Where time stood still
Local couple ventures to the endless openness of Namibia
By Chuck Graham 09/06/2012
Story and photos by Chuck Graham
After 25 hazy hours in the air, we were a long way from Ventura. As I wiped dust from my eyes in another sweltering desert outpost in the southern African nation of Namibia, a man of San Bushman descent was hounding me for a handout. He followed me into the store, where I told him no. Then I ignored him as he followed me back to our Jeep. It was then that he went for something in his pockets. I spun around and grabbed both his wrists, keeping his hands from coming out of his pockets. I thought he had a knife. I eased his hands from his pockets, which revealed a crinkled $10 Namibian bill. He was looking for me to match his $10. Relieved, I did.
I’ll never get enough of Africa. Last May in Namibia was my 14th trip to the “Dark Continent.” I hadn’t been to Namibia since 1995, and had looked forward to returning ever since. It became a country in 1991; and following just behind Mongolia, it is the second-least densely populated country in the world. Best of all, it hadn’t changed much during the past 17 years.
My wife, Lori, and I spent nearly a month driving about 2,000 miles with the steering wheel on the right, driving on the left side of the road and leaving a dust plume in our wake that would give the Dust Bowl of the 1930s competition. We dodged everything from warthogs with crazy hairdos and festive ostriches to lumbering desert elephants and skittish springbok. The endless openness of Namibia was our invitation to absorb as many natural wonders as we possibly could.
The desert elephants of Namibia have evolved into a smaller animal with wider padded feet for traveling in the desert.
Nothing epitomizes the desolation of Namibia more than the Skeleton Coast. Miles of isolation are disrupted by the power of the frigid Benguela Current sweeping up the Namibian coastline in the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s not just the many animal carcasses and occasional whale bones that give the Skeleton Coast its name; wave-battered shipwrecks are a constant reminder as well. Countless fishing trawlers and freighters have run aground on shifting sandbars and unmapped jagged reefs. Dense fog also hinders travel along the coast. We maneuvered our 4x4 in deep, soft sand to see the latest shipwreck, a boat from neighboring Angola. Its bow protruded out of the frothy surf where hardy seabirds, mostly cormorants, claimed its leaning masts and rusty decks for nesting and roosting habitat.
Hundreds of thousands of yelping Cape fur seals call the Skeleton Coast home. Their crowded rookeries are spread along lonely, windswept beaches and rocky promontories, especially at Cape Cross. The surf was filled with bobbing fur seals frolicking in the shore pound, while on the beaches the hungry pups cried for their mothers’ rich milk.
It’s difficult to determine what’s more perilous for the cape fur seal. Swimming in the ocean draws the attention of great white sharks; but on land, the constant threat of marauding black-backed jackals and brown hyenas patrolling the periphery of the rookeries is a similar threat where unattended pups straying too far from their mothers are quickly picked off.
Dead camel thorn trees strike a ghostly appearance at Deadvlei in the Namib-Naukuft Desert, Namibia.
The Great Namib-Naukluft Desert
The epic, wind-driven dunes of the Namib-Naukluft Desert were mesmerizing. This desert not only is the oldest in the world, it also possesses the tallest sand dunes on the planet, where mountains of sand reach heights of 1,000 feet.
It was a place to wander off, 60 miles of dunes separating us and the Atlantic Ocean. After two steep ascents up two separate dunes, it was easy to see how someone could get turned around and lost out here in these shifting sands. The dune troughs are so deep, and it takes some work to get from one dune to the next. Small herds of springbok and oryx browsed at the base of the dunes, and several ostriches waltzed across the dry gravel flood plain of the desert.
The next morning we hiked out to Dead Vlei (Dead Valley). Part moonscape, part apocalypse, it’s a mud-cracked pan surrounded by mountains of sand. Within the pan are 500-year-old dead camel thorn trees; their elongated limbs enhance the ghostly landscape, while their shadows creep across the cracked pan.
At dawn we soaked in a different perspective of this grandiose desertscape. We clambered into a sturdy basket and floated above the desert in a hot air balloon. Loud bursts of butane gas filled the balloon until it appeared ready to burst, and then we were off, floating above the dunes. Namibia is a desert country, and from a balloon we could see the vastness of the desert. From 1,500 feet in the air we saw a black-backed jackal dig up an ostrich egg; a greater kestrel soared beneath us, and scattered oryx and springbok fed on sparse grasses. To top off our balloon ride, a champagne breakfast awaited us, tucked away in the calm of the dunes.
The endangered Hartmann’s mountain zebra thrives on the high plateaus of the Entendeka Mountains.
People of the desert
We never saw the Bushmen, although I’m sure they saw us at some point. The San Bushmen comprise one of the last nomadic tribes in all of Africa. Even though we never saw them, their artistic imprint was evident throughout the mountains, canyons and deserts of southern Africa. Namibia has some of the most well-known, elaborate petroglyphs and rock paintings in the world. Some of the rock paintings are 2,000 to 2,500 years old.
The White Lady was first discovered in 1918 by German explorer and topographer Reinhard Maack. The rock painting was located on a rock panel, also depicting other art work on a small rock overhang, deep within Brandberg Mountain. The giant granite monolith is located in Damaraland and is Namibia’s highest peak, at 8,550 feet. Brandberg itself hosts more than 1,000 Bushman paintings, hidden in rock shelters and shady caves.
The painting has long been an archaeological conundrum, and several different hypotheses have been put forth on its origins, authorship and dating. It is now usually accepted as being a Bushman painting, dating back to at least 2,000 years ago.
