Friday, July 10, 2015

Namibia 2015

It was still dark when we landed, and coming off a very long red-eye, it was hard to grasp where we had actually arrived. The staple airport hassles, muted in those pre-dawn hours: the waits, the customs, the paperwork, the car rental - all standard procedure, all in the same accented English -  no different than anywhere else in the world we had been to.

It wasn't until we drove out of the airport, when the sun crested as a bloody disk over a dusty ridge in the distance, and the smoky vastness unfurled over our heads like a pair of wings that it hit us - we made it to the other side of the planet. Here, summer was winter, South was colder than North, the Atlantic was to the West, and driving was on the left side of the road. We were in Namibia, and the world had officially turned upside down.

Namibia had never been particularly high on our destination hotlist, but we stumbled upon it while exploring potential trips to Africa. It was one of the most flexible and affordable options. Being able to do a self-drive at our own pace - rather than an organized tour - was a big draw. The safety, stability and level of development of Namibia compared to some of its neighbors was another fat check-mark. Remembering that some of my top bucket list items were actually located in Namibia was the frosting on the cake.

And so, armed with nothing but a few vouchers and and some intrepid internet research, we traveled the 8,415 miles from Austin to Windhoek (not all at once, thankfully) to begin our latest adventure.

We booked with Expert Africa - an established operator working in several African countries. They worked with us to tailor our itinerary to exactly what we wanted to see and do, and when we had agreed on the route, booked everything for us: car, lodges, guest houses, and some side trips. I loved that it was so very customizable, and we basically got to design our own trip.

A word of caution to my American friends: this is not an option if you have a week to play with. It's not even really an option if you have two weeks, unless you commit to one part of the country. Namibia is quite large. It's larger than most European counties - twice the size of Germany, for example - and although there's much to see, it's all spread woefully far apart. The distances between destinations will eat into your holiday allowance like nobody's business. European visitors typically come for a month. American visitors... well, there aren't that many. We managed to see a lot in our 12 days/11 nights, but the trip would have been much improved by a slightly slower pace.

Our first stop was a lodge on the outskirts of Windhoek, nestled into the mountains, surrounded by wilderness: a magnificent home base to get acquainted with the area.

The lovely River Crossing Lodge
and the margaritas weren't bad, either.
We took a game drive in an open-top jeep and saw a ton of animals: zebras, wildebeests, oryx and springbock, warthogs, and most notably - a herd of giraffes not 20 feet away, grazing right on the road.

Just a few hours after arrival, we were surrounded by magnificent wildlife. How can you not love a country where you have untouched wilderness teeming with game, just 15 minutes outside the capital?! From Windhoek we headed South, towards Luderitz. On the way we stopped in a town of Keetmanshoop, where we found an unexpected surprise: a cheetah sanctuary.

We spent a few hours with these magnificent cats and learned a lot about cheetahs' fate in Namibia, which is not very good. Namibian farmers, who generally coexist happily with all endemic species, don't like the cheetah, because they kill more than they need. Unlike leopards, who prefer wild game and rarely attack livestock, cheetahs can devastate livestock herds. Maybe because they are built so differently from other big cats, but apparently they are just inefficient hunters. So, although killing them is illegal, it does go on quite a lot in Namibia, which is almost entirely farmland. More sympathetic farmers will trap them and hand them off to wildlife rescue, which is why cheetah rescue is quite common throughout the country.

meerkats share the pens with cheetahs, and neither animal seems to mind the other.

Cheetahs are definitely cats, but deep down inside, they would rather be dogs. They are the only cat with non-retractable claws. Their slim, wispy build and body language is reminiscent of a greyhound. They are a lot more comfortable with humans than other big cats. We were told they are the only large cat that will tolerate a human touching it while it is feeding.

dinner time, so let's all get in the pen with a hangry 150 pound predator, right?!

This center rehabilitates cheetahs that were trapped or injured by farmers. Some get released back into the wild while others stay on for life.

The big draw in Keetmanshoop, however, is the Quivertree forest. Quivertree - the national tree of Namibia, is by far one of the strangest and most beautiful plant-based lifeforms you will ever see. A whole forest of them, in the warm light of dusk, is a memorable experience indeed.

like something out of a whimsical dream.

From Keetmanshoop, we set out for Luderitz.

