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Updates from Africa 9

Updates from Africa 9

December 30, 2008 3:48 pmComments are Disabled

Our second night in Walvis Bay we ate at Raft, the same restaurant on the bay we had eaten at the night before.  We were served by the same waitress, Claire, and petted the same Norwegian Ridgeback, Motley, who moseys around the restaurant with a card on his neck telling patrons not to feed him.  He loved our table because he enjoyed our kudu meat and french fries as much as we did.

In the morning we woke up early again and walked to the waterfront where we had planned our second day trip, this time on a bay cruise and 4×4 drive through the desert.  Our boat, the Gambit, departed late because of a slow-loading catamaran that left before us.  The boat seated twenty and our guide gave the tour in english and german. There was also a French family on the “cruise.”  As we departed from the dock, the guide started calling out to the pelicans and throwing fish in the water.  Out of nowhere, our boat was swarmed with pelicans–giant birds with long beaks and an impressive wingspan.  The guide, who was also driving the boat, threw fish as we drove and the pelicans would speed up to the boat, often going as fast as we were or faster, to catch up to the fish.  He would also hold a fish out so a pelican would come right up to the side of the boat to snatch the fish.  The coolest part was when a seal hopped onto the back of the boat, prompted by an enticing offer of fish.  The seal slapped its fins to slide into the main deck with us, and we all took turns petting it.  These are not trained or domestic seals–they are wild, living in the harbor, and clearly profiting from regularly scheduled tour boats which they probably compete over with vigor.

The cruise was about an hour and a half, and we went around Pelican Point, the sandbar that creates Walvis Bay, and were in the open Atlantic for the first time.  The point of this cruise was to see the dolphins, which we did see–scores of them, running in front of the boat, on its flanks, and behind.  They would only come up so you could see a dorsel fin, but the fins came up enough that you had an idea of how populated this bay is with marine wildlife.  The sandbar that culminates in Pelican Point has seals lounging in packs of hundreds. In December, they give birth, so we could see lots of seal cubs, no bigger than beagles, soaking in the sun.  The wind pattern that created this sandbar by carrying sand from the desert is the same pattern that diverted the flow of the river and made the sand dunes.

The dolphins were not as interesting as the seals.  As we were coming back around the point another, much larger seal hopped up onto the boat for its morning meal.  This one, which the tour guides had named Cassanova, was injured around the eye and our guide explained that the injury was a lot worse a week ago.  The entire boat delighted in the friendliness Cassanova showed toward people, especially considering that he was a wild seal.

On our cruise, we passed some seemingly deserted Russian fishing ships, two of them, which were moored together and anchored.  Our guide explained to us that the ships belonged to the Russian-Namibian fishing company Namsov, which had been fishing in Walvis Bay and off the coast of Namibia since the Soviet Union (hence “Sov” in the name). They were only authorized by the Namibian government to catch certain types of fish in season, and when they were caught breaking this law the captains of the ships and the officers were put under house arrest–on their ships.  So we passed by these abandoned ships, 200-foot steel fishing ships, rusting from non-use and contemplated the two captains and their officers living in exile until Namibia decided their fate.  I guess the lesson of this story is, do not break maritime fishing laws in Namibia.  Codrin estimates that $1 billion is lost every year from illegal fishing off Namibia’s coast, and it seems that there are very harsh laws in place to combat this problem.

There were many more Russian ships in the harbor, and some actually abandoned ships as well.  We also passed oyster farms in the bay and learned about Namibia’s oyster export industry.  As we would learn, Namibians love oysters.  Speaking of oysters, we were dropped off at the sandbar to begin the second half of our trip, and were served a beachside lunch consisting of oysters, pasta salad, egg rolls and tofu.  And beer.  Windhoek Lager has been brewed since 1519–that’s a nearly 500-year-old beer!

The three of us strapped into a 4×4 Jeep and our driver started to drive south along the beach toward Sandwich Bay.  Our driver’s name was Herman, but although “Herman the German” would have been a perfect nickname, he was actually only half German and half Afrikaans.  Herman was really good at driving on sand, and we drove on lots of sand.  And it was bumpy.  There were no seatbelts in the backseat, so Ioana and I were jostled around the back of that car like dice in a Yahtzee shaker.  We had just eaten–oysters no less–so I was more than a little sick from the drive.

