It can take a while to adjust to the ambience of a new country, but with Namibia, I fall in love at first sight. Driving from the airport, through the immaculate capital Windhoek and onto the wide plains, my friend and I are immediately entranced by the hazy, terracotta landscape, dotted with spiky, sculptural shrubbery and, in the distance, shadowy mountains rising up against the endless sky. Our excitement rise as we turn off the highway and onto the Omaanda estate, rattling down the gravel roads towards the lodge in our four-wheel drive. Suddenly, our car brakes sharply: A welcoming party of three majestic lions has come out to meet us.
In part, we have Angelina Jolie to thank for this extraordinary encounter. It was the Hollywood actress who first brought hotelier Arnaud Zannier to the 9,000-hectare reserve to see if he might want to open a lodge there (they have been friends since Jolie spent five months living at Zannier Hotels’ Cambodian outpost, Phum Baitang, while filming in the country). She also introduced him to Marlice van Vuuren and her husband Rudie, the creators of the Naankuse Foundation, who were determined to save the land and its inhabitants from a development of 4,000 houses. Today, they collaborate with Zannier’s lodge, Omaanda (zannierhotels.com/omaanda), on wildlife excursions, through which guests automatically contribute to animal-conservation efforts; among the beneficiaries is the Shiloh Wildlife Sanctuary, a clinic for sick or injured elephants or rhinoceros—the latter of which are shot by poachers at a rate of three a day in Africa. With 12 guards patrolling its border at all times, the estate provides a safe haven for white rhinos and other endangered animals.
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