Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Namibia: Diamonds on the soles of my shoes, Part II

“In the wildest parts of one of the most desolate and useless tracts of land which earth can show, bare surfaces of rock thickly studded with lustrous gems as the showcases of a jeweler’s window, surely put to shame even the celebrated legends of Sinbad the Sailor. It is almost as if Nature, conscious of her injustice to this portion of the African continent had added the diamonds as an afterthought by way of making amends.”
 P.A. Wagner, geologist

I sit silently and alone in the historical Felsenkirche, Church of the Rock and wonder about all the souls that have entered this building over the last 100 years. What troubles and insecurities weighed on them?  When diamonds revealed themselves beneath the desolate dunes, did the people of Luderitz feel remembered and blessed by God? Or with the greed and tragedy that shadows diamonds, did they feel even more forsaken? 

One of the many signs stating the obvious

I have been in Luderitz for 10 days. This is about 9.5 days longer than most visitors stay. I have had 9 cappuccinos and 75 oysters—one of the few fresh, local foods in Luderitz.  A wise woman just wrote to me and said: “When I am reborn I will be a grain of sand, which blows all over the world...”.  I loved the idea of this, and apparently there are bazillions of sand grains, which are quite content right here on the coast.  When these little grains aren’t forming the landscape and hiding diamonds, they will take the paint off your car in a strong wind. It is because of these winds that Luderitz and Walvis Bay have become meccas for champion kite surfers and speed sailors.

 Because this desert landscape is littered with diamonds, the little town of Luderitz is brimming with history*—much of it tragic.  Before it became a German colony in 1884, Namibia belonged to an array of native Africans: The Bushmen (San), Ovambo, Nama (Hottentots), Herero, and others.  Many ships have come and gone from Luderitz Bay over the centuries. Oddly enough, even the CSS Alabama used neighboring Shark Island as a base during the US Civil War. It pirated a ship, Seabride and just as Captain Griffith decided to take the booty and head to Madagascar, the Vanderbilt from the Northern States caught up with him, seized the ship and executed him as a traitor.

When diamonds were discovered in the late 1800’s, it would not have been unusual to see lines of men inching across the sand on their stomachs in search of these tiny sparkling stones.  Some valleys, one of them known as Marchental or Fairy tail valley, yielded stones as large as 53 carats. Emil Kreplin and August Stauch were 2 of the many high rollers during the diamond boom in the early 1900’s even though Zacharias Lewala (working for Stauch) was the first to actually find a diamond.

August Stauch
Zacharias Lewala
Emil was a blacksmith and later became the mayor of Luderitz, providing horses for both racing and diamond mining.  In fact, some of the wild horses today are believed to be descendants of his original stud farm.  August was a humble railway worker just outside of Luderitz who, in 2 years time returned to Germany as a diamond millionaire in 1908.  Both of them were immensely successful, but as with anyone who dabbles in diamonds, tragedy and loss were mainstays in their lives. Mo’ diamonds, mo’ problems.  Emil, penniless, shot himself and August, although he lived until 1947, died broke. And the diamonds? Who knows where they have all ended up over the years, but if those stones could speak…oh, they stories they would tell.

Luderitz from the view of the church. Emil Kreplin's house is the baby blue one.

4 of the hundreds of African penguins as seen from the boat
About 200 years ago it was discovered that islands along the Namibian coast were home to large numbers of sea birds, including the charismatic African penguin. Imagine a pile of bird doo-doo 75-feet deep blanketing each island.  Rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, bird guano was a hot commodity for the fertilizer market.  At one point, warships were sent in to maintain law & order as reports were coming in of men (6,000 of them) not only throwing penguin eggs, but also beating each other with dead penguins.  In a matter of a few years, the nutrient-rich, nest- building guano was scraped clean, like frosting off a cupcake.  Today, in addition to the dilapidated houses, the Ministry of Fisheries has implemented half-buried garbage bins and stacked tires for the penguins to use as nesting sites on Mercury Island.  New England Aquarium Education folks: work that story into your next penguin talk! 

