It had been a few years since I’d been back to Namibia, the desert land where I studied black-faced impalas for my PhD, later planning a reintroduction for the subspecies to their historic range in the far north west. Namibia is also where I went on to start my work on elephants, working with the San Bushmen in Nyae Nyae Conservancy to help alleviate human-elephant conflict over water. Namibia will always have a special place in my heart, and it gave me a great grounding in the how-to of practical conservation. It’s also a great place to go on safari, being easy and safe by African standards, and having the most astounding landscapes, fascinating cultures and unique wildlife, unlike anywhere else.
I believe Namibia is one of the best countries in the world in terms of innovative, practical conservation, largely because of their highly successful community-based conservation efforts, centred around the communal conservancies. There’s no better place to visit than camps like Doro !Nawas Camp, Damaraland Camp, Serra Cafema Camp and Desert Rhino Camp, if you want to see how engaged local communities get when they have genuine ownership over their natural resources. It’s not only the fact that you have locals running these camps, as managers, waiters and guides – it’s the warm feeling you get from the staff, who are not just employees but owners and landlords.
I had a fantastic group of people on safari with me this time, mostly expats from Singapore of Dutch, Indian and American backgrounds, as well as a representative Aussie and a Kenyan! They were all up for an adventure, and that’s certainly what Namibia provides. Flying over the vast landscapes is half the experience, seeing the dune shapes from the air and if you’re lucky, seeing flamingoes and seals along the coast!
We kicked off the safari at Kulala Desert Lodge, the closest camp to the famous Sossusvlei area in the Namib Naukluft Park. I was delighted to find that my research assistant, Munekamba (now known as Ati-Sari), who helped me on my black-faced impala studies in north-west Namibia, is now the manager at Kulala Desert Lodge. If you’ve read my second book “Elephant Dance” you’ll remember the story of the two bull elephants standing over my tent while my assistant looked on from his roof top tent – well, that was Munekamba! After we worked together I introduced him to the managers at one of the Wilderness Safaris camps, and he’s done so well that he’s now managing one of their busiest camps. I’m stoked to say Munekamba saw his first elephant with me back in 2006 – and it was standing over my tent at the time!
Kulala Desert Lodge is a great place to explore the Namib from. If you want, you can actually sleep on the roofs of the gorgeous chalets, star gazing from your bed as you drift off to sleep, however it wasn’t the best night for it for one of my group, Robert, as during the night a sand storm blew in and he had to make a quick departure inside! It was a wild morning in the dunes, as the more adventurous among us climbed the dunes, being literally blown right off their feet as cyclonic winds whipped across the desiccated landscape.
At Dead Vlei however, it was perfectly calm, somehow protected from the winds by its sunken position. We discovered several fascinating species in the Namib, including the white lady spider and a horned adder at Sesreim Canyon, plus a wonderful spotted eagle owl in a tree near where we stopped for coffee, all well spotted by our excellent Wilderness Safaris guides. But to me it’s always the oryx that steal the show in the Namib, these magnificent antelopes with their black and white markings and sharp, straight horns that make them stand out so strikingly against the pastel colours of the mountains.
Then it was off to Desert Rhino Camp at Palmwag in Damaraland, a place of incredible red, rocky, mountainous landscapes, and home of rare black rhinos who munch on toxic milk bushes (Euphorbia damarana), springbok and oryx, kudu and many more desert- adapted creatures. If the Namib is like landing on the moon, then Damaraland is like going to Mars. Here were were lucky enough to experience spotted hyaenas at a den, including two very young ones who walked right up to our vehicles with not a care in the world.
We joined the Save The Rhino Trust trackers on a walk to see a black rhino they had found earlier that morning, a bull known as “Don’t Worry”, who had been dehorned as part of a Ministry of Environment and Tourism initiative to reduce poaching in Damaraland. It never feels right to me to see a rhino without its horn, and I worry about the ability of the rhinos to defend their young against lions and conduct normal behaviours without this natural appendage. Sadly, there is evidence that poachers will still kill dehorned rhinos for the small amount of horn left below the skin, because of its high value on the illegal market in Vietnam.
There was lots of discussion around the campfire about rhino conservation, and a recurrent theme was the issue of legalising the trade in rhino horn, which seemed to be a popular idea among all the Namibian wardens, guides and rangers I spoke to. Many people in Namibia feel that they should be benefiting from the horns, not the criminals involved in the trade, or that the sales of horn could support rhino conservation. While this makes sense to me, I can’t imagine how wild rhinos, with such low populations today, and continuing to decline at 1000+ per year, could sustain a market in Vietnam, with its growing population of 93 million+ and increasing wealth. In Africa, a single horn can fetch three year’s worth of a local person’s monthly salary, so there are very real incentives for good guys to sacrifice conservation for economic motivation. We have to continue to support anti-poaching efforts in Africa, but I’m more convinced than ever that reducing demand in Vietnam is the most effective weapon we have to stop the slaughter. That’s why I think awareness campaigns in Vietnam (like Breaking the Brand) need much greater support, targeting the elite audience who are buying it. This battle cannot be won in Africa alone.
