Author Archives: richandalice

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

Nam-Ahab-ia

We hadn’t actually been thinking about whale watching when we came to Nambia, but in retrospect that was a little short-sighted, “Walvis Bay” taking its name from the Afrikaans/Dutch word for “whale”. And so it came to pass that today’s highlight was a whale-, seal-, and dolphin-watching cruise on the catamaran Libertine, carrying about 25 people this morning northward out of the bay.

The weather in Walvis Bay tends to be foggy and gloomy in the morning, clearing up later in the day, and so we departed under pendulous, chilly gray clouds, motoring out past a long sandbar and lighthouse into what appeared to be some kind of ship’s graveyard: sets of two, three, or even eight idle cargo ships lashed together like giant robotic rafts, waiting for a cargo or for permission to depart. Many looked like they had been waiting for a long time, resembling a scene out of the Kevin Costner movie Waterworld.

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The only dash of color in the bay were long files of oyster pots, bobbing in endless tethered rows, waiting for their owners to harvest their catch.

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We were told by Lloyd that actually seeing any whales — humpbacks in this part of the ocean — was by no means guaranteed, but the boat captain offered the consolation that at least a few seals were a sure thing. He related this in a tone that pretty clearly communicated that he had done this way too many times before: a flat, heavily Afrikaans-accented monotone that prompted one of our number to raise his hand and ask the captain to please speak English (which, to the interlocutor’s embarrassment, he was already doing).

But his lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding, Captain Johan knew whereof he spoke, as only a few minutes into the trip a few seals started surfing in our wake…

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…and then actually slid onboard to join the party, knowing that they’d get a handout from the crew.

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The seals were not the only ones who recognized that catamaran = tourists = free food. Around the same time, one of the crew members started whistling in much the same way that one might summon a sheep dog, in this case attracting a couple of shameless pelicans.

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The thing about giant birds, though, is that, um, you need to mop the deck afterwards. (Al, pictured above, remarked, “Guess he wants to buy the boat. He’s already put down a deposit.” <rim shot>)

Seals and pelicans are all very nice, to be sure, but about an hour later and several miles up the coast, we hit the jackpot: a small pod of humpback whales, at least three individuals. These two shots show two of them:03a Walvis Bay 2017-079

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As you can tell from the lower shot, they came quite close to us at least briefly; most of the time they were usually 100-200 meters away. (What you are seeing in the lower picture is the underside of one whale’s mouth in the center of the image — the white thing — and the body of a second whale at left.)

Whales are always thrilling; we have seen them many times in Hawaii but it is a sight that never gets old. You usually spot the waterspout from the blowhole first, then crane your neck (and in my case, camera) around to try and catch a glimpse of as much of their body as you can. Frequently it’s a huge mottled flipper scything out of the water, but occasionally you get lucky and see a good part of the creature’s body at once.

We watched the whales for quite a while, perhaps a half hour before heading back, stopping first to take in an enormous colony of seals covering a long sandy peninsula jutting out from the mainland. They were everywhere: surfing onto the beach, waddling around bumping into each other, fighting, barking, and generally reveling in some kind of gigantic Woodstockian pinniped free-for-all.

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Around the same time we attracted an enormous pod of bottlenose dolphins, surfing alongside (and under) the boat and leaping into the air all around us, an encircling cetacean ballet that kept us snapping our heads from one direction to another as we tried to catch them in the act.  Their arcs are wondrous to behold but a first class pain in the neck to photograph since they happen so fast and so unpredictably. With no time to focus since each launch was at a different distance from us, this is the best I could do:

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In short, it was a more than satisfying boat ride, if a rather chilly one: we had spent most of our time on the upper deck to get a more panoramic view at the cost of some shivers and windburn.

By the time we returned to our hotel in Swakopmund in early afternoon, the sun had broken through — typical weather for this part of the coast — and we set off northward in our two vans, shepherded by Lloyd and our two drivers, Joe and (once again!) Castro. The goal was a little south of Henties Bay, part of the famed Skeleton Coast. But we had to make a couple of surrealistic stops along the way.

The first of these was the entrance the Salt Company Ltd, which shares an expanse of land with the Seabird Guano Company. (You do not want to confuse these two substances when seasoning your food.) The Salt Company uses both reverse osmosis and evaporation ponds to make, well, really large piles of salt like you see here. The terrain is otherwise barren, an endless astringent hardpan of compressed dirt and sand that runs right up to a rocky beach on the ocean. It’s flat for miles and miles, dry as dust (it kinda is dust), devoid of shade or any vegetation, and utterly uninviting.

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It is, in short, not exactly the kind of place you would build a vacation home. Which makes the actual presence of a community of vacation homes mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. The homeowners are at least marginally aware of the incongruity and able to poke a tiny bit of fun at themselves, as you can tell:

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But they have nonetheless each constructed for themselves an electricity-free, trucked-in-water-dependent Lego-like vacation house. Gaily painted in pastels and primary colors, some have solar panels, most have water tanks on the roof, and all make you wonder why the hell anyone in his right mind would want to escape to here. It is definitely the kind of place that people escape from in any number of movies.

As all fourteen of us scratched our heads in bemusement, Joe and Castro brought us to our actual goal, the Skeleton Coast, dubbed by the Namibian Bushmen “The Land God Made in Anger”. Portuguese sailors called it “The Gates of Hell”. The people who built those vacation homes near the salt factory probably call it “prime real estate.”

The degree to which the local flora and fauna adapt to these conditions of extreme aridity is remarkable. I told you a few days ago about the bird that suckles its young through a water pouch in its breast. But I think my favorite is the beetle with the extra-long rear legs. When the fog rolls in in the morning, it extends those legs and so raises its little beetle butt up in the air, thus making about a 30 degree tilt. This increases its cross section to whatever breeze there might be; the fog condenses into microscopic water droplets on its back, which then flow downhill to its waiting mouth. Ta-da! Beetle Yoga as a survival mechanism!

However, a lot of animals and people have not survived, and it is not called the Skeleton Coast for nothing. Here is the wreck of the Zeila, a former fishing trawler that was being sold for scrap; it was being towed to India for salvage when the tow chain broke and the boat ran aground.

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Lloyd informed us that the boat used to be further up the beach, close enough to touch, but is being gradually pulled out to sea by the tides and dismembered by the waves. It isn’t haunted but it probably ought to be. And in case it needs any help being haunted, here is an accompanying actual skeleton on the beach, from a pelican who swallowed his last fish quite some time ago.

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The saving grace of this grim scene was that Steve was able to deploy his drone to marvelous effect, orbiting the wreck about 20 meters above the sea to create a most spectacular video. If he posts it to YouTube some time in the future I will supply a link to it.

