Ten adventurous women, ten days, ten thousand miles from home…Muddy goes on a lifetime's odyssey to track wild desert elephants and sleep beneath Namibian stars
Elephants surround us, moving closer. We are in an open jeep, cameras snapping, legs dangling over the edge, the great matriarch mere metres away. Hendrick, our tracker, whispers: ‘Keep quiet. She’s just checking us out.’ Mama Africa is, quite literally, twice the size of our truck. ‘What do you mean checking us out?’ we think. ‘Is that bad?’ She is within sniffing distance now and just as a shutter clicks, Hendrick raises his arm and points his finger in the air – the signal not to move, not even to breathe. ‘We’ve never been charged at,’ he says, once the danger is over, only after he has clapped his hands in quick loud bursts, after the elephants have retreated and we’re all sitting in newly-wet pants. ‘She was just protecting her baby.’
OK, I know we’re lucky to get some pretty good gigs at Muddy but this one takes the biscuit. Being let loose amongst the wild elephants and devastating landscape of deepest Namibia? Yep, I’ll take that one, thanks. And so we set off on The Matriarch Adventure, brainchild of modern day adventurer, expedition master, dive leader and mountain-scaler extraordinaire Catherine Edsell. Ten amazing women in the Namibian wilderness, tracking elusive (and a little bit scary) desert elephants, saluting the sun at dawn and downing schnapps around the campfire at night (although that might have just been me) – this is an adventure to remember and inspire.
“I want to go out and change the world but I couldn’t find a babysitter”
These lines on a birthday card changed Catherine Edsell’s life. ‘I climbed treacherous mountains, dived oceans and trained countless people how to survive in the jungle before my children were born,’ she says in her TED Talk. And then her children came along and she found herself trapped at home, claustrophobic, her adventuring days a distant memory and the only ‘tropical’ in her life the dried mango in Tesco. Like many of us (although, admittedly, the rest of us are just yearning for a night out, a week in Barbados, hey, even a stint back at the office) she felt in limbo, struggling with young children, missing the expeditions that were her re-set button. And so she started to embark on adventures with the Mudlets in tow, working in elephant conservation in Thailand and spending summers surveying coral reefs.
Still, however, she saw the compromises in other mothers’ eyes – women who weren’t taking even the shortest amount of time off to reconnect with themselves. They were women with young children, or with grown up children, or those who didn’t have children – all of them closing down and retreating, with little adventure in their lives. Catherine wanted to open her world up to these mothers, to us, to design an adventure so we can connect with each other, with ourselves and with the wonders of the world. And so The Matriarch Adventure was born.
Ten days, ten women in the Namibian wilderness tracking desert elephants, with some dawn yoga and outdoor sleeping thrown in, plus everything else expedition life has to offer. It’s about pushing your boundaries, moving out of your comfort zone, and the more remote the better, about blowing away the cobwebs and rediscovering who we really are. Putting the compromising, the multi-tasking and the picking-up-the-slack on hold and taking time to go back to basics, clear your mind and challenge yourself. Women of all different ages from all walks of life with one thing in common – to have an adventure.
Into the wild
Enter Muddy into the picture…Having bribed family, friends and anyone else who’d give me the time of day to take on three kids plus guinea pigs for the best part of two weeks, we set off from London to Johannesburg, onto Windhoek in Namibia and finally the coast, via over-priced airport lounges (sneaked into, obvs), endless layovers and baboon-littered highways, stopping for giraffe spotting and biltong buying on the way.
A night in Swakopmund, meeting travelling companions with similarly packed-away lives, before heading into the remote Namibian desert of mountains and heat hazes. After a night at base camp, sleeping in the funkiest tree house you’ve ever seen, we hit the desert for days of driving, trekking, and tracking elephants. Picture the country as red sand dunes and searing hot, baked earth? Blanched rock and petrified forests? You’ve got it. Add into that sweat-drenched clothes, no showers, drinking hot water, oh, and digging holes to go to the loo in, and you’re there.
