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Saturday,  July 13, 2024 11:22 AM 

On Location: “Unknown” Africa – PAX unpacks Namibia with Canadian agents & Exoticca

On Location: “Unknown” Africa – PAX unpacks Namibia with Canadian agents & Exoticca
PAX is exploring Namibia, Africa with travel advisors & Exoticca. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Travelling through the African desert is a game of luck.

As our air-conditioned minibus rolled through the gravel plains of Namibia, a bumpy, desolate landscape of ochre-coloured fields and drought-tolerant shrubs, a skulk of bat-eared foxes, trotting lightly over the rocky terrain, emerged in the not-so-far distance.

True to their name, bat-eared foxes have enormous, pointy ears (much like a bat). Their ears can measure up to five inches long. Almost as big as a small banana.

These fury black-and-brown critters are found all over Namibia, a sparsely-populated country in southwest Africa. But apparently, seeing one – or in our case, a family of five – in the open, is rare.

“You are lucky,” our driver and knowledgable guide, Claudius, also known as “Tickey,” told us, speaking over an intercom, as he slowed his bus to a stop. We climbed over our seats to look out the windows, exchanging yelps of glee as little foxes, with big batty ears, scurried by.

Claudius, also known as “Tickey,” guides us through Namibia, Africa. (Pax Global Media)

It was a lucky day, spotting Namibia’s desert-adapted wildlife. Our road trip from Windhoek, the capital, towards the Kalahari Desert (a vast expanse of red and orange sand), crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, was like a safari version of I Spy.

As Claudius drove us further inland, he took to shouting out the names of animals each time he spotted one in the dusty distance. Oryx! (An antelope with dark markings in the face and on the legs, with long, straight horns). Wildebeest! Meerkats! (aka, Timon from The Lion King). Kori bustards! (Africa’s heaviest flying bird). Kudus! (Another antelope, except with spiralling horns).

Oryx roam the grounds of Intu Afrika Game Reserve. (Pax Global Media)

Our eyes, and phone cameras, couldn’t get enough.

Sometimes, Claudius would pull his bus over so we could get out and approach other signs of life – like a twiny grouping of massive bird’s nests, built by sociable weavers, plopped into the arms of a thirsty-looking tree.

Getting a closer look at big nests built by sociable weavers. (Pax Global Media)

But luck comes and goes in the desert, and eventually, our luck dried up. 

On the final four kilometres of our “road” trip (by now, the road was gone, making way for the loose sands of the Kalahari), the front wheels of our small but mighty bus got stuck. The fine, silty sand of the desert swallowed us, sinking our bus wheels, rendering us immobile. Stranded! In the Kalahari! 

Stranded, but smiling. Travel advisors enter the Kalahari Desert. (Pax Global Media)

Of course, ever-resourceful Claudius had a plan. Within 30 minutes, a rescue team – staff from Camelthorn, the lodge we were heading to – arrived in jeeps to carry us to our final stop. Our bus, too, was eventually freed of the Kalahari’s grip.

Was it a minor inconvenience…or an Namibia initiation? Maybe it was a sign of good luck.  

After all, as Claudius put it: “If you don’t get stuck, you haven’t visited the desert.”

A “completely different” destination

If there’s a starting point for adventure, it’s the deserts of Namibia, one of the largest and driest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Since June 14, PAX has been embedded in the southwestern African country, unpacking sky-high sand dunes and ancient skeleton trees with travel advisors and the team from Exoticca, a Barcelona-based tour operator that entered the Canadian market in 2019.

Canadian and American travel advisors cross the Tropic of Capricorn in Namibia. (Pax Global Media)

Exoticca, which first launched in Europe in 2013, offers private and customizable travel experiences in nearly 60 countries – arid Namibia being one of them.

In Canada, the company’s BDM team is led by Mike Quinto, vice-president of sales, who is accompanying agents (nine Canadians, two Americans) in Namibia this week. Ligia Martinez, Exoticca’s B2B groups coordinator from Barcelona, is also along for the ride.

From left (of Exoticca): Ligia Martinez, B2B groups coordinator; Mike Quinto, VP of sales, Canada. (Pax Global Media)

“For us, Namibia was a no brainer,” Quinto told PAX, which was invited to cover the FAM exclusively. “There are not many companies doing FAMs in Namibia right now.”

