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This festive season I’ve been knocking the smooth edges off my social repertoire and trying to be less of a round peg in a square hole. For those that are familiar with the southern African tradition of The Braai, you will hopefully sympathise with me. People-watching has always been a favourite hobby and I am capable of spending hours at a cafe regarding the variety in our species as one would observe the behaviour of elephants and baboons in the Masai Mara. Since I moved to Harare a year ago, The Braai has become one of my favourite anthropological field sites. It has revealed a fascinating ritual played out in two-tone khaki and “veldskoens” in dozens of leafy gardens every weekend. A characteristic of the southern African male is his inability to comprehend a meal unless it comprises about 80% meat. As he stands proprietarily next to his Weber, a range of tongs, forks and other implements laid out beside him as though preparing for surgery, he flips the various cuts over the coals with one hand while keeping a cold Castle constantly grasped in the other. It’s a sort of balance that has been perfected over time and if the hand is empty, he will probably topple over. As a general observation, I have found that upon arriving at a typical Zimbabwean braai, couples part ways upon disembarkation from the standard white “bakkie” (pick-up truck). The men congregate beer-in-hand around the fire while the women sit on the verandah. To enter into the sacrosanct circle of the braai as a woman, you need to have an exceptional grasp of the finer points of cricket and rugby at the very least. You will never, regrettably, be able to participate in the other topic of conversation which revolves around which boarding school you attended and the tireless, good-natured abuse related to your house’s sporting conquests or lack thereof. Please believe me when I say that this topic is still alive-and -kicking when the gentlemen are in their 70s, and decidedly less so. If you sit with the girls, you will probably spend quite a lot of time talking about children. Now, I have a series of problems identifying and subsequently playing a satisfactory part in this performance. The first is that I would choose a veggie salad over a bloody rump steak on any day of the week and many people behave as though I am a carrier of a rare and faintly amusing disease when I skirt the boerwors in favour of the lentils. The second problem is that, my dog being no substitute for sprogs, I have little to contribute to the re-hashing of Little Johnny’s latest sporting achievements. Lastly, while I can still climb trees and wax lyrical on the pleasures of mountain biking, I have never succeeded in retaining a single useful detail of either cricket or rugby. I’m now contemplating that arriving at the next braai dressed as a clown might make me stand out less as a creature from a different eco-system...I’ll try that next time.
If only I could blow on the soles of my feet! Pain, pain, ouch, ah, ah...hot, hot! Sporting my preferred attire of shorts and bare feet, I took off at a pace that could leave Usain Bolt in the dust, determined not to return to my tent like any sensible person and don appropriate footwear. Sadly, my fleet-footedness wasn’t in the least bit athletic or dignified; in fact I fear that I looked much like a frog doing Riverdance. Not cool.
Unjustly cursing the deep red sand of the Namib that had left my feet somewhat tender, I went to soak them in the pool. I swam up and down with torpor appropriate to a mid-thirties afternoon in the Namib (the desert was mid-thirties, not me...let’s be clear). It occurred to me that I was swimming lengths on top of a sand-dune. There can’t be many places in the world where you can say that. Having cooled my heels, I joined my fellow travellers for the obligatory sundowner. The open landrover wound its way along the “road” (two tracks in the red sand), between dry-blue grass that looked rather like clumps of tumble-weed, ready to scatter in the wind at any moment. Suddenly, the ridge of dunes gave on to a 180° view of such depth and emptiness that I could do nothing but just stare and stare. It was vast yet the silence and emptiness made it almost two-dimensional – like a film set all prepped and ready for something dramatic to happen. Huge gnarled mountains provided a back-drop which changed from grey to red to purple in the setting sun. Fairy circles (more about these later) dotted the wide straw-coloured valley floor as though some divine interior designer had opted frivolously for polka-dots for a bit of a laugh. Sitting with cold green glass bottle in hand and feet wiggling deeper into the sand, warm wind stroking my bare arms....I wished for time to stand still. Later that evening, I seriously considered sleeping on the lounger on my verandah because it seemed such a waste to cover up the gzillions of stars with canvas. It’s hard to do this place justice with mere words so may I suggest you saunter over to our Facebook page and lose yourself in some stunning imagery from Wolwedans.