Desert Rhino Camp is a partnership between Wilderness Safaris and both Save The Rhino Trust and 3 Damara communities surrounding the Palmwag concession. Going there is truly supporting conservation because what you pay to visit directly supports the 3 communities and pays for the trackers to protect the rhino every day in the concession. I love examples of genuine community-based conservation like this, based on sound economic principles. And quite besides the feel good factor of going there and knowing the contribution you’re making makes a real difference, which the staff remind you about all the time by thanking you at least three times a day, the feeling in this camp is just magical. The staff sing and dance every night (and boy, have they got rhythm!), and on our last night they arranged a surprise starlit dinner out in the bush, something that me and my group will never forget. It was the highlight of our Namibian journey.
Finally it was off to see some big animals up close at the Ongava Game Reserve, right next to Etosha National Park. For me this is really home territory as I was based there for two years in a battered old caravan at Okaukeujo research camp while collecting data on black-faced impalas for my PhD. This part of the world is really fantastic in terms of wildlife in September, the dry season, because you get the big concentrations of animals at the waterholes, and on this front it didn’t disappoint. You can simply sit at a waterhole for hours in Etosha at this time of year, just watching the hundreds of animals come and go.
We also spent some time with mating lions in Etosha, walked up to white rhinos at Ongava and shared a cup of coffee at Okaukeujo waterhole with my old friends, Shayne Kotting (MET warden, Okaukeujo) and Birgit Kotting (MET, head of the rhino custodianship program).
I’d like to thank Dr Julian Fennessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation for giving us a talk on the plight of Africa’s giraffes on our first night in Windhoek and for joining us for a fun night at Joe’s Beerhouse afterwards. Julian really opened our eyes about the increasingly worrying state of Africa’s giraffe subspecies, and watch the IUCN red list this year which is likely to suggest that quite a few giraffe species are more endangered than we realised.
Thanks also to Abigail Guerier at Ongava Research Centre for the fascinating talk at Ongava on our last day on her work on the genetics of white rhinos. Fascinating to learn about the complex life histories of these prehistoric giants. Let’s just hope they are around for our children to see!
All in all, it was a fantastic life-changing journey, one that I certainly won’t forget, and I hope that all who joined me are now great ambassadors for the cause of conserving Africa’s wildlife. If you’re interested in joining my next Namibian adventure, contact me to sign up for an odyssey in to the ruggedly beautiful Skeleton Coast from 20-27 May next year, limited to 10 people and already half full. And last but not least…
Finally, a very big thanks to Susan van der Vloodt, who brought most of her family and friends along on this magical journey. There’s nothing like sharing an African experience with the ones you love, and for me it’s a real privilege to share Africa with others who love being there as much as I do!
Are you male? Are you a lone traveller? Do you know someone who is and wants to go to Namibia? Well this is your lucky day! This is a last minute offer for a single male to join my Namibian safari THIS September (1st-8th), sharing with another single male. Yes that’s just a few months away!
The price of this amazing safari, including the beautiful Kulala Desert Lodge in the Namib Desert, Desert Rhino Camp in Damaraland and Ongava Lodge next to the famous Etosha National Park, is usually SGD$8555, but this one remaining spot is going for a discount at just SGD$8000 (approx AUD$8000 or USD$6000) at today’s exchange rate. Sorry ladies, this spot is for a bloke only as he’ll be sharing with another bloke (a very nice one!).
Where should you go on safari in Africa? The choices seem bamboozling at first – Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa… All are amazing and have their own unique angles and experiences, but I’m going to share a few reasons why I think you should consider one of my favourite safari destinations – Namibia. If my photos below don’t convince you, consider these five reasons why Namibia should be on your bucket list.
Namibia is one of the safest countries you can go on an African safari. A whole lot of people don’t realise that there are less safe countries to visit in Africa (Nigeria, Congo and parts of West Africa spring to mind) and there are much safer countries, like Namibia. In my opinion, the two safest places to travel in Africa are Namibia and Botswana, partly because of their low human populations, and secondly because you don’t get the same kind of crime that you get in some other countries (like South Africa). Namibia is fabulous for families and first timers to Africa. We always used to call it “Africa For Beginners”. Lots of people do self drive safaris there because the roads are good and the scenery is spectacular.
