June 1 - 19 2001 / Namibia: African Circle Part 1
Red dunes, a cornucopia of splendid animals, and a landscape to infinity.
June 8. Swakopmund to Abataub River Camp near Twyfelfontein Rock Carvings
New animals seen:
Cape Fur Seal
We leave this uncomfortable place of Swakopmund early in the morning in thick fog. It's uncomfortable because we can--I can--feel the tension between the people who are masters and the people who are servants. People in the streets do not smile in return, but look with hard eyes. I don't like it.
As we drive along the road out of town, black people walk or bicycle through the fog on their way to work. At work they will smile and smile and greet and open doors for other people, but they do not mean it. I do not like being made to be a part of such a system. I don't care what its history is.
Although we cannot see the sun for a while, it is rushing towards us and towards its eclipse, although to us the eclipse is such a monumental event, to the sun it is not even a gnat in the sky.
More things about the desert, and the dunes:
Besides those adaptations I said before, of course there are the rosette forms which plants take at home, and here, and everywhere they need to keep out of the heat or the cold and preserve whatever moisture there may be. It seems too that the reason for the funny-looking long legs of the desert insects is to raise them a precious few millimeters above the burning sand, up to a place where the temperature may be ten or more degrees cooler. Any little thing that gives them an advantage, a way to survive, is of value.
John reports that this desert is only 1/30th the size of the Sahara! I can hardly encompass such space.
For that seems to be the main thing of it here--the space, the light rising above the space, the clarity of air, the softness of color. There are few forms, all is color and light.
We stop for a few minutes and I pick up a piece of rose quartz. It is large but soft, and feels almost oily, like talcum, like chalcedony. I am going to take it home, I don't care how much it weighs. It is cool and I will feel its coolness and softness and think of the desert's colors and light. And the wind blowing sand against this rock and turning it to satin.
There are some pieces of a car lying near it, and some animals have dug their homes under these pieces, to escape the sun and heat. I so admire things which take advantage to make a living. Earlier there was some discussion of what one of the whites who is taking care of us at the camps has said, that the local people are lazy and have made a way of life out of begging. I say, More power to them! the land that’s been given them is worthless for farming and will barely accommodate a few goats. Why shouldn't they get a living the best way they can?
We pass alongside the coastline for quite a way, the surf appears and reappears through the fog. Then we turn in to a remarkable place, where for some reason vast numbers of Cape fur seals congregate, and a way has been made for people to look at them with impunity. Beyond a low stone wall they lie upon each other, bellowing and barking and snarling and nursing and sleeping and fishing. Stinking too! But it is a privilege to view these wild creatures from only a mere few feet away, with calm impunity.
The jackals take advantage, too--the way here is lined with black-backed jackals hoping for handouts, regarding us with their intelligent golden eyes, their ears at alert, only a few feet from the rolling surf, incongruously. And along the stone wall we see their footprints where they patrol up and down, looking for a low place to come over and take a young seal.
But in the sand on our side of the wall I see the hind leg of a jackal, desiccated and partly down to the bone. So round and round it goes.
John goes off to use a restroom and comes back to report that seals have taken it over. We are reminded of the penguins of Antarctica--and I have an image of some Adelies lounging about the abandoned stone hut of those overwintering Swedes.
Why do people take pictures?? When they are RIGHT THERE IN THE PLACE, why do they take pictures of it? Is it to bring home to show others? to have for themselves at home? or is it a kind of recognition of the sublime? A way of paying homage.
All day--and it is a long one, nearly twelve hours of driving--we cross through this landscape, first a stupifyingly vacant white landscape, flat beyond flat. Then almost abruptly it becomes violently volcanic, black, fierce (Danie the guide says it has been described as a landscape God made in anger, and I think that is very apt)--littered in its blackness with black sharp rocks, surrounded by reddish black hills and cliffs and low pointed hills . In the distance there are eroded volcanic cones with detritus rolling down their tortured slopes. Our vehicle passes sturdily up and down and up and down through this quite awful place, but we are trusting and relaxed because--of course! we have paid for this trip and we know we will be safe--that peculiar feeling of impunity one gets on vacation.
There are pale blue and pink mountains at the horizon, and violet ranges behind them.
It seems an ancient and untouched landscape.