Exoticca runs one trade FAM per month, which travel advisors have to qualify for, and the destinations range from in-demand places (like Italy, Peru and Portugal) to off-the-radar countries, like Namibia.

We say “off-the-radar” because Namibia isn’t the easiest to get to from Canada. The Toronto-Frankfurt-Windhoek segment PAX flew involved nearly 18 hours of flying – plus a 10-hour layover in Frankfurt. Whew.

In Namibia, you will see rhinos. (Pax Global Media)

It’s a long way, “but it’s worth it,” said Quinto, calling Namibia a “completely different” destination for people who have “been there, done that.”

In Namibia, you'll see giraffes, ostriches, zebras and vibrant birds. But you won’t see all of Africa’s Big 5 (unless you're in the north, at Etosha National Park, which is home to four of the Big 5 animals – lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants, missing only the Cape Buffalo).

Giraffes spotted at Intu Afrika Game Reserve. (Pax Global Media)

Instead, Namibia has things that other African countries don’t have. There are exotic animals, yes, but there’s more to the scenic country.

“It’s one of those bucket list destinations that’s so unknown,” Quinto said. “People don’t really know what’s going on here. Some think they’re going to see wildlife, others think sand dunes, other think beaches. The one thing about Namibia is that you’re going to get all of that.”

Sandwich Harbour, about 60km south of Walvis Bay, in Namib-Naukluft National Park. (Pax Global Media)

Cinematic Namibia

Exoticca offers six tours in Namibia, ranging from eight to 13 days. There are also longer tours that incorporate other African countries, like Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Our eight-day journey from central Namibia to the Atlantic coast, and back, began at the start of Namibia’s winter. Mornings and evenings have been chilly – coats are required! – while afternoons are pleasantly warm.

The majestic sand dunes at Namib-Naukluft Park change colours at sunrise. (Pax Global Media)

A former German colony, English and Oshiwambo-speaking Namibia is massive (it’s some 825,000 km2). But the country has only three million citizens. The population density amounts to some three people per square kilometre. The country is very spread out. 

You might pick Namibia for the wildlife, but you’ll stay for the landscapes. With crimson-coloured sand dunes, cracked desert floors, pure-blue skies, fiery sunsets and sublime stargazing, the scenery is a sight to behold.

Driving though Namibia takes a while because you’ll literally want to stop every ten minutes to take a photo of the country’s otherworldly environments.

Some areas, like the jagged rock formations that form the Kuiseb River in western-central Namibia, have been said to resemble the surface of the moon. It’s practically cinematic.

It wasn’t surprising to learn that Namibia has been used as a filming location for several Hollywood films – epic productions like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Cell (2000), 10,000 B.C. (2008) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Travel advisors Rachel Bertrand and Sue Richard on moon-like terrain in western-central Namibia. (Pax Global Media)

Travel advisors explore Sesriem Canyon in the Namib Desert. (Pax Global Media)

In Namibia, you have to pack your patience. When driving through the country's isolated deserts, it can take six to seven hours (or more) to get places, and it’s a bumpy ride, as paved roads come and go.

On transfer days, lunch options are limited to snacks and to-go items, like salami sandwiches and beef pies, at gas stations. But at lodges and restaurants, a menu of local cuisine unfolds.

Sunset safari at Intu Afrika Game Reserve. (Pax Global Media)

Namibia is a meat-eating country – vegetables are expensive, they’re all imported – so expect a lot of game meats, such as zebra, springbok and kudu, at mealtimes. 

For our group, trying these local delicacies, mostly for the first time, completed the travel experience.

Sampling Namibia's game meats at Joe's Beerhouse in Windhoek. (Pax Global Media)

“Watercolour” sand dunes 

You could see Namibia by express – by private plane, or train – but you wouldn’t want to do that. Here, all the good stuff is on the ground. The long drives are worth it.

This week, we’ve relished in activities like driving through Namib-Naukluft Park in Sossusvlei at sunrise. This barren region, which doubles as a camp site, is a gateway to one of the oldest deserts in the world – the Namib, which is said to be between 55 and 80 million years old.

Namib-Naukluft Park in Sossusvlei at sunrise. (Pax Global Media)

Namibia’s name, in fact, is derived from the Namib desert itself – the word “namib” is of Nama origin and means "vast place.”

