It might be the most arid country in Southern Africa, but Michael Cowton discovers that Namibia’s natural assets including an abundance of wildlife, hauntingly beautiful landscapes and rich diversity of geological features, draw eco tourists time and again
Tap, tap. Silence. Tap, tap – louder. 5.30am, and I am roused by incessant knocking on the sliding glass door that leads out on to the decking. Cautiously, I get out of bed and pull back the blind. There, staring up at me, is a Yellow Billed Hornbill. The early wake-up call is because he wants his breakfast. I step out on to the decking to the corner, where a small metal box contains bird feed, which I duly scatter on the earth. Ten feet away, a tree suddenly explodes to life as dozens of small birds flock down in a feeding frenzy.
Here at Okonjima, it is not only the birds that have an early start. I was due an alarm call at 6am, to go on cheetah watch with my guide, Dean Mafika. For, nestled among the Omboroko Mountains a three-hour drive north of the capital, Windhoek, Okonjima is much more than a luxury lodge and campsite. It is also home to the AfriCat Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to the long-term conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores, particularly leopards and cheetahs.
I was on day five of a week-long trip through this stunning country, the first in the world to include the protection of the environment in its constitution. My journey had begun in the capital, located in the central highlands. Much of the population of Namibia is concentrated around the capital and the towns and fertile northern regions of the country. This, in turn, leaves boundless space to explore the riches of the ancient Namib Desert to the south. For here, the gravel plains and rolling sand dunes offer a fresh perspective on beauty, appreciated from a selection of exclusive establishments.
Because Namibia’s fragile environment is one of the country’s most important and vulnerable assets, the focus in current and future tourism projects is on the development of high-quality tourism with low numbers of visitors. Ecotourism is on the increase, with developments with a minimal impact on the environment becoming increasingly sought-after.
A six-hour drive saw me at the NamibRand Nature Reserve, established to help protect and conserve the unique ecology and wildlife of the southwest Namib Desert. Extending to 180,000 hectares, the reserve shares a 100km border with the Namib-Naukluft National Park in the west, and is bordered to the east by the imposing Nubib Mountains. Virtually all facets of the Namib Desert are represented on the reserve, with sand and gravel plains and stretches of savannah alternating with mountain ranges and vegetated dune belts.
Thirteen farms have been rehabilitated into a single continuous natural habitat, the landowners having adopted a constitution which sets the land aside for conservation. The non-profit private nature reserve is financially self-sustaining mainly through high-quality, low-impact eco tourism. The Reserve has awarded six tourism concessions, which pay a daily, per-bed fee. It is also a model for private conservation in Southern Africa, as it demonstrates holistic biodiversity conservation balanced with financial sustainability.
In the heart of NamibRand, the Wolwedans Collection, run by NamibRand Safaris (Pty) Ltd, is the biggest concession, with a portfolio of five lodges and camps, each with its own individual setting and design. Being the largest concession, Wolwedans is particularly well placed to concentrate on environmental practices. For example, all lodges and camps have been ecologically designed. With no permanent structures erected on the land, they can easily be dismantled and removed. Water is an extremely scarce and precious commodity, and is pumped from depths of 250 metres. Solar collectors provide hot water, and all sewage is collected in a biological digester, which can only break down natural waste.
It was over a two-night stay at the Dunes Lodge that I experienced by first real taste of what the Reserve has to offer guests. The Dunes Lodge is nestled on top of a massive dune plateau, overlooking panoramic desert and mountain vistas. Without the use of concrete, the camps were built using the pole structure, with elevated wooden decks and roll-up canvas walls that have become synonymous with Wolwedans. Each of the spacious chalets with en-suite bathrooms sports a private verandah.
The main complex was rebuilt in 2003 after a fire, and consists of two lounges, sundowner decks, a fireplace, tea deck, library, wine cellar and two dining-rooms. There is also a swimming pool, which is suspended above the sand.
Until thirty years ago, cheetahs rather than tourists roamed this part of the country. Decline in prey, loss of habitat, poaching and hunting by farmers who were killing them as vermin and a threat to livestock have threatened the survival of the species.