Our final stop of the day was — try not to get too excited by this — a field of lichen, which can survive these conditions. Lichen is a symbiotic lifeform, a mixture of algae and fungi, and it is primitive enough to live almost anywhere. It looks like an outcropping of mold in these environs, but when you nourish it with a sprinkle of water (say, from your water bottle), it unfolds a bit and takes on some color — red or green, in this particular case. It was, uh, botanically interesting, but not quite up there with a humpback whale or pelican skeleton. (Note to self: start a rock band called Pelican Skeleton, possibly with some funky hip misspelling like Pelican Skelitan. )

We fly further north to Damaraland tomorrow, home to Nambia’s Desert Elephants. We’ll be more or less incommunicado for at least the three days that we are there, so I will try and catch up when I can.

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Saving the Children

We flew via Cessna from Kulala International Airport — not really, I mean the dirt landing strip I showed you yesterday — back through the desert for the 45 minute hop to Walvis Bay. A century or so ago, Walvis Bay was the happening place, the radiant of German colonial expansion into Namibia. It was the whaling and commerce center. Today it is still the major shipping center, an industrial port for the export of salt, copper, and uranium; there is a recreational beach and a lot of fishing, but otherwise from our limited perspective it had little to recommend it outside of our restaurant lunch on the water.

With one exception: the flamingos of Walvis Bay Lagoon. There are hundreds of them, pallid pink on their bodies but the flaming color of the inside of a blood orange on the tops of their wings.

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Those guys in the top image who look like they’re recreating the cover of the Abbey Road Beatles album are in fact doing a Michael Jackson imitation. Seriously, they don’t just stand there but rather work their feet back and forth in what looks for all the world like MJ’s moonwalk, the objective being to stir up the silt and thus scatter the small fish and shrimp that are their preferred food.

Since we didn’t have any significant amounts of copper or uranium among us, we left immediately after lunch, driving the half hour north to the resort town of Swakopmund. Swakop draws a lot of German tourists — most of the restaurants seem to be German — and has a long and inglorious history as a German enclave; it is only since independence in 1990 that the all-white, all-German private high school was repurposed into an integrated public school, and the locals — including our driver Joe — still bear a great deal of animus towards them. The town’s former industrial base was the large Hansa Brewery, and the layout of the town still reflects this: the streets are very broad, wide enough for beer-carrying freight trucks to maneuver.

Our hotel is another avatar of this colonial history, its architecture resembling European colonial mansions everywhere, with whitewashed colonnades, an English garden, and sweeping staircases. It’s just a tad different from our Namib desert camp. Its name, aptly enough, is the Hansa Hotel.

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With this uninspiring historical background, today was very much a cultural immersion day. Our first stop was the Festus Gonteb Primary School, a K-7 institution educating nearly 1100 students, nearly half of whom walk the mile distance from “DRC”, the sprawling 15,000-person shantytown Democratic Resettlement Community down the road. (More on DRC below.)

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We received background information about the school from FGPS’s earnest if longwinded principal, who then turned us over to two 7th grade “prefects”, i.e. top students (both girls) who are given assorted academic, outreach, and disciplinary responsibilities for their achievements. (The “disciplinary” part kind of weirded us out, in truth; the principal’s description made it sound like they girls were being promoted to some kind of stool pigeon, and we wondered darkly whether they still had any friends left.)

We split into two groups, one with each prefect. I went to a 3rd grade class with our impressively poised and articulate prefect Jennifer; Alice was in a group that visited a class of 6th graders. The students were nothing if not enthusiastic to see us.

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My camera alone was a big hit, and I made the mistake of allowing one of the kids to take a picture of me with it, instead of the other way around, which of course meant that I was swarmed by every kid in the class who also wanted to take a picture with it and look at the resulting image. I now have about twenty lousy pictures of myself, none of which show my windmilling arms as I frantically attempt to keep about two dozen pairs of enthusiastic hands away from my very expensive lens.

The kids sang songs for us — and we sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round in return — then said a prayer and sang us farewell.

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We in turn left behind a load of school supplies that we had purchased, and received a boatload of hugs in return. We were impressed: these kids were enthusiastic, well-behaved, curious, and very affectionate. They have a lot to offer; we hope that there is hope for them.

As I mentioned, about half the kids walk to school from the “DRC”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, basically a government-sponsored shantytown. The government provides the land and lights the wide dirt streets, but provides no electricity otherwise. Residents scrounge materials to build shacks, and are given a metal ID token that, when inserted into a hydrant-like water station, allows them to access to water. The shanties are otherwise without plumbing, though a sewer line is in the works.

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At the edge of the shantytown is an actual (very) low cost housing development being built by the government, with rows of simple roofed conventional houses that rather like military base housing. The long term plan is to build more and more of these and gradually replace the shanties with actual small houses that the DRC residents are able to own.

Our destination within DRC was a soup kitchen, a rather remarkable three-room operation run by the inhumanly formidable Miss Katrina (a.k.a Mother Katrina) in the form of the Dantago Communities Rising organization; see the link for their Facebook page. Katrina has a day job as a restaurant manager in town but appears to operate in some kind of spacetime warp as she also runs Dantago as a combined soup kitchen/day care/community garden/craft store. Here she is with some of her charges, the latter taken in — sometimes during the day, sometimes semi-permanently — from parents who cannot care well for them. In a few cases those mothers, e.g., disabled by alcoholism, actually work at the center making jewelry for sale, or tending the garden to sell vegetables (the latter not so easy during a four-year drought). “Center”, by the way, is a rather strong word for the structure, which is a three-room shanty with no electricity or running water.

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Our contribution was to bring a load of vegetables, cut them up, and watch Lloyd and Katrina’s helpers make stew, which we then ladled out to the kids.

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My contribution was to start a riot by showing my camera to the kids as I took their pictures, thereby triggering the same grabfest that I had experienced (and caused) at the Festus school an hour earlier. Here I am in full Sensitive Tourist mode, trying to keep those grubby little hands off my goddamn lens. (Thanks to Sherryl for this picture, which I shall perhaps forward to Angelina Jolie.)

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I should mention, by the way, that I asked Katrina whether it was OK for me to take pictures. Her response: “Take as many pictures as you can. Send them to everyone you know. The more people that know about us, the better!” So consider yourself informed. It seems trite and mawkish, but I truly could not look at these kids without thinking of my own three grandchildren (ages 9 months, 21 months, and 5 years), who of course want for nothing and in all likelihood never will. Katrina’s reserves of energy, compassion, and patience are virtually inconceivable to me. (And she is not unique, as I’ll get to in a moment.)

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Grinding poverty notwithstanding, things are apparently never too dire for a makeover, and travelmate Wanda went to work with gusto. We soon had a soup kitchen full of juvenile, brightly painted nails.

