Category Archives: Namibia

Photo: Sand Dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia

Taken June 28, 2009

Before anyone accuses me, I swear this is not Photoshopped and this is actually what the sand dunes looked like.  Deep in the Namib desert, the oldest desert on the planet, the sand dunes can get up to 350 meters high which makes them the tallest in the world.  The dunes are so stark that the area is said to be a popular landmark for the astronauts in fact!

The amazing thing is how when driving here the sand just shows up in clumps on the ground as if a giant’s child dropped scoops from his sand pail until the dunes dominate the horizon.  How did it get here?  Amazingly from the Atlantic Ocean over 50km away- the mighty Orange River deposits so much land that a mere tributary created the second largest canyon in the world, which is deposited on the land and picked up by the wind.  Over time, some geologists have estimated tens of millions of years, the sand is deposited here.

A final interesting detail though is how in the winter (when this picture was taken) the direction of the wind changes so it comes off the mountains located leftward in this picture, so the sand dunes shift accordingly.  See how the dunes in the distance lean towards the right?  It’s because the wind blows the sand up the straight side of the dune over the crest and then finally settles on the far side due to the wind shade, giving the dune its normal shape.  In a few months the wind will change direction and the crests will face the opposite direction, ensuring that these dunes don’t move very much over time and can get so tall.

Oh, and the dunes are orange because of iron oxide, the same reason Mars is red.  But you knew that, right?

Summary of Namibia

This is the first post in months without pictures, but since it’s just a summary and I’m trying to catch up over slow Internet everyone just has to deal.  Cool?  If anyone’s still terribly upset I’ll add one or two pictures once the Internet connection gets better!

I spent 11 days in this country, and it might sound odd but I feel confident that I have “done” Namibia.  What I mean by this is of all the major tourist things to see here I think I’ve seen them, and there’s nothing I’ve heard of that exists in Namibia that I haven’t seen but want to (well, maybe H.E.S.S.- Cherenkov telescopes run by the Germans! I did my senior thesis on Cherenkov radiation!)

That said, I found Namibia to be a pleasant surprise on the overland circuit- maybe because you never hear about it I thought it was more of a drive-through country, but I pleasantly learned this isn’t the case.  Reasons to follow…

Highlights-

- The Namib desert, particularly Sossusvlei.  I thought I had seen desert before in the American West, but trust me when I say our deserts have nothing on the magnificence of these dunes or the desolation all around!  Not saying I want to pick up house and move there or anything, but it was really cool to drive for days and days and still be in the desert and all.

- Swakopmund was another surprise- who would have guessed there was a German town hiding in the middle of the Namib desert on the coast?  With a brauhaus and bakery where you can go quad biking and fishing and skydiving and stuff?  The fact that our first beds in a week were to be found here didn’t hurt either.

- The wild side of things (ie animals) in Namibia were pretty cool, both Cheetah Farm and Etosha National Park.  I will rate Etosha as one of the better game parks I’ve been to in southern Africa, actually, because there were so many huge herds of zebra and giraffes and elephants and what have you, bigger than anywhere else we went really.

- Because I found it entertaining, I kept meaning to read Dante’s Inferno ever since I visited Florence earlier this year, but finally got around to it while in Namibia (well, skimming to the interesting parts).  What were the odds that a 15 year old on our truck would have it for “fun” reading and lend it to me, I ask you?

Lowlights-

- I got sick for the first time on this trip while in Namibia, not counting the various times my stomach got funny from food in Asia (not to say this too early but my stomach has yet to have problems in Africa at all, mostly thanks to our wonderful cook on the overland trip I’m sure!).  Granted by “sick” I mean “head cold I caught from my sister,” so honestly one cold in six months isn’t bad at all!  I think the trick is when traveling by yourself you usually aren’t in close quarters with anyone for a long amount of time, whereas at home one gets sick more often because you have little choice…

- On another list of firsts, I had some currency stolen from me from our guesthouse in Swakopmund, the first time I ever had something stolen from me on this trip.  It wasn’t a dehabilitatingly large amount or anything but it was someone from our overland group, as evidenced by how other people had money stolen in similar fashion.  For lack of anything better to do, I’ve just chalked it up to “travel shrinkage” and kept an extra close eye on our things from then on.

Etosha National Park

Etosha is the big national park in Namibia- think Serengeti or Kruger equivalent- meaning a game drive naturally ensued.  For the sake of the fact that I’ve already posted lots of game drive pictures and have more to catch up on in Botswana, here’s just a quick run-down of the highlights.

