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Published: March 3rd 2012
We finally reached the Atlantic Ocean on February 21. An entire continent crossed with several means of transportation, but essentially "on the ground" since we had left Dar and the Indian Ocean by train about a month earlier (remember the Tazara?). That evening we saw our first "over the water" sunset from the perfectly west-facing jetty and it seemed a good omen of things to come.
That afternoon the entire group had visited the "booking office", a not unusual feature of Southern African tourist centres that have many extreme activities to offer. They showed us a very badly edited video with particularly tacky music highlighting some of the adrenaline pumping possibilities: sky-diving, dune-boarding, and quad-biking over the dunes (a bit like playing chicken with an avalanche on a snowmobile in the Whistler back-country). None of them appealed to us, but we seemed to be in the minority, as most of the rest of group were slapping down credit cards to go up in and jump out of small planes that very afternoon. We scoured the brochures until we found exactly what we wanted. Our truck-mate Zlatka joined us in booking the dolphin cruise and dune drive full day excursion.
The following day dawned perfectly sunny with barely a cloud in the sky, and no fog, which is a common feature of this coast line. We were picked up at our backpacker's lodge (where we had opted for an "upgrade" to a private room, to avoid the 18-person, boys and girls together dorm - but also receive such luxuries as a clean towel each day). The van took us about 30 km's down the coast to Walvis Bay, the main harbour on Namibia's coast, and which was only handed back to a sovereign Namibia in the last 10 years, by South Africa who had occupied Namibia in violation of UN rulings for several decades during the Apartheid era.
Walvis Bay is a beautiful natural harbour that is slowly being more completely surrounded by a long sand spit that is inching up from the southern edge. This means a wide expanse that is quite sheltered. We were with about 20 other people on a large motorized catamaran with an open main deck, a small upper deck, and a forward "sling" strung between the two hulls. As we left the jetty we were followed by these beautiful giant pelicans that have
a very distinct pink tone to their feathers. The gulls were also screaming, and the captain's assistant was getting out champagne glasses. What more could you ask for? For a seal to jump up on the back of the boat and pose for pictures maybe? Well voila! I guess you could call these seals "habituated" to humans but that was not true of the thousands more we saw in beach colonies on the far side of the harbour.
It should be noted that Walvis Bay and Swakopmund are very western-like seaside resorts. Swakop has a strong German influence, from many decades of occupation by that imperial power, and today's continued arrival of many tourists from that country. But that is the only thing that reminds you you're not in South Carolina or on Cape Cod. Otherwise there are many expensive gift shops selling clothing, as well as the high-end African art and crafts.
It turned out we would have to wait a few more hours for the champagne (but well worth it, as you shall see). In the fluted glasses on the boat we were offered sherry at 10:00 am, apparently as a warm up, as the wind
off the Atlantic was quite cool. Then the beer started flowing at around 11:00. But this was no "booze cruise", as there were simply too many interesting things to see. In addition to the seal colonies with hundreds of squawking pups, we also saw black-backed jackals on the shore, come to see what fish debris they could scavenge from the seals and birds. There is also an old light-house. And finally we reached the area where the dolphins frolic. Almost impossible to get a photo of their characteristic loop out of the water, because you never know when or where they will come up next. We were on the largest of the 3-4 tourist boats in the area, and the smaller ones were irritatingly flitting back and forth every time they saw a dolphin on one side, only to be fooled again as the dolphin next came up where they had just been. Our boat, thankfully, mostly stayed in one place and let the dolphin show go on around us.
And did I mention the oyster farming? This culture is not native to Namibia, but someone a few decades ago realized they had the perfect cold but nutrition-rich waters
and imported a variety from South America, and the industry has taken off. The conditions here allow them to grow bigger oysters in a fraction of the time, creating an export in high demand around the world, especially Asia. Trying these delicacies was supposed to be a highlight of the lunch to be served, but us vegetarians were worried this was all they would serve.
By then we were getting to the northern-most part of the vast Walvis Bay, at around 12:30, and the three of us were dropped off on an old concrete pier where we met our afternoon host, Nico the dune safari driver. His Land Cruiser (yes they are ubiquitous here too), was customized with several closed cabinets and compartments behind the 3-bench passenger area. Little did me know what delights were packed in there for our late lunch.
Nico took off over the sand that forms the outer edge of the harbour, heading south to Sandwich Bay, a famed birding area south of Walvis. Although it was all just sand to us, he was clearly following some tracks that were well known to him, and he was quite contemptuous of inexperienced drivers who think
they can drive anywhere on the soft sand, or who come out on the sand in insufficient vehicles, and get stuck, as we saw one vehicle do trying to get over the edge of one small dune. We soon reached the outer edge of the sand spit and the real "beach", where the power of these Atlantic -side waves is finally observable. The sound is deafening. The water is not freezing by Nova Scotia standards, but the surf would be an extreme challenge to all but the strongest and most experienced swimmers. Despite the hot sun I was not dying to go in.
Closest to the shore in this area were small plant covered dunes, some of which have a distinct reddish hue. And I'm not talking "red" as in the orange sand of PEI, but almost a ruby red. Nico says that it is the garnets that get washed down the rivers in this area into the sea, then pulverized by the waves and washed back up the beach and over the dunes. Barbe collected a bag full to show people when we get home, but that won't do justice to the vast expanses of it. After the
low dunes of the beach there is a very sharp demarcation where the first giant dunes of the Namib desert begin. These are hundreds of feet tall, and also various shades of pink and orange and yellow, which contrasts sharply with the very blue sky.
And this is where Nico stopped, sent us to explore the beach for a few minutes, and set up our four-star lunch! We came back to find white linen and real china (not the unbreakable plastic of the camping truck), as well as glass-ware. This is when the champagne came out to go with the oysters in the shell. Even Barbe and I tried one, but I have to admit I could not see the romance of that slippery thing in my mouth. But there were plenty of other cold dishes to choose from to satisfy any vegetarian. And the champagne kept coming. That was a glorious moment after the days of camping in the rain.
After lunch Nico packed us all back in the safari jeep and took us on the "adrenaline" portion of our tour, driving straight up one side of a giant dune and down the other, all the way
around back to Walvis Bay town. The girls in the truck were screaming at each "roller coaster" descent.
We arrived back in Swakopmund in time to change for dinner at the jetty with Zlatka and Antonia (who had opted for the sky-diving that morning). The next morning we were back on the truck for four more nights of camping...(and more rain in the desert). But that is a separate blog.
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