11 May 2002 to 21 May 2002
We flew from Capetown to Windhoek. From the air Namibia appeared to have lots of trees but no visible source of water. There were parallel streaks of red on the ground which we later learnt were sand dunes so extensive they are visible from space.
We arrived in Windhoek and my thoughts were buzzing of my childhood – my father had a factory here some 50 years ago and some of my earliest memories are of trips to Windhoek. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was definitely third world – the taxi was dilapidated and we drove through deserted streets. It was Saturday afternoon and a numbing quietness hung over the hot town. After checking into our pension we met Johan who was to be our guide and driver in Nambia. Later, on Moran’s recommendation we went to Joe’s Beer Garden for dinner. It is a huge open-air restaurant with thatched umbrellas sheltering the tables and fires to warm the cool night air. We had a delicious dinner, enjoying shashlik of ostrich, crocodile, kudu and zebra.
The following morning Johan picked us up early and we drove south from Windhoek. The roads were lined with fences bordering huge cattle farms; some of these farms have been converted into excellent game parks and lodges and a few are game farms, where people can have the pleasure of killing wild animals. Taxidermists were prominent at the exit of the town. The land was immediately rolling hills and abundant dried grass interspersed with acacia trees, not what we expected. A few hours out we left the main road and for most of the next nine days we travelled along good gravel roads, dirt tracks, sandy riverbeds and torturous stony paths.
Late in the morning we arrived at Intu Africa our first game reserve, in the Kalahari. We were met by a beautiful woman dressed in an olive green uniform holding welcome cold towels and a cool drink. The reception and lounge were pleasantly done in ochre and Namibia designs and the doors opened out onto the bush. To reach our room we had to walk along a paved path through bushman’s grass and camelthorn trees and at night needed a torch to find our way. We felt quite alone, as if we were in the heart of Africa
We had a
good lunch and then like overstuffed lions just crawled back to our
room and fell fast asleep. At three o’clock we woke up and as the heat
of the day subsided we set out in an open jeep looking for game. We
crossed parallel lines of ochre red sand dunes, covered with grassy
Savannah and acacia trees.
Our driver Alfeus was knowledgeable and informative. We saw flocks of ostriches, herds of oryx, a few steenbok, zebra, bat-eared and Cape fox, herds of springbok, black-faced impala, wildebeest, ground squirrels, jackal, and various birds. Three lions were in a separate enclosure lazing quietly after a kill. The young lions were chased from prides in Botswana and posing a threat to cattle, farmers wanted to kill them. They were brought here and placed within the enclosure. The plan is to electrically fence the whole game park and then release the lions. Various antelopes, which they need to kill for food, are released into their enclosure,. We saw one male sitting next to the carcass of an oryx.
Just before sunset we stopped at the top of a dune and there was Johan our driver sitting by a little table covered with a zebra pattern tablecloth, slivers of biltong, potato chips and drinks – sundowners in the middle of nowhere full of warm red colours and stillness. Lovely! When it became dark we drove slowly back and saw two leopards in another enclosure by spotlight. This was the romance of Africa in all its intensity.
Dinner and drinks were by a campfire where we were served oryx stew. This seemed most exotic, but in the ensuing days we noticed that if there was nothing else to eat there’d be oryx on the menu.
The following morning we woke up early and had coffee and rusks
before we set out on a guided walk with a Khoisan bushman, !Xoi. No
matter that we know that the bushmen are no longer nomadic, no matter
that we know that they no longer practice their bushman skills and
sadly don’t pass this knowledge on to the younger generation, no matter
that the Khoisan guide was brought to work in the back of a truck and
was now wearing a springbok cloth and a leather sling with bow and
arrow and digging stick over his khaki clothes, it was a captivating
1-1/2 hours and we would have walked with him forever.
