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Out of Namibia 08/10/16

Out of Namibia 08/10/16

In my last post I talked about our 9 hour drive to Damaraland. Because we got our roads so wrong before the Tracks4Africa gps app came to the rescue, we drove to the Doro Nawas camp from the opposite direction than the one expected to be taken by visitors which meant that there were no signs for the camp on the sides off the road, we keep looking for them but never saw any, which given the overlong drive worried us considerably. One of the benefits of our wrong-way drive however was that it took us through parts of the country not usually traveled by visitors and over a mountain pass that was stunning, hairy driving but fabulous views. Our guide when we finally arrived couldn't believe that we made managed the drive in our vehicle, clearly a drive that is not normally taken by tourists.

Damaraland the region, and Doro Nawas our lodge, in neither case had any really compelling connections for us. Doro Nawas is reached by 4 or 5 kilometres of gravel road branching off the main gravel highway to a very rocky and wind-swept hill rising out of the dusty desert and about 40 or 50 metres high. The main lodge was perched on top and the various individual stone chalets scattered around the hillside. The 5k drive to reach it was unquestionably the worst piece of track that we have driven  in our entire trip. It was bone-shaking, teeth-rattlingly bad and while the gravel roads and highways are pretty pretty grim in places, corrugations really shaking the car, you can usually find an optimum speed that is not so slow that the car is is slowly being shaken into piles of bolts nor so fast that the bumps are minimized but the car is unsafe, slewing about on the gravel, but a happy and tolerable balance between the two. In the case of the Doro Nawas road there was no optimum manageable speed and we feared for the safety of the car as we pounded along it. Not a good introduction to the lodge, which is a Wilderness Camp, a brand for a number of camps throughout Southern Africa which like the &Beyond Camps is a guarantee of a high level of service and accommodation. Someone was not watching the store in the case of Doro Nawas and given the cost of the camp it was surprising that no attention was paid to the first impression that a camp creates, the road to the site. It quickly became clear that the road to the camp was not the only problem faced by the camp, the service was forgetful and unpleasant and the food less than compelling. Added to a fiercely windswept location with dust blown into every crack and crevice in cars, clothes and bags, it was not a case of gradually losing its charm, for me it had none to start with. The camp very much needs a strong hand on the tiller to pull it back into shape and provide some leadership. Example, each time we ordered anything we were asked for our room number. We had drinks at the bar, we had some laundry done and we ordered various things to be charged to our room and yet when we checked out our bill showed no charges. We had to painstakingly go though our charges so that they could enter them on our account and charge us. A quick way to run the business into the ground, enough said.

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Unfortunate because Damaraland was the homeland of the San people, more usually know as Kalahari/Namib Desert Bushmen. If anyone can remember the 1980's movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy", then you will remember that its central character was a San coming to terms with 20th century technology. We did spend an afternoon climbing over rocks to find San rock drawings, stunning images of animals chipped and etched into flat rock surfaces with only chunks of quartz as tools, the whole region is strewn with chunks of quartz of various sizes.

Once again first-world complaints about the service in the lodge while the whole of the vast, dusty, windswept, desert region, scorching by day and freezing by night provided complete and rich lives for the San people, nomads who owned nothing, had little in the way of technology, who had no permanent dwellings, but who could find food, water, shelter and artistic creativity in conditions that would kill any of us in days. 

Sorry to leave the San but happy to leave Doro Nawas we loaded our car for the drive to Swakopmund, a port and fishing city on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. 

Swakopmund surprised us. We had expected a provincial backwater, a slightly rundown and forgotten town on the edge of the world but instead found a surprisingly wealthy and sophisticated area with good restaurants and very expensive homes, 1,000,000 + Euros, the Muskoka for Windhoek, the capital city, as well as a wintering location for many Europeans.

Our home for 3 nights was the Desert Breeze Lodge, a quirky and eccentric set of individual stone units scattered around a very modernist designed property on the edge of huge rolling dunes, hundreds of metres high, on the edge of town, we really like it. In Swakopmund The restaurants were packed, reservations always needed and the food and wines unfailingly good. Because Namibia in general and Swakopmund in particular was settled by and was until recent times a German colony, the German influence is still very strong and many restaurant menus in the city and in the smallest restaurants in the smallest country villages, regularly included sauerkraut and schnitzel. Beer was very good however.

 Oyster at The Tug

Oyster at The Tug

For me there is a remaining myster about the town, the lack of lights in house windows. On our first evening as we drove across the city from our lodging to get to The Tug restaurant for dinner, I could not get over the feeling that we were in a Steven King novel. It was dark night at 7pm and yet as we drove there were very few cars on the roads and there was not a spark of light in any of the houses, hundreds of them, that we drove past. The city felt deserted, empty and very disconcerting.  I expected that, in keeping with the houses, the restaurant would be empty and we would be the only diners, and yet when we entered it was packed, noisy and full of life. This stark contrast remained throughout our stay and I can only imagine that it is standard for homes to cover all windows with blackout curtains but why? Certainly it cannot be the case that after dark everyone operates in the dark, yet these are the only two conclusions that could explain the darkened city and the eerie feeling of emptiness. Each house is secured with electric wire fences, many of these are not large walled properties but ordinary one-family homes sitting side by side in residential neighbourhoods, but for reasons that continue to mystify me, they are all closed, shuttered and dark.

