Harrow Expedition

Conservation Project, Easter break

As I sat in the cool shade of an overhanging rock, I searched the plain with my eyes. My fists tightly clenched the course sand that had settled, sunk and pooled in the cave like formation. The beauty around felt almost intimidating. It was as if to understand it fully would take too long. It was an impossibility that felt overwhelming. However, at this moment, whilst on the bridge to some transformative epiphany, I heard a baboon-like yelp from a boy I thought had been meditating around the corner. ‘!!!!, look it’s a snake!’ Ed considered for a moment whether it was a joke, made a sceptical couple of steps but then thought better of it and quickened his pace. As it turned out, Ralph had actually seen a baby horned adder whilst trying to build an armchair out of the surrounding rock as a mindfulness seat. Furthermore, even though it was not permitted to speak or move within the ‘45 mins of solitude’, in the event of an emergency, i.e. potentially deadly snakes, an exception was made.

However, this minor interruption to my 45-minute meditation session actually proved to be not a hindrance but a source of inspiration when thinking about writing this article. I wondered whether it was possible at all to capture the startlingly alien experiences, the vast horizons and dark storms, the kicks, the labour and the wildlife in one article. To me, sitting there like a Tibetan monk perched on a precipice edge, absorbing the latent intensity of the landscape around it felt like an impossible task. Anyhow, it is time to try.

The Queens Terminal soon came and went and within no time we were all goofing around in Johannesburg on the other side of the planet. No disasters so far. We climbed up into a small plane that was to fly to Upington, the pesto and cheese rolls consumed on flight were actually rather tasty and we gorged ourselves. Thus far our heavy English garments, although slightly sweaty on the plane, had been ok. It was only on the sun-drenched tarmac of Upington airport, the heat bouncing up and hitting you in the face, that I felt as if wading through tar would be more appetising than spending too long dressed like this here. After our bags had carouseled around the miniature terminal we bumped into Ed, one of our leaders for the next few weeks. Looking dark with a shaggy head of hair he cut quite the figure of the Namibian conservationist. Someone mentioned Ben Gunn which I thought was entirely suitable. After a vigorous hand shaking introduction we crammed into a small bus which pulled out onto African roads. There was an exciting yet bewildering sense of the unknown. For starters, the journey’s length seemed under much contention; was it 9 hours or 2? The border crossing into Namibia went smoothly even if time consuming until we finally arrived, weighted with anticipation. We transferred into various motors and, with bags in the trailer we speeded along the dusty road. Cracks of lightening violently lit up a lone quiver tree and the road ahead, creeping up into the mountains. It seemed a dark and stormy night was waiting for us.

When arrived at the camp we were issued large, green canvas tents, our humble abode for the next two weeks. We were introduced to Andrea too, our other leader, a liberal vegan who opened our eyes to the boys horrendously ignorant meat consumption in the SCH. The scorpions, having already made mythical status thanks to Mr Gibbons and Mr Jones were once again hyped up at camp where a conscientious zip up of tents was always required.

In the morning the light streamed through the tent, I bent over and stepped into a bright world, everything had been dark the night before and it was only at this point that we actually looked around properly. A solar panel provided the energy and a bore hole the water. The tents were spaced about at the foot of rising hills and rocky outcrops. Sharp and appetising peaks stood and rose of nothing but the sand around. The remoteness of basecamp struck home at this point, 30 km to the nearest human, and after a leisurely start to the morning we scampered up to a nearby hillock, the rock was basalt and granite and great waves of unbroken rock encased the small hill. Once at the top, the rocky desert stretched far off into the horizon. By this time in the morning the sun was beating down heavily upon our backs. A liberating feeling of infinite space and time released itself with the thought of racing out along the open desert roads with nothing but a bike. I thought of The Master in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix speed out along the desert with only an old Norton to guide them.

After a deliciously refreshing vegetarian lunch we met Dehart, the resident big cat expert who briefed us about the leopard trap we were about to visit and the purpose of it. Jonty, the expedition doctor, was up next with a to-the-point explanation of how not to die out here in the Namibian bush. Into the cars we clambered and, as in Mad Max, the dust spraying and pluming like smoke from the vehicle we travelled to the trap. As with the whole trip I felt super privileged to be doing what we were. Whether it was setting the leopard trap or constructing the dam later on, it was as if us Harrovians were only a small part of a wider and more ambitious scheme. It seemed that so much planning had come before us and we had miraculously turned up at the right time. For example, the leopard trap concerned had been sitting in said location for two years purely to habituate the leopard with it. It was this feeling that we were fortunate enough to be on the frontline of so much thought and preparation in the past that took us by surprise.

