Our second tour of duty with EHRA was just as good as the first. We finished the wall we had started a few weeks before and then hit an elephant jackpot on patrol. Here is a link to a flickr slideshow with some photos of the build week, the patrol week and the EHRA basecamp which is where we stayed on the nights that we were not out in the bush.
Our first two weeks of EHRA volunteering are complete. This map highlights some of the key locations during our time here so far.
View EHRA 20110425-20110506 in a larger map
Our first two weeks on the EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid) are done. What an incredible, intense experience. There were twelve volunteers including me and Jesse, our guide, an intern from a local school and a local man with years of experience in the bush.
For our first week we were at a build site collecting rocks, mixing cement and building the start of a protective stone wall around a farmer’s water tank. In exchange for the wall to detract elephants from going for the tank, the farmers must keep a supply of water out for the elephants in a source nearby. The goal is to protect the farmer’s water supply from destruction by thirsty elephants while coordinating a way for elephants to get water. This keeps the peace between the farmers and the elephants. Build week was physically challenging being in the sun and lifting rocks, etc and you feel a bit gross given that there are no showers except any baby wipes you brought along…I love baby wipes! Toilets are behind your favorite bush and if you have the need to poop, it’s toilet paper, matches and shovel time! Nights were relaxed around a fire as two of us prepared a yummy dinner for the group. By about 9ish we were ready for sleep under a sky filled with more stars than I’ve ever seen.
We had a rest of sorts back at base camp over the weekend. Camp is like an adult playground with outdoor showers, a tree house with three main decks to sleep on, a fire pit to cook on and the nicest outhouse toilets with a view onto the Ugab river.
The second week was patrol week. We rode around in open land rover type vehicles searching for elephant tracks, fresh elli dung and any other indication of where the elephants might be. The landscape is gorgeous and since there has been an unusually large amount of rain, the semi-arid bush looks as though someone took a paint brush to it…various grasses, some with tufts of white, some more golden, blow in the breeze creating fields of waves. There are wildflowers of yellow, pinks and purples scattered amongst the grasses. Thorny acai trees and mapani trees with there heart shaped leaves provide shade during the warm hours at lunchtime. Mapani bees are an unwelcome guest and side effect of the mapani trees. They don’t sting but rather hover around your face and neck looking for any opportunity to go into your nose, ears or eyes! We’ve seen and heard jackals, wild African cats, lizards, ostriches, all sorts of birds, fat geckos, armored beetles, scorpions, snakes, spiders, and finally on this past Tuesday…ELEPHANTS! Our first encounter was with a lone male named Bullet. He was fantastic! We watched him for a few hours eating and exploring his surrounding. My favorite part was when he picked up a wild melon, about the size of a softball, with his trunk and plopped it into his mouth like it was a small grape! Wednesday we started our day with a hike to the top of a hill overlooking the valley. There, Neil, our guide, found a small herd! The rest of our day was spent observing the herd – four cows, one younger bull tagging along and a calf, Cynthia, that is three or four. Cynthia is energetic, curious, and adorable. We watched them eat, spray dirt on their backs to cool off and protect themselves from the sun, lift their trunks high in the air to smell, flap their ears to cool off, nuzzle Cynthia with their trunk, etc. We had the privilege of being about 75 meters away from these animals in their natural habitat and just take them in!
Tomorrow we head out for two more weeks in the bush…quite an adventure!
Our time in Asia was limited to a brief stop in Hong Kong. However, we had a great time exploring this beautiful city. I’ve never seen such cleanly and efficient municipal systems. I’ve also never seen so many shopping malls so tightly integrated into the fabric of a city. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Our next stop is Namibia, Africa which is one of the least populated. And, I suspect, there won’t be quite as much shark fin soup.
Four days and three nights, that was the length of the journey ahead. The trail would be 27 miles long and reach an altitude of 4200 meters above sea level. We were excited and intimidated by the journey in front of us.
We woke up at 5 AM and headed to our meeting point with our backpacks full, our enthusiasm and nerves charged. Our guide’s name was Max. He was encouraging, loved to say the word “guys” in more places than I’ve ever heard, and knew his stuff about the Incas and the history of the trail. We traveled from Cusco to Ollantaytambo for breakfast and a chance to purchase necessary supplies. Then we headed to the starting point. Immediately we disembarked from the bus. The natives were eager to sell us walking sticks, water bottle holders, backpack straps, etc. We gathered our gear and worked our way to the start with our passports, tickets and eagerness and we were off!
This day of our trek was beautiful as we meandered along the Urubamba river through fields, small villages, stands where women come daily to sell bottled water, Gatorade, candy, and coca leaves. The trek had gradual uphills, some downhills and a varied, lush scenery. We stopped at several points to catch our breath, refuel, and hear a story from Max about the ruins or the ways of the Incas both today and hundreds of years ago. That evening we camped in a small village, Wallayabamba, feasted on an incredible meal, and crashed.
This was the infamous “very difficult” day. We had a steady four hours of uphill climbing ahead of us. Max’s advice…slow and steady. The climb was through more tree covered terrain, up many stairs of rock to the highest pass, Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4200 meters. The climb to the top revealed spectacular views of the Andes with mist hovering around the tree covered peaks and a glimpses of the valleys we had started or journey from. The top of the pass was incredibly windy and chilly but we took pictures and celebrated with the knowledge that we had reached the dreaded highest point. The rest of the day was a steep descent down on similar stone stairs until we reached our camp.
This was my favorite trekking day! We started out with a steep ascent up a long stone staircase to reach an Inca lookout and a spectacular view of Dead Woman’s Pass and our previous evening’s camp site. Then we climbed a bit more to reach the highest point of our day’s hike. The clouds were coming in and the views were short lived, but before we descended we all placed a small gift of a stone and/or some coca leaves to Pacha Mama, Goddess of the Earth. We started down toward an isolated ruin overlooking the valley. Then headed into a whole new Andean environment…the jungle! The vegetation was lush, large green leaves and flowers, the trail was slippery with lots of moss, orchids were hidden along the path and the mist hovering in the air gave the feeling that a giant spider could sneak out from behind at any moment. The end of our journey on day 3 led to a terraced ruin where these amazing Incans would use the varying altitudes of each terrace as a laboratory developing plants that could grow in the climate and elevation they desired.
Early rise…3:30 AM! Eat breakfast, pack up, and hike down to the entry point for the final leg of our journey to Machu Picchu. Our spirits were mixed, eager and excited, but anxious given the rain and fog. Would we be able to see the city? The pace was quicker than it had been. We were eager. Although we hoped to see the sunrise and catch our first glimpse of Machu Picchu the fog didn’t allow it. However at 8 AM, the sun won out, and there it was…Machu Picchu in all it’s glory! They situated their city across from a view of two mountains and the Urubamba river. This city was incredible with terraced land, several worshipping sites, homes and a sculpture that indicated time based on the reflection of the sun.
Reflections of the overall experience:
- Our group was amazing. We were lucky to have these 12 other people to experience this with!
- Our porters rock! These men, some twenty plus years older carried more than I could dream of. Cruised up and down this trail in tire sandals, to get to our camp sites ahead of us to set it all up, with smile the whole time.
- The Incas were incredible and their ruins make me wonder what could they have done if their civilization hadn’t been conquered?!?