View Sidebar
Updates from Africa 8

Updates from Africa 8

December 28, 2008 5:30 pmComments are Disabled

We spent our last day in Windhoek not doing much.  We slept in til 9 and then planned out our last couple days.  The original plan was to do another safari from Windhoek, but it turns out that a lot of the desert is better seen from Walvis Bay, the first European trading town on the west coast (about an hour from Swakopmund).  We had originally planned to go to Walvis for a day, but we decided to leave Windhoek early and spend three nights in Walvis.  We had a really hard time finding a place, everything was booked because Walvis Bay and Swakopmund is where everyone in Namibia goes to celebrate the New Years (and all the German tourists).  We finally tracked down a hotel with a double room available, which we would have to cramp into. Something is better than nothing.

We then went off to China Town.  We thought there would be an actual neighborhood, but the cab took us to an industrial park outside town that looked deserted and not very interesting.  Codrin really wanted to go so he got out of the cab; Ioana and I took the cab back downtown to get some lunch.  We ended up eating at Mugg & Bean, which is a San Francisco chain that I’ve never heard of, and consequently is delicious.  Ioana and I ordered 4 meals for two people and ate every morsel.  We ran into our new friend Aaron at Mugg & Bean and made plans to meet him for drinks that night at Joe’s Beerhouse, which is the place to be in Windhoek (we had heard that from several people). Our delicious lunch being complete, and contemplating what Codrin ended up doing for lunch in the middle of “China Town”, we got a cab back to the hostel and jumped in the pool.  We played with a volleyball with a young Zambian girl, who I thought was 15 but Ioana thought was 20, and her companion, a 60+ balding white man with yellow teeth and a heavy southern accent.  The dynamic between them was, at best, weird.  He would kiss her on the forehead in the mornings, and then tell her to take a shower, which she would do with obedience. She was a really nice girl and Ioana suspected she was into me.  Who knows.  It was a strange couple and we didn’t really want to inquire any further.  Apparenty the man had been all over Africa in the past year, but we don’t know where he is from, or why he is staying in a budget hostel with a young African girl as his companion.

That night, we went to Joe’s Beerhouse and indulged in zebra, kudu (antelope), crocodile and ostrich with a side of fried potatoes, and some local Windhoek Lager.  Our culinary experience in Namibia has been, to say the least, a delight.  In the morning we woke up early and went off to the markets to buy some souvenirs, since they were closed the day after Christmas and there isn’t a lot of market shopping on the west coast.  We bargained down some more masks on the street, then went to Mugg & Bean again for lunch.  Codrin was evidently a Mugg & Bean virgin so we iniated him with a angus beef burger with fries.  Ioana ordered the oriental burger, which came out and it was three times as tall as a normal burger with a toothpick through the middle:  Chicken, beef, vegetables and dripping in cheese sauce.  Since the burger was taller than an average hand, Ioana had to pick it apart to eat it.  We have this on camera.

We got back to the hostel and hopped a van with some fellow backpackers who were heading to Walvis Bay.  It was a 5 hour drive, not very eventful, with a pit stop at a gas station where I got some biltong (jerky-like sausage) and a Russian roll.

We dropped off our four companions in Swakopmund, so got a glimpse of this city where we’ll be spending New Year’s.  Swakopmund, like Walvis Bay, is a small town of low-lying houses and roads lined with palm trees.  They both are next to the ocean, but more importantly they both border the Namib desert on the other side.  Driving south from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, we were presented with a puzzling environmental paradox.  On our right, the glistening Atlantic Ocean, over which, somewhere, was home.  On the left, a vast expanse of dune-riddled desert, mountains of pure sand cascading towards us.  We saw some sandboarders creating wakes of sand and a couple rentals for quad bikes.  In 20 minutes we were in Walvis Bay and checked into our hotel, which ended up having a three-person room open for us.

That night, we went to the nearest restaurant we could find, a restaurant on stilts in the middle of the ocean, which overlooks the city, the sandbar which designates the bay area and pelicans which danced on the shimmering water as the sun set.  I had grilled crayfish, Ioana enjoyed a surf n’ turf and Codrin had more zebra meat. Did I mention how good the food is here?

We had planned our next day’s excursion, and in the morning we got up early and went downtown, where our historical tour of the Namib Desert awaited us, complete with quad bikes.  Quad bikes are like double motocycles which are jet skis for the desert.  Each four-wheel bike holds one person and they are fully automatic. There is a start button and a gas lever you push with your thumb, and hand brakes.  Not rocket science for even those like Codrin and a 10-year old boy in our group who don’t drive.  We got a quick safety lecture, donned our ski goggles and zoomed off into the desert, which bordered the quad bike parking lot.  Our guide was a middle aged German who had a dry sense of humor and wore a cowboy hat.  He was the only one with rainbow reflective goggles; everyone else got blue or orange.

