Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lions and Elephants and Giraffes, Oh My!

Game parks in all the countries we’ve been to so far consist of self-guided drives in your own vehicle on designated roads that often go to water holes and/or you can pay for a safari.  Now that we have Good Sport, our trusty two-wheel drive Renault Sandero, we opted for the cheaper self-guided tour of Etosha National Park and had one of the best times ever, since we didn’t get trampled by elephants or eaten by lions.  You’d think it’s so easy to just drive around all day and stop at water holes to look for animals but there is an odd stress involved in trying to sight the animals and trying to avoid pot holes, and just like with any sort of travel, even though you just sit there it is an utterly exhausting experience.  The roads were actually in good condition considering all the rain Namibia had earlier this year, nothing like the washboard hell of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa.

Game viewing is largely boring because you spend a lot of time just looking for animals.  While we certainly had many of those moments in Etosha, we had lots of incredible animal viewing to make up for it.   Up until now I had barely seen a giraffe and was being to wonder if they were an incredible hoax that I’ve fallen for all these years.  Not to worry, that conspiracy theory has been proved false.  The best thing about giraffes is watching them drink. There were also lots of elephants, zebras, springbok, wildebeest, and many other animals to keep us constantly taking pictures.

Yes Virginia, there really are giraffes. (Anne doesn't think anyone will get this Miracle on 34th Street reference but my money is on my family to get it.)


Lunchtime - the thorns on these trees, even after being digested and excreted by an elephant, are still strong enough to puncture a tire.
One problem for me in particular while on these game drives is the lack of available toilets.  While they are randomly placed throughout the park, sometimes they are not always there when needed, and the cardinal rule while game viewing in places with lions and rhinos is to never leave your vehicle.  We had a free map showing the roads, water holes, and bathrooms from a tourist information stand which was good because we didn’t get one upon entering the park.  I really had to pee at one point so we headed for the nearest bathroom on our map.  When we got there, no bathroom was in sight.  It was a long drive back to the campground and really, what are the odds that an animal will actually attack you in that short a time, so logically Anne said, “well, you could just get out of the – are those lions?”  The answer to this rhetorical question was yes, those were lions.  Right when I really needed to pee.  Two lionesses just happened to be walking through the area, so we gawked and took some photos, and then they walked out of eye sight, and then I still had the bathroom dilemma.  The good news is that I was not attacked by lions while squatting next to the car.

Scene of bathroom dilemma.
Inside the park there are one or two main roads with many side roads leading to water holes.  While we had four days in the park, time is still of the essence and we couldn’t go to every one of them.  Sometimes it’s more of a whim, “want to go to this one?” “Sure” or “it’s kind of far and that road doesn’t look good.”  Our last day in the park one of the water holes ended up being a “sure”.  Luckily.  We were about two kilometers into the five kilometer drive when we stopped to watch a giraffe eating very close to the road. We were there for about five minutes when out of nowhere we heard this deafening trumpeting sound from behind.  I looked in the rear view mirror as a herd of elephants was approaching us from behind, so I quickly turned on the car and drove forward a kilometer or so where we again stopped to watch another giraffe eating.  We saw what appeared to be six or seven giraffes in the distance conveniently located where the road ahead curved, so we prepared to move forward just as a truck passed us.  We followed the truck a few hundred meters around the curve until it had to stop because a huge bull elephant was walking down the road.  The truck waited a few minutes and then in a surprisingly brazen move, decided to try to pass the elephant slowly.  It crept up next to the bull as Anne and I commented on what an idiot he was, when suddenly it turned towards the truck with a trumpeting noise for a show down.  At least there were a few seconds we thought there was going to be a show down, and there would have been no question whatsoever who the winner would be.  Luckily for the truck and its five occupants (three of whom were children – seriously), the elephant didn’t charge but turned back after this warning and kept strolling down the road.  

Here we sat for about ten minutes all the while waiting for this bull to saunter on, hoping the group of giraffes wouldn’t leave first, and before the herd of elephants behind us caught up.  It was quite intimidating to realize that we were actually quite trapped.  The vegetation was too thick to get off the road more than a few feet and we were boxed in by elephants, one of whom already wasn’t in the mood for cars.  

