my goodness! please forgive the long delay in my posts -- i had no idea i was going to be offline for so long...but man was it well worth it. namibia is a fantastic country, and i am now back in cape town and heading to london tonight...but let me rewind and bring you up to speed.
JULY 9: SPRINGBOK
we had one last breakfast at lola's cafe in cape town before hitting the road. oh, and a rather comical stop at a petrol station where the 3 of us, 2 petrol station attendants, and 1 helpful bystander all failed to figure out to pop the hood on our new volvo. (it remained a mystery until the following afternoon when CM found the latch behind what seemed like a scsi connection and a mess of wires.) while there we bought a gas can for extra fuel to keep in the boot just in case. (rule of thumb: any time you see a map of an entire country which has little fuel pump icons on it, bring along some extra.) and in yet another comical turn of events, some one drove up to the station and handed the requested gas can out the window and over to one of the attendants in what seemed like mere seconds after i had requested it. last but not least, our car of course needed a name, so we chose "val kilmer," partially for the dark and brooding actor himself (the car being light and airy), and also in homage to the graffitist in williamburg, brooklyn who's been tagging the aforementioned around the neighbourhood.
so we were off to a good start.
we stopped by the lovely, flamingo-filled west coast national park after driving a bit up the atlantic coastline, and made it to springbok, a small blue-collar mining town, after nightfall. it was a long day's drive through beautiful and varied landscape...with much more to come on both fronts. that night, RH and i had dinner in a restaurant called "the godfather," which felt more like a dated eastern european hangout than a restaurant in a small town in south africa. the next day we would cross into namibia. CM and i were already pretty tuckered out from the previous week's adventure, so we were at least glad to find that the road conditions were leaps and bounds better than those in eastern SA, despite the clouds of sand and dust the trailed our vehicle and left us in temporary blindness when oncoming traffic passed.
JULY 10: FISH RIVER CANYON
i started the day with some concern: i had received an email from my contact at the gobabeb desert research center (whom i had been in contact with for some time in order to locate and learn about the oldest welwitchia mirabilis...the very reason i was in namibia in the first place), which stated that absolutely no one would be in the research center during the time i would be in the area. further more, if were to try to locate the plants on my own, i would require a 4 x 4 vehicle, which val was not, in addition to a special permit. there was no way i was going to go all the way to namibia and not get to see what i came for, so i called nicole, sister of a friend of a friend, not to mention a namibian travel agent who had set up our entire itinerary, and asked for help. she called chris, a well-known naturalist in swakupmund, and got things rolling in the right direction again. when i followed up with chris he had answered his cell phone in the middle of a desert sandstorm. it seemed prudent to finish the planning later.
so: off to namibia. the landscape got more and more arid as we drove north, and seemed to give into it completely as we crossed the border, demarcated by the orange river -- one of the few rivers in either country that actually contained any water. (the term "river" is used loosly here -- one river i was told about flows for only about 4 hours a year. "river bed" is more like it.) we were headed for fish river canyon, which may or may not be the second largest canyon in the world after the grand. (it was formed when the bottom dropped out, millions of years ago, as opposed to having had eroded.)
nicole had managed to book us in at the cañon lodge, despite our small budget, and we couldn't have been more appreciative. it was not yet evening when we arrived, and the drive in had been absolutely stunning as we began to view glimpses of the canyon in the expansive landscape. the lodge itself consists of thatched-roof bungalows, nestled into the boulders strewn around the area. they grow a large percentage of their own food, keep their own animals, and bottle their own mineral water (the latter we learned was not at all uncommon.) so we checked in, smiles on our faces at a chance to unwind in such lovely surroundings and glad that the drive had been a short one. we went on a sundowner walk, not the most rigorous of hikes as a cooler of beer awaited at the top, but a lovely way to unwind none the less. i had been on the lookout for clonal aloe on our drive earlier per dr. braam van wyk's suggestion, but had not found any, nor did our guide for the walk seem to be familiar. i guess there was nothing to do but enjoy the quiet beauty of the place.
JULY 11: FISH RIVER CANYON, DAY 2
we all awoke early, excited to be staying another night and to see more of the surroundings. we signed up for the sunrise walk (we would see many sunrises and sunsets over the next two weeks), and then later in the morning, for horseback riding. the walk actually started with a drive, were we parked, had coffee, and watched the sunrise by some quiver trees. the quiver trees are in the aloe family, and can live to be several hundred years old. (not old enough for my project, but photogenic none the less.) they're named as such since their branches are easily hollowed out and were actually used as quivers for bow hunting. we then walked back to the lodge, leaving the safari jeep behind.
next was the horseback riding. they had asked us if we had any experience riding when we signed up -- RH and CM said just a little, and i professed that i was an experienced rider. in retrospect it might have been wise to have considered the context -- while thus far we were having very tame walk-and-beverage service style activities, i hadn't taken into consideration that namibian farm horses might not be as tame as the ones i'd been used to. they put me on a very ornery horse. his ears were plastered back the whole ride (a clear indication of his displeasure), as he was fighting with me (and the other horses) the entire way. this was a trail ride, mind you, and nothing i would have ever blinked twice at, but when the stables were in view again, one of the horses went for a trot, and mine went for a full on gallop. i was not at all pleased, and not in very much control either. he was heading straight for a tree, on which i think he intended to impale me, and when that failed was still going full throttle towards the high fence of the corral. afraid that he might be crazy enough to try the 8-foot jump, i rolled off to the side, off the horse, and into the dirt and bottom rungs of the corral. i was left with some serious bruising to my knees, hip, and nose, but knew that nothing was torn or broken (a good thing since medical assistance was ages away.) just black and blue and shaken up. there was nothing to do but ice down the swelling and sip some scotch. a mighty thanks goes out to gymnastics, trapeze, and streb, all of which played a role in teaching me how to fall safely from high speeds and great heights.