The days ebb and flow; we climb rocks for dawn yoga before breaking camp and heading off on elephant patrol, pausing for lunch beneath plane trees in the bush, making wild camps at night around huge fires. It’s a simple (and a little bit filthy) life, sleeping under the stars, but it is all utterly, utterly wonderful. Days are spent in the dry beds of the Huab and Ugab Rivers, where a total of 27 elephants reign. They have all been given names by our tracker Hendrick and his EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid) colleagues, and we spend hours watching and photographing them, trying to nick out of the jeep when Hendrick isn’t watching for a closer shot, pelting it back to safety when the matriarch of the herd gives us a look. The elephants bathe, play, snuggle, squirt water – it’s an immense joy and privilege to be here, and to be this close to them.
Each day brings a new landscape, the beauty of the desert mind-blowing. We visit bleached villages where elephants roam freely into school playgrounds, spot zebra, giraffe, ostrich, tracks of hyena and rhino, practice sun salutations at dusk (and then down sneaky shots with a fellow traveller who has cleverly packed the schnapps). We get dirtier and dirtier, dig holes to poo in (a spade is handily provided so that everyone knows when you return from behind a bush with tool in hand, doing the walk-of-shovel-shame), erect our own tents when the snoring gets too loud to sleep en masse and, all the time, grow closer. We are a group of strong, amazing women, getting down and dirty with the great beasts, opening our minds, pushing our bodies, always on the look out for a corner shop selling cold Diet Coke (and not entirely unconvinced that it isn’t lurking just out of site beyond the next grassy plain). Despite everything that is happening back at home, the worries that prey on us, we are at peace.
It isn’t all knit-your-own-desert-camouflage and zebra-hugging – we disgrace ourselves singing the full terrifying playlist of ‘80s one-hit wonders (Final Countown, anyone?) at full bellow, we belly laugh, we whine about not having our phones for TEN DAYS, we run like crazy loons towards the swimming pool on our final day when we are finally allowed back into civilisation, we repeat our set of dodgy tunes on the final night. And we love every minute.
A standard game-drive safari this is not. The Matriarch Adventure is an expedition, with just about enough comfort thrown in. Pushed out of our safe zones, as we trek and track and sleep beneath the stars, we reinvent ourselves, rediscover the old, carefree us. Days from civilisation, with rancid hair and stinking bodies (I know, nice, right?) we are so stripped back that we are re-born. We live for the day, the hour, find time for ourselves, face our challenges, make life long friends, re-think our lives. And then we burst into Uptown Girl once again.
Our modern-day Amelia Earhart (Catherine Edsell) tells me she’d have loved to have been born a man, to have lived centuries earlier so she could have been a ‘real’ explorer, discovering new continents and secret civilisations. But she is a real explorer, a modern adventurer who brings out the intrepid spirit in us (bearing in mind that some of us have experienced our greatest adventures negotiating the departure lounge at Gatwick). In Namibia, it is not about uncharted territories but uncharted experiences, not about colonising but about reconnecting. It’s not about whether you can find a babysitter or escape your crazy life but about a deeper understanding of your own strengths and resourcefulness – by spending time in the company of other women and in the great expansive wilderness.
The Mother and Daughter Adventure
While the Matriarch Adventure is Catherine’s flagship trip, her Mother and Daughter Adventure might be up your street too. Running 7-16 April 2019, it’s a ten-day immersive experience for mothers and their daughters, a chance to celebrate the special bond, strengthening it before our girls grow up and fly the nest. Learn about astronomy, geology and conservation from a wild classroom, track desert elephants and camp under the night sky. You’ll spend a day in school experiencing how Namibian children learn and play, and escape from everything familiar, except of course each other.
The Bluemoon Adventure
No, sadly not a romantic honeymoon in paradise – this diving adventure trains you to become a certified Reef Check Eco Diver on the reefs of Mangily in Southwest Madagascar. The day begins with yoga on the beach, and ends with stunning sunsets, obvs. There is also time to explore baobab forests and enjoy the simple life in great company. You will need to be a qualified open water diver (PADI or equivalent), and have good buoyancy skills.
And if that’s not enough, word on the ground is that a jungle trek in Central America in on the cards for 2020. Watch this space and we’ll bring you the details. And I’ll be going, if they’ll have me…
Catherine Edsell FRGS (www.cathadventure.com) is an adventurer and global expedition leader. An avid naturalist, she combines her passion for adventure and effective conservation through independent and collaborative expedition work in the most remote areas of the world. EHRA works to improve human-elephant relationships and reduce conflict between them by working on the ground, providing practical and realistic solutions. www.desertelephant.org.