The sandbar was wide, but as we drove along the water the beach narrowed and the dunes closed in from the left.  Apparently, you can drive all the way along the beach and the desert until you reach South Africa, and the first place we stopped was the old colonial border between British South Africa and German Southwest Africa.  After World War I, much of Namibia was absorbed into British South Africa, and Namibia stayed a colony of South Africa until 1988.  As a result, Namibia was the most recent country in Africa to gain its independence.  Walvis Bay–the commercial center of Namibia–stayed a South African colony until 1994 when Mandela became president.  Herman explained to us that he was born in Swakopmund, and when he was a kid he needed a visa to go to Walvis Bay, 30 minutes away.

Herman also told us that Sandwich Harbor, where we were going, was inaccessible twice a day because of the tides.  Only during specific times was the beach wide enough between the desert and the ocean for a 4×4 to get through.  When we drove in, the beach was about as wide as a 8-lane highway.  The reason the ride was so bumpy, Herman explained, was the tracks from other jeeps that had not been blown away due to an unusual lack of wind.  We would try to stay in other tracks but that didn’t lessen the bumpiness of the ride.  We stopped at one point, and Herman drove the Jeep up an incline onto a sand shelf that overlooked the ocean, with a steep dune behind us.  Then, suddenly, he threw the jeep into reverse and we shot backwards up the slope of the dune.  He braked and somehow the jeep stayed in place, with its nose pointed straight downhill.  We got out of the jeep on the surface of the dune and admired the stretch of beach ahead of us, which we saw, from pictures Herman showed us, had changed drastically in 20 years from global warming.  There used to be a large natural harbor of fresh water formed by the sand as a filtration system, but since the sea levels are rising this harbor is all but gone.  The fresh water system which used to be a complete river is now restricted to the aquifers which we had drunk out of the day before, and this system is dependent on a specific sea level and weather pattern.  The life of the desert, in this way, depends on how this fresh water system survives.

We drove about five more kilometers into Sandwhich Harbor, another fresh water lake adjoining the ocean and a monstrous 200-meter dune on the other side.  The car parked, and we started to climb the dune.  At first, it didn’t look that difficult, because the incline wasn’t steep.  It also wasn’t that hot; although the Namib desert is a desert, it is breezy and receives copious amounts of cool ocean air. What made the climb difficult was the sand.  Climbing on a hill of sand is like climbing uphill on a stairmaster.  You do a lot of stepping but you don’t move very far upwards.  Every two feet you climb up, you sink one foot down.  The side of the dune is packed down naturally, but if you break the surface there is soft sand underneath. Also, the wind is constantly blowing a loose layer of sand off the top, which is actually how the dunes form and move over time.  As we climbed higher and higher, you could look back and see more and more of the bay stretched out before us.  It hugged the fine line between the desert and the sea, and was really a sight to behold.  At the top of the dune, the wind was so powerful it could knock you over, which we had to be careful about because the leeward side of the dune, as we found out yesterday, is a much sharper dropoff.  We took some amazing pictures though.

On the drive back, Herman took us into the desert instead of just on the beach, and we drove on the dunes.  Unlike the quad bike, the 4×4 is much bigger, and since we weren’t controlling it it was a little scarier as well.  We had long known that Herman was an expert driver on sand, but we were not prepared when we reached the top of one of these monstrous dunes, the jeep tipped precariously forward and we looked straight down one of these slip sides into the sandy valley below.  Herman gunned the car and we shot downward, then he pulled up the side of the dune in front of us, then shot down the other side of that dune.  It was like we were on a roller coaster with no safety rails and no chain lift.  We essentially–if I may use this term–halfpiped the dunes.  There was a cadre of 4 or 5 jeeps in our group, and the jeep ahead of us at one point got stuck going up one of the dunes, and idled in the sand with its nose straight up in the air for a minute, then somehow turned around, and billowed down the slope to get momentum and tried again.  Herman cracked that the other driver was new at this.

