Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Dune Friendly?


Dune Friendly?


Today many travellers passing through Namibia to take up a spot of dune sport. Ben Whateley-Harris explores the impact these pursuits have on the environment


Namibia has become a massive Southern African tourist hot spot; overland trucks arrive daily from South Africa and Botswana, making Namibia an important stop on the Southern Africa safari route heading up and across towards Victoria Falls.


This vast and sparsely populated country had always intrigued me. When I arrive hot and dusty from across the South African border in the summer of 2008, I made my way overland up through the Namib desert and its mighty dunes to the coastal town and former German settlement of Swakopmund.


The first thing I notice about Swakopmund is that it is surrounded by some of nature’s most hostile environments. The Atlantic pounds on the coast makes swimming unthinkable and teems with sharks that look menacing. Towering dunes surround the roads in and out leading down to Walvis Bay, and up to the Botswana border. Some dunes are so big that they could swallow an entire English village. The sun shines on them and the landscape looks almost Martian.


I notice that the dunes are dominated by a plethora of sports. With these giant neighbours at your disposal, and the influx of tourists through this area the dunes and now hotbeds for sand sport related recreation.


I stay in Swakopmund for almost a week and talk extensively to locals, travellers, and businessmen about the environmental impact this fastly growing sport has on the dunes and the Namib Desert, which is considered to be one of the oldest deserts in the world. Having endured arid or semi-arid conditions for over 55 millions years is very barren with little plant life and even fewer animals. How will it cope with the influx of tourists and dune sports?


At first the people I talk to tell me that the emphasis is on making money. In an almost exploiting manner many quad biking companies run daily tours into the dunes, offering an adrenaline fuelled ride around the surrounding landscape. Travellers, backpackers and high spending tourists pour into one of the many quad bike rental properties on the periphery of the dunes each day.
Predictably business is very good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   


The quad biking companies have their opponents. American Andrew Willems opposes the quad biking businesses and accuses them of needlessly ruining the environment. Andrew Willems came to Swakopmund almost 10 years ago and set up a sandboarding company that runs out of the local hostels. His emphasis is on promoting the natural landscape while caring for the environment.


“Our company has one eye on the environment and one on making a living, unlike the quad bikers who pound over the dunes, leaking oil and fuel into the sand. We drive to the outskirts of the dunes and walk to them. We don’t use buggies or quads to get up there, everyone walks up and everything we take in is taken out again. I even give a talk to all our customers why we don’t have chair lifts or buggies. God gave us this land and we have to help protect it.”


I ask him if there is a downside to making sandboarding a profitable business as well as an environmentally friendly one.  Andrew looks on with a sly smile and quips: “Of course we have to grease up the boards which introduces a small amount of alien matter into the dunes, but not on the scale of the quad bikers. I could have been greedy and used bikes and branched out and made loads of easy money, but I am not like that, I want to     

preserve a part of the world. I am from California and hate the built up city landscape that dwarfs the skyline. Here is my home and I am going to protect it.”


South African Nicolas Mampana works for a tour company that travels from South Africa through Namibia and into Botswana. His company uses the same hostel where Andrew Willems rounds up groups of travellers to take out into the dunes in his old rusty van. Nicolas has visited Swakopmund countless times and has seen how this once sleepy seaside colonial town has woken up to the fruits of the tourist industry.


“When we first came here you could do some sandboarding and maybe hire a horse to explore the dunes, but soon the quad bikers came and ventured further into the dunes; they are not in direct competition with the sandboarders as they both stick to their own areas. But in the bar afterwards they don’t speak to each other.”



                                                                                                                  
Many see the dunes as an asset that will never die and very few unlike Drew Younger give any consideration to the environment. The Namibian Government has realised the potential in the dune experience and sport market and a great deal of promotional tourist information can be found in the local hostels, guidebooks and on the internet.


One night after a long, hot and dusty day, I sit in a bar with Nicolas Manpana and an associate of his called James. James is from Kenya and has travelled extensively through Africa; every so often he finds himself back in Swakopmund nursing a cold beer in the same bar.


I began to talk to James and after a beer he opens up and tells me that money is the main concern for all the companies and the environment isn’t given a very high place on the political agenda. James who is a driver for a tourist company amongst other things said: “While money can be made no one cares if the dunes suffer, they will be there tomorrow and long after we have all gone, so why worry”.


I never saw James again and never got to know his second name, but he has given me a true insight into the fact that business and making money rules the dunes and dominates people’s minds at this moment of time.                                                                       


Generally most backpackers are ambivalent about the environment. They all enjoy the fun and thrills experienced from the dune buggies and quad bikes, but when asked if they have any concerns for the environment many admit that it has never occurred to them.


I need to speak to the quad bikers and get their views on the environmental impacts of the bikes. So I decide to go along for the ride and see what the fuss is about. I must admit I have a great time until Alison McCarthy from Dublin who was in the quad in front of me went over the handle bars of her quad landing heavily on her shoulders and snapping her collar bone in two.


This incident in the dunes makes me realise just how dangerous this sport is; not only does it have an environmental impact but the human impact is massive too. Poor Alison by snapping her collarbone had demonstrated one key factor. People get hurt and when they do the rescue vehicles slowly making their way out into the dunes increases the environmental impact.

                                                                                                                                   


Hours pass and finally a 4x 4-rescue vehicle arrives, straps her to a spinal board and takes her to the nearest hospital. By that time questions about the environmental impact of the quads and what fuel do they use have slipped from my mind.


All I could think about was the time under the searing sun supporting her head in a vice grip in the dunes hoping that Alison didn’t have a spinal injury.


Even though this incident doesn’t give hard proof that quad biking damages the environment of the sand dunes, it does however highlight the dangers involved and the time it takes for assistance and further medical care to arrive. With accidents of a more serious nature a helicopter is the only viable option for help to arrive.                                               


This could be the dunes saving grace. Without the money for air support the dunes make any ambulances work hard going in reaching an accident victim. No matter how big, powerful or technologically advanced the vehicle, the emergency services use to get to the site; it is still a slow, laborious task.



The time it takes could be the difference between life and death. Accidents occur and any more could have an effect on quad biking’s safety reputation and either put people off experiences it or make the business so unprofitable that they close. Ultimately government safety warnings could scupper further quad biking companies from settling up. Sand boarding is in no way safe either, but at this moment in time, both live side by side and not necessarily in harmony.


For the time being the rule of hard cash and profitability flies like a flag over the dunes. Will companies in the Namib take a leaf out of Drew Younger’s book, or will time show a story of abuse and more environmental damages? Only time will tell.


Date of trip -March 2008

Place - Swaokpmund, Namibia, Southern Africa
The author having a fantastic time speeding down a dune outside Swakopmund.

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