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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”