Memories of Africa (Part 1)

Zebras, Etosha

While my travel plans (and probably yours) have been suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m sharing an account of a trip I took with my daughter, Allie, in the fall of 2011.

The trip was her idea. After teaching high-school English for four years in the Bronx, she was between jobs and somewhat burned out. She was looking for an adventure to reinvigorate her outlook.

“Dad, do you want to go to Africa?”

When offered a chance to share a travel experience with my daughter, I didn’t think twice. “Of course, Allie.”

Sun and San

Upon boarding our flight to Johannesburg, a South African Airways’s attendant handed us packets of comfort accessories. “For the toothpaste, the socks, and the blindness,” she offered. I assume she was referring to the sleeping mask.

Windhoek, Namibia

The flight took eighteen hours, including a one-hour stop in Dakar, Senegal, for refueling. It was brutal, but made tolerable by our excitement. During the flight, an attendant announced, “Sleeping on the floor is not permitted.”

After a short night at a B&B in Joburg, we made the two-hour flight to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. With 2.6 million people, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, perhaps because it is one of the driest countries in Africa. Namibia is twenty percent larger than Texas.

On the way from Windhoek’s airport to the hotel, the taxi slowed for a troop of baboons to cross the road. We checked into the Roof of Africa on Nelson Mandela Avenue. Desert tortoises roamed throughout the compound.

With a population of over four hundred thousand, Windhoek is the largest city in Namibia. Near the Kalahari Desert, it enjoys over three hundred sunny days per year.

Christuskirche, Windhoek, Namibia
Christuskirche, Windhoek

The region was colonized first by Afrikaners and later by Germans. Although English is the country’s official language, Afrikaans, German, and Oshiwambo, the local language, are more widely spoken. Many place names, signs, and menus are in German.

Allie and I strolled around the tidy city center, admiring the colonial architecture and browsing the sidewalk displays of wood carvings and jewelry.

Downtown workers picnicked in Zoo Park, where Stone Age hunters killed a couple of elephants over five thousand years ago. The tools they left behind are evidence of one of the earliest known hunts in human history.

We visited Christuskirche, a German Lutheran church resembling a gingerbread house, and the Owela Museum with its fascinating exhibit on the history of the San people.

The San were indigenous hunter-gatherers. They lived in southern Africa for over twenty thousand years and are considered one of the oldest cultures on earth. Colonization brought enslavement, big-game hunting, and cattle ranching, all of which combined to destroy the San’s nomadic way of life.

Namib Rock Agama, Namibia
Namib rock agama

Tintenpalast, Namibia’s parliament building, is surrounded by lush gardens. Tintenpalast means ink palace in German, a fitting name for a center of government bureaucracy. Out front is a statue of Hosea Kutako, a native who fought for Namibia’s freedom from South Africa.

In the afternoon, we gathered in the hotel’s beer garden to meet the rest of our tour group. 

Our guide is Trompie, a South African of Afrikaner descent and a former pro rugby player.

Our driver Danny is from Soweto, the township in Johannesburg known for rioting during aparteid. Trompie teasingly calls him a “city boy.”

Trompie asked if any of us had medical conditions or dietary considerations he should know about. Allie volunteered that she is a vegetarian. This seemed to confound Trompie, a die-hard carnivore who works on his family’s game farm when not guiding safaris.

Five Canadians and three Australians compose the rest of the group. The twelve of us will spend the next two weeks together. We got acquainted over dinner at Joe’s Beer House, a spacious restaurant under a thatch roof.

Into Damaraland

Only cold water was available for our morning showers. The hotel provided tea bags in the room, rather than coffee pods. Roiboos or bush tea, an herbal tea made from a South African plant, is the local preference. The TV offered just six channels, one in German.

The “ice-cream truck”

After a hearty breakfast, we boarded our small tour bus. Trompie and Danny, however, objected to calling it a bus. “We’re not bus drivers,” they said.

So, we agreed to call it a truck—but not just any truck. Its shape and color reminded us of the boxy, white vans that prowl neighborhoods selling ice cream to kids.

From then on, our transport was known as “the ice-cream truck.”

The ice-cream truck headed north to Damaraland, once part of German South-West Africa. We drove through the small cities of Okahandja and Otjiwarongo. Along the sides of the highway, we spotted kudu (a species of antelope), warthogs, guineafowl, and ostriches.

