When last did you get tears in your eyes and a lump in your throat as you left a lodge after two nights? That happened to me – and at least three others I know of – on a recent trip to Namibia.
When my husband and I were in our twenties, we loved nature and wildlife and all we wanted from a holiday was some combination of the two. Older and wiser now, we are starting to realise that accommodation and food can be wonderful, but it is people who truly make your experience special.
For a couple of years we have been aware of the conservation meets community and culture underpinnings of Wilderness Safaris, so we were thrilled to experience it for ourselves at Little Kulala in south-western Namibia.
Little Kulala lies in a 37,000 ha wilderness reserve near the tall red dunes and white clay pans of Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei. Our room or ‘kulala’ (meaning ‘to sleep’) seemed to be part of the surrounding landscape of mountains and dead camelthorn trees. It had a private plunge pool and an extra rooftop bed for soaking up the stars at night or the pink skies at dawn.
Desert and dunes
A 5 am wake-up call. A breakfast of fresh fruit salad, crispy croissants with brie and pastries made from scratch. At 6 am we left with our guide Athan Gawiseb to climb the 320 m high Big Daddy dune and see the otherworldly Dead Vlei laid out below us, ancient tree skeletons twisting ghost-like from the earth. The oldest camelthorns started growing about 900 years ago. “They survived for 300 years”, Athan explained, “but then the climate changed, the water table dropped and they died.”
Together we explored the 3 km long Sesriem Canyon carved out by water millions of years ago. We went on a sundowner nature drive, where he shared his knowledge of some remarkable adaptations to this hyper-arid environment. For instance, gemsbok and springbok, usually grazers, have adapted to browse on leaves as well, while many plants that survive here have needle-like or tiny leaves to prevent evaporation.
Back at the lodge, we enjoyed dinner on the wraparound wooden balcony, looking out towards the dunes and a floodlit waterhole, where we hoped to spot a jackal or brown hyena. The main building harmonised seamlessly with the desert beyond. Dune sand was used in the cement, the pillars supporting the thatched roof were tree trunks, dried branches had been formed into light fittings, and the wooden floor was as white as the clay pans of Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei.
Culture and community
Before the evening got too chilly and everyone melted away to the warmth of their kulalas, the staff gathered to sing for us. Faces shining, smiles a mile wide, they sang with passion and purpose, clearly enjoying the chance to express themselves and share a part of their culture. Their feet began to move, then their hips; soon they were dancing along the balcony from table to table. It was powerful and moving, an unexpected bonus.
Given Wilderness Safaris’ reputation, we had expected service levels and professionalism to be high and the food to be great. And they were. What we hadn’t expected was to be smitten with the people – their warmth and friendliness, the sense that what they do isn’t just a job, but something they take personal pride in doing well.
When I told concession manager Ilze Phillipson how inspiring it was to get top-notch service in the same package as authenticity, individual personality and charm, she smiled: “We call it the Wilderness Way”.
Part of it involves using eco-tourism to create sustainable jobs for local people, building eco-friendly camps and conserving wildlife and nature for future generations. But respect for community and culture is what we saw shining from the faces of the staff, every member of the ‘Wilderness tribe’.
“Training is important to us,” said Ilze. “We use 10-minute videos to train staff and improve skills, each followed by an online test and practical assessment.” An emerging managers’ programme puts people with management potential through a year-long course to turn that potential into reality.
Although Kulala is a private wilderness reserve, many of the company’s other lodges are on conservancy or communal land, so there is a direct benefit to the local community from lease fees as well.
These are just some of the ways in which Wilderness Safaris is breathing life into its motto, ‘Our journeys change lives’. As visitors who love conservation and culture, we connected so deeply with the staff that the experience has changed our own lives too; if this is responsible travel we want more of it.
On our last morning, the staff gathered on the steps to sing goodbye. It was an emotional moment, almost like leaving our new tribe before we were ready to let go. Blinded by tears, we swayed and waved our arms as they sang. A last hug for Athan, who had shared his knowledge with such irrepressible good humour, then we had to tear ourselves away.
If you are planning an African journey, I can recommend Wilderness Safaris. You will be royally looked after. For just a few days you will become part of the Wilderness tribe. Best of all, you will go home knowing that by choosing responsible tourism your journey has made a difference.