Crashing Waves

The Big Island is built out of three active volcanoes (Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai), one dormant one (Mauna Kea), and one extinct one (Kohala). The Kona coast lies in the shadow of two of the active ones: Mauna Loa and Hualalai. Most of the Kona district, in fact, sits on the slope of Hualalai, which last erupted 200 years ago and is waiting patiently to play serious havoc with the local real estate market at some time in the indefinite future.

So as you would imagine, lava rock is not exactly a scarce commodity around here; as you’ve seen from my previous photos, most of the coastline is lava rock in various degrees of pulverization. One of the most dramatic illustrations of that feature is a locale called “End of the World”, a line of lava cliffs pummeled by high surf that puts one to mind of what the beaches might look like in Mordor. Here are a couple of photos to give you the idea. (The first is from the drone, directly offshore, and the second is taken from a hillside a few hundred meters down the coast.)

End of the World aerial-003End of the World Canon-003

Not your ideal swimming locale, a rather obvious fact that does not prevent the occasional idiot from going mano a mano again Darwin and losing. (Two years ago, just around the time we moved into the house, one of these benighted daredevils jumped into the water from the top of the cliffs and — surprise! — was unable to figure out a way back up.  A helicopter was dispatched but was too late to save him.)

So although I am not even remotely tempted to perform that particular stunt, it is an ideal venue to snag some dramatic aerial footage via drone, so here is a short video of our visit yesterday. (Stick around till the end of it: there was a sightseeing boat about a mile offshore that I was able to catch up to and play peekaboo with.)

We went back again today. The surf was far calmer than yesterday, but we don’t need the drama to have a nice end to the day here: a Hawaiian sunset will do nicely. So here it is:End of the World Canon-002

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fish Poop Beach

… is not the name of my new emo band, though perhaps it should be. It is, rather, the answer to the question that I was puzzling over in my previous post, namely: where do the Big Island’s white sand beaches come from? And the answer is: fish poop. Parrotfish poop, to be specific.

(Photo from Waikiki aquarium, not me)

Yes, really. This guy and his cousins eat coral and excrete prodigious quantities of white sand. You can actually hear them in action when you’re snorkeling: a ubiquitous crunching, crackling sound. (You’ve got to have really good teeth to eat coral.) And you  also frequently see them, um, producing the end product: a granular white stream from their posterior. I have seen that countless times and never made the connection, for which I doubt anyone would blame me.

I was quite inebriated with this outré new knowledge, and so immediately attempted to show off by interrogating our weekend visitor, the daughter of some old friends who is here with her husband and children. “Hey Johanna,” I  crowed, “you know where all this white sand comes from?” Unfortunately in my excitement I had momentarily forgotten the critical fact that Johanna has a PhD in Science and Public Policy relating to….. coral reefs. She looked at me contemptuously and said, “Parrotfish poop. Have you forgotten what I do for a living?” Damn.

Despite my humiliation, we enjoyed an outing to one of the few Parrotfish Poop beaches on the Big Island, a nearby scenic venue variously called White Sand, Magic Sands, and Disappearing Sands. The latter two monikers stem from the historical propensity of this particular beach to  disappear for a while every year or so. Some fluke of the local topography makes it particularly susceptible to being washed away by storm surges. You can see it happening on a very small scale on the seaward side of the surf in this aerial shot, light brown clouds of sand being stirred up and carried away behind the waves.

I of course took the photo with my new drone, whilst flying up and down the coastline surrounding the beach. So I’ll close with this four-minute video of that flight, which though not much of a cinematic achievement will give you a pretty good sense of the environs:





Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Da Drone, Boss, Da Drone!”

We arrived on the Big Island yesterday afternoon, about 30 hours ago as I type this, and though we are still coping with East Coast-to-Hawaii jet lag — I woke up at 4 AM today — we have nonetheless settled right in to our tropical home away from home. And it feels like that, too, i.e., the home part: this place is real easy to get used to, doubly so since this is our third winter here. Our goal has now become convincing all of our family and friends to move here so we can stay for good.

We have spent the day variously basking on the lanai (known as a patio just about anywhere else) and running various errands, the latter mostly in the form of grocery shopping or buying items that we forgot to bring. Those missing items included hats (I would not recognize Alice without her floppy garden hat) and the wall charger for my camera batteries.

But I did manage to execute a couple of short drone flights so that I can give you a bit of a feel for the environs.  I am still very much learning the fine points of getting good photo and video results from the thing — you know, niceties like steering and camera settings — but nonetheless here is today’s result:

You will notice the ubiquity of lava rock, e.g., the rather uninviting jagged ebon expanse adjacent to the swimming pool at about the one-minute mark in the video. That’s what the whole complex would look like were it not for the intervention of developers. In fact, in significant measure that’s what this whole side of the island would look like.

