The Last of the Namibia Tales-Tramps Like Us, Baby We Were Born To Run

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After 3500 kilometers, two flat tires and 19 road days, we kick back at the Trans-Kalahari Inn outside of the capital city of Windhoek and await a 10-hour flight back to Europe. We had all kinds of road conditions including paved highways, graveled roads, 4-wheels tracks, stream-covered roads and sky high sand dunes.  There were many road memories.

But I also had time to reflect on all the wonderful times we had experienced in Namibia.  Here are a few gems.

The Young Ones.  I am searching for a music store in downtown Swakopmund, a town along the Skeleton Coast.  This should not be difficult because the place is compact and small.  But it takes me several swings around the block to finally locate The Young Ones on Sam Nuyoma Avenue. It’s part musical instrument store and part record shop.  I approach the middle-aged woman garbed in a long, colorful African-fabric dress.  “I’m just traveling through, but want to take home some music from Namibia.  Can you help me out?”  “Do you want traditional or modern?”  “I guess a little bit of both.”  The lady goes through the Namibia music CDs and hands me a stack of ten.  I see a sign on the countertop that says I need to pay a dollar deposit to listen to these.  “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she says handing me some headphones.  “That is not for you.  Listen to these CDs and if you like something, just tell me.” The first two discs I hear are compilations of traditional Namibian music.  I recognize some Herero music and a bunch of others that I like but have no clue who they are.  I put those aside to buy.

Then I ask the lady to play a disc from Hishishi Papa.  The first number just slays me.  “Reggae in Africa? I ask.  “Oh yes.” the lady smiles on my choice. “If you like reggae, you should try Hishishi Papa’s double album, Inner Effect.  It has both reggae and traditional.”  I take the woman’s advice and buy four CDs.  If you get a chance, try some Hishishi Papa on You Tube.

Best Bathroom In Africa.  We roll in to the Tsauchab River Camp, located on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park.  Owner and metal works master Johan Styn directs us to the Drogon Camp for the night.  As we pull in, there is a bathroom nestled in between a cluster of trees, another artistic creation of Johan.DSC05054 It is built of river rock walls, tiled floors and incorporates the trunks of several living trees into the structure.  The bathroom is complete with shower, sink and toilet.  It even has hot water.  Johan outdid himself this time.  This is, without a doubt, the best bathroom in Africa.

Birds. During three weeks, we get to see 109 different bird species in Namibia.  Seventy percent of those are new for us, ones that we didn’t see on our last trip to Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.  My hats off to our guides John, Ueera and Wayne, but there were a number of birds that we identified by ourselves.  I don’t claim to be a birdwatcher.  Those people are much more astute and dedicated than I am.  But I do enjoy seeing interesting birds and when I encounter one, I try to learn a bit more about it.  My very heavy field guide, Birds of Southern Africa, filled in the blanks wonderfully.

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Hammerkop. (Hammer Head)

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Pied Crow.

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Yellow-billed Hornbill (The Flying Banana)

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Pale Chanting Goshawk

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Northern Black Korhaan

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Kori Bustard

The Quiver Tree.  The only place to see this strange, unusual tree is in the deserts of southern Nambia and northern South Africa.  I thought it might have gotten its name because the tree’s leaves might shake in the wind, but then I saw my first one on the edge of the Naukluft Mountains.

No way is this tree going to shake for it has thick leaves of aloe, specifically Aloe dichotoma.  Rather, the tree got its name from the bushmen who would carve out the soft insides of the tree’s branches and use them as quivers to hold their arrows. The IUCN has classified the Quiver Tree as a threatened species as their numbers are declining due to climate change.

Back at the Trans-Kalahari Inn I think back to warnings from friends and family before departing.  There were trepidations; “Why the hell do you want to go there?”  They cut off peoples’ heads!”  “I hope you know what you are doing.”; and a few just said, “Hasta la vista, baby!”DSC04867

But Hettie and I are veteran world travelers.  It is what we do best.  That is not to say shit can’t hit the fan at places far from home.  But the calculated risks we take deliver so much in return.  Africa gets a bad rap in the First World, especially in the media.  They focus on the tragedy-the wars, the slaying of elephants, HIV, the list goes on.  Yes, they all exist.  But you don’t hear much about the smiles we received from people all over Namibia.  Or the time I’m flat on my ass on a deserted road, changing a flat tire in the midday sun. Everyone that passed during that half hour -3 cars in total-stopped to see if they could help.  Or how about the Himba boy who was admiring our camper, flashed a smile and said in perfect English, “Bed, kitchen, toilet—home on wheels!”