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This picture might not look like much, but it’s the best I have of what was potentially my favorite safari moment ever.  See that dark smudge in the grass in the middle of the photo?  That’s actually a lioness hiding in the bush for all the springbok that kept coming to the water hole- we waited for about a half hour as springbok (antelope) kept coming closer and receeding as they became aware of her presence, Linda stir-crazy with the excitement of potentially seeing a kill as we’re the sort who root for predators…

Finally one of the springbok actually went up to the water just in front of where the lioness was, and she went for it.  It turns out springbok are significantly faster at running than a lion- that’s why they need an element of surprise obviously- but the chase was amazingly exciting and the lioness got within a meter or two of a kill.  Pity she was a bit young and inexperienced!

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A giant herd of elephant crossing the road- I think I counted 34, anyone remember what the exact number was?  The funniest thing was these guys had just left a water hole and had a young bull elephant running while trumpeting after them, obviously miffed that the group had left before he was properly ready.

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A zebra crossing.  There were huge herds of zebra in Etosha actually, but when I saw this occur I was immediately entertained beyond resolve at the joke.  And then everyone else started taking pictures of the zebra crossing too, by the way, before I get accused of a very odd sense of humor…

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Something else spotted by the side of the road- a puff adder, one of the deadliest snakes in the world.  What’s even more disturbing is this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a puff adder in Namibia- we ran into one in Sossusvlei- and there was even a black mamba at one of our campsites two nights earlier.

My best snake story, by the way, happened at the black mamba campsite at about 3am when I went out of our tent to find a bush to go to the bathroom.  Not too far from our tent my headlamp caught the light of two green-white eyes in the grass so I stopped and stomped my feet a few times in case it was a snake (they feel through vibrations so it’s the best way to make yourself known).  The pair of green-white eyes then glided towards the left and front in the grass, and to make me feel even more wonderful they disappeared altogether as the probably-a-snake turned around.

Needless to say I finished my business closer to the tent than was probably hygienic and was never as happy to go back inside!

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As a final thought, Etosha probably had the coolest campsite we’d been to in terms of nighttime entertainment.  Why?  Because it was next to a water hole that they strategically placed floodlights around so you could spend the evening watching various game as they came to the waterhole.  So cool!  The picture above is obviously a waterhole daytime  shot- my camera didn’t much like the dark- but we spent about two hours there watching elephant, springbok, a hyena, and jackals loping in and out to drink.

So very cool.  Safari is awesome.

Cheetah, Dancing to the Beat-ah…

Here is a rule about visiting the Cheetah Farm: if you are doing so with a sister who works at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and wanted to be a “cat specialist” while growing up, do not under any circumstances give her your camera on a visit to said farm. You will get it back to discover you have more cheetah pictures than pictures of any other activity you did on your trip!

To be fair, the cheetahs are quite cute-

As an explanation, cheetahs are currently classified as vulnerable bordering on endangered and Namibia has the largest population of cheetahs in the world. Farmers don’t like cheetahs because they attack cattle, so in order to save the animals a family of Afrikaans ranchers opened up part of their land for cheetah conservation. Called Cheetah Farm they currently have about 25 cheetahs in the park, two of which are full grown tame cheetahs the family raised because their mother died when they were young.

And because they’re tame, you get to do things like this-

You know, to continue my theme of petting giant felines capable of ripping your face off! Mind, one of the cheetahs was in a growly mood today, proven when the first person from our truck tried to pet him, but he backed off pretty quick once it was obvious the cheetah wasn’t up for tourists today. Picture of the foul mood cheetah-

The dog is interesting too actually- he was the family’s pet before they got the cheetahs, and when they were cubs he was bigger than they were. He still thinks this is the case even though it’s patently obvious it’s not, leading to the entertaining discovery that there are few things in life more entertaining than a terrier that thinks it’s a cheetah!

