“We had 2 rakes, 1 spade, a couple of towels & 1 ½ canisters of water. We also had an empty road, a fire still blazing close by & a huge sense of shock.”
N/a’ankuse Wildlife Sanctuary, Windhoek, Namibia
I spent 2 amazing weeks volunteering at N/a’ankuse Wildlife Sanctuary (organised through The Great Projects ) and you can read all about my experiences in the articles Volunteering on a Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia – Part 1 & Part 2. I was there in October 2017 which is the end of their dry season. On my last weekend, the neighbouring farms were struck by lightning which caused several bushfires in the area, as the bolts hit the tinder-dry grass. It was a frightening experience & I am keen to share some of the lessons I learnt.
What do you need to know?
After my experiences in the bushfire as a volunteer, here are my top 9 pieces of advice:
1. Make sure you are wearing appropriate clothes
In the late afternoon of Saturday, there was a fire on the farm next door which was threatening part of the sanctuary. The first we knew, we were seeing the co-ordinators (leaders & employees of the sanctuary) clearly worried & watching its progress from the top of the Lapa (social area). Regular updates on the radio seemed to be causing increasing levels of concern. Rather than get a shower, I decided that just in case we should get dressed appropriately as Sods Law says “If you’re prepared it will never happen”. I advised my friends to do the same.
What to wear/carry
- Long Trousers
- T-shirt – long sleeved if you have one
- Robust shoes. I wore my walking boots which were perfect, others had trainers on & at times felt like their feet were burning.
- Bandana – to cover your nose & offer protection from smoke inhalation
- Gloves – I forgot mine & was very grateful to my buddy Tracey who gave me one of hers
- Head torch – you never know how long you’ll be out, it gets very dark & it’s very easy to get involved in the activity & detached from the group.
- A full bottle of water.
- Phone – if you remember it, I didn’t so the photos here are courtesy of my friends & fellow fire-fighters Cary, Jess, Erika & Caroline.
2. Secure the animals if there is a threat… & choose wisely if you don’t want to be bitten
After getting changed it wasn’t long before we got the call to “Run to the car park – we need water!” We ran to grab canisters & as the supply from the taps was already being used (& running very slowly) we carried them to fill at the swimming pool. As we seemed to be in the middle of a panic situation running up & down the farm carrying water, others were sitting down & having a drink at the bar. Clearly, the seriousness of the situation was taking a while to spread!
The first sign that it had cranked up a notch was when all the guys were told to get in the truck as they were the first needed to go & help. We knew we’d be on standby after this, but for now, we were told to clear 3 huge bags of recycling bottles from the back of a big trailer. It begged a question…Why?
“The answer was that the first enclosure on the sanctuary literally in the line of fire, was Kilimanjaro’s – the enormous, aggressive & currently very grumpy lion! The option to get him out was for the vet to go & dart him with an anaesthetic so they could move him to safety. Everything suddenly became very serious.”
The next requests came thick & fast – “I need 5 people over here NOW!”, 15 ran. “10 people here” – 20 ran, including most of the ones who’d responded to the first request. It felt like chaos but they started handing out the smaller cages & giving us instructions of who we needed to catch. I ended up in the meerkat group.
When we were feeding I loved the meerkats – alert, cute, cheeky, nibbling your boots while they were waiting for you to prepare their food…until one of my fellow volunteers got bitten. Now I was slightly wary! The meerkats were separated into 6 groups and our first target was ‘Amy Winehouse & her friends’. Amy had 3 legs & 2 friends (none of which were the culprits of the biting incident) so I felt reasonably comfortable.
I can report that meerkats are slippery little suckers & chaos ensued. To keep life interesting they have burrows, tyres, houses, tubes to run around in & they seemed to be using all of them to get away from us. My friend Erika was amazing! She managed to get hold of 2 of them reasonably quickly (but not without a couple of bites) but the 3rd was more resilient until we managed to flush it out of a hole & I grabbed it by the base of the tail.
