The elephants surrounded us, moving closer and closer. Hendrick, our expert tracker, whispered to me: ‘I’m just checking whether they’re really eating or just pretending to eat.’ A voice screamed in my head ‘what do you mean pretending to eat? Is that bad?’ They were literally two metres away now, and just as I leaned in to ask for clarification, Hendrick raised his arm pointing his index finger in the air – this was the signal not to move, not to make a sound, not to breathe.
The last time I had encountered these elephants, 15 years ago, they had charged! I had narrowly escaped being flattened in the stampede, saved by the fact that the matriarch, the eldest member and authority on decision making, had been towards the back of the herd. The younger females, clocking us in their path, had turned to check and see what she wanted to do. That split second saved my life, giving us the chance to start the engine, (which had stalled), and slam our Toyota Land Cruiser into reverse and out of their way.
They were really wild back then, rarely meeting humans in anything but a confrontational setting. But for years, Hendrick Munembone, and other rangers working alongside Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), have endeavoured to create a positive relationship, not only within the herds of elephants in the region, but between the animals and the humans who have to live side by side with them.
As it turns out they really were eating – which meant they were calm and curious rather than nervous and potentially aggressive. ‘They’re in a good mood,’ Hendrick whispered, putting me only slightly more at ease as they lumbered even closer towards the truck. Elisabeth, caught in the process of taking data, had a pencil between her teeth. Not daring to take it out, it remained there, being bitten down on hard.
This was Mama Africa Herd, and ‘Deliwe’ and her daughter ‘Hanna’ were so close now that we could see the sleep in the corner of their eyes, feel their rumbling calls under our skin. Just as it seemed as though Deliwe was about to relieve Elisabeth of the pencil with her inquisitive trunk, Hendrick clapped his hands in quick bursts and the mother and daughter retreated a little. Our collective exhalation was audible. It’s great to go on adventures, even better to return to tell the tale.
We were not on safari, we were on patrol with EHRA to collect data, to record the locations of these herds, to check their wellbeing, making note of any injuries they may have suffered, and that they were all accounted for. Also to see if there were any pregnancies or additions to the herd. But this was not just about the wellbeing of the elephants, it was about the wellbeing of the participants, the women who had decided to join me and experience true wilderness, have intimate wildlife encounters, challenge themselves, support conservation efforts, trek through the desert, meet local women, relax, meditate and be coached.
I’d had the idea for ‘The Matriarch Adventure’ only a few months previously – an inkling to design an expedition for women had been there for a while, at the back of my mind, gaining momentum. One morning, in conversation with Viva, a friend and life coach, we talked of combining expeditions with coaching as a means to speed up the transformation process that expeditions naturally provide. I grabbed an old notebook out of the bookshelf to write down some thoughts and there, on the first page was something I had written seven years previously – it was the skeleton of an idea for ‘a journey of a lifetime’ that never materialised. But there, in black and white, were the words ‘matriarchs’, ‘elephants’, ‘Namibia’ and the letters ‘EHRA’. It suddenly all fell into place. We could track desert elephants in one of my favourite places in the world, we could help EHRA with its work, and experience the beauty of the desert.
‘Ten days, ten women in the Namibian wilderness, tracking desert elephants, (the most iconic matriarchs there are), having an adventure, dawn yoga under flame-red skies, group coaching round a camp fire, sleeping out under a myriad of stars, meeting with Namibian women and hearing their stories, and everything else that expedition life has to offer.’
I could picture it all really clearly, but now I had to make it a reality. I contacted EHRA, initially to see if it still existed. It did and, better, thought it was a great idea. But how to find the women? I had no platform, no Facebook following, I am, by my own admission, a complete technophobe. By chance, I had recently created a CV website, a simple portal which not only described what I had achieved in the expedition world, but also alluded to the struggles I had experienced being the mother of two.
I sent a letter to this effect to all my female friends and asked them to spread the word. I contacted people I admired who echoed my beliefs, and who had huge social media followings to do the same, and immediately I had women wanting to know more.
This was no longer a figment of my imagination, it was a reality and on 3 March, only three months after coming up with the idea, we were there in Namibia, ten women of different ages, from different backgrounds, some with quite young children back home and who had become desperate for some ‘me’ time, some whose children had flown the nest and were wondering what to do next, some with no plans to have children at all but just wanting a break from their professional lives, all sitting around the same table.
When you think of Namibia, you think of desert, searing heat, baked cracked earth. Instead we were greeted with rain. It hadn’t rained properly for seven years, but now the rivers were in flood and the elephants had retreated to higher ground gorging on the sweet new shoots and leaves.
This did make tracking the animals quite difficult and we frequently had to climb up the rocky outcrops (called kopis) and peer through binoculars. If someone had told me that an elephant could disguise itself as a rock I wouldn’t have believed them, but with thousands of boulders in our view, it was almost impossible to distinguish the herd, despite Hendrick gesticulating wildly. Once we had spotted them, we then had to try and get closer. Even with a sturdy Land Cruiser, thorny bushes and protruding rocks made the going tough.