Driving is a big part of the adventure in Namibia. The drives are long, so having a large, comfortable car is pretty essential. The most typical car rented to tourists in Namibia is a white Toyota Hilux truck - a diesel-powered 4x4 beast, a la ISIS 2014. It seems like a bit of an overkill when you're driving on a smooth, paved road, but you will thank every god in the pantheon for that heavy-duty suspension once you hit pockmarked gravel.

South Namibia looks a lot like West Texas.
Every few miles along the road there is a rest stop. Usually just a tree, a picnic table and a trash can.

When it was time for a rest break, we would pull over and turn off the engine. The emptiness that swallows you when you quiet the car and stop moving is disorienting. There's nothing but the slight whistling of wind, an occasional song of a cicada, and miles of wide open space as far as the eye can see, under a blindingly ice-blue sky.

With a population density of >3 people per square kilometer, Namibia is one of the least populated countries in the world. When you're traveling between populated points, driving for hours without seeing a soul, it can feel like you're the last people on earth.

Not all roads in Namibia are this pristine. They all fall under a numbered classification system - B, C, or D. The Bs - like the one in these photos - are paved, beautifully smooth, straight as arrows, with ear popping speed limits. But there aren't a whole lot of them. The Cs are packed dirt - not terrible during the dry season, minus the dust, but somewhat hit or miss. Most of the roads are Cs. And the Ds, god bless them... luckily we didn't have to clock too many miles on the Ds, but the few that we did were traumatizing to both us and the car.

We would also later learn that Namibia is the most fenced country on earth. Something like 96% of the country's surface is fenced. The huge properties marked by all these fences are private farms, which specialize both in cattle, and wild game management. The business model is two-fold: farmers raise cattle for meat, and manage the wild animals that live on the tens of thousands of hectares that most of these farms represent. Most farms also have guest houses, and offer game viewing as an activity to their guests.

Eventually we made it to Luderitz, the largest settlement in Namibia's Southern territory, and still tiny by most standards. A coastal town of 12,000 people, Luderitz is tucked between the Namib Desert and the tempestuous waters of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Austere and Germanic, it straddles the slick, stony shores of Africa's least hospitable coast, and looks like a fishing town somewhere in Greenland might.

It was first "discovered" by Europeans in 1487 by Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese explorer who hammered a brutish, phallic iron cross into the cliffs, as European men are wont to do, and named it Angra Pequena (Small Bay). For the next few centuries, the area was explored in search of minerals, but none were found. It wasn't until the 19th century that it was bought by a German aristocrat named Adolf Luderitz, and a trading post was established, around which the town eventually grew. There was whaling, fishing, and the most lucrative industry of all - guano harvesting.

Yes, guano, otherwise known as bird shit, or White Gold, if you are a 19th century European. Nitrogen-rich guano was the fertilizer of choice to help feed the exploding European population, and droves arrived from the Old Continent to these hard and unforgiving shores to get rich by scraping shit from the rocks, which, as luck would have it, was up to 10 meters deep in some places. No joke.

This guano rush decimated the population of the indigenous African penguin, and many sea birds that rely on guano for their nesting habitat. Not that the Europeans cared. After they were done stripping the area clean, they discovered diamonds, which is when the area really boomed.

At Dias Point, Luderitz, Namibia

the famous Dias Cross is a little anti-climactic, but fits in well with its surroundings.
It was so damn cold and windy that day, I had to prop myself up just to keep from being blown over into the water. But we did see a lot of dolphins playing in the water below.
Shipwreck remnants. A typical sight around these parts.

A strata of black rock amid a sea of sand.
between the desert and the sea.
It's strange to see flamingos, typically a tropical bird, in the frigid waters of the south Atlantic, but they seem quite happy here, and there's certainly a lot of them.
The view from Shark Island. This was a concentration camp used by the German Empire in the early 20th century during the genocide of the Herrero people. Between 1 and 3 thousand Herero and Namaqua people died in the camp during its operation, 1905-1907. Today Shark Island is home to a campground and offers beautiful panoramic views of Luderitz.
There is a certain stark beauty to Luderitz, the way German colonial architecture is anchored in the bald bedrock, the muted bustle of the port, and the severe, imposing surrounding landscape.

View of the Felsenkirche church

inside the Felsenkirche, with original German stained glass.

It's funny to see the contrast between such stately architecture and unpaved streets.
Taking some selfies by night. July night time temps hover near freezing.