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The child in the above photo, by the way, is from the San tribe, i.e. the Bushmen.

Our final stop was an actual orphanage, the “Tears of Hope” in the nearby township of Mondesa, run by the no less formidable Naftaline Maua, whom you see here in sort-of-traditional Himba garb.

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I say “sort of” traditional because actual Himba garb consists of very little indeed, plus red ochre hair coloring. The original German colonists — or more accurately, the original female German colonists were none too crazy about this, first because their husbands’ eyeballs were bugging out all the time, and second because those same husbands kept coming home from a hard day of oppressing the natives with red ochre stains in very difficult-to-explain places. So they strongarmed the men, in particular the clergy, into forcing the native women to wear Victorian dresses. As a sop to the actual Himba culture, however, they developed headwear designed to resemble to cattle horns, since the Himba were cattle farmers. Hence Naftaline’s hat and dress.

Naftaline has an interesting history of her own as an AIDS counselor, which you can read a bit about by clicking here. Now she runs a 6-bedroom home that houses 21 orphans (none, fortunately, with HIV). She is an outgoing energetic woman who apparently needs no sleep, and who with her daughter prepared a wonderful lunch for us in her dining room, featuring lamb and polenta seasoned with spicy tomato-y chakalaka relish. (Here’s the recipe if you’re interested.)

Turns out that a couple of her wards attend the Festus school we had visited that morning, and indeed a few came home and said hello to us since school was ending (or on lunch break) while we were there.  We left behind some household goods and clothing for her, then returned to our hotel to contemplate our spectacularly non-poverty-stricken lives.

 

 

 

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Namiballoon

The Namib Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the world, but I have not asked to see its driver’s license to confirm this. It is also one of the driest places in the world, which I can definitely attest to on the basis of my cracked leathery lips. It’s long and skinny in shape, paralleling the Atlantic coastline of the country and totaling roughly 4000 square miles (10,000 sq km) in area. With a sand covering that averages about 10 meters in depth, I calculate that it holds on the order of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand (yes, that is an actual calculation… it’s what I do), which is very roughly equal to the number of stars in the observable universe. (This is why I became an astronomer.)

Interestingly, it has several geological distinct areas with different surface characteristics. We are in the southern Namib, known for its dune fields, e.g.,

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More on those in a moment.

We flew into the Kulala region, in the south, on a pair of smallish planes over terrain like what you see above. The airstrip was, well, a desert airstrip:

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And here we are in the sophisticated VIP lounge of the main terminal building…

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(That is actually the entire airport.)  We loaded ourselves into our van and trundled off over the moonscape to a nearby hill, our 4×4 grinding through the steep sand to an outcropping at the rocky  summit from which we could watch this boring and not at all colorful sunset.02 Kalula Day 1 2017-090

I should emphasize that despite a healthy dose of self-congratulation and genial self-delusion, even given the stark and sere surroundings one would have a hard time making the case that we are roughing it. Our first evening’s hilltop “sundowner” (repeated each of the subsequent two nights) included the ever-affable Lloyd and our two drivers — Michael and Castro — serving us drinks and canapes as we marveled at what intrepid explorers we all were. (Side note: yes, “Castro”.  Cuba and Russia were big supporters of Namibian independence. We have so far on this trip had two drivers named Castro.) But hey, this is how we roll. Overseas Adventure Travel, our most excellent tour operator, caters to active, educated, affluent seniors or, as we like to call ourselves, “The Reason Our Children Won’t Have Social Security.”

But I digress. Another short 4 x 4 drive brought us to the Kulala Desert Lodge, our home in the desert. Our accommodations are notionally tents but are really comfortable cabins (electricity, full bathroom with shower, plenty of hot water, and marginal wifi) with canvas walls.

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Those are solar water heaters at far left. Notice also the ladder at the left side of each cabin, leaning against the adobe (I think) rear wall.  The top of that structure is a flat surface with a low wall, and upon request the staff will set up a mattress and bedding there so that you can sleep under the African stars. We did this last night, and it is quite the primal and even romantic experience to do so, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night and open your eyes to the vault of the Milky Way arcing overhead through the velvet sky. Though it is, admittedly, somewhat less romantic to then climb down the ladder in pitch blackness and work your way around to the front of the cabin in order to go inside to pee. Plus you run the risk of running into an antelope whilst doing so. We were actually awakened in the middle of the night by an oryx clopping around next to our cabin and brushing against the ladder. (Trust me, it puts a whole new spin on the old “Honey, wake up! I think I here something downstairs!” trope.)

Notice my clever segue into the animal life here. It is astonishing to me that many of the large African mammals — elands, oryx, zebras — have adapted subspecies of themselves to survive in a climate that gets bare millimeters of rain in a good month. They look like their savanna counterparts but have evolved sophisticated hydration and cooling systems to survive. The oryx, or gemsbok, is probably the iconic Namibian animal, a regal antelope that stands about 4 feet (1.3 m) high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 600 lbs (290 kg) or so. They are all over the place, including marching through our camp at night. The Hartman’s Mountain Zebra looks like your regular Kenya/Tanzania/your local zoo zebra but has adapted to survive on, well, pretty much nothing at all.

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There is even a species of bird in which the female absorbs water through pores in her breast and stores it there, then suckles her young (after a fashion) by allowing them to suck the water out through the pores. Such is life in the dunes.

Ah, the dunes. Massive, orange fields of them. This area, called Sossusvlei, is rich with them. The largest have numbers or names, the numbers representing their distance in kilometers from some fiducial measuring point. The tallest of them all in this area is aptly known as Big Daddy, towering at 1,066 ft (325 m) high. That was a bit too ambitious for us, and so we undertook instead to conquer the most popular of the touristic dunes, the locally-famous Dune 45 at a mere 100 m or so high. Up we trekked, along with dozens of others, on the ridge of the dune that in some places was only about a meter wide. When you crane your head to admire the view, or to let someone pass, there’s a real risk of tumbling off the ridge and rolling down the face of the dune, which might or might not be fun but would definitely obviate your upward progress.

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Hiking up a sand dune is hard, hard work. You’ve gotten a very small taste of it if you have ever run across a sandy beach — not the packed sand closest to the water line but the deep, loose stuff, say 15 meters further inland. Now imagine tilting that up to about a 30 degree angle. You take your stride, say 2 feet (60 cm) in length, plant your foot, start your step… and your leading leg ends up pushing a six inch depth of sand downhill towards your lower foot, so despite expending all that muscle power your 2 foot stride buys you about six inches of forward motion. It is slow and exhausting, pushing all that sand around for such slow progress, and you end up at the top with aching legs, heaving lungs, two shoes full of sand, and a satisfyingly spectacular view.

