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Chris (my zoologist husband now working with W.W.F here in Windhoek) and I have spent the most wonderful weekend in Sossusvlei! It was a slow start from Windhoek, we had to hire a 4x4, and my card didn’t work, so lots of phone calls, presumably to India… eventually we were on our way.
Unusually for this time of year, Namibia has had a lot of rain, and as we journeyed down, many of the dry riverbeds were in full flow. So much so, that we wondered if we were going to be washed down river… but we got there.
Mountain Homestead Lodge, in the Namib desert, is an extra-ordinary place. The jagged Nabib mountain range rises to the east and the huge expanse of red desert resembles some sort of weird moonscape. We had an amazing room with picture windows overlooking the vast desert. Because of the recent rain, everywhere we looked, a tinge of green was emerging and flowers were opening up.
Chris was on a mission to find the Jameson Red Rock Rabbit, which is specific to this area and find him he did… nibbling on the fresh shoots. Such a handsome animal, large, reddish brown with long sticking up ears and a little fluffy black tail.
Chris was also thrilled to find the tiny Dassie rat, or Rock rat, which are squirrel-like without the fluffy tail. Weighing in at only 9oz, they have padded soles, noticeably flattened heads and flexible ribs which enable them to squeeze into extremely narrow crevices. The Dassie rat has an unusually slow reproductive rate; they only produce a pair of off spring once a year during the hot summer months.
Normally you would be compelled to get up at some un-Godly hour 4.30-ish to drive to the entrance gate to the Sossuslvei dunes, but we decided to take it easy… we were the only ones at the lodge, as this is the low season, and we were just as happy immersing ourselves in the stillness and silence of this captivating place.
When we did set off, the 60 km drive to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei was a wonder! You can never get enough of the beauty; a constant play of light and shadow from the clouds on the shifting sands. The stark majesty of the dunes piled one on top of the other until it seems they reach half way to heaven.
It’s an interesting thing that holidays can be both a wonderfully self-indulgent treat and a vital lifeline for the conservation of our planet. Sound a bit far-fetched and idealistic? Perhaps not...
Last year there was an interesting online debate about the ethics of travelling to Zimbabwe. Amongst the various arguments was one made by a Zimbabwean who pointed out that the future of wildlife in his country relies on the revenue generated by tourism and, by staying away, travellers may actually be helping to expedite the loss of these precious resources.
Zim is not the only place where tourism plays a hefty part in conservation. Pick up any travel mag and there will be stories about the likes of lodge owners in Zambia who recently saved a lioness injured critically by a poacher’s snare. Beyond the emergency response; many small camps are involved in training rangers, supporting long-term research and educating adjacent communities about the value of wildlife. Plenty more companies opt to take local communities as business partners, providing them with a stake in the future of their environment.
Of course, it is absolutely in the best interest of these companies to invest in conservation – after all, their businesses depend upon it. But more often than not, this is a secondary concern and the extraordinary lengths that people go to come from a deep sense that this is just the right thing to do. Sadly there are others with a much shorter-term view and less integrity where tourism does leave large and grubby footprints on our natural heritage. Tourism undoubtedly has the power to support livelihoods, bestow economic viability on wilderness that might otherwise be used for mining or agriculture, and conserve and regenerate habitats.
Therefore, the important question should not be “should I travel?” but rather “how can I support the people who are themselves busting a gut trying to save the world all on their tod?” (or words to that effect). Just as you would want accountability from Oxfam as to how they use your donation, choose carefully who you entrust your hard-earned safari dollars to. That way, while you are enjoying your holiday, you know that you’ve invested in the conservation of those fabulous places that you are privileged to visit: killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Quite a long time ago (keeping specifics out of it), my parents made the mistake of trying to surprise me with a holiday at the beach. Their benign conspiracy was met with 6 year old histrionics as I mistakenly assumed that the suitcases being hauled out of the boot at the airport meant that I was being packed off to some far off place for having relentlessly hunted down my still-to-be-wrapped Christmas presents hidden in the cupboard. I’ve never been one to take surprises well.
Of course, now I’m a grown-up (sort of), I take enormous pleasure in planning my next adventure and relishing the anticipation for months before it happens. There’s the thinking about how soon after my last holiday I can tactfully abscond from my responsibilities on the next one. Then there’s the endless studying of maps, enjoying the strange-sounding names and beautiful pictures of places I might visit. Once an approximate plan has been hatched, the reality begins to dawn as I start scheming about how to make it all fit together. Then I get to bore my friends for weeks about where I’m off to next (with the promise of making them jealous with the photos on my return). In fact, I get almost as much pleasure in looking forward to the thing as actually doing it. Now that Christmas is behind us, the shops are spending a small fortune on endlessly repetitive adverts with irritating jingles and fake-smiley people trying to get us excited about spending our own small fortune on a sofa at 70% off. Now forgive me for bursting the bubble here but just how excited can you get about a sofa? And even if you do manage to summon up the energy to wade through the throngs between the freezing grey streets and the overheated fug of department stores to blow some cash on discounted goods that you quite possibly don’t need, just how long is that feel-good factor going to last? My poorly disguised point here (if you’ve not walked in with the bowling), is that instead of opting for the all too easy instant gratification of a new sofa, why not start planning your next great escape? It’ll give you hours of pleasure in anticipation, butterflies in your tummy, and make the next few long winter months pass more quickly...and it will leave you with memories that will be more beautiful and last so much longer than a new sofa, guaranteed. (The above image is of an innovative road-side curio shop...everything's on sales if you barter hard enough).