A diverse suite of alternative breaks for travellers
by Linda Baker
With a number of world-class attractions, from the second-largest canyon to the tallest dunes to biodiversity hotspots, ancient rock art, black rhino and cheetah populations, the Big Five and hot springs, Namibia’s parks increasingly offer a diverse suite of alternative breaks for international and regional travellers.
THE WORLD’S TALLEST SAND DUNES AT SOSSUSVLEI
The world’s tallest sand dunes at Sossusvlei remain a key attraction, while on careful inspection the vast gravel plains of the Namib-Naukluft Park reveal a wonderland of lichens, insect life and Damara tern nests. Neighbouring countries may offer greater densities of wildlife, but Namibia’s wide-open spaces, breathtaking vistas and unparalleled photographic opportunities are its comparative advantage.
What sets Namibia apart from her neighbours is the solitude and sense of space. For city dwellers, the sweeping landscapes, first-class game viewing, well-maintained road network and high standard of accommodation are attractions that see many repeat returns. And while you may rub shoulders with thousands of other visitors at the Grand Canyon, or be content to join up to fifty cars at a lion kill in other African parks, the Fish River Canyon may find you alone, while you may drive for hours in Caprivi without seeing another soul.
With just under one million tourist arrivals in 2007, Namibia is increasingly becoming the darling of the tourism world. And parks are the major draw-card. The Tourism Satellite Account (TSA) of 2006 showed that of the 11 most-visited tourism attractions in Namibia, seven were national parks and state-protected areas. Our parks are our main tourism product,” says Jackie Asheeke of the Federation of Namibian Tourism Associations (Fenata). “Tourists are not interested in coming to Namibia if no parks are included in tour packages.”
Parks are evolving to suit growing visitor aspirations, and now offer more and more activities for the adventurous. These range from night drives in the Etosha National Park for those hoping to catch a glimpse of a leopard or hyaena on its nocturnal rounds, to hiking trails for the novice to the seriously fit. Take the self-guided hike along the edge of the majestic Waterberg Plateau, following the spoor of a curious buffalo, white or black rhino, or book a guided hike in the wilderness area, where you will view sacred rock engravings and dinosaur footprints.
Test your endurance as you hike in the mighty Fish River Canyon, (the second largest in the world), or explore a desert wonderland in the Ugab River in the Skeleton Coast Park. Glide in a mokoro (dug-out canoe) under a crimson wave of carmine bee-eater wings on the Kwando River, or soar over the Namib Desert in a hot-air balloon. Get your 4×4 revving in the rugged wilderness of Khaudum National Park, hear lions roar from the safety of your tent at the remote Nambwa Campsite, (Bwabwata National Park) or lap up five-star luxury in Onkoshi, Etosha’s newest, exclusive camp.
Spy fauna and flora adapted to the harsh desert conditions, such as ancient welwitschias and mist-loving lichens. About 700 bird species find sanctuary at three Ramsar sites – at Sandwich Harbour, the Orange River Mouth and Etosha Pan. Tick one of 13 endemic bird species, such as Rüppell’s korhaan, rockrunner, Barlow’s lark or Monteiro’s hornbill, or cruise on a wetland wonderland in Caprivi in search of Pel’s fishing owl, skimmers or fish eagles.
Traditionally, Etosha National Park is Namibia’s most visited attraction. It boasts one of the world’s most important black-rhino populations, as well as the endemic black-faced impala, saved from the brink of extinction. Other protected areas hide little-known secrets: until recently, rock art found in the Apollo 11 cave in the /Ai/Ais Richtersveld TFA was the oldest known artwork in Africa, while other important works are found in the restricted Khoichab Pan area of the Namib-Naukluft Park.
Sandwich Harbour, a RAMSAR site now classified as a Wetland of International Importance, hosts upwards of 70 000 birds, many of which are seasonal migrants, travelling from the northern hemisphere. Get twitching with nearly 700 bird species to spot, tick off 13 Namibian endemics, or visit more Ramsar sites at the Orange River Mouth and Etosha Pan.
