Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Namibia – Enter Sand, man!

December 29-31

Hello everyone!

Namibia’s landscape is vast and diverse. From the mountains of Damaraland to the pan of Etosha, the background seems to change every day. The setting with which many associate Namibia, however, is this:

Deserts generally cover a vast area. We saw the Trans-Namib desert in two places: Swakopmund and Sossusvlei.

Swakopmund is Namibia’s second biggest establishment (apparently Windhoek is the only city so it is still a town) and self-styled adventure capital. Most of the dunes here are a rather large, red-tinted playground.

The first part of our morning in the town also known as ‘Swakop’ was spent quad biking and hunting for insects. We found spiders and a gecko with a transparent body whilst cruising along the sand.

The other activity we did was one I’ve been desperate to try ever since deciding to go to Namibia: sand boarding.

A fairly minimalist activity, this is the warm version of the skeleton bob event seen in the Winter Olympics. The tea tray used in that event is replaced by a piece of balsa wood.

Once you have scaled the peak of the dune (not an easy task in itself), you wax your board to smooth the lower surface, lay it on the hot sand, place your knees on the back, raise the front corners with your hands and kick.

The rush is incredible. Your board picks up speed quickly, making it increasingly difficult to hold up the front. The consequences of your board flattening are severe for your mouth as it gets filled with sand. This happened to me twice in four of my runs, once pretty badly.

In spite of the early and very dry lunch, I can safely say that sand boarding is one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. I absolutely loved the speed. It took a long time for my heart rate to recover, such as the thrill of the devilish descent.

They may both have mounds of sand but Swakop and Sossusvlei are two totally different beasts. With its rugged coastline and Atlantic breeze, multiple layers of clothing are needed in the former; in the latter, you ideally want to wear as little as possible due to the searing heat of the interior. And you certainly aren’t allowed to sand board down these dunes.

This is the location of the perfectly photogenic sand dunes you may see if you search for Namibian landscapes on particular internet search engines. Driving there from Windhoek is a toasty and long affair, though some of the views on route are pretty spectacular.

Some of the reddish sand emanates from the Kalahari Desert due to a westerly wind and the river which occasionally flows when the country has had rainfall. It’s not often – there was no river when we visited. The grey tint which can sometimes be seen adorning the dunes is actually mud from the river.

The river bed is bone dry, with cracks prevalent all over its shimmering white floor. Shrubs are seldom found in this barren land, even though we found plenty of tracks suggesting wildlife and spied three ostriches as we walked through the valley.

The river used to reach the Atlantic but now ends in Sossusvlei. The ever-expanding dunes have cut off some access to the river, resulting in the ‘death’ of various parts of the desert. The starkest example of this is at Deadvlei: literally, ‘dead marsh’.

Some of the sun-scorched, blackened trees in Deadvlei are up to 800 years old, something which I struggled to comprehend as I trudged across the vast expanse of lifelessness. The searing heat, which was intense as I’ve ever experienced with the exception of Las Vegas, may have drained my mind of the ability to make sense of what I was seeing.

Sossusvlei is famed for its stunning sunrises. They don’t disappoint.

I’m more of a sunset person though. The previous evening I had driven with a friend to Elim, a dune near the gate of the national park. Joined by a pair of oryx, we watched the sun disappear behind these imperious sandy hills.

Two completely different locations within the same country with one common feature: striking scenery filled with iron-tinted sands. Beautiful and thrilling places in which to end 2016.

Love you all


Namibia – Forget pop art, I like rock art!

December 26-28

Hello everyone!

Namibia is a huge country, twice the size of Germany. Before Boers, Brits and Germans started annexing territory from the middle of the nineteenth century, the land which is now known as Namibia had been controlled by many different ethnic communities over the course of human history. Evidence of their existence and way of life is particularly visible in the region known as Damaraland.

A member of the Himba ethnic community

Rock engravings at Twyfelfontein

Though an ethnic group in their own right, the main visits in this area had little to do with the Damara people. One of the more famous – certainly more photographed – ethnic groups are the Himba, who have links with the Herero group which rebelled and were subsequently massacred by the Germans at the start of the twentieth century. They are semi-nomadic by nature and are almost exclusively located in the northwest of Namibia, near the Angolan border.

Most Himba live north of this point, near the Angolan border

One Himba group, however, is based south of Etosha National Park, and it was this village that we visited to learn a little bit more about their way of life and the meanings behind some of their fashion choices.

The pit in the middle of the village, where livestock is
protected from predators such as jackals

The fire is a key place of worship

There are 26 indigenous women and 6 indigenous men who live in this village: Himbas are polygamous. 39 children are also present in the village, which operates primarily to help orphans or Himba families with no money.

The hair is bound using ochre

It wasn’t a true cultural experience (the villagers were clearly used to having foreigners asking to take photos of their hair) but interesting nonetheless.

A Himba lady preparing to show us how they shower - smoke
under the armpits

Great creativity in the school's classroom -
a light using a plastic bottle and a hole in
the roof

The territory, sparse and arid, seems to offer no signs of life for a long period of time when you’re on the road. Probably a geologist’s paradise with all of the incredible rock formations, it often seems like the landscape belongs to another planet. So much of Namibia is like that but it would arguably be a different planet for each part of the country. Then suddenly a giraffe will appear at the side of the road and you’re reminded of where you are.

A fairly common sight in Namibia: the great open road

Giraffes grazing in the sunshine

Damaraland is also the home of Twyfelfontein, unfortunately not linked with Wales in any way despite its Welsh-looking name. It actually means ‘Doubtful Fountain’, one of the stranger name explanations I’ve heard, due to the fact that farmers in the 1940s were never sure if the springs would have water.

These rocks take the shape of a foot if you use
your imagination

What Twyfelfontein does have is Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which are sets of rock engravings dating from in excess of 2000 years ago. Amazingly, they are in the open, exposed to weathering from the wind and erosion from the rain, yet have survived for all this time.

Possibly an elephant or kudu

A variety of animals - the one on the right may be a seal

As our rather snappy guide (I do enjoy it whenever I ask a question and the response is, “Because I said so,” without further explanation) led us around the site, we saw a wide range of animals encountered by the San people who were known to live in this area at the time the engravings were created.

An engraving of a giraffe

The engravings have survived weathering
and erosion for thousands of years

The penguins and seals were particularly interesting as it suggests that members of the group had travelled a very long distance to reach the sea where these creatures are based. The large set of engravings is thought to be a map of where these animals were located.

A potential penguin

Possibly a map of an area with watering holes and animals

This region has had a torrid and turbulent last 200 years and the ethnic groups within its boundaries have suffered greatly at the hands of others. The opportunities we had in Damaraland are a reminder of what these cultures have provided the global village we currently live in.

Love you all