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. An ideal project to 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 and we have places available all throughout the year.
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 £885
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 susceptible 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 and work as a team on the camp logistics. 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.
We have opportunities to join for 2 weeks up to 12 weeks. The project takes place in 2-week rotations.
11th June to 22nd June 2018
25th June to 6th July 2018 (Fully Booked)
9th July to 20th July 2018
23rd July to 3rd August 2018
30th July to 8th August 2018 *Family Volunteering Dates* (Fully Booked)
6th to 17th August 2018
13th to 22nd August 2018 *Family Volunteering Dates* (Fully Booked)
20th to 31st August 2018
3rd to 14th September 2018
17th to 28th September 2018
1st to 12th October 2018
15th to 26th October 2018
29th October to 9th November 2018
12th to 23rd November 2018
26th November to 7th December 2018
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 on the finish date. Participants can book a minimum of a 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.
Below is a video showcasing the activities of volunteers at the project:
Below is some raw footage of an encounter with mother and baby elephant, taken by volunteer Lizzie Peck:
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!
Roderick Jamieson, from the UK, joined as a volunteer for 2 weeks in September 2017:
I had a great time volunteering with the organisation; the volunteers in my group came from a range of countries and covered a broad range of age groups but we gelled together quickly and I think we all had a really good time.
In terms of the activities we undertook, the first week building walls was hard work but enjoyable and very worthwhile, whilst the second week watching the elephants in their natural habitat was a real once in a lifetime experience.
The basecamp accommodation and facilities are basic but reasonably comfortable so long as you are prepared and have a warm sleeping bag. I enjoyed the experience of sleeping in the treehouse and being open to the stars and the sound of the nearby wildlife (esp Baboons) though I can imagine there are some people that wouldn’t. I also really enjoyed sleeping out under the stars when we were out on patrol and on the building projects.
The food was a real surprise, I had expected to be eating out of tins for the two weeks but this wasn’t the case. The dinners were really well planned and really delicious and using fresh or frozen ingredients as far as possible. It really is quite amazing just how good the meals were and I think most of the volunteers took copies of the recipes home with them.
I really can’t recommend this highly enough. Namibia is a wonderful country and the cause is very worthwhile and I hope I have the chance to go back at some point in the future.
Niav Grant, from the UK, talks about build week:
We survived build week! The group of excited travellers who hopped around camp on Monday evening hobbled back on Friday like a group of pensioners who had just attempted a marathon – tired, sore BUT very happy and satisfied. For all of our talk and reflection you would think we had just reconstructed the Great Wall of China but, in reality we had put the finishing touches to one walls, built a platform to elevate a water tank and laid the foundations for its protective wall.
The week started following lunch on Tuesday after we had set up the camp. We kicked off with a quick demo on how to make cement by Kabwata (ed. young Matheus) – it really couldn’t be easier: 6 shovels of sand, 3 of cement a bucket of water a couple of stirs and there you have it! A barrow of cement in under 2 minutes – it couldn’t be too much bother to knock up a couple of walls this week!!! We learnt pretty quickly that we aren’t all Kabwata and that this whole business needs a fair bit more skill and strength than I had on day 1! Luckily we had a few strong team members and the expertise and patience of Kavari and Martha to show the rest of us the ropes and soon enough we had a great little production line on the go.
We finished up the wall on Tuesday and moved to our next farm where we built the other structures. The next days passed in a blur of hard work, sweat, camaraderie and learning. Multiple sand and rock runs, loads of rocks and enough cement mixes to give us a few blisters and an impetus to establish a cult to worship at the genius of the man who invented the cement mixer, we headed back to base camp with some new skills and a feeling that we had contributed to something.
Challenging through the building week was it was made manageable – there was something we could each do and we learn to complement each other quickly. By the last day the separation of ‘you do dry mix, I’ll do wet’ rotated clearly, and no sooner had wheelbarrows been returned to its spot, then it was refilled with the cement ingredients and a fresh water bucket was lined up.
On top of the rewarding days were the nights. We were all impressed with the camps that materialised on a thorny piece of ground as if from no where and the food that we conjured up on the campfire was better than much of what I cook at home. Lying under the tarpaulin, looking out on landscape lit by the nearly full moon and admiring the (occasionally shooting) stars, it was hard to feel anything other than enormously privileged.
