Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

June 1 - 19 2001 / Namibia: African Circle Part 1

Red dunes, a cornucopia of splendid animals, and a landscape to infinity.
Part 1 - The Namib Desert

Part 1 - The Namib Desert

June 1-2, 2001  Cambridge-New York-Johannesburg

So here we are, once again, in an airport, awaiting a plane and a flight.  We have met a couple of the people we will be with for the next nineteen days, a couple of women, one Greek, the other Korean.  And I think there is another couple who has come in, he looks like one of those disagreeably intense and grim types.  Might make trouble.  But I am determined to make this trip my own, to ignore whatever does not agree with me, to take from this experience what I need. 

I will not see Africa again after this trip.  I have wanted to return for so many years.  It was the intense desire to return to Africa that impelled me to science, twenty-one years ago.  At that time I learned that the ways a European could be in Africa were to do archeology, anthropology, or animal behavior.  And I took courses or did reading in all three of these areas, and learned that it was animal behavior that was the most important to me.  So I read that, studied that, which led me to other science,  science in general, in specific, and scientists, and Science, the only real thing!  And I have been there ever since then.

All because of Africa, that is what I am now.  So I am returning in a sense to the source of what I am now.  I cannot imagine what I would have been without Africa.  I was a teacher, but then I--the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the natural world, the natural world the only world we have, and I saw it first in Africa. 

So I am going back, with some trepidation, for it will not be the same and you can never return to the same place for it and you are never the same.  

I will be quieter this time.  I will let it come to me, I will not look for anything in particular.

I will go quietly.  Attentive.  Alert.  Watchful.  I will see how I stack up to Africa, these days.


So we had our long flight.  We had room and inclination to sleep a bit.  They made us pull down the curtains, against the light, to make it night within.  But every little while I peeked out, to see the mackereled puffs of clouds against the blue of the sea, and we went down over the equator once again.  And once I slid up the shade a crack, my eyes burning against the light, and there was land below, and the edge of the sea disappearing to the right.  The land was reddish brown, or grayish red, quite empty but for a faint craquelure of roads, going to where, I wondered, since there seemed nothing to which they should lead.

When "morning" came, I roused up, stepped over John who was asleep, and went to get a cup of coffee, 35,000 feet in the air--

And then the airport, all passing in a blur of arrival.  The other people, not of much interest.  The drive into Johannesburg, so like so many others we have made over the years.  The hotel, quiet and luxurious. 

But we are directed to a nearby mall, on the other side of which is an African crafts market.  They have masks, we are told.  My beloved and attentive husband says he saw my eyes go on the alert upon hearing about masks.  So we go around the corner, and enter. 

There are small stalls and handsome black people offering A Special Price, to You, for their wares.  I try to be gracious and slightly flirtatious, as they are with me, in refusing.  I look at the masks, but they are all new, harsh.  A few booths have things that look older.  But then I found a narrow stall at the back of which are a few with the smell and tatter of age upon them.  I select one, briefly bargain for it.  It is a strange wooden one, smallish, painted white, with eyes and brows and mouth of inlaid beads, a long beard of twisted cotton strands, and a tattered, striped cloth, decorated with cowrie shells, to hang over the top of one's head when wearing it.  

The mask smells of smoke, and it speaks, coldly and at a distance, to me, and I buy it.  We are having it shipped home.  The man who sold it to me said it is supposedly from Nigeria, Ibo tribe.  I may or may not believe him, but I salaamed him when I left, and he back.  African people have such powerful features, so different from whites.  If I were an African, I would not be able to tell white people apart.

June  3,  Johannesburg to Windhoek

New animals seen:

Yellow Mongoose

Glossy Starling

Groundscraper Thrush

In Johannesburg I had to play tour director and herd everybody through a group check-in to Windhoek.  Actually my first time, but they all did as I told them.  All it needs is for someone to be in charge.  It was fun.  The agent was great, and I had a good time.

I'm surrounded by beautiful young black men smelling invitingly of cologne.  And there is the ubiquitous handshake, the pressing together of hands.  I was just reading about how the antelopes with the preorbital scent glands may press them together, males as aggression, males and females as greeting.  Possibly also family greetings.  Seems much the same thing, this frequent, brief pressing of hands.

