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Text & Photographs by ©Jana-Mari Smith & Christie Keulder
Perched 1 620 metres above sea level, Grootberg Lodge in Damaraland offers some of the most spectacular views in Namibia, if not Southern Africa. Renowned for its starkly rugged and spellbinding landscape, Damaraland in Namibia’s remote north-western Kunene Region offers a kaleidoscope of features for the adventurous traveller.
Amidst the rough-and-tumble landscape, the majestic flat-topped mountains and the undulating valleys where the biggest population of black rhinos in the world is thriving, Grootberg Lodge proves that it is possible to create luxury, comfort and style without sacrificing the essence of the landscape and wildlife.
At Grootberg Lodge, built on the crest of one of Damaraland’s characteristic flat-topped plateaus, guests have the singular privilege and pleasure of sitting on a shaded veranda, looking out across a deep valley into the far beyond. Few vistas offer such a spellbinding spectacle.
Black eagles can be seen soaring close to the cliffs, a mere 50 or so metres from where you sit, enjoying your drink of choice.
But the lodge has another accolade up its sleeve. The #Khoadi//Hoas communal conservancy is the 100% owner of this lodge, a first for a communal conservancy in Namibia. Hilga /Gawises, manager of the #Khoadi//Hoas Conservancy, says that Grootberg Lodge and the Hoada Community Campsite, located 25 kilometres east of the lodge, form the basis of the communal conservancies, which have become an internationally recognised success story.
The seven-year-old lodge has played a primary role in the communal conservancy’s environmental, tourist and financial blueprints, which have jostled the conservancy to the top of the charts of Namibia’s conservancy programme. Namibia currently has 79 registered communal conservancies, extending over 155 205 square kilometres and housing around 234 000 people.
Namibia’s conservancy programme was created to balance the needs of people and wildlife simultaneously. As a result, the rights over the wildlife and tourism in their areas were handed by Government to the communal farmers. In this way, rural populations were given a chance to take ownership of their land, and to make decisions that would boost income while at the same time ensuring the judicious management of the surrounding environment.
As explained by Keith Sproule, Tourism Business Advisor for WWF-Namibia: “In a conservancy local people manage the land in the same way as a commercial farmer does. Trophy hunting is allowed within the limits negotiated with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and lodges and campsites can be built. From both activities the conservancies derive an income for their inhabitants. All of this is giving a tremendous boost to conservation.”
Seven black rhino at Grootberg
At Grootberg, the conservancy has launched several guest activities aimed at introducing the local inhabitants and wildlife of the area to visitors. Included in the activities is a rhino-tracking experience, which places guests in the footprints of these unique and vulnerable beasts.
Before black rhinos were introduced into the exclusive wildlife areas set aside for the lodge by the conservancy, the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) of Namibia carried out a feasibility study to see whether it was possible to translocate black rhinos to the conservancy and to train lodge guides.
By 2007 the conservancy was showing tremendous progress and the Namibian Government granted permission for two rhinos to be re-introduced into the area. HO (abbreviated from Hans-Otto) and Zinka were the first two rhinos, with Elisabeth arriving at a later stage.
“The rhino here are free-roaming, and we now have seven,” says /Gawises proudly. Rhino tracking, as part of the activities offered at the lodge, has proven to be the biggest income earner. /Gawises says that in 2012 the conservancy made close to N$500 000 from that activity alone.
A shoot-off from the rhino tracking is that the conservancy has trained numerous ‘Environmental Shepherds’, as the game guards employed by the #Khoadi//Hoas conservancy have been dubbed. The Game Shepherds, including several women, were given special training by the SRT. Their function is to monitor and protect the rhino and other wildlife movements within the 364 000-hectare communal area. In addition, several guides were trained by the SRT. They were taught a host of skills, including guest interaction, flora and fauna identification and tracking the elusive grey pachyderms (elephants and rhino) that have found a safe haven here.
