Namibia: Long roads to stunning spots and tourism with heart
Two divinely remote community-owned lodges ramp up the feelgood factor of a trip to Namibia with a model that uplifts local people and conservation too
It’s a bright summer morning, and a small band of visitors and guides is hurtling down a gravel road on an open game vehicle. Swathes of sun-buttered savannah whizz by as the wind thunders in our ears. One passenger's especially long ponytail is dancing straight upwards in the gale, a yellow Kansas twister against the blue sky.
We are somewhere on the 100km road between last night’s lodge, Grootberg, and Kamanjab in Namibia’s northwest. Cars are few, but whenever one does blaze into view, guide Bob Guibeb gets dramatic. Ducking his face behind an upturned elbow, he yells “Nooooooooooo!” until the dust cloud swallows the sound. When it settles, Bob unleashes a playful eyeroll and a big laugh. “Now let's go find those elephants!” he says.
Between the Skeleton Coast in the west and Etosha National Park in the east, these parts are called Damaraland. It’s hours of driving from anywhere but devout adventurers earn dividends in its ruggedly lovely, arid landscapes. All around us, vast plains of savannah punctuated with piles of giant boulders roll away to a haze of red-tinged mountains.
Wild cats, brown hyena and giraffe are just some of the creatures one might spot here, but the top prizes are its desert-adapted, free-roaming black rhino and elephant. The latter are the reason we are here — on an elephant-tracking excursion through Grootberg Lodge.
Dramatic Bob is patently pleased when we leave the main road for a track that winds deeper into the bush. Up close, it’s the sort of terrain a seasoned South African game-seeker might find familiar: low trees, shrubs, dust and swaying grasses. But a kid off the road on a donkey cart, his face smothered in white clay, is the first clue we’re not in Kruger any more.
A bit further on, a farmstead comes into view: scatterings of mud houses enclosed by simple fences. There is a goat pen and cattle chewing on scrub. A steel water tank. The odd bakkie.
Bob hops down to go see a guy, standing off the road, about an elephant. Has he seen any lately? There’s an animated conversation and Bob comes back with good news (some elephants passed through here last night) and bad (one pulled the roof off a building).
CONFLICT AND CONCESSIONS
It’s a sobering example of a crisis that’s decimating wildlife the world over: human-wildlife conflict. For rural communities, living wild animals can spell disaster for crops, livestock, infrastructure and human safety. Dead, they mean meat, skins and money so it’s understandable that in early 1990s Namibia — where even today more than half the population lives in rural areas — wildlife numbers were at an all-time low.
The common model of conservation — fencing off reserves to keep the wildlife in and rural communities out — was not feasible and not working. So Namibia pursued a different solution, making custodians of local communities and giving them a vested interest in protecting their own wildness. The system’s heart is the communal conservancy — pieces of land with fixed boundaries whose assets are managed by the communities themselves.
Their primary payoffs come through quota-governed hunting (meat for consumption or sale, as well as trophy hunting) and tourism. Each conservancy is self-governing and recognised by the government but must meet certain conditions, including having game-management plans and preparing financial reports.
According to environmental organisation Nacso, there are 86 registered conservancies covering 166,045km2 of Namibia — 20.2% of the country. That’s 227,941 people living off the land but in a way that must, by law, be sustainable.
The land that we are on is a pioneer in this story: the ≠Khoadi-//Hôas conservancy — covering 3,364km2 and home to 5,083 people — was one of the first four conservancies established in 1998. It was also the first conservancy to fully own a lodge (Grootberg), which is its primary source of income. The human benefits take many forms, from training and employment to funds for infrastructure (ie the building of clinics, schools and water points) and education.
The lodge also donates a set fee for predator sightings on activities and — some consolation for the lost roof — has a compensation scheme for farmers affected by destructive animals.
With its wildlife numbers on the rise and demonstrable economic benefits for the people who live in this harsh landscape, ≠Khoadi-//Hôas and Grootberg Lodge are often lauded as an eco-tourism success story, whose accolades include being named among the world's top 100 Sustainable Destinations in 2020.
At Grootberg, they call it tourism with heart, which is exactly what Bob and his fellow guides pour into our “elephant hunt”.
Their knowledge flows easily and we stop often to examine plants, birds, spoors. Those white trees seemingly sprouting from boulders are star-chestnuts, also called silver ghost trees. Mopane trees, with leaves shaped like angel wings, can heal wounds and toothache. The miggies that pester our picnic lunch will multiply if you swat them, so don’t.
Also with us is David Kambinda, a freelance tour guide who has driven our group many miles from Windhoek. Today, he gets to be a passenger. He loves to cry: “ELEPHANT!” and point, then collapse in a pile of giggles when everyone looks.