When we stepped off the plane at the airport here in Windhoek—the capital of Namibia!-- and walked down the steps to the tarmac, I was overwhelmed with the light--like walking on to a huge beach, only 360 degrees around me, no horizon, nothing on the horizon, only blue, and limpid light.  This morning it is the same with not a cloud in the sky, only a powerful sun and clear light.  

And then we met our guides, two of them, Danie and Vincent.  Danie is fat and unkempt because of it, and has a terrible smoking habit.  Vincent is quiet and solemn and neat.  I guess they will be ok.

I do not know what to expect.  I had a terrible nightmare early this morning, cried out for help in my sleep, and John awoke and rescued me from the monster of my dreams. 

We got into the vehicles, and drove off a long ways from the airport, through the town of Windhoek, a pretty good-looking town.   On a short stop at a high place (they always bring people to such places, filled with monuments and historic buildings and other uninteresting things)--we saw some mongooses hunting in grass across the way, and I found a gorgeous large bee of black and white, and a couple of butterflies. 

One of the women observed that I must obviously be a "detail person."  I suppose it is true but I don't think of it that way.  We have the ability to see at many different dimensions, and usually look only at our own size, seldom seeing the very large or the very small, but things are there, too, at those perspectives, and reward our attention.  Vincent the guide helped me try to identify the butterflies, for which I was grateful.

The hotel is one of these sad kinds of places, a golf course, a conference centre, a casino and all, but nobody in it, and the front grounds not yet finished.  But John and I walked out on the golf course in the late afternoon, and watched birds, and more mongooses.  They are insectivorous and dart about hunting and crunching, sitting up winsomely on their haunches and darting down their holes.  We saw weaver nests and glossy starlings which are iridescent turquoise.  The other guests here are all speaking German.  Namibia "belonged" to the Germans until the end of World War II, and somehow they never left.

6/4  Windhoek to Sesreim Camp

New animals seen:


Chacma Baboon




Yellowbilled Hornbill

Lilacbreasted Roller

This morning, in this pure light, an early cup of coffee, amid the sparrows flying around near the dining room ceiling, nesting in the light fixtures up there and darting down to take crumbs off the serving trays.  I love opportunistic organisms!

Well, so then we piled into the vehicles, which turn out to be fairly comfortable, and with windows that roll up so as to be open to the air, large windows with excellent views, and one for everybody.  Good room, too, to move about and dump one's stuff.  The other people are ok, too--just barely, but acceptable.  Of course, everybody has to start their process of acquaintance by measuring their travels against others', and I do that too.  It would seem that most of these people are very widely traveled.  We don't seem to have any whiners, but there are some compulsive talkers.  I will try not to be in the same vehicle with them too often.

So up into the high, stony country, and there the oryx.  We stopped only briefly for them, but I felt stunned to see them.   They are more beautiful and powerful and regal than anyone could plan, with their improbable great horns, their black-marked faces, and surprisingly their switching long black tails. They can make their way in desiccated landscapes as well as among vegetation.  And here, in Namibia, the desert rules all.  They stared at our two vehicles, and we took  their pictures, until a stupid woman in the other jeep got out of it and  I could hear her shrieking, so of course the oryx loped off, being  sensible animals.

The book says they are the essence of the place, the spirit of the desert.  We had only a brief time with them, I was not ready for them, but there they were. 

And there was the troupe of baboons.  Sporting and climbing and sitting amid a grove of trees, away from the road.  Several mothers with young ones, several very large ones.  Some sat in the tops of low bushes to keep an eye on us.  Others seemed to sit at the foot of the bushes, on their haunches, like small dark people, watching us and eating.  They watched us, we watched them.

Though not long enough.

Amid the rocks, some klipspringers, three of them, with small straight horns, perching on tiptoe, and running and leaping with stunning ease among the rocks, while we are stuck here on the road.    I don't know if we will see them again, but we saw them, and I had just learned that klip means rock, so I knew what they were.

