Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Deserted Beauty


It’s hard to write when you’re exploring a continent (and having fun). Too many stories and too little time to write. It’s been about 2.5 weeks since I last wrote anything and I’m only doing it now because I’m sitting here icing my ankle. Swollen, ow.

Seriously, I could have hurt myself any time in the past 3 months, especially in east Africa, anywhere where they boil giant pots in the crowded markets or on the broken down sidewalks. Or maybe hiking, or on the street with the mad insane reckless driving they do up there. But No.

It was really stupid how it happened. Of all the places I could have injured myself it was in one of the safest neighborhoods in Pretoria (South Africa), on a goddamn sidewalk while getting dropped off in front of the backpackers here. Not even walking fast. Just one step and rolled onto my butt in the street.

But - Fate has a way of working itself out.

In a blink, darkness settles outside and a thunderstorm rolls in. So, now I can’t even bother going outside to the log cabin where I’ll be sleeping tonight. Nobody’s around so, it’s me, the lodge receptionist, Alfred, and a computer. He keeps me preoccupied with stories of being a soldier in Sudan for the SA army. I can barely keep my eyes open at this point, sadly tired, but I struggle to stay awake while we wait for dinner to arrive. We swap stories of Uganda and Sudan,Rwanda and Burundi. Our experiences are similar in what we observe there.

Southern Africans have it lucky. What I mean by Southern Africa is not just SA, but inclusive of countries like, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, even. I call South Africa, especially the garden route and Cape Town, the “Nice Beginners” Africa, despite the bad rap it gets about all the crime, etc. The main reason why is because it is simply easier for a westerner to travel. If you have never left the USA, Canada or some other first world country before you will find it relatively easy to travel through Southern Africa. Why? You have good infrastructure – good roads, transit. Gas stations are well stocked with supplies and toilet facilities of reasonable cleanliness and actually work. Plus, the tourism industry is really well developed. At the McDonald’s in George on the Garden Route, there are signs on the door that indicate it is a backpackers bus stop. There is catering, delivery, pickup, laundry facilities. Consistent Electricity. Black south Africans moan when there is no electricity. Try that with East Africa. When the power gets cut several times a week, sometimes several times a day; they simply yawn and just wait for it to come back again.

Rolling back to - Namibia

In Capetown I hunted around for options to get to Namibia.

Option 1: Take a 19 hr bus ride to Windhoek, then go from there and miss everything in between.
Option 2: Rent a car and drive it.
Option 3: Overland tour 7 days to Swakopmund and then figure out how to get to Windhoek.

Option 2 looked really attractive until I heard how bad the roads were from another American who had just driven down to CT from Namibia. Many of the main highways are just gravel straight up for miles on end. Amidst 5 ciggies and baggy eyes, I hear: Bumpy, exhausting, hellish desert, 30 hours. And now, with the rains, many roads towards sossusvlei are washed out. Trucks? No problem. But a small car? Forget it. Driving on the left side of the road would have been interesting, though.

Ok, so I finally caved in and did a 7 day overland tour. Moo. Herd. Clueless tourists is the first thing that come to mind. A part of me wishes I didn’t.

Turns out I got lucky and with the flooding I would have never made it Sossusvlei otherwise.The tour is small, with a group of germans, dutch and some Australians. I’m the only American.Ai Ais is a place in the south of Namibia where I think where we went canoeing. It is really quiet and beautiful. The water banks almost lined with sand and only a few feet of green vegetation. Really odd, how dry it is and suddenly a body of water right in between it all. A day later, we visit Fish River Canyon, the oldest canyon in the world. It is rocky, dense and dry this time of the year. The rocks along the edges are like slate.

Keetmanshoop is an interesting stop over. The cars here are few and infrequent. Drive slowly. It is a sleepy, gambling, small supermarket shop town. And there is on a few blocks a ‘China shop’ where people from China have set up stores to sell goods imported from China. Just oddly out of place.
Soussusvlei, particularly deadvlei is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Africa.

All at once you have an intense surreal color in dryness – almost an unnatural beauty, both simultaneously deviously dead and alive.

We hike Dune 45. By this point it is hot, almost scorchingly so. It is a steep but deceptive climb. Every few steps forward you slide, without warning, sometimes forward, other times backward. It is emotionally draining. I dare not look down while I keep crawling up. It seems like there is no end to the top. It feels almost defeatist at times, like the sand is going to cave out under you and sending hurling down the sides with no warning. Hopeless, fearful is what I feel. Like there is no love in this world, no love to save you when you need it the most. Like whatever you do, everyone will just leave you behind, like you are failure to no end. But you have no where to go, no where to stop, because if you stop, you will just slip down the hill, and you can’t tell how far it is, it is so flat simultaneously so far down, so painfully dry and ready to tear away at your skin if you fall into it. But you have to go up, continue forwards, even through it feels like your lungs are about to collapse from the dry heat. Its not even that far up, I tell myself. I could only keep going by looking at my feet. One slippery step at a time, feet heavier with each step as the sand crept into my shoes, making them heavier each second. Then, finally without much of an announcement, people are standing in front of me. This was the top. I cried, tears pouring nonsensically down my cheeks with relief. I did not want to come down.



Swakopmund is a lot like a German town in the middle of the desert. No, correction – it is Germany in the middle of the desert. A lot of white people. The cars drive extremely slow here, almost unbearably so. Small VW bugs. Uniform. Simple. Just a white, sandy quiet town. In the middle of nowhere. And horribly overcast most of the year.

