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Written by Zoe Faulkner on 18 / 08 / 2020

Gap Year Advice

Milly, co-founder of The Leap has an in-depth chat with Andrea who pioneered a conservation program deep in the Namibian desert where we work alongside her to deliver this incredible ecological movement by helping to create a new national park. Trust us there is nowhere like this on Earth.

An inspiring read covering in brief:

Q: How did you start it all?

Q: What do you do?

Q: Why do you need volunteers out there?

Q: When can we come and contribute?

The podcast in all its written glory:

Hi everyone, welcome to the second episode of our podcast series The Road Less Travelled.

These are inspirational stories from those who have chosen a different path which are especially poignant at this point in life when times are so uncertain. When so many of us are being forced into uncomfortable life decisions and are maybe looking down a lens that they never dreamed of. I for one know exactly how that feels. So, these are little fireside chats and they are intended to spark a little bit of hope and reassurance that the random paths that we may be forced to choose from right now can work and all will be good in the end.

My guest today is our lovely bohemian goddess Andrea who before lockdown spent the majority of her time in the Namibian desert with the sole aim of creating a new national park which would ultimately home the endangered rhino. Seriously, who does that?! She does. With bells and whistles on.

She lives and breathes all things conservation. So, hello to you our lovely Andrea. How are you today?

Hi Milly, I’m very well thank you.

What we’re really trying to ascertain is how on earth did you get from being this Brazilian daughter who was expected to go in to law and medicine and to live a very straight and settled life to now living in Namibia. How did that journey come about?

I was born in London, moved back to Brazil when we were little for a few years and then back to London for a better quality of life. My parents wanted to raise two daughters in London where it is a bit safer than Brazil. I grew up, went to international school but always knew I had a connection with chimpanzees, apes, monkeys and every opportunity I had I would be around monkeys and apes and I knew I had to get out to Africa as soon as I could. When I was 17, I fundraised some money and went to Kenya where I worked with the Colobus trust for a few months and I was hooked and knew that was what I wanted to do. I did a masters in Canterbury at Kent University at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and then went out and did my dissertation research with primates in Sierra Leone which was incredible. I was there for a few months then had to leave early because of Ebola. I got my first real taste of life in the bush and then after I finished university I went and lived in Tanzania for a year. I originally thought I wanted to do wildlife film making but the educational type so creating educational films for children in rural villages and made films for a year, odd jobs volunteering here and there and then eventually I got a position in Namibia so moved out to Namibia with Red who is my partner and co-founder in the business and he knew Ian Craig who is the founder of Oana Nature Reserve where we are based together in Namibia.

Amazing, at which point did your parents think ‘oh gosh’ she’s not going to have a normal life. Were they disturbed by that or were they behind you?

I think they were on the foreground rather encouraging and saying to go for it but behind closed doors they were absolutely terrified. I was always the rebellious one, my sister always did what was expected. They trusted in me and knew I had my head screwed on, but I did a lot of things I didn’t tell them about in the beginning.

For all your listeners and readers, what you don’t know is that Andrea is incredibly glamorous so Dre, when you’re living out in the bush – I look like a geography teacher (no offence to all geography teachers) – but you look so gorgeous. In the beginning when you were in the jungle with the chimpanzees that must have been so sweaty – how do you do it?!

Oh, you can look stylish in the bush Milly.

I don’t know how, I even brought stylish friends out with me to see if they could assist but no.

Growing up in London and studying fashion at the beginning I guess I do like a bit of trend in the bush.

You definitely succeeded with that. In the jungle in those early days, describe how your living was like in Sierra Leone, what was your infrastructure like?

We took a Jeep for about 7 weeks into the bush, a peddle power cinema which was the tool I used to show the films to villagers so we had a team of about 6 of us and we took the land rovers and drove out to these rural villages and were greeted by the chief of each village where we would ask them if we had permission to come and do a bit of research there and spend some time with them to show them the educational films. We want to spend time with them, the children in schools so they would host us in their village huts, we would take our own tents, but it was so hot we would just sleep in the open in hammocks. That was when we were on the road doing the field studies. When we were back at base, we stayed at a chimpanzee sanctuary which is on the edge of the town, so huts/basic housing facilities.

What were your bathroom facilities like?

Basic, holes in ground or basic loo shacks. It was so mould in Sierra Leone that overnight you had to put any mobile phones or devices into plastic bags because overnight mould would form behind the screens.

Which environment do you prefer, the sweat or the dryness of Namibia?

I definitely don’t think I could live in the jungle long term, there are things creeping and crawling everywhere. That’s what I like about Namibia – it is semi-arid, we do have the lush green on the Orange River but there’s not really any creepy crawlies, it’s dusty but it’s not wet and sticky and mouldy. I’m definitely more desert adapted.

You really are in the middle of nowhere aren’t you?