Tick off the Big Five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) or search for the shy sitatunga in eastern Caprivi, along with the prince of animals, the sable antelope.
Parks also preserve the tumultuous history of Namibia’s people, such as in Namutoni’s historic fort and at Cape Cross, where the remnants of the country’s first railway line is in evidence, in the Sperrgebiet National Park, where eerie ghost towns are redolent of the lucrative diamond diggings of the past, and at Waterberg, where graves represent tumultuous colonial wars.
Namibia’s protected areas celebrate more than one hundred years of existence, with Etosha National Park and parts of the Namib-Naukluft Park and Bwabwata National Park gazetted in 1907. These parks have endured boundary changes over the decades, but continue to conserve some of the country’s precious natural resources.
When the first parks were proclaimed in Namibia, they were conservation islands in a sea of disquiet, resented by neighbours who received no befits from them, while suffering losses to livestock, crops and human life as a result of a marauding lion or elephant breaking out of a game reserve. But Namibia’s progressive policies and active efforts to contribute to poverty reduction and sustainable development have resulted in win-win partnerships between authorities, neighbours and park residents.
Today, a new generation of parks is evolving, where neighbours and park residents are consulted, people’s aspirations and livelihoods assessed and win-win partnerships forged as national and global development goals are met. Increasingly, co-management is the way forward for more harmonious and equitable park management.
Namibia’s formal protected area network now covers 17 per cent of the land surface, or about 140 000 km2. Three new parks were created last year, while another two are on the cards. Apart from adding to the protected area network and contributing to national and global biodiversity conservation efforts, these areas heralded a new era of conservation, as each is managed in close co-operation with other stakeholders through advisory or technical committees.
Bwabwata National Park consolidated two existing parks into one, being the Caprivi Game Park and Mahango Game Park, while adding a previously unproclaimed area along the Kwando River. Bwabwata is managed by a technical committee of stakeholders, taking into account more than 5 500 park residents and their needs. It forms the heart of one of Africa’s most ambitious conservation programmes yet – the Zambezi-Kavango Trans-frontier Conservation Area (KaZa TFCA). Here, five countries have linked various conservation areas into an elephant-friendly area the size of Italy.
Mangetti National Park is managed under a Memorandum of Understanding with the local traditional authority and regional council. A Park Advisory Committee guides the future of the Sperrgebiet National Park, which at last conserves one of the world’s most precious biodiversity hotspots.
The creation of the Sperrgebiet National Park not only protects one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, but, according to Environment and Tourism Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, will be a pro-poor park, creating income-generating opportunities for neighbours and enriching the region.
Plans are afoot to consolidate three tourism concessions in the Kunene Region into a People’s Park, while Namibia will soon have her entire coastline under conservation protection, making it the largest park in Africa and the eighth largest in the world. This will stretch from the Iona Skeleton Coast TFA on the Angolan border, through the National West Coast Recreation Area, soon to be upgraded to a national park, along the Walvis Bay dune-belt area, also set to become a national park, and into the Namib-Naukluft Park, the /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Conservation Area and the Ramsar Site at the Orange River.
Two parks are managed with resident communities. These are the Namib-Naukluft Park, with its resident Topnaar community, and the newly proclaimed Bwabwata National Park, with more than 5 500 residents.
The Namibian Government has taken on the protection of its biodiversity as a key target. It has become a signatory to several international conventions, such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity and its associated Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
In Article 95 the visionary Namibian Constitution specifically refers to biodiversity conservation, management and use. While parks currently fall under the outdated Ordinance 4 of 1975, a new Parks and Wildlife Management Bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament soon. New policies are nearing completion, including the Parks and Neighbours and Human Wildlife Conflict policies.
Parks are set to become economic powerhouses for the development of regional growth, as they continue to create employment and tourism spin-off industries for the previously disadvantaged. Just when you thought you’d seen it all in Namibia’s Parks, new doors are opening in adjacent areas, where a kaleidoscope of cultures await, black rhinos roam free and heritage sites abound.
This article appeared in the June/July ‘09 edition of Travel News Namibia.
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