JULY 12: KEETMANSHOOP & SESRIEM
the next morning we had our last breakfast at cañon, made ourselves some PB&J sandwiches for the road, and headed out for keetmanshoop, home of the quiver tree forest. i was limping and in no shape to drive, so CM took on the task for the day. keetmanshoop is a funny little town, complete with a "central park" and a hungarian restaurant. we made a trip to the grocery store, stocking up on rusks, rye crackers, oranges, etc, all of which would be ground into the car at some point or other along with dropped vitamins, dripped sunscreen, and spilled water. (the windshield was cracked, too -- more a chip, really, but once again a rock spit up by a passing car hit us dead center, breaking the glass. this seems so common at the rental car places here that they didn't even charge me for it.)
anyway, we headed out for the quiver trees, me still limping and shuffling in the midday heat. the trees were impressive, but somehow less personal in this touristy campsite then they'd seen on our sunrise walk. they also kept cheetahs or leopards captive on site, which we opted out of seeing. we got back in the car and pressed on towards sesriem, deeper into the desert and home to some of the largest sand dunes in the world.
we drove into the darkness, the landscape transforming from large barren flats back into small mountain passes. we'd have to wait until morning to see what the distance and daylight would reveal to us.
JULY 13: SESRIEM: SOSSUSVLEI & DEAD VLEI
we awoke to sweeping desert plains offset by mountains. the were staying in the half wood/half tent structures ("the camp") similar to the platform tents by the kruger and sunland baobabs. they had rattled and bellowed wildly in the night’s winds. we wondered if sandstorms were in our future. but the day was clear and bright (and HOT), and after breakfast we headed for the vleis (a term roughly indicating a place where water collects allowing for plants to grow there...in this case when or if there is some.) we crossed into the namib naukluft park -- the first of many forays into this vast and varied desert park.
the landscape was fantastic, and when we reached the red-hued dunes we were all smitten. we slathered ourselves with sunscreen and headed out, sand blowing off the creases of the dunes against the deep blue sky. we were going to attempt the 2 km walk from the parking area to dead vlei, me still on the slow side, but not in too much discomfort. we were trudging along the sand road in the blazing sun for who knows how long, not there yet, when one of the shuttles (an open safari jeep) offered to pick us up. we accepted. we joked that we must already be there, and the ride would be just around the corner, but was we drove on and on we realized we'd made the right decision in saving our energy for the short walk out to dead vlei. dead vlei, as it sounds, no longer supports any plant life. what it does have, however, are the skeletons of dead trees, which have been standing for over 500 years in the place where they once grew. they were luminous and haunting in the stark landscape.
we were exhausted from the heat as we trudged back through the sand, without a thought of attempting the walk all the way back to the car. amazingly enough we all managed to avoid getting sunburnt, a seemingly impossible feat, us all being fair skinned and having spent an entire day in the direct desert sun. getting back to the car was a little comical, but i'll save that for another time.
JULY 14: WALVIS BAY & SWAKUPMUND
time was up in sesriem, and we headed towards the beach towns of walvis bay and swakupmund, where we would stay for two nights. i was back behind the wheel, and we were looking forward to seeing the ocean. we drove through a different part of the namib desert, stopping in an absolutely charming town called solitaire. (towns in namibia, btw, seem sometimes not to exist at all, or could be a single house. this one had a gas station and restaurant, not to mention was home of the solitaire festival.) i had been told to ask for moose, owner of the establishment, to get instructions for finding some strange grass formations known as fairy rings, but he wasn't going to be in until later in the day. instead we just enjoyed the surprising, sort of nostalgic wabi sabi aesthetic of the place, ate some just baked apple cake, picked up some local crafts and a much-needed hat.
by this stage in the trip i was learning the limits of what i could and couldn't do -- it was much more important to press on towards the welwitchia than wait for moose. it was one of the many times during the trip that i wished i had more time -- it easily could have been 3 months instead of 3 weeks without a moment of boredom.
so the grasslands transformed into down and dirty desert -- nothing but sand and dust as far as the eye could see, then just as suddenly transformed again into dark, craggy mountains, nothing done in small scale. we continued to keep an eye on the horizon, looking for sandstorms which we would not find. it turned out the light we had seen was not a break in the dust, but rather the ocean, spotted from some distance away. as we got close to walvis bay we were stopped at a roadblock. not curious of who we were or why we were there -- the block was for a movie being filmed -- a war film set in the middle east. as we waited two pickup trucks with costumed actors holding machine guns were getting ready to make the scene, fake oil barrels, tanks, the works all strategically placed along the highway. we laughed, took pictures, and drove on to catch the sunset over the atlantic.
later we drove north to swakupmund, where i had still not secured my route to the welwitchias, or even which were the exact ones that i needed to see. i was getting concerned. since our itinerary was all booked and paid for, staying an extra day would mean major hassles and financial repercussions. we finally found an open internet cafe, not having had access for a week, only to find the gmail was down, or at least not accessible on their terribly slow connection. to add insult to injury the phone wasn't working either, but finally i got a phone card and got through to chris (i found in namibia that sometimes you'd have to dial a number a few times to get through -- sometimes nothing would happen, sometimes you'd get the wrong person.) i explained my predicament in more detail and he arranged to have his colleague george take us all on a welwitchia tour the following day. chris convinced me i would see what i needed for my project. i breathed a sigh of relief, if a tentative one. we'd see how it would go in the field.
welwitchia, ancient rock engravings and paintings at twyfelfontein, a petrified forest, and a very scary almost-collision with an oryx on the road to the mount etjo safari lodge. but right i have to hop on a plane from cape town to london. more soon from the UK!