choice this year.....I'm already thinking of what I can do next year!.
Alessandro Cabai, from Italy, recounts his month working on the Desert Elephants project
My month in Namibia?? Probably the best time of my life!! It was a really amazing volunteer project!! All the staff are wonderful, the places are wonderful too and I met only nice people!!
I worked hard and helped as best i could! What can i say?! Sleeping under the stars, living in nature, helping each other, seeing animals, eating around the fire... absolutely unforgettable moments!
I'm sure I'll come back to Namibia for this project!!
If you are interested in joining this project, you will need to fill out the online application form (you can also print it out and send it to us by post) – to secure a placement on the project, please complete and submit the form including two references and your deposit of £170. If for some reason, your application is declined, we will reimburse this deposit fully. However for those who are accepted, the full amount needs to be paid one month before departure. Once you have been accepted on the programme, you will receive a Volunteer Information Package with all detailed information on your project, suggested items to bring etc.