Gogga mechanic gives life to desert
Entrepreneur Tommy Collard established his operation, Tommy’s Tours and Safaris, some eight years ago. Two years later, encouraged by a friend, he developed Living Desert Tours. “And so,” says Tommy, “started one of the best half-day tours in Namibia.”
Tommy’s chequered career was the perfect preparation for his current occupation as a Namibian tour operator and tour guide. Born in Otjiwarongo and schooled in Windhoek, he completed his military training in Walvis Bay (this included survival training and tracking with Bushmen), before completing a diploma course at Neudamm Agriculture College. He then joined the Department of Nature Conservation, and was based at Otjiwarongo, where “I worked a lot in the bush, which was right up my ally.” In 1980 he relocated to Musese Agriculture Project 90 km west of Rundu, where “I caught at least one snake a day. The local people called me mona kwata mazoka [the man that catches snakes].”
Then followed a four-year stint at Rössing Uranium Mine training dogs for the security section, after which he moved to Cape Town. Here, in a joint venture with two friends, he developed the South African Snake and Reptile Park at the Strandfontein Pavilion. “I was the curator for nearly a year, but then the rioting started, the business went down and we called it a day.”
“At the end of 1985 I moved to Grootdrink, halfway between Upington and Groblershoop, to help my dad with his vineyards.” After farming with grapes and making raisins for eighteen months, he moved to Upington to work for Ellerines Furnishers as Assistant Manager. Towards the end of the 1980s he went into the ministry full-time, doing mission work in South Africa’s north-western Cape, Botswana, Zambia and war-torn Angola. “I returned from Angola in 1995. Before I knew where I was, I was caught by a woman who runs much slower than I do. I can’t understand it to this day, but it was nice getting caught.”
Tommy’s two sons, now seven and 15, “can read the Bushman newspaper (insect and animal tracks in the sand) just as well as, if not better than, their dad.” To support his family, Tommy started guiding tours into the desert. “Being a born bush baby, I took to it like a duck to water. My mother told me that when I was small, she was afraid to bath me at night, as she never knew what she’d find in my pockets! I caught my first snake when I was 10 years old and am still at it.”
A visit to the Windhoek Show in 1977 set Tommy on course as someone who could handle and speak with authority about snakes. The owner of the Snake Park, because his voice had packed up, asked Tommy to do a show in the snake pit. This was the beginning of many years of demonstrations in snake pits and talks at schools, and giving first-aid courses. “How many I can’t tell exactly, but it’s more than 3 000. The last big show was in Windhoek in 1985.”
In 1996 Tommy started working for Johan Kotze, the owner of Rhino Tours based in Swakopmund. “From him I developed a fanatic love and sense of conservation for my country and the environment, especially the Namib Desert, which have stayed with me to this day.” He left Rhino Tours in 1998 to establish Tommy’s Tours and Safaris. “Having been a ‘gogga mechanic’ all my life, a friend of mine suggested I do desert tours, and thus Living Desert Tours was born.”
A Living Desert Tour starts at eight in the morning when guests are picked up and taken into the dunes close to Swakopmund. After the vehicle’s tyres have been deflated, the dunes are explored and the search for desert creatures, especially beetles, is on. Dune fauna looked out for include FitzSimons burrowing skink, Palmato geckos, sand-diving lizards, sidewinders (Peringuey’s adder), horned adders, scorpions, fish-moths, white lady spiders and reticulated sand lizards. “The success rate of these searches is never less than 90%. Along the way we tell the guests about the minerals, plant and bird life found in the dunes.”
Other points of interest are the beach, spectacular scenic views and a huge roaring dune near the sea. The duration of the tour is four to five hours. The Living Desert Tour is also done at night, duration about three hours.
Although Tommy’s Tours and Safaris specialises in the Living Desert Tour, the company also offers half- and full-day tours to the Welwitschia Plains and Moon Landscape; full-day tours to Sandwich Harbour; bird-watching and ‘lodge’ tours; and luxury camping/lodging safaris throughout Namibia (Kaokoveld and Damaraland), Botswana to Vic Falls.
This article appeared in the April ‘06 edition of Travel News Namibia.