You’ll note similarly that the shoreline — about 250 meters from our house as the drone flies — is quite rough-looking. It’s that lava again, pretty much up and down the coast. But there are a number of nice beaches, mostly of the black sand variety where the lava has eroded. There’s quite an attractive one just another couple of hundred meters up the coast, just beyond where the video ends. (I started getting some radio interference and so brought the drone home earlier than planned rather than risk losing control.) You can also see that the water is quite clear, with coral reefs visible in the shallows. The snorkeling around here is superb.

About 45 minutes up the coast from here is an enormous, picturesque, and very popular white sand beach called Hapuna. I confess to being puzzled by its geology. Black sand I get; it’s just broken down lava. But where did the white sand come from? Some research is required, but not tonight.

My drone expedition was cut short when the property manager — a cheerful mustachioed man — tootled over in a small vehicle and rather apologetically asked me to knock it off. It’s not forbidden to fly drones in the complex, he allowed, but a couple of the residents were freaking out so would I please stop? So I did. I had in fact canvassed a couple of the neighbors in advance to make sure they were OK with it (they were) but I obviously couldn’t poll everyone and apparently missed the paranoid ones. Jeez, you’d think that they had all received some kind of false alarm on their cell phones about incoming missiles…..


Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hawaii Sky-O

We return to the Big Island in a couple of days, and will be there and in Honolulu for about a month. Now, reading those words, you may think that our time in Hawaii consists of watching the sunset from our lanai as we sip absurdly sweet drinks with little paper umbrellas in them, or swimming among riotously multicolored fish in an azure tropical lagoon. And you know what? You’re exactly right! HAHAHAHAhahahahahaaheeeeeheeeee…..

Ahem. Sorry. The weather has been miserable in the Washington area for the past few weeks — snow, sleet, and Arctic cold — so I am feeling somewhat uncharitable about the fact that we are able to escape it. Pardon my schadenfreude. I will try and make it up to you with some cool photos. Speaking of which —

I hope that my photo reporting from the islands will have a new flavor this time: an aerial one. In preparation for this trip (and because I succumbed to a spasm of self-indulgence) I have purchased a snazzy drone with which I hope to take a lot of aerial photos and videos. The drone itself, for those of you interested in the details, is a DJi Mavic Pro. You can click the name to see all of its wonderful properties, but two of its most important ones for my purposes are (1) it shoots very high quality, rock-steady 4K video and 12 MP still images; and (2) it weighs only 740 grams (26 ounces) and folds up into a little rectangular brick that fits easily into a backpack. It has a 4-mile (7 km) range and can stay aloft for about 25 minutes.

Here are some shots (4 stills and a video) from its maiden flight, only a few days ago. You can tell at a glance that we are not living in a tropical paradise: this is an area called Kent Narrows, at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay, where the one-word description of the environs is “icy”.

…And here are three minutes of video from the flight:

Cool, huh?

In the sacred tradition of guys anthropomorphizing their favorite toys, I have christened the drone Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, the swan. Cygnus flies along the Milky Way during the northern hemisphere summer months, so it’s kind of apt. (Astronomical Fun Fact: Deneb, a.k.a. Alpha Cygni, is also one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy, roughly 100,000 times as luminous as the Sun. If it has planets, you could get a helluva tan.)

My good friend, travel buddy, and “dronemate” Steve, whose own purchase of an identical model filled me with envy and techno-lust and ultimately inspired my own purchase, has in Yoda-like fashion chided me for my attachment to ephemeral physical objects. This from a guy who named his drone “Icarus” and recently installed  a 10-foot-wide 4K video display in his living room that plays a continuous loop of swimming jellyfish.  Steve is my hero but I may have to slap him around a little. (If I can reach him: he’s about 6″ taller than me.)

I seem to be digressing. The point is, we are very excited about our return to Hawaii, so watch this space for some eye-in-the-sky photos and videos over the next several weeks. Aloha!

Categories: Hawaii, US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Namibia: Photos, Videos, and All That

Many of you have commented on some of the photos in my blog posts. Thanks! If you would like to overdose on a much more complete set from the whole trip — along with a half dozen short videos taken by Alice — then point your browser to

It works on any mobile device but is best viewed on a laptop or large-screen tablet. In any case you’ll see this web page, from which you can navigate to the various photo albums and videos. Feedback, comments, and sharing are welcome!