Most of us live in a world that is full of people living in close proximity to each other. We are constantly bombarded with commercialism and consumerism, bright lights, loud noises, all those things that are part of capitalistic life in the modern world. Namibia’s desert is the opposite of all that. There’s something about being miles from anyone else, enveloped by vast spaces and enormous skies, that provides a unique kind of escapism. For me, it’s a place I can breathe.
More than half of Namibia is under conservation protection. I mean, think about that. It’s amazing. Australia’s only got about 12% under protection. It’s not all national parks in that 50%+ under protection in Namibia, although at almost 20% in national parks that’s a big chunk too. The key is all the communal conservancies managed and legally run by the local ethnic groups. Namibia is one of the finest examples of community-based conservation you’ll find on the planet and tourism is a big part of that success story. In Namibia they’ve really got their head around giving local communities benefits from the wildlife, and that translates back to their excellent conservation record. If you book an ethical safari through Matson & Ridley Safaris, you’re directly contributing to this conservation success. Read more about Namibia’s community-based conservation at the website of the Namibia Nature Foundation.
4) Unique wildlife
The safari experience you get in Namibia is like no other. You won’t get all of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino) on your first game drive. Namibia’s about quality, not quantity. What you will get is a single, regal, solitary oryx antelope standing on the desert dunes at sunset. You’ll get tall, white elephants in Etosha (in the dry season), coloured that way because of the white dust flung off the enormous pan. You’ll get tiny lizards that dance to stop their feet overheating on the boiling hot sand, and desert beetles with tiny ridges on their backs that trap the moisture from fog rolling in from the coast by standing into the wind on a ridge of sand. What you get there is unique desert-adapted wildlife in huge landscapes that even dwarf elephants.
On a single safari, you can experience the sandy orange dunes in the Namib Desert, the red, rocky volcanic landscapes of Damaraland in the north west, thorny bush lands and of course the famous Etosha salt pan fringed by short grasslands. In the north east you get big flowing rivers and in Bushmanland you get ancient, towering baobab trees. It’s incredibly diverse. You do have to cover a bit of distance as it’s a big country, but your money goes a long way in Namibia. There are also at least 11 ethnic groups in Namibia, from the traditional ovaHimba people to the cattle-focused Hereros and the San Bushmen.
I’ve got a few places left on my north west Namibia safari in May 2016, and only 1 spot for a single male for this year’s Namibian safari in September, so get in touch if you’d like to experience this amazing part of Africa with me. Alternatively, drop me a line if you’d like to book your own self-drive or fly-in safari in Namibia and I’ll plan an itinerary for you and your family that gives you your dream safari while making a difference in conservation. Namibia’s worth it, trust me!
I’m a massive fan of hyaenas. They’re comical, cheeky and downright cute if you look at them from the right angle. One person who agrees with me is Dr Martina Trinkel, who was studying spotted hyaenas in Etosha National Park when I was studying black-faced impalas for my PhD many years ago. We both lived at the research camp at Okaukeujo, but for my first six months I barely knew her, as being a researcher of a nocturnal predator, she would go out at sunset to look for hyaenas just as I was coming back for a good night sleep after a day of studying impalas. I would see her return home in the early hours of the morning, just as I was heading out. You’ve got to be dedicated to be a predator researcher, out all night in the desert cold, patiently seeking elusive animals in the dark, but as this interview with Martina shows, she developed a huge respect for the hyaenas we all know and love from ‘The Lion King’.
Africa’s a big place. Actually, really big. You can fit all of China, India and much of Europe into it’s vast landscape. So when you’re planning to go on safari, where do you start? And once you’ve been once, and you’ve got the Africa bug, where do you go next?
So what’s your favourite safari destination? It’s a tough question, because they all have their merits. In this blog I’m going to have a crack at sharing my current top 5 safari destinations and let you make up your mind where’s best for you to live out your dream.
1. Okavango Delta, Botswana
It’s not just that the Okavango is literally teeming with wildlife in the most beautiful palm tree lined wetlands you can imagine, it’s that Botswana itself is such a wonderful conservation success story. With strong and stable political leadership, a healthy economy and 45% of the population being employed in tourism, it’s no wonder this land-locked country at the centre of southern Africa is doing so well at conserving its wildlife.
The human population is only about 2 million and most of the country is classified as desert, so you don’t get the human pressures that you get in other more highly populated African nations (violent crime being one of them). You’ll see all sorts of interesting critters in Botswana, including all the big cats, African wild dogs, the sitatunga, a wetland dwelling antelope I have yet to feast my eyes on, and the largest elephant population in the world. Besides that, who wouldn’t want to explore nature in a mokoro?
