Posts Tagged With: sunset

They Don’t Call It Iceland For Nothing

We’ve been variously too busy or to exhausted for the last couple of nights to keep up with daily blog posts, and as of about 6 hours ago as I type this, we are in Paris. So this is going to be a quick “catch up” post, heavy on the photos, to wrap up our stay in Iceland.

I’ll go through our last two Icelandic days (Sept 14 and 15) in more or less chronological order, with one big exception, which was our excitement on the night of Friday the 14th. At about 8 PM we were almost home from a day of legendary photographic luck — which is to say, clear sunny skies and mild temperatures — when Janet suddenly screamed, “The aurora!” This seemed improbable since the aurora prediction gave it a very low probability for that night, and we had barely seen it a few nights earlier when the prediction called for high activity. Which only goes to show that aurora forecasts can be as wildly off base as weather forecasts, for there was indeed a greenish glow in the sky that an hour or so later looked like this (admittedly with a 5 second time exposure):

To which I can only say, “Ta-da!” It shimmered, it moved, it waxed and waned, it was cooler than all get-out. This was only the second time in my life that I had seen it, and the (very excited) first for Alice, Janet, and Tim. It was Iceland coming through for us, bigly.

The day began promisingly enough, as we walked out of our farm bungalows to a beautiful day. Here is our cabin, complete with waterfall on the cliffside behind us. (You can just see it to the left of the of the peak of the rooftop.)

We had a couple of major ice-related destinations that day, all of them various aspects of the Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón glaciers. (You may have figured out by now that “jökul”, pronounced “yerkle”, means “glacier”. At the end of a word it has two L’s and is for some reason pronounced “yerktle”, with a T-sound stuck in there to keep you of balance.)

Anyway, these two masses of ice are pretty close to each other, which created a large number of opportunities for Janet and me to shout “Stop the car!” so that we could get out and photograph one or another random roadside vista like this one.

I mean, seriously, this location wasn’t even flagged as a scenic viewpoint or anything. It was just there, reflecting in a big puddle.

Our first “official” stop was the so-called “Diamond Beach” at the foot of Jökulsárlón. Why do they call it the “Diamond Beach”? Oh, I dunno. Probably because of all the little glacier bits flowing around in the surf, like this:

You will note that the sand is black, which heightens the effect of a landscape of 50,000-carat diamonds displayed on a field of black velvet. Adding to the surrealism is the speedy current exiting the lake from which the bergs originate, castoffs from Jökulsárlón. There is a narrow throat where the lake empties into the sea, and so the ice chunks bob and swirl around, bumping into each other and eddying in the surf.

That lake, just a few hundred meters upstream from the Diamond Beach, is itself quite the sight, since it is basically the collection point for all the icebergs that calve off of Jökulsárlón at this location.

The lake is otherwise very still, and you can rent kayaks or a buy a ride in a Zodiac boat to weave in and out of the bergs. The lake was also full of seals: we counted at least a dozen, barking and sounding and clapping their flippers against the water.

Just a few miles down the road was another location where we could get up close and personal with Jökulsárlón. There, the tongue of the glacier extruded into a smaller lake, virtually tiled with small bergs and floes that made it seem as though, if you were sufficiently careful and balanced, you could gingerly walk or hop from one to the next and so approach the face of the glacier itself. And by “sufficiently careful”, I mean, “You would without any doubt whatsoever fall in and drown whilst freezing to death.” Here’s the scene from the top of the access path:

…and from lake level:

And here is Alice doing her best Ice Queen:

Her cheery photogenic smile completely masks her bitter complaints about getting a cold wet butt just so I could get a “We were There” photo.

We headed back to the farm in Vik (population 300, not counting us), then, realizing that this might be the last clear skies we’d have, turned around and headed back into town to visit Reynisfjara, the best-known black sand beach in the area. Iceland is littered with such beaches, but Reynisfjara is famous for its offshore basaltic rock formations. In the northwestern US they’d be called “hoodoos”, but here they are called Reynisdrangar because, well, it’s Iceland. And they aren’t basaltic columns, they’re frozen trolls. Story goes that they originated when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to land (I don’t remember why). They worked through the night — trolls can’t stand sunlight –but didn’t make it before dawn broke, and they froze into rock columns. It’s a Lot’s wife/vampire sort of thing. Anyway, here they are at sunset.