Yes, it is the most remote place I’ve ever been to in my life. I went there for 3 days with Red to scout it out and to see what it is like and I remember feeling like I’ve never seen anything so vast and so big in my entire life. The roads are just so vast and never ending and it was mountain after mountain and anytime you climb one you see more mountains for days. It is remote and what makes it so special. No one knows about it, no one has been there it is untouched, raw and we want to share it with the world. We were there for 3 days and got totally hooked and have been there ever since.

In the early days you just had a few tents, didn’t you?

Yes, that was it. We had water to drink and a car and then we bought some tents and had about 6 weeks to build base camp. As you know in Africa everything goes wrong and all the wrong parts arrived. We walked the reserve and we knew we needed to build a base camp to run these expeditions to host groups so we knew it had to be close enough to a main road so we could get access and then close enough to water so we could provide drinking water to the group. We walked the land for about 2 weeks just looking at areas and trying to decided where we could build base camp and then started from there. We set up our tents first, slowly got in some solar panels, some batteries, built a little makeshift kitchen and dug some holes in the ground for loos. We don’t use these anymore but the first one blew on fire!

Why did they blow up?!

Because in the desert you have sand and then you hit bedrock pretty quickly so we couldn’t dig the loos quick enough, so they were only about two metres deep, so we had to burn the leftovers so that they didn’t get full up. Around the loos we had these lovely bamboo reeds all around so that you would be in private, then one day we were burning the faeces and the whole thing caught fire. It was too dry, there was a bit of wind and that was a learning curve. That was pretty hilarious.

The aim of the volunteers is for them to provide the funds and the labour to convert this land into a national park isn’t it?

Yea, the idea is that this area in Namibia is so unique. It has got amazing habitats, amazing wildlife but it is just covered in fences and farms that are no longer productive. Climate change is causing the area to become drier and drier; it has not rained for 7 years and most of the farmers have sold all their livestock but still have all their fences still up. We took over 4 farms and dropped all the fences and allowed the wildlife to breed and migrate and proved that it does work. This area can be a real conservation area where wildlife can flourish but the land is too small, we need to grow and more farmers to join on. In order for the farmers around us to join on they need to see how this can run. We started volunteer expeditions with schools, people on gap years, seniors who can help rewild and grow the reserve. They can help with the research, no science has ever been done on this area, there is a lot of traditional ecological knowledge but no scientific papers, no researchers have been on the ground. We have linked up with research institutes so there is a lot of work to be done, a lot of locals are doing the work with us but we can’t do it alone so we invite people from all around the world to help us and actually do the man power.

I’m so proud that we are able to help you.

It’s amazing, I say to people that when they visit national parks on safari those ones are about 150-200 years old, we are only in year 5. Imagine what we can achieve in 20 or 30 years. It is a lifelong dream, we are both so committed, we have fallen in love with the local communities and we’ve seen how it has changed people’s lives, the volunteers that have come and that real authentic opportunity to make a difference. I did a lot of volunteering when I first moved out to Africa, not all them were authentic, not all of them felt like they really needed me so if that is one message I can leave with you and your listeners it’s that we really do need people to come on the ground and help. Donations are great but we need people to come out and help do the work.

Dare we talk about the lockdown; we know it has been catastrophic. You have a 6-month season and the whole season was wiped out.

Yea, it has been a challenge. It was supposed to be a year we were in our stride, our fifth year – 4schools coming out and many gap years groups and then 5 days before the first expedition COVID struck. Namibia has still got its borders closed, they reacted really quickly, they’ve had a recent spike in cases, but it has been really detrimental. The reserve is costly, it costs a lot to keep the bore holes going, to pay the rangers, all the security, so I am doing what I can applying for grants and a lot of COVID relief grants and fundraising. I’ve not let any of our local employees go thankfully, we’ve got an amazing team of volunteers around the world that are helping to keep the admin and logistics ticking over, but it is not easy. We’re doing what we can to keep going.

In the perfect world, the season starts again February/March next year?

Exactly, end of February because it is too hot in December/January so we close camp down and allow wildlife to have a bit of a break and the land to replenish then we get things going again in early March. Then it runs until end of October.

Fingers crossed the world will be an easier place to navigate by then and we can come back.

Hopefully, they are saying that the desert doesn’t survive well in hot arid environments so hopefully Namibia will be one of the travel destinations that people will be allowed to go to next year – we will be here.

In terms of social distancing, it is a perfect opportunity. When people say we have to be in quarantine it is quite the place to quarantine. It is perfect for both those requirements.

Thank you, Dre, for sharing, to all listening this is an amazing project we have supported over the last 5 years and will continue to support by sending out volunteers. Click here to have a look at the program and to support her in any which way you can.

Thank you Milly for believing in us!

Namibia opens in May 2021

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