For me, seeing ostriches in the wild was one of the many thrills of the trip. It is hard to believe eight-foot-tall birds walk around freely.

Camp Xaragu, Namibia
Camp Xaragu

After stopping for lunch in Outjo, we continued on rutted gravel roads. Past the town of Khorixas, we took a short tour of a petrified forest in the desert. The fossilized tree trunks are around 280 million years old.

Trompie showed us the unusual welwitschia, a sprawling plant that can live for up to two thousand years.

For several millenia, Namibia was occupied by the Damara people. They believed in communal use of the land, upon which they herded sheep and cattle, and grew pumpkins, corn, and tobacco. Their descendants are doing much the same. In 1960, the South African government resettled them in Damaraland, an area in central Namibia with poor soil and little rain.

We passed many goat tenders, some hurrying their herds across the road. Cows wandered loose. Small children waved at us. Their homes are one-room tin sheds in a moonscape, protected by fences made from sticks. Nearby, windmills pump water into tanks.

Camp Xaragu, Namibia
Camp Xaragu

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Camp Xaragu. Allie and I moved into a permanent safari tent, complete with mosquito nets over the beds, and a toilet and shower just outside the back door behind reed screens.

The tent floor is concrete; the walls canvas. No electricity, but each evening we found two lit oil lanterns on our front porch, glowing pleasantly in the dark.

At Trompie’s suggestion, we climbed a nearby hill overlooking the camp. Our remoteness is genuine. We could see hundreds of miles in every direction and not a sign of humanity except a single dirt road. The landscape is desolate, all yellow and brown. At sunset a herd of wild donkeys sauntered by.

In the open-air dining hall we ate kudu stew with rice. Afterward, the cooks and servers serenaded us with native songs. Their harmonies reminded me of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Chipping and clicking

For my morning shower, the temperature choices were cold or nearly cold. I went with nearly cold. 

Twyfelfontein, Namibia
Twyfelfontein petroglyphs

We boarded the ice-cream truck and left to tour Twyfelfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Abu Huab Valley. In Afrikaans, Twyfelfontein means doubtful fountain. The Damara, in their language, call the area jumping waterhole.

Over thousands of years, various groups of hunter-gatherers, including Damara and San, passed through the valley, hunting and performing shamanistic rituals. They left behind a gallery of art.

Over five thousand petroglyphs have been chipped into the varnished sandstone slabs. The oldest might have been engraved ten thousand years ago.

A young local guide led us through the talus field, stopping to point out various carved images. Many of the petroglyphs are of animals—elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebra, antelope, ostriches, and flamingos. Sea creatures, including seals, dolphins, and penguins, are also represented. The San encountered them when visiting the coast, some sixty miles away.

Twyfelfontein, Namibia
Twyfelfontein petroglyph

Hunters, footprints, and geometric symbols are also carved into the red rocks. Much of the art is believed to depict the visions seen by shamans while in induced trances. One such figure is the “lion man”—part lion, part human.

At the conclusion of the tour, I complimented the guide on his English. He replied, “English is the food of Namibia.”

He then proceeded to demonstrate one of the Khoisan languages, which uses clicking noises for certain consonants. (The sounds are represented in English text with the symbols ! and .)

He coaxed us into attempting a Khoisan phrase. We stood in a circle clicking at each other, laughing at our poor pronunciation.

Hot bus, cold trail

Before leaving Twyfelfontein, Trompie asked if any desert elephants had passed through the neighborhood recently.

Herders' Shelter, Damaraland, Namibia
Herders’ shelter in Damaraland

Desert-adapted elephants have smaller bodies, longer legs, and wider feet. Around six hundred of them migrate between watering holes in the Namib Desert.

An experienced tracker, Trompie hoped to locate the herd in the wild. We set out north on bone-shaking single-lane dirt roads, stopping several times in order for Trompie to look for the spoor of elephants.

The day grew warmer. During the tour, daytime temperatures reached the nineties. The ice-cream truck, despite its moniker, was not equipped with air-conditioning. We opened the windows for fresh air, but every passing vehicle filled the cabin with dust.

Eventually, we developed a system. When another vehicle approached, Trompie yelled “Windows!” from the front and we rushed to close them.