So I sit back with a cappuccino and salute our most recent adventure. I’m happy with our accomplishment, one that most of our acquaintances don’t quite understand.  But then I strike up a conversation with two Belgians about the same age as I am.  They, too, are waiting for the plane to Europe.  I ask them where they have traveled.  They started two and a half months ago on bicycles pedaling through South Africa and Namibia.  The foam in my cappuccino suddenly deflates.  Now that is crazy.  It makes our motorized meanderings seem rather pedestrian.  No matter.  After all, just like the 1960’s Winston Cigarettes ad used to say, It’s not how long you make it.  It’s how you make it long. And yeah, tramps like us, baby we were born to run.DSC05022

 

 

Namibia Tales #7-It’s All About The Waterhole

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We spent four days in Etosha National Park, Namibia’s premiere place for seeing herds of wild animals.  It is the beginning of the dry season in June.  As cloudless days wear on, the places where animals can drink in this dry land diminish.  Thus, if you park by a waterhole you are guaranteed to see herds of African animals.  Our list was extensive.  Only the cats eluded us.  DSC03785Etosha is known for its cheetahs, a species I have never seen in the wild.  That still remains true.  We were also told that we missed seeing a pride of ten lions the day we spent an hour at a waterhole near the Etosha Pan.  As with many things in life, timing is everything.

Regardless, we saw hundreds of other animals.  Most days we only traveled 40 kilometers (25 miles) stopping at multiple waterholes on 10-hour drives.  It was marvelous.  Here is some of what we saw.

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Giraffe Silhouette

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Go Away Bird

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Impala

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Kudu and Zebra

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Gemsbok or Oryx

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Wildebeest

 

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Giant Eland.

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Namibian Tales #6-African Skies

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A sliver of a new moon, a crescent of hope and beauty, appears above the horizon for a bit.  DSC04854It soon dips below the horizon in embarrassment. It doesn’t have the luminary longevity of its neighboring celestial neighbors.  But don’t fret. Our moon is in it for the long run.  At least for the next few weeks.  Watching the progression each night gives the journey a measuring mark as we crisscross this beautiful country.  Every night the moon reflects back the solar mojo from our sun, increasingly every day.  Just like everywhere else, Africa welcomes its glow.DSC04258

I spot the Southern Cross in its local hood, here down under.  I’m just above the Roaring Forties to the south.  Back home on Bonaire, the Cross is just a astral burp above the equator. I see it often in winter season about 10 pm.  But here it appears in early evening in full glory.  The constellation soon gets covered with that unwinding twisted rope of stars called the Milky Way.  But these are African skies, foreign to me just like the earthscape here of kudu, rhino and black eagle.  I clock around 180 degrees and see the Big Dipper in the middle of a disappearing act.  We are so far south that only the handle and part of the cup are visible.  And it is upside-down, pouring out its cosmic soul upon Mother Africa.DSC04248

But daytime reveals other kinds of wonders above.  Most days the sky is a vivid royal blue and cloudless.  This is the dry season.  It is not until we head toward the Skeleton Coast along Namibia’s Atlantic frontier that the blue recedes.DSC04155  Fifteen miles away from the ocean a band of thick, gray/brown clouds obscure the horizon.  At first I think that it is a sand storm, but it is actually coastal fog. DSC04245 By the time we reach Henties Bay on the Atlantic we are in the soup and remain that way pretty much for the next three days.  Only one afternoon while driving the towering dunes of the coastal Namib desert, does the sun make an encore.  Even then there are clouds on the horizon.  The bottoms of them blush in pink, reflected light from the red sands below.DSC04972 (1)DSC04237

We travel in Namibia in June, the beginning of winter in southern Africa.  These days the sun has the same low bent as the winter sun in northern hemisphere, just six months later.DSC04044  But I find this quite confusing while driving.  I check directions with my compass.  Yes, I am headed west but the sun tracks low to my north.  I am ass-backwards in using this solar navigational device.  It confuses me for the first few days of the journey.DSC04089  But I adjust much like I’ve had to driving on the left side of the road, a terrible legacy of British colonization.  Now, if I could only learn to stop turning on the windshield wipers instead of the direction signals at intersections, I would be OK.  Anything is possible under African Skies.DSC04842

