This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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The night sky unveiled

qtbn2-v2And there it was: another of those unbelievably bright, long-lived shooting stars above the desert. The night skies over Namibia are remarkable. During a night drive between Windhoek city and airport one is bound to see at least two shooting stars. It is not because they are more common here, but because there is barely any light pollution, clouds, or humidity in the sky between us and the universe.

The first time in my life I truly saw (and paid attention to) the Milky Way was in a tiny village on the Kenyan coast. It seemed to me as a string of cloud and stars in the sky. But here in Namibia I have seen the Milky way in an entirely new resolution: as swirls of uneven, nebulous patches of light and dark. Here in Namibia it is possible to view other galaxies with the naked eye.

The sky is so densely speckled that I have to get used to the thought that this is what the night sky, anywhere on the planet, REALLY looks like. My perception of a sky full of stars has lacked about half of what my ancestors saw, before the invention of electricity. In fact, if anybody asked me to imagine a night sky, in my mind’s eye it would look completely different than if my ancestors were asked to do the same thing.

It saddens me to think that one needs to go to Africa or the deepest central Asia to see what the sky really looks like. My generation and further, younger generations, will probably not even know what the sky and space beyond really looks like. What was normal to my ancestors will be lost to them. Just like an extinct animal species.

Photo borrowed from Florian Breuer’s blog. Apologies Florian for the steal but there is no way I would have been able to photograph the amazing Namibian night sky with the iPhone I was carrying.

(Namibia; July 2017)

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Namibia on wheels

caretoshaThe Etosha campsites are busy villages: busloads of campers dine and sleep in tents and make incredible noise both late at night as well as at dawn. I had never seen so many cars so close to each other at a campsite where people usually seek privacy. No such concept at Etosha Halali Camp, which is not even the busiest campsite.

The road to and from Etosha is long and straight and busy (and paved!!). Fortunately none of the warthogs and guinea fowls scattered around the banksides made an attempt to cross. Overtaking was tough enough on a narrow, shoulderless, single-lane road, at 120 km/hour. In most other countries this would have been considered dangerous, but in Namibia it is standard practice.

I drove our Land Cruiser most of the 5-hour-drive to Etosha, and back down to Windhoek. It was a struggle to keep the car on the road due to the wind which kept pushing us into the ditch the moment I let my full attention go. The Land Cruiser was a fabulous thing on bad roads and off-roads, but it did not do well on a tar road at 100+ km/hour. The huge, profiled, broad tires were almost impossible to keep in a straight line, and even without wind the car needed constant correction. Overtaking was not really practical in 5th gear and nearly impossible uphill. The poor car would not even make it up the hill in 5th gear at any speed lower than 100 km/h. The gear box was like that of a cargo truck, and I would often end up in 4th gear when aiming for 2nd gear. Getting the car in reverse required two hands and often a few tries, in-between which the car made sounds like it was being tortured miserably.

The indicator light was on the right and the windshield wipers to the left, which meant that if I was not consciously paying attention I turned on the windshield wipers when making a turn. The handbrake was difficult to release, as it often appeared released but got stuck and frightened us with the warning sound when I tried to drive off.

In general, everything linked to driving was on the wrong side, as in Namibia everybody drives on the wrong side of the road. And so I often tried to not only indicate my turns with the windshield wipers, but also tried to shift gears with my right hand, groping empty air or the door of the car. Thank goodness that the clutch, brake, and gas pedal were the right way around. Otherwise I would have been a hazard on wheels. etosha-1(Etosha, Namibia; July 2017)

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Rhinos! (and two very bad photos)

rhinos-1One word: rhinos. No need to justify the crappy quality of these photos. Because when rhinos are around, you take pictures with whatever equipment you have, in whatever lighting conditions.

We who stayed at Halali Camp were fortunate to see the black rhinos every night at the floodlit waterhole. As the sun set, people gathered at the viewing platform of stone seats scattered here and there in an amphitheater fashion above the waterhole. It was like watching a living movie: people enjoyed drinks as the sun went down, the birds quieted, and the animals came out to drink.

The rhinos took their time each night hanging around the waterhole, gazing at each other, drinking, ambling, and drinking some more. The strange, slow, prehistoric animals have feet like the elephant, although they are clearly not related. From time to time the male rhino would turn his lips inside out and grin like a crazy horse. He was using his pheromone-sensing organ in his gums to smell the whereabouts of the female rhino across the waterhole – because he, like all rhinos, had very bad eyesight. To top off the show he would pee by squirting a spray backwards out from between his hind legs.

Apparently black rhinos are moody. I can confirm this. And these two hated the pride of five lionesses that shared the waterhole. The poor big cats attempted at sneaking up to drink when the rhino was still chilling around, but no such luck. Of course. They were ultimately chased around the bush by one very irritated rhino.

