With tourists like these…

The ruin of the Namibian coast from Walvis Bay to the Skeleton Coast National Park has been called an ecological disaster – and it was inflicted by tourists. By Alison Westwood

Carnage! screamed Namibian newspaper headlines in January 2008. Aerial photographs – hundreds of them – proved this was no exaggeration. In December 2007, quad bikes, motorbikes and 4x4s overran the fragile gravel plains of Namibia’s coastline for 200 kilometres between the Kuiseb and Ugab Rivers. They did this knowing that the scars their vehicles left would remain for over 100 years.

When government officials and conservationists surveyed the coast shortly after the holidays, they were profoundly shocked. For two hours, they flew over a shore scoured with tracks and disfigured by doughnuts. “It is an ecological disaster,” said Ben Beytell, Namibia’s Director of Parks and Wildlife Mangement.

Beytell said they were caught unprepared because quad bikes are not something they had to deal with in the past. “Because of the moratorium in South Africa, the quad bike influx in Namibia has increased tenfold,” he said. Chris Nel of Living Desert Adventures in Swakopmund disagreed: “It’s been going on for 10 years and 2007 was the culmination.”

Pretty please

Every Christmas and Easter, Namibians prepare to greet – and entreat – the tourists who bring their quad bikes and 4x4s to Swakopmund, Long Beach, Henties Bay and the National West Coast Recreational Area. But many visitors disregard their requests to respect what is in fact the most sensitive part of the Namib desert.

The gravel plains along the coastline are composed of a thin layer of lichen and gypsum holding the sand together. “Any vehicle will create a permanent scar,” said Rod Braby of NACOMA, Namibia’s Coast Conservation and Management Project. The plains are also the breeding ground of the endangered Damara tern which, with wretched timing, lays its eggs in December.

Unfortunately for the tern and the area’s other inhabitants, for the last 50 years this has been communal land without the protected status of a national park. “When this was created as a recreation area, there wasn’t a lot of thought given to biodiversity,” said Braby. “Environmental legislation is seen as a major restraint to any type of development – or fun.”

As things stand, there’s nothing to prevent people from having all the ‘fun’ they want. The maximum fine for offending off-roaders is N$300 (R300).  “N$300 is the petrol a quad biker uses in a morning. N$300 doesn’t scare anyone,” said Nel. “It is ridiculously low,” agreed Beytell.

The Namibians have done their best to educate off-roaders about the damage they are doing. “I spent N$20,000 last year putting signboards up. Locals donated N$30,000 to printing brochures and distributing them at border posts and in town. Nobody even blinked,” said Nel. They’ve tried issuing permits, but there wasn’t enough enforcement. They’ve set aside areas for off-road activities, but people claim they are too small.

No more Mr Nice Guy

Without legislation or enforcement, Namibia’s coast has become the playground for a particularly revolting breed of tourist. Police report seeing quad bikers chasing jackals until they drop dead from exhaustion, or driving springbok up the slip faces of dunes. There have also been reports of intimidation.

It’s against the law for quad bikes to enter Namibian Wildlife Resort campsites – yet most of the quad bike tracks on the coast clearly originate from these campsites. “Camp managers try to be decent and courteous. It wouldn’t be difficult to intimidate them,” admitted Beytell. “If anyone sticks their necks out, their families get threatened, their dogs get poisoned,” said Braby, whose own wife suffered a near-fatal asthma attack after being threatened by eight men in Land Cruisers when she photographed them driving in a restricted area.

But it seems like Namibia has finally had enough. In February, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) announced their intention to call a halt to uncontrolled off-road driving by proclaiming the area between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund a national park and strengthening the status of the National West Coast Recreational Area to a national park.

The general regulation in Namibian national parks is that no off-road driving is allowed, but the government will use concessions, permits and zoning to manage land use in these areas. Existing land uses will not be terminated, just better managed. Of course, some say the simplest solution would be to ban quad bikes altogether. “We will institute very strict punishment and legal measures,” said Beytell. “But to ban quad bikes would be a last solution which we would not support.”

The MET hopes to proclaim the new parks by June. “I’m for it. We need to keep what is left,” said James Tromp of Desert Explorers, a local quad bike operator. Others claim it will kill tourism to Namibia. “I think it’s ridiculous,” said Peter Baron von Ginkel of Baron Tours & Swakopmund Adventure Park. “It won’t get worse, you can’t change it. In the next 200 years it will be exactly the same. The government is using this to get money.”

“You can’t say it’s wrecked, so continue wrecking it,” said Nel. “If we have a lot of good rain and strong wind, in 10 years it will soften the tracks and it won’t be too obvious. But they will always be there.”

First published in the May 2008 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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