 Despite the gale force winds, lack of rain (about 1” annually) and the moonscape that surrounds Luderitz, it is blessed with amazing, yet fragile biodiversity.  Halifax, Ichaboe, Possessions and Mercury Island host most of the Namibian population of African Penguins, Cape Gannets, and almost 80% of the global population of Bank Cormorants.  The nimble and endemic Haviside dolphins as well as bottlenose dolphins, swift terns, Cape fur seals, humpbacks and Southern right whales navigate these chilly nutrient-rich waters. Often there are giant smacks of jellyfish, which in turn attracts leatherback turtles to gorge on the gelatinous buffet.
Diorama of Luderitz Bay at the one room museum

The sun breathes light into portraits all around me.  One of them depicts Peter grasping the gown of Jesus. He is sinking in the Sea of Galilee while Jesus defies gravity on the surface. Another illuminates the story of Jesus with the woman at the well—the theme of water resonates. It makes me think of everyone who has tried to make it here in this isolated and unforgiving habitat…the bitterly cold bay that still keeps most people away, but gives life to everything beneath and the fresh water that at one point was more expensive than beer and champagne during the diamond boom.  As I make my way down the hill, everything seems to sparkle. Glimmers of mica in granite and on the ground bedazzle my slow walk back to the hotel.  The saying should go, “granite is a girl’s best friend” because diamonds always seem to stab you in the back in the end.  With that, I pick up a tiny chunk of granite, slip it into my pocket and suddenly, I’m not so lonely anymore.

*Most of the history from this entry originated from the fantastic book by Olga Levinson called Diamonds in the Desert: The story of August Stauch and his times.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Namibia: Diamonds on the soles of my shoes, Part I

Dead Vlei

Have you ever thought about landscapes reflecting your personality? I wonder if that’s why we are each attracted to certain kinds of surroundings. Crossing the Orange River into Namibia was like accessing a chunk of my soul that I never knew existed. This country is not what I expected...sort of like my life.  It's vast and complicated, solitary yet symbiotic, constantly changing but at times stagnant and aimless. Just when you think you are familiar, something completely different comes along, like a river after miles of boulder fields, or dusty gravel plains after a frigid rock pool. We are so similar to landscapes—all of us.What is yours?
Quiver tree
I am here. I am in this place—known by some as “the smile on the face of Africa”. And I find this humorous because I did nothing but frown as a child. I think, subconsciously, my parents had no choice but to name me Sunnye. You can’t frown forever with a name like mine. 

I have been in my "soul country" for 2 weeks and I am going to write about this in 2 entries. Part II will be centered on the small diamond-mining town of Luderitz, so stay tuned. 

Namibia is a pinch larger than Texas and hosts a whopping 2 million residents. This is mind blowing for me since my home “village” of Houston alone pulses with the same number of people. New York City has just over 8 million.  And you immediately feel this dearth of humanness as you drive through the south since most of the population lives in the north where there is more rainfall. It is understandable why we only saw a car every 2-3 hours.

Went for a refreshing swim in the Fish River
For better or worse, Namibia was put on the map of many American minds when “Brangelina” decided to have one of their 95 babies in Walvis Bay/Swakopmund area—basically the central west coast. However, Namibia has been the darling of the geologic paparazzi for eons.  If the break-up of Gondwanaland was a rock concert, Namibia was in the mosh pit. As a geeky rock and mineral collector, I look at every landscape here and wonder what the story is.  There’s folding, subduction, mud cracking, tilting, dune and mountain building, rivers, boulder piles, canyons, weathering, endless gravel plains and badlands. The list goes on…for millions of years.  Every time I look out the car window, the land is reading a different chapter of the story of this land.  My most frequent comment when looking out the window is: “Huh, wonder what happened there.”

The border: we arrived at the border at 11:30 pm—a posh little outpost in the middle of nowhere with AC courtesy of the World Cup in 2010.  The Namibian woman who stamped my passport would have fit right in at City Hall in Boston.  Give me your passport—I’m not here to chat—it’s 11:30—GFY…in the nicest possible way.  At the Amanzi Trails River Camp, a spotted owl and a wide-eyed border collie with a mutilated soccer ball greeted us.  The next morning, I awoke to the Orange River gently flowing and dividing South Africa and Namibia. I noticed instantly that my skin was beginning to mimic the environment. I saw tiny gullies and canyons forming on the backs of my hands and a mud-cracked sheen over my arms and legs as the opportunistic atmosphere sucked water from every possible source, including my body.

Aus: This is a tiny little sparkle on the map that is known for its horses. And although these horses are considered wild, I never would have known this after my encounter with them just off the highway. In my defense, I was reading about the horses when I saw them and I did not learn (until after the fact) that approaching them is discouraged. Oops.

The total population of wild horses ranges from 90-200, depending on the season. I have never had a moment in the wild when I said, “I want to see (enter wildlife’s name)” and then they magically appear. But there they were—about 8-10 of them grazing 50 yards from the fence (which isn’t a true fence because it does eventually peter out).
Wild Namib Horses in Aus

I crossed the road, approached slowly and quietly as they were all keenly alert to my presence. Once I reached the fence, stood still and cocked my head to the left and said hello…the first one started coming. And then…the rest slowly followed behind. They seemed fairly confident and it made me back up a bit. Horse bites don’t feel good—this I know.  But I came back and we danced back and forth a bit on that fragile line of trust.