The springboks, a few at first, and then later a whole herd of them, pronking, their side stripes like a flutter of black wavelets amid the reddish brown of their coats.  They seemed at times just to leap into the air from sheer energy.  There were about fifty in this group, and once again we did not stay long enough really to watch.   Their horns are lyre-curved, or stethoscope-shaped as the guide book says in unlovely fashion.

There were birds too, glossy starlings of a startling blue, and a hornbill, whose yellow decurved bill showed up perfectly against the clear deep blue sky as he sat on top a telephone pole. The guide seemed willing to stop for things, but not interested in telling anything much about them, or in discovering whether people were ready to move on.

I know this was not supposed to be a game run, but I was terribly frustrated.  I know one of the women wanted to take more pictures, but there was no time to do this.

And the ostriches of course, the four females.  In a row, looking at us.  For most of the people on the trip, these different animals are mere novelties.  Not one uses the wildlife books we have been given, except to check them off (and I believe that's only one person).  I don't think they know how to use field guides.  

Our guide did not tell us anything about the ostriches, not even that they were all female and how easy it is to tell, and the other people in our car knew nothing about it.  Nor did the others know which antelope was which.

At lunch we stopped at a place in the midst of nowhere, but by the all-important roadside, a place run by a white couple and their black helpers.  The black people here seem quite invisible.  In the fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere, by the nearly-empty golf course, it is all black people waiting on nearly all white people.  I would have loved it if it had been the other way around.

We ate some meat and vegetables, or at least we ate the vegetables, which were wonderful--and sat about and tried to learn how to associate with each other.  There is still an enormous amount of travel-bragging, or travel competition.  People on these trips, I have learned, are not at all interested in talking about the trip they are on now, only the ones they have been on.  They do not spend time reflecting on what is happening, only letting it happen to them.  So nobody ever offers a reflection on what we have or are seeing.  And people are uncomfortable, I have learned, when I say what is on my mind about things we have done or are doing.

I am just as you can see feeling very uneasy.  Nobody else on the tour seems really interested in the animals other than to take their pictures.

We rode all day, I mean all day, for eight hours, with the wind slashing at my face and hair.  The country was high and sparse at first, very like the highlands of Colorado or Nevada, as someone said.  We saw scrubby brush, and always mountains at a distance. 

At the end of the very long day, we drove for a long time down a steep switchback mountain pass to the desert floor, through the most beautiful grass I have ever seen.  Silver-gilt grasses that gleamed and radiated the late afternoon light.  Gleaming and sliding through the light.  Like golden snow on the hillsides.

We came to rest at the camp, a public place.  I had thought we'd be really in the bush, but there are showers and flush toilets here and running water and tent sites, and spacious tents and cots like hammocks.  The food is excellent; it’s served to us by our guides and another white fellow, and cooked by a black man to whom we are not introduced. 

A nightjar calls as I try to sleep.  I am cozy under my heavy duvet, and although I do not sleep much, I am pretty content.   I really don't know where I am, even though I know we are in Namib-Naukluft Park, which is the fourth largest national park in the world, of desert and dunes and mountains and thousands of square kilometers.

John looks at stars which are brilliant and sparkling in the dark though lit by the nearly full moon. 

6/5  at Sesreim Camp

We have to get up at 4:45, and we ate a bit of breakfast, and drove excitingly in the dark down a long avenue of sand dunes, glowing red sand dunes.

It is a mark, a curse, of the well-traveled, that everything should look like somewhere else.    And this place looks like nothing so much as the red centre of Australia.

We drive carefully down a dry sandy riverbed at the first of the dunes, and are let out and John and I hurry to the top of a small one, for the sun is nearly up.  The air is clean and sweet.  The lines of the dunes are sharp and elegant beyond anything humans could arrange.

When the sun comes up it spills light across the dunes and they are shown in their brick red colors, sandstone red colors, orange-red colors.  Each minute brings new color and form to our eyes.  There are many kinds of plants growing in the sand, and they are illuminated too--yellow flowers like primroses, and a chocolate brown shooting star affair, and a pink-lavender foxglove sort of thing, and a vine with striped green melons (which I know some of the animals eat for water).  There are dainty grass tussocks here and there, inscribing circles with the wind into the sandy slate.