C39 & D2612, Damaraland, Namibia
Convenience store in Damaraland

In a dry riverbed, Trompie found signs of the elephants—tracks in the dust, bowling ball-sized dung, and broken branches. On foot, we followed him silently until a baboon spotted our party of twelve and bellowed. Trompie complained, “Now, all of the animals know we are here.”

The trail was a few days old anyway. We unloaded a camp table and chairs from the truck and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the shade. Danny kept a lookout for lions.

On the way back to Camp Xaragu, we stopped at a human watering hole—a tiny concrete convenience store with a dirt floor and a satellite dish. A donkey cart was parked out front.

Trompie bought a round of Castle lagers, advising “The more Castles you drink, the quicker you find your princess.”

Donkey cart, Damaraland, Namibia
Test-driving a local donkey cart

Giraffes gone wild

After leaving camp the next morning, we spotted several animals in the wild—ostriches, black-backed jackals, helmeted guineafowl, a tawny eagle, a strutting secretarybird, a southern black korhaan (another species of bird), and numerous antelope, including springbok, blesbok, kudu, and a stately oryx that stared us down.

Most incredibly, four wild giraffes walked down the road toward us. We watched quietly as they took a few steps in our direction, paused, and then edged into the grass. They stepped gracefully with their spindly legs and craned their necks to keep track of us. It was a thrill to see them on the loose.

After refueling in Palmweg, we made our way east through the flat-topped mountains of the Etendeka Plateau, stopping occasionally for breathtaking views of the Klip River Valley.

Giraffes, Namibia

The mountains were created 132 million years ago during what may have been the largest volcanic eruption in the history of the world.

The explosion occurred during (and perhaps as a result of) the splitting of Africa and South America into separate continents. The lava flow spread over parts of what are now Namibia and Angola in Africa, and Brazil and Argentina in South America.

We bought lunch at a grocery in the village of Kamanjab and people-watched at the crowded open market. Tables overflowed with produce, household goods, and secondhand clothing. In one stall a barber cut hair; in another, a mechanic repaired flat tires; in a third, a seamstress stitched a dress. The smattering of tourists largely ignored them.

Oryx, Namibia

Instead, all eyes were on the women of the Herero and the Himba.

The Herero people were heavily infuenced by German colonial culture and have adopted the look.

The women wear voluminous floor-length Victorian gowns of bright patterns, gathered above the waist and puffed at the sleeves. Their large headdresses are shaped like the horns of cows. They appear to be extras in period dramas from the 1800s.

The Himba choose, instead, to undress for success. Himba women wear very little—just calfskin miniskirts and jewelry. They smear their bare skin with a paste made from butter, ochre pigment, and herbs that give them an orange-pink glow. Their intention is to beautify, but the lotion also works as sunblock, insect repellant, and moisturizer.

Etendeka Plateau, Namibia
Etendeka Plateau

The two styles, one over-the-top and one topless, shirts and skins, paraded around the market in search of paid photo opps.

Pecking order

We passed through the settlement of Otjikondo, Namibia, and entered Etosha National Park mid-afternoon, immediately spotting giraffes and zebra. The ice-cream truck had a soft tire, so Trompie and Danny left us at the Okaukuejo waterhole while they sought to have it repaired.

We sat in a viewing stand and watched in awe as animals took turns approaching the water in some predetermined pecking order.

First the elephants waded in, six of them. Their combined mass displaced all of the other animals. They took their time, drinking, bathing, spraying, and wallowing. The other animals hung back. Once the elephants were satified, they lumbered out of the pool and made room for the giraffes.

Etosha National Park, Namibia
Okaukuejo, Etosha National Park

Three of them cautiously approached the water’s edge.

In order for a giraffe to lower its long neck toward the water, it must widely splay its front legs. The position looks precarious and vulnerable to attack.

The giraffes spend a lot of time looking nervously around before committing to a sip.

When the zebras’ turn came, they charged into the water as a group, splashing like kids in a pool. One by one, steenbok, springbok, kudu, and other species of antelope sneaked drinks when they could.

The scene at the waterhole unfolded on schedule as if the animals had called ahead for reservations. “Giraffe? Party of three? My apologies. We’ll need a couple of minutes to prepare your hole. The elephants are just leaving.”

To read “Memories of Africa (Part 2),” please see the next post.

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