“I discovered that catching meerkats is not my forte. I was so pleased to have hold of it that in the process of getting to the cage, it bit me on the finger of my other hand (through the gloves) & I got seriously caught in the thorns of the Acacia tree. I let go, I failed!”
After changing strategy & trying to get the terrified creature trapped in a tube, Erika again took control (she was much better at it than me!) & we finally got Amy & all her friends into their cage. In the process, Erika had been bitten 6 times, including one which was bleeding profusely from her cheek. So, in the process of catching 3 meerkats, we’d gained 7 bites…and there were still plenty more animals who needed to be moved.
I told Erika to take some time out & clean herself up & moved into another area to try my luck with the ‘4 Random Meerkats’ (not all names are created equal!). They had clearly become wise to what was going on & went underground, literally. I was in there for about 40 minutes dangling increasingly large pieces of meat in front of holes in the ground but despite the occasional sighting, they were determined not to come out. As it started to get dark & even the coordinator gave up, saying “If we get desperate we could put water in to flush them out”, I decided to do the same. Things seemed to have calmed down by the time I re-joined the group at the Lapa. Most animals were safely tucked away (except at least 4 meerkats!) & it appeared that even darting Kilimanjaro hadn’t been necessary in the end.
The emergency had dissipated & when we saw the vet having a beer we decided we must be allowed to as well. Eventually, the guys returned to a hero’s welcome & tales of how close they had got to the fire. Fingers crossed it was all now under control.
3. Be prepared for the situation to change… very quickly
The rest of the night was undisturbed but it was clear on Sunday that the danger was not over yet. There were still anxious, regular checks from the top of the Lapa & a lot of action on the radios as the fire was now around the nearby Bismark mountain. In the farm, we were tasked with returning the animals to their homes. I got the prime job – putting our baby cheetah Ebony, back in her enclosure.
Ebony had arrived just before me, having been hit by a car & lost her mother (I heard conflicting reports that her mother had been killed in the accident or because of her injuries, Ebony had been left behind). She had a broken hip which had now been fixed & she was recovering in a small enclosure next to the other cheetahs. We had been told to keep away while she got used to her environment but we walked past her every time we went to our tent so had been watching her progress & gain in confidence.
Four of us carried Ebony back to her enclosure & then untied the door. She was unsure, & while my friend Caroline was trying to undo the wire, I went in on the other side to try & distract her (Ebony that is!). She was hissing at us & we realised this was the closest we had ever been to a properly wild animal. It was a very grounding experience. Thankfully, once we could lift the door, she was thirsty & went straight for a drink. This gave us the time we needed to get out, remove the small cage, see her settle & get on with the rest of the jobs.
That morning, me & my friends had opted to go for the Lodge Lunch (a beautiful buffet at the N/a’ankuse Lodge). We felt a bit guilty leaving but were sure we would be kept informed…and they had cocktails, wine & free Wi-Fi at the Lodge so happily we left them all to it!
Lunch was lovely, as were the cocktails, (too much) wine, the ability to contact the outside world & the swimming pool! We were picked up at 5pm & when we enquired how the fire was going were told…
“They’ve been fighting it all day but it all seems to be under control now.” Huge relief for us all! That was until 2 minutes later when the radio sprung into life again. The next question? “Who here would be willing to volunteer to go & fight the fire?”
Most of us put our hands up. I just needed to change into my newly designated ‘firefighting outfit’, grab some things (see point 1) and we were off to save the Farm!
4. Stay calm & don’t be a hero
Obvious, but as I sat with my tent mate Tracey it became clear how much tension people around us were feeling. Our tent was the furthest from the meeting point so by the time I’d got back & changed, some of my fellow Lodge Lunchers had already left & I was on the last truck out. They kept involvement voluntary (some people needed to stay) but most people had already left. I had a sense of foreboding & a strange calm as we drove on the open-topped truck towards the edge of the fire, 20 minutes away. I have a tendency not to worry until I know what I’m up against which held me in good stead as around us the voices got slightly more frantic & higher pitched.