Webpage capture


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Lions and Tigers, Without the Tigers

After an 18-day separation (to the hour! 432 of them!), my laptop and I have been reunited. I’m a little suspicious of what mischief it might have gotten up to during two unaccounted-for nights in Paris when it was supposedly stuck in Customs, so I am scanning it for STDs and other viruses. But so far, it appears happy and healthy, so herewith is my final post from Nambia, written over two weeks ago.

We’ve now finished the final leg of our stay in Namibia, camped outside Etosha National Park in the northern part of the country. Well, “camped” is not exactly the right word: “pampered” might be a little more accurate. There are four game camps just outside the entrance to Etosha, the two best known being the more rustic Andersson’s and the snazzy one for people with more money than us called Ongava. We were booked at Andersson’s but mirabile dictu, due to an overbooking snafu we were upgraded to Ongava.

It is in many ways similar to Doro !Nawas, an open-air pseudo-rustic (but actually nicely appointed) lodge on a hillside surrounded by spacious bungalows. But the bungalows are air conditioned – no small thing in 90 F (32 C) heat with zero percent humidity. Yeah, you read that right. Towels are practically superfluous here: you air-dry in about 30 seconds after stepping out of the shower, and throughout the day you guzzle water as though your life depended on it. Which it pretty much does.

The lodge is not fenced in, and there is a manmade watering hole on the grounds where consequently a panoply of wildlife parades past us as we watch from the outdoor deck where meals are served. We can even see the watering hole from our bungalow but the view is more direct from the main lodge, and it is quite the spectacular treat to ogle the various beasts at our leisure. Leading down from the lodge is a rough path leading to a hunting blind (which they call a “hide” here), so that we can invisibly ensconce ourselves about 10 meters from the watering hole to get up close and personal (so to speak) with the animals. Our first big prize was this guy, who strolled over at about 9 PM on our first night.

This is a black rhino. There is white variety as well (actually light gray in color) that we saw two days later.

I should add that there is a slight but interesting downside to this lodge watering hole setup. Because the animals are attracted to the watering hole, and because the grounds are unfenced, it is not uncommon for visitors like rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?) to wander the grounds after sunset. We were firmly instructed not to move between the main lodge and our cabins after dark without an escort.

The landscape here is different from Damaraland. Though I would not have though it possible the air is even drier, and but for the small range of hills where our lodge sits, billiard-table flat. The surface is coarse packed dry soil and hardpan clay, the vegetation a sea of scrubby bushes, stunted acacia trees, and foot-high dry yellow grass stretching to the horizon. It is, in other words, classic arid African savanna at the end of the long dry season (and suffering a four year drought in the bargain).

In addition to this challenging landscape, there is a vast region of pure dry salt lakebed hardpan called, descriptively if unimaginatively, The Pan. It’s a white crystalline deathscape covering a suffocating 8600 sq km (3300 sq mi), about the same size as Puerto Rico. Unlike Puerto Rico, it is home to nothing but a few scrub bushes and shimmering heat mirages from horizon to horizon. It resembles the Bonneville Salt Flats, or possibly Hell.

Despite this unpromising geography, Etosha is known for its wildlife, and our first day here did not disappoint. We seem to have good wildlife karma on these trips: we seem to find the animals whose likelihood of discovery our guides hastily and mistakenly discount. In Patagonia three years ago our guide said that we should hope to spot a few condors; we stopped counting at 60. This morning a few people in our group asked if we’d find cheetahs, and our well-meaning guide attempted to manage our expectations by explaining that they were rare and hard to find, and that we should not be disappointed if we did not see any in our three days here. So of course we found a family of them in our first hour.

We spent nine hours in the bush on our longest drive, from 7 AM to 4 PM, and racked up an impressive list of finds, which we added to on subsequent days. This list is our “catch”:

  • Baboons (Chacma)
  • Cheetahs
  • Dikdiks (the smallest antelope)
  • Elephants
  • Giraffes
  • Ground squirrels (not much more exciting than the ones you’re used to)
  • Hartebeests
  • Impalas (Black-Faced)
  • Jackals (Black-Backed)
  • Kudus
  • Lions
  • Mongooses (the yellow variety, which are rare)
  • Oryxes
  • Ostriches
  • Rhinos (both black and white variety)
  • Rock Hyrax (look it up)
  • Springboks
  • Steenboks
  • Waterbucks
  • Wildebeests
  • Zebras

That doesn’t even include the (non-ostrich) birds: secretary bird, hornbill, bustard, goshawk, hawk eagle, guinea fowl (countless of them, squawking about underfoot like their feather were on fire), and numerous others. (I am not a bird person and tend not to keep track of them in my head very well.) Not a bad haul.