The giraffes we didn't want to miss waiting for the bull to move on.
After a few minutes the bull quietly moved into the woods followed by seven giraffes before the herd behind us caught up.  Relieved, we decided to move on to the water hole to await their hopeful arrival.  In less than 10 minutes the herd of about 13 elephants showed up.  The point where we were situated had the water hole directly in front of us, the road behind us, and the herd’s entrance point was through the woods on our right.  It was amazing watching them walk out of the woods, one after the other, and getting to see how big the bulls were and how small the babies were, and guess at the ages of those in between.  Baby elephants really are the most adorable creatures in the world.  They just look so miniature with their tiny trunks and playful natures.

The herd gathered around the water hole and it was interesting to watch the group dynamics.  Some of the smaller ones would try for a spot at the hole and be chased off by bigger ones, and we were just staring at legs and trunks and the elephant’s ears flapping, and then suddenly one of the baby elephants fell into the water hole.  All hell broke loose for a little while and you could completely sense the worry in the mother and some of the other older elephants while it tried to get out.  There was a lot of trumpeting and commotion from the bystanders while the poor little guy was trying to pull himself out before he figured out he could just walk out the other side.

Little Billy and his fall.
As this bit of excitement was resolved, to our right in the same path as the other herd, came strolling out ANOTHER herd of elephants, about 15 in total ranging in all sizes.  This second herd walked up to the water hole and they all kind of hung around saying hello for a little while, asking what they thought of the cool weather, before the first group slowly queued up at the end of the woods and walked off in a different direction.  There were lots of impala around (medium sized ungulates) and I was surprised how nonchalant they were about the presence of so many elephants.  The elephants seemed indifferent to them, except for one extraordinarily curious impala that almost had to square off against an elephant.

Second herd of elephants emerging from the woods.

Elephant-Impala Showdown.
In the meanwhile, those seven giraffes from earlier arrived at the water hole, and they brought friends.  Giraffes are rather timid so I was surprised they would come to drink with so many elephants, but this water hole actually had two separate holes and all of the elephants drank out of the farther one, and the giraffes and impala used the other.  The giraffes would come up in groups of 1-4 to take a drink and then step away and perhaps wander back in the woods or perhaps stand around for a while.

Every time we thought about moving on, another animal would show up - more elephants, giraffes, eland, warthogs, what have you.  Right when things started to get boring ANOTHER herd of about 15 elephants started walking out of the woods from the exact same path the others had taken.  The herds reacted similarly as the last two that met at the water hole, “oh hello, I haven’t seen you in so long,” “little Suzanne sure has gotten big,” “yes, and she’s so sure-footed, not like Molly’s little Billy.  He fell in the water hole just before you got here.  I couldn’t believe it, how embarrassing.”  Or something like that, but it seemed very cordial and social.   
Third herd of elephants emerging from the woods.
While we were absorbed in this, all of a sudden my eye caught something in the rear view mirror and from a different path on the left side of our car three huge, and I mean HUGE, bulls came slowly out.  It was the closest I ever hope to be to an elephant, especially one of that size.  The first two moved on a bit, but the third one kind of hung out near us for a little while and my only solace was that the first elephant was closer to the other truck than the third one was to us.  It was a small comfort but I hung on to it while we talked about whether we should move the car or if the noise and movement would be unwelcome.  Ultimately we decided to wait it out and luckily the three bulls moved on to the water hole to hear about little Billy who fell in.

Evil stare-down from one of the bull elephants.

Procession to the watering hole.

Most adorable animals ever.

Eland (foreground), elephants, and giraffes.

All told, we sat at the water hole for two hours and saw about 45 elephants, 20 giraffes, three zebras, three eland, three warthogs, and numerous impala.  And we didn’t get trampled by a single elephant.

The campgrounds inside the park all have floodlit water holes so we took our Kindles and spent hours there in the evenings.  Although none of the photos turned out, we saw five rhinos, a hyena, and three leopards.  It was awesome.

Banded Mongoose (geese?)

