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Published: November 1st 2014
My little friend was all smiles and giggles until I took her picture, then she turned into a sullen teenager.
When travel plans fall apart, sometimes all you can do is let fate be your guide.
One night last year, it was decided that my next destination would be chosen using a bastardized version of a childhood game, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Spread out on the wall before me, a tattered National Geographic map. My wine drinking campadres blindfolded me up and spun me around in a dizzying frenzy. Not as fun as I had once remembered…especially with a snoot full of wine.
Amongst the giggles and catcalls, I stuck my forearm out poker straight and took a cautious step forward. As my finger made contact, it was met with a bunch of ooohs and aaaahs. I flung off my blindfold and we gathered in for a closer inspection. I was pointing to a large dry lake called Etosha.
To be honest, I had been secretly trying for the south Pacific, but fate seemed to think I need to go to Western Africa.
I was on my way to a place called Namibia.
Most of us African neophytes irrefutably assume that the whole continent is the same, which makes no sense. I mean, is the continent of
Toilet with a view
Ah, loved this flushing wonder. Out in the elements something primal yet luxurious.
North America the same from top to bottom? No.
But when I stepped off the plane in Namibia, I seriously thought I wasn’t in Africa anymore. Namibia was so different from Kenya & Uganda & Tanzania & Rwanda, and it absolutely blew my mind.
I spent my first few days getting my bearings in the capital, Windhoek. There was a nice little guesthouse on the outskirts of the city centre called Tamboti, where I was treated to that legendary German hospitality. The rooms were cozy and clean, showers hot, a complimentary continental, lots of little shady nooks to check WiFi and read, laundry lines. Heaven!
I tried to ignore the fact that all the residences were like mini fortresses with razor wire strewn, secret handshakes, and pass codes. In that great German seriousness, I was told that under no circumstances was I to go out on my own after dark. Luckily, there were several people under the same predicament, so we banded together in prearranged taxis that would arrive at the gates with a covert honk, taking us promptly to our destinations.
I did make the mistake of following a fellow drunk Tamboti’er into an undesirable
Miles of wild shoreline along the Skeleton Coast
taxi at the end of a night where another man got in midway and then we were driven to a secondary location and almost robbed, but I put on such a shit show that they nervously drove us back to the Joe's pub before re-demanding their extortion fare. Once we were amongst the public again, I provoked a diversion, and we exited stage left, undetected.
In the light of day, Windhoek was incredibly clean, neat and tidy in that efficient Germany way. I had heard that most of the blacks had been resentfully corralled to the outskirts in slum townships, one called Kattutura which means “where nobody wants to live.” Most of the residents of Windhoek preferred it this way. I wasn’t quite ready to accept it, but I'm picking up on a real 'us verses them’
vibe here. Other than a few museums and touristy shops, there’s not much to do in Windhoek. I visited an animal rehabilitation centre and a couple establishments.
For the meat eaters out there, Joe’s Beer House was definitely the highlight. I’m not one to usually recommend restaurants, but this one defies explanation with its oddly decorated inside outside ambiance (picture Oktoberfest
with a hording compulsion) that goes for one city square block, it was jam packed. They specialize in game fare, tender, properly cooked Kudu, ostrich, oryx, springbok and of course beef arrive on our plates with enough Jäger to drown a blue whale.
Since my overland truck experiences had been fairly successful in Africa, I decided to tempt fate one more time and found a group tour with Wild Dog Safaris. Way more economical than a self-drive, I reasoned. The company owner Allen unfortunately died in a freak accident, and his wife runs it now. Why doesn’t anyone ever go to Namibia?
Mark my words, this will be the new “must go see” place. I was glad I chanced it, Liz promised me a mind blowing experience…and dare I say it was. Not without some adjustments though.
Let’s just say it’s extremely difficult to leave behind a sensational balls-in group of Australians and end up with tour group that is standoffish and aloof. I rallied, as us Canadians do, and attempted to bridge the gap with my silliness and titillating conversations. It worked, kind of. For the next few weeks I’ll be squished in a tiny truck
What the hell!
GIGANTIC bugs in Namibia. Holy cricket.
with some colourful characters.
There was “Wee wee” the angry French girl and a Snaggle-toothed Brit who takes great pleasure in berating a young Essex girl any chance he got.
