As the sun sets and casts dramatic shadows across the Klip River, a tourist couple is greeted by Memory Ganuses, the assistant manager, who runs day to day operations at Grootberg Lodge. They are led onto the terrace by a receptionist, who describes the Etendeka Plateau, born 180 million years ago, as huge lava outflows created the land that is present day Namibia. With pride he explains that the lodge is wholly owned by ≠Khoadi-//Hôas Conservancy, and that benefits from the lodge go back to the rural community that he and the other staff come from.
On the 26 of June Grootberg Lodge will be ten years old. The lodge is owned by the conservancy and run Journeys Namibia as a joint venture. The Windhoek based tour operator is proud of its part in employing and training conservancy members at the lodge, a policy that pays off with winning smiles from the staff. Every visitor here feels welcome.
Without the lodge Memory Ganuses may well have remained herding goats at Miheras Pos, where her mother Rina lives, 800 metres below the plateau, and a three-hour walk in the sand from the gravel road. Outside of the family’s simple home, with walls of mud and cattle dung, a calf is dying in the kraal. It was attacked in the night by a hyaena. Mopane trees grow in the red sand, but not much else. The spring is drying up, and even when there was water, the elephants came and raided any vegetables Rina tried to grow.
“They do their own plumbing,” says Memory about the elephants, which destroyed the pipes to the reservoir from the spring.
With the creation of the conservancy, the elephant population has grown. Despite their plumbing work, Memory loves them and likes to watch them from a distance. In the rainy season they climb the plateau and can be seen by tourists on game drives around the lodge.
It is the visitors from around the world who bring income to Grootberg, and to the conservancy. As a result, Rina can apply to ≠Khoadi-//Hôas for compensation for stock killed by wildlife. Other benefits to the community include bursaries for students, food for the elderly, and diesel to fuel the water pumps that farmers depend on.
The greatest benefit to the community is job creation. Grootberg Lodge employs 53 people, almost all of them from the conservancy. Memory supports her mother, two sisters and a brother, as well as her own baby boy. For her, the assistant manager’s post is much more than a wage, it’s the start of a career in tourism.
Down the road towards Khorixas, other joint venture lodges employ cooks, waiters, guides and managers from the area, which creates a very special atmosphere for visitors to Kunene. Wildlife and landscapes continue to attract tourists to these top-end lodges, but interaction with locals, passionate about their environment is an extra draw.
A welcoming smile is the face of management at Grootberg, but behind Memory’s smile lies a steely determination to succeed. Like many local children, she attended hostel school, where she excelled. After a spell working in Swakopmund she returned to her mum at the cattle post. “I’m not a city girl,” she explains. But she didn’t want to herd goats either, and she soon heard about the new lodge that had been built up on the plateau, so she handed in her CV.
You don’t get into management just like that. She worked first as a baby-sitter for the managing couple, before graduating to the dining room as a waitress, to the bar, to the kitchen, and finally to a position as food and beverage manager.
Then came her big chance: sponsorship from the African Safari Lodge Foundation to study for a year at the South African College for Tourism. Although she had grade 12, spread sheets and emails were novelties to Memory that needed to be mastered. Writing letters in good English, and understanding concepts such as ‘par levels’, which means ordering just the right amount of food so there is always enough, but not too much, are important management skills.
When Memory returned from South Africa she was determined to move up, and was offered the job as assistant manager. For her, Grootberg is a special place, and she is determined to stay – she hopes as manager when the current one moves on. She is looking forward to the tenth anniversary of the lodge.
One special guest at the celebration will be Roger Collinson, a consultant who climbed the rocky path to the plateau from the Grootberg Pass between Palmwag and Kamanjab, while assisting the conservancy to find a place for a lodge. What he saw was not only a stunning view, but a huge opportunity for community based tourism. A grant from the European Union followed, which enabled the conservancy to finance the building of the lodge.
This is still virgin landscape. The drive from Grootberg down the Klip River is tortuous even in a Land Cruiser; like those kitted out to carry tourists, who are often rewarded with sightings of black rhino, elephant, giraffe, plains game, and a wealth of bird life. The guides are all locals, who grew up with wildlife and who know every inch of the terrain.
Grootberg is one of the jewels in the community based tourism crown. Its occupancy rate is 80%, well above average, and visitors often come again. For many members of ≠Khoadi-//Hôas Conservancy, the lodge represents the future of the area. For Memory Ganuses, it is a beacon of hope, for her own career, for her mother’s farm, and for the wildlife that the conservancy protects.