Play Time.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Skeleton Coast

Skeleton Coast
When asking people about the Skeleton Coast, including people at tourism information and promotion centers, they usually say that it’s windy, desolate, boring and we shouldn’t bother going north of the Cape Cross seal colony. It’s known as the Skeleton Coast because at one point it was littered with skeletons of shipwrecks, sailors, and whales but most of those are gone now, so why go? After hearing this three or four times, I was a bit dismayed. I’ve been dreaming about going there since the first time I saw it mentioned in a guide book ten years ago. And, Jeanette already bought a patch saying we went there. We wouldn’t want our patch collection to be inaccurate, so we decided to ignore the dour comments and head north from Swapokmund. Our first stop was the fur seal colony.

Seals reek. You can smell the Cape Cross Seal Colony well before you can see it. Despite that, and if you are already immune to the smell of my Tevas, it’s amazing. Thousands of female seals and their pups spend almost all day just lounging on the beach. If a pup wants to nurse, the mother just rolls over slightly, puts a fin into the air, and goes back to sleep while her kid drinks. When returning from feeding in the ocean, seals will haul themselves on land then just waddle over whoever is in their way. I don’t blame them for being tired. Female seals spend most of their adult lives pregnant. Right after giving birth, the mating cycle begins again. The fertilized egg is inert for about four months then gestation begins all while she is nursing her current pup. That is, if her pup survives. Many of them are crushed by the massive bulls that come on land for mating season. Others get separated from their mothers and never find them again. Their remains are still decaying around the colony and ever so often you see a tiny skull or other bones. The reserve protects one of the largest concentrations of Cape fur seals in Africa. Though we could have watched them for hours—they really are cute—the smell drove us away after about 90 minutes. Then we headed north, to the part of the coast that apparently no one bothers with.

We planned on camping at the very desolate, lonely, windy campsite called Mile 108, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay $30 for an uncomfortable site with no water where we’d have to camp in the bathroom again. The employee said we could try our luck at a camping site a bit up the road, though he knew nothing about it. He was missing out on something wonderful – St. Nowhere Spa and Campsite. A winding, single-track road led away from the main road through salt pans and empty desert to a random collection of buildings and another camp site. When checking in, the girl invited us to try out the detox baths – pools of water cut into the massive deposits of pink salt that lined the coast. Apparently it’s good for skin problems and helps heal everything from cancer to cuts and bruises. The “spa” harvests the salts and sells them as beauty treatments. 

One detail I left out about the Luderitz boat trip was the massive bruise that covers my shin. When trying to get from the rubber duck (inflatable motor boat) back onto the ship, instead of waiting for someone to help me up, I hurled myself on deck with less grace than a seal on land. In the process I whacked my leg on some piece of metal and now it’s an unattractive shade of green and purple. So, despite the cold and the wind, I decided that I clearly needed to try out the skin-healing detox bath. Jeanette hid from the frigid winds in the car as I slowly dipped myself into the extremely salty water. My body parts floated easily in the tepid pool, though I tried to keep my feet on the crunchy salt bottom. As much as I love salt, I had no desire to get the pink, briny water in my mouth. I lasted for at least 15 minutes without getting hypothermic. I’m not sure that it actually helped my bruise, but my skin has never been softer. By that evening the wind even died down, and we no longer worried about our tent blowing away.
Detox salt bath at St. Nowhere Spa

The next day, it was off to the Skeleton Coast. Even before we reached the skull and cross bones that adorned the entrance gates, we could tell that everyone was wrong about the national park. Yes, the landscape is in fact desolate desert, and the scores of shipwrecks of old are no longer visible. But the naysayers never comment on the red plains of sand dotted with bits of red rock or the random plant-covered hummocks that make the landscape seem like it has a weird case of acne. Black mounds arise like dioramas of massive mountain ranges. Halfway through the park sand dunes begin to line the coast. It’s beautiful.
Entrance Gate to Skeleton Coast...Seriously.

