This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Touching a lost civilization

livingmuseum-1Lifestyles of thousands of years are quickly forgotten in the turbulence of the past two centuries. In Africa, 200 years is some 8 generations, and thus it was about time that a group of Damara people began to research and recount for their old ways, before all was forgotten. Out of this came the Damara Living Museum: a traditional village made up for tourists, where Damara craft and life is put on display by people enacting their customs for work.

The sun was hot in the desert and everybody wore loincloths. Only a couple of women covered their breasts. Our guide was a young, pregnant woman with full, beautiful pregnancy breasts. She was a gorgeous creature. Men were dangling bones and what looked like donkey or oryx tail hair from their loincloths.  Some had leather headwear, to protect from the sun. In summer, the day temperature can climb up to 50 degrees centigrade, thus one may wish to concentrate one’s garments over the head. But the nights are still freezing cold. Fortunately these modern Damara people probably went home to a hut with proper blankets, but how did their ancestors manage all those tens of thousands of years previously? With furs? It is not as if the animals around here are donned with insulating pelts.

We were also taken for a bushwalk to learn about local medicinal plants. Surprisingly many bushes that I recognized actually have known medicinal uses! Even oryx dung was used as a strong potion to stabilize a woman’s menstrual cycle. The ladies explained that it is strong enough to kill an unborn baby. In addition, we were shown how to hunt oryx, and how to trap dassie-rats. Although it was taboo for women to hunt in the Damara culture.

This type of tourism is the best kind: it keeps old traditions alive and feeds local people. It is sad, however, that the only reason the beautiful age-old culture of the Damara exist is for tourists, or in some protected, often distant, areas. “Progress” wipes out so much knowledge, craft, and time-tested ways of life. livingmuseum-2(Twyfelfontein, Namibia; July 2017)

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Emptiness is our ancestral home

emptyroadThis is where all mankind is from. Deepest West Africa. A study claims that our common ancestors came from what we today call Namibia. The San people of Namibia and Angola still share the closest ties to our foremothers and -fathers and are most possibly the first people of Africa and part of a culture still alive today, to some extent. The San people are also the ancestral family of the people who migrated out of Africa some 40,000 years ago.

This emptiness is our biological home. If you look closely, you can see farms dotting the landscape: a modest shed and a little hut, some goats and maybe some cattle. This is how locals live. Not in lodges with pools and watered lawns but in the desert. With lots of blankets at night, as it does get cold, especially the last few hours before dawn.

This landscape is what we are biologically made for.

(Namibia; July 2017)

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In Brandberg

brandbergAfter driving through the dark we woke up in Brandberg. The rocks next to the campsite main buildings were actually the edge of the huge Brandberg rock. Last night we apparently had a desert elephant in camp. It was a lonely bull we were told, and this afternoon I saw a huge pile of elephant dung in the middle of the campsite. Unfortunately, most of the elephants are 150 kilometers away – and we explicitly came here to see them. In daylight, not sneaking around the campsite at night.

Last night I went to find the bathroom, some 50 meters away from our car. Right next to the bathroom, in the thicket, I saw a bunch of eyes gleaming in the light of my flashlight. My mind raced from oryxes to huge lions, until I realized they belonged to docile donkeys. Apparently we have a herd of donkeys at the campsite, too.

The Brandberg area is a geologist’s dream and a big, red rock jutting up from the plains. But it is also a nature watcher’s dream, and even now, three months after the last rains, we drove through puddles so deep that they wet the inside of our safari rangers.  There is water underground and when it rains the area becomes marshland. And this morning we saw ducks and blacksmith plovers – in the deep desert!

Namibia has had very little rain the past years. Most part, Damaraland included, saw no rain for 4 years until last December 2016, when the rains finally came. Our guide said that there are currently very little animals around because so many did not survive the long draught. The desert elephants got so hungry and thirsty that they would break into campers’ cars and trashcans, and drink from swimming pools. Sometimes they would even smash car windows in hunt for something to eat. Desert elephants are the largest elephants in the world: imagine a size or two up from the normal African elephant.