For a change of perspective, we set off into the most arid area in the region, trekking to a petrified forest. It was hard to believe we were looking at rock and not wood, we could still see the grains and the rings. As we headed back to our camp – an overhanging sandstone cave, a beacon in our flat parched surroundings – I spotted a rainbow. In the desert! We were elated at such an incredible sight, but where there are rainbows, there must be rain and we certainly hadn’t expected to be cooking our braii (barbecue) under umbrellas.
Even with rain, the spirits of this all-women team were not dampened. In fact it made for great commentary, and hoots of laughter were to be heard day and night. The ten days were coming to an end, and as we sat, for the last time, I asked the women to take a mental picture of our view, to feel the ancient rock that we were sitting on, and to be really present. We were so far from everywhere, from everything familiar, and I wanted these women to be able to conjure up this sense of freedom, this sense of wonderment at the drop of a hat.
The Matriarch Adventure was borne of a desire to share the joys I experience on expedition. To allow women to push their own boundaries, to rediscover what they may have forgotten about themselves and immerse themselves in awe-inspiring nature. What I hadn’t really considered was the impact that it would have on me, on the insights I would glean into the nature and value of matriarchal societies in our world. As a young expedition leader I’d always wished I’d been born a few centuries earlier, and been born a man so that I could have been a ‘real’ explorer, discovering new continents, new civilisations. But now, I realise as a woman in the 21st century, with so many experiences under my belt, I am in the position to really explore the unique attributes of what it is to be a women in adventure, and unearth some of our matriarchal truths.
As we sat in the safety of our truck, silently watching our animal counterparts seeking shade under the same tree, I was struck by the similarity of our two all-female groups, and wondered who was watching who more intently. We were most definitely in their domain, but they took it all in their stride – a testament to the ongoing work of EHRA.
TEN OF THE BEST
Tracking elephants through an unexpectedly sodden Namibia required a fair bit of improvisation on the part of Catherine Edsell. Luckily her equipment choices were more than up to the task of coping with whatever conditions were thrown at the group. From easy-to-assemble mosquito nets, to supermarket freezer bags, to one luxury item acquired ‘on the fly’, the right gear made the difference between comfort and unnecessary hardship...
1. Free-standing mosquito net
Army surplus shops – £20; 1.2kg
A perfect way to sleep under the stars with the reassurance that you won’t be sharing your sleeping bag with scorpions, snakes or any other critters. Easy to erect and strike, and far superior to the high-street brands in both quality and durability.
2. Sleeping bag liner
Rab ‘Mummy’ silk liner – £50; 128g
Keeps you cool when used on its own and warm when used in conjunction with a sleeping bag. Plus the double size gives you more room to wriggle around. Packs down to nothing. I wouldn’t leave home without it.
3. Small down pillow
(Stolen from an aeroplane - not by me!)
Excellent down comfort, small size, packs away in a stuff sack, and just ensures a comfy nights sleep – as I know from past experience, being a zombie by day through poor sleep never helps anyone.
Cotswolds SmartWool – £15, various
When it comes to socks, it’s all down to personal preference. But I have been wearing Cotswolds for 20 years, and on the odd occasion that I have tried other brands I have been sorely disappointed. I love these socks, and am always sad when they wear thin, if only I could have a lifetime supply.
5. Re-sealable freezer bags
Sainsbury’s – £2
These are another of my favourite things, bought easily and cheaply from any supermarket they act as little see-through compartments for all your kit. Especially useful when you have to unpack and repack frequently as you don’t need to even open them to see what’s inside. Dry bags and stuff sacks are also good, and are more durable, but nothing beats a zip-lock.
6. Wet wipes
Boots Mega Value Pack – £20
When there is no water except your drinking water ration, a wet wipe wash can make you feel a million dollars – just don’t look at the wipe afterwards! This particular brand has no perfume or moisturiser and is completely natural, so doesn’t leave you feeling sticky afterwards.
Olympus 7x21 PC III Classic – £40; 184g
If you don’t have any budget restrictions I would recommend Svarovski binoculars. Sadly, I do, so these Olympus bins are all you need for spotting elephants and other wildlife from a distance. Plus they’re nice and compact.
8. Head torch
Black diamond – £36; 90g
Great torch with a red light option which not only is useful when close to wildlife at night, but also, unlike bright white lights, it doesn’t wake up your fellow expeditioners when you have to go for a pee in the small hours, or draw all the bugs towards you while you are eating your dinner.
9. Duffle bag
Mountain Equipment 70L Wet & Dry Kit Bag – £50; 1.6kg
Waterproof, dustproof, rugged, need I say more?
10. Base layer
Merino icebreaker – £40
Even though the daytime temperature may reach 40°C, at night it can still get really cold. These are great to put on under your clothes in the evening and wear at night as pyjamas.
… anti-bacteria gel. An absolute must on expedition, especially one without water. Far from help, the last thing you want is a D&V bug spreading through the team.
This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.