“Tourists want to see cats” says Hans Fwelimbi, tour guide at Nkasa Lupala Lodge. He takes a pride in being able to find them in Mamili National Park, although they have been known to chase buffalo right in front of the lodge. “The same lions inhabit the park and the conservancy,” he says. “You have to look at movement, and know the habitat.”
Hans is a local, and he knows the area well. He was trained as a tour guide in Namibia and used to work at Lianshulu Lodge, taking visitors into Mudumu National Park, before Nkasa Lupala was built.
It was Hans who introduced the Italian Micheletti family to the area. They were staying at Lianshulu and Hans was their guide. When he heard the family were interested in building their own lodge, he drove them south to a special place he knew.
It’s a backwater of the Linyanti river, just 400 metres from the border of Mamili National Park. The area was pristine nature, often flooded, but the government was building two steel bridges across the rivers to make access to the park easier. When the Micheletti family saw the spot, it was love at first sight.
“I worked here from the opening of the lodge,” says Hans. “It's all about learning, every day; about tourists who come from different backgrounds; about wildlife. People like to be guided by a local who grew up here and can talk from experience.” His first responsibility is the safety of visitors.
“I give people safety talks; tell them that camera clicks and flashes can anger animals.” Tourists have to learn the warning signs, and be aware of what to do, he says: “If an elephant is angry it will flap its ears. If people stand up they can break the outline of the car. It is best to switch off the car engine, which an elephant can confuse with a lion's roar. Remain quietly in the car. The elephant may come up to investigate, then will go away. Just stay calm.”
It’s valuable advice. Tourists who leave the lodge in their own 4x4 may very well come face to face with a tusker. Hans was just in from pulling a tree off of the sandy track, which an elephant had knocked down, making access to the lodge difficult. There are plans for an environmental education centre in Wuparo Conservancy, which has a joint venture agreement with the lodge. Visitors on their way to the park or lodge will be able to learn about the area and its wildlife.
For Hans and the conservancy, introducing visitors to the local people is an important idea. Tourism should be a two way experience and a learning process. Hans already takes visitors to nearby villages, where he has to prepare them to accept a different culture. He starts by asking them what they think they will see, then he gives them some tips: “For instance, village women sit on the floor, men on seats. I have to explain this first.” When barriers are broken down, he acts as translator.
It’s an approach which may pay off in more ways than one. At the moment guests give something to the households they visit. In future, a village fund is planned. Tourists sometimes visit the kindergarten as well. The lodge is helping with a new building, and who knows, maybe visitors will contribute to teachers’ salaries in future?
That’s a thought from Simone Micheletti, the lodge manager. He negotiated the joint venture with the conservancy, which looks forward to greater participation of local people in the tourism enterprise. That includes guide training. Hans has just completed level one of the FGASA training in South Africa (Field Guide Association of Southern Africa), and is planning to go for levels two and three. Other guides from the lodge should follow.
The combination of local knowledge and newly acquired skills is a formula that should pay off. The conservancy has applied for a concession to operate boat trips, walks, and even night drives in the National Park. If they get it, more guides like Hans will be finding employment in the area.