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Oh, and they have cheetah cubs at the cheetah farm too! Yay! Most of the cubs are being raised by their mothers, but this little lady is the exception because she was born partially blind and needs to be raised by humans as well. Her stomach looks a little funny because it has a bandage on it hiding a wound she kept licking.image190

Speaking of babies, it’s a baby giraffe attack! Ahhh!!! This big fella’s mother was unfortunately killed when she walked into the property’s electric fence (it’s still foremost a cattle ranch), so this guy has stuck around ever since. He took it upon himself to investigate the backs of the pickup trucks we were being transported in, and proceeded to slobber over everyone. But he let everyone pet his neck and had a fondness for sucking thumbs, so I suppose we shall forgive him. image194

Towards sunset, this was the view we got from the back of the truck. Doesn’t it look, well, evil? There is a cheetah gang stalking us!image202Ah this is why- feeding time! (Thanks to Linda for figuring out the setting on my camera that allowed me to take this amazing shot!) There are currently too many cheetahs in the park for the space they have, meaning nowadays the cheetahs are fed chunks of donkey meat each night. (They are still wild cheetahs and know how to hunt game, but there’s definitely not enough to go around.) And damn it is cool to see over 20 cheetahs jumping into the air for their dinner!

Cheetah Farm is a wonderful place, but to get a whole perspective my sister said it made her “a little sad” to be there. When I asked why, it turns out the National Zoo recently spent a whole lot of money to build up a breeding program for Namibian cheetahs. Everything was set, the United States was eager to let the project go ahead… but then Namibia blocked the permit to export the cheetahs. I figure they probably didn’t bribe the right official, but it’s a particularly sore spot when you think of how Namibian conservation efforts like Cheetah Farm are overcrowded. Just the way Africa works sometimes, unfortunately…

Swakopmund

Namibia is a neat place, but I’d never exactly look at the empty sand dunes and jump off a boat to say “wow, I want to start a colony here!”  But that’s exactly what the Germans did here in the 19th century, no doubt starting to feel left out of the colonial scramble and figuring an empty desert was better  than nothing.  Then after the Germans lost WWI Namibia, then known as “South West Africa,” was handed over to South Africa for administration who ruled it until 1990, the last two decades of which were marred by various states of civil war.  Nothing like showing up in a country to learn you’re older than it!

Anyway, one of the colonial legacies from the Germans is the seaside resort town of Swakopmund, which for all intents and purposes is a German town that got plopped down in the middle of Africa.  All the white people speak German, you can get the most delicious black forest cake you can imagine at the bakery, and all Namibian beer is the best you will find in Africa.  Our visit also coincided with “German heritage week” in Swak, meaning we got to see a parade that basically looked like a bunch of Germans getting pissed on the back of trucks while driving through the streets.  See, totally German!

Anyway, getting on with things it turns out Swakopmund is billed as “the adrenalinen capital of Namibia.” (Which I find silly actually- I haven’t seen a town of comparable size in Namibia, let alone one where you have any touristy things to do!) Linda took this to heart by doing sandboarding and skydiving here, but I’ve done skydiving before and wasn’t completely interested in sandboarding, so those are her stories to tell.  But both of us joined forces for a bit of desert quad biking!

Before anyone asks, we were wimps who drove automatics but had great fun anyway.  Oh, and I learned whilst at the quad biking place that my head is “extra small” as that was the only helmet that properly fit me, so from now on I am claiming that any smarts I have are due to concentrated brain power. (I also  got my hair cut short on this day- you don’t want to deal with long hair whilst overlanding- so this was my retort to my sister’s “rovid haj, rovid esz” comment meaning “short hair, short mind.” Hungarian sayings are weird.)

It turns out quad biking is marvelously fun and I can recommend it.  My only comment on this is if you do it over sand you need to be very careful and not be too reckless- two girls tumbled while driving semi-automatics because they had no real experience with them, and one woman who wasn’t following the leader rolled with her bike after cresting a dune too quickly. (The latter was right in front of me actually, so I am adding that image of her tumbling with her bike and lying motionless at the bottom with part of it on her as one of the  scariest things I’ve seen.) Luckily no one got hurt, but you definitely need to exercise caution over something as frictionless and unpacked as sand.

For my second activity of the weekend, I went fishing with three other Aussies from our truck and a South African father and two sons on holiday.  I’ve never really gone fishing before for some reason or another but always wanted to try it, and luckily found a great crowd to do it with.  Even if by the nature of them being Aussie I started drinking beer at 9am for the first time in my life- hey, it’s what you’re supposed to do whilst fishing right?

Anyway, fishing was  really fun but I think I’m ruined for life.  Why?  Because this fish is one of seventeen I caught during the course of a morning- three catfish and the rest a species called kol.  And something tells me I shouldn’t expect to normally catch one fish every ten minutes or so, right? Not to make you all think that all of our fishing went to waste, here is a picture of our fish and chips dinner the night after we left Swak, as the four of us caught enough to feed the entire group.  Interestingly I usually don’t like fish, but I really liked this stuff.  I guess there’s a difference if you catch it yourself!