Namibia is one of the few countries where both black and white rhinos are conserved in their original, natural habitat. There are a little over 5,000 endangered black rhinos left in the world. That is many, compared to the 50 living individuals of white rhino in the 1990s. Today there are over 20,000 white rhinos living in Sub-Saharan Africa. And so it felt like witnessing a living wonder to observe the Southern white rhino by a waterhole during our night game drive. Hence the second crappy photo below.

The hyenas accompanying the rhino dashed over and began pestering it, just for fun. They danced around, trying to nip the rhino, expertly dodging its huge horn (apparently white rhinos are easily irritated, too). The rhino can gore a lion with its horn so a hyena or two is child’s play. Because the horns are more valuable than gold on the Asian market, Namibia has begun to remove the horns of the rhinos by sawing them off. The local authorities deem their chance of survival better that way, even if dehorned rhinos are at worse odds against the lions. The chance that a lion will attack a rhino is much smaller than the chance that a poacher will shoot it for its horns. And apparently a rhino will slowly grow his or her horn back. Such dire measures are taken even in Namibia to save the rhino, a creature from another age of our planet’s history.

The Southern white rhino has been saved from the brink of extinction by being introduced further up north to Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and other countries. Some, like Uganda and Sudan, used to host the Northern white rhino until it was hunted down to 3 captive animals in Sudan, constantly protected by armed guards. Even this may not save the Northern white rhino, as the three individuals seem to lack the hots for each other and refuse to breed. Once the old male dies that will be it. Unless in vitro fertilization or genetic engineering can save the species. Thank goodness for biotechnology, in advance.rhinos-2(Etosha National Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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In Etosha

etosha-4 Zebras, giraffes, kudu, oryx, antelopes, elephants, lions, marabou, secretary birds, rhinos, and a 2,000 square km salt pan visible from space. Etosha National Park is more than 200 km in width and we quickly realized we must properly plan our outings so as to not be stuck outside of the campsite gate after sunset. Driving at a speed limit of 60 km/hour means the return journey can be hours, depending on how far one has ventured. etosha-3Etosha is mind-boggling in size, and yet small compared to its initial size of 100,000 square km. Today, only one-fifth remains, and at 20,000 square km it is larger than Kruger in South Africa (for comparison, the famous Masai Mara in Kenya is only 1,600 square km). It was created in 1904 by the Germans to put an end to hunting and poaching. Back then it stretched into Kaokoveld, across to Skeleton Coast and the Atlantic, and into Damaraland. Later it got reduced in size when native Namibian tribes were given land back, and everybody was given the opportunity to build a farm.etosha-5Today the roads are all paved and one can drive around like on a Sunday outing, which is a very strange experience for the experienced safari goer. Only the area just south of the salt pan is accessible, and huge areas of land above and below are completely shut off from tourism. The animals are mostly a little way away from the road and compared to Kenya it is not possible to veer off on a dirt track to get closer. The distance also means binoculars are imperative.

Etosha means “Great White Place” in some local language, referring to the endless salt pan that sometime was a lake. Now it floods only for a few days, when the rains come. Otherwise Ethosha is a dry landscape, with bus and low forest and great grassy plains. There are a number of waterholes, and several are man-made, to draw crowds of wildlife watchers.etosha-6South Africa’s and Namibia’s national animals, the springbok and the oryx, are everywhere. The oryx looks like a graphic designer took a brushful of black paint and drew some defining lines on a goat-like large animal. Impala, kudu, steenbok, hartebeest, wildebeest, giraffe, elephant, and zebra – all the usual suspects are here, although they look a little different from the ones I’ve seen in Kenya. The zebra has more pronounced shadow stripes, and the hartebeest is more brown than ruddy. We also spent time admiring swanky secretary birds, prehistoric-looking kori bustard birds, jackals, and klipspringers. No baboons, but they were all over the campsite at night, heard going through the trash cans in search for leftovers.

Etosha is so large one can easily spend three entire days driving around. And because there are pools and restaurants at the camps, as well as airplane rides and guided morning and night drives, it is easy to max out and stay 3-4 nights. That, too, is the time required to ensure one sees a leopard or a cheetah. And yes, I did say “pools” and “airplane rides”. Etosha is like a well-planned theme park for kids as well as adults. I am not sure whether I should admire it, be sad, or laugh. Perhaps, whatever it takes to introduce new generations to wildlife is a win for this planet.etosha-2(Etosha National Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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Freezing in Africa

ondekarembaPit stop between Windhoek city and airport, to re-stock and to pick up an additional passenger. At 1.7 km elevation we suspected the night would be cold, and the temperature dropped quickly after sunset. When we were ready for our tent beds at around 10 pm, the temperature had dropped to 12 degrees centigrade. I piled on woolly bottoms and top, PJ pants, trekking pants, two layers of fleece sweaters, a Nepalese down vest, hat, gloves, socks and woollen socks. And as a cherry on top I threw my hammam towel over my sleeping bag, as an extra blanket.

