Posts Tagged With: desert

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

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


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:

02a Lodge and Flight Out 2017-005

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

02a Lodge and Flight Out 2017-006

(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….


Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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: 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.

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.,

Solar Eclipse 2017-020

Solar Eclipse 2017-019


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.




Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Arizona (Not Japan)

Yes, yes, I know I said our next trip was to Japan. And it is, if by “trip” one means a journey of longer than 4 days. But, as we do about twice a year, we have just returned from a 4-day weekend with our old and dear friends Larry and Jean in Scottsdale, Arizona, and since Arizona is such an photogenic and unusual place I decided it was worth a blog entry. It is the kind of place where you can walk into a bar and actually see this:

One of these customers will be Donald Trump's vice president.

One of these customers will be Donald Trump’s vice president.

I was disappointed at the lack of a tinkly, off-key piano, that would of course fall silent the moment we walked through the door. I think they traded the piano for the computer terminals.

In case you’re not up on the geography of Arizona, Scottsdale is an affluent and scenic suburb about a half hour’s drive northeast of Phoenix. Like all such population centers in the American southwest, it is basically a very attractive crime against nature: the greater Phoenix area, (which includes Scottsdale) hosts over two hundred golf courses, each of which requires about elenvty gajillion gallons of scarce water to maintain. People — including many, many retirees — flock to Scottsdale for the sun, the golfing, the snazzy malls, the desert scenery, and the convenient location of several Mayo clinics.

Arizona is divided into 15 enormous counties, several of which have more area than a number of the smaller US states though they are on average very sparsely populated. Scottsdale and Phoenix are in Maricopa County, one of whose biggest claims to fame is its controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio, “controversial” in this context meaning “racist, autocratic, and fascist”. Good old Sheriff Joe has been hanging in there since 1993, getting reelected like clockwork every four years despite having cost Arizona taxpayers something over $140 million to date defending himself against assorted Federal civil rights lawsuits and investigations. It has gotten to the point of the legislature having to invent brand new ethnic groups for Joe to discriminate against and oppress, having used up all the known ones.

But we are not here to talk about Joe Arpaio. We are here to talk about Jerome.


That’s the wrong question. The Jerome of interest is not a “who” but a “where”: Jerome, Arizona, population 444.  The view from its main street looks like this:

Arizona 2016-001

Jerome is a former gold and copper mining town, located 5200 ft (1600 m) up in the mountains about a 2 hour drive north of Phoenix. It got its start in about 1880 after the first mining claims were staked and enjoyed about a 50 year heyday until about 1930 when the Depression caused the price of copper to collapse. At that point it had reached its peak population of about 5,000, then entered its decline.  Mining stopped completely in 1953, at which point the city fathers decided it was going to be tourism or nothing if the town was to survive. On the strength of its mining history (which included a great deal of labor unrest including violent strikes), the town was granted national historical status in 1967 and has more or less remade itself as a local tourism center and art colony since then.

So now it’s the kind of place where the street (about three blocks long) is lined with art galleries — some quite good — while the former gold mine has reopened as a gift shop, so kitschy that even the many flies buzzing around it are wearing poor-taste teeshirts. It is difficult to straddle the line between artistic modernity and an “Old West”, so you get a bakery that looks like this:

Arizona 2016-006

…and a post office whose boxes look like this:

Arizona 2016-003

…and you attract people from a different decade who drive VW Microbuses decorated like this:

Arizona 2016-004

My favorite place, though, was the kaleidoscope store. I love kaleidoscopes, and so an entire kaleidoscope store is definitely where I want to spend my time in a place like Jerome AZ. So I’ll close with a few photos from it:

Arizona 2016-009

Arizona 2016-013

Arizona 2016-011

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Escape to Tineghir, Hours Ahead of a Sandstorm

(This is a repost of an entry prematurely posted and titled “TBD” due to a flaky internet connection.)

