Monthly Archives: March 2016

Namibia!

Namibia –

On the lush southwestern coast of the African Continent, the German influenced country of Namibia is an anomaly. Two thousand kilometers of dry, uninhabited, dune-laden Skeleton Coast is neighbor to one of the world’s most productive and nutrient rich stretches of ocean on the planet.

1 Skeleton Coasta

The Skeleton Coast where desert meets cold Atlantic

Here the cold Atlantic is fed by Antarctic currents and keeps the landscape at a steady, cool temperature through most of the year. Thanks to cold and nutrient-rich currents, the sea boils with just shy of two million Cape Fur Seals, farmed oysters, dolphins, and whales of almost every imaginable variety. Meanwhile, the land offers visitors the unambiguous contrast of rolling barren sand dunes, low stony mountains and dry riverbeds.

Cape Fur Seals on Pelican Point -- approximately 2 million of these fur seals live and feast on the Skeleton Coast.

Cape Fur Seals on Pelican Point — approximately 2 million of these fur seals live and feast on the Skeleton Coast.

The desert is stunning in its own right. The soft curves of the sand dunes piled one upon another as far as the eye can see, and the brilliant contrasts of blue sky, amber sand, dark shadows, and a spattering of green plants all pile together up against the slate grey waves of the cold Atlantic. Fog rolls in and out as a soft, gray vapor and blots the harsh light of the sun for a few hours each morning.

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Fabulous dunes in the morning light

In Luderitz, on the southern Namibian coast, our ship docked early in the day and we disembarked in the requisite mist to explore the abandoned diamond mining community of Kolmanskop. A cautionary road sign simply reading, “SAND” met us as the coach turned off the main road and into the ghost town.

SAND reads the warning sign in the middle of the desert...

SAND reads the warning sign in the middle of the desert…

Never has there been a more accurate warning issued in a place where desert sand is swallowing up the remnants of greed-fueled human endeavor, and encroaching into old buildings and polishing the wooden floor boards of those still in use. It’s hard to imagine that people tried to live here with their water shipped in, packed inside wooden barrels and carted across the expanses to fill old bathtubs that are now abandoned on the sand dunes like claw-footed toboggans.

5 Kolmanskop

Abandoned Kolmanskop diamond mine

In Luderitz, I was equally enthralled with the colorfully painted German built houses, and the patches of watermelon growing in the desert. While the European architecture seems a tad out of place, so do the melons.

6 LuderitzA

The German town of Luderitz

The Kelly green vegetation and mid-sized melons are the last things I expected to find growing in the rocky soil, but there they were, turning sunlight and what little water is around into bitter fruit historically used by Bushmen as a water source. The kudu, gemsbok, ostrich, and springbok of the region apparently prefer to find their water elsewhere, ruling the fruit too sour for their tastes.

7 melonA

Tsama melon in the desert

Further north, in Walvis Bay and the surrounding National Park I found hiking up steep dunes to be a difficult and tiring undertaking. Steps must be taken in parallel with the grade and the awkward diagonal trek upwards is impeded by sections of soft, slippery sand in abrupt contrast to packed, dense, firm sections where I could not dig the long edge of my boot into the dune wall, and found there was suddenly little purchase at all. I found speed helped in these situations, and passing quickly over the difficult spots I reached the ridge of the dune where I unknowingly upset the tenuously balanced sand on the inward edge of the dune’s crescent and caused a small avalanche to cascade down on the back side of the dune.

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Soaking it all in from the ridge of a Skeleton Coast dune

Finally perched on the sandy crest, I paused a moment to take in the crashing waves to the west and the rising sun over the rows of dunes to the east. A Cape Fur Seal swimming like a porpoise cruised up the coast just beyond the breakers and out of sight of my companions and our row of 4×4 vehicles down at eye level on the beach.

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The 4×4 convoy

That night we had dinner in a maze of inland desert canyons. Arriving just before sunset I scaled a low rocky outcrop to get out of the canyon’s belly and gain a heady view around the area. The low rocky peaks stretch out around me like cresting waves on the ocean and the low, auburn sun lit up the landscape bathing everything in warm, incandescent light.

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Sunset in the interior

I did not want to come back down, but was rewarded upon my return with a fantastic feast and a choir of surreal singers. Later the Milky Way erupted as a horizontal streak in the sky – the clarity of which I’ve not seen even under sail on a schooner in the middle of the Atlantic.

