After an amazing ten days spent guiding and exploring the expansive regions between Billings, MT and Jackson, WY with fourteen wonderful new friends from Namibia, I felt the need to write about a few learnings I took away from this remarkable opportunity of a trip. As a short background, my father, Dan Austin, took a trip to Namibia (his favorite place in the whole world) back in May. After lively and meaningful conversations amongst the group he was traveling with, he ended up extending an invitation to his friendly Namibian acquaintances to come and explore the Yellowstone and Grand Teton regions of the United States. Little did he know, that this welcoming invite would open up doors to these people who wanted to see the world. Read on to discover my three “take-aways” from this trip that has been deemed in our office as “The Nam Fam”.
1. These Namibians are one of a kind….
From the moment we picked our crew up from the airport, I could tell it was going to be a special week. The kindness these people show is like none other that I’ve seen in my travels around the world. We had quite the variety of Namibians in our group – village leaders, government officials, lodge contractors, WWF members, and conservancy workers were just some of the titles represented amongst these people. Their willingness and desire to learn about the geology, history, flora/fauna, and culture of the area made me see the lands I grew up in with a fresh perspective. Along our way, we met with numerous representatives of Montana and Wyoming – Cooke City’s historian, Yellowstone and Grand Teton’s sustainability directors, local World Wildlife Fund reps, wildlife biologists, ranchers, Native Americans and more. I couldn’t believe the amount of interaction and learning that took place within our “on-the-road classrooms.” All in all, the educational factor in this adventure was beneficial for each member (including myself) that was involved, and I believe that the Namibians’ excitement to learn made the whole experience that much more fun!
2. We experienced a whole lot of “firsts”!
Going into this adventure and not knowing the background of each of the Namibian members, left us planning this trip for fourteen people without knowing just how exciting a lot of our activities would be. Little did we know that many of our friends had never been on a plane before, and this was just the first of all of the “Wow’s” we would hear along the way. Visiting the Crow Reservation near Billings allowed our Namibians to make comparisons between the Crow tribe and the Namibian people such as the San and the Himba, a first time for them since they had never seen an American Indian reservation before. At the top of the Beartooth Pass (near 11,000 feet), many of our guests saw snow for the first time and of course we had our first snowball fight! Since none of our Namibians had been to North America before, each wildlife sighting was a first for them too – coyotes, wolves, black bears, moose, elk, and bison were just a few of the animals we saw (although we did hear a lot about the animals we needed to come and see back in Namibia!) Kayaking Jackson Lake was also a first in that many of our friends had never ridden in a boat of any kind, let alone a small two person kayak floating so close to the water. (There were many nervous questions about what could possibly eat you in a lake so large – I made sure everyone knew that alligators and hippos did not exist in the Tetons!) The last first I will mention is the American college football game that we attended on our last day together in Bozeman, Montana – the Bobcats versus the Lumberjacks. What an experience this was – from tailgating before the game to cheering the Cats on to victory, the excitement at this event was incomparable to any football game I’d ever been to before. Each and every first time activity left me grinning ear to ear – how neat to be able to share with these eager people America’s finest gems – it truly was a pleasure!
3. Sustainable tourism – walking the walk
When it comes to sustainable tourism, there are a lot of people and companies that talk the talk, but how many are really out there that walk the walk? Sustainable tourism is defined as tourism that can efficiently and effectively occur over the long term that benefits the environments, cultures, and economies of where it takes place. As a company dedicated to sustainable tourism (as Austin-Lehman’s efforts in our nonprofit organization Wheels of Change shows), we felt that this fam trip definitely took a step in the direction of sustainable tourism in providing our fellow Namibians with connections, practices, ideas, and learnings to bring home to their people and businesses. Not only did we share America’s practices, but we compared our uses of sustainable tourism with the Namibians’ conservancy model. In a nutshell, Namibians use a conservancy to set aside land to protect natural resources (such as the local wildlife, a watershed, or a historic area) while employing almost all local people, therefore improving the economic livelihoods of those benefitting from the conservancies (the locals!). We discussed many times how the idea of a conservancy could be used in America, especially on our Native American reservations. All in all, the discussions regarding sustainable tourism in our lands near and far brought about interesting conversations and ideas that could lead to better sustainable practices both in Namibia and America.
Overall, this trip opened my eyes to the Namibian culture and way of life. These special people really are gems in this world we live in, and to get to know one (let alone fourteen of them) is like inviting a brother or sister into your life. The fascination with our national parks and Native American reservations was evident in the questions asked throughout the trip. I couldn’t believe the number of “first times” we had for each activity we completed as a group, and just one of these experiences was extraordinary for these people let alone a whole list of them – I feel so lucky to have “relived” these firsts through fresh sets of eyes. Last of all, the ideas shared and connections made regarding sustainable tourism are sure to bring up some interesting questions and conversations that will last far beyond our time spent together in Montana and Wyoming. I can’t wait to see where this trip has led to when I visit Namibia for my very first time in 2013!!