A little further down the beach is a larger, flat-topped formation that at sunset reminded me of Stonehenge. See if you agree:

As you can tell, it was a hell of a day, photographically, and it was on the way back from the frozen trolls that Janet spotted the aurora, which was the capstone of the day’s travels.

Our last day on the island, Sunday the 15th, dawned chilly, heavily overcast, and rainy, and pretty much stayed that way. In other words, it was the perfect day for an indoor activity, like strapping on crampons and mining helmets to explore frigid, drippy ice caves. So we did that.

We put on every article of clothing we had, including waterproof slickers and rain pants, and drove to the rendezvous point in Vik to board the world’s most masculine tourism vehicle, a massive 4×4 with tires the size of large toroidal children. Our guide was the equally outsized and suitably Nordic David, who took off across the black sand desert, speeding up the sides of ebon dunes and doing donuts at the top as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blared on the sound system. It was that kind of experience. But it brought us to here:

This is where, if you go trick-or-treating, Sauron answers the door wearing a Darth Vader costume. The greenish stuff in the foreground and distant hills is moss, the only kind of ground cover that can grow here. The ominous structure in the center is our destination, part of Myrdalsjökull glacier. The reason it is black is that it is covered in volcanic grit, as were we and everything we owned after tramping around there for a while.

Myrdalsjökull actually sits above Katla volcano, essentially capping it. Except that it is really hard to cap a volcano: when it blows, along with the lava, ash, and pyroclastic flows, you get bonus flooding and chunks of glacier. This has happened in the past.

Like everything else in Iceland, Katla has a legend associated with it. Katla was a witch who owned a pair of magic pants. Someone stole the pants, and it only gets more complicated from there. Suffice it to say that like all Icelandic legends we have heard to date, it involves someone getting thrown off a cliff and someone else getting eaten, and makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like it was written by the same guy who gave us the little girl and the gold ring and the giant magical slug living at the bottom of the lake. You’d think that with the Brothers Grimm living just across the sea in Denmark, the Icelanders could have made up more comprehensible legends.

Anyway, the point is that there are caves in the glacier face, so we set off, Hobbit-like, with our crampons and mining helmets to explore them. Look at the photo below and mentally insert “Lord of the Rings” music.

I’m sure that that photo is your image of an ideal vacation. (And for the record, I did no alteration to the colors in that photo. Everything except us really was black and white. David carried an ice axe, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to trust it to one of us, and rightly so. The ice was white or clear, and the coarse volcanic sand was black and ubiquitous, including in our clothing afterwards. So here is a view looking out from within the cave.

..and here are Janet and Tim thwarting our fiendish attempt to entomb them in ice forever so we can steal the snacks that brought along for the trip.

The inside of the caves — being ice — was wet, cold, slippery, gritty, and very dark, with claustrophobically low ceilings. The walls were sculpted into smooth pained-looking curves, like the sky and face in the famous Munch painting, “The Scream.” There were rivulets of glacial runoff running across the crude path, spanned by short, narrow planks that we had to negotiate while crouching. Our mining helmets were a strict necessity both for the light and the overhead protection. It is not for nothing that movies like “Aliens” get filmed here and elsewhere in the area; the whole place just seems not of this Earth.

It’s kind of ironic that the last outing we had in Iceland was all in shades of black and white, since the previous day had given us such colorful skies, culminating in the aurora. But it’s that kind of place, all extremes. It was a great ten days and we felt like we had really seen much of the country. As I type this Janet and Tim are en route home to Ohio while we are in Paris. So with luck I’ll get up the gumption to report on our stay here. (Don’t expect much; this is about our sixth time here so we don’t do a huge amount of the “standard” Paris tourism.)

 

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.)

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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

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

Namiballoon

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

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

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More on those in a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Biological phenomenon or M. Night Shyamalan movie?

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

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

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

02 Kulala Day 2 2017-180-Edit

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

Zipline-y Doo Dah….