My postscript in yesterday’s post described a rising wind and some rain. The rain passed, but the wind blew off most of the clouds and left us with a glorious night sky, two photos of which I offer you here. The first shows the constellation of Sagittarius in the middle, and you can see the Milky Way extending up out of the dunes; the orange glow is from another camp. The second photo is looking west, and shows the stars above the lit tents.

The wind continued to rise through the night, and few of us got much sleep, both from the racket and from the continuous influx of fine sand into our tents, driven through our screens by the wind. All four of our canvas walls bowed inwards as the near-gale tried to collapse our tents, and by the middle of the night both ourselves and all our possessions were coated with the finest grit. Have you ever tried to sleep while sand was blowing into your mouth? 

It did grace us with a much more colorful sunrise than we had had the previous day, and our camp had acquired two new features: a Berber child who had appeared out of the dunes during the wee hours and positioned herself on the sandy “avenue” between our two facing rows of tents, and a new layer of sand, complete with tiny dunes, in that same space. So here was the view, at about 7:15 AM.


What these shots do not show was that the wind was still full force, driving the fine sand everywhere, and making it very uncomfortable to be outside. We had breakfast in the mess tent, loaded up the 4 x 4s, and got the hell out of there.

Not a moment too soon, as it turns out. The wind continued to rise and, we learned some hours later, had risen to gale force and birthed a full-blown sandstorm that completely cut off the camp and forced its closure. Had our departure been delayed by as little as two hours we would have been “sanded in” (as opposed to “snowed in”, right?). This may sound very romantic and exciting to you, and probably would be too, for about 20 minutes. But based on our small taste of it in the morning and last night I can guarantee you that it would quickly have turned into an Extremely Not Fun experience, and not without actual danger.

But we did not get sanded in, and we hotdogged out of camp across the dunes and bounced across the hard packed desert to retrace our route back to Erfoud to join the highway westward. As we approached the outskirts of town we encountered a date market — this is date harvest season — so we made a short unscheduled stop and wandered among the farmers as Momo pointed out the various kinds of dates and the prices they would bring. (Top quality Medjool dates go for about $5 a pound here at the market, much more by the time you buy them at retail.)

“I’ve got dates for sale!” “I’ve got dates for sale too!” “Jeez, is there anybody here who’s NOT selling dates?”

“So this girl said, ‘Want lots of dates?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’ and, well, turns out that we were talking about two different things, so here I am.”

Our destination today was the town of Tineghir, about 80 miles to the west of our desert camp. We stopped for lunch at about the halfway point, in the town of Ksar el Khorbat. “Ksar” means “village”, and within the town was an old walled village where the locals have created a sort of crafts commune for lwomen to make goods for sale, as well as a small museum showing the history of the place. This is a Berber region, and so it has a fairly complex ethnic heritage that includes an admixture of Jews (all of whom are now gone). The relationship between the locals with the town Jews was convincingly illustrated by a display of a stockade with inward-pointing nails around the inside of the wrist and neck holes.

A little outside of town, we passed a hillside with gigantic words painted on the side above a green star, the country’s emblem. The words, in Arabic, said “God, Country, King”, which is the motto of the Moroccan army and is intended to reflect their priorities in decreasing order. One of the locals got a little crosswise with this slogan, however, and paid a price. Ksar el Khorbat has a strong Spanish heritage and in particular identify strongly with the Catalan region. A local soccer enthusiastic got a little too gung-ho about his favorite Spanish soccer team and spray-painted “God, Country, Barcelona”, for which cleverness he went to jail. Moroccans enjoy a pretty healthy freedom of speech, but they draw the line at lèse majeste: you absolutely cannot diss the king, which includes implying that the Barcelona soccer team is more important to you than Hassan II.

As approached Tineghir, we encountered yet another indication that we are far from home. Here it is:

You think hitting a deer with your car is bad, try running into a camel.

Tineghir is known for a number of things, one being an old part of the city that is built from Adobe and clay from the adjacent mountainsides and thus blends into the mountain with a rather New World pueblo look, as you can see below. (Alice and I both observed that it also looks like the setting of any number of our video games.)