When we eventually arrived at the outskirts of the fire I was given a rake & just headed to where my fellow volunteers were. It was hot & the ground was blackened with embers glowing & a few small areas still flaming. I asked what we were supposed to be doing & was told by a colleague that our role was to put the fires out at the edge, wherever we find them. As this was my first firefighting experience I also had to ask what I was supposed to do with the rake? I was told to rake dirt over to put the fires out. Others had spades (difficult to dig when the ground is hard as nails & dry as a bone), or towels which were soaked in water to beat the flames out. I got stuck in with my rake (& was very grateful to Tracey for the loan of the glove).
At one point while I was in the middle of the smouldering ground raking I stood up, looked around & realised that I couldn’t see anyone else.
“I had a real sense of foreboding. Who even knew I was there? Nobody had counted me out of the truck & the guy who had driven didn’t know me or my name so who had any accounting for me? It started to feel like uncomfortable chaos.”
I decided I didn’t feel safe & was too out of touch with the group so moved. As I headed back to the edge of the blackened section I was reunited with Tracey & my fellow volunteers. I felt safer. Slightly.
The next thing we knew, we were being shouted at to get on a truck, moving on to another section. We jumped onto a couple of different vehicles. Everyone was standing up but the enclosed area was now full so the only option was to hold on to the back as we bumped along the dirt track, ducking under trees to our next destination. I was starting to get a sense that adrenaline was pumping & people were getting caught up in the excitement of the situation. It felt a little uneasy.
5. The goal is to stop the fire from spreading
Our next major stop was at the side of a road where the fire was raging & very close. The good news was that army trucks were now present & it was their job to put the fire out. We were told to stand with 10 metres between each of us, on the other side of the road with our backs to the fire. Our job was to keep our eyes peeled on the ground ahead & move fast to put anything out that looked like it might catch alight. Basically, our goal was to stop the fire from jumping over the road.
The heat & smoke were intoxicating & at my position, the fire had moved through the fence & was literally at the edge of the road, 5 meters behind me.
“As I tried to stay focussed there was a very eerie moment went it seemed to go silent except for the ominous crackle of the fire & a herd of horses came running along the fence ahead of me, racing for safety. Then it felt like stones were hitting my back from behind & as I looked up I could see the sky was full of insects flying over our heads (& sometimes straight into us) in an effort to escape.“
Thankfully the army & water trucks did their job fairly quickly & stopped the fire in its tracks. We had achieved our goal. For now at least.
6. Don’t get left behind
As we watched the fire retreat, we then became aware that we were on the move again. I caught up with Tracey & we headed back to the trucks as our fellow volunteers climbed in. Then they started to move. Instinct told me they would stop for us, but they didn’t. They filled up & kept moving, gaining speed as they drove past us with my colleagues on board, seeming to be looking directly at us. We watched in disbelief as some of the army guys jumped on the back & before we knew it the trucks were driving away without us.
I was in disbelief over what was happening. Thankfully, I was left with Tracey & Chevaux (one of the coordinators). We had 2 rakes, 1 spade, a couple of towels & 1 ½ canisters of water. We also had an empty road, a fire still blazing close by & a huge sense of shock. I was glad Chevaux was with us as he clearly had experience in fighting fires & a radio linking us to the others. As we stared in disbelief at the road ahead & realised that the only trucks passing us were full of soldiers, I suggested we start walking. I grabbed the ½ full canister of water, Chevaux had the full one & Tracey took the tools.
We ended up walking alone on what felt like an empty road for 15 minutes, continually commenting on how we couldn’t believe that people had left us. It’s weird but when I look back I wasn’t scared or in any way fearful.
“I was angry. Angry, disappointed & in complete disbelief that our fellow volunteers would effectively leave us there. It’s weird that despite the experience of feeling like we were on the front line of the fire a few minutes before, it was being abandoned that is the lasting memory I have, & the feelings it invoked.”
In crisis situations, you have to trust those around you & being left made me feel completely betrayed. The lasting images I had were my colleagues’ faces looking at us as they drove off. It made me very, very angry.
Eventually, we were picked up by a truck (thankfully they recognised Chevaux), which turned out to be the owners of the Sanctuary & they took the 3 of us to the latest location where our group was in action & we were reunited but totally distrusting.
