Namibia is hot, desolate and ornery as an un-neutered bull. With the unheard of luxury of space (nearly three times the size of Germany, its 2.3 million residents average a half a square kilometer to themselves), this country on the southwestern corner of Africa recently hosted the 10th Adventure Travel World Summit, a delegation of 600 adventure tour operators, journalists and other seekers from 64 countries.
These intrepid travelers scouted this still-in-diapers country (independence from South Africa wasn’t granted until 1990), hobnobbed in its two biggest metropolises (Windhoek and Swakopmund), traipsed like Lawrence of Arabia across its seemingly-endless deserts and enjoyed one of the last bastions on earth where wildlife is actually making a comeback.
Here are nine actually pretty interesting things to emerge from the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit:
1. Tourism may be our best chance to save endangered species. Like everywhere else on the planet, Namibia’s wildlife was nosediving at a drastic clip. Home to Africa’s legendary “Big Five,” this land of stunning landscapes was systematically reducing its game either by shooting it to protect livestock or eating it to survive. Its wily government took a long hard look at its resources, realized that lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffalo, rather than providing meat, could lure travelers with deep pockets to its shores.
With much of the country averaging less than 50 millimeters of rainfall per year, farming, despite all the seeds, Peace Corp workers and other international support, was simply unable to provide a long-term solution. But capitalizing on the resources it already had (animals that residents of already-developed lands will pay good money to see), Namibia chose to build an economy by convincing its residents to embrace five simple words: “We will live with wildlife.”
2. Namibia was the first country to include the protection of its natural resources in its constitution. Take a peek at the average constitution and you’ll find a long list of yawn-inducing items about governance, rights of the populace, elections and other human-centric concerns. Namibia, in a move since copied by other African nations, chose to grant its wildlife, its vast landscapes, its natural resources equal protection, a stunning proclamation.
When the Namibian Constitution went into effect on March 21, 1990, the protection of natural resources was guaranteed in Article 95 that clearly stipulates that the state shall actively promote and maintain policies to “maintain ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity…on a sustainable basis for the benefits of all Namibians…”. In other words, Namibia is constitutionally obliged to protect its environment and to promote sustainable use of its natural resources.
3. Namibia has a bizarre tree that’s less than two-feet tall. To call the Welwitschia mirabilis a tree is misleading even though it has bark, cones, leaves and its closest relatives are pines, spruces and firs. This truly weird plant grows only in the Namib Desert, hails from the Jurassic Period, lives up to 1500 years and grows a grand total of two leaves. These thick, leathery straps lie on the ground, get shredded by wind and typically grow longer than the tree is tall.
This freak of nature was first “discovered” by Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch (his grave in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery is engraved with the plant he brought to the attention of the Western world) although native Herero people, who often cooked it in ashes, called it onyanga, the wild onion of the desert. This unattractive, but fascinating plant survives in a tiny strip of the planet that often goes without rain for years at a time by soaking up moisture from the fog that regularly rolls in from the Atlantic.
4. The Namibian government owns the world’s largest population of black rhino. Despite a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declaring the Western black rhino to be extinct, the country of Namibia boasts a growing population of both black and white rhino, all of which are technically “owned” by the state. Recent counts estimate Namibia’s population of the South Western black rhino, a nearly-identical cousin of the extinct Western, at nearly 1795, a huge jump from 1992 when rhino population were nearly decimated thanks to Chinese herbalists’ claims that ground rhino horn revive patients in comas, bring down fevers and aid in sexual stamina and fertility. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (notice these two agencies are joined at the hip), Namibia’s black rhinos (28 percent of Africa’s population) are rigidly protected in Etosha Natioanl Park, Waterberg Plateau Park and in the 70 communal conservancies that make up a good 46 percent of Namibia, more than twice the land mass of the UK.
Although controversial, Namibia brings in millions of dollars auctioning the right to hunt five post-breeding rhino bulls per year. All proceeds are plowed directly back into anti-poaching and other conservation efforts.
5. Namibia is a surprisingly fitting place to wear lederhosen. Other than the swaying palms, Swakopmund, now a vibrant beach resort, could easily be mistaken for any town in Bavaria. Founded in 1892 as the main harbor of German South-West Africa, Namibia’s earlier incarnation, it has traditional German architecture, hotels with names like Hansa Haus and Europa Hof and boisterous German beer halls. It’s as easy to get strudel and wiener schnitzel today as it was before colonial Germany lost its claim to the colony after World War 1.
Beer is cheap and there’s an annual Oktoberfest in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. This two-day drinking extravaganza comes complete with oompah bands flown in from the ex-Motherland, drinking songs, knockwurst and Bavarian pretzels, all served with Windhoek lager, one of many Namibian beers that strictly adhere to Reinheitsegebot, the German Purity Law of 1516.
Waitresses wearing dirndls vie to carry the most beer steins, men in felt hats compete in wood sawing competitions and the average stein, served from big yellow tents, run less than $1. Compare that to the Munich version where steins will set you back as much as $13.
6. Always proofread your menus. At Tuesday’s dinner sponsored by the Chilean Tourism department, the menu, left beside plates in the Erongo Dining Tent, listed the main courses as oryx lion. Oryx, of course, is the national animal of Namibia and a culinary staple along with mopane worms, the caterpillar of the emperor moth that Namibians collect, dry (after squeezing out their innards) and either munch like potato chips or serve with pap, a popular maize porridge. Nutritionists claim they have three times the protein of beef.
But lion? Really? Turns out oryx lion was nothing but an unfortunate misprint, an inadvertent spelling of oryx loin.
7. Tourism accounts for one in 20 jobs in Sub Saharan Africa. According to a new book, Tourism in Africa: Harnessing Tourism for Growth and Improved Livelihoods, tourism is expected to employ 6.7 million people by 2021. Published by the World Bank, this new report cites successful examples from Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and, of course, Namibia.
Since 1990, Africa has quadrupled the number of tourists and in 2012 reaped more than $36 billion in tourism dollars.
“Given the continent’s abundant natural and cultural resources, the fundamentals are in place for Africa to claim its fair share of world tourism, ”says Hannah Messerli, co-author of the report and Senior Private Sector Development Specialist in the World Bank’s Africa Region. “Although Africa’s tourism potential has largely gone untapped to date, it can now take steps to close the gap with other regions.”
8. Namibia’s famous White Lady was a cross-dresser. Deep within the Namib Desert, on the granite monolith of Brandberg Mountain, 2000-year-old bushmen paintings have puzzled archaeologists for nearly 100 years. In particular, the White Lady, the largest of the 1000 paintings scattered throughout rock shelters and caves on Namibia’s highest peak, was originally identified as a woman even though she had a penis and was clearly a shaman performing a ritual dance. The rumor was started by French Abbe Henri Breuil, an overeager interpreter of cave art. He went so far as to claim the White Lady was probably Isis, painted by an ancient tribe of Europeans that once inhabited Africa even though 50,000 acknowledged San paintings were already recorded in the region. In 1956, the archaeological community threw out Breuil’s interpretation of the ochre, charcoal and ostrich egg “lady” with a bow in one hand and a goblet in the other, but to this day the most famous of the Namibian bushmen paintings is still known as the White Lady.
9. Africa always wins. Try as you might to prevent catastrophe, organize efficient transportation and even take extra spare tires (two is the bare minimum) for the unpaved, rocky roads in Damaraland and Kaokoland, Africa has and always will have its own rhythm and sense of timing. Westerners might as well face that sobering reality and even embrace it.