Contributed by Donna Bryson
TORRA CONSERVANCY, Namibia (AP) - Before setting out on a game drive across ruggedly beautiful northwest Namibia, we told the safari camp managers we were happy to take sandwiches. We were intent on finding the notoriously elusive desert elephant, and we didn't want to waste time returning to camp to eat.
"Lunch in the bush?'" food and beverage manager Alfonzo Langbooi queried with an enthusiasm we did not immediately understand.
We did find the elephants. After all, looking for wildlife - rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, mountain zebras, antelopes, baboons - is the main reason to come here. The sight of an ostrich galloping across the semi-desert will charm even those who don't consider themselves birders.
But we soon learned that a long game drive didn't mean resorting to sack lunches. As our truck bounced along a dry riverbed and rounded a bend, we found Langbooi and staff beaming mischievously by a table set with glass, linen and silver. Another table offered a buffet including an artfully presented salad and, warming over a gas burner, chicken schnitzel.
"White wine or red?" asked Langbooi, whose earlier enthusiasm, it was now clear, had been in anticipation of this magical surprise.
It was a spirit we'd come to associate with Damaraland Camp, where we found staff who weren't just employees, but owners who took pride and delight in their enterprise.
Damaraland opened as Namibia recovered from the lengthy war that led to independence in 1990. It was among the first projects in what the government calls the Communal Conservancy Tourism Sector, designed to give locals a stake in conservation and development. The Damaraland community formed a joint venture with Wilderness Safaris, which operates in several southern African countries, to own and run Damaraland Camp.
Maggie Vries, a local who rose from waitress to top manager at Damaraland, says her staff is "proud that they're in the conservancy, proud that they're in their homeland, all these things lead to the sense of ownership."
Across Namibia, conservancies employ hundreds and also funnel money into everything from anti-poaching programs to schools. The World Wildlife Fund lauds Namibia as the first African country to enshrine protecting the environment in its constitution and says "conservancies have contributed to strengthening indigenous communities." Damaraland's 3,522-square-kilometer (1,360-square-mile) Torra Conservancy, where the safari camp is located, is credited with curbing rife poaching of elephant and rhino.
Resiliency is part of the Namibian spirit. Damaraland is home to a community with roots among people forcibly removed from neighboring South Africa in the 1970s apartheid era. They found themselves in an inhospitable landscape of valleys carved by prehistoric lava flows - arid and carpeted with red rock. Torra, the name of the conservancy, means red rock.
And yet humans have lived here for thousands of years, leaving signs literally carved in the red stones. Hundreds of ancient etchings left by the nomadic San people are preserved at a UNESCO World Heritage site near Damaraland Camp called Twyfelfontein.
The artists depicted animals still found in the region, along with others like penguins that they must have spotted after spending weeks trekking to the Atlantic coast in search of salt. Other drawings show fantastical half-human, half-beast creatures, evidence of ancient man's spiritual life. The San also left maps. A guide at Twyfelfontein tells us concentric circles carved in the stone show the location of water holes long since run dry. Twyfelfontein means doubtful fountain, a reference to the inconstancy of a local water source.
Even plants must be ingenious to survive. One succulent found only here, the welwitschia, withstands harsh temperatures, sustains itself on nothing more than fog and dew and can live up to 1,500 years. The humble plant has just two broad leaves close to the ground that can grow several yards (meters). Scientists believe the welwitschia has changed little since the Jurassic Period.
Animals also have adapted in unique ways. One tiny beetle has long hind legs for crouching at an angle so drops of dew roll into its mouth. At the other end of the size chart, the desert elephant has larger feet and longer legs than other African elephants, to go long distances for food and water. We were told they'd be hard to find, but got lucky, seeing one large group before and another after our sumptuous lunch.
Damaraland calls itself a camp. But don't think Girl Scouts. Its 10 spacious chalets have adobe as well as canvass walls, thatched roofs, luxurious bathrooms and even more luxurious views from private porches. The camp's common area has a bar, pool and campfire circle. During Namibia's winter, which coincides with the northern hemisphere summer, the sun warms the pool enough for hearty afternoon swims, and campfires welcome visitors for stargazing on chilly nights.
If You Go...
NAMIBIA TOURISM: http://www.namibiatourism.org/
DAMARALAND: http://www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/damaraland-camp . In high season - June through October, with dry, warm, sunny days and cool nights - rates are $620 nightly per person, including shared accommodations, all meals and activities. Rates Nov. 1-Dec. 19 are $420 nightly per person.
ITINERARIES: In addition to the spectacular sights of Damaraland, my family group - including my 10-year-old and her grandfather - climbed a dune in southern Namibia and roamed the vast Etosha National Park in the north, near the Angolan border. From Luderitz, a colonial town that boasts Art Nouveau architecture, you can visit penguins on Halifax Island, and the Skeleton Coast, a photographer's dream.