Two days ago I was holding my breath whilst an overgrown cub of a desert lion stood within 3m of our open vehicle. Today I sit with champagne and fresh Namibian oysters in hand as a cape fur seal leaps from the cold Atlantic Ocean onto the deck of the boat. I do a reality check...perhaps this champagne and the strong sun is having unexpected effects. Nope...there is indeed a seal on the boat, currently being scratched under the chin by Nick, our jolly, bearded and sizeable skipper.
This surreal contrast is typical of a journey through Namibia. Every other day the scenery changes so dramatically that it is hard to believe you are in the same country. This morning, for instance, I awoke to the chill of a dense sea fog draped over the very German coastal town of Swakopmund and now I sit beneath a warm African sun surrounded by the azure sea. Nick pilots our little vessel expertly from Namibia’s only deep-water harbour past oil rigs in for a service, container ships and even an abandoned diamond-mining boat, registered to Panama. This one has been running up IOUs in many different ports and skipping town without paying the bill. Interpol finally caught up with it in Walvis Bay and it is now the centre of a court battle. We learn about how gravel and sand is vacuumed from the seabed and sifted for the precious stones. As we skip across the glittering waves, we are joined by the “Namibian Airforce” – a fleet of pelicans that fly alongside the boat, hopeful for a fresh snack. At such close quarters, their fabulous anatomy can be appreciated fully and Nick gives us the benefit of his knowledge about these and the accompanying seagulls as we go. Everyone on board turns National Geographic photographer as we are treated to clear glimpses of both bottle-nose and heavy-sided dolphins breaching alongside the hull.
At Pelican Point, the seal colony proves a good fit for our trip theme...more mating animals. The males weigh in at upto 350kg and at almost half their weight, no wonder many of the females end up practically buried in the sand during “the act”. Youngsters lollop along the sand in search of their mothers. Turning for the harbour, we see where the meaty oysters that we are drenching in lemon and Tabasco are grown. Seed oysters come from Chile to thrive in the chill Benguela current. They are huge and truly delicious. Windswept and freckled by the sun, we step back onto dry land and head back through the dunes of the Namib for coffee and cake in a German bakery. Quite surreal really. Click here to see more images.
I first visited Namibia in the late nineties as a “three-month wonder” (all naive disorganisation and irresponsibility), dropped off at a lovely safari camp by my parents with the instruction to make myself useful for at least 6 months. I have no doubt that I was more of a hindrance and, judging by the care-worn expression of my boss, I wasn’t the first gap-year princess that had added to their management woes. Anywho...I have vivid memories of that time and some if the best were hewn from the red rock mountains of what is now the southern Kunene region, then Damaraland.
Now, I’m actually starting to bore even myself with exhortations about how wonderful this place is, but it is like nowhere else I’ve been on earth. The colours at sunrise, the shapes of the mountains, the fact that anything that lives here survives on 100mm of rain a year and sea mist, the rock that is strewn on the land as though it was put there, the deep silence of the place. Among its many blessings are that it is not suitable for any human activity (except perhaps rock farming), which means that it has remained hitherto largely unscathed by our clumsy attentions. It lends itself to over-the-top, adjective-rich repetitions about just how magnificently splendid it all is. Ok, I’ll shut-up now.
Our safari takes us from Etosha through the Grootberg Pass and down towards the oasis of Palmwag. We spend a couple of nights at Etendeka Mountain Camp; tents dwarfed by the mountains, outdoor bucket showers where you can cool off, the warm breeze drying your skin as you admire the view.
An early morning walk through the canyons reveals extraordinary plants such as the euphorbia - poisonous to everything except rhino, kudu and ground squirrels. Golden-trunked butter trees crouch in the rocks and we discover that one which is barely 6’ tall is almost half a decade old. There are birds like the Damara rock-runner and Herero chat which are found nowhere else the world. I am amazed to find blue chloride, white quartz and amethyst crystals hiding inside the dull rocks, testament to ancient geological processes.
