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(2015 - Winter/Spring Issue)


Nowhere is the tourist slogan for Namibia truer than at the Grootberg Pass in the country’s rugged and remote northwest.

Sitting on the porch of my private stone and thatched hut at the Grootberg Lodge, I am perched high at the edge of a tabletop mountain looking down at a vast valley where elephants and lions roam throughout the night.

The Grootberg Pass is just one of the stops on our eight-day self-drive journey through Namibia. The country sits just above South Africa, which once controlled this sparsely-populated, vast land that is welcoming and safe for tourists. Visitors can choose from guided tours to motorcycle expeditions to get around. Our self-drive trip is the middle ground, providing the comfort and safety of an enclosed truck and the flexibility of making changes without the extra expense of accommodating a guide.

ATI Holidays, a company based in the capital Windhoek, arranges personalized self-drive trips. The company handles vehicle rentals and accommodation and provides extra medical insurance, a phone pre-programmed with contacts and maps that are more reliable than GPS on the rough roads. Managing director David Cartwright says clients who want scenery, including the world’s oldest desert, go south; those who come for wildlife and culture choose the north.

For our trip to the north we are met at the Windhoek airport and escorted to Rivendell, a comfortable local guest house. Cartwright, a transplanted Yorkshire man with more than 20 years of experience in tourism and the ecology of Southern Africa, advises his clients to spend a night in the capital after international flights before they get lessons on their vehicles in four-wheel drive and changing a tire. (About a third of the vehicles he sends out get a flat tire so the lesson is crucial.)

Lessons in Conservation

Well-rested, we leave the capital behind in the morning for scruffy hills now brown in the June winter, sculptures of termite mounds and baboons that run across the highway. It’s not long before we discover the lucky happenstance of self-drives. At our first stop, a truck pulls up beside us. Maria Diekmann, the founder and director of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust, jumps out, eager to show us an animal she’s nursing back to health after it was trapped and its back leg broken. She pulls out a small-scaled creature that wraps its long tail around her neck, a rarely seen baby pangolin. Instantly, we get a lesson on poaching and how hard it is to end it. In Hong Kong a bowl of pangolin soup, thought to be an aphrodisiac, brings HK$7,000.

We end our first day with a late-afternoon drive through Etosha National Park where, moments after driving through the main gate, we spot an endangered black rhino, fields of springbok, zebras and lone elephants. While there are no large animal migrations here, it’s possible to be the only vehicle surrounded by wildlife, especially in the western section of the park recently opened to tourists.

Memorable Encounters

Over two days in the park, I discover safaris are much like life, full of disappointment and happy surprises. We miss out on a lion that others see, but after spotting a wealth of oryx, giraffes, wildebeests and ostrich, we happen across a large breeding group of elephants at a watering hole and end up in a “traffic jam”when an elephant stops vehicles in both directions. Waiting to see if the elephant would continue stomping toward our vehicle or veer into grasslands—as it finally did—adds a dash of excitement to the trip.

West of the park we travel through some of the oldest land on Earth, with geological features dating back two billion years. Jumbled rock formations and wide, dry river beds tell the story of environmental changes. It’s said that rain is measured in decades in Namibia and everywhere we go we see how people and animals have adapted to the arid conditions. At the lodges, water conservation is not just a slogan. In one, a bucket is left below the shower to catch the water before it warms so the cleaners can use it that day.

From Grootberg Lodge we visit the Himba people, one of the last African tribes to live traditionally. Grazers, they roam with their cattle for water. The Himba women never wash. Instead, they rub their skin with a mixture of ochre and butterfat and steam their bodies over smouldering herbs. In a small hut, the chief’s daughter demonstrates how to burn the camphor-like plant and leans into the smoke for deodorant and perfume.

But it is the desert-adapted elephants that most define this arid land. The same species as the elephants of Etosha, they have learned to survive by drinking and eating less. Thirty years ago these animals were in danger of becoming extinct but now there are hundreds of them roaming in the northwest. Soon after it became a country in 1990, Namibia moved to become the first African country to make preserving the environment part of its constitution. Much of the land is now managed as conservation areas where local people have control over the wildlife and have come to see elephants not as pests that destroy crops but as valuable resources in drawing tourists. That shift in perception has reduced the number of conflicts between humans and animals while saving the desert-adapted elephant.

From the Doro Nawas Camp, our guide Mwezi drives us in an open jeep as we shiver in the early-morning chill. We travel through open grassland and along a dry river bed filled with mist, stopping so Mwezi can jump out and judge the freshness of a footprint or a spoor. It seems we have missed the elephants but then Mwezi decides to change directions and there they are, 20 or so, munching on the little vegetation on a rocky hill and playing with their babies. We sit and stare for 20 minutes; the only sounds are the clicking of cameras and the slow movements of the elephants. It is magical.

Lodges like Doro Nawas are key to a self-drive trip. After our long days on dusty roads, hosts meet us with wet towels and cold juice, followed by hot meals. Guides with knowledge of the local terrain are able to identify every animal, bird and tree that we have pointed at all day. At Doro Nawas, the most luxurious of our accommodations, we are given the “green-carpet”treatment. Mwezi drives us to the site of stone-age petroglyphs and to the top of a hill for a sundowner—a drink and hors d’oeuvres while the sun sets over the empty landscape. And later, in the dark, there is a final surprise: a three-course sit-down supper in the bush surrounded by hundreds of candles in brown paper bags.

As we leave Doro Nawas, the staff assembles to sing for us, dancing and laughing at our joy and theirs. It seems a fitting way to say goodbye.

Travel Planner

Namibia Tourism offers suggestions on different routes visitors can consider at namibiatourism.com.na/routes.

For more information, visit:

Namibia Tourism Board: namibiatourism.com.na

ATI Holidays: infotour-africa.com

Etosha National Park: etoshanationalpark.org

Grootberg Lodge: grootberg.com

Rare and Endangered Species Trust: restafrica.org 

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