Ziplines have become quite the fad in the last 15 years or so, which postdates the era that I lived on the Big Island. But the local tourism industry has caught up, of course, so Hawaii ziplining is now a thing. Which I suppose is good, since (a) it’s relatively eco-friendly and (b) heaven knows there are enough scenic venues here that are worth looking at whilst suspended on a steel cable. We became zipline aficionados a number of years ago in Costa Rica — which is where the whole thing started — and so of course we were not about to miss out here.

Our choice of zipline operator was Skyline Eco-Adventures, whom I can highly recommend. (Just click on their name to get their website.) Their big selling point was the fact that they operate near Akaka Falls, a tremendously scenic venue that I wrote about in an earlier post. Their outing takes you down seven ziplines of increasing length and height. You know the drill. First you get all suited up in a harness and helmet and pulleys and such, like Alice here:

Zipline Akaka-010

…and then they have you run off a ramp into the waiting jungle canopy. Here’s Alice again, sliding off into the distance, and waving cheerily to avoid looking down.

Zipline Akaka-011

This all leads up to the grand finale, which is a 3350 ft (1 km) cable that crosses the Kolekole river over Akaka Iki Falls — Akaka Falls’ little brother, a 250 ft (76 m) cataract — at a height of 250 ft (still 76 m) above the top of the cascade. For those of you keeping score, that’s 500 ft (152 m) above the riverbed. And here is what that looks like:

Zipline Akaka-014

The yellow-clad optimist at upper left is our friend Cindi, who with her husband John visited us for five days last week as our sojourn here began to wind down. What you cannot tell from the above photo is that she is moving at close to 40 mph (55 kph). You can also not hear her screaming. I promise you that this particular experience was every bit the adrenaline rush that you would expect it to be.

At the end of the line (literally) our refreshments consisted of apple bananas — the little tiny super-flavorful ones that grow here — plus fresh cut sugar cane. You can’t eat raw cane (it’s got the consistency of wet bamboo), so you chew it. This is a surprisingly refreshing thing to do: crushing the cane stalk with your molars releases the sugar-laden liquid, sweet and wonderful in your mouth.

We drove away from the experience chattering like lunatics as our adrenaline levels slowly retreated to normal, then drove back to Akaka Falls itself, which Cindi and John had not yet seen. The path was a lot more crowded than the last time we were here, a week or so ago. One reason for that is that weather was better this time; another was the presence of a bus full of schoolkids visiting from Oahu.

Akaka Falls-009

They were all wearing the blue teeshirts that you see in the photo, which show a silhouette of the battleship Arizona and the words “Always Remember the 7th of December 1941”. I have no idea what the children actually know about that particular event, nor why they were wearing those teeshirts in March; more interestingly, I also have no idea what the many Japanese tourists on the footpath thought about it.

It was still early enough in the afternoon for us to make one more stop on the Hamakua coastline as we headed back to Kona, so went to Laupahoehoe Beach Park. Laupahoehoe is known for one important thing besides being difficult to pronounce by tourists, and that is a particularly tragic tsunami.

The town sat right on the coast, and the wave hit on April 1, 1946. Many buildings were destroyed, but the one that was hit hardest and suffered the largest loss of life was, of all things, a schoolhouse. 24 people were killed, most of them children, and this sad memorial marks the spot. As you can see from the list of names, whole families of siblings were obliterated.

Laupahoehoe-011

People still come and decorate it with flowers, seashells, and memorabilia.

Laupahoehoe-012

The town itself is no longer on the coast, having relocated to higher ground up the steep hillside above the highway. The coastal area is now a popular beach park where people come to camp, fish, and goggle at the wild surf. Even without a tsunami, the waves and lava rocks at this place are violent and stunning to behold.

Laupahoehoe-003 Laupahoehoe-006

Hmmm. Seems like a bit of a downer to end this post on, especially as it is likely to be the last on this trip until we get home and post a link to the collected photos and videos in a couple of weeks; we overnight in Honolulu tomorrow, then head back to the mainland and home the day after. We’ve been gone for 5 1/2 weeks, our longest trip yet, and this stay has been such a success that we are planning on returning next year to the same house. As motivation to do so, the Big Island continues to taunt us with spectacular sunsets that we can watch every night from our lanai, the open patio at the back of our rented house. I’ll close with one from ten miles up the coast, taken a few days ago.

