Where tourism supports conservation
Text and photographs Annabelle Venter
Shortly after my arrival at Plains Camp on a hot midsummer’s noon I’m drifting in a cool, round pool with corrugated iron sides. A Stewarts & Lloyds windmill clinks hypnotically overhead, slowly grinding to a halt as the breeze subsides. One could be forgiven for thinking one is on an African farm, but of course that’s exactly what the Hanssen family wants you to experience.
O konjima is very much a family affair and originally started out as a Brahman cattle farm, before evolving into the conservation success story of today, with an array of luxury accommodation to ensure you enjoy your stay.
Three siblings – Wayne, Donna and Roselea – run Okonjima and AfriCat, while their older sister Tammy heads up AfriCat North near Kamanjab. The first family member I meet is Donna,who emphasises that she is just one of the strong family team who have elevated Okonjima to the legendary status it enjoys today. Donna is my educator and guide for the duration of my stay, and when she speaks it is on behalf of the family who share a united vision. To understand the Okonjima story, one needs two things: time to absorb the enormity of what this family has achieved, and a glimpse into the family background to put things into perspective. Follow this up with world-class accommodation and twice daily activities and this will complete your experience of Namibia.
THE FARMING YEARS
The Hanssen’s mother, Rose,was born in Northern Rhodesia where her English father managed Stuarts & Lloyds, selling new revolutionary Lister engines to farmers before moving to a farm in Namibia. Rose’s husband Val, of Danish descent, pioneered Brahman cattle farming in Namibia and bought Okonjima in 1970.
An English-speaking farming family in Namibia is rather unique, even today. But in the seventies the Hanssen family seldom socialized, finding their entertainment with each other and the farm. The children were raised differently to other kids at the time. They were encouraged to examine and question their world in a kind, yet fun sort of way. Being weekly boarders at school in Otjiwarongo meant weekends were happy, exploratory times. Orphaned wild animals found homes with the Hanssens and life was always entertaining with an emphasis on learning about their natural world.
Just who is watching who… Cheetah tracking on foot at Okonjima
The Brahman cattle they farmed are ideal for Namibian conditions. They sweat through their skin, have long legs and are aggressive mothers that challenge danger instead of running away. But predators have always been a challenge to farmers, and on Okonjima the leopard population threatened to destroy farming. They soon realized that the more leopards they shot, the more leopards they had. These early years were extremely difficult as poor soil nutrition also affected the calving rate negatively. Rose was good friends with vet Dr Rina Grant who conducted studies on the farm’s grazing quality. Rina discovered a severe phosphate deficiency in the soil and had special supplements formulated for the herds. Improving the calving rate to 98% didn’t, however, prevent the continued loss of 20-30 calves a year to leopards.
When Wayne was 18, his father asked him to take a hunter out to shoot a leopard. He took the hunter to the other side of the farm to avoid a cat he had become fond of, but sadly the hunter killed ‘his’ leopard before he could warn him. This was a turning point for him and he resolved to find a way to live alongside nature. His father agreed on condition that he pay for each calf that was lost. Quite an incentive for a young man with no money!
Establishing that up to 12 leopards lived on their farm, Val realized that a solution had to be found. He started synchronising breeding times and keeping the calves in predator-proof kraals at night when leopards usually hunt. These were just two factors in a long quest to find a solution. Calf losses immediately dropped to 2 or 3 a year. Thus began the start of learning to farm alongside predators.
OPENING HOME AND HEARTS TO TOURISTS
In 1986, Dennis Rundle of Wilderness Safaris was looking for a place to take his guests bird-watching and Donna recommended her mother’s skills! Soon the first safari group arrived. The children cleared out their bedrooms, painted the walls and camped in the garden. Rose was the perfect hostess and a superb cook, and she also was an excellent birding guide. Okonjima became a regular stop for tourists. Wayne shared his Bushman skills with guests, learnt from a childhood San friend and mentor. Extra rooms were built in the garden and Okonjima became a guest farm with Rose, Wayne and his wife Lise guiding and hosting guests. The farmhouse was a lush and welcoming oasis for visitors.
Around this time Lise started rescuing cheetahs from surrounding farms as farmers wanted to shoot them due to livestock losses. Cheetahs were also being hunted in order to protect the prey, as game farming increased in importance.