In the Desert on a Horse With no Name

Ever see those amazing pictures of sand dunes in Africa that you assumed were from the Sahara?  Well it turns out they’re not from there.  They’re actually from a weird place called Sossusvlei, Namibia, home to the largest sand dunes in the world that can tower up to 300m.  Linda’s the small green figure in the front for scale…

So how did all this sand get here?  Well it’s originally from South Africa- erosion on the coast- and is brought up in the current to Namibia where it washes up on the coast.  Then slowly but surely over millions of years the sand gets blown inland, creating what you see.  They’re a bit red from the iron content in the dune, which of course turns into rust.

This is Dune 45, so called because it is the 45th dune from the gate into the park and coincidentally 45km from the campsite.  At 170m it’s not the biggest dune or anything like that, but it’s got a good spine for tourists to climb up to watch the sunset (or sunrise for the particularly masochistic) but still conveniently close enough to the gate that you can make it out before the park is closed.

It turns out it’s surprisingly hard to climb up a sand dune by the way as your feet get really tired without having a good grip, but going down is very fun after you’ve watched the gorgeous sunset.  Basically you just barrel down as fast as you can manage taking care to lean a little backward if anything, and momentum gives you a great speed to keep going.

Another thing that was a true highlight of Sossusvlei was the Desert Walk, led by a slightly crazy Afrikaner pictured above. He is pictured as walking far ahead because this guy consistently power walked several meters in front of the group so that none of us thought keeping up his speed was possible.  While barefoot.

It’s kind of weird to say that going around to walk into the desert to learn about sand and bug tracks and whatever else was cool, but with a charismatic guide it really was.  Plus somewhere between showing us how to catch a lizard and how to coax a spider out of its nest I figured this guy would be great on Survivor Man: Namibia or something similar.

And this, ladies and gents, is my footprint in the sand.  I didn’t take this picture just because it was a lot easier to walk through giant dunes whilst barefoot, but because of the indigenous bushmen tribes who lived in the area.  Back then if you were a bushman (who were originally yellow-skinned and capable of eating 10kg of meat at a time) the first thing you learned as a child was how to identify your mother’s footprint in the sand, followed later of course by those of everyone else in your family.  Each person’s footprint is unique so later on in life if you’re wandering and happen to see those prints you will be able to meet up with long-lost relatives.  So just in case you ever get lost in the Namib desert and you spot this print, come say hi to me will you?

And because I thought it was interesting, it turns out the bushmen are called such because game runs if you get within 10m of it but their poison-tipped arrows were only good at closer range, so they’d fire from behind available bushes (or take their own bush with them if none was conveniently located).  They also gave Sossusvlei its name- back then all the whites who came up into this area would be shot and killed, and since none of them ever returned the name is really “dead man’s vlei.”

I know you hear it often, but one important thing to never forget about a desert is how even though it looks like nothing could survive out there lots of things cope and thrive, even if it means living 20 years without ever drinking liquid water.  What’s the coolest thing we saw?  How about a pair of ostriches with about 50 little ones between them!  It turns out in the wild ostriches wait until the rainy season every few years to have their young, and to maximize their offspring whenever two sets of proud ostrich parents meet they fight over who gets to keep the young.  Whoever wins gets the thankless task of raising the loser’s kids on the grounds that they are better prepared to protect them from predators, while the losers have the punishment of having to go off and make more ostrich chicks.

I know, ostriches are totally doing it wrong.  But more on them later, assuming I ever catch up enough to talk about my time on an ostrich farm in South Africa.

Namibia

Namibia is desert.  One long, neverending desert which takes days to cross on dirt roads.  You hardly pass a town or house a day for most of it it’s that empty, as at less than two people a square kilometer, Namibia is one of the least sparsely populated countries on Earth.  I’d never seen anything like it- for awhile I likened it to driving across Nevada until I realized there’s no way Nevada takes this long to get across and you run into some form of civilization every few hours at most.

The best thing about this desert is how amazing things keep turning up in it that you never would have expected.  Like how about the second-largest canyon in the world?

No one has ever heard of the Fish River Canyon, mainly because it’s in the middle of nowhere, Namibia.  If it was a bit more accessible I’m sure we’d all go on family vacations to see it, but frankly it’s a several days drive from anything so no one bothers except crazy overlanders.