Later, returning to camp on an evening drive, we stumble upon an overgrown litter of lion cubs. Following the linear oases which cleave this arid place, the lion are like many other species in that they are adapted to the desert. They inherit memories of rich hunting grounds, water that does not dry up and sometimes their wonderings take them to the beaches where they prey on seals. As the sun lowers and sets the mountains on fire, we disturb a black mongoose in his feast of harvester termites. Also endemic to this area, he was only recognised as distinct from other mongooses (mongeese? mongi?) about twenty years ago.
Around the camp-fire, after chicken roasted in foil over the coals, I turn my chair to face the darkness, feel the silence creep into my mind, and search for shooting stars amongst a galaxy so bright that it seems to hang just above my head.
Sometimes a trip develops a theme; situation jokes, particularly notable incidents that are re-visited again and again along the way. The common thread that seems to tie one place to the next on this particular journey through Namibia is wildlife in a frenzy of pheromones. It’s the start of the rains (known as “emerald” or “green” season) and everywhere you look the wildlife is getting frisky. While it sometimes makes me blush to watch an impala ram in action or a diminutive male tortoise high-tailing it after the sizeable rump of his lady-love (they like big girls), some of the things we’ve seen, have been especially unusual and (dare I say it) captivating. Fortunately no one is likely to arrest me for spending half an hour watching the action through binoculars... Comical tortoise lurve aside, there have been many impressive attempts of the boys out there to win even an appreciative glance from the object of their infatuation. Firstly, they literally put on their Sunday best to go a’courtin’. The ostriches develop rather bizarre red stripes down their shins...not quite sure that would do it for me, personally. The shaft-tailed whydah birds transform themselves from drab LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) into resplendent tail-coated studs with feathers 8” long. The male agama (or rainbow) lizard dons a dazzling combination of cobalt blue and orange and stands with his head bobbing and toes raised on the hot rock. Then the boys put all their energy into showing off. Sunshine-yellow weaver birds spend days painstakingly knitting beautifully crafted nests which need to meet Madam’s approval (she will reject many potential homes heartlessly by nipping the grass that binds them to the branch, sending them tumbling to the ground). The northern black korhaan (a sort of pheasant-size bird with beautiful black and tawny markings and a bright red bill) flies high into the air and plummets to earth with break-neck speed. The large cory bustard puffs out the feathers of his throat, sticks his black crest in the air and fans out his tail. Ensuring that the ladies are paying attention, he then struts back and forth in almost military fashion. It’s worth braving the odd rainstorm for all this. The variety and ingenuity of all these creatures in displaying their manly prowess is seriously impressive and one does wonder where we went wrong with our own species...although our lads donning high-heels and blue eye-shadow? Perhaps not.
Actually it’s probably fair to say that the Romans never made it to Namibia but the Germans have certainly learned a few lessons about road building from them. As we leave Windhoek, a wide tar road stretches to the horizon, straight as an arrow. Windhoek’s attractive streets are well laid out and sign-posted and the traffic lights all work, all of which is a pleasant surprise when compared to some of Africa’s other rather intimidating cities. As three girls travelling together, it’s good to know that Namibia is one of the safest countries in which to travel independently in Africa. The country is vast and largely empty, with a population of around 2 million people, 75% of which live in the northern-most reaches. A whole playground of remote, wild and scenically breath-taking areas are connected mostly by excellent tar or graded gravel roads, making it perfect for our self-drive trip.