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Now you’ve got to get down, and you’ve got a decision to make. Your options are (1) go back along the ridge the way you came up, or (2) screw it and go barreling down the face of the dune like the two figures in the photo above. We opted for the latter, thus:

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That’s our travelmate Cheryl in the middle, on her butt. This was a deliberate strategy on her part because she has a bad knee and figured (correctly) that this would be hard on it. Her posterior technique was successful, in addition demonstrating that is possible to go for the better part of a day wearing a pair of underwear that holds over 3 kilos of sand.

The more traditional technique is being demonstrated by Al, in the white shirt on the left. You lean back a bit and step downhill heel first, which slides you down by several inches with the flat of your foot acting as a brake. Then you repeat the operation with the other leg, shifting your weight back and forth sort of like ice skating. It gets you down fast and is rather exhilarating. Then you spend the next twenty minutes shaking sand out of your shoes and socks, which is a lot harder than it sounds because the dune sand is as fine as dust.

Not far from Dune 45 is Deadvlei, another peculiarity of Namibian desert geography. It’s a former — very former, as in 800 years ago — oasis, now a hard clay pan because the river that fed it changed course. The dried clay has a top layer of white calcium carbonate (chalk, basically) and the bed is dotted with 800 year old dead acacia trees, making for an extraterrestrial landscape that has been the setting for a number of films and countless surreal photos, including mine:

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-245 The following day dawned dark and early as we awoke pre-dawn for the highlight of the trip so far. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

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We were part of a flotilla of three balloons, each holding up to 16 passengers in a large waist-high wicker basket. Our pilot was the owner of the company, a genially cocky, ponytailed Jack-Sparrow-like native Namibian named Dennis. All of the women had a crush on him, and man, he controlled that balloon like nobody’s business, eventually setting us down at the landing site onto the back of a flatbed truck. (Admittedly with some help from the ground crew, who pulled us over to the truck as we hovered about five feet off the ground. But even so….) Here’s Alice with Dashing Dennis, along with the champagne breakfast in the desert that followed our successful flight.

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One of the many remarkable things about the flight — and if you’re bored by the images above, please check your pulse — was the bird’s eye view that it afforded of Namibia’s famous “fairy circles”. These are flat bare circular areas in the landscape, ranging from about 2 meters to 10 meters in diameter, ringed with tufts of grass, and of utterly mysterious origin. Here’s what some large ones look like from the balloon. (That’s a dirt roadway for size comparison.)

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Biological phenomenon or M. Night Shyamalan movie?

Explanations for their existence include fungi; termites; a complicated moisture feedback loop involving the surrounding grasses’ root systems; local radioactivity; and aliens. Pick your favorite.

It’s hard to overstate the sense of wonder and transcendence that this balloon flight affords. The scenery was beyond spectacular, the sense of scale and otherworldliness overwhelming.  When we first booked it, the flight seemed a little pricey at US$350 or so, not a small amount. It was worth it. If you ever make it to this region, bite the bullet and do not fail to do this with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris.  Tell them Rich and Alice sent you. They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but it’ll make us feel good.

Our final stop of the day was Sesriem Canyon, a sight that to be honest was so utterly anticlimactic after the balloon ride that my laptop is sneering at me as I write about this. In a nutshell, it is a canyon, about 100 ft (30 m) high, carved by a recently-dried-up river and composed entirely of knobbly conglomerate rock. When the river was flowing, local travelers used it as a water source, gauging its depth by tying lengths of leather thongs or belts together; the name itself means “six belts” (or “thongs”) in Dutch and Afrikaans.

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This fascinating geological phenomezzzzzzzzzz……….

We hiked down to the bottom and followed the riverbed upstream for a few hundred meters. The walls are dotted with rock pigeon dens (with corresponding collections of guano on the ground), and the ground hosts poisonous horned adders (sidewinder snakes) as a welcoming committee. We encountered a couple of these, which our guides herded out of the way with long sticks.

OK, better quit now as this post is clocking in at over 1900 words, about twice as long as usual. We’re out of the desert as I write this, having moved on to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, both on the cloudy coast. About which more in the next day or two….

 

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Whirlwind Windhoek

See, “Windhoek” actually means “wind corner” in both Afrikaans and Dutch, and today was a whirlwind tour, thereby compounding the cleverness of my title and, oh forget it.

As I mentioned yesterday, Windhoek is about a mile above sea level, sitting on Namibia’s central plain. But it is on a plain within that plain, basically a bowl defined by the encircling Auas Mountains. (That’s pronounced “ouse“, in case you were wondering.) So here’s the view from our hotel restaurant.

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Recall that the neighborhood surrounding the hotel is an affluent one, filled with clean if somewhat boxy-looking houses as you can see here. Come down off the hill, however, and things are markedly grittier. The main downtown streets are about four lanes wide, lined with slightly down-at-the-heels looking businesses and some more prosperous looking banks and financial firms.

Downtown is also home to the National Museum of Namibia, whose main building is a bizarre structure donated by South Korea, and resembling some kind of postmodern water storage structure, i.e.:

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That’s national founder and first president Sam Nujoma standing out front. The perspective of the photo is a little misleading: Sam’s statue is about 20 feet tall including the base, whereas the building is about 10 stories high including all that empty space at the bottom (which, by the way, channels the wind in most spectacular fashion).

The actual museum part of the building is on three floors and is a more or less hagiographic accounting of the battle for liberation and Sam’s role in it. There are a number of informative and dramatic photos of the war and the people at the time, liberally interspersed with propaganda and neo-Stalinist art like these inspiring tableaus:

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Now there is more than a bit of irony here, astutely noted by travelmate Steve: we have here a museum celebrating a successful Communist-supported national liberation movement, built and paid for by… South Korea. What’s wrong with this picture?

Adjacent to the main building is an old German fort that has been repurposed a few times, most recently as part of the museum. But between 1904 and 1907 it was a German concentration camp for the native Herero and Nama tribes, whom the German colonists were determined to extirpate. Chillingly, the fort includes a plaque from that era helpfully explaining that the purpose of the facility was to house tribespeople as part of an effort to aid communication and ease intertribal tensions. Which it certainly did, since it is hard to argue with someone when you are both dead.

Several years after the attempted genocide, the Germans erected in town a memorial to the dead from the 1904-1907 slaughter………. the German dead.    The statue is of a German soldier on horseback, and in a further display of sensitivity the builders oriented the horse so that it faced Berlin. The locals reacted to this with all the enthusiasm that you’d expect, and the statue was removed from its home in a public square and relocated to the fort, where you can see it to this day.

