Thursday, July 23, 2015

Bullsport, Swakopmund and Windhoek

A family of kudus on our game drive at Bullsport
Bullsport - that's Bulls-port, not Bull-sport thankfully, is a guest farm in a remote region of Namibia run by a husband and wife team: Ernst & Johanna. Ernst is a native Namibian, while Johanna, a renowned horse breeder, is a German who moved here to live with her husband. Together they run the whole operation at Bullsport, a huge chunk of land (tens of thousands of hectares, though I don't remember the specifics), offering riding lessons, hiking, camping, game drives, and general relaxation for lazy bums like us. The farm has a sizable staff - at least a dozen people cooking, cleaning, taking care of the horses - and a nice, even buzz of activity that complements the tranquil and beautiful setting created for the guests.

Sadly we spent only one night in their lovely company, but it was a very memorable night indeed. What made it so was not the stunning scenery and abundant wildlife - we had grown accustomed to that in Namibia by then - but rather the opportunity to really get to know our hosts. Johanna and Ernst serve dinner to their guests every evening, and join them for the meal, making for a truly home-like experience. For us, it meant an opportunity to speak at length and frankly with Namibians about all the issues we had developed questions about by this point in the trip. Although it would be dry to rehash in writing conversations had over a dinner table, for both Flo and me our experience at Bullsport stands out as one of the most interesting dinners of our lives.

A ride in the mountains on Johanna's prized horses (in which I almost die when my horse decides to gallop).

After this all-too-short stop, we headed west to Swakopmund. Being a beach city, Swakop was a pleasure town in colonial days, though frankly I failed to see the appeal. The Southern Atlantic shore is stark, and the ocean moody, but maybe when your only other options are the Baltic and the North Sea, even this is appealing as a beach getaway. Don't get me wrong, Swakopmund certainly has its own charm and a casual, laid back vibe, exacerbated by the sparse crowds of winter's low season.

The Jetty - the pride and joy of Swakopmund. It is super long, and serves as the town's ultimate place for fishing, dining, hanging out, and people watching.
beautiful pastel sunset from a restaurant at the end of the pier.

The big to-do item when in Swakopmund - if you're not here to swim in the grizzly waters, of course - is kayaking with seals. Eco Marine Kayak Tours - run by Jeanne, a boisterously chatty South African emigree, packs a minivan full of tourists and kayaks every morning, and sets out on a - let's call it adventurous - drive to Pelican Point, where everyone hangs out with thousands of Cape Fur seals for a day.

Now, pretty much since the day we booked the trip, this was something I was both anticipating and dreading, probably in equal amounts. Anticipating for obvious reasons, because it's freaking awesome, and dreading because we had to get up at 4-fucking-am while it was still pitch black and blood-curdling cold outside, and crawl into a thousand layers in anticipation of launching a kayak into stupid cold winter Atlantic Ocean waters. I am a notorious wimp when it comes to cold, and I ain't gonna lie - I was kinda freaking out about this. 

In retrospect, it wasn't that bad.

The drive itself is worth the price of the tour. We drove through salt mines along unpaved flooded roads made of packed salt, through endless flocks of flamingos and eventually, wet, packed sand that stretches as far as the eye can see in almost every direction. 

Jeanne cheerfully informed us that people attempting to reach the seal colony on their own get stuck here every damn day, and have to be pulled out by rescuers. On one side, we could see the shore, already lined with seals at times, scattered with ship wrecks, and gigantic offshore drilling platforms looming on the horizon. A heavy, leaden sky completed a scenario that felt downright otherworldly.

When we arrived to our destination, we climbed into enough water-proof gear to look like someone auditioning for Deadliest Catch.

And then, into the water we went!

For all my first-world pant-shitting, it turned out to be an amazing adventure. The seals - thousand of them - jump off the shore and head for the kayaks as soon as they come into view. The kayakers don't feed them - in fact, that's strictly forbidden - but, it turns out, these seals are just as playful and curious as puppies! They come up to the kayaks, peeking out of the water, studying the occupants, sniffing paddles, flying under and jumping over, occasionally even climbing on! They study water bottles that are offered up for their observation, and you'd swear they try to speak hooman using that hilarious growl-bark of theirs. 

We spent probably 2+ hours in the water, hanging out with those slippery, fat fart-machines, and it felt like a minute, we had that much fun. Definitely a life-long memory and an animal encounter you don't have to feel remotely guilty about, which is so, so rare these days. Highly, highly recommended.

Back on land, we once again enjoyed the scenery of the drive, this time in full daylight, and could see just how many flamingos inhabit these waters. Endless flocks of Greater and Lesser flamingos flaunted their lanky beauty for us to enjoy.