It is also known for the scenic Torda Gorge, a narrow canyon with a shallow river running through it, flanked by towering cliffs something like 500 feet high. We walked a few hundred yards through it, ogled the view, then boarded the bus back to the hotel.

Our hotel overlooks the “new city”, which looks like this: 

It’s pretty completely urbanized and of modest size. Our hotel is comfortable and generally unremarkable, save for two things, one being a very unreliable wifi connection (which is why you may have received this post out of order), and the other being food whose taste has been meticulously and thoroughly drained away prior to serving it. We’re not sure how this is even possible, but we may know the “why”, which is that the hotel’s clientele include a large number of Germans, for whom the concept of actual flavor in food is highly alien. Thumper complained to Momo, who was also unhappy with it for the same reason and so confronted the manager about it. The manager did not look happy and we can only speculate about what actually got said; to the non-Arab-speaking listener, even a friendly Arabic conversation is so loud and intense as to be indistinguishable from an exchange of death threats. I fully expect our breakfast tomorrow to be laced with some exotic local poison, part of our immersive experience.


Assuming we survive and the wifi stays up, you’ll hear about our “day in the life of Tineghir” tomorrow.

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

One Hump or Two?

We had a comfortable night, punctuated by occasional sounds from the dunes of varying familiarity: a dog barking, percussive music wafting from some other distant camp, and braying by some wayward beast, either a donkey or a camel. And if darkness had a sound, the night would have been deafening, because it was dark, very dark indeed, eyes-closed-while-standing-in-a-closet dark, so dark that when you wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, if you don’t find the bedside flashlight you might as well just keep your eyes closed. 

Despite our diligence in keep the screens of our tent zippered, we nonetheless awakened this morning to find a microtome-thin patina of fine sand covering absolutely everything. Moreover, in the “unintended consequences” department, the camp staff did us a favor of leaving the power on all night so we could charge iPads and the like, which drained the solar-powered batteries, which in turn meant that the water pumps could not operate, which yet in turn meant that we could not shower this morning. So it was not only our room furniture, blankets, and clothing that were covered with Saharan dust: we were too, and would remain so for most of the day. So it goes; this sort of thing is just part of the landscape. Literally.

We awakened early enough to throw on some clothes and climb the nearest dune to watch the desert sunrise, which you can see below. There were tracks in the sand: fox, stag beetles, and something big, presumably last night’s braying Mystery Animal. The sunrise itself was evocative though not the colorful extravaganza that one might hope for: there was a layer of dust haze near the horizon that muted the illumination of the clouds. Still, how often will we see a sunrise over the Sahara? (Answer: once more, tomorrow.)

And here is a picture of Alice at the base of our sunrise-viewing dune, her smile belying the sandiness of her underwear.


Breakfast included a “Berber omelet” which is made with olives and a kind of local salsa. I would probably wax rapturous about it if I didn’t hate olives, as I have previously confessed. So I ate around them and joined everyone else in declaring my approval. Then we climbed into our convoy of 4 x 4s and made dusty tracks across the rocks and sand to our day’s first destination, a one-room Berber schoolhouse, pictured below. A slightly harried teacher was giving Arabic lessons to about 30 children, half of them girls.

I say “lessons“, plural, because she was teaching two classes at once, side by side in the room. The right half of the room, viewed from the back where we stood, seated about 10 fifth graders; the left half, 20 sixth graders. So in addition to answering our questions she was simultaneously ping-ponging her attention between the two groups. She spoke and wrote on the blackboard in Arabic, and the posters around the room were variously in Arabic and French. Until recently Berber was purely a spoken language, but under government auspices a project was undertaken about a dozen years ago to create a written Berber alphabet. It looks a bit like Greek, and reads from left to right like English (unlike Arabic or Hebrew). Some of the children had Berber reading primers.