This choice might surprise you. Zimbabwe is where I started my African journey back in 1993 on a safari with my Dad at the age of 15 in the Save Valley Conservancy, and it’s still a special place to me. The Save Valley Conservancy remains one of the best places in Africa to see rare African wild dogs. If you go during June, July, August, you’ve got a very good chance of seeing pups at dens, and that is just the cutest thing ever. If you arrange to visit through me, you can also meet the team running the rhino anti-poaching operation, Bryce and Lara, and the Turgwe Hippo Trust‘s Karen Paolillo, who has been studying the area’s hippos for decades.
I also love Hwange National Park. It feels like old Africa to me, and the wildlife there, especially in the dry season (June-Oct), is spectacular. I’ve had lions walk right beside the open vehicle in Hwange, and elephants in their hundreds lining up at waterholes. The thing about Zimbabwe is that many people aren’t traveling there because of the political instability brought about by the current regime. But I’ve been traveling there with my family in the last five years without any troubles, and the people are as friendly and welcoming as ever. And of course, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia is the famous Victoria Falls, which you have to see at least once in your life to have your breath literally taken out of you.
I only recently ventured into East Africa, having spent the last couple of decades exploring what southern Africa has to offer, and man, was I blown away by Kenya! They’ve been doing safaris in style there for a long time, and it shows in the quality of the experiences they can offer. One very good reason to go to Kenya is that it has the famous great wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara. You have to time this carefully to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time. I am taking a group of up to 12 to Kenya in July next year (safari details here) and there are still spots available for now, but please don’t wait to register your interest as my other two trips to Namibia and Botswana sold out in record time!).
When I got off the plane at Ol Donyo in the Chyulu Hills, nestled between Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks, I looked across the vast grass plains and up to the gobsmacking sight of Mount Kilimanjaro, and I was speechless. The key with traveling in Kenya is to avoid the crowds of minibuses and go with a good operator that offers you exclusivity with the wildlife. And as always, I suggest staying at lodges that operate in partnerships with local communities and conservation organisations, so you know your tourism dollars are helping make a difference on the ground. Kenya is also the home of Daphne Sheldrick’s famous elephant orphanage, a truly special experience that has brought many tears to the eyes of those who visit.
Suggested lodges: Naibosho (Masai Mara – a luxury, community partnership lodge), Ol Donyo (near Amboseli National Park, operating in partnership with the Big Life Foundation and local Masai community)
Having lived in Namibia for six years, studying black-faced impalas and later working on human-elephant conflict, I’ve still got a soft spot for this vast desert land. You won’t get a sense of space like this anywhere else in the world. The silence in the Namib desert can be overwhelming when you live in a noisy city, and can actually take a bit of adjusting to! Spotting unique desert creatures like oryxes, springboks and ostriches on the desert plains is one of the best things about being in Namibia, as is seeing the vast congregations of animals at waterholes during the dry season (July-October).
Etosha National Park is famous for its white elephants (coated in white dust from the Etosha salt pan) and is one of the best places in Africa to see black rhinos. I also love the north west of Namibia, the Skeleton Coast and Damaraland, where you get desert adapted lions and elephants eking out an existence alongside traditional ethnic groups like the ovaHimbas. My absolute favourite camp in Namibia? Serra Cafema, for sure. Up on the border with Angola, right at the top of Namibia, on the Kunene River, it’s the most remote camp in Africa and going there is like going to the moon (in a very good way!).
Suggested camps: Ongava (for Etosha & rhinos), Serra Cafema (for having your mind blown by desert solitude), Desert Rhino Camp (Damaraland, for tracking desert rhinos & supporting Save The Rhino Trust)
5. Okay so now I’m up to number five, and of course, this is not easy, as there are lots of other great options for safaris that I’d like to include here, like South Luangwa National Park in Zambia (real wild Africa with tonnes of elephants) and even some I haven’t been to that I really want to see, like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique, but I think the final choice for this blog, based on what I’ve seen to date, has to be Kruger National Park, South Africa.
There’s really no other national park like Kruger for an awesome ‘big five’ experience. But it’s the private reserves on the edge of the park that you want to stay in. South Africa offers so many luxurious and mid range options for families, couples or groups, that it’s hard to know where to start. You’ll get a lot for less price in South Africa because there’s a lot of competition and very high standards of accommodation. It’s a great starting point for a first safari, especially for families as they specialise in this. At Tinstwalo last year with then 3 year old Solo, we saw the entire big five, including an incredible leopard sighting and mating lions, in 36 hours!
There are excellent malaria-free reserves in South Africa too, guides that specialise in giving kids an amazing learning experience, and you can always add on a few days exploring Capetown and the magnificent mountains and wineries of the region.
You simply have to experience Namibia at least once in your life. It’s like nowhere else on the planet. The sense of space you get, and the deep desert silence, has to be experienced to be believed. If you’re in the rat race this is the perfect escape.