Kohala sunset-001

Aloha! Next stop: Japan in seven months!

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

Arganic Farming (or, Return of the Tree-Climbing Goats!)

A change in the weather seems to presage a change in our circumstances, as the wind picks up and our trip winds down. Last night’s daramati  sunset was a harbinger, viewed from a rooftop bar near the fort overlooking the beach. We had gathered for a sunset happy hour before going out to a particularly nice French dinner, not quite our farewell meal but getting pretty close.

The wind strengthened during the night and brought some rain with it as well, the first we had seen since a brief drizzle at the Sahara camp proved to be the leading edge of our little sandstorm there, about a week ago. (I confess to be being a little disappointed that it had rained last night, as I had been looking forward to telling people ironically that the only time it had rained on this trip was when we were in the middle of the Sahara desert.)

The rain had stopped by the time we awakened this morning though there were still a lot of clouds and the temperature was noticeably cooler than yesterday. As any sailor will tell you, this meant that it was going to be a Jimi Hendrix, Orson Wells, and tree-climbing goat sort of day. (It is possible that you have never encountered that particular bit of folk wisdom.)

Our primary goal today was the women’s Argan oil collective, but our first stop along the way was in Jimi Hendrix territory, who as I mentioned passed through here in 1968. He stayed for about 11 days, including at our hotel, but one of his stops was at this café in a  rundown little village, well off the beaten path for anyone except the residents, the occasional passing rock star, and the latter’s various drug connections.

If your French is rusty, the sign reads, “1968, a date that marks the presence of a great star at this location.” In other words, “Jimi Hendrix toked here.” Note also that the sign around the arched entrance advertises wifi, which Jimi was probably unable to enjoy at the time.

Our next stop was the local surfer’s paradise, a broad and at that moment isolated beach where the wind was blowing a full gale, throwing spray into our faces even from 100 yards away (hence no photo). The wind was whipping the waves into a froth, and there were no surfers (or anyone else) masochistic enough to suffer through these conditions. In other words, it was an empty windy beach on a cloudy day, and we did not linger.

The road through this area was one of the paragons of lousy Moroccan roads, barely wide enough for one direction of traffic but allowing two, and not so much having a defined shoulder as sort of petering out into rubble at the edges. Every time we encountered an oncoming vehicle — which was frequently — both drivers had to decide whether (a) there was enough room to actually get past each other and so barrel onward with an inch or two of clearance, or (b) to slow to a crawl and inch past each other. I am amazed that it has taken three weeks, but it was on this road near the windswept beach that both drivers finally made the wrong decision and we lost a chunk of our outside mirror. Both our and the other vehicle stopped and the drivers got out to collect the debris and discuss the situation. To my surprise this did not involve any yelling and gesturing; this must happen so often that it’s just one of those things, like getting jostled in a crowd.

We continued onward and as we approached the collective were rewarded with a wonderful sight: more tree-climbing goats! Real ones this time! A big flock in a grove of Argan trees! Who were actually climbing into the trees and jumping out of them! It was satisfyingly surreal, and you can see a couple of them in action here. The two guys in the foreground seemed to be in conversation just before the top one jumped down out of the tree:

…while this guy in the second photo is just getting started.

I was glad to see all this, as you can tell, since I was grievously disappointed to learn that the batch of goats we had seen two days ago had been put in the trees. And now that we were seeing them in natural action, I took the opportunity to resolve a question that had been bothering me since that previous goat encounter, namely, how did those other goats get “put” into the tree? Several mental images had come to mind at the time, including (a) a goat pulley system; (b) a goat ladder; or (b) some kind of goat catapult.

In my own fantasy I had come to secretly favor the goat catapult. I imagined some crude medieval-looking counterweighted rough-hewn structure with a range of maybe 100 feet. You could launch them way up into the top of the tree but you had to calibrate your aim really carefully because there’d be very little margin of error and a miss would cost you a goat. That would lead to conversations like this:

FARMER (trudging in at the end of the day): “We’ll be having goat for dinner tonight.”

