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How a love for stories helped to build the Gondwana lodges

Though he’s a big-shot businessma­n, Mannie Goldbeck, the man at the helm of the Gondwana Collection lodge group, is a down-to-earth tourism visionary who believes in the power of stories.

“Tourists want stories when they visit another country,” says Mannie Goldbeck. “So we tell stories.”

Mannie and I are having lunch in a quiet corner of the Gondwana hall at the Windhoek Show. Last night, Mervin Beukes from Rehoboth won the inaugural Okambashu Story Quest (see next page) – a competitio­n to find the best storytelle­rs in Namibia, which received more than a 100 entries in its first year. Mannie, the managing director of the Gondwana Collection, an assortment of lodges and tourism projects all over the country, was involved.

“At Gondwana, we want to revive the tradition of storytelli­ng in Namibia,” he says. It’s no surprise that the competitio­n ties in with Gondwana’s new motto: “Have a story to tell.”

“Whether we tell stories to our guests or they go home and tell their own stories, it all comes down to stories,” says Mannie.

Mannie is a third-generation Namibian, who grew up on a farm east of Windhoek. His grandfathe­r was a German soldier who settled here in 1890. As a young boy, Mannie dreamt of being a journalist, but he became a teacher instead. He taught history and geography at Concordia College in Windhoek. Then, 25 years ago, he decided to switch to a career in tourism.

“At first I had a touring company called Top Travel, which I sold when I realised there was a real need for accommodat­ion options near the Fish River Canyon,” he says. “At the time only Ai-Ais was available. People visiting the canyon had to stay as far away as Keetmansho­op.

“So with the help of my business partners, I started buying up sheep farms near the canyon. It was during a period of prolonged drought and many farmers had lost money or moved away. We wanted to create a huge conservati­on area called the Gondwana Canyon Park. The park now covers 130 000 hectares.”

The fences on the old farms were dismantled and the boundary fences next to government land were lifted. “Most of the game had been killed,” Mannie says. “So we reintroduc­ed giraffe, hartebeest, wildebeest, springbok and mountain zebra.”

Of course, you need an income to fund conservati­on work. “We weren’t farming with sheep any more, we were farming with tourists,” laughs Mannie.

An old farmhouse on one of the sheep farms called Kairos was a Bavarian mansion built in the early 1900s. Mannie converted it into the Canyon Lodge and welcomed his first guests in November 1995. (The wrought-iron bed mounted on the roof of the house is a Bavarian tradition: It shows that a bachelor lives in the house, waiting for a bride…)

Canyon Roadhouse (with a vintage car theme) and Canyon Village followed soon after, as did many other lodges throughout Namibia. Currently, there are 14 lodges under the Gondwana banner, from the Zambezi River to Sossusvlei and east into the Kalahari.

Mannie’s love for stories is evident in his other passion: writing. Since 2011, the Gondwana Collection has published about 20 books, all sold at the lodges.

“I’ve always loved books,” he says. “One of my teachers nurtured my interest in history. Maybe the books have something to do with my childhood dream of being a journalist.”

Gondwana’s History Series, which started as a weekly column in Die Republikei­n and Allgemeine Zeitung newspapers in 2010, has grown into five books, with a sixth on the way. The stories are filled with life and colour: Farmers trying to make rain using rockets, diamond smuggling in a brothel, a farmer’s wife fighting off a lion with her bare hands…

Mannie co-wrote his latest book The First World War in Namibia with war expert Gordon McGregor.

When Mannie takes time off, he likes to travel outside Namibia. Recently he went to Cuba; Mongolia is on his bucket list. He also travels to South Africa a lot, a country he describes as his “second home”.

But most of the time this humble entreprene­ur just lives his passion: farming with stories and tourists.

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