When you arrive at Grootberg Lodge, be sure to have a copy of the Republikein. The lodge is perched on top of the Grootberg Pass with stunning panoramas. But to say the least, it is isolated. Newspapers come second-hand from friends in Khorixas or Kamanjab; and that’s a problem for Bob Guibeb, the assistant manager and guiding light behind the lodge’s construction: he loves to read the Republikein.
Most people who visit the lodge want to leave the news behind and just relax. But if you have the energy you can trek down the mountainside (a Land Rover will bring you back up) or track black rhino with the lodge’s expert guides.
Grootberg Lodge is special in other ways too. It is wholly owned by the ≠Khoadi-//Hoâs Conservancy and run for the benefit of the rural community. Bob left the area as a young man to become a teacher, but his heart was always with his own people, and he left the primary school near the Spitzkoppe to teach adults in his home area to read. When the first communal conservancies were gazetted in 1996, Bob Guibeb saw that conservancies could help preserve wildlife and reduce rural poverty at the same time, so he joined the effort to mobilize conservancy residents.
It was tough work at first. Local farmers earned a hard living from small stock and a few cattle, and wildlife was seen as a threat. As wildlife returned to the area, so too did predators like lion and cheetah that regularly took sheep and goats from the kraals. Bob trekked from farm to farm, doing his best to convince people that income from tourism could improve people’s lives; and wildlife was the key to tourism.
≠Khoadi-//Hoâs means Elephant Corner in Damara, and in 1997 the conservancy was formed. Bob started out as the office administrator and environmental service manager. Under him were a team of Environmental Shepherds, so called because their duties were much wider than controlling poaching. They became the farmers’ friends, assisting with vaccinations and building water points that would benefit farmers and wildlife alike.
The biggest problem for the infant conservancy was income. Trophy hunting provided the vital first cash flow, but there was nowhere for tourists to stay. As a result, Hoada camp site was created. If you drive down the Grootberg Pass towards Kamanjab you will find the campsite on the right, about 5 kilometres after the 75km sign to Kamanjab. It is a lovely spot, sandwiched between massive boulders, but the camp did not make money. “We didn’t have the know-how,” says Bob. “We knew about farming, but not about tourism and running a business.” A while later, everything changed, thanks in part to Halley’s Comet.
Many years back, a rough track had been made up to the mountain plateau where the lodge now stands, for people to view Halley’s Comet as it passed over the earth. Bob knew about the path, and he had learned about the EU’s plan to invest N$4.5 in communal conservancies. He wondered if it would be possible to build a lodge up on the plateau. So one fine day he and a friend made the stiff climb up the track, and were rewarded with a stunning view. This was it!
The conservancy competed with 6 others for funding from the EU. The conditions were stiff. There had to be a management plan and a wildlife utilization plan. Most important, there had to be a plan for benefiting the local population: the conservancy members. ≠Khoadi-//Hoâs was successful, and the next step was turning the dream into reality.
Even now, the track up to the top is a 4x4 adventure trail. Then it was much more difficult, but a local farmer had the necessary equipment to scratch a road into the mountainside and to level the earth at the top. An architect was commissioned to design a lodge and rooms built from the local red stones, and the result is a simple, but luxurious construction with one of the best views in Africa. There is even a pool right on the edge of the precipice.
Building a lodge is one thing. Running it is another. Bob remembers the bad experience with the camp site. The solution was to tender for a management partner. This proved to be more difficult than the conservancy imagined. Most prospective partners could not understand the concept of a community owning a lodge – that was what private enterprise did – they thought the community was bound to fail. Two tender rounds produced no partners, until finally a company called Ecolodgistics heard about Grootberg and offered to step in. They supply the marketing and management expertise, and the conservancy supplies staff and trainee managers, as well as ensuring that wildlife viewing and tracking is a memorable experience. Each partner takes its cut of the profits. The deal has worked well for both partners and a new 10 year contract has just been signed.
And the future? Bob sees no problems. Once the conservancy was on a firm footing he was appointed as the manager and he ran it very successfully for several years. He made the move to the lodge after two assistant managers left, and he saw the need to step in. For two years he has been working as an assistant manager. He attends management training courses and is learning on the job.
"It’s a challenge,” he admits, but one he loves. Working with tourists is different to managing a conservancy. For one thing, attitudes are hard to change. Although the European tourists are happy to be greeted and assisted by a black manager, some local tourists find it strange, and expect to see a white man. But changing attitudes and changing lives is what ≠Khoadi-//Hoâs and Grootberg Lodge are all about. Most important to Bob is the profit the lodge generates for the community, N$30,000 a month at the moment. Bob’s engaging smile is the new face of Namibian tourism.