We walked around downtown for a while, past the seedy little casinos, past the bare-breasted Himba tribeswomen selling handicrafts. Then we reboarded our bus and headed to the edge of the city to Katutura, one of many all-black so-called “townships” just outside the city. The townships were created as part of apartheid policies spilling over from South Africa; they were basically enforced suburbs, since blacks were not allowed to live downtown. Indeed, the word Katutura is Herero for “we have no place to live”. It is a downscale suburb, thick with single-story simple residences and small businesses such as barbers, car repair shops (used tires are a big business) and shebeens, the latter a sort of a hybrid gathering place, sundries store, and speakeasies for sometimes-illegal liquor.

But among the townships, Katutura has a particular draw: the Oshetu Community Market. Oshetu is a big tented farmers’ market offering everything from haircuts to wholesale freshly-killed sides of beef. It is a combination marketplace, business center, restaurant, and social hub.

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The beef business is of some note. At one side of the tented area are the beef wholesalers, standing by their tables piles high with huge slabs of meat, and the occasional flyblown cow head and legs lying on the ground nearby. They sell to the retailers, barely more than an arm’s length away, who then grill it and sell it in consumer-friendly quantities.

01 Windhoek 2017-083This we ate. We took small strips of barbecued beef off the grill, dipped it in seasoned salt and chili pepper proffered on a paper towel, and ate by hand. It was quite delicious, as long as you could avoid thinking about the likely bacteria count. A typical lunch, which followed, included this plus a loaf of polenta, chunks of which one would grab by hand and dip into a tomato salsa, also delicious. It is a communal activity: we all shared the same loaf of polenta (called “pap” locally) and bowl of salsa. So I am desperately hoping that no one in our group of 15 (including Lloyd) is sick, because in that case we all are, or will be shortly.

The grocery part of the market offers all the usual produce and staples, the former including a number of fruits that we had never seen before, e.g., a “monkey orange”, which is a variety of orange with an astoundingly hard rind, almost like a thin coconut shell. The staples included a variety of beans, dried vegetables (such as a spinach “cake”), sardines, dried worm skins, and…wait, what?

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Yes, those are dried worm skins in the front (and no, they do not come in a can of Havoline motor oil). You take a worm, see, and squoosh out its guts like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Then you dry the remaining skin in the sun, creating (in effect) worm jerky. When you’re hankering for a snack, you put it in water to rehydrate it, then pan fry it with salt. It has a mild taste (yes, I ate several), slightly chewy and a little salty. I mean, come on, you pan fry and salt pretty much anything and it’ll be perfectly palatable, right? Stop making that face.

Our final stop of the day was the Penduka Women’s Collective, a combination school (for children of both sexes), restaurant, and craft center, where local women produce pottery, batik, and bead jewelry for public sale.

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The women make their own glass beads individually, starting with empty bottles, which they pulverize and take through an elaborate and very hand labor intensive process. We were served lunch, and as part of our visit were presented with some traditional dances by some of the women.

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And that was our whirlwind day in Windhoek. Tomorrow we fly in small planes to our desert camp in Kulula, there to behold a whole lot of sand — notably the Namib Desert’s famous dunes — and, I hope, a spectacular night sky. I expect that we will be altogether off the grid for the next several days, so I will resume posting when connectivity allows.

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Gone With The Windhoek

Windhoek is located smack in the middle of Namibia, about an hour and a half flight from Johannesburg. Coincidentally, an hour and a half is also the same amount of time you will wait to get your passport stamped by the immigration lady at the airport, should another flight happen to arrive at the same time as yours.

Having been waved through customs, we met up with our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) guide, Lloyd. Lloyd is a jolly 40-ish Zimbabwean, burly with a round face and beard and who, appropriately enough, reminds me of Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi was the militant founder of UNITA, one of the forces that waged a successful guerrilla war for the independence of neighboring Angola from Portuguese colonial rule. He is considered a regional hero. (And he died in a military action in 2002.) I have no idea whether Lloyd is heroic, but he seems — like all OAT tour leads — very friendly, helpful, and well-informed. Here he is:

So our group is now complete. There are 14 of us plus Lloyd. These include our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper, plus the “Boise Girls”, Christy and Becky, both from the aforementioned Boise, Idaho. We met them three years ago in northern Chile, in the Atacama Desert, on a previous OAT trip (which you can read about here). You meet all the best people there, possibly because of the large quantities of lithium in the soil. They are fun travelmates, adventurous and as cheerful as one can possibly be, especially considering that they come from a state that is most widely known for its potatoes.

The rest of our soon-to-be-determined-whether-or-not-they-are-merry band includes:

  • Cheryl and David from Tampa, Florida, who to escape hurricane Irma had to drive 19 hours to catch their flight from New York, and who spent the first day of the trip wondering whether they still had a house. (Turns out they did.)
  • Gene and Mlu from Las Vegas. “Mlu” is a nickname for Merrilu, which apparently her friends do not have time to say. They come from Las Vegas and estimate that this is their 17th or 18th OAT trip. I hope gives them something when they hit 20; their own 747 would be a nice gesture.
  • Wayne and Nikki, and Al and Wanda, who are traveling together, also from Florida, also friendly and well-traveled. Al in particular has a sharp sense of humor that definitely puts him in the category with Steve as “Someone I would like to trade insults with.” Wayne, Nikki, and Wanda I have not yet gotten to know very well outside of their engaging deep-dish southern drawls, but this will change. Wayne’s defining visual characteristic is his regal, Reaganesque white pompadour, accompanying mustache, and trim physique. If his friends do not call him the Silver Fox, they should start immediately.

The 40 minute drive from the airport to our hotel took us through scrubby high desert terrain, punctuated by small acacia trees about 20′ tall. It resembles eastern Oregon, although when you drive through eastern Oregon you do not generally see dikdiks and baboons by the side of the road, as we did here.

The area is sparsely populated, dotted with the occasional private ranch. They are burning the grass fields, so the sky is noticeably hazy, which accentuates the hot, dry weather. Windhoek is at an elevation of about a mile (1600 m ), which moderates the temperature that is nonetheless in the upper 80’s F (about 31C). And it is dry, very dry, less than 20% humidity as our desiccated lips are reminding us.  Chapstick is the order of the day.

The suburban area that we drove through en route to the hotel (called Klein Windhoek) was bipolar. Prior to ascending a long, steep hill to our hotel — the Thule, a few miles outside of Windhoek proper (pop. 400,000), on a hilltop overlooking the city — we passed through a slightly seedy mixed commercial and residential area, whose street names are a mixture of local historical names (e.g., Nelson Mandela Ave.) and German ones (Hofbahnstrasse, near the railway station). The latter reflect the original German colonization in the late 19th century. But as we ascended the hill the architecture gave way to very affluent-looking whitewashed suburban homes and mini-estates, all with contemporary architecture as one might find in a wealthy American suburb. We’ll see the city itself tomorrow.