Springbok playing in the desert

 In many ways, the Skeleton Coast is like the Aleutians. The beach is littered with marine debris including everything from drift wood to fishing nets to random bits of junk. It doesn’t look horrible or messy, but it gives you something to look for if you are interested. You can even find skeletons of small mammals, though the whale bones from the whale hunting days are mostly gone. Inland a bit are rusting remains of old mines. Just as the Aleutians are littered with World War II buildings and trash that can’t be moved because now it’s considered historic, the mining parts will remain forever for the same reasons. Even the ancient people of the Skeleton Coast bear some resemblance to the Aleuts. They hunted seals and ate fish and moved around as the seasons required. Both places have a remote, dramatic beauty, though it may be easier to notice in the Alaskan Islands than on the Namibian Coast. 
South West Seal shipwreck with jackal skeleton

We only spent a day driving through the park since they no longer offer a hiking trip, the camp ground is only open in December and January when people like to fish, and the lodge is bloody expensive. We continued inland on the impossibly rutted and rocky C39 to a World Heritage Site. Our 2WD was not loving us.
Along the way we were flagged down by a group of people in a donkey cart. On the way back from their grandmother’s funeral they popped a tire. Their pump wasn’t working and they needed a ride to the next farm to get a new one. We decided to give one of the guys a lift to get the pump and back. The three kilometer drive took almost 20 minutes on the hideous road, but our new passenger was pleasant and told us about his farm and the region. At the next group of houses we picked up his inebriated brother and the working pump. The ride back to the cart included a brief history lesson of the region and some warnings. It boiled down to don’t trust the Boers because they’ll steal your land, don’t trust the people up north because they’ll steal all of your belongings, and the Damara people are great. It was confusing and muddled but interesting nevertheless. Neither of us minded helping the people and it was finally nice to interact with more Namibians. The only thing that soured the interaction was the brother’s final actions. 

After they both thanked us, the drunken brother got back into the car by himself to beg for money. It made us both uncomfortable because it changed the mood of the interaction. At first it was just people helping other people out. It didn’t matter that we were white tourists and they were black farmers. As soon as he begged for money, it was as if he suddenly re-introduced the social and racial barriers that normally would limit our interactions. As soon as the man we initially helped realized what was going on, he started speaking to his brother in Damara and pulled him from the car. He then gave us an old woven plate that they brought back with them from the house. It’s unclear if they brought it as a thank you to us initially, but the man wanted to make sure we knew he appreciated our help, even if the brother did not.  We left the situation with mixed feelings as we tried to avoid puncturing our own tires on the rocky road.

The next day we visited Twyfelfontien, a World Heritage Site protecting ancient San rock engravings. I’m not sure exactly who made the engravings of animals in the sand stone. The guide said that normal people made them to teach their children about which animals to hunt and where. The information stand at the site said they were drawn by shamans who used them as portals into the spirit world and would help them transform into animals. Either way, the ancient drawings were fairly impressive. As we looked through the information center, our guide asked if we would give her son a ride back to Khorixas, the town where he goes to school. We decided to take the 11-year-old Peter with us as we toured the rest of the nearby sites and drop him off. It seemed like this was frequently how he got back to school after visiting his mother, and he proved very useful.
Ancient engravings at Twyfelfontein

After visiting the engravings we went to a petrified forest. Just like the one in the southwestern US, ancient trees were buried in sediment and over time the wood was replaced by minerals. They really do look like stone trees; you can even see the knots in the wood and the texture of the bark. 
Petrified Wood

A few kilometers down the road from the forest we came across another group of hitchhikers. We didn’t have room for all four of the people looking for a ride, so the group decided to just send us with the youngest boy. We were told to just drop the six year old at the service station, and he would walk home on his own. Never in the States would you put your kid into a car with strangers and hope he makes it home. Here, it’s just a way of life. The boy didn’t speak any English, so Peter translated for us. In the end, Peter helped us get him back to his house, not the gas station. Then we dropped Peter at his house up the road. Suddenly we had become a school bus. We are definitely working hard to build our own transportation karma. We figure it might help us prevent getting another flat. We gave one more person a ride before arriving at Outjo: Gateway to Etosha National Park.   

