Neil recently arranged a trip to Wilderness Safari’s Damaraland Camp and Hoanib Camp for his mother in law.  Lynn is a seasoned traveller who loves meeting interesting people and experiencing out-there places. Read this delightful account of her impressions and especially her description of her meeting the inimitable Lena.

“What caught my eye on arriving at Windhoek International Airport was the Namibian Coat of Arms – I loved it so delved deeper to find out what it symbolizes. The African fish eagle which lands aloft equates to the farsightedness of the countries leaders. The two oryx which hold up the flag represent courage, elegance and pride and the welwitchia (a desert succulent) typifies the nations fortitude and tenacity.

As Wilderness Safaris so wonderfully describes it – we have been to Arid Eden. The modern community based ecotourism and conservation contrasts dramatically with the rugged iconic vast landscapes of the driest country south of the Sahara.

Arid Eden –  Namibia is the driest country south of Sahara

Having spent two days at Damaraland Camp the symbolism of the coat of arm became clearer and clearer. The resolve to live in the desert requires tenacity of a sort which for first timers is hard to comprehend. Rugged, rough, harsh and unrelenting are adjectives which spring to mind. But the mindset of the locals defies the reality of the terrain. Warm enthusiasm abounds – nothing is too much trouble and learning from our ever informative guide, Richard was a joy.

Eco-friendly luxury at Damaraland Camp. A blend of ancient and modern construction methods

The way the elephants and black rhinos have adapted over the years to the desert terrain. How to tell a black rhino from a white rhino at a distance – white rhino, baby in front, black rhino, baby is behind – something that will remain in my memory bank forever…..the elegance and pride of the oryx poised on the top of a rocky outcrop. The welwitchia plant, whose different male and female cones almost replicate the rocky terrain in which they grow show fortitude by forcing their tap root system meters into the arid earth for search of water thereby giving life to others.

Elephants, rhinos, oryx and welwitchia plants  have adapted over the years to the desert terrain

‘Hello, I’m Lena, Soooo pleased to meet you all – have you had a good morning?’ said Lena as she eased her overly ample frame into the chair at the head of the table.

Neil, my son in law, had arranged for her to regale us with her life story.

‘It started when I was three years old. The year was 1973. We were living in a small town in the Northern Cape, Riemvasmaker, and the Nationalist Government decided that this was a strategic position to develop and military base, so you see ‘ek is van Suid Afrika af, and Afrikaans is my mother tongue.’ Having said this a huge smile spread over her full face showing off perfect pearly white teeth.

‘But now we had to move, not just a few of us but the whole town which was made up of over 800 families.’

Wow, she could see that she had our attention – she leaned back and her chair creaked ominously.

‘So you all moved how, ‘ was said in unison. Our party was made up of 6 – Neil, director of Southern Destinations had arranged our sojourn to Namibia together with my husband, daughter and our friends, the Beattys. 

The SA government moved us here – to the north west area of South West Africa as it was known in those days.’ Lena continued telling the party how they were moved – trucks and lorries took their possessions and animals and they caught the train from Upington in the northern Cape to Otjiwarongo where the railway line stopped. They were then herded into the trucks with the animals and the final lap was done by road.

A hushed silence descended on our party – we did not know where to look or want to say.

So the people from Riemvasmaker created a new home for themselves in South West Africa, as it was then called. ‘I was one of 10 children – five sisters and four brothers and being in the middle I had the advantage of being sent to school – only 6 of us went to school, the other 4 stayed in the village tending the cows and goats – we all slept together in one house. Times were tough but we knew no other way of life.’

Listening to Lena talking was humbling – never once did she show one ounce of resentment for her lot. But she knew from the time she finished school with very good results that she wanted to better herself for the lives of the people around her.

And then her story really took off. A husband was chosen. But no way – this was not for her. She contacted someone from Wilderness Safaris – was interviewed – got the job as a waitress…..but she could only speak Afrikaans, that was the Riemvasmakers first language. The manageress helped her learn English and within a year she had moved up the ladder – but then the community got together and her brother, who had not gone to school was given Lena’s position in the lodge, not doing what she was doing but general labour.

‘How could that happen, weren’t you upset,’ we all wanted to know – ‘it was the communities wish, I accepted it,’ was her reply. But now she had to go back home and do her brothers work – tending goats, carrying water – this for a nineteen, twenty year old intelligent young woman who had already got the taste of life outside the village was claustrophobic – and she was expected to marry and produce children.

But luck was on her side – Wilderness Safaris contacted her  – asked if she would be prepared to come back – she went back and has never looked back.

Lena became manager of Demaraland Camp and now she is regional manager of 4 Wilderness Safari lodges in Northern Namibia – She was voted  best manager in Namibia and 6 years ago was flown to the Kentucky in the States having won a ‘Miss Personality’ competition in Namibia.

Lena – known by most as Mamma Namibia

Since the advent of our new democracy in 1994 some of the residents from Riemvasmakers village returned to South Africa but the majority of them stayed in Namibia, which had become independent in 1990. Lena and her now large extended family all chose to stay and her trip to America was the first time she had been on an plane let alone out of the country.

‘OR Tambo terrified me, but at least someone from Wilderness Safaris was there to steer me in the right direction but when I arrived in Atlanta I had no idea what to do or where to go – terminal 3 for domestic flights I was told, but I had no idea what a terminal was.’

OMG we all thought but the ever resourceful Lena made a plan – just like she had to when answering the switchboard at the hotel where she was working. She could not understand the mid west accent and they could not understand a word she was saying.

‘So I just told everyone to hold on as I transferred the call – when asked why I was not taking my work seriously I replied if I did not transfer the call you would lose business as we can’t understand each other – so actually I am taking my work very seriously and helping your business.’

Lena chuckled gleefully as she recalled that incident. Half an hour had flown by – we were all in awe of this woman, who from a relocated village environment has by the age of 46 become a travelled lady, able to converse and wine and dine with  dockers and kings and be an integral part of Wilderness Safaris Namibia.

But when asked what she liked to do or where she liked to go in her time off and holidays it was always back to her family and village of Riemvasmakers where she still herded the goats,  collected water and helped the people in her community.

Lena could teach us all many lessons in life. Be happy and proud of who you are, try and help others around you and remember the importance of family.

The simple eco-friendly luxury of Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in a remote and unexplored corner of Namibia

Arriving at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Lodge reminded me of beduin tents, Lawrence of Arabia and the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan. But having said this, even Sir Lawrence would have been gob smacked by the sheer magnitude, style and perfection of the newest and only camp of its kind in the whole of Africa. Wow – nothing and no one for miles and miles. A cosmic spirituality abounds. Sunsets and dramatic mountain climbs with the golden ball dipping behind the ever powerful dunes. Moonscape game drives with a difference – abandoned desert lion cubs – adrenalin rush free fall stunts in the vehicle – listening to the hammering noise of air escaping from the sand as our legs vanished up to our knees whilst careering down 200 metre plus dunes. Alpha, our brilliant ‘rasti’ guide gave us all. And more – lunch on the beach overlooking the life filled blue Atlantic Ocean. And all this followed by a scenic, informative 20 minute flight back to camp.

But the most moving and lasting memory of this camp will be Phillip Stander, the man himself, his lions and his mesmerizing story and movie, The Vanishing Kings – the desert lions of Namibia. Nothing can compare with what this Cape schooled, Cambridge doctor has achieved by devoting his life to the desert.

This and the above is the reason to come to Namibia. Thank you Southern Destinations and Wilderness Safaris for a once in a life time experience.

You must watch this short video about Lena and her community and their partnership with wilderness Safaris. “