11 Sunset dinner

Dinner in a desert canyon

Namibia is a place I hope to return to for its unparalleled and expansive desert that is home to desert elephants and wild horses, and its coasts promising great surf and loaded with marine life, flamingos and giant white pelicans. It was a pleasure to become acquainted – even briefly – with such a special land.

Namibia Pelican-1

 

Africa is a word

Tunisia- Kit and the Camel

‘Africa’ is a word that has cultivated powerful imagery in the blank slate of my gray matter since childhood. For years, hearing the continent’s name spoken aloud was enough to conjure deep green rainforests alive with the chatter of insects, rolling desert sand dunes sheltering sidewinders and scorpions, lonely wildebeests roaming tree-fringed savannahs, and sprinting cheetahs, lean and panting in the tall, hot grass. The word also hinted at proud people clothed in colorful textiles, wearing stunning beadwork, towers of metal bracelets, anklets and necklaces, and releasing primal voodoo chants amidst chaotic drumming.

My first indirect exposure to the continent came from the contents of my father’s suitcases each time he would return from business trips to Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and South Africa to name a few of the African countries he visited. I could hardly stand the anticipation as he would lay the hard case on the floor and open the two metal snapping locks, one on either side of the bag’s molded plastic handle, to reveal the bounty of presents within.

Africa Map

My dad often brought my mother gifts of jewelry from Africa. I remember a gold cuff bracelet carved with intricate ram’s heads, and I recall polished jade, thick strands of wire-like elephant hair, and brightly beaded bangle bracelets. He liked to bring me dolls in traditional costumes. Some were carved from wood, and one was made of cloth from his turban swathed head to sandaled toes. Others were synthetic and dressed like equatorial Barbie dolls.

The most exciting acquisitions were always the carved masks he unwrapped from between newspaper sheets and folded dress shirts. I was deeply intimidated by these confrontational embodiments of the dark dimensions of human fantasy. Although, I do recollect one mask that had tufts of hair and a mouth and eyes resembling giant Cheerios. That particular guise was enough to pry a quick smile from me each time I walked by it, mounted high on the hallway wall.

My family’s collection of African masks came to a sudden and premature termination when my father determined that not only had he brought home original woodcarvings from Africa, but that he had also imported a wealth of wood-boring insects – including termites – that were not as welcome in the house. So, that was the end of the masks, and the end of my liaisons with the obscure and mystical faces of Africa in the dark passages of my very own home.

Tunisia 3

The only direct claim I have to Africa up until this point of my life was a brief trip I made to Tunisia with my mother in the late 1970s. I don’t remember too much of this adventure except playing with the life-sized pieces of the giant chess set near the pool at our hotel, and seeing my mother sip Campari at the empty hotel bar like a person I had not met yet.

Tunisia

In Tunisia, I was just a kid with my hair in pigtails, wearing bright colors and bellbottomed corduroy pants. However, I attracted the attention of a couple men in the medina who demanded to know how many camels it would take for my mother to sell me. I was convinced that at some point in the near future, the offers of wealth would be intoxicating and my mom would hand me over in exchange for several dromedaries. As my paranoia reached a fever pitch she had to ask me in all seriousness where she would possibly house a herd of camels in our small flat in London. The logic of that impossibility eventually brought me back down to earth.

Tunisia 1

And here I am, still on the same planet, and in two days I leave for my own encounters with Africa.

This time I will not experience the continent through gifts from my dad that merely hinted at the riches in history, culture, and geography. Nor will I visit in the safety of my mom’s shadow as she shields me from wealthy camel herders, holds me tight on horseback (although I was sulking the whole time we rode on the beach because she wouldn’t let me ride a camel instead), or haggles for me in the souk with a vendor for a thick, woven tunic that I then refused to take off.

Tunisia 2

From our small ship I will experience the entire West Coast of Africa from Cape Town, South Africa to Lisbon, Portugal.  The first leg of the voyage will go from Cape Town to Dakar, Senegal and from this western point the ship then meanders through the Cape Verde and Canary Islands, up the coast of Morocco, and into Europe.

It will be a journey of over 6,000 nautical miles embedded with new sights, sounds, smells, flavors, wildlife and smiles. I hope to write frequently of the experiences and will try to capture the essence of each day in a few photographs to share with you here.

Maybe I’ll even bring back a few carved masks – free of termites.

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