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sossusvlei & Naukluf Mountains

I think I’ve just seen my dream bicycle set up. The bike itself is in pretty rough shape, and the seat looks like it would make sitting down painful for the rest of your life. But the set up is brilliant – it has a huge shopping cart-like basket welded to the front. Do you know how many groceries could be carried on that thing? Or camping equipment? Or furniture? I think the man uses it to deliver laundry from the Laundromat where we’re currently hanging out. Our clothes are once again filthy; this time from sand and dust.
We finally made it to the number one tourist destination in all of Namibia, the Sosusvlei sand dunes, and for once I think they deserve all of the praise they receive. The towering, sinuous dunes create beautiful curves and lines that flow into each other and cover the landscapes in shades of red, orange, and brown. When seen at sunrise the growing light creates stark distinctions between the glowing red sand and the deep shadows. Even when seeing them in person, it feels like you are surrounded by paintings instead of actual landscapes. Our photos do not do them justice.

Jeanette on Dune 45 at sunrise

Springbok running over dune right before pronking

Sunset on Elim Dune

We spent two nights in the park, which was much cheaper for camping than either of our guide books suggested. We’re also traveling well off season, so we’ve been able to get sites at the last minute. After driving to the dunes for the sunrise on the first day we hiked up Dune 45, the tallest of the dunes, and then hiked out to Sossusvlei itself. A vlei is a low, flat, dry area of land, though the namesake of the park is currently filled with a shallow lake from all of the rain in January. Apparently they’ve had very atypical weather this year including a rainy summer and now a cold winter. An unusual number of low-lying plants and beautiful flowers bloomed in the sand covered landscape. We hiked to a few very desolate vleis as well that had skeletons of trees standing on flat plains of mud and sand.
Dead Vlei

Anne on Dead Vlei admiring trees that she so misses

Two women hiking alone apparently stood out. The male drivers of the shuttles down the sand road to the vleis didn’t understand why we wanted to walk instead of paying close to $40 for a ride. When we decided to walk another 4 km to another vlei, it was shocking. We’re frequently asked where are men are because clearly two women, especially of our age, should not be without husbands. Our story is that they couldn’t get off of work, so we decided to travel without them. No one ever asks for details, though, which is unfortunate. It’s fun to concoct stories. I’ve decided my fictitious husband is an astronaut.         

After Sossousvlei we went to the much less popular Naukluft Mountains for a day hike on the Waterkloof Trail. The mountains weren’t very far from the dunes, but we allowed plenty of time to drive there. A large majority of the roads in Namibia are gravel and vary from being wonderful one minute to washboards with sandy dips and rocks the next. We got our first puncture on the way to Sossousvlei, but changed the tire on our own without any issues. (Though I’ve changed many bike tires, I’ve never had to change a car one, so it was a good lesson for me.) We’re pretty sure that “waterkloof” means river bed ravine, since the entire hike walked through one. Though not the most exciting trail we’ve ever done, we encountered many beautiful views, rocks, purple flowers, and painfully prickly plants. At night we huddled into our sleeping bags and extra blankets. Jeanette keeps complaining because so far, though we are now technically in the tropics, Africa is COLD.
Naukluft Mountains

When we left the mountains we headed to the moon landscape and welwitschia plains of the Namib Desert. Welwitschia are ancient dwarfed trees that only grow in this small section of Namibia and nowhere else. Their trunks actually developed into long roots underground. Above ground they have two leaves that split apart to look like grass skirts around them. The oldest plant here is 1,500 years old. It started growing when the Roman Empire still controlled Europe and Atilla the Hun was just defeated.

The moon landscape is just that – a weird, rocky, crater-filled landscape in the middle of the desert that looks like the moon. I think Jeanette is right when she says that if it were in the U.S., some tourist trap would have set up a model of an astronaut and Apollo 11 so that people could take their photos with them. In Namibia they just have signs that say “Viewpoint” and “Stay on the road, drilling in progress.” Mining companies are searching for uranium within the national park.
The Moon

While driving we met a couple from Holland who turned an old army truck into an overland travel vehicle. They’ve been traveling through Africa for two and a half years and have had brilliant adventures. Checkout their blog at http://www.travelisfun.org/.
So after all of that we’ve finally landed in Swapmokund, tourist destination extraordinaire. We’re doing everything on our own instead of taking tours, so for us, this town means well-stocked grocery stores, pizza, and a Laundromat. Then we’ll head back out into the desert, because you can just never have enough dust. However, we will always keep with us the brilliant words of wisdom from an Arabella wine bottle:
Important Words of Wisdom