We arrived back to Base Camp on Friday in the spirit of those arriving at a 5* luxury lodge. After a short stop at Khorixas for a much needed coke, it became clear that we were the grubbiest people in Namibia and the showers we enjoyed on our return to camp were blissful. WE have been treated to a very relaxing weekend and we are all looking forward to patrol week and all the new adventures it promises.
Thank you to Kabwata, Kavari, Martha and Chris they have looked after us brilliantly, trained us patiently and kept the ‘craic’ going as we got tired. It has been an unforgettable experience.
Karyn and Stefi joined the project in December 2015, here's what they thought of the experience:
We are the last volunteers of the year and have an awesome group. We have Simba from Germany who is here for 12 weeks, Sophia and Lukas from Germany doing this for 8 weeks, the Swiss Sylvia and German Jonas for 4 weeks. Then there are the newcomers, two Kiwi sisters Karyn and Sian, the Australians Shane and Derek, the Swiss Stephi, the German Evan, the American Brand and the Scottish Craig.
We are the first group to build a wall in 1 day for a widow and her three daughters, 5 hr drive from base camp on a remote farm. We really enjoyed camping under the Namibian night sky, cooking over a wood fire and drinks with the family. But not so much the scorpions, spiders and a massive Solifuge (Sand Spider) which sent some girls screaming!
Today we started patrol week and we had an amazing day. WE were surrounded by two herds, tracked two bulls. Now we are camping on the slopes of the Brandberg Mountain having spaghetti carbonara.
Volunteer Sophia shares her thoughts after day one of patrol week:
What a day! 3 elephant bulls, 15000 year old wall painting and a wonderful trip through the ever-changing landscape of Damaraland. It is wonderful to know that you can share an epic time with people that you have met just a few days earlier – maybe a week ago but still sharing laughs, memories and Marshmallows. Having enjoyed a beef curry in the moonlight – one day till full moon – and wondering if we might be visited by elephants tonight are just a few things I’ll fondly look back on when I’m back home remembering the first day of patrol week.
Donald Miller - a Professional photographer from Washington state USA spent 2 weeks as a volunteer with his wife and daughter in June - here is his feedback and a selection of his beautiful photos:
In June I completed a long awaited volunteer elephant conservation project in Namibia, Africa. Poaching had significantly reduced Namibia's populations of desert adapted elephants, however, with the government's increased anti poaching efforts the populations are now on the increase. Water is a precious resource in this dry land for both Namibian farmers and elephants. The volunteer projects help elephants and farmers coexist by building rock walls around water storage tanks protecting them from damage by the elephants. Drinking troughs for livestock and wildlife outside the wall can then be filled from the protected water tanks. After a week spent building the wall the following week is spent on patrol assisting with their ongoing research, protection, and community education about desert elephants. More photos can be found here: http://www.delicatelightphotography.com/namibian-wildlife.html
Makeda Krish joined the project in April and May 2015:
One of the most striking things about being out here is the change in my perception of time. Coming from the never ending hustle of London, where every minute has infinite possibilities to be crammed with chores, activities and motion –the quietude and solace that I’ve encountered here has been like a breath of fresh air. A new opening to a realm of peace and relaxation. What amazes me most is that although each day here is far from dull – between shovelling mountains of sand, heaving ever – heavier rocks with macho determination, gazing through binoculars, intent on spotting the moving rock on the horizon, of practising mental trickery through a tense game of cards, the itinerary is endless – the seconds, minutes, hours seem to flow by in an unhurried steam. Never stressful, never ever – crammed, simply a fluid blur of moments and experiences that seem to converge into one calm continuum. And in a blink, 2 weeks are over.
This is something that I have definitely begun to feel most keenly as the days trickle through my last cycle on the project after 8 weeks. No matter how hard I try, time overtakes me, and I know that these two weeks will end before they’ve really begun. However, despite the inevitable a sadness I will feel when, upon leaving the happy cocoon that is with the Desert Elephant Project, I will leave with the warming sense of comfort that this short flash of time on the project has not been insignificant but one of the most important periods of my life so far. The people I’ve met, the incredible things I’ve seen, the amazing work and dedication of everyone and how it has confirmed my own certainty that I would love to work in conservation.
Now I know that time should be valued not by quantity, but by every moment, every memory that goes by. It’s been such an opportunity and I feel privileged to have been put on it. 2 months can be just as valuable as 12 – it is just what you make of it that makes the difference.
Mark Jameson was a volunteer in October:
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!
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 your application payment of £195. If for some reason, your application is not accepted, we will reimburse this payment 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.