After three wonderful weeks on the road on a tour and one also-wonderful but still-internet-limited week in Victoria Falls, I’ve finally reached the perfect place to catch up on my blogging: Johannesburg airport, home to pricey but dependable wi-fi and absolutely nothing else to keep me occupied until I fly out in six hours.
As you may remember (or not, since it has been a while), I left Cape Town on March 7th to do a tour through Namibia. The first leg of the tour took me and my nine new best friends — Philani, the tour leader and driver, from Zimbabwe; Nyika, chef and guide, also from Zimbabwe; Ivan, our Namibian camp assistant; Philip and Svetlana, a couple from the Netherlands; and Uli, Marion, Christian, and Diana, a German family celebrating Uli’s 60th birthday with a trip to Africa — North from Cape Town into Namibia, and then North and East (I think) through Namibian rivers, canyons, and desert.
When I’ve traveled on my own in Africa before, there have always been other single travelers on my tours, so I was a little bit worried when I met the group in Cape Town and saw that it was all couples. But as it turned out, Philani, Nyika, and Ivan were excellent company, and the couples were beyond warm and welcoming anyway, so what could have been an uncomfortable situation was actually a lot of fun.
We left Cape Town early on the first day for a long but scenic drive towards the SA-NA border, stopping on the way for a wine tasting at a beautiful vineyard
The vineyard gave each of us one free bottle of wine after the tasting, which facilitated a lot of group bonding as time went on 🙂
We crossed the border into Namibia the following day, and stayed at a place with amazing views of the Orange River and its surrounding mountains.
On day three, we saw and walked around the rim of the Fish River Canyon, which is the second-largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon (note to mom and dad — I’m so sorry I didn’t appreciate it when we were there!). The canyon’s name comes from the tiny river that you can see in some of the pictures below, which can get much fuller when it rains, and which is full of catfish. During the dry season, the catfish burrow into the mud and hibernate, and when it rains and the river is flowing, they come back up to swim in it. Because the fish would disappear for long periods of time and then reappear after the rains, the original inhabitants of this area believed that the catfish rained down from the sky along with the water.
In the afternoon, we had lunch in the Quiver Forest, prepared (like most of our lunches) from the truck that we were driving in. Quiver trees are part of the same family as aloe plants and are common in this area because they can survive in very dry climates.
In the Quiver Forest, I learned a very important African lesson: Beware of Plants. African plants are much better than American plants at defending themselves, and while you’re staring at the ground to avoid stepping on a snake or anxiously looking around to make sure that you don’t walk into an angry elephant, the innocent-looking grasses or bushes will be mauling you. This one, for example, has thorns that don’t look that pointy, but that are highly unpleasant to have stuck in you. Take my word for it.
After the Quiver Forest, we spent about two days driving through and staying at places that I won’t bore you with pictures of because they were beautiful but lesser variations on the desert / mountain / canyon / river theme. One place worth mentioning was Ai-Ais (“burning water”), which is built on hot springs so hot that they need to be cooled before you can swim in them.
Towards the end of the first week, we reached Sossusvlei, which is a salt and clay pan surrounded by sand dunes in the Namib desert. Sossusvlei was definitely the highlight of the Namibian part of the trip. I don’t know how to describe the dunes except to say that they were breathtaking.
When we got to Sossuvlei early in the morning (around 7am — in the Namib desert, the sun starts getting hot by 9am and is not fun to hike in after about 10), the sun had just risen and was starting to show through the clouds.
The main dune that you can hike up is called Dune 45. Many of the others are difficult to hike on because they are partially covered in thorny grasses. Dune 45 is not that steep a hike but is harder than it looks because the sand is so soft — but the view from the top is more than worth it.
This bird was enjoying the view as well.
On our way back to our hotel from Sossusvlei, we stopped for a short hike in the Sesriem Canyon. I’m told by the German family on my tour that it looks a lot like Antelope Canyon in Arizona. The Germans had seen wayyy more of the U.S. than I ever have.
Back at our hotel, we went for a walk to see some of the animals that they keep there. The family running the hotel has adopted five lynxes, two cheetahs, and a leopard, each of which was either injured or abandoned as a cub. When the cats were little, the family played with them like they were pets (there are photos around the reception area of the kids playing with the baby leopard and cheetahs), but now that they’re full-grown they have to be kept in cages. You can’t go in the leopard cage because it’s too dangerous, even though the leopard was raised in captivity, but you can go in the lynx cages and can actually pet the cheetahs. I initially refused to pet the cheetahs but was bullied into it by the rest of my group. Since there were no Americans around, no one seemed convinced by my objection, which was “did you see what Montefiore did to Siegfried (or was it Roy?)?” (Answer: “huh?”). The deal was that if I petted the cheetah, I wouldn’t have to hold a big snake (just a small one). It seemed fair at the time.
On our last day before reaching Swakopmund, we stopped for a nature drive / walk through the desert with a Namibian guy who calls himself “Busman” and who taught us about the desert and about the way of life for the bushmen who used to live there. Bushmen have been dying out as an ethnicity because of intermarriage and as a culture for many reasons, including restrictions on hunting, which is a necessity in their way of life, and also general modernization. The guy was very interesting and knew a lot about the desert, which he clearly loved. He told us: “I hate it when it rains. Trees aren’t beautiful to me. Sand is beautiful to me.”
Apparently, this area of Namibia received hundreds of mls of rain this year, compared with fewer than 10 mls of rain last year. This photo shows a particular view of the desert, contrasted with a photo that the guide showed us of the same view a year ago. You can see how much green there is now as opposed to last year.
The guide told us that it’s a common misconception that rain is good for the desert, but that in fact life in the desert is adapted to the dry climate, and rain kills it. For example, when the sand in the desert is dry and soft, there are species of bugs that are able to live in the sand during the day, when it’s hot, because there is oxygen in between the grains of sand and their nostrils are smaller than the grains of sand. The bugs come out at night to feed, and are often eaten by larger bugs or small amphibians, which are then eaten by larger animals. When the sand gets wet, it is packed more tightly and the insects can’t survive in it, which sends a ripple effect through the entire food chain.
This Oryx and this Zebra didn’t make it through the the past few months, and are being eaten by predators and scavengers. Scavengers like hyenas can digest all parts of the animal, even its bones and hooves.
I hate to leave you with images of animal carcasses, so here are some photos of our next stop, Swakopmund. Swakopmund is a beachfront town with a lot of German-style architecture and is a local vacation spot for some Namibians. My next post (later today or tomorrow, I think) will cover Part Two of the tour, Swakopmund – Windhoek (in the meantime, I dare you to try to pronounce the name of either place).