It would be very, very tough to beat this experience, especially on the same day! But, undeterred, we decided to try, so in the afternoon we went dune riding.

Riding on dunes is like riding on an ocean that froze mid-storm. Flying up and down the infinite rise-and-fall of monumental mountains of sand is a feeling that eludes description, but brings on goose bumps through its very memory. It's just a little terrifying - my heart dropped as I flew down the steep walls, wheels digging into the sand at times, sending me jerking sideways as the motor roared in protest. I can vividly remember the sun breaking through the clouds here and there, allowing me a peek of the dimensionality of these colossal sand waves, which was incredible, if a little unsettling. And I remember the freezing emptiness of it all, the uninterrupted permanence of this place, silence pierced only by wind and the motor of the buggy as I passed through, an inconsequential speck in their existence.

The dunes change a little every day, shaped by the wind. These happen to be particularly rich in iron ore. Our group leader wrote this sign by hand just by dragging a magnet through the sand for a few seconds and then streaming the iron powder through his fist.

We asked him why no one mines the iron when it's so readily available. He said it was because that would destroy the dunes. I have never heard the argument "that would destroy the environment" stop anyone in extractive industries, but I was happy to take that explanation for once.

Before heading back to Windhoek we took a day trip to the Moon Landscape

This harsh landscape was formed hundreds of millions of years ago when layers of granite deposits pushed through the Earth's crust and formed a mountain range. The mountains have eroded down to the base, and were further sculpted by rivers, into what they are today. The area is also called The Badlands, which I thought was just oh-so-poetic and Namibian, somehow.

The Badlands are a national park. Every morning this area is completely covered by mist, which allows a whole host of lichen species to flourish and cover every surface.

This stretch of desert is also home to Welwitschia mirabilis, a unique desert plant. A single plant can live for thousands of years. The ones we saw were over 1500 years old. The plant grows only 2 leaves in its lifetime, leaves that continue to grow throughout its entire life. 

Each plant is surrounded by a rock circle and identified as male or female. They are a big deal, people.

Our final day in Namibia was spent in the capital, Windhoek. Windhoek is hardly a tourist destination, which is one reason it's worth seeing, even if briefly. It is a neat, quiet, clean, orderly, and lovely little city full of parks. There's not much "shopping" or other amusements meant for the casual visitor, but we didn't find ourselves feeling out of place as we walked around. It was a workday,  people went about their business, and despite our curious expressions and the giant camera dangling from my neck, we were actively ignored, which was lovely, as it gave us a chance to observe.

One notable stop is the Independence Memorial Museum. It is an utterly mind-boggling construction from the outside, possibly because it was designed and built by North Koreans, who were a major ally to Namibia during its fight for independence. I'm not gonna lie - as you approach the building, it looks garish and laughable. Inside though, it is a very well planned-out, informative and somber story of Namibia's history, a worthy monument to remembering.

The North Korean influence is strong even inside, in the museum's murals and graphics, which is quite startling to see!

Namibia's recent history is a harsh and bloody one. Like every other African country they have suffered more than their fair share of oppression, exploitation and abuse by more powerful nations. And yet today, Namibia is one of Africa's most stable and peaceful countries. 

Wherever we went, we felt genuinely welcomed and well-received. The level of amenities (like accommodations, service, food) was honestly spectacular, it is very clear that real investment is being made in attracting tourism, and in being a part of the global community in many other ways. I've never been to sub-Saharan Africa prior to this, so didn't know quite what to expect, but Namibia - with its wonderfully friendly people,its startling, alien landscapes, and a no-fuss blend of indigenous and colonial cultures - delighted me and won a place in my heart. I hope to return and learn more someday.

Friday, July 17, 2015


After another pretty but interminable drive, we arrived at our next destination, the Soussus Dune Lodge in Namib-Naukluft National Park. Like the National Parks back home, Namib-Naukluft did not disappoint in its beauty and grandeur.

The lodge itself was a pleasant surprise - an off-grid eco resort made up of dozens of individual huts connected by an elevated wooden pathway, in what made me think of those famous resorts in the Maldives, just without water.

We arrived with only a couple of hours of daylight to spare, just enough time to take a short sunset hike to the rim of the canyon a few yards beyond the lodge, indulge in some fine South African vino with dinner, and settle in for some trippy stargazing.

Here - in this remote corner of a remote country, the night sky was the kind of apparition you can't accept as real even as you're watching it with your own two eyes. We sat on our porch for hours, listening to the animals taking turns at a nearby water hole, and just staring... staring with our heads thrown back.