While at the leopard trap, Larry the Land Rover had subsequently acquired a puncture and so many, liking the taste of oil rather than blood, got down to work under the leadership of Richard. Not only this, but others were also constructing the actual leopard trap, an unknowing George gladly stepped forward as tribute and was plunged head first into the vast jaws of our homemade trap. Our guinea pig turned out to be decent after all and soon it was set. There was an eagerness in the air, all wanted to get down and kneel in the warm, Namibian sand, bloody their hands or smear oil up their forearms, it was proper start to a proper expedition.
After we had scarpered back to the camp the apparent fruits of our toil became clear. The leopard trap’s purpose was to capture Mr Leopard so that he could be darted and have a dainty collar placed around his neck. This would enable Ed, Andrea, and any busybody wanting to get involved in conservation to track and understand this leopard. When more than one is collared some serious info can be caught which would certainly affect our handling of the conservation area, a whopping 45, 000 hectares. Add in the camera traps which we were to set up next and further insight can be obtained about the behaviour of these elusive, sexy beasts.

The following day we trekked to the Orange river where we swam and wallowed up against the cautious current. The water was fresh and luxuriating; I was concentrating so much on the sensually pleasant cooling experience I was shocked to look up and see verdant green backs overflowing with lush wilderness. Even grass grew in places! A fish eagle swooped down from a dead tee nearby making the branch twang and wobble. The beautiful sheen of a kingfisher’s breast glinted in the sunlight. After our wallowing, we gingerly clambered over the rocks to the banks where freshly fried doughnuts were gobbled. We then went fishing and it was only after Jack’s catch, a ten ton Tessie of a fish that swimming felt less appealing. Rather like Ted Hughes’ pike, with its ‘malevolent aged grin’, this yellow-bellied creature poised in front of Jack, it’s outside eye staring.

The following days were spend labouring and sweating over our dam. As the central cause and ambition of our whole trip a certain degree of trepidation hung in the dry, hot desert air as we bumped and grinded our way to the dam site. The aim of this sand dam was to create a more life in the river valley though withholding water. In the rainy season, the water was to trickle off the huge, rocky catchment basin around and flow down, taking debris and sand within. Then, as the water brought down the sand, the sand level at the base of the dam would rise creating a wet area suitable for animals and plants alike. Furthermore, it would not evaporate but sit neatly below the sand’s surface. With any luck, within 10 years trees will be thriving, exactly what we need. When driving to and fro to the dam and back to basecamp you realise just how vast the distances involved are.

The work consisted of constructing wire gabions from the old wire fences that used to stretch over the conservancy and then filling them carefully with rocks from the nearby mountains. Each gabion (a wire cage with an open top) was then placed along the bedrock and wired together. Huge boulders were rolled down the mountainsides, fortifications to our dam. They would tumble and thunder down the slope as if in slow motion, a deep crack would echo through the valley and then silence. We lifted rocks in buckets across the sand, we piled rocks into the Toyota pickups, we filled rocks into the gabions, we propelled rocks through the air. We pushed Land Rovers, cut wire, and got sunburnt badly. If a break was needed from the manual side of the labour, it was necessary to join Miss Manning for an hour or so in surveying the valley for the flora and fauna. We measured the sand’s depth, collected unknown samples and carefully wrote down our findings on the iPad. In the future, this data will be invaluable in trying to find what impact this dam has had.  Snakes and scorpions slept in the crevices. You would occasionally see a scorpion’s black, taught form scuttle between the rocks. A single sting could be fatal so you needed to be careful. After some toil the dam started growing upwards and soon enough it was finished. We pranced around gleefully on top and sang Harrow Songs, Rufus singing a verse from Silver Arrow. Tears were dropped and blood broken, the dam, being complete was our legacy now planted in Namibian soil and as the Harrow crest was fastened to the old wire of the gabions, we knew our time here had come to an end. Oana had surpassed our English expectations and as we were driving out the following morning at the break of dawn a lone springbok danced across the dirt track in farewell.

After this celebration we drove to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier park, a conservation area larger than Wales, 38,000km2. From a British perspective, this is almost inconceivable. We were on the road once again and, as Kerouac would say, “blew the car clear across” the Namibian sands to our final destination. Tents were erected and coals lit. An early start the next morning meant showers were showered and tent zips zipped. In the morning, we all jumped into the motor and drove into the park. The wilderness. Our first morning was the most successful in terms of seeing wildlife as Marshal Eagles, vultures, Tawny Eagles, Southern Chanting Goshawks, Kori bustards, Verreaux Eagle Owls, Secretary Birds and Ostrich strutted, flew and glided away in front of us. Spotted hyenas, lions, jackals and leopards slouched in the sun or padded among the light grasses. Hartebeest, springbok, wildebeest and gemsbok munched the grasses an ear always alert for lion or leopard. The most memorable sighting was our leopard, a powerful male in his prime who seemed unabashed when faced with a screen of gaping faces and flashing cameras. He sauntered along the track, sat down, got up again and continued in daily life. It was a moment that drew gasps from the bus, a wonderment floated in the air. With time drawing to a close and England sitting at the end of a long flight, we swam in the swimming pool for one last time. We watched an African sunset over the campsite, stood in the African rain, heard the rolling thunder and packed our bags. It was in many ways a timeless trip, something to live on forever. It is no wonder then that a nod or slight, wolfish smile is exchanged between us Namibian explorers now back on the hill. A recognition of our shared experience.
Clearly a jolly large thanks must be given to the four beaks who organised the trip and to Ed and Andrea for hosting us.