At sunrise in Sossusvlei, the mountain-like sand dunes, in shades of sienna, look like watercolour paintings. These gigantic sand hills, with stark and contrasting shadows, change colours throughout the day, transitioning to crimson and golden-orange.

Golden views at sunrise in Namib-Naukluft Park. (Pax Global Media)

While a protected area, Naukluft park has dunes for climbing. There’s “Dune 45” (at 170 metres high, it’s 45 kilometres from the park’s entrance, hence the name), and “Big Daddy Dune,” which is grander, measuring 325 meters high.

Most in our group hiked to the top of Dune 45, and while the climb was strenuous – we also filled our shoes with sand – the epic view at the top was worth every step. 

Visitors hike to the top of Dune 45. (Pax Global Media)

Exoticca's Mike Quinto (left), Tracie-Marie Landry (centre) and Karla Shaffer (right) reach the top of Dune 45. (Pax Global Media)

Namibia, we quickly learned, is for thrill seekers. Travellers like Exoticca’s Mike Quinto, who ambitiously barrelled down the side of Dune 45, from the top, as if it was a giant ski hill.

But that was just the tip of the sand dune. Later, we discovered Deadvlei, a white clay pan, in a valley, that sits between a cluster of monster-sized dunes.

The dry trees in Deadvlei are more than 1,000 years old. (Pax Global Media)

The story, here, is that the climate dried up some 900 years ago while dunes blocked off a river supply. It got so dry that not even the trees in the area could decompose. Instead, they were left to fry in the sun, becoming monuments of themselves.

Today, those same trees, now more than 1,000 years old, form a “barren forest,” which visitors can access by foot, roughly one kilometre inland, on a hike across the desert floor.

Travel advisors unlock the mysteries of Deadvlei. (Pax Global Media)

Between the site’s eerie white surface, haunting tree branches, colossal dunes, and the blue-blue sky, Deadvlei (which means "dead marsh”) is a photographer’s dream.

One could fill a memory card, or smartphone, in one visit.

Namibia, the Exoticca way

Exoticca’s group sizes vary by destination, but in Namibia, it’s capped at 15 people – a sweet spot for small group touring. The days feel uncrowded and are heavily personalized.

As for Exoticca’s touring style, it’s a format that allows travellers to “pick and choose the type of trip they want to do,” Quinto said.

Selfie time! Exoticca's Mike Quinto (right) snaps a group shot at Intu Afrika Game Reserve. (Pax Global Media)

The tours, which are led by local guides, offer flexibility through optional excursions and lots of free time. Exoticca holds your hand, but not too tight.

There are included activities – main events that tie into the tour’s theme – but other excursions are add-ons, giving travellers (and travel advisors) a chance to build their own adventure.

“Agents can really tailor-make their client’s experience,” Quinto explained.

Hiking into Sesriem Canyon. (Pax Global Media)

Accommodations fall into three categories (charm, superior and luxury) and the hotels are a mix of international and local brands. Travel advisors can also book airfare for their clients through Exoticca, which packages everything together. 

The tour operator also handles flight logistics, including the interruptions, such as flight delays or cancellations. Meaning, the company's team waits on hold with airlines when problems arise, not the agent.

“When you book a package, Exoticca has your back,” as Quinto put it.

Hiking across the desert towards Deadvlei. (Pax Global Media)

Exoticca pays commission on “absolutely everything,” from the airfare taxes to whatever is booked on a tour, and bonuses through an incentive program, Quinto noted.

The company, also, doesn’t recall commissions if, for whatever reason, a client cancels.

“Coming out of the pandemic, that was one thing we really wanted – to make sure we protected our agents,” Quinto said.

Otherworldly landscapes in Namibia. (Pax Global Media)

All eyes on Namibia

A big country, with big adventures, Namibia, with its friendly people and peaceful ways, unlocks an exciting side of Africa – and Canadian travel advisors are tuning in.

Electric sunsets in Namibia. (Pax Global Media)

While this week’s FAM was open to both Canadian and U.S.-based agents, an overwhelming 80 per cent of the 100 people who applied for a spot on the trip were from Canada, Quinto shared.

“I didn’t expect that,” Quinto said. “The market in the U.S. is huge, but I guess Canadians are thrill seekers, which is fantastic.”

What else does Namibia have to offer? What kind of hotels does Exoticca work with? Stay tuned as PAX brings you more on-the-ground content!

To see more pictures from the trip, visit and “like” PAX’s Facebook page here.

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