The next day we had at leisure, so, as the cold night melted into a hot, dusty day, we - assuming our most convincing rugged outdoorsmen personas - set our to explore the park, its varied landscapes of canyons, mountains, and giant sand dunes. It is a vast and lonely place, the distances and scales of things create disorienting optical illusions out of the landscape, playing tricks on weary eyes.

The circles covering the side of the dune are called "fairy circles" and they don't have an official explanation. No seriously - I actually looked it up. There are hypotheses about what causes them, but no official accepted theory.
It takes a lot longer than expected to reach anything. You could say, "let's go walk up to that tree over there, and half an hour later it's still a mile away. Everything just messes with your sense of scale.

Close up view of a fairy circle. They too are larger than they look: those tracks through the middle are ours.

In the late afternoon we explored Sesriem Canyon, a tall and narrow gorge that served as a river bed for millions of years. Though no river runs through it anymore, it holds rain water year-round in its nooks and crevices. It's a magnificently sculpted place. In some parts you have to crawl using every limb, through narrow and undulating holes in the stone...

 Then all at once it opens up wide and even. It is a truly wild and beautiful spot.

After a day exploring on our own, it was time to join a tour to Namib Naukluft's most famous attraction: Soussusvlei. After Kolmanskop, Soussousvlei - or, more specifically Deadvlei - was the next big bucket list item on my itinerary. I'm going to stop throwing so many foreign unpronounceable words out in a row, I promise.

This tour is only available to people staying in the park proper, because it begins with a 4am wake up call. Picture this: there is an anonymous pounding on your cabin door as you awake in pitch darkness, long after the generators are turned off for the night, and long before the sun is due to make an appearance on the horizon. You hear the other tour goers waking up in the cabins around you and lights flicking on as people begin to get ready. As it turns out, your particular cabin's lights took a sick day. You have 20 minutes until rendez-vous at reception, and it is DARK up in this joint. Stevie Wonder in a cave dark. Zero lumens dark. Good luck finding a flashlight dark. As you claw around helplessly for a cell phone, a flashlight, please-god-any-kind-of-light-source in an unfamiliar room, you think to yourself that this adventure is off to a fun start! Also our toilet didn't work, but!... as we sped towards the main building, sleepy, grumpy, and late, a huge white owl landed on the railing of the walkway we were running on, just a few steps ahead of me. Completely silent and easily a foot tall, it appraised us coolly with its giant yellow orbs as we stood frozen in our tracks, before flying off. These are the kinds of moments in which Namibia took my breath away.

But back to the trip. The place we were heading to is called Soussusvlei. Soussusvlei is a sea of sand - a stormy red sea with waves frozen hundreds of feet high. The highest sand dunes in the world, the foothills of the Namib desert - the oldest desert in the world.

The bus ride took about half an hour, and it was still pitch-dark when we parked. By the time we approached the dunes on foot, the faintest trace of purple had spread in the east, and as we started our trek uphill along the long sharp spine of the dune, a washed out gray light began to spread. It was cold and silent, and the air was still...

There are moments that happen on my travels - and only on my travels - when a span of several minutes is scored into my brain, transferred from impression to long term memory bank as if by a synesthesia-powered screen print. The minutes in Soussusvlei just before the sun rose - and the few minutes after - is one such event, an experience I will remember forever in rich detail.

Once the sun appeared, the flat gray light dissolved into a tapestry of warm hues. The sand under our feet - fine as talcum powder - sparkled in shades of orange, gold, and red, while the dunes in the distance lit up in purple, lilac and magenta hues.

It unfolded before our eyes - every moment different, every one more beautiful than the last. I remember not being able to speak, not wanting to, really, but feeling instead an immense sense of wonder and gratitude for this moment, and being able to participate in it.

It was hard to tear myself away from the sunrise, but eventually I made my way down the side of the sand mountain to the valley below, the dead valley, or Deadvlei. Eons ago a river flowed through these parts, and watered a valley full of of Acacia trees. When the desert moved in and the river dried up, the trees died. Thousands of years later their gnarled and twisted forms still stand, surrounded by tall red sentinels. And when the light from the morning sun falls just so...

with some humans for scale
The shadow line moving like a razor blade across that packed white floor.

It wasn't without a twinge of regret that we left Soussusvlei behind. Of all the marvels our little planet has shown me so far, my early morning hours spent in Soussusvlei stand out as one of the most incredible.

And, as if the whole experience wasn't already amazing enough, our guides treated us to an amazing breakfast at the foot of the dunes. It was one of those days I wish I could re-live a time or two.

After that, it was time to bid adieu to this marvel of nature's engineering, and get back on the road, for more adventure lay ahead. Next stop - Bullsport.