Then we all make a leisurely climb to the top of a somewhat bigger dune.  It's a pleasure to see how fit we are compared to the others.  There are black beetles scurrying across the sand in business-like fashion, and everywhere the elegance of form and color.  The dunes have much vegetation, it seems, because of heavy rain earlier in the year, and so the red is vibrant with green, the interface pulsing with light. 

The feathery grass seeds are everywhere, in little dips in the sand, in bird nests, floating in what water there is.  At first, in fact, I thought they were feathers, but no, there are the longish brown seeds, cleverly equipped each with a vane and feathered parachute.

We climb down into a clay pan, where there has been water but no more.  The clay has the snags of dead trees in it, and there are hyena tracks, and many, many, many other much more delicate tracks, of birds and beetles and probably lizards.  And tiny rodents.  Some are so delicate that they can only be seen when the light falls on them at the one angle.  These animals have all been busy while we slept.  Eating each other and searching for food, and keeping out of the way of those who eat them.

The plants have all the same clever adaptations to the desert that we find in the California deserts--silvery leaves, leaves that point upright to the sun rather than broadside, leathery leaves, very very tiny leaves, no leaves at all, just spikes.  Deep roots, many roots. 

After our morning amid the red dunes we return to camp, where we eat, and I write a bit, and rest a bit, and then it is off again to visit Sesreim Canyon, which is not very deep but which is chokingly narrow.  A strange gape in the earth.  Its walls are layer upon layer of conglomerate, all washed down during flood times and lithified.  The way is curved and carved, and filled with birds, lots of sparrows living in the walls, and wonderful doves which call deeply to each other.  I am able to fall behind the group as they leave, and give myself a few precious minutes of silence amid the calls of birds and the rustling of their wings, and my breath.  I find a tiny desiccated mouse, quite perfect, with his two white stripes intact, and his tail the length of his body.

June 6, driving from Sesreim to Swakopmund

New animals seen:

Ground Squirrel

Tok-Tokkie Beetle


Corn Cricket

Black Stork


We leave early in the morning, piling back into our vehicles, and by now I feel better about all of this.  I've talked to John about things, and he has helped me to realize that although we are in Africa, this is not just an animal-seeing trip, but a landscape seeing trip, and now I feel better.  My mind is more at ease to see.

We drive all day, all day.  We cross the Namib Desert.  What can it possibly mean, that this desert is one of the oldest in the world and it is five million years old?  It has been a desert for five million years?  Almost since --well, since before there were human beings, this was a desert?  So everything here, the plants, the insects, the reptiles and mammals, the birds, the very sand and rocks, all are so tightly interwoven that they could never be apart from each other.  They have grown up together.  They fit perfectly with each other, and there are no outsiders.   We can visit but we can't join.  There appear to be no peoples living here, or at least if they are, they perch uneasily on it. 

I read in one of the guidebooks that Namib means "huge, deserted place."  We drive for hours and hours and hours, across the shining plain of silvery grasses, and then across the undulating mounds, and then across the black corrugations, and there are no people.  The road is a rough tan tape measuring the desert.  It is a hundred times more enormous than Death Valley, and far more lovely.  Here and there an inselberg, an isolated mountain, rises into one's view.  It seems so gigantic a space that whole mountain ranges could rise in front of us and be swallowed up in vastness. 

But there are animals here.  At a distance we see first one or two, and finally thirteen oryx, the great alpha male bringing up the rear in kingly fashion.  They see us, certainly, but they do not flee.  I cannot imagine any person who is like an oryx in beauty and stature.  Oh, perhaps that black man I saw on the plane coming to Johannesburg, who was very tall, very robust, very elegant, and wore a native costume with close-fitting hat.  He carried himself with perfect and immense dignity.  He might have been an oryx in a previous lifetime.

We stopped to watch ground squirrels, with bushy tails and engaging faces, and saw them dart in and out of their burrows, and run briskly away across the ground. 

We stopped for various short rests, and I saw blister beetles in a flower, and beetles scurrying along the ground, and blue somewhat beetlish creatures, and we saw gigantic crickets, black and faintly disgusting, and I found a nest of termites, which are unpleasantly transparent and banded, with strange heads.  I saw butterflies.   At our lunch stop we watched a Black Stork, with greenish tints and white, and a long red beak and red legs, fly slowly overhead and wheel and settle on a rock side. 

