More than a party in the desert

More than a party in the desert
More than a party in the desert

Delegates and travel writers from around the world descended on the small desert town of Swakopmund, on Namibia’s coast, to begin the tenth Adventure Travel World Summit on 28 October. The River Swakop fills once a year after the short rainy season, then reverts to a sandy river bed. As it approaches the coast it cuts through desert rocks known locally as the moon landscape.

Many of the writers and delegates to the summit had been on adventures throughout Namibia; some to the river paradise of the former Caprivi, now re-named Zambezi Region, where over 400 bird species are found and tiger fish play the lines; others to the arid north-west in search of desert adapted elephants and black rhino.

All arrived, safe and sound, in busses in the Swakop River bed, to the popping of champagne corks and the sound of marimbas. The more adventurous climbed a hill for a view of the party below and the moon landscape beyond. Before long the sound of a small plane could be heard, and then half a dozen parachutists pirouetted from the bluest of skies and swooped across the waiting crowd below.

For Namibia, it was the culmination of two years of preparation. A year beforehand the Adventure Travel Trade team had been to inspect – to see if the semi-desert country, population two million, could really host such an event. They had been treated to dinner in the sand dunes. The tables were laid, the glasses sparkling, but there were no drinks! Seconds later parachutists floated in with champagne. It was clear that Namibia could do it.

The adventure evening continued with a mile long walk down a sandy track to the chasm below. Stars above, candles below. A banquet was served as choirs sang and images of ancient Africa were beamed onto the rocks. The continent is the home of mankind, and visitors were welcomed “home”.

 Nobody felt more at home than Neville Poelina, an Aboriginal Australian who owns and runs a tour company down under.  Neville likes to pull his shoes off and rub his feet in the sand. “This is awesome,” he said, “I’m very happy to be here on this land.”

Tracks in the sand

Delegates to the Summit had been able to sign up for ‘Pre-summit adventures’. Neville came with WINTA, the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance, and he chairs its leadership council. He and others including a Sami and three north American Indians, one of them Chief of the Squamish Nation, were in Namibia for the Summit, and for their own pow-wow on tourism that may bring benefits to first peoples. On their adventure, the WINTA delegates met Khwe San Namibians, including Alfred Chedau, whom Neville dubbed his “brother from another mother.” Alfred is an expert tracker who is passing on skills to younger ‘bushmen’, as part of a tracker school, set up and run by IRDNC: Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation. Courses in tracking skills and training have been given by South African master tracker, Louis Liebenberg.

A buzzard circled low and then landed on the flood plain, and Neville told a story from the Dreamtime. At first, he said, the Aboriginals did not cook meat, but one day a tree was hit by lightning and caught fire. A Chicken Hawk, hunting for lizards, picked up a burning twig, and dropped it on the earth to burn the dry grass in order to make lizards easier to find. Like October in Namibia, the rains had not come and the land was dry. It caught fire and all the animals were cooked. When Neville’s ancestors ate them, they tasted good, and since that time they have used fire to prepare their food.

Eyes lit up as nations understood each other. Then the conversation turned to practical matters. Benson Kupinga, another Khwe, explained how burning of the earth is now controlled in Bwabwata National Park. Alfred and Benson work for the Kyaramacan Association, which represents people who live inside the park and have rights over wildlife and tourism in some of its areas. Income from tourism enterprises including a camp site goes to the community, members of which work as game guards, assisting the Ministry of Environment and Tourism Rangers in the park.

Benson explained that parts of the park are burnt before the grass becomes too high and dry. This prevents widespread bush fires and it promotes the germination of fresh grass for wildlife.  As he was talking, Neville was creating a fresh sheet of sand with his foot for drawing, and when Benson had finished, Neville explained how burning was done on his land in Australia. Using a stick he drew strips of land, and explained that some would be burnt, while the strips in between would remain safe for wildlife. As the burnt land regenerated, wildlife would move in.

An Aborigine, Indians and San people were sharing ideas about culture, land management and also tourism. Neville has a small family business, showing tourists how to recognise medicinal plants, and how to follow tracks in the bush. His brothers from another mother, Alfred and Benson, are teaching young San people to track. The spin offs will be jobs in tourism and hunting, because youngsters will be able to follow tracks into future jobs.  A renewed sense of self-esteem is equally important for the Khwe, as traditional knowledge of wildlife and plants is recognised as valuable.

A Gift to the Earth

Parliament Gardens, Windhoek, on 26 October. The purple blossoms of the tall Jacaranda trees were falling on the grass, the stage, and the delegates gathered for the opening of the first Adventure Travel World Summit to be held in Africa. Namibia usually prays for rain at this time of year, but the day was blessed with a perfect blue sky.

 The Adventure Travel Trade Association holds an annual indaba to promote responsible and sustainable tourism, and for delegates to meet, exchange ideas, and to see what the host country has to offer. Last year it was Switzerland, before that, Mexico. The President of the Association, Shannon Stowell, took the podium to ask the question: “Why Namibia?”