John remarks that we seem to be finding ourselves once again in a hostile environment. Like Antarctica, death will rapidly and implacably claim any who linger. But we decide the death here would be quicker than there-though doubtless not as pleasant.
In any case, in spite of this, what I see is meat and drink for eye and soul.
We eat lunch in a sliver of shade at the side of a small red cliff. Rocky shards clink underfoot and we see surely several hundred miles into the distance. We are told that any of our lunch we don't eat will be given to some of the local people. What a touching act of charity. And sure enough, at the gas stop, a place with barbed wire fencing around the gas pump area and a "tourists only" sign on the toilets, I see Danie leave some packages of cheese and crackers and juice boxes with the man who is pumping the gas. Several young people look us over sullenly. No smiles are exchanged. Instead, we eye each other across a vast cultural divide. It is a nasty business.
The afternoon passes under a delicate blue sky rising overhead. Alongside the road, we pass a wooden cart, with some people in it, pulled by three donkeys. We all wave at each other. But since people in vehicles do not seem to acknowledge each other on a lonely road, through the windshield, as we do at home, I don't now believe the authenticity of this waving from people in carts. It is only because we are white that they wave at us. And smile.
At least, that's my opinion. But I could be wrong.
We pass by a tiny scrap of settlement, with stick and board and paper and tin shacks, with white laundry blowing out front. There are goats in residence. We see a few cattle.
The sun begins to go down and we are still driving on a rough road. Great heaps of red rocks appear, like the Joshua Tree formations. The light falls richly on these. The sun sets, the cool rises, the smells intensify, and at length we arrive at our camp place, and settle in in the dark, have dinner by lantern light, and sleep.
June 9. A day around Abataub River camp, near Twyfelfontein Rock Carvings.
I sleep well, I rise at dawn, we eat, I tolerate the rest of them. Barely. Though there are some possibilities among them.
We go on a morning drive to see what we can see. The best thing is the elephant tracks. There they are, sometimes going straight down the sandy road, not a very big elephant he was, but one can see all of his tracks and his toenails.
We take a little walk off from the vehicles, up a rise. I se a nice dragonfly and teach our guide the difference between dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies. John keeps pointing out to me that these guides not only have to drive us and cook for us, etc., but do all the logistics and not get us lost or stranded (including having had to change three tires so far)--so it is, I suppose no wonder that they are not really naturalists. Their knowledge is basically guidebook-deep.
While I am doing the explaining, I raise my arms to show how damselflies sit when alight, and a moth comes to rest on the upraised perch. He has huge eyes and a golden sheen to him.
We see a herd of over sixty springboks. They eat and watch us alertly, they trot off across the landscape. We see four ostriches grazing amid the grass, and later, a small group of them, shining black against the gleaming yellow grass against the elegant curve of hill. A lone springbok is quite small next to them, improbably. Ostriches trot, also, and look pretty funny when they do. An ostrich, though impressive, will never have the panache of a springbok.
There are nearly twenty oryx arrayed in line up a rocky hillside, the rear brought up importantly by the gigantic alpha male. I hope that we see some really close up, so that I can pay them proper attention.
For a rest stop, we pull over in a tiny community--I mentioned yesterday that I wished we had been able to stop at a small cemetery we passed by, but there is one here, and we walk around it, looking. It seems to be all white people, judging from the names. The plains and mountains and wind are all around. It is a hard place to be buried. But perhaps they are all family, from a time ago. I don't know. A young very black man comes to stand near our group. Danie gives him an apple, and he says thank you. I nod gravely at him, and he nods back. So little--but it is something.
Why did God put these different kinds of people on his earth, if they were going to be so difficult for each other?
We encounter a peaceful herd of springbok, illuminated by soft light. Although they appear peaceful, actually they are alert to us, they know we are there. Some of our number --in fact, I think most all--except for possibly one couple--have no understanding of animal behavior and seem simply to want to take pictures, get a name for the animal, and move on. It will be difficult in Etosha, if only a few of us want to stay to really watch and learn from the animals.
Before dinner we go a short distance to where there is rock art, petroglyphs carved into the red sandstone. We climb up to the rocks to look. The best are very good indeed--a lone man, high firm buttocks, erect posture, eyes ahead, all by himself. A rock face of giraffes, three of them, with their finely sectioned coats clearly visible, and their little horns. One rock face has a very elegant lion who has a big ruff and is surely spraying to scent-mark his territory. At the sun sets the rock burns with color. We drive home to our little camp and the dark rises around us: golden grasses stroke a tender blue at the horizon, and layers of rose, pale violet ascend to the deeper blue of night.