Lori and I arrived there midday, and the canyon leading to the White Lady was a furnace over 100 degrees. The 45-minute hike wasn’t hard, but it was hot and worth the effort. When we got there, we both sat in the shade, sweat pouring down our faces, and marveled at the detailed rock art before us. The White Lady was in the middle of the panel, and the only human figure painted in white.
Not far from the Brandberg Massif, Twyfelfontein is a prominent World Heritage site. There are an estimated 2,500 engravings across the site. Maack was the first European to explore the region in 1921. The rocks bearing the art work are situated in a valley flanked by the slopes of a sandstone table mountain. An underground aquifer on an impermeable layer of shale sustains a spring in this otherwise very dry area. The region receives less than 6 inches of rain per year. We weren’t alone. Rock dassies, southern ground squirrels and geckos acted as keepers of the rock art.
Huge clusters and slabs of sandstone rocks at Twyfelfontein are covered by the so-called desert varnish, a hard patina that appears brown or dark gray. The engravings were achieved by chiseling through this patina, exposing the lighter rock underneath. The indentations were created over the course of thousands of years. The oldest engravings might be as old as 10,000 years, and the creation of new works probably ended by the arrival of pastoral tribes around 1000 A.D.
Many of the petroglyphs depicted the hunt, so wildlife was prominent on most of the rock. Black rhinos, lions, giraffes, elephants and plains game are found throughout, but what was amazing was how well-preserved the artwork was since it’s so exposed to the elements.
Further northwest, we were taken by a guide and an interpreter to a Himba village in Koakaland in northwestern Namibia. The semi-nomadic Himba are a pastoral people. The Himba women glowed in the morning light, their beautiful, ebony skin in stark contrast to the parched African landscape that surrounded their village. One Himba woman in particular smiled and invited Lori and me into her dark mud hut.
She sat on a mat and a dusty blanket, began nursing her sweet baby boy while mixing a batch of butterfat made from goats milk and red ochre. Himba women don’t bathe with water. Instead, they rub this useful concoction from head to toe as a lotion, bug repellent and sunscreen. Rubbed into their black skin, it arguably creates the prettiest skin color I’ve ever seen. The mixture gives their skin a reddish tinge. This symbolizes earth’s rich red color and the blood that symbolizes life, and is consistent with the Himba ideal of beauty.
Then she started rubbing the concoction on Lori’s arms. Then it was my turn, but that didn’t last long. Their lotion didn’t go well with my hairy arms, so I bugged out of the hut. I stepped out to a gathering of Himba women from the tiny village. They had spread in a circle the bracelets and necklaces they make and wear, signifying their various stages of maturity. I could also detect that my inability to communicate with them was amusing to the Himba women while I admired their hand-crafted jewelry. They giggled and joked among themselves as I made the rounds.
Later in the day they gathered together and danced for us, enough stomping on the ground to create their own plume of dust, their thick braids swinging wildly around their heads. Then one by one they danced alone, displaying their own versions of their dance. They continued singing as we drove away, weaving between swaying palm trees and the water source they draw from.
Vehicles at the base of a 1,000-foot-tall dune offer some perspective in the shifting sands.
The Etendeka Plateau
During one of our last nights in Namibia we found ourselves overnighting and exploring the grand expanse of the Etendeka Plateau. As Lori and I ascended the steep pass to the top of the plateau, I never anticipated it would be so unique.
We stayed at the Grootberg Lodge, which literally teetered about 6,000 feet above the Klip River Valley in stunning scenery set amidst the ancient Etendeka lava flows of northern Damaraland. It’s also known as Namibia’s own “Grand Canyon.” Ancient basalt has been slowly eroded over millennia, leaving scattered boulders lying upon dramatic flat-topped mountains.
Desert-adapted wildlife forge a precarious existence here among the towering peaks and Mopani-shaded river beds far below. This unforgiving landscape is actually refuge to a diverse number of plant and mammal species. Desert elephants and black rhinos share boulder-strewn valleys where watchful cheetahs lie in wait. In fact, Namibia holds the highest concentration in Africa of the world’s fastest animal.
After my short trail run in the mountains, we took a late afternoon walk and discovered dew-darkened game trails that revealed the heavy, padded spoor of lions and the majestic mountain zebras they hunt endlessly. Scorpions, lizards and snakes prowled between volcanic rock shards, and snake eagles soared mightily in swirling afternoon thermal updrafts. A covey of rosy-faced lovebirds gathered around a watering hole, chasing off other thirsty birds, both bigger and smaller.
As the sun went down behind the Grootberg Plateau, we jumped in our Jeep, chasing golden light to the nearest plateau. We rose above the boulder fields and cruised slowly across a tabletop mountain. Beige grasses stood at attention where I scoured the escarpment for the elusive Hartmann’s mountain zebra. I’d never seen one before, but these mountains were prime habitat and the moment felt right.
We cleared a grove of trees where a wide-open plain fanned out across the plateau. Standing tall with dried mud caked across its black and white stripes, there was no mistaking the lone Hartmann’s mountain zebra staring back at us, ears twitching, its tail swatting at flies. In fact, the plain held several small herds of these rare animals, along with herds of oryx, jackals, secretary birds and warthogs, all while soaking in the last rays of fading sunlight, another Namibian sunset bringing on the night.
Wandering out here is all the rage if you don’t mind a little sand in the shoes.