Now that the rains came, the elephants have sufficient food but have acquired a new behavior, which worries the campsite staff. I would definitely not like to be woken up in my tent by an elephant trying to break into the car underneath me.brandberg-2(Brandberg, Namibia; July 2017)

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Ancient African art

twyfelfonteinThe Cro-Magnon people of Europe drew mammoths, deer, and moose. The San people of Africa made giraffes, oryxes, and wildebeest. Both depict hunts, hunted animals, and the styles are quite similar. If you look closely you can even see an animal with double sets of legs, like the one at Lascaux which is suspected to be like an animation of a walking animal when properly flashed with light. The Cro-Magnon people drew shamanic apparitions, as did the San people: if you look closely at the Twyfelfontein rock painting site you can find a lion with a deer-like animal in its jaws. The lion has a long, angled tail, with a pawprint at the end. As if from a trance dream.

The rock drawings of Twyfelfontein are similar to the ones in Lascaux. We people share a universal, collective mind, regardless of where in the world we live. Which drawings are older? The San people who drew the Twyfelfontein paintings are said to be the oldest original people of Africa, but these drawings are only about 2,000-6,000 years old; while the paintings in the Lascaux caves have survived 17,000 years. The oldest known rock art, in Indonesia, is dated 40,000 years back in time. On the one hand, the Twyfelfontein art is much younger. On the other hand, the Cro-Magnon people seem to have stopped making rock paintings some 10,000 years ago, while the San people did it until they were banished to the nearly rock-less Kalahari desert when farming became popular after Namibian independence.

Living prehistoric culture is unfortunately very easy to kill.

(Twyfelfontein, Namibia; July 2017)

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3 ladies and a monster car

4wd-1Three ladies and a monster Land Cruiser. Four-wheel driven, stick shift, and to be driven on the left side of the road. Requires two people to get it into reverse gear. With two (in principle) pop-up tents on the roof, which in practice require two tall, strong people to pop them up or fold them down – or three ladies climbing all over the car for 15 minutes to do the same job.

This car would take us anywhere safely, and thus is not cheap. Which was also the reason for why the German owner of Africa on Wheels seemed reluctant to hand it over to us. Our every move was tracked on an interactive online map, and if we oversped we got a warning signal – or a phone call from the rental company. In exchange, however, they resolved every issue we had: from locating the barbecue supplies to actually resetting the speed limit signal system when we complained about overspeeding alarms when we were driving under the limit.

This car, together with Google Maps, took us through 3 hours of driving past sunset (uninsured, mind you) on the first day, through the desert, where locating small junctions in the sand was nearly impossible without great beams and a GPS map. It took us through beach sand and seriously bad trails to camp sites, for an entire week. It consumed about 20 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers, partly due to bad aerodynamics, but in return became like a trusted friend.

And I finally learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road.4wd-2(Namibia; July 2017)

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Leaving Walvis Bay

wvbsunsetLast night at Walvis Bay. After one month I still have trouble with how strong the segregation is here. Last Friday we went to a bar and talked to the black bartender we knew. We wanted to go clubbing for once, and thought it was a great idea that he’d come with us to show us the local nightlife hotspots. But most of our team wanted to be within walking distance of the house (on the “white” side of town, mind you), and so the vote fell on another bar in the marina. Our bartender was very sorry but could not join us as he would not have felt welcome in that bar.

He was probably right. I did not see a single black man in that bar during the entire night. Perhaps a handful of black women. And it struck me that we’d been there the week before with a black friend of a friend, but she never really came inside to the bar but stayed outside, at the far end of the terrace.

Perhaps white Namibians do see what I see, and care like I care, but just get along as “things have always been like this”. Namibia has been independent for 23 years, and with this speed, proper multicultural mixing will take generations. This slow process makes me sad.

I have not witnessed a single openly discriminating behavior, but I am sure they do happen. And what is almost equally bad is the hidden behavior: the segregation. Separate housing areas, bars, schools, and recreation areas. Whites, coloreds, and blacks only meet and mingle when running errands in town.

Walvis Bay is also quite the cultural backwater. It is a port town, meaning that people here are mostly not highly educated but blue-collar and working class.  I have seen very few old people. Are they all at home or dead, or have they moved away?

People get married at a young age. Many will eventually divorce later, and so there is a large number of single people in their late 30s, early 40s. The number of men clearly outweighs the number of women, as Walvis Bay is a port town. And everybody looks a little rugged, especially the women. Survivors. No fragile, stereotypically feminine women here. The men even seem to favor the same hairstyle: short crew cuts.