8/10 Abataub River Camp to Palmwag Lodge
new animals seen:
This camp is I guess adjacent to a farm, and in the night we hear donkeys braying, there are goats all around. I have trouble in the mornings with everybody, they are so noisy! There are two people on this trip who are very noisy, three actually. They seem not to have quiet voices.
One of our number reported a yellow-billed hornbill landed on her head this morning as she washed in the tiny washroom that’s open to the air, and John said one accompanied him into the shower --they were looking for water--and he had to shoo it out, with some craft and guile.
Last night he and I shared his binoculars and the tripod with some of the people, the sky is as I have only read about or seen in drawings--the Milky Way our fluid home is deeply white, I find the Omega Centauri globular cluster bursting with the light of a million stars, we look at the inverted moon and its craters. People know so little! How can people live IN the world, ON the world, and know nothing about it?? We know so many things but there are so many things we should know and don't. So very much ignorance.
We drive half a day to our next stop, Palmwag Lodge. Along the way we pass some distant herds of springbok, some of ostrich. Parts of this look so like California, but one would not see such things there. The ostrich are beautiful ebony against the golden grass.
We pass a few tiny settlements. Yesterday one of our members, the best of the lot, said that the settlements, the life, looked "desperate"; that is a very good description. One though had a windmill turning, a few trees, goats, goat pens, tin and cinderblock buildings, an overturned rusted car body--pens of tall sticks in stockade fashion. What do they know about, these people? A lot of things which we used to know in the past but have forgotten and do not need to know now. It is all a funny business, how different people live and yet are the same species.
We stoop by the side of the road to exchange words with a vehicle. ELEPHANTS. There are elephants in the distance, arrayed amid some trees and along a distant slope. Fourteen elephants, of varying ages, some very little ones, and at least one bigger one. Astonishingly, I hear grumbling because they are "too far away," One foolish man, instead of looking at the elephants, simply complains that he can't take a picture of them because they are “too far away.” arg arg arg. Fortunately we get to stay a long time and just watch them. I am thrilled, they are at their leisure, doing their morning activities of eating and walking. And shortly thereafter, in the road, our leader finds us a dung beetle hard at work rolling a ball of elephant dung about ten times bigger than he is.
At this lodge, there is absurd green grass and a tiny swimming pool, and palms imported from somewhere, also many giant crickets the size of mice, and we watch one eating a dragonfly. We have a good lunch outside, joking with some others.
Then our first real game run, still the same people complaining about things. Where's the duct tape when you need it?
We find oryx, a lot of them, alone and in small groups, their rosy brown color and black and white ornaments are rich and improbable.
Herds of springbok graze industriously, tails twitching and ears moving. They look up from their grazing and watch us, assessing how dangerous we may be, and move a bit away.
But the best is to come. Giraffes are found! Three of them, a quite young one with an orangeish mane, and two big ones, browsing at a distance. And beyond the giraffes, along a slope, zebras, five of them.
Watching these animals who are at this distance from us, undisturbed by our presence, is deeply satisfying. I think I like it better than having them so close, as they are in the big game parks. These are truly wild animals. In this wild country.
Driving back home through the ascending darkness, flocks of birds fly up from the verge and scatter like sparks rising from a fire.
June 11. Palmwag Lodge to Epupa Camp, at the border with Angola
new animals seen:
Wall Spider, ugh
In the night I awaken and see the landscape by moonlight, washed in silver gray. I expect to see an elephant grazing in front of our little house, but he's not there just now. Only the enormous corn crickets.
But before dawn I smell fires, people getting up and lighting their fires for cooking. I get dressed at sunrise and go out. At the back of this place they have made a "walking trail." It's too late now to walk on it, for we are going soon, but I take a few steps, and am swallowed up in solitude.
The resident cat, who appeared at dinner last evening and permitted himself to be scroochled, now appears, couchant, upon the roof of the restaurant building. He is a very large cat, plush gray and some white for decoration, a fine Namibian cat.