I mentioned that half the students were girls. This is obviously a good thing. The problem is follow-up; it is not at all certain that most of those girls will still be in school a year from now, since, appallingly, they are getting close to marrying age.

Our next stop was (for us, anyway) the day’s main event: camel ride! The handlers divided us into three groups, each with its own handler and “train” of camels tethered single-file. (No, I have not forgotten that they are dromedaries, and I also have no idea whether “train” is a correct term.) We mounted them (not that kind of mounted, you pervert) by stepping on overturned plastic milk crates as the camels knelt on all fours, positioning ourselves in the saddle and gripping the T-shaped handlebar for all we were worth, as the beasts rose one by one. Then we bobbed off into the dunes. We were out for about 45 minutes, just enough time for our thigh muscles to start begging for mercy. Here are some shots of the experience, starting with Alice grinning naively after mounting and seconds before the beast lurched skyward by standing up.

..and now we are under way, Alice in front of me, then Thumper and Steve.

Here’s another part of our group. 

Now Alice is attempting to film her entry for World’s Shakiest Home Videos:

…while I bring up the rear. The rear rider bears the heavy responsibility of being the most likely person to have an article of clothing blown away by the wind, which I did. (One of the handlers recovered my bandanna.)

 And at the conclusion of the ride, we share a self-congratulatory moment with Steve and Thumper. So was the whole thing “touristy”? Of course. But was it nonetheless fun and cool as all get-out? Absolutely.

Our next stop was a fossil bed, or perhaps more accurately, The Mother of All Fossil Beds. A paleontologist might find the whole thing rather pedestrian, since the variety of fossils in this region is pretty limited… basically the three sorts that I mentioned yesterday. But for sheer numbers, I have never seen anything remotely like it. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that every rock was covered in mineralized squids, nautilus-like ammonites, and — much more rarely — trilobites, all more than 300 million years old. The things were literally underfoot as we walked upon intact little ammonites a half inch across. Here are a couple of examples: for scale, the rock in the first photo was about 3 ft across;the big creature in the center of the second photo was about a foot long. (To put things in perspective, the largest one of this type ever found was a 40 ft monster in Israel.)

We probably spent about a half hour there, spreading out over the small plateau and into the shallow valley that were littered with little fossil bonanzas. Sound carries extremely well in the desert, and for that half hour the plateau echoed with our shouts to each other: “Hey, come look at this!”  “Look what I found!” “Look at the size of this one!” 

It’s a protected area, as you’d suppose, and commercial harvesting of the fossils is forbidden. (God knows there must be vast numbers of them around since every fly specked backwater souvenir store sells them.) But Momo said that taking a few small ones was not a big deal, and so we somewhat guiltily pocketed about a half dozen tiny ones, the biggest about 3/4″ long. Those included two completely intact ammonites, perfect little stone snail-like spirals less than a half inch across.

Our last stop of the day was at the canvas dwelling of a truly nomadic nomadic. No semipermanent corrugated aluminum walls and satellite dish for this 51 year old nomadic widow: she lives in the home that you see here for a few months at a time, then literally folds her tent and moves on. 

She lives at present with her 20 year daughter and granddaughter; the daughter’s husband is a shepherd who was away tending his flocks for long periods. The daughter was baking bread in a tiny outdoor “beehive” oven while we were there, a little stone or clay dome perhaps two feet high, identical in concept to what we saw in the mountains near Chefchaouen but much smaller. The bread came our of the oven steaming hot and irresistibly appetizing in appearance, crusty and puffy. After removing it from the oven and letting it cool for, oh, 30 seconds, she scooped it up on a blanket and handed it to Momo to allow us to sample it. And so we did, including Momo, one by one burning our fingers because that loaf of bread was way too damn hot to touch, let alone eat, because it looked to good to wait for. It was indeed possibly the best bread we have had so far, and I’m sure our fingers will heal quickly.