Namibian Tales #5-The Dead End Swamp

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It took six hours of driving rough graveled roads through mountain passes, but the trip from the Skeleton Coast to our Sesreim campsite went smoothly enough.  The next morning, we rose at 5am and headed to one of Namibia’s most photographed sites, Sossusvlei, which roughly translated means dead-end marsh.Sossusvlei has some the highest sand dunes in the world.  The tallest, Big Daddy, reaches to 325 meters (over 1000 feet).  How these red dunes were formed is a convoluted geological odyssey.  South Africa’s longest river, the Orange, empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay on the country’s west coast.  Red sand sediment is then carried northward by the powerful Benguela Current.  Atlantic Ocean waves deposit the sand upon Namibia’s Skeleton Coast where winds carry it inland to form the dunes over time.DSC04273 My favorite dune is called Deadvlei or dead marsh.  At one time this was an oasis of thriving acacia trees in a dry land.  That was until the Tsauchab River changed its course.  What is left now is a Dalí-esque spacescape of wonder.DSC04999 Salt crusted pans are dotted with the black tree skeletons.  A backdrop of towering red dunes make this desert dramatic.DSC05003DSC05011  A windless quiet predominates here, one that is haunting.

Another spot deserving mention is Dune 45, exactly 45 kilometers from the park entrance.  It sands have been dated back 5 million years, and wind has piled them up to heights of 80 meters (262 feet).DSC05039 For me, Dune 45 has an attitude.  Perhaps it is because feels the need to overcome its pedestrian name. It stands boldly alone in all of its red glory.  Just a few trees are rooted around its base, somehow eking out enough water to survive.

By day’s end we roll back into camp at Sesreim and are confronted by flocks of sociable weavers.  These pint-sized birds, endemic to southern Africa, are only about 5 inches long and weigh an ounce.DSC04802

But they are appropriately named.  While at camp the weavers were gathering nest material at a frenzied pace.  Sociable weavers construct enormous multi-chambered compounds that can house up to 500 birds, self-made condo aviaries.  The one nearby our camp was the size of a small car, fixed among the branches of a camelthorn tree.DSC04803

As the sun went down and the moon rose to the east, I popped another fine bottle of South African wine to ward off the cold winter evening.  There was much to contemplate.  Sands traveling by river, ocean and overland winds; crimson dunes reaching for the stars; and tiny birds showing that if the effort is made, we can all get along just fine.DSC04988

Namibian Tales #4-The Day of the Jackal

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Our guide for the day, Wayne Hutchinson, guns the old Land Rover up a 100-foot dune along the Skeleton Coast.  Our destination is Sandwich Harbour, a remote wetland home to thousands of pink flamingos.  As we reach the top of the dune our ride quickly slows and growls to a stop.  After repeated attempts to and fro to free ourselves, the Rover sinks down to its axles. “OK,” says Wayne. “Now the adventure begins.”DSC04172

We unload the gear for the day and ready the jack.  Each tire is raised above the surface of the dune, the hole filled in with more sand and then lowered back down.

After a half hour of this, Wayne drives the Land Rover away reaching solid sand on the top of the dune.  “Before we go further, I’m going to follow these jackal tracks for a bit.  Jackals always choose the path of least resistance through the dunes.  We’ll just follow their route.”

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Wayne following jackal tracks.

Our guide returns 10 minutes later.  We all pile in the car and speed off, following jackal tracks on an adrenaline filled drive through the dunes.

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia got its name from the number of ships that have wrecked here over the centuries.  The first were Portuguese and Dutch trade ships making for Cape Hope on their way to the Orient for spices.  But modern vessels also wreck here and that is not an uncommon occurrence.Skeleton-Coast-shipwreck-8   The shallowness of the coastline combined with fog, big waves and the formidable Benguela Current make this a maritime nightmare.  The 976-mile (1579-kilometer) coast is littered with shipwrecks.

DSC04221But the Skeleton Coast is also a place of extraordinary beauty.  Towering dunes of the Namib Desert cascade down to the roaring Atlantic.  Jackals hunt sea lions along here.  Dolphins and whales can be seen.  DSC04973On our visit, much of the day was shrouded in fog, but by mid-afternoon blue skies and sun dominated.  We got two very different looks at the place.  We also got to hike on the dunes overlooking the ocean.