!Xoi spoke no English and Alfeus explained and translated. !Xoi was about 40 years old, slight, an attractive yellow-brown skin with spiky curled hair. He spoke with many clicks. He showed us spoors of duiker and scenting posts of wildebeest. He dug up and explained the medicinal uses of various roots that we smelled and tasted. He also showed us one spreading plant that could be used as an umbrella in the burning sun. Scorpions are nocturnal and were a danger to nomadic bushmen who used to sleep in the open. The scorpions would seek out their body heat and when people moved the scorpions would sting them. The bushmen cut off their tails and made a paste with the scorpion poison that they rubbed into cuts in their body – effectively vaccinating themselves against the scorpions that would then leave them alone. He showed us how if an ant fell into the depression of a bokspoor spider it would lift up its sandy web and take the ant in. When he bent down and started to scrape away the sand an ostrich egg was revealed buried in the sand. It was breath taking. There isn’t much I remember from school but the fact that bushmen used the ostrich eggs as water bottles was one of them. Water could be collected from a hole in a tree and strained through grass and would last up to 4 months if only emergency sips were taken. The walk ended at a ‘village’ – two grass huts where old women were making beads from shells and their children were sitting around. It was an enthralling few hours.
After a good breakfast we set off and spent most of the rest of the day driving. We left the red sand and drove down through brown gravel plains over mountains to descend to an ephemeral plain at 1,000 meters. We then reached Naukluft – the mountains appeared to rise out of shimmering sand but it was shining grass. That night we spent at Weltevreden, a simple guest farm. In the late afternoon we went for a walk across the veldt to get some exercise and look for moringa trees. It was a nice walk but since we didn’t quite know what moringa trees looked like, we passed them by. Supper was oryx stew again. The generator switched off at 9.00pm and we were quite happy to have an early night. In the clear dark night we easily saw the Southern Cross, the Milky Way and millions of other stars that looked so close, we could almost touch them.
On our third morning we were up at 5.00am. It was still dark so we dressed by candlelight and after a quick cup of coffee we drove to reach the Sesreim gates of the Sossusvlei Park by sunrise. The rising sun made sharp lines between black shadows and glowing red sand dunes that looked as if excised by a razorblade. The towering dunes were in fantastic geometric shapes and flowing lines. This is the world’s oldest desert, formed by iron-bearing red sand blown in from the Kalahari by the east wind. The base of the dunes is stabilized by vegetation, shining silvery-gold in the early morning sunlight. We only enjoyed a few seconds of warm sunrise light that turned everything glowing red but the park was amazingly beautiful at all times. As the sun rose the dunes were sharply etched in red and black and then later in the day their shapes seemed to change as the light reflected different angles.
We walked in Deadvlei pan, entranced by the dried clay mosaic on the vlei bed, the stark dead trees reflected against a backdrop of dunes and just being there. The dunes were full of the tracks of lizards and beetles. One beetle obtains moisture by burying its body in the cold night sand and then, when the fogs come, moves to the surface and remains back up and head down so that the fog will condense against its body, run down the grooves in its back and into its mouth.
We had breakfast at a dune next to the dried-out lake, or pan, called Sossusvlei. Afterwards Eitan and I walked up the knife-edge of the 300-meter high dune. The sides of the dune angled sharply down and it was quite scary, even though we knew nothing would happen if we rolled down.
That night we stayed at Namib-Naufkluft Lodge, built against sandstone cliffs that demanded I climb while Eitan relaxed. Late in the afternoon all the guests were driven in open jeeps to Marble Mountain for sundowners. The plain below us was extensive with dramatic mountains rising sharply from the flatness. It is magical to be out in the open when everything turns red and then dark falls. This was the first time that we met with other English-speaking people. All the groups we had met so far were German. Although English is the official language, Afrikaans is alive and well in Namibia and many of the Europeans speak German as well.
We drove through passes and reached the Welwitschia Plains. Welwitschia plants occur only in the gravel plains of the Namib Desert. There is hardly any rain so these plants, considered trees, absorb the fog coming off the coast. They are very ancient and have features of conifers, flowering plants and club mosses. The plants are dioeceous and the females were covered with red beetles that are the pollinators. They have only two leaves (although these are usually shredded by the winds giving an appearance of many.) These leathery leaves conduct condensed moisture to the leaves.
We arrived at Cape Cross and were greeted by the smell of the seals before we even saw them. Some 90,000 seals hang out there and I think we saw and smelt most of them. The sea was thick with frolicking seals and their pups, but most were sunning themselves, on the sand, on rocks and on each other. The pups were about three months old, the younger ones slick baby grey while older ones had already molted and were adult brown. There were a few blackstriped jackals moving among the seals and we understood that they eat the dead pups that we saw lying around.
The welcome moisture of the fog dried out and it became drier and drier as we drove eastwards, crossing a desolate plain. At last we saw sparse clumps of grasses, then little grasses and then finally the vegetation came back. We crossed the Ugab River into Damaraland where we saw Herero women selling dolls by the wayside. This was the one time we got too many sandwiches, which we gave to the kids who were delighted with half a sandwich or an egg.