Just not long after sunrise we all pile into our trusty vehicles again for what is to be the longest day of driving in this very driving-intensive trip. There is wonderful game to be seen, close enough I hope to satisfy even the most critical of viewers. There are five giraffes in a tiny herd, and then one quite close by the side of the road, dark brown and mottled, a male with his bald head knobs. They move with such grace, the grace of the very large sometimes seen in fat humans. There is an array of six zebra and four oryx, and a startled springbok runs full out across the road as we approach, his beautiful back crest of white fur fully raised in fright or warning or both. More giraffe, eight of them together, improbably in front of the hillsides. I can't get used to the sight of these kinds of animals in what looks like Colorado.
There is a herd of zebras at a slight distance, with a couple of darling babies, sticking by their mothers, and some baby oryx, all brown, with their parents, without the handsome black and reddish and white marks they will grow when they are big. Even baby animals have that juvenile look which attracts attention from adults, the high forehead, wide-spaced eyes, long legs. I wonder, would young baby humans be specially attracted to young baby wild animals, and vice versa, as young humans are to each other, as they pass?
A herd of ostrich crosses the road and trots ridiculously off, their heels high, their rumps swaying.
All this before 8 am!
At a rest stop this morning close to where I squat to pee behind a euphorbia bush, there is a gorgeous black and white speckled feather of a guinea fowl, a bird I remember with delight from East Africa. And I find lots of other stuff, too--long slender seed pods with an array of orange-brown seeds nestled in slots within, trees hung with weaver nests, all their entry holes lined up facing me, a large digging under a tree--somebody looking for something but I don't know what. I have gotten, as usual, something of a reputation for being interested in the tiny stuff, the stuff everybody else overlooks--bugs, flowers, seed pods.
I take close-up pictures of flowers and butterflies, and am content, and pleased. I find wild lettuce and show it to our guide. I see a Crimson Boubou, glorious brilliant crimson indeed, and black and white, and Vincent the other guide, the one I like better, finds their nest and we see two of them, in full view, just the two of us.
I am really so very much not a group person!
In the long afternoon we pass by little settlements amid the arid hills, so like Colorado. There are small herds of handsome cattle, and little goats, and the women wear voluminous patchwork dresses, which I later learn, not much to my surprise, are the result of the work of missionaries, just as in Hawaii.
Now there are frequent red dirt termite mounds, or as Vincent puts it, air-conditioning towers. I smell a wonderful smell, sweet, oaty, like toasted grain, toasting, or roasting grain, for miles. Because there are no real windows in the truck, I am washed in this heady smell. I so wish to be alone! Every trip, I guess I say this--that I want to be alone to savor and absorb this all by myself. But it is nearly impossible to have any solitude on this trip, we are constantly with all these other people, who are marginally acceptable at best and not acceptable in some cases.
We stop in the late afternoon at Opuwo, a small town. There are some ugly buildings; it seems, now that we are very close to the border with Angola, that this used to be a military settlement of some kind. We lunch at a dismal place, dismal looking black people barely moving around us, and then go to refuel at the big shiny new BP gas station.
Here we are the day's entertainment, as they are ours. Finally a black town, it would appear. We are offered goods to buy. We are eyed, cautiously or from a great cultural distance. It is hard to say which, or whether it is hostile. I smile widely at a couple of little boys and they gasp and point to my gold teeth, always what happens with kids. There is a beautiful woman with high pointed cheekbones, selling some things.
It is an endless drive. We drive for nearly twelve hours today, and into the night. The road is increasingly wretched, and we are bounced and rattled about helplessly. I feel for our guides. But people's spirits remain good, and mine are lifted when in the dusk a small flock of guinea fowls cross our road. They are so lovely, so clean and elegant-looking.
The odd person walks slowly by the roadside, men, kids, thin, very dark, very dignified--or are they only poor? Is poverty dignified? Are they poor? Or is it their cultural manner, to be self-contained, spare of motion? We hump down one side of a dry river crossing--one of hundreds that jolt our vehicle--and there are three naked young men bathing themselves in a tiny stagnant pool, all that's left of a river I guess. As our trucks pass by, and they see that some of us are women, there is a big burst of laughter from them. I love it.
Just before we finally arrive at this camp, our second vehicle gets stuck, in the dark. There's a kind of a cinderblock building quite near, a bar judging by the raucous laughter and music coming from it. I understand some of the guys within came out to help, though I did not see them in the pitchy dark, but it’s in vain. The vehicle John and I are in manages to make it to the camp, hidden in the dark, and the camp folks send out a truck with a towbar to haul the other one out of the mud.
