Unfolding Namibia’s Riches
Etosha ‑ It's a velvety black night in Etosha National Park as a crowd congregates on a protected rise overlooking the Halali watering hole like worshipers in a cathedral. Eyes riveted on the shimmering pond ‑ lit only by a canopy of stars and strategically placed spotlights ‑ we wait in reverential silence.
Suddenly, two elephants lumber out of the bush to drink their fill in the cool of the night. They're followed by a pack of skittish hyenas, nervously darting about. Then another long wait. Finally, a pair of prized black rhinos ‑ the evening's undisputed showstoppers ‑ make their entrance amid a click of cameras and hushed gasps. “That one is pregnant,” someone whispers in the dark as we “ooh” and “aah” at the magnificent prehistoric creatures, among the most endangered species on earth.
It's just like Namibia to unfold its riches quietly, subtly. What it lacks in the masses of wildlife found elsewhere on the continent, it makes up for in a serene and otherworldly setting of vast salt pans, lunar landscapes and towering sand dunes that plummet into the sea. And in its growing populations of species that are disappearing in other countries.
At a time when Africa is in the midst of a huge surge in poaching ‑ every 15 minutes an elephant is slaughtered, and every nine hours, a rhinoceros ‑ little-known Namibia is helping stem this tide of animal devastation.
Take the black rhinoceros. In 1980, it was almost extinct. Today, Namibia boasts the largest black rhino population in the world ‑ and even exports the species to other countries' national parks. Ditto for its cheetah population. Its lions, leopards, giraffes and elephants ‑ including its unusual desert-adapted ones ‑ are increasing in numbers, too.
“It's Africa's greatest animal recovery story,” says Keith Sproule, adviser to the World Wildlife Fund in Namibia.
Protect and observe
Indeed, this southwestern African country of just 2.3 million people took the visionary step of enshrining environmental protection into its constitution upon its independence from South Africa in 1990. It was the first African country to do so.
Today, 46 percent of the country ‑ including its entire 976-mile coastline ‑ is under conservation. Almost 20 percent is managed by 79 communal conservancies, self-governing entities that manage their wildlife for the benefit of their tribal communities.
One in five rural Namibians ‑ about 300 000 people ‑ now live in such conservancies, where tourists can view wildlife outside the traditional park setting and stay in community-run lodges.
“The link between conservation and tourism was the paradigm shift,” says Chris Weaver, WWF managing director in Namibia. “They're such remarkable people in this country.
The conservancies have allowed them to blossom.”
The model has set a world standard, attracting about 20 countries to study its success, including Mongolia, Nepal, Cambodia, Tanzania and the USA. “Namibia is one of the few countries in the world where the whole country is involved in conservation,” says Jim Sano, vice president of travel, tourism and conservation for the WWF.
As a result, poaching has become socially unacceptable.
“People know it's wrong, and the punishment is quite severe,” says my guide, Abel Kuyonisa, as our safari van heads out for a sunrise game viewing in Etosha, home to 114 mammal, 110 reptile and 340 bird species.
Etosha ‑ “great white place” ‑ is named for its 75-mile-long salt pan, so large it can be seen from space. Elsewhere, the park's scrubby desert-like savannah, hard-baked in the sun, makes spotting animals easy.
Before breakfast, my safari-mates ‑ five Brazilians, two Brits and two Germans ‑ and I tick off the species: Giraffe, check. Oryx, check. Springbok, wildebeest and even “white” rhino, so-called for their “wide” mouths. Check, check, check.
We learn from Abel that jackals mate for life, that ostriches are the fastest two-legged creatures, reaching 43 mph, and that zebras, called a “dazzle” when in a herd, all have unique stripe patterns.
By the end of two days, we've seen all these and many more, and gotten so close to an elephant that we could reach out and touch it.
And we've stayed in rustic lodges and eco-friendly tent cabins along the way, where impala, oryx and hartebeest ‑ eagerly photographed by day ‑ are served for dinner at night.
But still, the big cats elude us. Finally, as we depart Etosha on our last day, Abel spots two napping lionesses, camouflaged in the golden grasslands.
Mesmerised, we watch them yawn and stretch, oblivious to our vehicle nearby.
“I expected to see animals, but not so many different ones,” says Laercio Lhoret, a retired professor from Curitiba, Brazil, of our three-day safari. “It has exceeded my expectations.”
Largest, tallest, cleanest
Namibia does that. From its searing deserts ‑ where toilet paper outlives plastic bags, which disintegrate in the sun ‑ to its fog-shrouded Skeleton Coast, it's a country of chart-topping extremes: It has the largest game park in Africa and fourth-largest in the world; the largest annual game count in the world; the tallest sand dunes; the largest meteorite; the oldest desert; the second-largest canyon; and reputedly the tallest elephants. Most people consider Windhoek to be the cleanest capital in Africa.
All this in the second-least-densely populated country on earth (after Mongolia), where 13 major ethnic groups live together in harmony.
But it's the iconic dunes that call to me.
So I head into the coastal Namib Desert to see some. Near Sandwich Harbour, these beauties ripple and cascade all along the shore like waves in a stormy sea, before tumbling into the shimmering Atlantic Ocean.
“A dune can 'walk' up to 23 feet, depending on the force of the wind,” says our guide Herman Neethling as we “ski” down the razor-sharp, 22-story-tall slopes in our Land Rover.
It's a thrilling roller-coaster ride on miles of undulating sand, painted pink, orange and honey gold by the late afternoon sun.
“It's indescribable until you see it,” says Neethling, who is still awestruck despite countless visits.
It's hard not to be in this strangely beautiful land, whose name means “place of open spaces”. And, I might add, of a haunting stillness that lingers long after I'm out of Africa. – USA Today