Over the millennia, the Fish River, the longest river in Namibia, has slowly but surely etched through a dry desert landscape to define the largest canyon in Africa (and second largest in the world) – the Fish River Canyon. Although booking canyon access can be tricky – numbers are restricted and the season is short – trekkers (principally local Namibians and South Africans) do tackle the steeply inclined paths that cut through Gondwana Cañon Park and plunge into the 550-metre gorge. Prominent among the walks is the famous Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail, with mind-boggling views overlooking Hell’s Bend. With such a humbling panorama drawing travellers’ gazes as they pass through Southern Namibia, though, many leave without so much as scratching the surface when it comes to the learning about the history and lives of everyday Namibians.
Namibia achieved independence from South Africa in 1990. Since then, the young country has been recovering in fits and starts from the inflicted wounds of Apartheid and a long history of instability. Since the early 1990s, the country has enjoyed a welcome period of constancy and is looking for ways to build on its foundation and best use its resources to help Namibian people. But satisfying the demands of the people means understanding the geographical challenges of the country. For example, characterised by stark deserts of sparse vegetation, the Sossusvlei and Southern Namibia regions are quite different from other areas of Namibia; this has made life difficult for the rural inhabitants, the majority of which farm and raise livestock.
Going… Going… Gondwana!
As international travellers increasingly become aware of Namibia’s blend of relative government stability, natural beauty and cultural distinctiveness, the tourism industry is growing stronger and offering locals an attractive way to support their families.
One meaningful way actually allows conscientious travellers to contribute actively and directly to the local economy by signing on with a local travel company passionate about preserving the environment and sustaining livelihoods in the southern region. The Gondwana Collection is truly forging the way for mindful and sustainable tourism and encompasses four private nature reserves in Southern Namibia – Gondwana Kalahari Park, Gondwana Cañon Park, Gondwana Sperrgebiet Park and Gondwana Namib Park – all connected by the Gondwana Four Deserts Route. These four conservancies lie in horseshoe formation, making it easy for holidaymakers to tour the area by car and partake in the activities that each area offers.
Many people start their excursions at the top of the ‘horseshoe’ on the red sands of the Kalahari – an area known for its abundant wildlife and expansive dunes – before progressing to the famous Quiver Tree Forest north of Keetmanshoop. An itinerary could then continue with the Wild Horses of Namib near Aus, seeing the diamond ghost town of Kolmanskop, the gigantic rock arch of Bogenfels south of Lüderitz or a list of about 20 other equally varied and exciting things to see and do.
On every agenda, however, the great Fish River Canyon should not be overlooked, as it is said to offer some of the most beautiful hikes in all of Africa. Trekkers will need to be in fairly decent shape and should book long in advance for the few available permits! All along the way, hikers will experience a destination that was unprotected only 20 years ago; Gondwana has steadily been buying farmland and rehabilitating the desert landscape to create this network of conserved parks.
Gondwana Acts Responsibly
At the end of a long and invigorating hike, rest assured that Gondwana can provide you a hot meal and comfy places to bed down. During an overnight stay, guests will encounter some of the staff of 130 now gainfully employed in a region that only counted a few dozen herders in years past – a great boon for a country where the unemployment rate lingers between 40 and 50 percent. These employees are even given opportunities for personal growth through education and career training, since Gondwana offers classes in, among other things, vegetable gardening, hospitality service training, HIV/AIDS peer education, English and German. Guest lecturers also cover topics such as domestic violence, family planning and sexuality, and alcohol and drug abuse, as well as personal insurance and banking.
Additionally, the organisation has created a Self-Sufficiency Centre, which is a five-hectare farm that provides fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, milk and eggs to cover about 70 percent of the needs for all guest meals in Gondwana’s lodges and camps. Growing its own locally sourced food, the centre not only cuts down on ingredients imported from South Africa, but also provides 13 more full-time jobs.
In a country still finding its post-Apartheid footing, the Gondwana Collection is part of Namibia’s hope for a stronger and sustainable economic future. A stay in one of the Gondwana Collection’s accommodations helps fund their conservation and social work initiatives; thus far in 2010 about 5% of Gondwana Cañon Park’s turnover has been re-invested in nature and community outreach.