Stowell had also been on a pre-summit adventure, and had landed tandem with a parachute in Swakopmund. He was “inspired every single day by the Namibians I met on my trip,” he said, explaining why the Summit had come to Africa, and to a country where conservation is paramount.

 “Imagine the world in 50 years’ time,” Stowell asked: “the loss of species, habitat and culture.” Namibia, he went on, has the opportunity to become an example to the world as an unspoilt destination. The Summit, he said, would place Namibia on the world tourism map, but ending on the environment said “We are here to affect how tourism works in the future.”

Sustainable tourism was to be the key theme on a day when the WWF also gave a Gift to the Earth Award to Namibia for its conservation efforts, which are linked to responsible tourism. Almost 20% of Namibia is now managed by communal conservancies, which was the reason for the prestigious WWF Award, given to President Pohamba, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and all 79 conservancies by Nigerian Chief Anyaoku.

As past President of the WWF and Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth, the Chief is respected worldwide as a diplomat and conservationist. He is an old friend of the Founding President of Namibia, Dr Sam Nujoma, who was honoured with the WWF Gift to the Earth Award in 1998, after the first four communal conservancies were formed, opening the door to a conservation movement that has flourished across much of the country and led to a remarkable recovery of wildlife.

As a former President of the WWF, the Chief has travelled widely, seen much, and finds Namibia’s conservation achievements “truly remarkable,” pointing out to applause that the communal conservancies have the world’s largest population of free-roaming black rhino, and expanding populations of lion, elephant and cheetah.

The big tent

It all came together in Swakopmund, after the moon landscape party, when delegates met in a large tent to exchange ideas, market tourism products, and to hear about Namibia’s tourism and conservation successes. Nobody is better qualified to speak to the theme that Namibia’s former Minister of Environment and Tourism, and current Foreign Minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah.

“We are all animals,” declared the Minister, to strong applause as she went on to say that humans and wildlife have to live together. The land, Namibia, is a fixed size, but both human and wildlife populations are expanding.

Tourism to Namibia is also expanding, and is the fastest growing sector of the economy. Delegates from the tourism industry worldwide were engrossed by the Minister’s speech, which she gave without notes and from the heart. In her last post, she said, she used to make peace between humans and wildlife competing for the same space – the Ministry provided start-up funds for conservancies to compensate farmers for stock and crop losses to wildlife – but at Foreign Affairs she makes peace between nations, and a SADC negotiation had sadly kept her from the opening of the Summit.

She had asked another SADC Minister how many lions there were in his country. “Two,” was the reply, “and six elephants.” It was a great source of pride to Nandi-Ndaitwah that in Kunene the lion population has grown from around 20 in 1997 to over 150 today. Inevitably this brings problems for farmers, but as lion researcher Dr ‘Flip’ Stander had pointed out in a presentation before the Minister spoke, lion-viewing tourism in Puros has grown by 62%, bringing new sources of income to the community.

This was the first point the Minister wanted to make to delegates at the summit. Living with wildlife comes at a cost, and the benefits have to outweigh that cost. Namibia’s ecology is fragile, but if tourism is responsible – sustainable - visitors can bring income to rural communities without damaging the environment.

Namibia’s policy of sustainable rural development is based around communal conservancies. Turning again to international affairs, the Minister noted that the Nagoya Protocol signed exactly, to the day, three years ago in Japan, committed governments to conserve at least 16% of land area. Namibia had already exceeded that in 1998 with 18%, and now the mix of state protected areas, communal conservancies and other conservation areas stands at over 43% of the country: nearly half. Soon, declared Nandi-Ndaitwah, the whole coast will be a national park.

The elephant in the tent

Tourism is clearly bringing benefits to rural areas. There are 44 joint venture lodges, said the Minister, owned and run in partnership between conservancies and the private sector. But then she turned to her second theme, with an impassioned plea for tour operators to understand the value of trophy hunting to conservation in Namibia.

“Some people have a problem with hunting,” she said, “but I have to be open – people have to understand that hunting is part of our conservation programme.” The opening speaker of the Namibian session at the Summit, John Kasaona, had told the audience that he was the son of a poacher. But thanks to the conservancy movement wildlife now has value. Trophy hunting and tourism had brought income based on wildlife to conservancies, and rural people now see the value in wildlife and protect it. The poachers had turned gamekeepers declared Kasaona, who now heads the major conservation NGO, IRDNC.

The Minister referred to conservationists like Kasaona, and pointed out that hunting, tourism and conservation are all parts of an integrated programme. “The CITES quota for trophy hunted elephants was 90, based on a population of 7,000. Now there are over 20,000 elephants in Namibia,” elephants that bring tourism. “No more hunting – no more conservation,” said Nandi-Ndaitwah, and perhaps to her surprise drew strong applause from the tourism delegates who had all understood the message.

Steve Felton
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