Our hotel is a beautiful place. (You can check out pictures of the rooms and such on their website: http://www.hotelthule.com/.) We arrived there at about 4 PM and then congregated as a group two hours later for a tour briefing from Lloyd and a round table mutual introduction, which pretty quickly degenerated into a riot when Thumper announced by way of introduction that she received her nickname during a stint as a pole dancer in Laramie, Wyoming. If this is even remotely true then all I can say is that Laramie, Wyoming has probably never been the same. Meanwhile, David announced en passant that in addition to being a retired math teacher he is a mystery writer and song composer. Upon insistence of the group, he sang the first verse of a recent ouevre entitled “Predator Drone”. This is not going to be a dull group.

Introductions and tour briefing complete, and the jocularity level suitably high, we reboarded our little bus for a short ride to dinner at an excellent restaurant, where the entree choices were two dishes that most Americans have never heard of: kingclip (a fish) or eland (an antelope). Both were very good; the dinner was a great success, and we are now all primed for the coming two weeks.

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Slouching Towards Johannesburg

Disclaimer: no photos in this post, since we haven’t yet been much of anyplace other then the inside of an airplane or the interior of an airport hotel in Johannesburg. I’ll resume my usual photo essay style once I, well, have some photos.

I have discovered that a 15 hour plane ride (New York to Jo’burg) makes me feel like a superhero, though not in any useful way. In particular:

(1) The constant vibration and low level noise feels over the great length of the flight as though it ought to be resonating my connective tissue and most of cell walls into a protoplasmic stew. Somehow this does not happen, which makes me think that I am secretly related to Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, the Scarlet Speedster himself, who can among other useful skills vibrate himself through solid objects.  I believe I felt myself actually merging with my seat cushion.  (As an aside, props to South African Airways for providing about 2″ more legroom than most American carriers in economy class. The Flash never worries about legroom because he can run fast enough to transport himself into parallel universes. I’m sure that at least one of those universes has airlines that only offer lots of legroom.)

(2) I develop Super Hearing, although it only works for slightly annoying sounds. It struck me that that the masking effect of the whooshing ventilation system combined with the engine rumble (see Vibrational Superpower above) makes everything sound a little muffled. Everything, that is, except for a ubiquitous crackling sound that, on reflection, turned out to be many of the 300 passengers randomly opening cellophane packages of whatever. Somehow every crinkle and crackle penetrates the vaguely subterranean roar that otherwise permeates the cabin. It actually sounds a bit like the popcorn-like snickity-snick sound that pervades tropical reefs when you go snorkeling: that is caused by parrotfish nibbling on coral. (At this point, if this were some kind of self-help book, I would helpfully observe that the similarity makes me feel like I am diving in a tropical lagoon even while crammed into an airline economy seat. News flash: it doesn’t.)

Even so, it could have been worse. Our 15 hour flight from New York was originally scheduled as a 16 hour flight from Atlanta. Since we were to fly out of Baltimore to Atlanta, and Hurricane Irma seemed to have that part of the country in her sights, we were understandably nervous about actually making our connection. My BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie assured me that I had nothing to worry, that she would on my behalf invoke pagan magical powers to ensure that Irma would not torpedo our itinerary. By way of proof she reminded me that it was due to her ministrations that our annual company summer picnic has enjoyed good weather every single year since she joined the firm.

All Angie required were some crow feathers and some other magical ingredients, unknown to me, but which I assume one does not normally obtain at an office supply store. So I gave her the go-ahead, thanked her in advance for her efforts… and with just a twinge of guilt changed our itinerary to connect through New York instead of Atlanta. And then —

If you’ve been following the Irma drama, you know that the storm weakened significantly and veered west. We would in fact have made our original connection. (Angie has forgiven me for my lack of faith, but I am going to have to bring back something nice from Namibia if I am to avoid a punishing round of I-told-you-sos.

The upshot is that we arrived in Johannesburg this morning at about 7:45 AM local time, slightly ahead of schedule, and after enduring a very long line at passport control were picked up and driven the short distance to our airport hotel. We are here for only tonight before flying to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, tomorrow.

Johannesburg — universally dubbed Jo’burg in conversation — is a large, dusty, hollow city of 4.4 million, plus another 2 million in the suburbs. By “hollow” I mean that the city center is built up but largely unoccupied, a grid of tall office buildings that give the city a Potemkin skyline because such a large fraction of them are empty. Business fled as one of the major revenue streams — gold mining — dried up, and as a result the downtown is now a crime-ridden warren of abandoned buildings. Downtown is ringed by residential areas as well as enormous sprawling shantytowns, largely devoid of electricity or plumbing and dotted by Port-a-Potties supplied by the local government councils. In short, Jo’burg is a decidedly unsafe metropolis where barbed wire and steel shutters are the ubiquitous decor, even on residences. We were told not to go anywhere on our own.

The one thing that we did do — and pretty much the only thing we had time for before dropping from exhaustion — was  visit the Apartheid Museum, which is an extremely worthwhile place to spend 2-3 hours. It is a modern building, marked by steel beams and rock walls on the outside as a reminder of the harsh conditions in the mines that so many black laborers endured. The inside is a maze-like self-guided tour through the entire history of apartheid from the 1940’s through its dissolution in the 1990’s, replete with oral histories, newsreel clips, photo displays, and documentary footage from the heartrending Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, in which government-sponsored torturers and willfully blind bureaucrats sought amnesty for their immoral activities under apartheid, in part by confessing their crimes to their victims.  The entire museum was informative and powerful, reminding me in some ways of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

We returned to our hotel, the O.R. Tambo Protea, to start meeting up with the rest of our group, starting with two of our previous traveling companions Steve and Thumper (who flew for about a billion hours to get here from San Francisco). The Protea is comfortable, with an excellent restaurant, the odd note being its neo-Mad Max architectural style, in which every surface is either an I-beam or corrugated aluminum, and where the lobby and bar are gaily decorated in machine tools, stacks of tires, and engine blocks. They really need to introduce a dress code requiring spiked leather collars at a minimum.

Tomorrow: Windhoek.

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Namibia on the Horizon

We leave for Namibia in a week, an exotic destination whose name commonly elicits this reaction from a large fraction of Americans: “Where? Is that a country?”