After all this driving around it developed that this particular nomad was about a half mile from our own camp, so we made the two minute drive there and basically rested up for an hour or two. (Happily, the camp batteries had since recharged and we once again had running water.)

In a couple of days we will be having a discussion session with a Sunni imam, so to give us some background for this (and possibly to forestall the likelihood of anyone sticking a religious foot in his or her mouth), Momo lectured us for about 45 minutes on the precepts of Islam. We had already inferred that he was a very moderate, live-and-let-live sort, and he confirmed this at length, giving us not only some Islamic history (including the Sunni-Shia schism) but making it abundantly clear that he regards all the current flavors of Islamic extremism as evil and stupid.

The conversation was interesting and led to a a uprising observation — one might even say epiphany — from Alice. During the discussion Steve asked Momo about the origins and justification of jihad as a weapon of Islam. Momo explained that jihad as currently defined is a perversion of its Koranic definition. According to him, the Koran defines jihad as a struggle to perform godly acts; these may include self defense (but never offense), acts of charitable sacrifice, and the imperative of providing for and defending one’s family. Whereupon Alice leaned over to me and said one word: “Mitzvahs.” So think about that connection for a while.

After the discussion I sought out Momo and asked him if he knew what a bar mitzvah was, which he did not. So I explained the whole thing to him, including the concept of a mitzvah. (Note to Gentile friends: a mitzvah is a godly act, a good deed of any sort, performed without the expectation of any kind of reward, simply because God commanded that everyone should do good deeds, period.) He saw the connection immediately and lit up, shaking my hand delightedly before we returned to our tent. Alice went barefoot as we walked, and so I took my sandals off too. Everyone should walk barefoot in the Sahara at least once.

We leave the tent camp tomorrow morning and drive to the town of Tineghir, which we are told is an oasis. So I guess we’ll learn (a) what an oasis is in practice, and (b) whether they have wifi.

Postscript: RAIN! About 20 minutes ago as I type this, the wind picked up ferociously. Sand came blowing throug the screens into our tent, and the space between the two rows of tent was snaking with windblown serpentines of fine sand, sidewinding  down from the dunes. The clouds had been building through the day and finally coalesced into dark and pendulous omens, and just now the wind reached a crescendo and the rain started. It’s not heavy, more of a wind-driven drizzle, but the fact that it is happening at all is pretty neat.

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Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:



The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.


We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

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Atlas Drove

…and drove, and drove. Today was a travel day, and we spent a total of 11 hours working our way from Fez to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara. The distance is about 260 miles, but we made some stops along the way, and at no point did the road resemble an interstate highway. We were in addition slightly slowed down by another one of our group falling ill and requiring a number of impromptu pit stops. Everyone takes this in stride, recognizing that it literally goes with the territory, and happily she is already feeling somewhat better. But the bottom line is, that there was not a whole of jam-packed activities today other than watching the scenery go by (which I will describe in a moment). 

We headed due south towards the desert, our first geographical landmark being the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are only a few thousand feet high (they peak at about 5000′). That is more than enough to notice a significant change in climate, though: the air is much cooler and drier, and the hills forested with cedar and pine. Indeed, this region is rather incongruously referred to as the Switzerland of Morocco, a metaphor made even weirder by the fact that there is in fact a ski resort. They don’t get an enormous amount of snow, but it is apparently enough to ski on; we could see a couple of trails and lifts on the hillsides. It was in this area that we made our first rest stop/coffee break in the town of Ifrane, whose architecture, signage, and heavily German tourist population indeed suggest that we somehow stumbled through a wormhole into some bizarre Islamic corner of Bavaria.

Once we crossed the crest of the Middle Atlas, we were on a high plateau, the plain between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains; the Sahara is on the far side if the High Atlas. This plain is a rocky desert with scrub vegetation, the road mostly straight and way too narrow: a single skinny lane in both directions with no median strip, guardrails, or shoulders. It was clearly built in an era when this region had no traffic at all, but now that the Moroccan government is investing in a number of southern towns there is a steady two-directional flow of passenger cars, trucks, and buses like our own. The narrow highway and generally marginal road conditions make every oncoming encounter — and they are frequent — an opportunity for terror, as the clearance between northbound buses and our own is about 6″.