So we settle into our large tent with a floor and beds, and just before I get to sleep in the bed, John has to call a professional (the camp manager) to eject an enormous spider who walks on the tent ceiling just above my bed.
6/12 A day at Epupa Camp
I sleep pretty well; there is a real river rushing by just outside of our large tent, and the bed is good. John does not sleep as well, perhaps thinking of spiders.
Just across the river, beyond some palm trees we can see, is the war-ravaged country of Angola. How can people go to war when they have so little to make war with, or to make war over? John tells me that the rebels have access to the country’s diamond mines, a hundred million dollars a year, but I still find it all mystifying.
This is to be a cultural experience day. Our guides have the day a bit off, and we go out with the local host, a young South African man who has been here a couple of years. He takes us to a local small encampment of the Himba, a nomadic tribe who build bomas or kraals of sticks around their little group of mud and wattle huts.
Like the Masai, the women adorn their beautiful bodies with red ochre. For a consideration, they permit us freely to photograph them. She decks herself, the young mother of four, with an elaborate headgear, and comes out of her little hut smiling coquettishly, pleased with herself and the reaction she brings from us. She is truly beautiful, with angular cheekbones and graceful carriage on her long legs. Her breast is bare and curves sensuously, even though she is nursing a little one of about a year or less. She is accompanied by her mother, who is shelling corn along with two of her little grandchildren. A pot of pumpkin chunks steams on the fire. They bring out a few wares to sell us, and I buy an object which is made to hang from the back of the hair ornament, down the back of the head. It is made of beads from Angola, constructed of pounded fencing wire, and longer golden beads made of spent gun cartridges, split and pounded into form. I shall hang it with my other adornments from the Masai.
There is a man here, too, but he soon goes to the cattle boma and expertly drives a herd of cattle past us to graze elsewhere.
We leave these people and move a short distance to another, permanent settlement, with a few folks. These are not Himba but another tribe. The women make hair ornaments of old tin cans, using the colors to their advantage, cutting and rounding them and placing them around strands of hair.
We then are taken to a cemetery of these people. Cattle are their wealth and they do not slaughter nor otherwise use them. But when the people die, their cattle are killed and their horns mounted above the grave.
When we come home here, John and I sit talking about what he has learned from this experience--I ask him, one of my favorite kinds of questions of course. He says that he has learned that we have a pretty good life. We talk about how we have been told that these people are happy with their way of life, they know no other and they are not wanting, for food or fellowship or land or shelter, and there is no AIDS among them, at least not yet.
We wonder what they--what concepts their minds are filled with. I suggest that they talk about each other, their work, what has to be done and who will do it and how and when, their children, their spouses--the sort of thing everyone speaks of. But of what else do they think? We do not know. Before science, there were no questions of why or how or what. Somebody told you about things, and you accepted them, and owned that knowledge, and that was that. With the coming of science, which means "to know," humans wanted to understand, to use their big brains. For what do these people use their big brains, as big as any of ours?
Do they see differently from us, think differently from us? John thinks that women share much more of a bond the world and cultures over than do men. Men, maybe, in competitiveness, physical kinds of things, but women share the sisterhood of bleeding, birth, and mothering.
In the afternoon we are taken on a bit of a hike to view the wonderful waterfalls, multiple strands of them, that are the fate of the river outside our tent. Then there are drinks at the top of a hill. Two black children come to keep us company and enjoy the spectacle of us. They are about the ages of fourth graders, and seem quite familiar to me, in their smiles, their sense of humor, what makes them giggle and laugh, what they stare at.
This morning John and I walked back from the falls to here by ourselves. It was a great treat, to walk unaccompanied.
Even after all this time I still have not got a strong sense of it here, except that it is very very big, very very empty, and very very white.
And very very--what? it is beautiful but it has not had the affect upon me that the landscapes of East Africa did. I think it is--well, no, the desert part, going through those long hours of vast desert, that was very good. This looks so much like things at home--California, Colorado, even Australia--that it is hard to know really where I am.
So tomorrow we are off to Etosha National Park, where I have wanted to go ever since we went to East Africa. I love even the name.