In December 2008, the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) took five of its male cheetahs, fitted them with radio collars, and released them into the Reserve. This groundbreaking project was the first time a structured re-introduction had been attempted. The cheetahs had previously lived in a large fifty-hectare camp at the Amani Lodge near Windhoek, and had successfully hunted opportunistically, so it was expected that they would successfully adapt to their new environment. Female cheetahs have also been introduced to NamibRand to keep the boys interested in the area.
I left Wolwedans for an overnight stop at Desert Homestead, only 31.5km south of Sesriem, the gateway to the most stunning dunes in the world at Sossusvlei. From here, I began a long day’s drive north to Okonjima, where guests stay at either Main Camp or Bush Camp. The AfriCat Foundation was founded here in the early 1990s, and was started primarily as a welfare organisation. Over the ensuing years it identified the need to focus on education and research as being essential to accomplishing its mission – the long-term conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores.
Today, AfriCat works on a rescue and release strategy. New objectives include creating awareness and promoting the tolerance of large carnivores among the farming community by assisting farmers in effective farm management techniques, including targeting problem predators as opposed to indiscriminate removal; to educate youth and young farmers about large carnivores and environmental awareness; to research large carnivores, particularly cheetahs, lions and leopards, on farmland and in captivity; and to provide humane housing, treatment and care for orphaned and injured animals. AfriCat is evolving as changes occur in the perception and practice of conservation methods.
Okonjima currently employs over a hundred people, and that is excluding all their families. The owners have seen people moving to Okonjima who have been completely uneducated; who have started off as cleaners, then become dishwashers, assistant barmen or chefs. That is why tourism is so important to Namibia, in that it offers parks like Okonjima the chance to offer people opportunities that they might never have in a normal world. It also offers wildlife the opportunity to live their lives in their natural habitat. And that only be for the benefit of all, both today and for future generations to enjoy.
VITALS – NAMIBIA
Population: 2.3 million
Language: English is the official language, with Afrikaans and German also spoken, plus several indigenous languages
Time difference: GMT + 1 (GMT + 2 between first Sunday in April and first Sunday in September)
Int. dialling code: +264
Visas: Not required for UK and Ireland passport holders
Money: Namibian Dollar (N$), currently tied to the South African rand
British Airways (www.ba.com) feeder flight from London Heathrow to Frankfurt, then Air Namibia (www.airnamibia.com.na) direct to Hosea Kutako (Windhoek) International, six times per week. Alternatively, BA and South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) fly from Heathrow to Johannesburg, with connections to Windhoek
Driving is on the left. Roads are tarmac and gravel, on which it is advisable to restrict your speed to below 80kph. Signposting is excellent, making the country ideal for a self-drive holiday. Always be conscious of game grazing on the verges
Winter (May-September) temperatures in the interior range from 18˚C to 25˚C during the day. Below freezing temperatures are common at night. Summer (October to April) average interior temperatures range from 20˚C to 34˚C, with above 40˚C often recorded in the extreme north and south
Lodges and bush camps are the norm once out of the capital, with campsites another option
NamibRand Safaris (Pty) Ltd, Box 5048, Windhoek
Tel: +264 61 230 616
PO Box 793, Otjiwarongo
Tel: +264 67 304 563/4
Desert Homestead and Horsetrails
PO Box 97448, Windhoek
Tel: ++264 (0)61 246 788
Malaria is found in the northeast and central Namibia. Contact your doctor or a health clinic a few weeks prior to your departure for appropriate precautions
Namibia Tourist Planning Map (1:200,000), published by Projects & Promotions.
Tel: +264 64 571 376
The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals, by Jonathan Kingdon, pb A&C Black, £16.99
Namibia Tourism Board
P/Bag 13244, Windhoek
NamibRand Nature Reserve
PO Box 131, Maltahohe
Tel: +264 63 683 026
Cheetah Conservation Fund
PO Box 1755, Otjiwarongo
Tel: +264 (0)67 306 225
Thrift Cottage, High Street, South Cerney, Gloucestershire GL7 5UG
Tel: 01285 869417 (contact for trade inquiries only)
Safari Drive Ltd/Migration Safaris
The Trainers Office, Windy Hollow, Sheepdrove, Lambourn, Berkshire RG17 7XA
Tel: 01488 71140