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“Be careful while you’re walking here,” warned Wayne.  “There are puff adders living in the dunes.” This venomous viper is responsible for more snakebite fatalities than any other African snake. Unlike the rattlesnake, puff adders give no warning before striking.  Plus, they have long fangs and a potent venom that is produced in large amounts.  “What do these snakes look like?” I ask.  “Basically brown, but if you see straight-lined tracks in the sand, that is from an adder.  They don’t make ‘S’ shaped tracks like other snake.  Plus, they like the leeward side of the dunes.  That’s where rodents mostly hang out. So stay away from those and you’ll probably be OK.”

Our crew successfully avoids encountering any puff adders.  With hikes complete, we head to Sandwich Harbour.  But to get there, Wayne must drive between the steep slopes of the dunes and the roaring Atlantic Ocean.  At one point, the waves are lapping at the foot of a dune.  “I think we can get by.  The tide appears to be going out so there’s no problem returning.  Let’s see if we can squeeze past this place.”DSC04975

With that, our trusted guide/driver speeds forward in the Land Rover.  We slow considerably.  The back end starts to fishtail.  But eventually the old road beast breaks on through to the other side.  We are treated to a series of lagoons feeding into Sandwich Harbour.  Birds abound including huge flocks of greater and lesser flamingos and pelicans.  We even spot a couple of Cape teal ducks.DSC04977

But by now the sun is close to setting.  Driving in Africa at night is never advisable.  Wayne turns the Land Rover and we speed north along the beach.  But on the way we see two more jackals.  One of eating what is left of a rotting seal carcass.  The other trots along the beach, effortlessly avoiding incoming waves.

“I’ve never seen a wild animal move more efficiently that the jackal,” says Wayne.  “Their trot is to be admired.  It’s fluid, efficient, effortless.”  The two jackals move north with us, undisturbed by our presence.  After everyone has taken dozens of photos, we speed up as the sun sets over the Atlantic leaving the critters behind.  We still have another 45 minutes to Swakopmund where we are camped. The day of the jackal is over.  But the memories from this amazing trip will last for a lifetime.DSC04214 (1)

Namibia Tales #3-River of Palms, River of dreams

As our Himba guide, John, leads us along the peaceful banks of the Kunene River we see a sign that says, No Swimming-Crocodiles!  “That sign doesn’t lie,” explains John.  “Last year, an American tourist went swimming at this very spot.  We found his body the next day.  His right arm and left leg were missing.  The croc must have had a good meal.”DSC04014

John continues to list the gruesome misfortunes of people that swam in these waters, some local-others not.  But his voice is soon overpowered by the sounds of nature.  Hundreds of rosy-faced lovebirds sing overhead.  Rupert’s parrots squawk as they do fly-bys along our path.  This Eden is an oasis that splits through hot, parched Kaokoland- one of the wildest and least populated areas in Namibia. It took four hours on a graveled, washboard road to get here.  My hands still shake from steering through ruts.DSC04024

But it is all worth it.  This river of palms is a verdant respite after 10 days of Namib desert.  Towering makalani palms, some soaring to forty-foot heights (12 meters), line the banks of the Kunene.  One side is Angola, a country trying to make a comeback after decades of brutal war.  The other, Namibia, where Himba tribesmen have a small village across from our camp.  DSC04882

The makalani are native to subtropical, low-lying regions of southern Africa and they make this place special.  I spend afternoon hours under them, shaded from the high-wattage sun. Birds flock here to feed upon the the female tree’s copious fruit, small round forms nearly the size of a cue ball. Up to 2,000 fruit may be found on a single tree.

But the river of palms really pays off just downstream from our campsite.  From there, I see the mist rising.  DSC03970

The water roars.  And the Kunene spills it aquatic soul 37 meters (120 feet) at the deepest point of Epupa Falls.  DSC03982

Epupa means foam in the language of the Herero people.  I hike out to the end of a stone outcrop to feel the full force of the cataract.  The water foams after the fall and bursts of mist come and go with the shifting winds.  The sound is so overwhelming that nothing else can be heard.  It is difficult to think.  I see the mist part again only to reveal a dark ominous outcrop of black rock jutting out from the Angolan side. DSC03986

It resembles the head and fore limbs of an enormous baboon, like some kind of bestial deity from an old Tarzan movie.  The rock once again is enveloped in the mist and a rainbow takes its place.