The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, and when our German guide led us over one dune we were in the heart of it.  This section of the desert is composed entirely of massive dunes, all of which are crescent shaped and oriented in the same direction.  They each have a gently sloping side and a sharp dropoff where sand is looser and forms a crest, in the crux of the crescent.  We were told we had to stay in the guide’s tracks, because there are numerous hidden “holes” hidden in the banks of dunes that can collapse and cause injury.  For the most part, we rode down and up over the dunes and through the valleys, occasionally stopping for the group to get together.  Like the mokoro riders in the Okavango Delta, the guide seemed to know where he was going despite no discernable trails in the sand and few landmarks.  The first place we stopped at was part of what used to be a river bed.  The dunes were formed over thousands of years as the river changed course, and as a result tracts of mud were left.  Ten thousand years ago, this particular area was teeming with game and wildlife, and human beings, who were “stuck” in the Garden of Eden, as our guide described.  They could get all the food they needed to eat but they were surrounded by desert.  In any event, the first place we stopped was one of these ten-thousand-year-old mud plains. Over time, the mud hardens and becomes fossilized, and frozen in the mud are thousands of footprints.  We walked over this “mud”–now hard as rock–and saw elephant tracks, rhino, cheetah and–spookily–human tracks, all over the plain.

All over this desert there are sprouts of green plants and this, our guide explained, is a result of there being a giant aquifer under much of the desert.  The plants get the water from underground, and the few animals get their only water from eating the plants.  One beetle absorbs water from the fog which infrequently settles over the desert. Speaking of fog, when we went into the desert it was overcast and cool–doubly so when we were driving at 40 km/hour.  After an hour or two the skies lifted and left a hue of solid blue.  The pastel contrast between the blue sky and the orange sand was beautiful.

We had been riding for an hour and we drove up to another plain, but this one looked white from a distance.  When we approached we saw that the “white” was actually a bed of broken oyster shells.  We found out that oysters are always broken and eaten near to the ocean, which indicates that this area used to be by the sea.  More importantly, this area used to be inhabited by humans, as much as ten thousand years ago.  In the desert, as the dunes move (about 4 m a year) they expose these previously buried habitats, and as a result all signs of human existence here are preserved right on the surface.  We wandered this ancient habitat and found beads, made from bone and ostrich eggs and crafted with stone, flintstones that were used as tools, and, spookiest of all, human remains.  There are scattered bones and skulls all over the place, and handles for pots and shards of pottery nearby. There is one almost complete skeleton which is squeezed between some hardened mud layers.  The skull and ribcage poke out in an eerie display.  What is most remarkable is that our guide found this area a month ago; it has been completely untouched and unexcavated since it was buried by dunes ten thousand years ago.  I picked up several beads from the ground, despite the fact we were requested not to remove anything.  I understand the impulse of archeologists like Carter and Bingham to pick a little treasure from the ancient ruins–there is such an abundance of it, and it is so priceless.  I didn’t remove any bones although it was tempting.  I think I was slightly terrified of disturbing the sanctity of an ancient burial ground.

We did a lot of driving through the desert and saw some remarkable wildlife, including springbok in the wild (this is after we’ve been eating springbok for a week).  We went to one more ancient mud flat and our guide got down on his hands and knees and started digging into the sand.  I thought he was trying to chase a crab or something that was buried, but as he was digging the sand he was removing got muddier and soon he had reached water, about sixteen inches down.  He hunted around and got a half oyster shell (again, what was an oyster shell doing in the middle of the desert), and explained to us that the water he had reached was naturally filterd by the land, and was part of the underground aquifer.  The water is more pure than tap water in town, he said, and scooped up some of the muddy water with the shell and took a sip.  He then passed the shell around and we all took a sip. The water was sweet, and really did taste good.  He explained that the Topnaar people live in the desert on this water, even today.  Codrin had been off using the desert as his bathroom, as the Topnaars do (a fact our German guide reiterated for us many times) and when he returned we had all finished drinking the ground water and told Codrin he should have some.  He took one look at the brackish water and thought we were trying to trick him into drinking it, not knowing that we had all just had some.  The group took his reluctance and ultimate refusal to drink the water to be quite comical.  The guide had the two young children on the trip close up the hole he had dug, and then we were off again, buggying across the desert, down sheer dune faces and up again, the sound of our engines echoing off the sand walls and into the clear blue sky.