Every time we round a bend there is some clue that we just missed them, but the elephants ultimately cling to their “elusive” adjective and we surrender to head back to the lodge — not disappointed, but buoyed after a day of laughing and wandering in a rare and lovely piece of the world.
THE LODGE IN THE SKY
But there’s also a keenness to get back to spend our last afternoon at the lodge, sip a Windhoek and take a swim in what might well be the “world's most Instagrammable pool”.
On the map, it's on the rim of the Grootberg Plateau in the Etendeka Mountains. In life it’s at the top of a rollercoaster-angled road, which flattens out to reveal a main building and 16 stone cottages, all seemingly just about to tumble into the jagged Klip River Valley, whose giant bowl swoops wide across and away to the horizon. An information board tells you that these mountains rise up 700 — 800m above the valleys, and that “You are standing at one of the highest points in the Namibian landscape”.
This heart-stopping view is the highlight in every corner of the lodge, from the beds to the stone walkways to the restaurant — even the shower. But it is perhaps the pool that is the piece de resistance. Seeming as it does to float in mid-air over the valley, it's more deserving than the usual of being tied to the term “infinity”.
In the late afternoons, it’s a ritual for guests to gather poolside, drinks poured and cameras ready for the sun-dipping, shadow-lengthening show in the valley. The last light is also the dinner bell, and suddenly the dining room comes alive with happy chatter at tables where the hosts deliver delicious plates with easy smiles and seem to know everybody's name.
When the last pudding plates have gone, the locals — 98% of staff are from the local community — start a party, a thumping interlude of elated singing and dancing. Shuffling up to the tables, they hold out their hands in an invitation to join, singing “Follow one by one, follow two by two ...” and the invitation is irresistible.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Grootberg has a sister lodge to the north, called Hobatere, which is also owned by the =Khoadi-//Hoas Conservancy, though it’s 178km away, on an 88km2 tourism concession.
On the western edge of Namibia’s legendary wildlife destination, Etosha National Park, the setting is quite different, not on a mountaintop but in a small, indigenous forest on the banks of the Otjovasandu River. The community here has a similar lifeline in light-footprint tourism, and the welcoming spirit is the same. Our hosts sing us in on arrival — we exit the van to an ululating party and dance right up to the door — and sing us out every night after dinner.
Game drives on the concession hold out hopes of spotting lion, elephant, giraffe and more. One morning, our road leads to a surprise champagne breakfast in a boma. Guests can also book guided trips into Etosha, or simply laze all day at the tranquil lodge and wait for life to show up at the waterhole in front of the veranda. Al-fresco dinners are served here too with a satisfying side of sunset — the kind of soul-stirring, big-sky-bleed paintings that only wild Africa can do.
THE MAN WHO CRIED ‘ELEPHANT’
Back at Grootberg on the morning of our leaving, we set out after a bountiful breakfast for the five-hour drive to our next stop. In the air-conditioned van, David is back at the wheel and the passengers are settling in to read, or phone scroll, or nap.
Only 15 minutes in, David suddenly hits the brakes and shouts: “ELEPHANT!”
“Funny, David,” is the unified, deadpan reply.
But it’s true: about 300m from the road is a near-perfect chorus line of elephants, nonchalantly munching on leaves and milling about like it's nothing at all that way over there is a bunch of near-hysterical humans piling out of a van. Jumping up and down and hugging. Maybe wiping away a surreptitious tear. Definitely dancing.
GETAWAY AT A GLANCE:
GETTING THERE: Fly Namibia is an independent airline that flies between Cape Town and Windhoek three days per week. See flynamibia.com.na.
GETTING AROUND: Namibia Car Rental offers sedans, SUVs, minibuses and 4x4s, with or without camping gear. See namibiacarrental.net
Where it is: 96km southwest of Kamanjab; 567km by road from Windhoek.
Accommodation: 16 chalets overlooking the Klip River Valley, sleeping two to four people.
Activities: Guided walks, elephant and rhino tracking, sundowner drives on the plateau, Damara cultural tours.
Rates: From N$4,154 for two people, DB&B. Rates for both lodges exclude drinks and activities. Children under 6 stay free; children 6 — 12 pay 50% of the adult rate.
Contact: See grootberg.com.
Where it is: 68km northwest of Kamanjab, near Etosha National Park's Galton Gate. It’s 540km by road from Windhoek.
Accommodation: Six twin and six double bungalows with showers. Doubles can accommodate a family of four.
Activities: Game drives in the concession, day trips to Etosha, dinners in a boma in the bush. For something extra special, book the adults-only Tree House, secluded in the bush some distance from the main lodge.
Rates: From N$2,851 for two people sharing, DB&B.
Contact: See hobatere-lodge.com.
• Sleith was a guest of Journeys Namibia, which manages the lodges on the conservancy’s behalf and also employs and trains members of the local communities. See journeysnamibia.com.