I’ve learnt that you need to prepare for some pretty long days in the car, but that each journey offers plenty to see and some very dramatic changes in landscape. The hire car, a 4x4 Nissan double-cab, is comfy and well-equipped, the real bonus being the fridge which, at any one time, contains a variety of chilled drinks, the obligatory supply of chocolate and “padkos” (snacks for the road). We’ve met some folk travelling in saloon cars but I’m pleased to have something a bit more sizeable to allow us to explore some of the rougher terrain. Our safari is taking us through a cross-section of eco-systems; from Etosha’s assorted bush and huge salt pan, through the flat-topped red basalt mountains of Damaraland, the harsh but surprisingly varied desert of the Skeleton Coast and into the red-dunes and mountains of the Namib Naukluft. We’re covering about 4,000km over two weeks but within a few days we feel as though we’ve been travelling for months – there is simply so much to see and do. Since we like to be a bit intrepid, one of the best aspects is the freedom we have to explore at our own pace while still being able to take advantage of the specialist knowledge of the guides in each small camp we visit. At the end of the safari, we will have seen a huge variety of birds and animals, walked through pre-historic canyons, visited seal colonies aboard boats, experienced some local culture, slid down sand-dunes and marvelled at the intensity of the stars in this vast wild country. Tomorrow is another day and I wonder where the next straight road will lead us?
Suddenly the dead kudu got to its feet and, in one impressive leap, cleared the five foot bank of the sandy lugga. The two cheetah, lying panting just thirty yards away from where we stood, were just as astonished but gathered themselves and took off in hot pursuit. We set out to see if the cheetah managed to regain control of their wayward breakfast. No doubt there were muttered accusations as to who had failed to finish the kudu off properly. Okonjima is a private conservancy located in Namibia’s central highlands. It has long been home to the Africat Foundation which attempts to offer a safe haven to cheetah that have clashed with surrounding commercial cattle farms. Cheetah are physiologically closer to dogs than cats and unlike lion or leopard, are not instinctive hunters. Much of their first 18 months is spent learning the techniques of survival from their mother. Many cheetah come to the centre having been orphaned by farmers poisoning or shooting the adults, which are seen as a threat to young livestock.
The foundation is engaged in long-term research and rehabilitation projects to re-introduce the animals back into wilderness areas where they will not come into conflict with people. It is a long process and a steep learning curve as they experiment with different methods. Animals are collared and monitored constantly. As a guest at Okonjima you can head out with the guides to track the animals and see how they are getting on. Charlie and Trish are brother and sister and have recently been re-released into the 16,000ha conservancy where they are attempting to survive without the human handouts. Their ambitious attempt at a large kudu unfortunately failed but hopefully they were able to put it down to experience and would have better luck next time. Seeing predators in this context is very different from seeing them in the wild but it does provide exciting opportunities for close encounters with otherwise elusive creatures. The guides here are possessed of an in-depth understanding of the animals and it is interesting to gain a deeper insight into the controversial issue of conservation vis-a-vis human livelihoods. Find out more about visiting Okonjima by clicking here.
As I stand on the lonely airstrip at 6 o’clock in the morning, I regard the plains where rocks are strewn as if in a giant Japanese garden, stretching to the foot of the mountains beyond. Towering flat-topped basalt hills encircle me and there is not a living thing to be seen. The silence is eerie and complete. There are no bird calls, no sounds of cars or planes, no conversation, no trees for the wind to rustle.
The edge of a pale blue sky is scalloped by the hills; 360 degrees of rock exploding with the deep red of the dawn light. The silence, space and emptiness makes me feel light and exuberant; I feel I am the only person on earth – only it seems more like Mars.
The day before, we land on a white sand beach upon which the Atlantic beats with frothy waves and the wind whips sharply around my ankles. I walk barefoot away from the plane and into the bare reaches of sand, rock, and gravel to feel the emptiness of the desert. The wind is quick and gusty and fills my lungs with fresh salty air. There is not a cloud in the sky. The impression is one of liberation, felt deep in the chest: it touches all the senses.
The following day, from our birdlike vantage point, we witness the patterns of rock and sand created by ancient processes. At the right time of day, the paper-sheaf of angled rock is thrown into relief, the shadows emphasising every sinuous curve. Patterns like veins in the sand made by rare water courses spread beneath us. As we descend, the knobbly bald heads of rocky outcrops race by the windows. I never knew the earth to be such a canvas of patterns and colours. It is beautiful. As I try desperately to preserve the impressions in my brain of all I have seen, and touched, and felt so that I can revisit it all in later years, I realise that this nothingness is what I came for. And the nothingness provided one of the richest experiences I have ever known.
Read more about safaris in Namibia