Yesterday, Today, and Damara

We are in Etosha National Park now, back on the grid (barely) after three days in the stark northern Damaraland region, so buckle up: this will be a long post with lots of photos. (And I should confess that the title is not quite as clever as it appears on the page because the accent is actually on the first syllable: DAMara.)

We flew – in formation! – in two small planes from Walvis Bay to Damaraland, through dust-filled skies over harsh Martian terrain reminiscent of Death Valley. In the photo below I had to stretch the contrast in Photoshop till it screamed for mercy, because what it looked like to the naked eye was a vaguely orange fog with no visible features. The sand particles here are so fine that (a) the wind carries them aloft with ease in inconceivable quantities, and (b) everything, and I mean everything, gets ultrafine grit in it, including camera equipment and bodily orifices.

One of the odd side effects of the particulate-laden atmosphere is that the intense sunlight is scattered like crazy, every solar photon getting bounced hither and yon before it reaches the ground. Which in practice means that sky is fully light a solid half hour before dawn. (I was flabbergasted one morning when I awoke to photograph the sunrise and mistakenly thought that I had misread my watch, since it was daylight and I had obviously missed it – only to see a wan orange disk creep over the distant mountains about twenty minutes later.) On the plus side, all that dust acts like a pretty effective UV blocker, so that despite the intense midday sun even I with my generally pasty complexion and vitiligo-mottled hands have not picked up any sunburn.

The wind dies down completely after sunset, however, and the dust partly settles out, which means that other than everything looking rather reddish when close to then horizon, the night sky is spectacular. Here’s the center of our Galaxy, the densest part of the Milky Way, straight overhead at about 9 PM.

That’s a 20 second time exposure, if you’re interested. Here’s another view, looking low on the horizon.

Damaraland has two types of terrain, both of them sandy. Part of it looks like the area around Kulala, i.e. rippled trackless lose sand punctuated by dunes. The more common terrain is packed sand, grey-brown hardpan strewn with sandstone and granite rubble, dotted with stunted acacia and mopane trees. There is a distant low mountain range, the Etendekas, which somply means “flat top”. If this all sounds rather survival-challenged and uninviting, it really comes down to whether you like deserts, which I do. (I could do without the grit in my ears, though.)

Our stay was it the Doro Nawas Lodge, which if you want to be a linguistic stickler should actually be written Doro !Nawas, with an exclamation point at the front of the second word. (Whoa… Microsoft word does not like that, and is complaining to me about it as I type.) It is a click sound, a “tok” made by pulling the tongue off the roof of the mouth as you say the N. There are actually four different click sounds in Damara (and San, the Bushman language), each represented in the Roman alphabet with a different punctuation mark: !, /, //, and ǂ. They sound sort of – emphasis on the sort of — like a tok, and a tcht, and a tsk, and something that I can’t even figure out a combination of letters for, let alone actually say. Even Damara children cannot pronounce them until the age of six or so. When the locals converse it sounds like they are talking while dropping marbles onto hollow wooden blocks.

The lodge appears from the outside like Mad Max’s secret fortress, a low dark wood and stone structure situated commandingly on a hilltop and ringed by cabins lower down the slope.

It is very pleasant, with few interior walls and all open to the outside. Our cabin is beautiful, a full bungalow perhaps 800 square feet (74 square m) in size with both indoor and outdoor showers and an enormous sliding glass door/window nearly 30 ft (9 m) long looking out over the desert towards the south. Everything is made of stone and dark wood like the lodge, and the cathedral ceiling looks straight up onto the underside of the thatched roof and its round rough wood beams (tree trunks, of course).

Damaraland is known for its elephants, so I might as well lay a bunch of elephant photos on you right now before I go all didactic on you.

These are desert elephants, unique to the region and a source of no little controversy. Although taxonomically and genetically identical to the “usual” African elephants, they enjoy some important and easily seen adaptations to desert life. They are noticeably smaller than their more common cousins, for one thing, with much thinner tusks and long skinny legs. (Long and skinny for an elephant, anyway.)

There is considerable controversy surrounding these animals. The national government maintains that there is no important difference between these elephants and the other 20,000 throughout the country, and that there is thus no reason not to sell expensive hunting licenses to wealthy foreigners. At the same time – speaking out of the other side of its institutional face – the selfsame government markets these permits at a premium by maintaining to those wealthy foreigners that the desert elephants are rare and special. Exactly how rare is also a point of dispute: game spotters and NGOs maintain that there are only about 120 of them; the government claims that there are 600. Nine hunting permits have already been sold, all to one wealthy and famous South African hunter Johan Louw. But the outcry over the beasts’ rarity (or not) has inhibited him from actually using them. (Karma is a Bitch Department: Louw was injured by an elephant, and his client killed, by an elephant during a hunting party in a different part of the country several months ago.

