HALF MOON BAY, Calif., October 2, 2013 — The varied geography in Namibia ranges from deep canyons to high sand dunes to salt pans to coastal desert. The first African nation to include protection of the environment in its constitution, Namibia now has more than 40 percent of its surface area under conservation management. While in the northern part of the country recently, I toured three conservation areas to see what the experience is like for visitors.
One consideration for conservation areas is that people need to remember they’re not in a zoo. While many of the wild animals may appear cute and cuddly, they will have more than the upper hand if you decide to go into their territory without some measure of security. I witnessed one man at Etosha National Park nearly get kicked by a zebra when he got out of his car (not allowed, unless in designated zones). Seriously, this is wild land. Use your head.
And while in some places (like Etosha camps) there are fences to keep humans safe from many of the animals, some of the most wily wildlife may find ways around the fence, like the three jackals I saw every night hanging around the restaurant in Okaukuejo camp.
Etosha National Park
At 13,670 square miles in southwestern Namibia, Etosha National Park is one of Africa’s best game reserves. Namibia’s first conservation area (established in 1907), its eastern territory is dominated by a vast, shallow pan of sand while the remainder of the park is covered with sparse shrubs, grassy plains and hilly mopane woodlands. During the dry season, when I was there, thousands of animals converge to drink at the waterholes: elephant, giraffe, zebra, rhino, lion, leopard, cheetah, oryx, and more.
The park was designed to make viewing its native animals an easy task. Roads, signposts, and plenty of lookouts make Etosha ideal for self-drive tours, and the rest camps offer game drive excursions for an additional charge. If you’re driving your rental car through the park, like I did, most of the roads are fine for 2WD vehicles. The most trouble I encountered was on the more rugged roads, where I needed to keep the speed rather slow, which you’d want to do anyway, so you can see the wildlife.
There are a variety of rest camps in Etosha, all managed by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, offering a mix of rooms and camping options. While in the park, I stayed at both Okaukuejo and Halali camps.
Okaukuejo camp is located just 10 miles inside the park’s south entrance, and accommodations range from double rooms to family chalets to chalets arranged at the edge of the camp’s waterhole, which is lit at night. I stayed in both a waterhole chalet double room and a premiere waterhole chalet (rates start at $148 and $237 per night, respectively), both of which were nicely decorated and comfortable. The premiere chalet is fantastic for families, couples traveling together, or even people who want more space, as the double rooms can be a bit cramped.
Halali camp is farther into the park toward the eastern entrance. It’s rustic and a bit more tired than Okaukuejo, even though it’s a newer camp. Accommodations here range from camping spots to double rooms to family chalets. As with Okaukuejo, there is a waterhole that’s lit at night, but it’s a short walk from the rooms at the camp. I stayed in a double room (rates start at $79 per night), which offered enough space for one person, although there’s not much reason to spend time in the room.
For those who want a little more cultivated experience, rather than the self-drive choice, these next two reserve areas are ideal. The 55,000-acre Okonjima Game Reserve is located about halfway between Etosha and the country’s capital, Windhoek. It’s also home to the AfriCat Foundation, which rehabilitates cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs, and hyenas.
Visitors staying in the Main Camp and Bush Camp here have excursions ranging from radio-tracking leopards from game vehicles, viewing nighttime wildlife from a nocturnal hide, learning about the San people along a walking trail, and visiting AfriCat’s Information and Carnivore Care Center. Visitors staying in the Grand African Villa and Bush Suite have a private guide who will work with you to determine the best excursions during your stay.
One of my best experiences at Okonjima was on a late-afternoon game drive, when we located Electra, one of the leopards that roam free on the reserve. While we watched from the vehicle, she camped in the shade, helping herself to the kill she’d made earlier in the day. We were as close as we could get to be safe and allow Electra her space without causing her to change her behavior. If it weren’t for the quickly setting sun, I would have wanted to spend much more time watching.
Accommodations at Main Camp and Bush Camp range from double garden rooms to more spacious view rooms to thatched African-style chalets. In 2014, a new, Plains Camp will be added. Rates start at $175 per night for half board and $286 per night for full board. The difference between what half and full board options are per camp vary. While in Okonjima, I stayed in the Grand African Villa, which was an absolutely unforgettable experience. While the luxury accommodation may appear out of reach, consider this: The rates (at about $536 per person, per night) are all-inclusive, plus you have a private guide, host, and chef.
N/a’an ku se
N/a’an ku se has a wildlife sanctuary is situated on 7,907 acres just a 30-minute drive from Windhoek’s airport. The sanctuary is a safe home for orphaned and injured wildlife, most notably lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, caracals, and baboons.
Visitors here have a variety of choices. Those interested in getting involved and volunteering in either the wildlife sanctuary or the organization’s medical clinic over a two-week or longer stay in Namibia have plenty of options to do so. Vacationers can stay in the lodge and learn more about the wildlife and San peoples in the handful of activities available.
I loved tagging along on the carnivore feeding tour, and being able to see how differently the lions, leopards, and cheetahs behave when it comes to mealtime. I also accompanied a pretty caracal named Alex, on a walk out in the sanctuary open space. One night, I sat around the evening fire with a San bushman and listened to traditional stories about the stars, animals, and the universe.
Rates for the lodge’s chalets start at $179 per night and include breadfast and dinner. In the early morning, a troop of baboons meandered past my deck, lingering to watch me take photos of them. Not a bad way to wake up in Namibia.
Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill is an avid kayaker and owner of Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.
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