SRT-trained guides and conservancy members Barman Guim and Lazarus Mbahee say that they have learned valuable skills through their jobs. According to Barman one of the most enjoyable aspects is talking to tourists and detailing the facts about rhino, elephant and other wildlife, and demonstrating his tracking skills. “I really enjoy working with the tourists,” he adds.
The income derived from the lodge and its activities is used inter alia to fund schools and education initiatives for conservancy children. His contribution gives him great joy, says Barman.
Both Barman and Lazarus started off as community game guards. Since their promotion to guides, they have been given the opportunity to teach others their skills. “We have learnt so much from this work that we are now experts. This is an important job that enables us to train others,” says Lazarus with pride.
Collective pride in the conservancy
The benefit of the sizeable income derived from Grootberg Lodge (it was about N$400 000 in 2012) and the tourist activities have smoothed out relations between the community and the wildlife, another benefit of the conservancy programme. “Despite the human-wildlife conflict, our community tolerates the wildlife because of the benefits,” /Gawises explains.
When there is conflict between the farmers and wildlife, the community can request that the trackers and Game Shepherds take action to minimise further conflict. “We have to be active and talk and listen to our people so that they know we are acknowledging their presence. They appreciate that,” she comments. “People now accept the idea of living with wildlife. Before this initiative they were poachers; now they monitor and report people involved in poaching.”
The Grootberg Lodge income has furthermore enabled the Khoadi//Hoas Conservancy to build the Hoada Campsite – an eye-catching communal campsite that was extensively renovated in 2012. Currently, Grootberg Lodge employs 42 conservancy members, while five conservancy members operate the campsite.
“We are really proud of this conservancy,” says /Gawises, adding that the difference in the quality of life for the 6 000 conservancy inhabitants has improved dramatically iover the past 15 years. There is a collective pride, she explains, when conservancy members watch tourists stream up the narrow path towards the lodge that towers above the conservancy’s headquarters. “The conservancy members see the tourists, and see them riding horses and tracking rhinos. It’s a real success story,” she admits with a smile.
Grootberg Lodge activities
Guided walks on top of the plateau
Guests who prefer an early start to the day will depart at around 7:30 in the morning for a three-hour walk on the plateau.
A guide with a tracker will take you to the surrounding farms to search for the elusive desert elephants. The trip allows guests to meet local people and enjoy a bush lunch under shady trees.
An early departure at six in the morning with a guide and game trackers takes guests in an open 4×4 game vehicle down the escarpment to the environs of the Klip River, which is rhino country. The tracking is done partly on foot and includes a lunch break near the rhino springs, allowing guests to refresh and reminisce. Since it’s almost a full-day activity of negotiating bumpy roads and walking over rocky terrain, it’s not recommended for the faint-hearted.
Come and visit one of the last remaining traditional peoples of Namibia in a small settlement near Palmfontein surrounded by makalani palms and dry riverbeds. These friendly people, closely related to the Herero, are herdsmen, breeding mainly cattle and goats while leading a semi-nomadic life.
Learn how the proud Himba women spend many hours on beauty care and cleaning themselves with herbal steam baths. See their homesteads, cone-shaped structures made from palm leaves, mud and cattle dung. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, the trip cannot be presented all year round.
Scenic drives down the Klip River
The lodge offers scenic drives down to the Klip River Valley, where permanent springs provide water for local populations of zebra, antelope and occasionally elephant, lion and black rhino. Springbok, kudu and gemsbok are a permanent fixture, while nervous and shy klipspringers are sometimes spotted leaping up and down the steep mountainside as if in flight.
Meander through the mopane savannah on a shiny steed, enjoy the view of this beautiful landscape and appreciate the pristine farmland of the region. Guests can choose to go on a morning or afternoon ride. All these excursions are guided, giving you the necessary peace of mind to enjoy the ride. Beginners are welcome to join us for this scenic experience. All rides depart from the picturesque Hoada Campsite, situated 23 kilometres from Grootberg Lodge. The lodge will arrange transfers at your convenience.