If Namibia is an offbeat destination, Luderitz is one of its least visited corners, something we were aware of when we built our trip. We likely would not have made it this far south, except for one reason:


Kolmanskop has been a bucket list item of mine for many years, ever since I stumbled upon it in my feverish research into ghost towns, with which I have an obsessive fascination.

Just a few minutes outside Luderitz, Kolmanskop grew around the newly discovered diamond mines, in the 1920s. This crazy conglomeration of structures - some absolutely palatial, others more utilitarian, look like they were dropped haphazardly into the dunes by a a DeBeers-commissioned tornado.

The area was so rich in diamonds, that - story has it - you could go outside and see them glitter right on the surface. Workers would actually crawl on their bellies side by side, wearing face masks (less to protect them from the sand than to prevent them from swallowing the loot), and collect them right off the surface.

For a time, Kolmanskop was the wealthiest town in Africa, as diamond fever brought scores of prospectors and laborers to the area. The amenities were luxurious, considering the circumstances and location: there was a ballroom, a casino, an ice factory, an x-ray machine (again, mostly to detect ingested diamonds rather than for any healthcare purposes), a hospital, and a tram.

The town was abandoned in the 40s after the diamonds dried up, and was quickly reclaimed by the dunes of the Namib.

Today you can visit this fantastical little piece of history on a guided tour, and crawl through the crumbling mansions and civic buildings, most of which are still standing only because the sand inside them is holding them up. Tours are provided courtesy of NamDeb (Namibia-DeBeers), who still operates the area.

A couple of homes are kept in original condition. The tours begin here, so you can get a feel for what life was like during the town's heyday before venturing out into what was once the street, to see the desert in the process of slowly digesting this errant human endeavor.

all household items are original to the town, and they are arranged in a way that looks like the homes are still inhabited. There are even containers of non perishables still standing in a couple of pantries, as if the residents are just away on holiday.
The Hospital.

The spaces are hauntingly beautiful, with a lovely kind of sadness about them, a melancholy unique to abandoned cities. Tours are not crowded, so it's not unusual to have a whole house to yourself, enjoy the silence, and examine the play of light and shadow, and ribbons of animal tracks that criss-cross the sand.

Just a few miles away, the desert meets the ocean along a stretch of beautiful and completely deserted waterfront known as Agate beach. Of course it was too cold to swim, but we enjoyed some beach-combing. The surf and solitude provided just the right mood to transition from Kolmanskop back into the real world.

Bucket list item: check.

Before leaving Luderitz behind, we hopped aboard a catamaran on our last morning there, for a tour of the Harbor, and to see the penguin colony on Halifax island.  There's a spattering of uninhabited islands throughout the harbor, all protected area, to help the penguins and seabirds re-establish their colonies after the devastation of guano harvesting.

A beautiful calm morning at sea.
view of the town from the harbor
This playful guy took a time out from basking in the sun to wave to us as we passed by.
A school of bottle-nosed dolphins chased the ship.

These abandoned structures housed guano workers, though today you won't see anyone but an occasional penguin on the stoop. No one can set foot on the islands anymore, but the tours glide by slowly, close enough that you can see the details of the rough life lived by former inhabitants on these bleak and barren shores.

Though we saw this scene a lot during our time in Luderitz, this turned out to be the only picture we took where you can see flamingos and penguins in the same shot. It seems crazy, but their ranges do meet here.

What a bunch of jackasses!

The colony of jackass penguins is only a fraction of what it once was, but is still a pretty impressive thing to see, once you get past the smell that wafts above the entire island. They are loud, brash, and curious, and have no qualms about approaching the ship to give their visitors a mighty side-eye.

It was good to see an area devastated by human greed for resources stand protected and recovering. But as with all good things, this one doesn't look poised to last. Energy companies are vying to begin offshore drilling and mining the area, and despite tremendous, organized pushback from the Namibian people, our boat captain seemed fairly convinced that it was only a matter of time before the barges and platforms arrived.

Did I mention that it was stupid cold? The blankets and hot chocolate were just enough to keep me from keeling over.
A parting shot of Kolmanskop on our way out
After paying a visit to the penguins, it was time to hop back into our ISIS-mobile, and head back North to warmer climes. Next stop - Namib-Naukluft National Park.

1 comment:

  1. As always it's a pleasure to read the notes and to enjoy the views of unknown country. You provide so many interesting facts and observations that it makes the reader to feel that place. And I have to mention that you two are brave enough to chase the ghosts and drive through deserts. Thanks a lot for sharing your travel experience with those who probably would never put Namibia on a travel list.