The Villa, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed, comes with a chef and a butler. // © 2015 Okonjima
Feature image (above): Popular guest activities include radio tracking the 55,000-acre property for AfriCat’s cheetahs and leopards. // © 2015 Okonjima
"If you hear a thump on the window, don’t be alarmed,” said Jason Kambada, an employee at Okonjima lodge in Namibia. “It’s just the hornbill.”
He then unzipped the wall opposite my double bed and sprinkled some bird feed across my patio.
After about 15 minutes, most of the locals had already swung by for an introduction. First to arrive were the hornbills, swallowing the seeds in one fell swoop. They were so close that I could hear their beaks chatter. Then came the iridescent guinea fowl.
Jason left me with my new friends, and I treated myself to a Windhoek Lager from my minibar. A female kudu galloped past, followed by her clique and a few warthogs — each approving of my neighborly offering. Before I knew it, the sky behind the Omboroko Mountains turned a deep strawberry.
These could-be movie moments happen everywhere at Okonjima, which is centrally located between Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek and Etosha National Park off the B1 road. During the 14-mile unpaved drive from the entrance to the lobby, I spotted oryx, zebra and warthogs and, at check-in, three giraffes drinking from a waterhole competed with the manager for my attention.
And I haven’t even mentioned the cats. According to employee Shanna Groenewald, Okonjima offers lodging and tourist activities in order to support the family-run business’s true passion: the nonprofit AfriCat Foundation, which has released more than 80 percent of the 1,080 cats it has rescued since 1993. AfriCat began as the Hanssen family’s attempt to understand how to sustainably farm alongside predators. Since then, the family has stopped farming in order to run lodges and a day center that support the research, rescue, rehabilitation, release and conservation of persecuted cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas and lions.
“The big problem in Namibia is mitigating the human-wildlife conflict,” Groenewald said.
Collecting and habituating animals is not the solution, which is why AfriCat is dedicated to education, especially among employees of local livestock farms, which make up about 50 percent of Namibia’s land.
According to AfriCat, Namibia has about 3,500 leopards and 2,500 to 4,000 cheetahs, making the country the home of the world’s largest free-ranging cheetah population. The number of cheetahs is dwindling, though, with only about 10,000 left in the world. One problem is that cheetahs prefer to inhabit the same farmland as livestock and are hunted by farmers who consider cheetahs a threat.
Since AfriCat’s research requires monitoring the animals in its park with radio collars, Okonjima’s most popular activities include radio tracking leopards (by vehicle) and cheetahs, hyenas and wild dogs (by foot).
“In essence, our guides are researchers,” Groenewald said. “One saw our big leopard, Madiba, actually kill a cub this morning when he was with guests. We can’t intervene because that’s life in the wild, but we can look at it now and analyze what happened.”
Groenewald was narrating what we were witnessing on our tour of AfriCat Carnivore Care & Information Centre, another activity available to guests. At that moment, the research team was gathered around the leopard killed earlier that day.
Though Okonjima is known for its conservation efforts, it has also made headlines for hosting A-listers such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. If guests didn’t know any better, they might mistake Okonjima as merely a convenient and well-appointed safari lodge. Bush Camp, for example, excels for its nature immersion, its private and spacious chalets and its tasty, European-style meals.
“We are only entering the U.S. market now, so Bush Camp is more popular, since that’s the concept of Africa they know,” Groenewald said. “Americans can feel let down when they get to Plains Camp and think ‘That’s not Africa.’ But it is — it’s just a more modern twist.”
Some younger clients prefer Plains Camp, as it is more social and rooms are bug-free. The common area felt hip and modern — a real shock for me since I’d seen little resembling Western design during my first week in Africa.
It was a nice surprise, but I suppose I’m a typical Yank, after all. I couldn’t wait to return to my open-air chalet and catch up on my own personal documentary of wild animals and mood-ring clouds.