Also joining us, the kid-lawyer couple from New York aka the Kennedys.
There was this Indo-Canadian I dubbed "Easy Rider" who was decked out in biker gear and a skull doo rag, no bike.
My favourite were the Evangelistic newlyweds where one partner doesn’t appear to know that the other is flaming gay.
Also along was a Singaporean party girl with a Scottish accent that snaggle-tooth fancied, and then there was this Brit couple where one was permanently intoxicated while the other desperately tries to hide an eating disorder.
It was going to be a painful two weeks.
Honestly though, I was more disenfranchised knowing I’d have to sleep on the cold hard ground again in a smelly canvas tent and eat soggy sandwiches for weeks. But I rallied.
We headed off north through endless dry scraggly scrub peppered with skyscraper termite hills along well maintained poker-straight highways, passing through smaller outpost towns, stopping only at the local Spar for snacks and
Always a lovely evening, sharing stories around a warm campfire, hearing things lurking around in the dark behind.
cold drinks, and the odd trinket bazaar. It was blast furnace hot.
Our first campsite was on the Okanjima game reserve owned by a wildlife conservation family. Once cattle ranchers, they converted into big cat sympathizers after killing too many, and let their land go fallow. Now they call themselves Afrikat and run a veterinary clinic to care for injured leopards, cheetahs, and lions. Some of the rehabilitated cats remain as a tourist attraction when they can’t be returned to the wild.
We were thrilled to feed chunks of road kill to purring leopards and snarling lions, but the best bit was seeing panting cheetahs sheltering under the scrub just feet from our vehicle.
Our campsite for the night was too cool for description.
Open to all the beasts in the park, we settled in to a sandy clearing with open fire pit and a shed for kitchen prep, fun outdoor flushing loos, and lukewarm showers, warthogs and oryx snacking on foliage and grasses around us. We hired a jeep for a nighttime game drive and used nuclear spotlights to expose and stun an assortment of kudu, hartebeest, giraffe, coyote, and of course big cats in
A Herero woman wearing the bright frocks and bull horn hat. I chatted her up for a while and she was more than willing to allow a free photo.
their multi acre enclosures.
Our camp cook Stephen had a salty chicken stir fry waiting for us upon return. Gak, we will need to work on that. After a few drinks, the couples coupled, Easy rider skulked about taking pictures of non-animate objects, and the Brits turned into those cackling pelicans on the BBC wild. It was a cold night, one blanket did not suffice, and I cursed myself for abandoning my sleeping bag back in Dar es Salaam. My tent mate turned out to be the young Essex girl on her gap year who wears daisy dukes the entire trip and loves animals obsessively. I call her the Unicorn.
Sunrise upon the Namibian desert was majestic. I could see my breath. Snaggle-tooth and I were the only ones up to appreciate it. As the Unicorn went off to shower, I brought our tent down and had everything packed away onto the truck before I realized the rest of the group were just standing around clueless, waiting for the kettle. Was I the only one practiced in this frantic get-up-pack-up-move-out overlander routine?
Yes. The crew were quickly brought up to speed by Marcus, who was also
All was calm and lovely until the snake incident
the driver and as he pointed the truck north, we made a bee line for the Etosha National Park.
Again, everything is highly organized in that awesome Germany kind of way. Even the rest areas along the roadsides are tidy with one designated shady Mopane tree and one picnic bench. Pretty sure I’ve never eaten this much strudel.
Upon entrance to the park, we find a grassed site in the middle of all the other campers ignoring their stink eyes, it is hot, probably 38 c, and I take advantage of the efficient facilities to wash some clothes and hang them, knowing they’ll be dry in minutes.
Finally I see the dry salt pan of Etosha, at about 5,000 kms in size it looks exactly like Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni with that blinding white backdrop that makes you lose your bearings. Unlike Bolivia though, getting out of your vehicle here to do those giant people verses midget people pictures, you’d be taken down by a predator in no time. This particular dry landscape has massive amounts of animals foraging, we spot springbok, zebras, impalas, kudus, hartebeest, and giraffes to name a few. We even caught
Check your oil for you miss?