When we were done driving the dunes, we drove back to town through the desert, this time going through a field of sand mounds planted with !nara bushes.  The !nara fruit is the only one in the desert and it is the food on which the animals and humans who live in the desert survive (the ! in the name is a click in the Topnaar language).  As we drove back, I talked to Herman about Namibian politics and learned a lot.  He explained that Namibia didn’t really have the racial undercurrent of South Africa, which we had noticed as well.  The government has been stable since independence.  I asked if there were any whites in government and he said there was one Israeli minister who people had voted for because his name sounded native – but he didn’t express any discontent with this lack of race-based representation.  This impressed us, because in South Africa we had seen everywhere a constant expectation of racial division and political fragmentation based on race.  There are plenty of whites in Namibia, but they don’t feel a need to be represented as white.  I asked the question expecting a rant, like we had heard in South Africa, that the whites don’t get any representation and their jobs get taken away.  But Herman explained that he loved Namibia, that it was safe and everyone had jobs and although it was briefly a part of apartheid South Africa no one held any grudges or seemed to care about racial divisions.  I realized at this point that I hadn’t noticed race in Namibia since we’ve been here–that the whites and blacks who live here are Namibians, and identify as such.  Furthermore, Namibians are happy.  Herman says the economy in Namibia is better than in South Africa (I haven’t verified if this is true yet), and there isn’t nearly as much crime.  He says he doesn’t lock his door at night and when there is a murder in Namibia it is front page news.  As a matter of fact, in Swakopmund I picked up a paper and the front page story was a car accident.  Can you imagine if the New York times carried a story about a car accident on I-95 as its front page story?

Herman drove us back to the hotel, and on the way we talked a bit about Namibian tourism as well.  He said the most high-profile thing that had happened to Namibia was when Angelina Jolie decided to have her baby here.  She and Brad Pitt rented a couple houses in a lodge and had family and friends stay with them for two months–in Walvis Bay.  Then, the funniest thing, he told us that he was their guide and they had become friends when the couple was here.  He said that “Brad” was very smart, and “Angelina” was shorter than she appears in the films, and the fact that our driver was referring to two of the biggest American movie stars on a first-name basis was quite bizarre. Herman then told us that one time, when they were out for drinks (“We were quite inebriated at this point”) a woman came up to Brad Pitt and told him that he looked like George Clooney, obviously not knowing who he was or that he was in Walvis Bay.  Our driver got drunk with Brad Pitt!  And then we found out that he’s not even a full-time driver. He owns five companies in Namibia, in mining, tourism and trade, and only drives part-time for the fun of it.  His wife just started a real estate company.  He says Namibia is the best place to start a business in Africa and I intend to take midVentures into this country while it’s hot.

That night, we went back to Raft.  Although we got a good recommendation from Herman for a restaurant, we couldn’t find a cab or anyone who would take us downtown.  Instead of walking 2 kilometers we walked back to Raft and saw Claire and Motley again.  The food in Namibia, if you have not yet figured this out from my updates, is delicious.  We ran into the owner of our hotel at the bar and told him we’ll see him back at the hotel in the morning for checkout.  He was picking up this gorgeous woman who is just one more reminder why Namibia is the place to return to, and why this will be a very happy new year.

We checked out at 10 am the next day and slowly got our bags together for our trip to Swakopmund, or “Swakop” as the locals call it. Swakopmund is essentially a German city on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, and it has palm trees.  It has charming shopping streets and a vibrant city center lined with cafes.  We haven’t had time to go to the beach yet, but we spent 2 hours at a cafe taking in the street life.  We ran into The Girls, which is our name for two nice young women who we met in Livingstone, and took the bus with us to Windhoek. The Girls, from New York, are on mission in Livingstone and have this month off to travel.  So we caught up with them a bit.  It’s amazing how we keep running into our Livingstone companions–Aaron in Windhoek, The Girls here, and as I’m writing another woman we met in Livingstone just walked into the internet cafe.

We have really one day to explore the town before it closes for New Years.  The New Years party tomorrow night is going to be the biggest in Namibia, and probably southern Africa.  The entire beachfront will be converted into a bar, and there we will party in german revelrie until the sun comes up.  At least that’s the plan.

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