7. Make sure you have a buddy & stay with them through everything
As we were walking along the road Tracey & I made a pact, whatever happens, we make sure we stay together. We totally trusted each other but had completely lost that in all the others, & in those who were responsible for us being there in the first place.
At our next stop, we were again putting fires & embers out on scorched earth that was still slightly alight. It seemed that every time I felt like I’d done a good job & moved on to the next section, I’d turn around & it would be flaming again. With a rake, it had also become difficult to move the dirt onto the flames & I felt like I was just exposing more embers to the air & increasing rather than decreasing the danger areas. As darkness fell we were joined by Chelsea who had just arrived in Namibia & we had met the evening before. With everything that had just happened to us, Tracey & I adopted her. As we moved through the next few sections we were continually being split up as we had calls for “Anyone with a rake?” and I would move off to help. I always made my way back calling for Tracey. For the rest of the evening I would always call out for Tracey & she always made sure Chelsea was not far away. We became a very loyal team.
8. Find someone who is in charge & stick to them like glue
It was just getting dark when we were finally reunited with our fellow Lodge Lunch crew & we quickly swapped stories about our experiences. My friend Cary was incredulous when we told her about being left behind. She said, “Stick with Charlie or Emily (both coordinators) – they’re really good”. As we continued to work away in our new section Charlie called out that we should stick with our co-ordinator “We don’t have one” I called back. “Then you’re with me now” she replied.
“Finally, I felt like someone had taken responsibility for me & committed to a duty of care. I felt safe for the first time that evening. Interestingly, this was not because I was ever afraid of coming to harm. I always believed that they would not be taking us there if there was actual danger (or maybe I’m too trusting?). It was more that I felt nobody seemed to know or have any interest that I was there.”
Finally, after over 2 hours I trusted Charlie & that we now had a place in a team. I also trusted that these friends wouldn’t leave me behind. And I knew I was never far from Tracey or Chelsea.
After over 3 hours of fighting the fire, we were finally told it looked like things were under control & we could go home. We were all exhausted & in disbelief over what had just happened. Probably also in shock. It was my last night and although we had a beer on our return it was a very subdued night. We were all exhausted. Not quite the final night I was hoping for.
9. Finally – Keep your ‘firefighting clothes’ separate
The next day everything I’d worn that night stank of the ominous smell of smoke. I packed most of it up tightly in a bag & put it at the bottom of my backpack, only to emerge when I returned home to my washing machine. But I did take my bandana out to clean in the shower. It still smelt. When I got back I had to wash everything twice with a strong fabric conditioner, separate from all the rest of my clothes to even stand a chance of taking the smell away.
The day I left the Sanctuary they had a big debrief about the fire & everyone had the chance to talk about their concerns & feelings. They apparently have systems in place to ensure some of the experiences we had don’t happen again. They do fire training every 2 weeks, just not at the time I was there. It was one of the worst incidents they had seen for a while. They have more equipment on order. They highlighted the need to always make sure you have a buddy & are under the care of a coordinator.
I couldn’t agree more.
I am pleased to say that all the animals & humans at the Sanctuary remained safe & unharmed but I can’t vouch for the wildlife in the surrounding area. We may never know how many animals suffered in the fires over that weekend, let alone the damage caused to the surrounding farms. I hope the losses were minimal but I’m not optimistic that this is the case. Namibia is a harsh country but the people & animals are resilient. I hope the recovery is quick & they don’t have to deal with this devastation again for a long time. I also hope they have a good rainy season this year, they need one.
To read more about my other adventures in Namibia, see my articles on Volunteering on a Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia – Part 1 & Part 2. You can also watch the videos – 6 Dunes & Wildlife Tour of Namibia , Volunteering in a Wildlife Sanctuary and The San Tribe of Namibia
What do you think?
What advice would you give anyone about the best things to do in a fire situation?
What close encounters have you had with the harshness of nature on your travels?
To see more of my photos from Namibia please visit my Gallery page!