This old guy snuck up on us. He might of needed to get this close to see us properly.
an episode of MeerCat Manor at our campsite, funny little critters they are. Salt marshes were chock full of pink flamingos.
But I have to say the highlight for me was parking at the watering holes.
At sunset, we witnessed a gigantic pride of lions leave their zebra kill and saunter across the Savannah towards us, eventually going around our truck to the watering hole on the other side. When deemed safe, the matriarch began to make this grunting noise, and eight little cubs popped up from the tall grasses to tumble run in for a drink. It was adorable.
At another watering hole, a really old bull elephant emerged from the bushes, flapping his ears, and trumpeting his arrival. His rumblings vibrated our truck. He is agitated, but obviously habituated because he finally decided we were not a threat. Creepy things about elephants, is you cannot hear them approaching.
We were all looking at him, when suddenly we were surrounded by a herd of elephants on both sides. They silently brushed past us and queued up at the edge of the hole.
It was obviously a social visit, the females all splashing about and
With their ochre bodies and red mud hair they look so foreign to us, but we look so weird to them too.
throwing mud on themselves. Meanwhile, the juvenile bulls began to posture, throwing out their fifth legs, and jockeying. It literally looked like a good ol’ family reunion. Then, one of the babies fell head first into the water, and couldn’t get out. He panicked and trumpeted his fool head off as the herd rushed in to carefully fish him out with their trunks. All species gave a global sigh of relief. The baby was shaken and blinded by mud, but alright.
The old bull who was significantly larger than the rest impatiently signaled the end of the water park visit, and they all silently drifted back into the scrub.
Most of the Etosha campsites offered watering holes with infrared lighting. This is the coolest thing ever!
As darkness descended, we would gather on the park benches with our wool blankets and cold drinks to wait. Suddenly, a huge phantom figure would materialize out of the inky backdrop and approach cautiously…you had to strain to make out what was coming. It was a bull elephant flapping his ears with irritation but makes no sound. He can obviously smell and hear us, but he’s okay with it.
Most of the women sell these colourful little dolls on the roadside.
Watching him is fascinating. He snorts massive amounts of water with his trunk into his mouth, and hangs out. I think at one point, he actually falls asleep. My tour mate elbows me and points. Over on the other side, something else emerges from the scrub. It’s a black rhino!
Notoriously shy, I already know this is quite the trophy sighting, the crowd murmurs in excitement as he careful approaches. The bull elephant comes alive and goes after him. They run around the pond like four year olds playing tag. The rhino eventually stands his ground and wins, and the elephant slips silently back into the darkness.
After several days in Etosha we depart for Outjo. This is the cultural experience I’ve been waiting for, we’ll be staying with a local Himba tribe. Upon arrival, we were swarmed by children who fought over us to hold our hands. As we set up our tents nearby their huts, one of the little boys steals my water bottle and I catch him behind a hut fight sharing it with three others little boys, so I took the loss gracefully.
The Himbas are best known for the way the women
Signs signs everywhere a sign
We mocked Easy Rider by taking pictures of the signs too
stain their bodies red and wear mud clotted hair. The jewels all symbolize fertility and status and they don metal leg guards to protect them from snake bites. While the men are off herding (otherwise known as “planning” elsewhere in Africa), the women mind the village and tend children and animals.
As it is in most cases, careless tourism has too plagued the Himba settlements and the women now demand money for pictures aggressively. Snaggletooth learns this the hard way. Our money instead will filter directly to an organization that cares for Himba orphans. The matriarch of this particular group married a white farmer and he thereby allowed her to move her family upon the land. She was barren so she began to collect Himba orphans. Apparently, Himbas get orphaned often. Their parents like to sleep on the warm pavement and get run over by automobiles quite a lot. That is how naïve this group is to modern day life still. Her husband agreed to this arrangement just as long as some were educated. So our money pays for a school room and supplies, and a teacher.
Although slightly contrived, the experience was as authentic as it could
Carvings from a long time ago
Found in the hills, ancient peoples carved these to indicate what was available and how far.
Our translator Maria came from this family when she too was orphaned, and some local Germans deemed her highly intelligent and educated her. In doing so she had to be eradicated from her traditions by cutting her hair and wearing frocks and shoes but she is still accepted by her tribe, however significantly different from the other women, who are arrogant and stubborn. There is a relaxed aura around this camp, as no Himba is asking us for money. A few of the Himba girls who go to school dress like regular teenagers and practice their English on us.
