Safari, Sand and the Sea

I’ve taken something of a break over what would be considered in Europe the winter holidays. Here, of course, it was punishingly hot, but nonetheless I had a wonderful Christmas with my hosts here, who kindly offered to put me up for the duration. I have been staying here in Windhoek in a small cottage on their land, which means I essentially have my own house. This also means that I wake up each morning to a rather nice view of the bush, while I prepare for the next, and altogether longer, odyssey into the North.

In the intervening time, too, I went on a little tour, the occasion being a two-week visit from Edinburgh of my girlfriend. We did all the typical touristy things, and I actually feel now that I have seen a lot more of the country than I would have done without any time off at all. We visited the world-famous Etosha National Park, which is an area about the size of Scotland in which much of Namibia’s native wildlife exists free of encroachment from farming and poaching. This, rather happily, includes quite a number of elephants.

We went on an early morning game safari at one of our resorts, in which I nearly froze to death. Apparently I have got very used to the heat of Namibia in the daytime. Five in the morning is not one of those times. We actually saw very little on the drive, as the animals are all students or something. We saw most of the animals driving ourselves through the park from one hotel to the next, helpfully reminded by signs every few kilometres to “STAY IN YOUR CAR” lest we be eaten by lions. Alas, no lions were forthcoming, although I am happy about not being eaten. The insurance claim would have been a nightmare. Nonetheless, the absence of top predators meant that all the other wildlife seemed very relaxed around us, and we saw giraffes, wildebeest, jackals, the occasional hyena, hartebeest, zebra, ostrich, springbok and oryx. I have eaten an embarrassingly large number of the animals on the list, actually. Oryx is definitely the best. I loved Etosha, mainly for the fact that we could proceed entirely at our own pace throughout the journey, stopping when we wanted to, although getting out the car was strictly a rest-camp-only affair. Unless a really really good picture presented itself, at which point one of us would hang out the window.

From Etosha, we proceeded through the arid and dusty Damaraland down to the skeleton coast. A nice idea would be, I thought, to use the small roads, although what qualifies as a “big road” in that part of the world seems to be a gravel road wide enough for two cars to pass each other. We drove for about a hundred kilometres without seeing a soul, which was eerie, but upon seeing a sign advertising “rock art this way” we decided to take a quick break, and things got a bit eerier.

What you are looking at is one of the very common rock formations in the area, apparently surrounded by a strange shrine of empty beer bottles that looked like it had not been touched in a time measurable in decades. There was even a stall with rocks for sale, untouched in a similar time. There was not a soul to be seen. We did not stop for long, either: the temperature was climbing into the forties celsius and after a look around (I was thankfully prevented from attempting to climb the rock formation thanks to the sensibility of my travelling companion and the lack of help in the area) we saw no rock art. I was reminded forcefully of the old television show Jeopardy I used to watch as a teenager back in the UK. It seemed like a bit of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind venue, at any rate. The idea of spending a night camping there ignites the Fox Mulder in me (three UFO references in as many sentences, gold!), though I suspect that it’s an abandoned tourist site. I have, however, been told that some rock formations here hold cairn tributes to a Damara god, so it could be something to do with that. The mystery deepens.

We avoided abduction and experimentation by extraterrestrials, however, and proceeded further towards the Brandberg, our next formal stop and the highest mountain in Namibia. The map was less than clear however, and just when being lost became a real possibility, for the first time in quite some hours we were passed by a local in his truck, who guided us to the right road using the medium of drawn maps in the sand. Our day in the car was longer than expected, but without major incident, thankfully.

The Skeleton Coast was our next big adventure on the tour. The best way I can think of to characterise it would be to think of it as the world’s biggest beach, on which the sand simply doesn’t stop as you go inland. Much of the distances in such a featureless landscape blend into one another, so in an odd way the place seems smaller than it really is, although it is a massive vista to look at. The road is also made of compacted salt, and it speaks to where I grew up that my initial thought was of approval as it would mean there would definitely be no problem with snow and ice, which is true, although that has little to do with the salt. It was cold, though. By cold, of course I mean that it was about twenty degrees, but come evening that was enough for me to want to put on a jumper, and it was a welcome contrast from the fires of the sun inland.

We also had the good fortune to be staying very near to one of the largest colonies of anything I have ever seen, and in this case it happened to be the rather dopey, and extremely smelly, Cape Fur Seals that make their homes here. They are not shy, and some of the smaller ones are quite photogenic.

I’ll definitely say at this point that the Namibian coast is probably one of the strangest places I have ever been in my life. The desolation and lack of habitability mean that water has to be trucked in, yet small towns flourish here, trading seemingly on the tourists and visitors that flock during the summer (Dec-Feb) to escape the inland heat. But as far as I could see, and of course my impression as a tourist is flawed, these seem to be the only inhabitants. The place feels like a succession of British seaside towns, the colonial-ness of the Afrikaner and Sudwest Deutsch adding another strange flavour to the mix. Swakopmund, in particular, made me think of Exmouth, in which my father grew up, and which I long ago visited, yet an Exmouth that was invaded by the Second Reich under Bismarck and from which they never retreated. As a curiosity, it makes for interesting buildings and a fascinating museum, but a town where this is an acceptable shop window display needs some serious introspection:

Notice, if you will, that those are not antique postcards. These are recently manufactured bumper stickers, that I could, should I so choose, purchase and put upon Helga so that everyone in Namibia could be clear about the fact that I am totally fine with genocide. I learned upon my return to Windhoek that I should have looked closer at that shop window. They are usually displaying a copy of Mein Kampf as well.

Swakopmund was a lot beyond this, however. If you can get past the idea that the Reich never seemed to leave, you’ll see a town that is seeing a lot of new inhabitants, growth and diversity pushing out the old ways, leaving them as a curiosity for disbelieving tourists to photograph. We managed to find some great food and drink, even sushi at one point, which seems to be taking the urban areas of Namibia by storm, and cocktails. Outdoor adventure things are also pretty popular here, and it was difficult to resist a trip into the dunes quadbiking and sandboarding (sledging on dunes, basically) on our last day there.

All in all, a fantastic break, and aside from a short mishap and two-hour detour on the way home thanks to me dropping my wallet in the middle of absolutely nowhere when we stopped, a nice drive over a mountain pass on the way back to Windhoek, Alison’s return to Edinburgh, and my return to work.

For now, I am readying myself and my equipment for what I will call “the real research”, in which I will gather the bulk of my data on my field sites. I have three months, at which time I shall return to Germany for some meetings and Scotland for making sure the people I care about have not forgotten me, before I return for another three months of data gathering. At that point, I should have enough material for a PhD. We can hope.

I am very much at home here these days. So much so, in fact, that I am feeling less stressed about preparing for this trip like a military exercise. I have become something of an old hand now at “making do”, a perennial practice here that with a couple of exceptions I really quite like. You can also tell how normal life here has become for me, that I am finding less and less to post about when I am not actually on fieldwork. Namibian life is simply my life now. I’m okay with that. There’s still that voice at the back of my head telling me I’m not prepared enough, though. I think I will call him “Mein Kleiner Deutschmann”. I’m pretty sure he’s kept me alive more than once.

Tschuß!

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