A shining Star in Kunene

Maggie Vriess sits between two worlds. The village of Vrede, a small hamlet on the gravel road between Khorixas and Palmwag, and the jet-set world of international tourism. Mind you, as the manager of Damaraland Camp, an exclusive lodge 17 km away from the same road, Maggie doesn’t get much time for sitting.

D Camp, as the lodge is affectionately known, is run by Wilderness Safaris as a Joint Venture with Torra Conservancy. Wilderness has done a great deal to foster good relations with communities where it has built lodges, and D Camp was the first joint venture with a conservancy. At the heart of the relationship are the lodge staff: all from the community.

Maggie grew up in a simpler world. Tourists were few and far between on the rough roads of Kunene. Locals lived from goat herding, and Maggie spent plenty of time tending the family flock. But the bright lights of the city called, so Maggie set off for Windhoek and looked for a job “until the soles of my shoes were worn out,” she recounts. Unlucky in the city she baby-sat for her sister before returning to the village and herding the goats again. There was not much in prospect.

Until D Camp was built. Maggie was sceptical at first. She knew nothing about tourism and foreigners, but she decided to apply for a post and within a short time she was a trainee waitress at Ongava tented camp, run by Wilderness. Suddenly she had found a vocation. The company called her a ‘Shining Star’ and a career was born.

When D Camp was built she returned to her native Damaraland, first as a waitress, then a supervisor, and finally assistant manager, a post she held for seven years. In house training is an important concept for Wilderness, which makes it possible to pick people from the stony land and turn them into top-class lodge staff. Arrive at D Camp before lunch or dinner and you will see a table laid just like as it is in a top French restaurant, with one small exception: the view from the table is a mountain panorama, silent, save for the clink of cutlery and the humming of a waitress.

Maggie’s heart is in the landscape. She spent a further year at Ongava, and four years in Windhoek training other lodge staff, but D Camp called, and Maggie returned as the manager. The lodge is just a stone’s throw from the goats she used to herd, but the responsibility is a world apart. Guests arrive by small plane from Windhoek International. The conversation at dinner is in German, French, Italian and American English. Maggie mixes easily with the visitors, making them feel at home.

Speaking Damara is a bonus. The guests love to hear ‘the click language’, and the lodge staff sing traditional songs after dinner. D Camp has always been a hot competitor in the Joint Venture Lodge Song Competition, held at Tourism Expo every year.

It seems like a life fulfilled, but I ask Maggie if there is something else she wants. She ends our interview with an appeal to Namibians to book a stay at the camp. Sure, it costs a lot, but Maggie puts it this way: “When I go to the coast I don’t stay in the cheapest place and eat take-aways. I want to enjoy myself and to experience something. Come to Damaraland Camp for a couple of nights. Enjoy the peace and quiet, the fantastic landscape, take a guided tour to find elephant, rhino, and maybe lions. We treat everybody equally, as friends - I love this place.”

Steve Felton
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