Surprisingly, most of our group played strange. I was baffled, as this was a fascinating cultural exposure.
I completely immersed myself and made friends with a group of women who were shredding plastic potato sacks and creating art. I helped. They were absolutely fascinated by my hair and began to braid it and smear the red clay mixed with butter fat. They had so many questions for me, and I for them, and with the help of Maria, we talked about where I lived and what it was like, how I lived, why I wasn’t home caring
Not very fancy and there were lovely cabins and lodges around, but we made due and had a wonderful sleep under the stars
for a husband or children, what made my skin so white, eyes so blue.
I bombarded them with questions about their uses of plants for medicines and general cultural traditions. We all laughed and giggled over our answers, while shooing children. They showed me how they smoke bathed in a hut. The Himba women never use water to wash and surprisingly smell clean and fresh. I helped cut the mud out of one girl’s hair so the braids could be shortened and re-mudded. Little by little, some of the females in our group would saunter over and uncomfortably join in. I couldn’t understand what their hesitation was, the men even more evasive.
Then, a black Momba snake was spotted lounging in a tree by one of the kids. Well holy shit, you’d think the end of the world had occurred. Everyone was screaming in hysteria as they ran at it, throwing rocks, and shrieking bloody murder. I completely didn’t know what to do. We stood in horror as the snake dropped to the ground and attempted to flee the mob. As it slithered, the snake would lift up on its hackles to find the best escape route…and this
This was just before the little guy took a header into the hole, everyone was enjoying a leisurely drink.
skyrocketed the crowd into def com six. Suddenly all these Himba men in modern clothing materialize out of nowhere and surrounded the snake. I think it was hacked to death by machetes. Then of course there were victorious cheers and some dancing.
Okay then. They don’t like snakes in these parts.
Maria explained later that the explosive reaction is reasonable as many villagers have died from snake bites. There is no hospital, no anti venom, no recovery. I still thought it was a little over the top.
They fed us freshly roasted goat meat and something that was close to ugali corn mash. We ate with our fingers, the men on one side the women on the other.
The chief was an old pervert who bummed cigarettes from the Brits and made it clear he had already had his way with all the juvenile orphan girls, an undisputed perk of his culture. He forced the girls to demonstrate how they slept on wood pillows to protect their hair, while spooning a man old enough to be their grandfather, all in the name of protection, of course.
I was mortified but bit my tongue. Wee
Very important to know, as the campsites would be closed, gates locked, and you would be SOL if you missed it.
wee huffed off in a femineistic rage.
Back on the truck we started to compare our Himba experiences.
Nobody, it seemed, retained any of the pertinent cultural tidbits, especially the men. That was when I realized they had been looking at boobs
for the past few days. Mystery solved.
The driving was long and dusty but thankfully, Marcus made lots of stops while we were on the road to stretch our legs and take pictures. Easy Rider liked to take pictures of road signs…the ones that depicted animals crossing on them. The Brits wanted to know why. Why would you take a picture of a warthog road sign when there is a warthog snacking on grass beside the sign? Easy Rider would look at them like they were the crazy ones. But to bring us up to date, Easy Rider now owns an elephant, cheetah, and warthog road sign for his collection. I’m not entirely sure if he took any, if at all, pictures of actual animals.
I rode up front with Marcus and sometimes the Unicorn would squish in too. She quite honestly was becoming like a daughter to me. I was her cool hippy
At Afrikat there were many big cats kept captive so that they could be viewed by the public. They are gorgeous and scary close up.
mum. We both had a mutual appreciation for bugs and spiders and other crawly things. Every so often, she would scream for Marcus to stop! And we’d bail out to save a ginormous cricket or scorpion from being squished on the road.
Our next campsite, called Hoada, was so beautiful. Gigantic granite boulders piled upon each other like marbles. They had built a wooden sunset bar and swimming pool right in the crevasses, giving you that feeling you were one with the land. Ghost gums sprouted from impossible places, and we clambered up and over the formations like we were children.