Soon they had 30 young and healthy cheetahs in captivity, and they began releasing them far away from the farms they were rescued from, onto land that was predator friendly. But they realized that the stress for the cheetah actually began once it was ‘released’ into a strange environment. It often couldn’t find water or prey and came into contact with other resident predators. This was not the answer and AfriCat (derived from ‘a free cat’) Foundation was established as a registered charity in 1993 to raise funds for further carnivore research and rehabilitation. Roughly 5% of the rescued cheetahs died, 85% were released and about 10% couldn’t be released. Funding was needed to support the 10% and to find new solutions. Welcoming guests to the farm was part of this solution, but they needed larger donors.
Sadly Rose passed away in 1992 and Val realized he couldn’t continue on his own. He needed to sell and offered the farm to Wayne.
Sultry Lila, one of the collared wild leopards on Okonjima
AFRICAT IS BORN
Wayne already had a vision to return the land to its natural state of 200 years ago, but needed help to implement it. He invited his sisters to take up the challenge with him. It required a strong team and Roselea and Donna decided to give up their careers and return to the farm to put their energy into the family business. Starting on a shoestring budget, they borrowed money from the bank to settle their debts and do urgent accommodation upgrades. In 1993 the cattle herds were finally sold off and the focus shifted to conservation.
AfriCat became an entity separate from the Okonjima farm and the objectives were clear:
- To educate the next generation about carnivores and their role in maintaining the environmental equilibrium
- To foster tolerance among famers and educate them in farming practices to live alongside predators
- To do carnivore research and monitoring in order to broaden the understanding of living with predators
- To provide humane care for injured and orphaned animals and facilitate the rehabilitation and release of large carnivores
The oldest sister, Tammy, and her husband lived on a farm near Kamanjab where she founded Afri-Leo in 1997. Due to ever-increasing demands of carnivore conservation, the family mutually agreed to merge this group with AfriCat, and Afri-Leo became AfriCat-North.
Her foundation’s work involves assisting in resolving the community’s conflict with larger predators, specifically lions that have moved out of Etosha. AfriCat-North supports the communities, helping them to live alongside predators by erecting cattle kraals. Four lions which were rescued as cubs in Tammy’s area and cannot be reintroduced to the wild, now reside at AfriCat on Okonjima – they are the ‘welfare lions’.
YOUR STAY AT OKONJIMA
Eventually the Main Camp at the farmhouse could no longer cope with increasing numbers of visitors and in 2001 the first luxurious Bush Camp was opened. Recently renovated, I find the atmosphere here extremely relaxing and, with good spacing between chalets for maximum privacy, silence reigns. Warthogs bring their babies to frolic in the birdbath while I enjoy afternoon coffee in my private sala. With the emphasis on eco-friendly living, nothing goes to waste here and after dinner we head up the mountain to watch two porcupines and a small-spotted genet devour the left-over food of the day.
On a tour of the farm, the stunning Luxury Bush Villa catches my eye. This is the only camp inside the Nature Reserve and the only unfenced one. Game and predators drink at the waterhole viewed from the deck. Small and intimate, it can accommodate eight to twelve people and is the ideal family retreat.
All the other camps are inside the 2000 ha ‘rehabilitated-predator-free’ land where antelope and small mammals including loads of warthog roam freely, making it safe for children, walking and cycling activities, yet still remaining wild.
The intimate Bush Suite resembles a private cottage in the bush, accommodating just up to four people. The mokoro-shaped pool is a magnet on a hot summer day. This camp could be the ultimate honeymoon destination.
Four beautiful campsites have been established with open-fronted bathrooms to take in the view while lathering! Okonjima really caters for every budget and this campsite is spacious and peaceful, with sites set far apart. They all share a beautiful swimming pool with stunning views over the plains.
The new Plains Camp was completed in June 2014, and that is where I find myself floating in the pool at the start of my visit. In a style that honours the farming tradition of the Hanssen family, a lot of the decor is recycled and tells stories about the farm. Old photographs as well as stunning big cat images adorn the walls, and old windmill-heads now serve as lampshades in the high barn-like ceiling. The camp is large and spacious, with rooms extending to either side of the main Barn area, each of them with a sweeping view over the Okonjima plains. Warthogs roll in the mud and birds swoop around inside the Barn which houses the restaurant, reception and shop.