But we had no idea just HOW cold we would be. My tent mate was forced out in the cold in the middle of the night to get more layers from her luggage. I woke up at around 2 am and could not feel my toes. I tied my windbreaker around my feet, hoping it would help if only a millimeter. It was difficult to fall back asleep as my face was stone cold and burrowing into a short, hoodless summer sleeping bag was not easy. As I am not too tall I was able to compress myself inside the bag, pulling the drawstring tight above my head. Like a meatloaf ready for the oven, except that such heat was only to be dreamed of.

In the morning, just after sunrise, I hobbled to the outdoor bathroom in my flip-flops and stuck my feet into the hot water in the sink, one by one, until I could feel my toes tingle. Fortunately a kind soul had left a big fire in the water-heating fireplace behind the bathroom. I stuck my feet into warmer trekking boots and looked at my laundry drying in the car. Still wet, I assumed, and touched my shorts – which were frozen rock hard on the steering wheel. I have no idea just how cold it had been, but -3°C would not surprise me. Our cool box was significantly warmer than the air outside.

Namibia reminds me over and over again how easy it is to nearly freeze to death in Africa.

(Ondekaremba Game Farm, Windhoek, Namibia; July 2017)

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The backside of Brandberg

damara-1The vast emptiness of Namibia is astounding. We have driven in landscapes where hours went by without us seeing a single human-derived shape. Gas stations are unheard of. Yesterday we were directed to a country lodge for gasoline. They directed us some 3 km down the road, and when we almost gave up hope and turned around, there in the middle of nowhere, was a car body shop and a fuel pump.

We arrived during the one lunch hour when it was closed, of course. So we drove up into the yard and asked two ladies if we could obtain fuel anyway. Yes! and many smiles, and we were directed to the body shop where we found ourselves crashing the car mechanics’ lunch break in the shade. “No problem, I come” one of them said, and ignoring our protests, interrupted his lunch to walk all the way out to the pump to give us fuel.

Had we not thought of asking someone for refueling options hours before, we would probably have emptied out our tank in the middle of the desert.

It is easy to imagine that Namibia, like many African countries, hosted many tribes that were somewhat distinct, with their own languages. The country is in many parts so inhospitable that one could only imagine pockets of space supportive of human habitation. And yet, the people here are all desert people. Somehow they feel comfortable in and environment that withstands up to +50°C heat during the day and +10°C  at night, years without rainfall, and in good years 4 months of intense rain during the hot season.

It is even crazier to think that, as far as science knows, we humans originated from here. Perhaps the climate was milder, then? Or perhaps it was precisely this challenging environment that pushed the ape to adapt and evolve into humans?damara-2(Brandberg, Namibia; July 2017)


Skeleton Coast

skeletoncoast-4Skeleton Coast. No need to try to find a more catchy headline for this post. And unfortunately for many, Skeleton Coast has during the centuries caught a lot of souls and ships in its traps. With dramatic consequences. This is the end of the world, you see.

Vast stretches of shoreline from Namibia to Angola are out-of-bounds due to diamonds in the rough hiding in the dune sand. If you look for them without a modern, trustworthy 4WD vehicle you will not survive long: in this lunar landscape there is no shade, no water except for salt water, and it is either foggy or hot during the day and very cold at night. skeletoncoast-2Skeleton Coast hides countless skeletons of ships and unfortunate crews. The wrecked ships are scattered along the shore: old wooden ships like the Seal, and more modern, metal-hull vessels. Even warships have met their fate in the sharp underwater rocks and neverending swells and rip currents. The most famous warship is the Dunedin Star which wrecked near the Angolan border in 1942. The rescue ship stranded, as well. The rescue plane sent to get the two crews out got bogged in the sand and could not take off again.skeletoncoast-1How long, dark, cold, and scary must the nights have been for those hunkering down on the shore, waiting for weeks in makeshift shelters. Most sailors and crew did not know how to swim and getting to the shore from the breaking ship was a nearly impossible task: life rafts got lost and broken in the swells.

After traveling through the vehicle-hostile Namibian country for 2 weeks, a truck convoy was able to rescue the two crowds. Everybody survived. This was a fate much different from other strandings.skeletoncoast-3(Skeleton Coast, Namibia; July 2017)

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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)