The nine hour game drive was a long and thirsty stretch, marked by an interesting break in the middle in the form of a bag lunch in an unusual place. The park authorities have set up a little retail oasis in the veldt, situated next to a watering hole. It has a post office, the inevitable gift shop, rental cabins… and a shaded bleachers about 15 meters from the watering hole. So we ate our sandwiches while watching herds of zebras, springboks, and oryxes wade into the shallow water to drink and cool themselves. Not your typical lunch break.

Having described all these animals, I feel obliged to show you some of them. So here are some photos from the past three days.

As you can see it was quite the trip, an adventure in its own right. Our enjoyment was greatly enhanced  by the congeniality of the group and the over-the-top affability of our tour lead Lloyd. His own enthusiasm really amped things up a notch. At our farewell dinner (an hour ago as I type this, but probably two days or so before I can post it from London), we thanked him with a group serenade, written by our travelmate David to go with Bob Hope’s signature melody, “Thanks for the Memories”. (You can see the original on YouTube here.) It rather nicely summarizes the past few weeks, and it would be fair to say that Lloyd was moved, despite our questionably melodic (read: “atrocious”) singing.

Thanks for the memories
The sand went in our shoes
We even saw gnus
And then we climbed Dune 45 and saw fantastic views
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
A cool and breezy day
We cruised on Walvis bay
Some pelicans and then some seals came on board for a stay
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
Went up in a balloon
Encountered some baboons
And listened to the children sing a Na-mi-bi-an tune
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
We learned to understand
The desert elephant
And then we watched the waterholes as animals descend
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
For watching the sun set
For everyone we met
You helped make each experience the best that we could get
So thank you
To Lloyd!

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

London Calling

I expect to have my laptop back — and thus be able to post my final Namibia entry — within a few days, but in the meantime I’ll leapfrog in time a little bit to our first post-Namibia destination. ( And you knew that had to be the title, right?)

If the aliens ever land and want to know where the Capital of the World is, you could make a pretty good case for pointing them to London. You might be able to make a stronger case for New York City in the past 80 years or so, but for a couple of hundred years prior to that it would have been a no-brainer for London. It’s stodgy, lively, vast, intimate, and generally schizophrenic all at once, with traditions and about one-third of its architecture rooted in the 11th century.  Another third of the buildings seem to have congealed some time in the 1940’s, and the rest looks it has been taking lessons from 22nd-century Japanese architects.

Of course, one of the more recent non-architectural traditions is Worrying About Brexit, probably for good reason. The most recent source of angst as I type this is a report that came out yesterday predicting that British farmers’ profits will be cut in half as a result of Brexit. This could put real pressure on the milk supplies to make the batter for fish and chips.

Our stay in London was a brief one: just about three days, much of which was spent looking up old friends. (And one new one. I have for some years been following the beautifully-written travel blog “Are We There Yet” written by Italian ex-pat Fabrizio S, living in London. We have been following each others’ blogs and corresponding by email for about two years and have finally met face to face!) But we managed to hit at least a few of the high spots: St Paul’s, the Tate Modern Gallery, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (viewed in person daily by over 45 billion people, most of them standing in front of me). So here are some obligatory London Tourist photos:

London 2017-011

Lord Nelson overlooks Trafalgar Square

London 2017-014

St Paul’s Cathedral,. Yes, we climbed to the Whispering Gallery.

London 2017-017-Edit

Iconic Tower Bridge

London 2017-088-Edit

The latest Harry Potter movie.

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Westminster Abbey

You will note the scaffolding around Big Ben in the second to last photo. I have warned you about this in the past: when Alice and I travel, there will be scaffolding. So far in our globetrotting we have seen scaffolding around the Parthenon, scaffolding around the Via Veneto, scaffolding around the Washington Monument. So if you ever go to a major world heritage monument and see scaffolding, you can be sure that we’re around somewhere.

One of our go-to stops on this trip was the London Eye, the famous 450′ Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations in 1999. It’s a great sight in and of itself, fitting oddly but somehow comfortably into the local skyline, and of course affording a spectacular view of the city.

London 2017-131

London 2017-040

We arrived at 2:15 PM on a cloudy afternoon amidst an enormous throng of visitors, and were told by the automated kiosk that we could buy either a regular admission ticket for £26 or a so-called FastTrack ticket to jump part of the line for £36. Hmmm, tough call. How long would we have to wait? Well-ll-ll-ll, we were informed, with the Fastrack ticket we could get onto the Eye at 4:00, versus a plain-old cheaper regular ticket that would allow us on at….. 3:15 PM. I asked the nice uniformed attendant how this could be, and was told, “Well, so many people sign up for the FastTrack tickets that it makes the wait longer.” OK then.

