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, café, 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.


  1. i love everything about this. you weave words well, my friend.

  2. Really??!! Thank you. I was feeling in a total funk when I posted this and I decided that no matter what the entry said, I was going to hate it either way, so I just ignored myself, edited and posted. Thanks for reading...