The Zambezi River in Namibia curls by my deck at the Ntwala Island Lodge, dark river beneath a muted orange and red sun, dying to the African day. The river is laced with crocs, peppered with hippos, and surrounded by clouds of birds, cawing, screaming and cooing. There are super aggressive fish in the river—tiger fish that make piranhas look like sweet, little cuddlers. The place is bonafide, non-Middle-Earth magical.
We’ve flown, driven, walked, and boated our way across two borders today–from Namibia (“Please fill out the disembarkation card, sir”) into Botswana (“Please fill out the embarkation card, sir”) out of Botswana and back into Namibia. Our flight was in a six-seater plane for three-plus hours over vast desert plains with scrub brush, sand, and rock. Occasionally water would show up on the scene and we all eagerly leaned to the windows to see if wildlife would show.
There was a running herd of warthogs, a lot of land crossed by human and game trails—and devoid of roads. And then suddenly, there were elephants. Dozens of them, big and small. Our plane was only 100 feet above the ground, and we were whisked above the giant gray beauties.
I found myself smiling despite being jetlagged, a little sick, and weary of being in transit. Finally, really, truly we were in Africa. I sheepishly asked a new friend in Namibia: “Um, do you know where The Gods Must Be Crazy was filmed?” I felt stupid for asking another Americlown tourist inquiry. But she smiled and said, “Actually you flew over the spot.” Suddenly the question was okay, and it was pleasant to realize the quirky movie in my head was the place!
Occasionally, Willem, our pilot and a shareholder in six lodges around Namibia would shout something over the hum of the plane. “That’s the hill where the local bushmen gather once a year! Do you see the elephants in the water!? The lodge we just buzzed is one of ours… I need to call them to tell them we’re not coming to the airport!” And my favorite: “No. Those are cattle.”
The story of wildlife and people and tourism in Namibia is beautiful—and stark. Forty-two percent of the land is under some type of conservation status. There are more than 70 community-run conservatories that protect the wildlife for tourists and hunters, very managed, mind you, in such a way that the average Namibian in a conservatory (there are more than 400,000 that live inside them) sees financial value in protecting their wild stock.
Gone are the days of rampant poaching as the people who live there can declare: “This is ours! You cannot disrespect and steal from us” Or something along those lines. Gone are the days of 20 or 30 (who knows?) game ranges with their 40 to 60 eyes. Now there are 800,000+ eyes watching to be sure that the rhino beds safely tonight. Certainly it’s not perfect and the system can break down—we humans will do what we do. But Namibia is a tourism success story to be told. And seen.
Tiger fishing for half a day proved to be a success. There’s a reason why tiger fish are not named poodle fish. They are named tiger fish because they have big, offset triangular teeth and hit the fishing line so hard that every time it happened I couldn’t suppress a huge laugh of amazement and joy. The guide told stories—some that I wanted to have happen to me. “That day we caught the biggest tiger fish of all and saw elephants next to the river.” Other stories (in my Heart of Darkness) I wanted to have happen to the guy who bullied me in 9th grade. “So then the hippo lunged up under our boat when we were going near full-speed, and we all flew into a heap onto land screaming and stumbling on all fours to escape!”
The afternoon ended in a flurry of smiles and lies about fish numbers and sizes between the different boats, and we were off to meet the local tribe who benefits from the tourism there.
It is an amazingly complicated scenario, but it is working. The WWF, local tribes, the federal government, local lodge owners, and others are working together to see that a tourist’s money actually benefits everyone, not just one party. Tourism doesn’t always protect wildlife, locals, and business interests. But it can. And it’s beautiful even in the tension that is inevitable in such a complicated system.
Later on the trip I was able to visit a desert lodge operated by Wilderness Safaris that focuses on the desert rhino. It’s in a vast, lightly populated named Damaraland. While we didn’t see the ethereal rhinos, we did see a lot of game, including a herd of desert elephants, which live in an incredibly austere environment and still manage to be elephantine.
Namibia is a land of adventure of many stripes—from the soft and cushioned clean-hands adventure to the difficult wearying treks, this is a destination that must be experienced first hand to be fully believed. With recovering wildlife stocks, sparse population, spotty history as a former part of South Africa, and larger cities founded originally by German colonists, one of the funny sayings about Namibia that seems to bear some truth is “It’s like Africa—only better”.
This post was originally published on the adventureblog of the National Geographic site.