I stay here much longer than expected.  I am tranced.  The only thing that draws me away is a group of baobab trees, my botanical obsession.

I can’t resist exploring each one, feeling each tree’s taunt skin, swollen trunk and gnarled branches.  This place is mesmerizing.  The Kunene River hemorrhages here at Epupa for nearly a mile.  It is a collections of falls dotted with baobabs, shiny dark red rock and back dropped with a blue-green palette of makalani palms.

I briefly think about the bone-crunching road that I will face the next day.  But the roar of the falls brings me back to aquatic utopia.  I gaze again to the River of Palms, my river of dreams.DSC03979

Namibian Tales #2. Africa Surreal.

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There were times in Namibia I just wasn’t sure what I was seeing was real.  Images, at times, appeared deceiving if not downright bizarre.  This vast, ancient landscape often became a dreamland, a twilight zone of the strange. Here are a few encounters with the weird.DSC03777

It’s a hot mid-afternoon, the time of day when most animals and sensible people here seek the shade of trees.  But I am walking in the full blast sun driven by the need for another mesmerizing session on cliff’s edge at Epupa Falls.  The cataract has grab my soul and I return repeatedly to soak in its all-encompassing energy.  But the heat has me a bit dizzy.  On way way to the water I stare up into the sky above the village spotting three white objects high above.  I think of white birds, perhaps a species that I have yet to see. My binoculars reveal a trio of white plastic bags afloat in the thermals.  African illusions strike again.DSC04795

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I stand on the edge of the vast Etosha Pan and stare into nothingness.  It is an enormous flatland, and since it is now June and winter in Namibia, the pan has become a vacated, dried lake bed.  On the horizon are two small hills, but both seem to hover in air.  Separating them from the pan is a slice of white light, shimmering and unearthly.  Mirage is at work in this spacey outpost at the edge of nowhere.DSC03967

I call them upside down trees. These ancient-looking plants have enormous, swollen trunks that resemble giant tubers.  Their twisted branches look more like underground roots. They are called baobabs and are often the subject of creation myths.  Mystery surrounds them as scientists cannot accurately determine their age-they have no tree rings-leading some experts to claim life spans of 500 to 5000 years.  No one really knows.  I spent an afternoon around several of these gnarly botanical beasts.  I felt the need to be with them.  Then as the sun was setting I saw a short, furry animal scurry behind one of the trees.  I took a photo from afar and looked at it back at camp.  It looked like a wild beast but its head resembled a dog.  Just like the baobab, mystery obscured a proper identification.DSC04926

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Barnabas & I checking out the wood.

Our guide, Barnabas, leads us through a parched hillside peppered with petrified wood.  He claims that 125 million years ago that these stony remnants were pine trees dragged from what is now the Congo 1300 miles away by enormous glaciers.  Bizarre enough?  Not really.  Barnabas shows us a low lying plant that looks a bit like a deflated agave.  “This is the Welwitschia mirabilis, the national plant of Namibia.  It is also known at the tree tumbo and the ones along this trail are at least 500 years old.”  I look back down at the tree tumbo which looks like it was flattened by a bulldozer.  Barnabas must be pulling my leg.  The skeptic in me later checks the Plant Africa website proving the the wise guide was spot on.  “Carbon dating tells us that Welwitschia mirabilis average 500-600 years old, although some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old. Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years.”  My hat is off to Barnabas, my now-trusted African guide.DSC04101

There were other mondo bizarro events on the trip.  Watching yellow hornbills (flying bananas) coordinate their tri-fragmented frames of bill, body and tail into sporadic flight.  Discovering a homing pigeon lost in the remote dunes of the Skeleton Coast.  It happily jumped into our Land Rover for a ride back home.  And then there was the elderly Afrikaans lady at the Bobo Camper pickup center demonstrating the ins and outs of our camper at trip’s start.  “There is no need to be ladylike when living in Namibia.” Upon  that she swiftly slammed the entrance door with a bang. “That, my dear, is how you close the door.”

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Door To Nowhere.

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Pigeon To Somewhere.

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Toilet To Everywhere.