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A safari with a conscience

AAP logoAAP 10/11/2016 Sarah Marshall

Coiling and curving like swirls of bent iron, hardy welwitschias burst through the rust red basalt landscape. Living for more than 1,000 years, Namibia's national plant crawls slowly from somewhere deep inside the Earth's core only to gradually wither away. There is, after all, plenty of time to grow old in the desert.

One of the least densely populated countries in the world, Namibia is vast and frequently empty; the kind of place you could spend all day travelling to get nowhere.

I'm here to explore the northwest region on a very unconventional safari with conservationist Garth Owen-Smith, a man who doesn't like to do anything by the book.

Crammed into a clattering 4WD with a Jack Russell perched on the dashboard and two over-excited Staffordshire terriers licking my face, we head inland from the mist-shrouded Skeleton Coast with no clear plan in mind.

Fog thins to reveal ochre sand dunes latticed with oryx trails and rows of gnarled, prehistoric welwitschias, and very soon I've lost my bearings completely.

Rugged and sun-crisped like the land he inhabits, 72-year-old Garth is a man of the bush.

Although born in South Africa, he's been living in Namibia since the sixties and his work with local communities has earned him numerous awards - including last year's prestigious Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa, presented by the charity's royal patron Prince William.

Owen-Smith was instrumental in getting conservancy legislation written into Namibia's constitution, making it one of the most environmentally progressive countries in Africa, and in 2010 he set up Conservancy Safaris Namibia with long-term partner, anthropologist Margaret Jacobsohn. The couple acts as trustees for the company, with profits divided between the stakeholders, five Himba communities.

Although there's no set itinerary, our journey will gently wend through the Kunene Province, a wild, remote region where Owen-Smith feels most at home.

Over time, the landscape changes slowly. Red becomes black as we drive through abandoned mining areas where shiny dolomite columns soar like organ pipes and the presence of petrified tree logs defies explanation. Veiled mountain peaks fade into infinity as pronging, dust-churning springboks are silhouetted against a setting sun.

Our simple camp for the night is in the dry Huab riverbed. A support team erects tents and prepares dinner for a group of five tourists; Owen-Smith only guides small groups and past guests have included members of the wealthy Rothschild and Goldsmith families.

It's a world away from a sumptuous, five-star safari set-up, but the closest you'll get to really understanding Africa's wildlife and people.

Although Owen-Smith aims to educate, his teachings are never didactic. Instead, it's a slow reveal; a sprinkling of shared insights, allowing people to draw their own conclusions.

This mostly takes place around the campfire, as the night sky glitters with stars.

Puffing on a pipe, he tells us about his work with communities and the NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, which he and Jacobsohn set up in 1983.

Back then Namibia was in the throes of a poaching crisis and people felt disconnected from wildlife. It belonged to the government.

Jacobsohn and Owen-Smith believed the solution lay with communities, the Himba, Herero and Damara tribes. It was vital they regained stewardship of their environment.

"No-one takes responsibility unless you give them responsibility," says Owen-Smith, with a glinting, intent look in his eyes. "No-one was listening to the communities, and we changed that."

Their hunch proved right, and within two years rhino poaching stopped in Kunane.

In 2000, 40 per cent of the world's black rhino population resided in Namibia and people are able to track them on foot in the arid, rubbly Damaraland region.

We join local guards working with Save the Rhino to monitor and protect the animals.

Sadly, another wave of poaching is passing through Namibia and so far, half the rhino here have been dehorned for their own safety.

Crouching low to the ground, we move between sparsely scattered bushy euphorbias for cover. A young bull is resting 100 metres ahead of us, a muscular and resplendent example of prehistoric megafauna.

Any charge could prove fatal, but our guide, Alpheus, who is hurriedly recording details of the sighting in a notebook, intimately understands the behaviour of these animals.

One of the main reasons for the resurgence of poaching in Namibia is a three-and-a-half-year drought that's ravaging resources and forcing wildlife and people into closer contact. Desert-adapted lions are another species particularly at risk.

Hearing the famous bachelor pride the Five Musketeers is in the area, we set up camp in the Barab.

Boas, a local guide who also leads tours for CSN, tells me about the importance of allowing communities to select their own lion guardians and develop a sense of responsibility.

He recalls his own lion, Rosch, who was sadly killed last year over a dispute with livestock. "My mum would complain and say, 'Why not just the shoot lions'? I would tell her, 'Then why not just shoot me?'"

At night, I lie awake listening to the low, guttural roar of lions, so close I imagine the wind beating against my tarpaulin is in fact their heavy breath. But, like the breeze, they soon pass by.

The following day, it strikes me there are no firearms in camp and I ask Owen-Smith why we don't have any protection.

"If we had guns," he says wisely, "we might be tempted to use them."

One animal we're still yet to encounter is the desert-adapted elephant, although Owen-Smith suggests we may run into them on our way to the startlingly beautiful Hoanib.

Tyre tracks overlap in the sandy riverbed hugged by rippling mountain folds, and it's hard to determine exactly where we're going.

"Garth doesn't get lost," reassures Jacobsohn, with a subtle hint of sarcasm. "Getting lost is a state of mind. It's just that sometimes he's not sure where he is."

We settle on a camping spot nestled between powdery white sand dunes and mopane trees, and drive through forest clearings in the hope of finding elephants.

We don't have to wait long.

Sitting still, we watch a young bull tug at the branches of a winter thorn tree, dexterously rattling free its fruits with his trunk.

Critically, as has been the case throughout our journey, there's no-one else around.

In Namibia, most wildlife occurs outside national parks, presenting both opportunities and challenges to local communities.

While on the road, we bump into game warden Tommy Hall, a friend of Owen-Smith's who's heavily involved in anti-poaching efforts. Welling up with tears and weighed down by despondency, he's clearly overwhelmed by the battle ahead.

Owen-Smith refuses to be downbeat;. He sees victory in sight and believes the solution lies in harnessing the power of numbers.

"A country never won a war with one person," he tells me. "The winning army is always the one with most people."

His words now seem more relevant than ever.

"I just hope people will start listening to me again," he says with typical modesty.

Ears open, we're ready and waiting.

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