A bit of the vertical scale in the canyon.  Compared to the Grand Canyon that is undoubtedly the more colorful one-  lots of reds there but none at all here- but other than that they’re pretty similar.  Sure the Grand Canyon is longer, but not like you can tell from the ground.

Another fun detail- you are so in the middle of nowhere that the rest of the world could be destroyed and you’d never hear of it.  How does the important news travel then?  You read about things like Michael Jackson dying on a chalkboard in a lonely petrol station miles from nowhere… two days after it happened…

The other chalkboard I rather liked here by the way kept track of the rain levels over the past two years.  2008 saw a whopping 5mm of rain but this year 183mm has fallen already, classifying it as a “rainy season.”

I keep saying there’s next to no one in Namibia, and while that’s true there are obviously a few native nomadic tribes in the area.  The most famous are the bushmen, hunter-gatherers whose numbers were tragically decimated by white settlers, but the Himba tribe has definitely been on a few National Geographic covers.  We ran into a few Himba ladies selling jewelry in a small town called Opuwo and bought a few bracelets from them- funny thing is I never wear bracelets but have taken to wearing my patterned one made of cow horn regularly.  And in case you were wondering yes, none of the Himbas wear any more clothing than this woman and the reddish color is from a spread of butter and ochre to thwart sunburn.

What a beautiful, strange country.

Rules of the Overland Road

Posted from the semi-real world of South Africa- hello everyone!

For those who may have not heard before, it turns out it’s hard to travel around the interior of Africa on your own in a way that doesn’t exist in other countries. Infrastructure is nil, public transport can be dodgy and not go where you want to go anyway, and I hope you’re a mechanic if you’re driving alone because if something breaks down you’re the one to fix it. So what is a young and/or crazy pair of lasses going to do? Join an overland safari, of course!

Basically about 30 other people plus guide, driver, and cook pile into a converted truck and get to experience every bump in the road for 7,000km from Cape Town to Victoria Falls (about twice that if you choose to go all the way to Nairobi). Tip #1: if you’re doing an overland safari, do not point out to people that the town of Victoria Falls is in Zimbabwe, as the Falls is bordered on the other side by Livingstone, Zambia. They will worry unnecessarily about you, but more on what it’s like later…

Anyway, one of the first things about overlanding you need to get used to is how you wake up really, really early every day because odds are you need to drive several hours (covering several hundred kilometers doesn’t go fast, plus odds are it’s a dirt road). I’m not particularly a morning person, so to make myself feel better I took a picture of brilliantly bright Venus in the pre-dawn sky, this particular picture over Spitzkoppe Mountain in Namibia.

And then you drive for a bit. The most random detail about our driving routine was how thoroughly obsessed everyone became with gossip magazines and the like- I can’t say I ever read a Cosmo or People all the way through, but I surely can’t say that anymore! The fact that our group was heavily skewed in the female direction surely didn’t hurt.Another pre-dawn picture, arguably looking the most tramp-like I ever have been. I know, I can’t believe there was a time when I’d get dolled up either! To explain the picture, it is awfully cold early in the morning as it’s currently wintertime (we had frost on the tent one morning in the desert), but it can heat up quite a bit by the middle of the day. Solution? Invest in knee-highs. Best socks ever!

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Speaking of tents, we slept in one almost nonstop for the past three weeks. Not to say camping isn’t fun, but beds still excite me. Laundry can be done about once a week, but you need to hand-wash bras throughout Africa yourself. Turns out they’re an extremely rare commodity in this part of the world so they’ll get stolen off the line or just plain go missing. And of course because this is camping everyone has to help out with something or another, the daily roster going between food prep and washup and the like. Everyone has to help out with “flapping” at the end of a meal though- it’s unsanitary to dry things with dish towels, so everything has to be air-dried by flapping your arms. Towards the end of the day it’s also a convenient excuse to warm yourself by the fire as well.

So that is overlanding. As to the things we saw whilst doing on this, let me begin the copious effort of catching up…

Out

Checking in from a place called Swapmokund, Namibia, pretty close to where we got this picture taken.  Going to be gone again from online, this time we’re not sure if there will be Internet again, but hope all is well and we’ll be back later to tell of our amazing adventures! (they involve jumping out of planes, giant sand dunes, quad bikes, and jackals trying to steal our shoes… stay tuned…)