The Barn at Plains Camp
Senior guide Gideon Lisara explains the finer details of cheetah tracking to guests
A warthog relaxing in the waterhole at Plains Camp
The ‘farm dam’ pool at Plains Camp
AN EDUCATIONAL HOLIDAY
From these luxury lodgings, visitors are encouraged to partake in the activities offered twice-daily. The funds generated from the activities and the accommodation go a long way to help cover costs, as Okonjima and every visitor to the farm supports the AfriCat HQ programme. Senior guide Gideon takes me leopard tracking on the first afternoon of my stay. The leopards in the Nature Reserve are wild, but many have been collared for research and monitoring and VHF telemetry is used to track them. We find two (with some difficulty) but the big male, Mafana, is not in the mood for visitors and sulks in a gulley. Lila is more accommodating and finally jumps down from a shepherd’s tree after her impala meal.
The next morning we go cheetah tracking on foot. While watching the cheetahs the value of having two guides becomes apparent. Tracker Martin quietly asks me to get up, then points to a puff adder advancing from about one and a half metres away.
A highlight was tracking wild dogs the following day. Rescued from near Okakarara, we find the pack of four sleeping in the gorge after feasting on three baby warthogs. We spend a quiet hour and a half sitting under a tree near them, just talking and watching.
Of course no visit is complete without a visit to the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre, where you will also get to meet some of the carnivore ambassadors up close.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FUTURE
Donna explains that their success is built on the complete trust in one another that only a strong and close-knit family upbringing can produce. As with any team, there needed to be a leader from the beginning and Wayne was allowed by his strong-willed sisters to make the final decisions! Each sibling has clear-cut responsibilities. For the first 10 years, says Donna, they never had salaries, their own cars or even bank accounts! Undoubtedly this type of commitment came at a price, as do most worthwhile things in life.
Donna and Wayne don’t have children but Roselea and her husband Luigi are currently raising the next generation! Tammy’s son Janek Hoth is already part of the team and passed his helicopter pilot exams while I was visiting. His sister Tyla now manages the social media side of the business from her home in South Africa. Tristan Boehme is the family’s right-hand man and with his skilful marketing holds the key to reaching the tourism sector, without which Okonjima would not be so successful!
The Hanssen family’s vision is to provide the definitive guide to island-bound conservation, i.e. an area surrounded by conventional farmers and methods. Their dream is to return the land to the condition it was before humans appeared. Slowly but surely the Hanssens are proving that it is possible to live with predators. The next step is to re-introduce cattle to the park. They will put their hard-won research to good use to test new predator-friendly farming methods, thus ensuring the preservation of the land as well as the safety of the animals.
Donna says they have learnt over the years that the key to the future of conservation are children and education. The aim is to assist the farmer and they have found that the farmer’s children play a vital role in changing the mindsets of their parents. Namibia remains one of very few places in the world where farmers and wildlife live side by side.
However, nothing is as simple as it seems when there is human-wildlife conflict and the farmer fears the loss of his livelihood. Organisations such as AfriCat cannot simply remove predators but are there to support and offer solutions through research.
Okonjima wants to encourage local Namibians to visit the farm and learn about conservation first-hand. This is made easy by the variety of accommodation to choose from, including special offers for Namibians. Okonjima caters for people from all walks of life.
Visit www.okonjima.com for more information, to become a donor and to book your visit! But remember that you will need at least two nights, preferably three, to take it all in. A visit to this special place leaves you with new respect for our endangered predators.
WHY YOUR VISIT IS IMPORTANT
- Wildlife conservation and tourism naturally go hand in hand, and tourism remains the cornerstone of success and funding at Okonjima.
- All visitors to Okonjima contribute indirectly to the AfriCat Foundation by staying in the lodges and partaking in activities.
- Many visitors become donors who contribute directly to the different AfriCat research projects.
- Tourism uplifts communities by providing jobs to relatively unskilled people who otherwise may not find work due to lack of skills.
- Hospitality comes naturally to African people and is a forgiving industry, one where people can learn on the job.
- In remote areas tourism provides income to those who otherwise have no opportunities, and a place of work within their own environment and close to home.
- Tourism provides opportunities for upliftment and we often hear heart-warming stories of the general assistant who worked his or her way up to management level.
- Did you know that one tourist in Namibia supports 6 to 7 people?
This article was first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of Travel News Namibia.