At the Villa I am staying at, I meet a young man, rather wide eyed, round faced, and with short blond hair, somewhere in his late teens. I quickly discover that he is the son of the property owner. We talk and I hear that Namibia didn’t want to be a part of the mess SA was, with apartheid. But, he wants to have a farm someday in Namibia, even though he knows it will be difficult. I ask why he wants a farm so bad? When his family is running a Villa? He says, “because I am a boer. I want to farm. It is what we do. Farm. And I know that our younger generations will suffer because of what our ancestors did with apartheid. We have a saying for that in our culture.”

There is a tourist arcade in Swakopmund called the Brauhaus arcade. It is a lot like little Germany. The houses are colored brightly, almost too brightly for the dull gray weather. Seeing sandunes just at the edges of town is almost too surreal.

In the Brauhaus arcade, I discovered a daily shuttle called Town hoppers that runs from Swakopmund toWindhoek. It is the mini version of the south African Baz Bus. Much quicker than the train which takes all day but twice as expensive at 220N. The train goes for 79N but is a full day and is super slow.

Namibian dollars are interchangeable with SA Rands.1 to 1. Pay in rands and get back change in both currencies. But if you brought Namibian dollars into SA. Forget it. You can't get change anywhere, except if you traded with a tourist going back. And that's exactly what I did, with two guys from Argentina going back to Namibia from Vic falls. They flew into Windhoek from Buenos Aires. We swap stories. They long to go to Mozambique but moan about how difficult it is for them to get a visa. Strange, because it is no trouble for Brazilians. I have no knowledge of the politics in Latin America but that I something I promise to do next year.

Lots of overlanders here in Swakopmund. I meet a bunch of older kiwis in their 50s that are overlanding in a group from Cairo to Cape, all driving their own 4x4s with 2 guides in their own vehicle. The 2 guides are from Nairobi, Australians originally. They started initially in Jordan. I hear that they had to ferry their vehicles over a portion of the middle east between Jordan and Egypt, just to avoid Israel. The reason why is because if the Sudanese have any suspicious that you have entered Israel recently, they will not allow you to enter Sudan at all. They hate the Israelis. I hear they insert a piece of paper with a stamp on it during border crossings in Israel, and then take it out of your passport when you exit the country. Something similar happens with Americans in Cuba via mexico.

At breakfast, I have a English bloke talking excitedly about coming to visit America. And wanting to know if it was safe to drive across the country – worries about getting mugged. He was really blond, literally and figuratively. I said, only if you don’t open your mouth you’ll be fine. And don’t be stupid and go into bad areas at night by yourself.

I go sandboarding and quadbiking. The quadbiking is amazing across the dunes. You can push the bikes limits and go literally sideways on the dunes. Absolutely thrilling. Some of the best fun yet I’ve had here on the continent. Sandboarding is pretty awesome. I do the standup so that I get my taste of boarding. Never done it before, but I am told it is slower than snowboarding and a good place to start boarding. 1st try on the board I’m already zooming down the hill and staying vertical! Cool beans. I manage to do a sweet stop at the end after the first couple of tries downhill. The boards are designed for sandboarding, and they put a coat of wax on the boards before each run to keep it slick and prime it after with some sand; otherwise you just get stuck and don’t move because of the friction. The scariest and most adrenaline run – the lie down boarding – super fast down hill. Its really deceptive because sand makes things look different – you feel like you’re going vertical at one point. Amazing ride. Had so much fun here. Only missed out on the skydive but maybe next time.

I meet several groups of American students in Swakopmund. Semester at Sea, Furman university, others studying abroad at UCT. The largest group of Americans I’ve come across yet. I’m proud to say that every group is racially diverse. They all have the same accent. Now I can hear it after spending weeks around dutch, germans, Afrikaans. And there is a certain arrogance to the American attitude. Can’t place my finger on exactly what.


Of all the places, I’d imagine one could be robbed, Windhoek doesn’t seem to hit the top of the list. However, upon arrival I hear that several of the guests have been robbed. One, several times in one day. Gack. The area is approaching 35% unemployment and the diamond industry has tanked as of late. I arrived Sunday, and the town was dead. Almost everything was closed, a few locals meandering on the streets. The local mall is open but go there and expect to be robbed if you are carrying anything in your hands.

Despite this, Cameleon backpackers is a good place to stay. Not much late night entertainment, so a bunch of Norwegian, French and South African 20 somethings and I amuse each other with SA trivial pursuit. We are all so bad, it is hilarious. But one thing is really obvious, American media has made its dent worldwide. Everyone knows the names of actors and movies from Hollywood at the drop of a hat. And yes, everybody speaks English. They don’t like late night randying or lights so we had to use our own flashlights and play in the dark.

Once again, I meet someone who is driving Cape to Cairo, and then some. This one is an interesting character. Andy is French, on break, and worked for a French-Jewish South African NGO. The plan is to drive from Cape to Cairo and then overland to Morocco via Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and then up through Spain to Marseille. Along the way, he is showing a variety of films on silver screen mounted off his 4x4 truck and hoping to get some reaction and input from locals. Neat idea, although his hard drive just crashed and is now stuck in Windhoek for a week waiting for repairs because he only has one copy of all those movies!

I meet an Australian girl, Candace, who has been working as a volunteer in the rural western cape of SA. Originally from SA, she is doing a border hop so that she can extend her stay in SA as an Australian citizen. One thing I have learned, while traveling; not to rely on pre-planned trips by travel agents. She got ripped off for her trip to Namibia. Had she traveled on her own to the backpackers it would have cost her far less money, but she would have had to plan it out herself. It takes a bit of time to plan, but then you have the free to change your mind and see different things as you go. I think I have finally relaxed and destressed because ask me 2 months ago, I would have seen things differently, and been worried at each step in SA. EA is an entirely different story; I can’t see myself relaxing there at all.

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