We reached Twyfelfontein Lodge set among big boulders with stunning scenery on all sides. In the late afternoon sun we walked around the hill to Adam and Eve Rock then enjoyed an excellent buffet dinner on the verandah.
After a leisurely breakfast with a great view we had a short drive to the bushmen paintings at Twyfelfontein. Our guide was Monalisa. She was pretty and sweet and had heard that she was named after a famous painting and was delighted when we promised to send her a postcard of the Mona Lisa. Twyfelfontein is Namibia’s largest gallery of rock art. Most were incised into the patina of the red sandstone and a few, of men, were painted in animal blood. Here you could see the artistry of the painter in the wonderful seated figures. We had fun identifying ostriches, kudu, rhino, zebra, giraffe, elephants and even more modern depictions that included horses. There was also one of a seal and a penguin; the sea was 100 km away. The lack of detail would suggest it was of a distant memory. There were also a lot of animal footprint petroglyphs. The drawings were to teach the youngsters how to look for game. There was also a lion with a buck in his mouth and a long erect tail with his footprints instead of feet. A warning perhaps?
We spent the rest of the morning driving along the course of the Huab River looking for desert elephants. These elephants have adapted to living in harse conditions and can survive with much less water than their savannah cousins. When we returned to the dust road we saw elephant droppings on the road and we had to be amused that after spending hours in the river where they are supposed to be the closest we got was to see fresh droppings and spoor on the road. That night we slept at Palmweg, an oasis surrounded by makalina palm trees. Eitan went for a swim and I went for a walk trying to overcome my fear of being eaten by a lion. It was scary walking alone in the bush. I figured that if Eitan were with me I’d be much braver since he’d halve my chances of being eaten by a lion! It felt very remote and I was back at the lodge after 35 minutes.
We spent the seventh day of our Namibian safari driving northward for 8 hours. Johan our guide, in a last desperate effort, made a short detour into a riverbed to follow fresh elephant tracks. Local cattle herders said the elephant was not far away in front. It may be that ‘far’ is similar to the Bedouin concept and after half and hour we gave up.
Our first knowledge of the Himba came from Moran’s superb pictures when he hitchhiked through Namibia three years ago < http://www.geocities.com/moranlevy > , and our first contact with the Himba was at the town of Opuwa. To us it was nothing more than a dusty village, a place to stop and refill petrol, but it held immediate fascination when the pickup truck next to us was filled with Himba men glowing red with arrows stuck in their ochre matted hair. We walked over to a dusty field, the market and walked around the “stalls” under stick shelters. The butcher with his sides of goat hanging from the roof eagerly posed as if about to cut the meat suggesting I take a photo of him for R10.00. ($1.00), a lot of money in that area. When I declined, with a wave of his hand he angrily told me to move away. A young man offered to be our guide, which we didn’t want. We stopped by a woman filling homemade cane spirit into old liquor bottles. She too wanted money for a picture. Behind her a man was sitting in front of huge blue plastic casks and people were coming up to him with jugs. He used a calabash to pour the brown liquid into the jugs. A woman who was buying tried to make me try it (for a fee?) but still suffering the effects of oryx stew I politely declined. The people sitting and milling around were a bewildering mixture of men and woman in tattered western clothes and a few Himba. This definitely wasn’t a tourist market but their insistence on asking for money wasn’t pleasant and we left. As we walked away a large Himba man walked besides us and opened his hand revealing a yellow scorpion. He too wanted money for…a picture?
We then drove a short distance to the food market and here there were a lot of Himba women, in goat’s skin clothing with elaborate jewelry and hairstyles. They all glowed red. They mix ochre butterfat (or vaseline today) and smear it all over their bodies and hair. I thought of buying some of the mixture as even the old women had faces that were completely unlined. There was another butcher, a few pigs snuffling around (tomorrow’s meat?) and some grills with meat and a young girl selling mopane worms, which they told me were good grilled.
Too quickly we left Opuwa – I could have stayed for hours just walking around. Anthony hated the first market and the commercialism of the people there. Again – we have so much and they so little and I tried to look past this grabbiness and see the traditional lifestyle.