The color is all pastel, like being on the inside of a pastel pearl.  Blue and rose, palest ochre and blushing tan, pink, yellow, pale green, grey.  All like a pearl.  An enormous pearl.  Filled with form and life.

As soon as the sun gets a bit low in the sky, it begins to get very cold in our vehicles, with their open sides and the wind rushing on us.  My skin is clammy with cold.  I turn away from the open window to face the other side, not to be buffeted by this.  There is too much high-speed driving on this trip to suit me. 

Now we are in Swakopmund, an exceedingly strange place, just on the ocean, with huge breakers rolling in.  It is a resort town for Germans, and looks silly though pretty, with its brilliantly-colored houses of ochre, yellow, rose, and blue.  Peach, yellow, aqua....but my heart is not here.  Not here.  I don't know what's wrong.  People have not come here to come to Africa, but rather because it is the next trip.  We have not yet done any real looking at animals.

There was a largish herd of springboks, And although the company gave us this fantastic book about animal behavior, we could not stop long enough to see any of it.


I worry about my ability to feel, to see, to appreciate.  I feel surrounded by vacancy. 

My mind is open, still, but I don't know what is going to go into it. 

6/7 A day in Swakopmund

many birds, including:

African Spoonbill

Kelp Gull

Hartlaub’s Gull

Pinkbacked Pelican

Cape and Whitebreasted Cormorant

African Black Oystercatcher



The town seems deserted.  The few black people we see on the street stare with faint but unmistakable hostility at us.  I don't blame them.  The hotel we are at seems virtually empty, although there are staff people all over the place, holding doors open for us, and the like.

We spend the day mostly on our own.  We visit the supermarket and buy soap and a washcloth to replace the ones that were apparently stolen from my duffel when it was opened in the airport in Johannesburg.  We buy a couple of books.  We buy a photograph for me, of three zebras at full gallop across a white plain of gravel with blue mountains in the background, that somehow moves me to tears when I see it.  The zebras are brave and strong and beautiful and can make their way in the desert, in that whited desert.   We walk on the beautiful wide beach, and find a dead seal.  We look at birds. 

A strange and threatening incident on the beach: John and I are walking along.  A man comes toward us, slows, grabs John’s wrist to appraise his watch, rejects it as not valuable enough to take, and walks on.  In all these years of travels in all these places this is the first time we have been threatened in such a way.  But this is a threatening, grim place so I am not astonished.

We go with Vincent the quiet guide, and one other passenger, to do some bird watching at the salt pans.  There we have fun with him trying to identify things, and we see many storks, and some pink pelicans.  It is a lovely quiet morning on our own. 

In the afternoon we go on a wonderful flightseeing trip, of over two hours, in which we miraculously fly back to the beginning of our trip, even passing over our camp, and for the first time we see the true extent of the red sand dunes. 

They lie across mile after mile after mile of this vast and empty landscape--empty only of people, not of life!--like a strange red sculpture.  In places the sand is so beautiful it is like the finest satin, or like the most fine-grained skin, like that on the inside of a man's arm.  Like satin stretched over a fine body, or stretched over whatever lies below.  The sand arcs and swirls and knifes and ripples like --I can't say like what.  Each edge of it, even from 10,000 feet, is like the finest blade, and the amazing thing is that even on the ground, climbing along the dunes, the edges are knife-like. 

We return then to the coast, to the edge of the ocean, where the dunes meet the ocean, where ships have been wrecked on the foggy shores and now lie hundreds of feet inland since the dunes have swallowed, are swallowing, the sea.

I am not making a very good job of this!     But it's very hard to place myself in this landscape.  In this trip, which for some reason is not turning out as I had thought it would.  I inquired about how it will be in Etosha.  There will be four game runs, where we sit at water-holes and watch.  There might be a run at night.  That's it.

Tomorrow there's to be a lichen garden.  A welwitschia plant.  Some other things which I forget, all on yet another long, long day of driving as fast as we can to get to someplace else.

Well, I will see whatever there is to be seen.