Yes, it’s a country, located in the southwest corner of Africa, west of Botswana and north of South Africa. I’ll make this easy:

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In fact, it used to be called South West Africa, annexed by Germany as a colony in about 1890. We all know how well European colonization of Africa has worked out, and this was no exception: The Germans spent about a dozen years suppressing uprisings by the indigenous Herero and Namas tribes, wiping out about 80% of the former before throwing in the towel and ceding the territory to South Africa in 1915. The League of Nations made it official in 1920, but the UN changed direction and tried to pull it under a UN trusteeship in 1946. South Africa was not happy and refused to let go, leading to the usual 20-year long series of strongly-worded letters and, in 1966, an armed liberation movement.

The South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) eventually prevailed, and Namibia became independent in 1990. Today it has a parliamentary government with three branches and a bicameral legislature, like the US. Dissent is tolerated and there are multiple political parties, but it is also true that SWAPO has won every national-level election since independence. The country has a reputation for being media- and ecotourism-friendly.

For purposes of our trip, there are three regions of touristic interest: the Namib Desert (in case you were wondering where the country’s name came from); the Skeleton Coast, and Damaraland, the savannah.

  • The Namib is known for its extensive dune fields, home to a species of oryx that lives among them.
  • The Skeleton Coast is so named because of the whale and seal bones that littered the shore during whaling days, as well as for the many shipwrecks from the same era.
  • Damaraland is considered one of Africa’s last true wildernesses and is known for its large population of elephants. We’ll be doing our game-viewing there.

I mention all this now, a week in advance, because with a population of only 2.5 million and most of the attendant problems of a developing nation, Namibia is probably not going to offer much in the way of communications infrastructure. So although I will keep a journal I suspect that I will not be posting a lot of day-to-day blog updates; I will post them as Internet connectivity allows.

So I will leave you now with this image of Namibia’s coat of arms, that only one that I know of that has an oryx on it.

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I was also going to close with some clever remark translated into Ovambo, the most widely-spoken Namibian tribal dialect, but, well, even Google Translate doesn’t know it.

 

 

 

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Nerdstock: Eclipse-o-Mania

Well, the eclipse has most spectacularly come and gone, and as you can see we were dressed for success: 2017-08-21 08.49.13

 

Anyone who sees this picture — notice the NASA logo on my left arm — immediately recognizes that we are serious people who are not to be trifled with. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Having made the wise decision to push on to our B&B in Bend on Saturday night, we could take a relaxed approach to our preparations on Sunday morning while keeping an eye on traffic via Google Maps. The normal drive time from Bend to Madras is about 50 minutes, and we figured we’d hit the road once we saw that number starting to creep up.

Our warm and wonderful B&B hosts, Deb and Kevin — seriously, look for Duck Hollow if you ever overnight in Bend, Oregon — equipped us with pillows, blankets, sleeping bags and a backpack filled with utensils, paper plates, etc., to help us weather the ardors of sleeping in our Macho Mobile out in the desert with a gazillion other people. They bid us a cheery “Namaste” (they’re like that, and this is Oregon) and off we went at 10:15 AM.

And a good thing too, because our traffic planning turned out to be just right, and had we left even an hour or two later we would have gotten badly bogged down in Traffic Hell. Alas, our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper (the “exotic” applies to both “travel” and “buddies”) were an hour or two behind us and ended up bailing out before ever reaching the parking area in Madras, opting instead to find an “unofficial” field or parking lot a bit further south in which to overnight. But we did successfully connect with my old astronomer friend/colleague/grad school flatmate John, who drove up from San Francisco with his partner Marianne and his telescope. Here’s the man, the setup, and the setting, about an hour before the eclipse started:

Solar Eclipse 2017-015 You will immediately note three things: (1) John looks like Santa Claus; (2) there are a lot of cars; and (3) there are clouds in the sky. The latter mostly disappeared in the nick of time, fortunately. As for the cars, yes, there were a whole lot of them, and quite the panoply of people as well, e.g.,

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That’s Mt Jefferson (10,495′ / 3200 m) in the background in the middle photo. The bottom photo (taken by Marianne) speaks for itself. I’m not sure what it’s saying, or who those people are, but it definitely speaks for itself. Note that in addition to the metal hats and ray guns, the three men are all wearing metallic, um, crotch protectors. They explained the choice thusly: “It’s to protect future generations.” All righty, then.

You can tell from the photos that the terrain was basically a fallow field. Well, not basically: it was a fallow farm field, three of them in fact, all baked to dust in the high desert sun, with endless row of shallow farrows stretching to infinity. They covered about 100 acres (40 hectares) in total and held row after row of cars, the occasional food stand, and the definitely-too-occasional portable toilet. By the time we arrived, the first two fields were full and we were one of the first arrivals in the third.

The temperature was broiling in the midday sun, the air filled with lightly blowing fine dust that got into absolutely everything… and the sky was cloudy and smoky. Oregon has been plagued by serious wildfires whose smoke has blanketed parts of the state, and there was a real worry that our view of the sun would be impeded by it. Happily, it blew away overnight with a change in the wind. But smoke or no smoke, the atmosphere was nerdily festive to the point of surrealism (see “protect future generations” photo above). There was a nearby small airport housing a skydiving school and a collection of World War II warplanes, and we were treated to both: large teams of skydivers (nearly 20 at one point) periodically dropped from the sky to land in a field diagonally across the street from us, and we were occasionally overflown by squadrons of WW II warbirds, half a dozen 1940’s fighters and bombers circling the sky above us.

I found the WW II planes kind of reassuring, Nazis being a thing again these days, apparently. You can’t be too sure.

We were comfortably ensconced in the Macho Mobile with our blankets, sleeping bags, and a few kilos of windblown dust, but it was not a comfortable night. A goodly fraction of those thousands of cars were rentals (including ours), operated by people who were not yet accustomed to all the little buttons on their car key fobs. And thus the desert night was punctuated by one or another car alarm going off about every five minutes, as some hapless driver attempted to exit his or her vehicle in search of a Port-a-Potty, pressing the panic button instead of the unlock button. (Full disclosure: I was one of these.)

But we survived the night, and the day dawned clear. We joined up with John and Marianne (and several members of her family) and set up our equipment together. My camera having a big snazzy looking lens, and John’s telescope being snazzy in all respects, we attracted the occasional onlooker, most gratifyingly a gaggle of three seriously cute twenty-something girls who were dazzled enough by our gear, astronomy pedigrees, and our advanced conversational skills to hang around with us for the duration of the event.  (It has been decades since cute twenty-something girls thought I was cool. In fact, it may never have happened before. I can recommend it highly.)

The onset of eclipse arrived quite exactly on schedule at 9:06 AM. (Eclipses are notoriously punctual.) The moment when the moon’s shadow first impinges on the solar disk is called First Contact (no, not the Carl Sagan sci-fi novel or subsequent Jodie Foster movie). And here it is, taking a little nibble out of the upper right part of the sun:

Solar Eclipse 2017-062

Yes, those are clusters of sunspots, four near the middle of the disk, and two more at lower left, near “7:00”.

