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This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 19: The Wild Issue
“You are extremely likely to have an accident on these roads,” deadpanned Rohan from Avis car rental. He gestured towards a set of images that depicted upturned jeeps, vehicles mangled by elephants and 4x4s picked up by raging rivers and washed downstream. I hadn’t even left Windhoek airport yet, and I was already planning my route home.
Just over one week, eight days and 1,000km later I was back in one piece. Namibia had got under my skin, under my nails and across my car – in the form of squashed insects and smears of red earth. There had been moments when the country felt like a challenge – when I swerved to miss potholes, slipped through riverbeds and slammed on the brakes to dodge a giraffe, but there had also been occasions – like spotting a leopard curled up in a tree or watching the sun go down and set the clouds on fire – when Namibia felt like the most magical place on earth.
The first thing that you need to know about Namibia is that there is room to move. Just over 2.5million people live across 825,615km², which is roughly equivalent to one-third of London’s population inhabiting an area the size of Spain and Germany combined. You can drive for hundreds of miles – passing otherworldly craters, swirling sand dunes and rolling savannahs – without seeing so much as a soul.
The stillness bestows the land with beauty, but also a sense of danger. Road trips are a popular option for travellers, but drivers are only ever one flat tyre away from having to camp out in the open, or to hitchhike to the nearest village for supplies. Droughts have devastating consequences here, and even at the end of the rainy season in April, the plains look like an overexposed photograph, having been intensely bleached by the sun.
That’s not to say that life doesn’t thrive here. Namibia is home to the world’s largest number of cheetahs, free-roaming black rhinos and a species of desert-dwelling elephant that has adapted to the country’s harsh conditions. Even if you’re not the kind of person who usually gets excited about birds, there’s something comforting about hearing the calls of ring-necked doves and rosy-faced lovebirds in a land that can be eerily quiet.
The country was colonised by Germany and later by South Africa – people of European descent are concentrated in the major cities, while in rural areas indigenous cultures have maintained strong roots. The Herero tribe are well-known for dressing in the clothing of their colonisers – so you’ll find women donning billowing, high-collared dresses in the heat of midday. By contrast, the women of the nomadic Himba tribe are bare-chested, wearing ornate metal anklets and an ochre-red paste on their skin.
If you’re looking to recreate the glamour of safaris from days gone by, then a road trip across Namibia is not for you. The land is simply too remote, too vast and too unpredictable for something so polished and perfect. However, if you’re ready to dive into wild travel that engages with issues such as community outreach and human-wildlife conflict, then drive on, down paved roads that break down into stone, then gravel and eventually clouds of dust. There is room to move in Namibia, and there is space for you to make the journey your own.
Located on the edge of the Namib desert, Spitzkoppen pushes the limits of human habitation. The area is marked by barren plains, bone-dry bush and a range of rounded granite mountains that date back 700million years. A new, community-minded lodge has cropped up in this prehistoric land, offering the perfect base to explore archaeological sites including caveman paintings that date back 4,000 years.
Spitzkoppen Lodge, which opened in January, is owned by Ronnie Barnard, who used to camp in the area as a child. The lodge is made up of 15 secluded villas linked by a wooden walkway that snakes through a series of rust-coloured boulders, and there is also a camping site nearby. Every effort has been made to create a sanctuary that blends in with the lunar landscape – even the swimming pool has been carved out of red granite.
The Lodge is dedicated to supporting the local community by overseeing the fair distribution of wealth and providing employment opportunities. Before the lodge was opened and the campsite privatised, very few local people were seeing any benefit from tourism – today, half of the profit from the camp and 7-12 per cent of profit from the lodge goes directly to the local community.
This collection of modest, khaki-green tents overlooking the Ugab River has only been in business since September 2016. In partnership with Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), Ozondjou’s mission is to teach tourists about Namibia’s desert-adapted elephants and to help subsistence farmers survive alongside them. Visitors here spend their days on game drives with EHRA-trained guides who, devoid of GPS devices, champion tracking in its purest form. That means sni ng out watering holes, clam- bering through wild sage bushes to the top of lookout points and trekking in search of telltale “beds”, where the ground has been left imprinted by wrinkled elephant skin.
In the 1980s there were no elephants left in the Ugab River region due to overhunting and poaching, but in 1989 a young bull who was given the name Voortrekker came to scout out the area. A few weeks later he returned with his family in tow. Voortrekker’s herd, which has now multiplied to 26, has been here ever since. You may be lucky enough to come across them.
The relationship between humans and elephants is not altogether easy. While preserving wildlife will bring money from tourism, it is difficult to communicate this to local people who have had elephants destroy their property and compromise their cattle. Profit from projects like Ozondjou Trails are working towards a more informed and peaceful form of cohabitation between elephants and villagers.
At Khowarib Lodge there are a series of eco-huts arranged along the baboon-inhabited banks of the Hoanib River in Kaokoland, one the most desolate areas of Namibia. Here the odd scrap of peppermint-green shrubland can be the only salve to mile upon mile of deep-red earth. A communal dining area, bar and reception overlooks the huts and an outdoor swimming pool, and at nighttime the guests gather around a huge repit framed by benches fashioned from petri ed wood. The lodge is close to a collection of Himba villages as well as Sesfontein, where a number of the Herero people live.
The relationship between tourists and tribal communities is a delicate balance between curiosity and imposition. Instead of donating money to the tribe, which might coax the Himba away from their traditional ways of life, the fee you pay to the lodge goes towards buying sustainable supplies such as rice, packaged soups and maize.
In 1991 a group of families teamed up to turn a series of cattle ranches into a haven for wildlife. Ongava Game Reserve is located just south of Etosha National Park (an area of protected land roughly the size of Belgium) at the foot of the low-lying Ondundozonanandana mountains (try saying that one out loud). Accommodation here is divided up into the luxury Ongava Lodge and the intimate Little Ongava and Ongava tented camps (although with plush beds, teak furnishings and indoor and outdoor showers, you barely feel as though you’re sleeping under canvas). The heart and soul of the camp is a thatched dining area, which is arranged to face a watering hole where zebras, waterbucks and kudus appear like apparitions at sunrise and sunset. High tea is served at 5PM and there is a barbecue every evening – although after dark, guests have to be escorted by a shotgun-wielding hotel member to and from their rooms.
Both white and the critically endangered black rhino are flourishing within the reserve, protected by anti-poaching units that are part-funded by a percentage of the fee that guests pay to stay at the camp and the lodges. Ongava’s breeding centre has been pioneering research into its rhino population, feeding back its findings into conservation efforts across the continent.
Located in the Omboroko mountains, Okonjima is your best bet if you want to see leopards and cheetahs in Namibia, offering game drives and on-foot tracking experiences, which level the playing field between you and the wild. The Bush Camp has eight thatched chalets and a honeymoon suite, making it ideal for a high-end hideaway, while the Plains Camp has 24 spacious rooms that overlook the bush-veldt. Come evening, the guests congregate in the industrial-style dining room for barbecues of grilled oryx. Look out for the pair of warthogs that scuttle along the patio.
Okonjima is the home of AfriCat, a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to rehabilitating cheetahs (Namibia has the world’s largest population), leopards and lions, while imparting knowledge to farmers and their children to prevent the killing of cats when they prey upon their livestock.
Spitzkoppen Lodge – rooms from £186
Ozondjou Trails – rooms from £450pp for two-night trail
Khowarib Lodge – rooms from £134
Ongava Tented Camp – rooms from £415
Okonjima Plains Camp – rooms from £358
Book a holiday to Namibia with Africa Collection
Hire a Toyota RAV4 with GPS for 10 days for £680
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