The ride takes a half hour, during which time the wheel rotates only once. There are 32 ovoidal capsules (Alice was quite scandalized when I described them as suppository-shaped), each holding 25 people, which means that at any given moment 800 people are enjoying the view and peeking down into Parliament.

London 2017-066-EditLondon 2017-069-EditLondon 2017-112-Edit-Edit

There is a lot that has changed in London in the decades since I last visited, most notably the ethnic mix, about which a lot of people angst, since “ethnic” in this context is a sort of code word for “Muslim”. I heard grim tales about areas where no Westerner or immodestly-dressed women dare to tread without getting glared out, and it is all rather overwrought.

It is certainly true that London has a far more diverse ethnic array than it did when I last visited, over 25 years ago. (The mayor is a Muslim, Sadiq Khan.) It is also true that there are areas that are heavily Muslim: there are blocks at a time when all of the store signage is in Arabic as well as English. But to us at least, the general feel of those areas is not a whole lot different — and no more threatening — then, say, Chinatown in San Francisco. There are certainly visibly many Muslims in traditional garb in the streets, but it by no means feels like an isolated enclave; there are lots of other ethnicities walking around as well, all looking quite unconcerned.

I suppose it is quite possible that women in particular might receive a lot of hostility for being seen as dressing too immodestly. But context is pretty important: I guarantee you that you’ll receive those same looks today by walking around in revealing clothes in the orthodox Jewish sections of the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. Ethnic mixes change, cities change, countries change, and in general I feel that the threat is more to our perceptions and self-image than anything else.

Of course one of the upsides to all this newfound diversity is….better food. English food has its reputation, of course — and completeness compels me to report that the aptly-named “Mushy Peas” is still a dish here — and it has long been the case that you were better off frequenting Indian Restaurants. But now there’s a lot of everything: Middle Eastern, of course, and even (to my amazement) the occasional taco truck. So things are looking up.

But a lot of the old charm is still there, even as ancient cathedrals nestle up against 50-story steel and glass extrusions. Our hotel was adjacent to St James Park with its long lake, country gardens, ice cream stands, and enormous diversity of waterfowl.

London 2017-125-Edit

The Guard still marches, the weather is still rainy, and overall it was great to be back.

London 2017-100-Edit

Underneath the Millennium Bridge

Categories: UK | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

We Interrupt This Program…

…to report that my Namibia journal will resume after Air France sends my laptop from Johannesburg (where it is now) to London (where I am now).

How did this happen, you may ask? Well.

We left Etosha Friday morning on a small plane to Windhoek, and thence to Johannesburg to catch our flight to London. (We are spending 8 days in England, mostly visiting old friends.) The connection in Johannesburg was a little tight, then got a lot tighter when it turned out there was some mysterious problem with our ticket.  (Delta and Air France’s computers are apparently not on speaking terms.)

The glitch got straightened out, but by then the clock was ticking very loudly indeed, and the very helpful young lady at the Air France counter offered to walk us though security, an offer I accepted with alacrity. In the rush through security, however, I forgot to put my laptop back in my backpack after they passed through the x-ray machine.

I realized the oversight in what in a James Bond movie would have been the nick of time, i.e. while our plane was at the start of its takeoff run. Plenty of time to bail out through an emergency exit, steal a fuel truck, drive back to the gate, run to security, snag the laptop, find a mysteriously waiting Ferrari, speed back down the runway, and take a flying leap onto the landing gear just as it started to retract. I considered this approach. As a practical matter, however, my epiphany was about ten minutes too late.

In decidedly non-007 fashion, I notified the flight purser, who radioed back to the airport. There. the Air France gate staff actually retrieved the laptop from security and telexed the plane that they had done so. (I even have a hardcopy of the message.) Interestingly, they required that I tell them the password, presumably to prove that it was mine and no doubt to search it for nefarious stuff, of which there is boringly none.

So where I stand now is trying to get someone from Air France to tell me how and when my laptop will be sent to London, or to the US, or indeed anywhere that I can retrieve it. So far my email and web query remain unanswered. I’ll give it till Monday before resorting to a phone call that will no doubt require navigating a fractal phone menu and remaining on hold until the glaciers finish melting.

I expect to succeed eventually. And when I do, my final Namibia blog entry — already written and waiting on my laptop — will be loosed upon the world. Stay tuned.

And yes, for the record, I am a bonehead.



Categories: Africa, Namibia | 3 Comments

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.





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


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.

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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