It was then time to meet the Topnaars.  The entire quest thus far had been geological and historical–as in natural history.  Then it took an uncomfortable anthropological twist.  We were driving through a valley surrounded by low shrub and we stopped.  The guide, who evidently speaks the local language, approached a clearing where we soon saw a single man had made a makeshift shelter out of cardboard, aluminium and bush.  He came out and the two men chatted, then our German guide told us that this man is a Topnaar.  “He lives in the desert and will die in the desert,” he said, “He has no desire to live in town.”  The man stood by his clearing with a tupperware container filled with dried seeds.  The guide continued, “he’s going to give you some seeds that he has harvested from the fruit trees we saw.  He uses these seeds for his diet.”  He took the container of seeds and passed them around, and we all ate one.  Then he passed around another container of dried fruit, that was a little sandy but otherwise digestable.  He told us as he passed that we could give the man some money if we wished.  All the while, the Topnaar stood silently as the fruits of his labor were passed around for our consumption.  Some people in the group paid him, and we drove about 100 meters further and stopped at another makeshift shelter in the desert.  This one was composed of a refrigerator box, tarp, and half of a large aluminium Coke bottle like the ones used in advertisements.  Our guide took us around back and showed us a Topnaar–another man–carving seeds out of the desert fruits we had seen on the dunes.  We could take pictures, we were told, of this particular exhibit.  Our guide had told us that the Topnaar were dying off because of HIV/AIDS, lack of medical treatment and the children going to school and entering Namibian culture, away from the desert.  As a caveat, he told us when we were at this second indigenous home that this man’s wife had just died, and he is alone.  The other man we had seen, his wife had died recently too, we were told.  This added a little more somberness to the already depressing situation.  We thought we were out of this awkward situation when we got back on the bikes, but one dune later and we were at the “home” of another Topnaar, whom the German spoke to for a minute and then came out to the group.  We formed a semi circle around him and our guide said “Now he is going to count to twenty in his language.”  This man was wearing a t-shirt, sandals and a baseball cap with the Pepsi logo, all dusty and worn.  When he had reached “akka”–four–our guide noticed that someone in the group was taking pictures of this display of linguistic anthropologism so he approached the man and took the cap off his head, to provide the tourist with a better picture.  It was a subtle gesture, but a saddening one–presumably, he wanted to give his client a more authentic rendering of this man as he rattled off something as simple as numbers to the gawking and eager foreign crowd.  We had ventured into the desert, and had been taken to the Topnaar habitat to witness them in the wild, to see how they eat, where they sleep, how they live.  We took pictures and our guide made the zoo more authentic by taking away the only sign that maybe, just maybe, they don’t live solely for the purpose of entertaining tourists.  It was a genuine reminder of the very real imperialist attitudes in this part of the world, how ancient societies are still marginalized, mummified, turned into exhibits and held up to be photographed and inspected.  These few Topnaar are members of a dying tribe, and it was upsetting to me to see the remnants of their ten-thousand-year-old way of life transfigured into a touristic commodity.  It was not so much their participation in this particular program that upset me–after all, they are making a living off of we fools who oggle them from behind our camera lenses–but the attitude of our self-proclaimed anthropologist guide, who up until now had impressed me with his breadth of knowledge and respect for this ancient desert and its people.  Our guide had told us that he “found” this Topnaar eight years ago, and since then the man had become a painter.  He had his paintings on display, solid-color abstractions of desert animals and wildlife on cloth napkin-sized canvases, and we were told that we could buy them for N$100 a piece.  We didn’t buy any.  For me, at least, this experience was too sour to be immortalized in a desert painting whose creator and his culture would be dead before the colors faded.

We drove off back to town, and as we got closer we could see the ocean in the distance.  The air was cool and breezy the entire time we were in the desert, which was lucky for us since we got back around one in the afternoon.  We parked our bikes, paid the guide and remarked that the entire four hours was certainly worth the $50 we had paid for it. Quad bike riding is a lot of fun and I hope I can do it again some day.

We didn’t have a car, so the guide dropped us off downtown in his 4×4 and we went to another delicious restaurant for lunch.  It was Italian; Ioana had pasta, I had a crepe and Codrin had an anchovy pizza, which he was surprised to find had fish on it.  For dessert, I had a pancake drenched in melted marshmallow and chocolate sauce. Everything was topped off with a bottle of white wine.  Have I mentioned how good the food is here?

Codrin and Ioana are currently on siesta and I’m going to join them. I’ll send more updates soon.

Comments are closed