Hippo wading into the Zambezi River with thunderstorms in Namibia; Photograph by mastahanky, flickr

Hippo wading into the Zambezi River with thunderstorms in Namibia; Photograph by mastahanky, flickr

The Zambezi River curls by my deck at the Ntwala Island Lodge, dark river beneath a muted orange and red sun, dying to the African day. The river is laced with crocs, peppered with hippos, and surrounded by clouds of birds, cawing, screaming and cooing. There are super aggressive fish in the river—tiger fish that make piranhas look like sweet, little cuddlers. The place is bonafide, non-Middle-Earth magical.

We’ve flown, driven, walked, and boated our way across two borders today–from Namibia (“Please fill out the disembarkation card, sir”) into Botswana (“Please fill out the embarkation card, sir”) out of Botswana and back into Namibia. Our flight was in a six-seater plane for three-plus hours over vast desert plains with scrub brush, sand, and rock. Occasionally water would show up on the scene and we all eagerly leaned to the windows to see if wildlife would show.

There was a running herd of warthogs, a lot of land crossed by human and game trails—and devoid of roads. And then suddenly, there were elephants. Dozens of them, big and small. Our plane was only 100 feet above the ground, and we were whisked above the giant gray beauties. I found myself smiling despite being jetlagged, a little sick, and weary of being in transit. Finally, really, truly we were in Africa. I sheepishly asked a new friend in Namibia: “Um, do you know where The Gods Must Be Crazy was filmed?” I felt stupid for asking another Americlown tourist inquiry. But she smiled and said, “Actually you flew over the spot.” Suddenly the question was okay, and it was pleasant to realize the quirky movie in my head was the place!

Occasionally, Willem, our pilot and a shareholder in six lodges around Namibia would shout something over the hum of the plane. “That’s the hill where the local bushmen gather once a year! Do you see the elephants in the water!? The lodge we just buzzed is one of ours… I need to call them to tell them we’re not coming to the airport!” And my favorite: “No. Those are cattle.”

The story of wildlife and people and tourism in Namibia is beautiful—and stark. Forty-two percent of the land is protected by the government. There are more than 70 community-run conservatories that protect the wildlife for tourists and hunters, very managed, mind you, in such a way that the average Namibian in a conservatory (there are more than 400,000 that live inside them) sees financial value in protecting their wild stock. Gone are the days of rampant poaching as the people who live there can declare: “This is ours! You cannot disrespect and steal from us” Or something along those lines. Gone are the days of 20 or 30 (who knows?) game ranges with their 40 to 60 eyes. Now there are 800,000+ eyes watching to be sure that the rhino beds safely tonight. Certainly it’s not perfect and the system can break down—we humans will do what we do. But Namibia is a tourism success story to be told. And seen.

Tiger fishing for half a day proved to be a success. There’s a reason why tiger fish are not named poodle fish. They are named tiger fish because they have big, offset triangular teeth and hit the fishing line so hard that every time it happened I couldn’t suppress a huge laugh of amazement and joy. The guide told stories—some that I wanted to have happen to me. “That day we caught the biggest tiger fish of all and saw elephants next to the river.” Other stories (in my Heart of Darkness) I wanted to have happen to the guy who bullied me in 9th grade. “So then the hippo lunged up under our boat when we were going near full-speed, and we all flew into a heap onto land screaming and stumbling on all fours to escape!”

The afternoon ended in a flurry of smiles and lies about fish numbers and sizes between the different boats, and we were off to meet the local tribe who benefits from the tourism there.

It is an amazingly complicated scenario, but it is working. The WWF, local tribes, the federal government, local lodge owners, and others are working together to see that a tourist’s money actually benefits everyone, not just one party. Tourism doesn’t always protect wildlife, locals, and business interests. But it can. And it’s beautiful even in the tension that is inevitable in such a complicated system.

Later on the trip I was able to visit a desert lodge operated by Wilderness Safaris that focuses on the desert rhino. It’s in a vast, lightly populated named Damaraland. While we didn’t see the ethereal rhinos, we did see a lot of game, including a herd of desert elephants, which live in an incredibly austere environment and still manage to be elephantine.

Namibia is a land of adventure of many stripes—from the soft and cushioned clean-hands adventure to the difficult wearying treks, this is a destination that must be experienced first hand to be fully believed. With recovering wildlife stocks, sparse population, spotty history as a former part of South Africa, and larger cities founded originally by German colonists, one of the funny sayings about Namibia that seems to bear some truth is “It’s like Africa—only better”.

Comments

  1. [...] More than 400,000 Namibians live in areas designated as wildlife conservatories, and they see financial value in protecting their wildlife stock, according to a blog at NationalGeographic.com. [...]

  2. Mr. V.F.Suter
    England
    August 21, 2013, 7:52 am

    My wife and I were there about 20 years ago. Glad to see that it has not gone downhill as have so many of our old haunts in Southern Africa. Don’t miss Etosha, the Skeleton Coast and the deserts.

  3. Heinrich Grueber
    Wiesloch,Germany
    August 21, 2013, 8:59 am

    9 years past I was engaged as a social worker in the area close to the ‘Etosha’.My job was to teach the bushmen a trade.I did spend all together 8 month in Tsintsabis with the San ,Heikum bushmen.It was a once in lifetime experience and I am glad that I took the chance to get to know the area and also the people and the animals living there.

  4. Carol Baxter
    Canada
    August 22, 2013, 10:35 pm

    We just left Namibia 2 weeks ago. The desert and the red sand dunes are incredible! Our lodge was right in the desert at Sossusvlei and consisted of charming rondevales which were very roomy and nicely appointed. Our guide was very knowledgeable and personable. We are so glad that we chose Namibia as a destination.

  5. Dirk Bosman
    Western Cape RSA
    August 25, 2013, 2:58 pm

    We did the Naukluft 8 day hiking trail twice. It is very tough, isolated and beautiful with lots of wild life and poisonous snakes eg black mamba and pufadders. For a much easier 4 day hike consider the Fish River Canyon – it is also beautiful – do it as early as possible after summer to avoid very cold winter weather at nighttime.