The locals have mixed feelings about all this. Elephants bring a lot of tourism to the country, but the government is so corrupt that most of those dollars do not flow down to the grass roots to fund infrastructure, schools, etc. What does happen at the village level is that the elephants destroy things, notably water wells. So the corruption problem is going to have to be alleviated before conservation efforts get the necessary amount of support at the local level.

We visited one of those villages, a Damara farming community where the village elders, who with the entire population of a few hundred, had been relocated to this patch of desert by apartheid policies in 1974.  Here’s the village, which comprises a couple of hundred people, a few goats, and some garden plots. Only one resident is brave enough to raise a garden of substantial size. Why? Well, you know how hard it is to keep pesky deer and rabbits from eating your vegetable garden? And how the bigger the garden, the bigger the problem? Now replace the deer and rabbits with elephants. A chicken-wire fence will not do the job.

You may conclude from the photo above that the village is not the most inviting place to live, and I can state with confidence that if I and my family were forcibly relocated there that we would not survive a week. (“Satya! STAY AWAY FROM THAT ELEPH… oh jeez….”) However, by their own standards the village is doing OK, and the elders at least stated that they were happy there.

They seemed to be receiving a fair amount of government support, in the form of financial subsidies, well boreholes, and even a very rare kindergarten school. This seems to be at least one case where the system is working more or less as it is supposed to, and these two ladies claimed to be very supportive of the desert elephant conservation efforts. (In answer to that question, they responded: “We like the elephants. You’re here because they’re here.”)

In contrast to this village, with real people living their daily hardscrabble lives, we also visited the Damara Living Museum, which if you are an American reading this, you may think of as Naked Colonial Williamsburg. There, local Damara tribespeople don traditional close and demonstrate dances and assorted skills (building a fire, preparing an animal hide, that sort of thing).

It’s hard to know how to feel about this. If I were part of a Jewish congregation making a living by demonstrating bar mitzvahs or seders for tourists I would not be too crazy about it, but Lloyd maintains that these Damara are OK with this, in part because it helps keep the ancient skills and traditions alive. (However, for the record, if I am one of those hypothetical Jewish congregants I am drawing the line at circumcision.)

Relocation aside, desert tribes have lived in this area for a long time. They’ve got the wall art to prove it, in this case petroglyphs on sandstone much as one finds in the American Southwest and in Australia.

Unlike petroglyphs elsewhere, however, these are impossible to date with any certainty. The analogous carvings in the USA and Australia are usually dated by organic or carbon dating analysis of any pigments in the drawings or remains of campfires. But there are no campfire remnants here, nor pigments; they are scratched into the rock. And the utter lack of rainfall means that the carvings erode slowly and unpredictably. As a result, the best that anyone can say is that the petroglyphs are between 2,000 and 6,000, which is an unsatisfyingly wide range.

You can probably infer from the pictures that the geology of this area is very similar to that of the American Southwest, and you’re right. Here is a shot that validates that sense.

The area even boasts a number of petrified forests, both privately and government owned, and they look like, well, petrified forests everywhere. We visited the government-run one, whose centerpiece is a log about 2 ft in diameter and roughly 200 ft (60 m) long, sort of a skinny redwood collapsed onto its side.

Possibly the stars of the local geology are the so-called Organ Pipes, vertical columns of a mélange of minerals, compressed by volcanic pressures into polygonal cross sections.

What this region has that is truly unique, however, is a particular plant, the Welwitschia Mirabilis, a.k.a. the national plant of Namibia. It even appears on the flag.

It’s your typically curious desert plant, that not only requires little water but actually requires it: dump a pitcher of water on it and you’ll kill it. The root system only goes down about a foot or so (30 cm) and is a big bulbous thing for water storage.  It’s very slow growing and long-lived — this one is decades old, the leaves thick and leathery.

We left Damara this morning and, as I type this, have already had a game-rich day in Etosha, further to the north. More about that when I get a chance, but I will leave you with our farewell visitor to our cabin in Doro !Nawas this morning, sitting on a fence post about four feet away from me. I have a nice photo of him, but I think Alice’s little watercolor captures the moment nicely.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Yesterday, Today, and Damara

  1. Anonymous

    What an amazing place. Alice’s drawings are getting better each time I see one.
    Have fun you two! – Angie

  2. Amazing! Great photos! And Alice’s watercolor is wonderful!

  3. howlevmuso

    [jaw drops] Brava, Alice! How did I not know that you were an accomplished painter? Mea culpa!

  4. Frank Venuti

    I am truly enjoying your posts and photos. I have a thousand questions, but will ask just two –

    Do the Damarans have multiple descriptive words for “sand”, as Eskimos do for snow?

    If you could approach these elephants this easily for your pictures, where in heaven’s name is the sport in hunting them?

    Thanks for sharing, and enjoy your trip.

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