Noah’s Ark in the Desert
Namibia’s Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary
By Cindy-Lou Dale
Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary is the only one of its kind in Africa. It runs a working guest program especially designed to fulfill eco-tourists dreams of working in the wild. Harnas, located on 100 square miles of land, has been fenced by its international patron, Angelina Jolie.
I stepped out of the air conditioned confines of a jetliner into the midday oven-like heat of the African desert. It was difficult to breathe at first; the saliva in my mouth evaporated instantly; nothing had prepared me for the intense suffocating temperatures of Namibia.
As I walked to the terminal building, my heels sinking into the asphalt, I glumly contemplated the expanse of barren landscape and the shimmering heat waves which rose from the ground.
“How could anything manage to live here?” I thought, which immediately brought me to the reason for my visit, the extraordinary person I was about to interview, Marlice Van Vuuren, owner of Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary.
Cheered by the prospect of establishing how another person could survive in such extreme conditions, and the simple driving directions I had received, I found myself at the entrance to Harnas.
The Harnas Homestead
After encountering several access-controlled gates, I eventually arrived at the Harnas homestead, where I was greeted by an expanse of manicured lawns and the sight of Jack Russell terriers wrestling with a lion cub. Marlice and her husband, Rudie, an international rugby and cricket player, were there to meet me.
Marlice’s family have farmed in Namibia’s Gobabis district for three generations and initially owned several farms. But all that changed back in 1978 when her parents saved a maltreated vervet monkey from its owner. This was the beginning of a long line of animals that found refuge on the farm.
To cover the ever-increasing cost of food, new enclosures and medical treatment, which had previously been financed through profits from their cattle and the sale of all but one of their farms, Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary and Guest Farm opened its doors, successfully establishing a haven for orphaned wild animals.
“We have a Bushmen community living on the farm,” Marlice said. “And we’re in the process of training them as field guides. At the moment my mother gives summer jobs to the children, and ensures their education.”
The Bushmen are very dear to Marlice as she grew up with them. “There are only 90,000 Bushmen left in the world and I really feel their sadness. They are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa who have lost their identity and most of their cultural assets. In some small measure, I hope we’ll contribute to their future.”
A Life-Changing Experience
The bulk of Harnas’ funding comes from private individuals and a handful of concerned businessmen, like their vehicle sponsor – a local telecommunications company and the firm who provided their fencing materials.
Harnas offers a unique Working Guest Program whereby people who wish to experience ‘life on the wild side’ can work on the farm for a month at a time.
“But don’t go thinking it’s glamorous and romantic, because it’s not. It’s really hard work. But I do guarantee the time our working guests spend at Harnas will be a life-changing experience. It’s difficult not to be affected by all that we do.”
Marlice’s vision is to become a leader in the eco-tourism market in southern Africa. She plans to do this by establishing a role model conservation area, utilizing the best of business and conservation practices, for the benefit of the animals, eco-tourists, donators and their shareholders.
Realizing the Dream
The overall result of what they want to achieve is for the eco-tourist and the donor to have the opportunity of experiencing an unspoilt African wilderness and authentic African culture, in the knowledge that they are contributing to both conservation of African wildlife, as well as preserving and developing a near lost tribe of people. I asked what she needed to realize this dream.
“We need to make the reserve bigger in order to release more animals. We also need to convince farmers and the government to make land available for this purpose. We want to partner with potential overseas investors – currently, when a foreigner wants to acquire land in Namibia he requires a Namibian partner – this is where we see ourselves.
“Investors could assist us by buying the land around Harnas, or anywhere in Namibia. The Government has not given us support, but I am certain this will change once foreign sponsors and investors create a worldwide awareness of what we are doing.”
Providing Health Care
The Bushmen people living on the farm and the surrounding areas were desperately in need of health care facilities. For eco-tourism to succeed, the needs of all the local tribes living in the surrounds needed to be addressed. Providing basic health care was one of their immediate needs.
Rudie is a General Practitioner and has his own practice in Windhoek, the capital city. He recently started a clinic project near the farm, attending to those that could not afford medical services.
“Of course, running a free practice requires money, which until recently, came out of Rudie’s pocket but thankfully we sourced a foundation in the Netherlands who subsequently made a substantial donation towards our Bushman Medical Outreach Project.”
Angelina Jolie filmed part of ‘Beyond Borders’ on Harnas, where she met and fell in love with ‘Goeters’, a domesticated cheetah belonging to Marlice.
“Thanks to Angelina Jolie, we have fenced our entire farm (100 square miles), and as a result we have successfully released many of the wild animals that have undergone full rehabilitation. Angelina is such a caring kind hearted soul and, I am thrilled to say, is our international patron. We built a little house for her on Harnas.
In fact, Angelina and Brad visited us earlier this year. Brad was wrestling on the lawn with his son, Maddox, three Bushmen kids, and my nephew.”
Later that evening Marlice and I sat under a thatched canopy, overlooking the waterhole. Marlice relaxed in her chair, sipping an iced tea. A monkey sat on her shoulder and Goeters, her cheetah, lay at her feet.
She stared into the crimson sunset and quietly nodded in agreement to a private thought.
I followed her gaze to what was a vista you don’t so much look at as bathe in. “I feel the hand of God here,” Marlice announced, “in harmony with nature’s law.”
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Cindy-Lou Dale originates from a small farming community in Southern Africa and has a nomadic lifestyle that moves her around the world. Currently she lives in a picture postcard village in south-east England, surrounded by rolling green hills, ancient parish churches and designer sheep farms. Cindy has been featured in international publications around the world, including GoNOMAD, TIME and National Geographic Traveller.