This article was published in a report (see p.16) by the Millennium Challenge Account, who organised the Namibia familiarisation trip for North American tour operators and journalists.
The rhino is famously one of the world’s most endangered species and thanks to a phenomenal increase in poaching over the past five years, their future hangs in the balance. Having pictured them as creatures that could only be seen in zoos or on television, I was utterly stunned on the last night of our nine-day familiarisation trip across Namibia to see not one, but twenty rhinos over a period of a couple of hours, strolling out of the bush to drink at a lone waterhole. There were black rhinos, white rhinos, adults and babies, side by side, face-to-face, quenching their thirst at a floodlit pool in Ongava Game Reserve, just south of Etosha National Park. As they drank, the tired tour operators, our guide and I sipped our own drinks on a cliff-top bar overlooking the vast savannah, after yet another long day of driving.
It was the perfect end to a tour which had introduced us to Namibia’s landscapes and wildlife in a way that encouraged respect, admiration and a rather healthy (I believe) dose of fear. Standing within 15 meters of a notoriously grumpy black rhino named Hans Otto was a powerful experience; as was tracking radio-collared cheetah through the grasslands at Okonjima, only to discover that we ourselves were being tracked – by a leopard. We knew whose territory this was – and it was not ours. As Canadian journalist Zachary-Cy Vanasse commented: “Though the question of what constitutes an “authentic experience” is paradoxical … tracking down Hans Otto and sharing a moment with him in his space felt pretty real, whatever it is that that means.”
We learned what it meant to scale one of the world’s highest dunes as the desert sun glared down on us, and we spent a couple of hours exchanging cultural curiosities in a temporary Himba settlement, surrounded by children and goats.
At Okonjima, we learned about the ongoing conflicts between farmers and wildlife, and how tourism revenue played an important role in addressing that. At Wolwedans Dunes Lodge, we encountered an outstanding experiment in self-sufficiency in one of the harshest environments in the world. Vanasse wonders, “If an environmentally sustainable, commercially viable luxury lodge can be created in the middle of the desert, what could the rest of the world achieve?”
It was indeed inspiring, and each of the tour operators commented on how pristine Namibia is – its land free of litter and its skies of pollution. By the tour’s end, no one had any fears about being able to sell Namibia to their diverse clients – the main concern was how to balance a growing tourism industry with a destination that prides itself on being empty. In Vanasse’s words, “I believe that everyone should experience Namibia, I just hope they aren’t all there when I go back.”