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Published: July 28th 2006
The second half of the Northern Adventure was to get more cultural as we left nature for anthropology and a visit to a Himba village near Kamanjab in Damaraland. This village has been developed by Jaco Burger, a South African known as the “white Himba”, who has adopted the ways of the Himba and was appointed head man of this particular group of Himba. The Himba people continue to lead a traditional way of life, with cattle at the centre of their lives, and move around between villages as the seasons and the cattle’s grazing requirements change. It was a privilege to be able to visit them, and have some of their customs explained to us; yet, at the same time, we felt as if we were intruding, as if the Himba people themselves were being treated by our guide as museum exhibits or worse, and that made us very uncomfortable. That apart, it was delightful seeing how Leon interacted with the Himba children and to watch Andi trying to teach some Himba boys how to juggle.
And, on the unreservedly plus side, the campsite near the village was our most scenic all week (all fortnight, come to that). While
the showers and toilets at the Okonjima campsite had had the best view (if one assumed nobody is further down the valley with a superlative pair of binoculars, of course!) , the Kamanjab site was beautifully located between two groups of kopjes (rocky outcrops), one of which we climbed repeatedly: to work off lunch, to watch the sunset, and, you’ve guessed it, to watch the sunrise!
Then it was the turn of geology and archaeology - what an educational trip this was turning out to be! First up was the Petrified Forest near Khorixas. No matter how often people explain the process of fossilisation to me, I’m still baffled by it, and petrification falls into the same category. Glaciers swept these huge trees down from central Africa gazillions of years ago (sorry for the mathematical imprecision), following which they were magically (to my mind) turned into stone, but a stone that still accurately shows all the details of the original wood, from the imperfections of the bark to the rings of the trunk and the places where the branches would have joined the trunk. It’s hard to convey this by photograph; the oddest
thing was the sensation when picking up a small piece of petrified wood - it looks so much like wood but feels cold and heavy to the touch like stone.
The other “sight” here is the welwitschias. These curious plants are hundreds, and some thousands, of years old. It was humbling to stand back and look at them, look at their surroundings, and feel as insignificant as a speck of dust on the wind.
The next attraction that day was the rock carvings at Twyfelfontein. This time our route to the sight took us up a gorgeous rocky pass a little way into the hills, where the red of the rocks contrasted delightfully with the clear blue of the skies and the green of the trees. It felt really good to stretch legs after all the travelling of recent days. And the rock carvings were pretty impressive too. There are all sorts of stories about why they were created and what they are supposed to represent, but I like the idea that they show the shaman, mid-trance, semi-morphed into an animal. This explanation is then backed up by the way that five digits are shown on the animal
where only four items might be expected - e.g., the fifth addition to a giraffe’s two ears and two horns, a fifth toe on the lion - representing the five digits of a human being’s hand, and the way that many carvings do not show the animal’s feet; instead its legs disappear into thin lines, representing the shaman’s rising up into the air.
The final archaeological attraction was the following day, the rock paintings in the Brandberg Massif. This time we had a longer walk up into the hills, and, uniquely on this part of the trip, found ourselves repeatedly crossing a flowing stream, all other rivers that we’d crossed having been dry. Once again there is controversy surrounding the site, but this time it is focused on one painting in particular, the so-called “White Lady”. On behalf of my European forefathers, this label embarrasses me. When the site was first discovered by a European, it was believed that this figure, most of which is coloured white, must represent a European and therefore indicate the influence of early Mediterranean art, the explorer arrogantly believing that nothing original could possibly have originated in southern Africa. Yet, on closer inspection, it
apparently becomes rather clear that the figure is male (we were not allowed close enough to verify this for ourselves) and the white colour is now believed to represent the body paint in which a shaman might have been daubed. In any event, the pictures are impressive, once again for their longevity. My view of my life as a speck of dust was reinforced.
The penultimate stop on the trip was to see the Cape fur seals at Cape Cross. The seals are surprisingly close, just the other side of a low wall from tourists, but seemed oblivious to our presence, more interested in sleeping, fishing and, for the little ones, relocating their mothers. We’d been warned about the smell - and thank goodness for my somewhat blunt nose (as it were): this didn’t bother me at all - but not told about the noise. If asked, I’d have expected more of a barking from seals, but these guys had clearly picked up some tips from sheep in the past: there was some very noisy and sheep-like baa-ing going on!