WIFE: “You missed the tree again, didn’t you?”

As it turns out, no catapults are involved. Basically the farmers who are trying to attract tourist photos out of season carry the goats up into the trees.

But today’s goats were satisfyingly self-propelled. We could see some nuts up in the tree branches, some late bloomers that had not yet been harvested and which were sufficient in number to motivate the goats. There were also a fair number of them scattered about on the ground that no one had taken the trouble to harvest. As I think I mentioned yesterday, they’re about the size of olives.

We continued on to the “Marjana Cooperative for Argan Oil Extraction”. If you’re wondering what that looks like in Arabic (and French), here’s the sign:

The production facility is, well, a room full of women breaking open nuts with rocks, then grinding them up into oil. Here are two of them:

   
 

As you can see, the Berber women… hey, wait a minute, that’s no Berber woman on the right! I knew I was missing something.

As you can see, the Berber women open the nuts one at a time by placing them on Rock #1 and hitting them with Rock #2. It takes something like 60 lbs of nuts to make a quart of oil, so you might think that the management could hurry things along by, say, giving the women hammers. But they seem to zip right along with rocks about as fast as they could do it with a hammer, and so tradition is preserved. (There is little doubt that this process could be mechanized for great efficiency and probably eliminate the women altogether. But of course the goal of the place is to provide employment as much as it is to produce the oil.)

After the nuts are opened they are ground in a stone bowl, essentially a rotary mortar and pestle. If the oil is destined to be eaten (it can be used as a dip or salad dressing) then the kernel is roasted first; for cosmetic products it is not. And I can now tell you what an unroasted Argan kernel tastes like: terrible. Very bitter. But once roasted they are kind of almondy.

There’s a shop adjacent to the production building, but you already knew that. So of course we bought a variety of Argan oil products. (By the way, I am a little uncertain as to whether Argan should actually be capitalized. I suspect that it shouldn’t. But my iPad autocorrect believes that it should, so I have decided to live with it.)

Lunch today was our final family home visit, in this case a somewhat down at the heels family of five: a Berber widow, her three sons, and her daughter. They lived in a small but neat concrete dwelling on a trash-strewn dirt road. We met only the widow and her eldest son, neither of whom spoke English so our tour lead Mohammed translated.  It was probably our most awkward encounter to date. They were certainly friendly and hospitable to us but rather incurious; they were happy to answer all our questions but asked not a single one of us, unlike all our other hosts. We did learn, however, that the street happens to be the dividing line between the Berber and Arab parts of the area. This has no practical significance since they’re not hostile to one another and intermarry with regularity, but I found it interesting that everyone is aware of the precise location of the imaginary border.

We returned to our hotel and I followed up on something that I had belatedly noticed yesterday (and that Alice had seen earlier but not remarked upon): we are directly across the hall from the “Orson Wells Suite”. So now I took action, marching to the front desk and asking whether Orson Wells had actually stayed there. Turns out he did, and the desk clerk kindly asked if I would like to see it. Of course I would, and as we walked down the hall towards it I fetched Alice, who rather sourly theorized that the chairs in that room would be twice as wide as the ones in the regular rooms. Turns out she was right. So for the historical record here is the living room of the Orson Wells Suite in the beachfront Hotel des Iles in Essaouria, Morocco:

“Rosebud!”

There was also a separate bedroom. The bed was of unremarkable size. And there was a portrait of Orson on the living room wall, all bearded and scowly as though someone had sold him a bottle of wine before its time.

Our Moroccan adventure is basically finished now. We’re going out for pizza tonight (no more couscous!), then leaving tomorrow morning for the all-day drive back to Casablanca where we started, three eventful weeks ago. We fly out of Casablanca very early Monday morning, so this is probably the last blog post for this trip. (Once I have finished sorting and editing our photos and videos, as opposed to the quick-and-dirty ones I have been posting here, I will create a website for them and post the link as a final blog entry; over the next several weeks I will be editing 3000 photos down to a few hundred.)

Our next sojourn: Hawaii in late January. Inshallah.

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

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