Thirty-five minutes later, the Dragon God had consumed those central sunspots and advanced significantly further:

Solar Eclipse 2017-065

Thirty-five minutes after that. things started to get really interesting. The sky darkened and Venus and the bright star Regulus (in the constellation of Leo) appeared. The lighting was like a deep twilight, and the air temperature, which had been dropping slowly, nosedived another 10 F (~5 C). An orange sunset glow began to envelop the entire horizon — a 360° sunset! — and the sun looked like this:

Solar Eclipse 2017-081

That reddish glow around the slim crescent of the sun is not a camera artifact: it is real, a part of the sun’s atmosphere, normally invisible to the eye, called the chromosphere. A few moments later it was more pronounced:

Solar Eclipse 2017-082

Notice also how the crescent is petering out into a sort of dotted line at the edges. That’s real too: you are peeking in between the mountains on the horizon of the moon!

And then: the moment of totality! Here is my awesome photo of it.

2017-08-23 21_43_12-

Gentle readers, I blew it. Because if there is one thing that anyone photographing a total eclipse must remember, it is to remove the solar filter from the camera lens during totality. Even in the late partial phase, the sun is very, very bright, and you continue to use a filter — like those goofy solar sunglasses for your eyes — until the last minute. Only during totality is the scene dim enough to safely behold with the naked eye — or camera lens.

And I forgot. I was so excited by the reality of the thing itself — the corona, the red splash of color in the chromosphere, the sharpness of the shadow disk — that I just plain forgot to remove the filter. I clicked the shutter a few times then looked down at my review screen to see the picture, and was instantly discombobulated to see that it was black. I spent about 30 seconds fiddling around with various settings in a desperate attempt to figure out what was wrong, never even noticing the obvious. So I gave it up.

And you know what? I’m disappointed but not crushed. The actual fact of the matter is that with rare exceptions everyone’s totality images, taken with decent equipment and preparation, look pretty much alike. And so mine would too. The important thing was seeing it, experiencing the chill and the sheer other-worldliness of it all. I am more distressed about having wasted a solid 30 seconds or more of a two-minute event than I am of having blown the shot. Those were precious seconds, but I’m happy with what I got.

Once totality passed — 2 minutes and 3 seconds at our location — it was though it had never happened. The sky brightened immediately, the desert temperatures returned with their dusty teeth, the horizon glow vanished… and a whole lot of cars sprinted for the exits.

We knew in advance that that would be a pointless endeavor, so we hunkered down in the car — sweating and roasting in the sun — until the traffic thinned a bit. Even so, it took us over three hours to get back to the B&B, where Deb and Kevin namaste’d us home, listened to our stories — they had watched it from a kayak in the middle of a lake, and more power to them — and encouraged us into the hot tub. Which, after visiting one of Bend’s countless legal marijuana dispensaries, we did.

(Weed dispensaries are as ubiquitous as Starbucks here, with cutesy names like Doctor Jolly’s, Oregrown, Cannacopia, etc. They sell the traditional dried plant, oils, and assorted edible forms such as mints and chocolate bars. And they are staffed by cheerful — really cheerful — twentysomethings who happily explain that this type makes you mellow, and this type makes you energetic, and this type does something else, and on and on. It’s a total hoot.)

And so our day, and principal motivation of this sojourn, ended. The next total solar eclipse visible in the continental US is nearly seven years from now, on April 8, 2024. Like this one, its swath will include a significant fraction of the populated area of the country, though on a path running northeast from Texas to Maine. And, health and circumstances even remotely allowing, you had better believe that we are going to be somewhere along that path.

 

 

 

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Eclipse-ward, Ho!

By now, unless you have been living in an undersea lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, you are aware that there will be a total solar eclipse tomorrow, August 21st. We have planned our eclipse expedition for about a year and a half and have made our way to central Oregon, since the state is more or less bisected by the totality path.  We flew into Portland last night and made the three hour drive to our unexpectedly lovely AirBnB in Bend, which is about 40 miles south of the center of the totality path. Later today we will make our way to the normally sleepy hamlet of Madras, which happens to be almost dead center on the totality path and is expecting its normal population of 6500 to swell to slightly under 11 billion. See the map!

Totality Map

Oregon and neighboring Washington (part of our flight route) are home to a number of famous peaks, starting with the iconic Mt Ranier, which practically waved to us as we flew over it yesterday. Here’s Alice’s photo of it, taken with her cell phone:

Oregon Mts-1

More notoriously, Washington hosts Mt Saint Helens, which famously blew its top in 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of homes.  Here was our view of the guilty — and clearly headless — volcano.

Oregon Mts-2

Prior to our departure from Victoria, the local TV newspeople insisted on regaling us with horror stories about the crowds descending upon Oregon to view the eclipse. Thirty mile traffic backups! Cannibalism in the airport! We witnessed none of this. The airport was certainly busy, but not pathologically so, and the good folks at Enterprise Rentals had laid in a large supply of extra cars so that we were even able to upgrade our vehicle.

That last was not a trivial consideration. Traffic between Bend and Madras tonight and tomorrow is pretty certain to fulfill all the dire warnings, so we have elected to get there a day early and sleep in our car tonight. This put a premium on obtaining a comfortable vehicle, and the Enterprise folks delivered in spades. We are now the proud renters of a jet black Dodge Durango, a hulking 23 mile-per-gallon behemoth that has its own telephone area code and is fueled by testosterone instead of gasoline.

With reluctance we will shortly depart our comfy B&B in Bend, called Duck Hollow, operated by the delightfully New Age-y Debbie and Kevin. We have our own good-sized paneled cabin with a full kitchen and sitting room, and a hot tub. Not so easy to trade for the back seat of the ManlyMobile, but we’ll be back tomorrow night. (Debbie and Kevin have kindly supplied us with sleeping bags for our night in the car.)

That’s about it for now, since I doubt I will be able to post from Madras, whose communications infrastructure is likely to be strained to the breaking point. But before I go, please bear in mind these Important Eclipse Safety Tips:

  • Smear SPF 50 sunscreen on your eyeballs so that you can look safely at the sun. (Ignore the stinging, burning sensation: that just means its working.)
  • Remember that water magnifies sunlight, so do not drink any liquids during the eclipse. Also, if you have goldfish, wrap the bowl in tinfoil.
  • Remember that the demon god Zuul demands blood sacrifice in order not to permanently consume the Sun. Sharpen a big knife, find a slow neighbor, and get busy.

Hey, stop looking at me like that. These aren’t any dumber than a lot of stuff that’s circulating on the web.

Categories: US | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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