We had a few more hours along even dustier roads and here and there we passed beautiful Himba women by the roadside all eager that we stop. There were white and brown goats, cattle, dried maize fields with branch fencing around and here and there little ‘villages’, clumps of stick huts, some covered with a mixture of dung and sand.
Late in the day we arrived at Epupa Falls on the Kunene River which
forms the border with Angola. We gazed at the wide sweep of the Kunene
River with its many falls. A swathe of Makalani Palms grew along the
riverbanks. We were dry and dusty after travelling for eight hours
along dirt roads through a parched landscape with no visible signs of
water and suddenly this lush oasis was below us. It was well worth the
trip. We drove to the Omaruga Camp on the river’s edge and were
instantly charmed by Katherine’s hospitality and the bushcamp feeling
of the place. Our tent was right on the water’s edge; a crocodile was
found on the bank there not long ago.
That night Katherine took some of the guests to the bottle store where Saturday night live was in full process. There was a light in the bottle store and the open door lit up a small area in front of it. But next to that outside in the dark were a group of young Himba women and men who were clapping their hands and chanting. Suddenly one person would come into the center of the ring and sing. Suddenly one person would dance into the circle and sing. This was a traditional way of sharing the day’s events. We could not see in the dark and later were surprised by some of the photos; at least one woman had her baby on her back. After about an hour Katherine gave a box of beer to the dancers and then we left. As we got ready for bed – the generator switched off at 10.00pm - we could still hear them singing over the noise of the falls.
The next morning we woke up early to a lovely silvery sheen on the
water. After breakfast Johan took us to a Himba village 5-km away. The
road had been hand cleared of the larger rocks by the Himba but
progress was still torturous and we drove at a walking pace.
After about half an hour we arrived at a ‘village’, a collection of small huts and a cattle enclosure. Three small children came and hung around our jeep while Johan went to look for the village chief. The little girl was about six. Her head was shaved in an elaborate pattern and had large necklaces around her neck. She copied everything we said; even “you are a little parrot.”
In the meantime Johan entered the village, being careful not to walk between the holy fire and the chief’s house lest bad luck befall the village. An old woman, whose late husband had been the chief, now acted as chief. After she accepted his gift of food that included maize flour, sugar and vaseline we were allowed to enter the village. While we walked toward the village the children took Eitan’s hand and walked him to the village. Later the little boy, about 5 years old came to me and after trying to take off my watch noticed that my shirt was unbuttoned and promptly buttoned up my buttons. The girl tried also but even though she was older she couldn’t do even one. They then lead to us the village.
The old woman, with an enviable unlined face, was sitting next to a stick shelter. On the other side, just below a ‘pantry’, a young woman was sitting and shaking a gourd filled with milk. Inside the shelter was another woman lying down whom they said had malaria. The chief’s windowless hut was made from clay and I went inside. It was hard to see and the details we only saw later from the photos. At the time I could make out a corner where there were skins (and inkpots or tanning bottles) bowls of curdled milk with lots of flies around and a woman at another corner.
The woman shaking the calabash brought our some necklaces, which we bought without bargaining. She then took off a copper bracelet from her wrist and wanted me to buy that as well. She was unfamiliar with the R50 ($5.00) note that Eitan gave her and also had problem with the arithmetic, so we had to scrounge around until we had enough tens and twenties to make sixty. There were no men in the village. They may have been working at one of the Epupa camps, herding goats or cattle or working in the maize fields. They lived at a very poor level of subsistence farming that was in marked contrast to the elaborateness of their personal grooming and adornment.
With out heads still spinning we set off for the long ride back.
That night we slept at Hobatere Lodge bordering Etosha Pan and saw some
animals, but not the great herds we had expected. Our last night in
Namibia was at Waterberg National Park. We arrived too late for the
game drive looking for rhinos and so walked up the hill instead. The
view from up was great – the rugged red sandstone covered with lichen,
some of it lime green, and below a flat acacia covered plain as far as
one could see, only here and there straight lines of dirt roads. We
could hear baboons barking and even saw some near our rooms.
Waterberg had been a German camp before WWI and the dining room still reflected the glory of those days. Beautiful chandeliers hung from the wooden ceilings and we were served by waiters dressed in white jackets and bowties. The food was less than mediocre, reflecting the dichotomy between a glorious past and the present problems of a wonderful country.
The next day we reached Windhoek, did some last-minute shopping, and
flew to Johannesburg.