I cannot tell you why, but I started humming and then singing…a medley from The Sound of Music. Yeah. The WHOA (Wild Horses of Aus) seemed aware of my singing—all ears perked like stumpy antennae.  And then the bold one put her head over the fence. I held my hand open just below her giant contracting nostrils.  And we did this for a while. I talked she listened. She talked I listened. Another approached, but she just couldn’t bring herself to the fence—too risky.

And then, I held up my open hand…just inches away from her forehead. And she slowly, gently pressed her forehead into the palm of my hand.  I scratched a little, she pressed in a little. And after 30 minutes, I peeled my heart off the hot Namibian highway and drove on.  Wild dolphins AND horses…all in a period of 4 months?

That night I slept under a giant weaver nest and a cool, crisp quilt of stars. I remember these stars from my childhood in Wimberley, Texas. I remember night skies being so much darker as a child. And it made me realize that artificial light has slowly crept into my life.  I wonder if with each new generation, we are slowly losing the instinct to look up at night simply because there is less to see.  But I digress.

Weaver nest above with a downed chunk on the left
I woke up to a cackle of squeaky toys the next morning. Sociable weavers, along with other species of weavers in Namibia have painstakingly build nests large enough to host 30-100 breeding pairs.  These winged zealots often build to the point of collapse as I saw downed clumps of nest near the tree on several occasions.  In the nest above my campsite, I counted at least 32 “doors” in which these tiny blue-beaked creatures would pop in and out to fetch more material for the nest. Their work ethic was inspiring, but like us, they also do not seem to know when to stop and just be happy with the size of their nest.

Naukluft Mountains: I had the opportunity to visit Neuras Winery, the driest vineyard in the world. They make only 3,500 bottles a year of syrah and a red blend.  The zoologist who is surveying the surrounding land warned me before I went on a self- guided tour to avoid going into the reeds surrounding the vineyard as they were teeming with black mambas, Cape cobras, and spitting cobras. No big deal.

Solitaire: This, as the name implies, was a raging metropolis consisting of a gas station, cafĂ©, convenient store, and German bakery all owned and operated by a bearded white Zambian named “Moose.” The best apple strudel and open air showers that Namibia has to offer are in Solitaire.
Sunset in Solitaire

Swakopmund: Driving through badlands, Kuiseb River valley and unnervingly barren gravel plains, we arrived in Swakopmund. After sleeping under the stars in the desert for a week, Swakop invites you to switch gears and eat all the soft pretzel and spaeztle you can before hitting the road again. You feel the German influence in Swakop. Everything is quaint, clean and organized.  They have a small theater and my friend and I were the only people in the theater to see The Lorax and I am not sure if it is because we were in the middle of nowhere or because the movie was horrible.  Either way, I enjoyed my popcorn.

Sandwich Harbor, Walvis Bay

Walvis Bay: Just 20 miles south of Swakop lies “Whale Bay”. And because the two towns lie so close together on the map, it seems only human that a bit of a rivalry simmers between them.  From my humble perspective, I think they both have something great to offer any visitor.  Swakop has great people, pretzels, handmade rugs & kudu leather boots, architecture, and oysters. Walvis has great family feel, waterfront area, and calamari. I loved them both!  Staying with an actual family in Walvis certainly accounted for more of a family feel to my experience. They were the warmest and most generous people I have met in Namibia.  We explored the dunes peppered with pelicans, jackals, seal skeletons and jellyfish in Sandwich Harbor and I had what I would consider the best calamari in the world.  They were the size of onion rings and an “OMG” buttery texture that you could easily cut with a fork.
Sandwich Harbor, Walvis Bay

Mud cracks at Sossusvlei
Sossusvlei: The red dunes are probably one of the most popular attractions in Namibia. Tour buses full of cameras attached to people from all over the world come to see this landscape particularly at sunrise and sunset. Dead Vlei is a valley of dead trees nestled in symmetrically cracked clay. It is surrounded by red dunes and is a photo lover’s dream. Surprisingly, we were the only ones there for a couple of hours, which made the feeling of being on another planet even more intense.  I walked barefoot through this bygone arbor and the cool clay under my feet combined with the relentless sun on my head kept me at the perfect temperature.  An oryx, just a black spec against red backdrop fed in the distance and reminded to put my camera away and just be there.
And then came Luderitz, but more on that in the next entry.