Eventually, Walvis Bay has been an enjoyable and peculiar experience. I feel like I entered a microcosm of some kind and only got to know a tiny bit of it, both due to culture rifts as well as my busy schedule. And even if my logic lists all the things I wrote of above as take-home messages, my heart trumps them all with one single observation: the kindness and generosity of the people here is simply remarkable. Loving kindness in action, every day.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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How to barbecue fresh mussels

pelicanpoint-6How to have fresh mussels on the beach:

  • Get into a wetsuit and goggles, brave the cold water, and spend a considerable amount of time hacking off mussels in the swell bashing you against rocks and the pier. Or, preferably, get somebody else to do that for you.
  • Scrape the mussels clean from seaweed, barnacles, and tiny baby mussels. Cut  your fingers at least twice.pelicanpoint-8
  • Place each individual mussel flat on the barbecue, burning your fingers in the run.
  • Cook the mussels in their own brine.
  • Throw the cooked mussels into the potjie they were originally supposed to be cooked in.
  • Enjoy the obviously sub-optimal energy acquisition vs. expenditure in preparing the dish – and the delicious flavor of the ocean.

pelicanpoint-7(Pelican Point, Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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At Pelican Point

pelicanpoint-3For a month we’ve been cruising around and past Pelican Point, viewing the desolate, 10 km long sand bank with its millions of noisy seals from the sea. Today we off-roaded through it, all the way to the seals at the northernmost tip. 2 cars, 12 people, 1 kayak, and lots of food for a beach barbecue. pelicanpoint-5We could naturally not do a beach outing without gathering some data, too. The kayak was brought along not just for fun, but also to record Cape fur seal sounds. The seals often move with the dolphins when feeding, and so it is good to understand the noises they make. Two from our team also snuck up on the seal mothers and their pups in the nursery on land, crawling as close as they possibly could, and leaving a SoundTrap behind.pelicanpoint-4I crawled close to the seals, too, just to watch. On all fours, we three people ultimately got about 10 meters from the “gentlemen’s club” of male seals, lying away from the big group of mothers and pups. The furry, almost shaggy large males sat proudly with their noses in the air, as if they owned the world. And from their point of view, they probably did.

From time to time, the fat old bosses would scoff at the younger or weaker one, yelling, jaws open, straight into their faces. For no apparent reason than to just vent their egos.
pelicanpoint-2The seals and the jackals inhabit a long, lonely stretch of the world. If the wind picks up, there is no way for the jackals to go except for to trot ten kilometers back towards mainland. Or to burrow themselves down into the 4WD tracks. Because this is Namibia and it is full of desolate places.
pelicanpoint-1(Pelican Point, Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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The hidden (less intelligent) lives of crayfish

aquariumDinner time, both for us and for the fish. The lucky wish were hand-fed squid fillets, by scuba divers. Except for the one scuba diver who was mainly filming with his GoPro, never-minding the poor starving fish.

The little krill-like crayfish were fed, too. After some observation, I am now convinced that crayfish have a social life we know nothing of. And some of the crayfish are socially awkward, just like us humans.

In particular, one little, young, crayfish just did not know how to exist among the others. It was trampled on by all the other crayfish passing by. Then it wanted to somehow crawl straight through another individual, not realizing that quantum mechanics was not going to favor its attempt at walking through another living being today. Their feet got all entangled and it seemed to want to push itself through its mate. No wonder the poor socially awkward crayfish had already lost a leg at a tender age.

Perhaps its recent shell-shedding had something to do with its apparent mental instability: it was all white and soft still. It takes time for crayfish shell to harden. Perhaps its brain had shedded a layer, too.

Thankfully, we were not served squid but other delicious treats. And I was glad to only have to shed clothes that do not fit, not an entire shell.
swakopmund-5(Swakopmund, Namibia; July 2017)

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Ray or shark?

guitarfishThese weird things hang around in the lagoon. Why they are called guitarfish is kind of evident, at least with a little imagination. Although this individual was quite slim.

Guitarfishes are rays, and thus related to manta rays and stingrays. Except for that their tail half looks like it belongs to a shark, with two dorsal fins and a vertical tail fin. Just a lot more friendly-looking. I nudged one with my toes and it did not seem to mind me at all.

These guys and girls have as a species been around for some 100 million years. Thus a lot longer than a guitar, or even a banjo. And certainly longer than us humans.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)