 Dunes in Swakopmund from our hotel window

Dunes in Swakopmund from our hotel window

Susie, our trip planner from African Avenue and now a very good friend, had arranged a morning on a boat in Walvis Bay, about 40k south of Swakopmund and an afternoon exploring the dunes in Sandwich Harbour, south of Walvis Bay. We were picked up at 7:30 and headed down to Walvis to board our boat. The day was cool and the sky was heavily overcast, we had not seen blue sky since we crossed the hills edging the coast and the forecast was for fog and heavy clouds to continue for the duration of our stay. An aside, there is a strong cold current running up the western side of Africa from Antarctica, the Benguela Current, which is very rich in plankton and makes the region home to large quantities of fish as well as to various species of whale. It also produces dense fogs and overcasts as the cold air over the current hits the hot air from the desert which parellels the shore. You would imagine that the area, because of the fog and heavy clouds would be very wet and yet it an extremely dry region with less than 4mm of rain a year. In any event, we boarded our boat and headed out in the bay to see what we could find, and of course, hoping for whales. What we did see, at closer quarters, was a large number of oil rigs and tankers moored out in the approaches to bay. We had noticed them the previous afternoon but could not recall if there was oil in Namibia, and even if so, certainly not in the quantity to require 7 rigs in close proximity, just offshore, along with 15 or 20 tankers moored in rows near them. Our captain told us that they were Angolan, the country directly to the north of Namibia, and were moored off Walvis Bay to be serviced and mothballed, oil prices too low to make them economically viable, until the rise in the price of oil was sufficiently high to sail them back to Angola and put them back into production. The empty and seemingly abandoned ships were very much in keeping with my earlier experiences of Swakopmund at night.

Our morning on the water was a fun, did see whales, managed to get some shots, as well as porpoises swimming alongside and in front of our boat, effortlessly matching the speed of our two 175hp engines and then a without warning, shooting ahead of the boat to lose us in seconds. We completed our morning by eating quantities of oysters which are raised commercially in the bay and which we had enjoyed with our dinner the previous evening. They were plump, cold and of a very good size but not brassy and metallic like our West Coast oysters but sweet, creamy and briny and more akin to the East Coast oysters which we love.

One of the highlights of our trip was our afternoon exploration of the sand dunes that stretch from the sea in some places or as much as a couple of kilometres away from the sea in others, the area on which Swakopmund is built being one of these, and extend for 30 or 40 kilometres inland. Just south of Walvis Bay is Sandwich Harbour, an area where the dunes begin at the high water mark and extend for long distances inland. You should not think of these dunes as waves of sand 10 or 20 metres high but as mountains of sand 400 or 500 metres high, whose sand waves run parallel to the shore, each wave being separated from the one behind it further inland by valleys of sand hundreds of metres deep that must be climbed to get to the summit of the next sand wave.

 Sandwich Harbour from a dune summit

Sandwich Harbour from a dune summit

 Down into a dune valley

Down into a dune valley

 We spent about 5 hours in our 4x4 driven by our guide, not the kind of driving that can be done by someone not very experienced in navigating and safely traversing the vast expanse of sand seas. While the sand waves are the predominant feature there were occasional flatter portions of land with some scrub bushes and plants, particularly the !Nara plant which was the most important plant of the San as well as of many of the local peoples. The ! preceding the name indicates that it said with an initial click, a feature of many of the local languages which are filled with a variety of spoken clicks. Nara or Acanthosicyos horridus is an unusual melon that occurs only in Namibia. The nara plant is leafless, the modified stems and spines serve as the photosynthetic "organs" of the plant and the edible seeds are known locally as butterpips. The fruit serves as an essential food source and medicine for many people and animals from February to April and August to September. Because the plant is spiny many small animals shelter within its branches and the locals claim that any animal whose diet includes the plant is free from ticks and parasites. In these shrubby areas we saw oryx and some small jackals as well as ground squirrels and a very tiny gecko, completely transparent that lives in the sand with huge eyes without lids that the gecko must clean with his tongue. A really fascinating area. 

During our drive the fog disappated, the overcast lifted and we were treated a brilliant blue sky and hot sunshine. Back to our home in Swakopmund and a very good dinner at a restaurant before we left for our last stop in Namibia, Soussosvlei and then on to Jordan and Petra.

More to come when next I can rely on my wifi connection.

Out of Namibia 14/10/16

Out of Namibia 14/10/16

Namibia - More days