We’d arranged to meet Ronnie and Kalib further along the beach where they were setting up lunch, so
this was our one chance to walk a miniscule amount of what becomes the Skeleton Coast: well-named given the number of seal skulls and bones we found en route. For the lonely brown hyena and the multiple jackal around, seal colonies must be like meals-on-wheels. Suddenly the black-backed jackal didn’t seem quite as cute as when we’d first met them at Okonjima.
Thoroughly imbued with nature, culture, ancient history and geology, it was time for some light relief. And so we came to Swakopmund. The talk on the bus for the previous few days had come back time and again to what activity we might each elect to do in Namibia’s equivalent of New Zealand’s Queenstown. When I first saw the list, I thought that I’d go for the quad-biking. Having done a bit on a friend’s game farm in the Karoo, I knew that it was a heap of fun and quad-biking on the dunes sounded even better.
But then I met Neil. The night before I left on the Northern Adventure, Neil was at the bar of the Chameleon Backpackers (aka my home-from-home over the next few months - the Backpackers, that is, not its bar…
then again…). He’s a fellow Scot - always nice to meet other Scots abroad - but this time it was not his most memorable feature. He had just come back from the trip on which I was about to embark… and he had been sky-diving in Swakopmund - or, I suppose, technically over Swakopmund - that morning. That did it. His description of it, coupled with an article that I had, by chance, printed off the net before leaving the UK, decided me. This was one adrenalin activity I had never done. OK, so it wasn’t cheap. And, of course, I had to add in the cost of recording this event for posterity and my dotage. But, then again, where better to do it?
I’d always imagined sky-diving would be like bungy-jumping, a curious activity which - for reasons not really even clear to me - I have undertaken twice, as many of you know. But it was so, so much better. For a start, there were the folks with me. Craig, my tandem partner, and Henry, the photographer/filmmaker extraordinaire, were extremely relaxed, joking all the while but in such a natural fashion that I was made to feel
completely at home. When the time came at 10,200 feet, shuffling into position, well buckled onto Craig and with my legs hanging out of the aircraft, seemed almost natural. Henry got out first, hanging precariously onto the wing so as to be able to record our tumble out of the aircraft in close proximity. (This was then incorporated into the video both forwards and backwards, as if Craig and I were being tugged back into the aircraft by some pseudo-magnetic force.) And we did tumble. My first memory of life outside the aircraft is of looking up at the sky thinking, “hang on a minute: no-one told me we’d be upside down!”. Then we righted ourselves and I could see the ground below, not noticeably getting closer, but the wind-rush past us - described to me beforehand as akin to putting your head out of a car window when it is on the motorway (presumably my instructor was not thinking of the sensation of carbon monoxide poisoning on the M25 in rush-hour) - was literally breathtaking. What I hadn’t realised, but which is all too clear on the video, was the way that the wind drags your face backwards: a
cheap but temporary face-lift, I guess, but the effect is seriously unappealing!! Anyway, before I’d had time to worry about it, there was a jerk and then silence… as the parachute opened. Craig “interviewed” me for the benefit of his wrist-mounted video camera and then showed me the ropes. When I gingerly tried to replicate the “pull the right rope to turn right”, he told me off for not being determined enough about it, yanking the rope down so that my stomach seriously contemplated parting company with the rest of me, until I was told how to prevent air-sickness and focus on the horizon. We then drifted down in a leisurely fashion, with Craig pointing things out as if I were on a bus tour of the vicinity: it’s a curiously flat piece of the world from 5,000 feet up, but we could see in the distance the dunes of the Namib Desert, whose acquaintance I was going to make more closely the following week.
All too soon, I was being instructed to lift my legs up so that Craig’s feet would touch the ground first, unhindered by mine, and the guys on the ground were running forward to
gather up the chute. Then the adrenalin rush kicked in, and I felt a million dollars. Once again asked to say a piece to camera, I gibbered something appropriate and then tried to focus on getting my trembling limbs out of the flying suit, much to the amusement of Craig’s three-year old daughter! Of course, I bought the T-shirt - how could I not add this one to my collection?! - and waited for Henry to put the finishing touches on my video.
So that was the Northern Adventure. I think it lived up to its name pretty well. The next week, and our new companions, guide and assistant, would have a lot to do to come anywhere near the intensity, variety and sheer fun of this week’s travels.
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