All in all the terrain closely resembles much of the American Southwest, albeit with more terrifying roads. However, the Southwest does not have nomadic tribes shepherding herds of sheep and goats across the rocky scrub. The nomads construct makeshift-looking compounds of varying permanence out of a wide variety of scrounged materials, and these constructions are visible on the hillsides every hour or so as we drive. We stopped at one, that you can see here.

The ground surrounding the structures was rough with coarse grass and stones, and littered with animal bones. Dung beetles about 3/4 of an inch long wee all over, diligently rolling up balls of animal dung about the size of acorns and popping into their burrows when our footsteps alarmed them. The rocks were peppered with pretty little orange beetles with geometric hourglass patterns on their backs, looking like robot ladybugs.

The compound itself consisted of a few dimly lit rooms — they do have electricity, courtesy of a solar panel — adjacent to some corrugated metal paddocks variously holding turkey’s and sheep. Seven people live here, from two families; that’s one mother and child in the photo, and there was a grubby looking second child running around on his own. The families vacate this compound in the winter, leaving two of their number behind to keep squatters from occupying it. They return in the spring. They are illiterate, unwashed, and of low life expectancy: the woman above was 22 years old, looked about 40, and had been married since 13. But she baked a mean loaf of bread: she shared some with us that was still hot from the oven, and it was delicious.

Now here’s the strange part: completely belying this otherwise primitive existence is the fact that they have television. A modestly sized TV with one of those ubiquitous pirated cable boxes was fed by a small satellite dish and powered by the solar panel. They probably only have enough juice to operate the TV for a small part of the day, but sure enough, she turned its on for us and we could see the channel guide from the satellite (which she, of course, does not know how to read). But she also flipped through a couple of stations with some kind of soap opera going on, which kind of put a dent in my personal mental image of the isolated nomad.

We crossed the plain between the two mountain ranges and ascended into the High Atlas, where the road became twisty as we climbed and not any wider. There were at least guardrails, although frequently damaged or broken through by what we can only assume was some prior horrific accident. The terrain also became even more sparse, the soil turning redder and the vegetation becoming even more sparse. But there is enough water to be found in wells and the occasional shallow river to allow the construction of bricks and adobe, and the architecture in the towns by the road reflect this. Take a look at the image below: the town is made from adobe, and if you remove the tall structure at right, which is the town minaret, the scene could very well be somewhere in northern Arizona. 

If you’re not altogether in agreement with that statement, then check out the next image and tell me that it couldn’t equally well be in Arizona or New Mexico.

What you will not find in Arizona or New Mexico, however, is groves of date palms like you see in the picture below. The trees sit in a strip of land a few hundreds yard wide in a valley below the winding road, and they follow it for miles. Dates are a major part of the economy here, and the are a number of varieties with a wide range of quality and corresponding price. At the top of the line are Medjool dates, which are quite expensive (and not the ones in this grove).

We arrived at our hotel in Erfoud at a little after 7 PM and upon entering it immediately felt like desert travelers encountering an oasis. Below is the courtyard. You can see the pool in the middle of the photo; what you cannot see is the white camel that they keep on the grounds. This place is nice, and will doubtless in retrospect stand in sharp contracts to the more primitive lodgings that we will have for the next couple of days. We head out into the Sahara for real tomorrow, leaving behind most of our luggage and abandoning our bus for several 4 x 4’s that will take us to our tented camp for the next two nights. There, we will be riding camels into the dunes, meeting desert Berber tribes, and — my astronomer self smiles — enjoying some truly spectacular night skies. What I will not be doing, however, is transmitting any blog posts for the next few days, as we will be well and truly off the grid. I hope to be back online with suitable Rich and Alice of Arabia stories in a few days.

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