The sunset cast a glow upon the rock, the warmth of the day forever locked in the brittleness of the boulders. I ran my hands over the roughness and I swear I felt an earthly connection. Around these parts, the Herero women used to be Himbas but when the Germans arrived they shamed them into wearing hideous Victorian frocks when doing domestic chores. The Herero women rebelled by arranging their headdress into horns. Ha. Good for them.
I cannot explain the endlessly changing landscapes in the Damaraland, North Namibia. At one point there were petrified sand
Crafts made from plastic bags
Instead of using leather they now construct their jewellery from shredded plastic bags, which I guess is recycling but altering their practices somewhat.
dunes we clambered all over, and then long dry grass Savannah that appeared to quiver in the wind, then red rock tabletop mountains as high as you could see. It was so dry, yet pleasant. All the moisture was zapped from my body I had to consciously remember to stay hydrated.
We hiked through Twyfelfontein and visited the Uibasen region that had amazingly well preserved rock carving murals dated back 6,000 years created by the Koi San peoples. A sneaky breed of canyon elephant hid in plain sight, their droppings minutes fresh but we couldn’t find them. Ostriches constantly paced with our vehicle apparently unable to make an executive decision to go left or right to evade us. Stupid things. Plant alert!
I think I spotted a Welwitschia
mirabilis. Very significant for me because I am a horty…this would be the equivalent of an archaeologist finding a dinosaur.
Thankfully, the Americans have become a lot less whiny and a little more contented with the pole pole
pace that is Africa. My request to stop for a hike was granted. John John the lawyer elects to join me to see this living fossil, and we covet
The Living Fossil
This plant is truly rare to these parts, and can survive in such harsh conditions with no water.
our find. This plant is extremely rare in this inhospitable tiny little square of the massive world. It casts only two strap shaped leaves in its lifetime, is related to a conifer, rarely gets water if any, and can live to be over a 2000 years old. This particular find, fairly young but older than than me.
Now Marcus turns the truck and heads westerly towards the skeleton coast.
Cape Cross is gloomy and overcast with marine fog, but the bashing sea gives way to a spectacular vista with gigantic stone marker. There are colonies of fur seals, we haven’t even hit peak season and roll up on 100,000 or more basking in the sun. It was like a Chewbacca convention at a fishmongery gone horribly wrong. The smell alone is still with me. Wooden walkways had been built that allow visitors to wander amongst the smelly, loud creatures. I lost the Unicorn somewhere in a sea of seal babies all crying for their mothers. I completely expected to turn around to find her carrying a baby in her arms pleading for us to take it with us, granted, their gigantic pleading eyes are pretty irresistible.
Looks like an elephant to me
Pretty good, I know I couldn't draw that any better
pungent salt air invades your nostrils, it’s moist but the endless sand dunes and sand make you feel parched. We walk for miles along the tattered coastline allowing us to grasp the scope of the enormity of this seal phenomenon. It was unbelievable and cold. We looked for desert sand roses but the odds of finding this amazing crystal formation are less than finding a shamrock in the Irish countryside. Instead, we came across carcasses of dead baby fur seals every couple of feet, the Unicorn and Wee wee inconsolable.
Circle of life.
A certain untamed lawlessness reveals itself as we head south. Abandoned fishing trawlers bash against the shoreline until they rust and are consumed by the turbulent Atlantic. Easy Rider goes into gonzo photojournalist mode trying to capture the essence of the decapitated ships, while we bratty lot photo bomb all his shots.
Local men materialize from behind the sand dunes begging for alcohol. When offered water or food they get indignant with us. They have made crappy shell necklaces to barter, and hang about all day hoping a confused tourist with beer stumbles by.
At dusk, we roll into the city of Swakopmund
Our motley gang!
All ready for a tear around the park to look for critters in theatre type seating!
exhausted, but hungry enough to walk the plank out to a jetty restaurant for some fresh seafood.
The ocean is turbulent but behaved, apparently the following day a huge rogue wave smashed in all the windows sending patrons scattering for their lives. This town boasts lots of thrill seeking activities for those gap travelers, the unicorn elects to throw herself out of a plane, the rest of our group disperse without much fanfare.
I hitch a ride back to Windhoek as the southern half of Namibia is in my future sights.
This country is so spectacular and I can't wait to see more!
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