July 30, 2013

Day 13 (nature still worries)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not terribly fond of cats.  Or perhaps I am terribly unfond of cats.  Dogs- love 'em.  Otters- adorable.  Koalas- how can you not?  But my response to cats is, at best, Meh, and more often, Mraaaahah, someone get that fleaball away from me before it gives me endless nights of allergic-reaction misery and pain.  

That being said, even I have to admit: Cheetahs are pretty darn cute cats.

Cheetah got a flip-flop

Today we visited the aptly named Cheetah Park, which is really just the house and private grounds of some guy who adopted a cheetah cub decades ago (after shooting the mother), who now has 5 or so grown cheetahs roaming around his fenced yard, socializing with the 3 dogs.  

Greeting us at the chain-link gate

Backyard party

In Namibia, cheetahs are considered pests to farmers, and are allowed to be killed at whim.  Despite their top speeds (72mph) and non-retractable claws, cheetahs are poor predators and are constantly being chased away from wild hunting grounds by more dominant animals like lions or hyenas.  Thus, they often turn to farms, where carrying off a chicken is an easier feat.  Thus, the farmers shoot them.  

However, when asked about the legality of the situation (you're not allowed to own or breed cheetah's in Namibia), our host didn't have much to say.  

Like cats, they can be very playful.  If "playful" actually means "They may bite or scratch you, but don't worry- you probably won't bleed much, and they'll like you afterward." -Real (paraphrased) quote.  

Rising above it

One of us looks more relaxed than the other

Aside from the backyard, there is another large enclosed compound on the property, where another 14, less-domestic cheetahs are kept, through which you can do a game-drive in trucks to see them being fed.  As they wait for the large chunks of donkey meat to be tossed from the trucks, they skirmish among themselves to determine the roles of dominance and submission.  

Alphas teaming up to put a beta in his place

Leaving him to quiver in his powerlessness 

The beta cats sit and give out high-pitched yipping sounds (a submissive bark), and the dominant cats attach them in order to assert the point that they will be the first to eat.  


But when the meat's flying through the air, I can't see any difference between alpha and beta.  It's all claws and teeth and spotted fur and fighting for each and every scrap.  No matter how many weeks or years of each cheetah getting its own guaranteed dinner, nature still worries that the weak will starve.  


July 28, 2013

Day 12 (hidden from view)

From my journal today:
"I sniffed my bra this morning, and found it smelling poignantly of rye bread toast.  The only bread of which I am not fond.  Ditto for my shirt.  My jeans, on the other hand, smelled (delightfully) like jeans.  Which sounds about as absurd but just as enthusiastic as saying "the snozberries taste like snozberries!"

And with that, we left Swakopmund and drove to Spitzkoppe to set camp in the wide open, on rocks, under the stars.  

The road to Spitzkoppe

Spitzkoppe isn't a town or a campsite; it's a landmark geological formation in the Namib Desert.  A beautiful mound of rocks, as if dropped from the sky onto a flat and barren landscape.  The highest peak (the actual Spitzkoppe) rises approximately 1,784 meters from the ground and is referred to as "the Matterhorn of Namibia."  

With no showers or running water, the plan was to camp up on a flat surface on the rocks, without tents, to sleep beneath the stars.  But we were to set up our tent anyway, in case the desert winds became too cold and we needed to descend during the night.

Room with a view

Playing in the rocks

Hanging out between a rock and a hard place

These rock formations are examples of inselbergs, which is German for "island mountain."  Volcanic activity creates underground pockets of hardened lava or extremely dense, firm rock.  The surrounding, softer rock slowly erodes, unveiling these isolated mountains.  Like an iceberg, the majority of an inselberg remains underground, hidden from view, so what we see as mountains are really only peaks.  

The sun sets through inselbergs

Flat rock bed where we slept

First star and moon

By night, after a dinner cooked over glowing orange coals, we dragged our mats and sleeping bags up one of the bergs to a flat surface of rock to sleep under the Milky Way.  Lying on my back, watching shooting stars trail their pixie dust above me, I started composing the summary in my head.  How I would expound upon the beauty of nature.  How I would emphasize that the 10(!) shooting stars that lulled me to sleep were no exageration.  How I would convey the snugness of sleeping in a bag atop the Namibian rocks, with a warm gentle breeze on my face.  And as I wrote mental poetry, the setting lulled me into a peaceful sleep.   

Looking up

For about four hours.  Until the desert temperatures plummetted, and the winds whipped so strongly that I had to tuck the extra blanket around me like a mummy to prevent it from flying away.  When I woke up with uncontrollable shivering, even when I curled into a ball inside the sleeping bag, no skin exposed to the harsh air, and spent the next few hours until wake-up at 5am debating whether I should return to the tent, but too cold to stand and gather my things.

And good thing, because our tent had collapsed in the winds.

So in the most beautiful of evenings and the most heinous of dawns, nature reveals its extreme power in the span of a singe night.

July 25, 2013

Days 9-11 (a pretty big deal)

Spent a few days in Swakopmund, which is something of a Bavarian Stepford town bound between the Atlantic Ocean and a vast desert of dunes.  In Namibia.  If you've ever tried to picture Africa, this probably isn't what you imagined.  

Entering Swakopmund

With its German architecture and wide, well-paved streets, you can feel a wealth that's not only out of place but a bit ostentatious as well.  It's a town where South Africans have beach vacation homes where they come to partake of the adrenaline-rush tourist activities for which Swakopmund is known: Skydiving, sand-boarding, and quad-biking on the dunes.  


Something that looks suspiciously like Starbucks but had a great balsamic veggie wrap

In case of tourist troubles necessitating a figurative life raft

Week 1 of the trip had been trying.  It was cold; I was sick; and there were too many people.  Of course, many of the people were very, very nice.  But nice doesn't much matter if you're not able to get the proper allotment of alone-time to recharge.    

So I took some time.  Walked around town alone and spent time at an internet cafe/craft shop (replete with buttons, beads, crepe paper, and ribbon), where I tried to convince friends from home to fly out and meet me in Victoria Falls, to embark on the second half of the trip independently.  I also applied for a cool-sounding job that requested a working knowledge of Portuguese.  

But after getting all that out of the way, I went on a Dolphin Cruise, drinking a champagne flute of brandy in the early morning fog and watching pelicans swoop around us.  And while there was a paucity of dolphins, seals were plentiful, including several who jumped on board to say hi.  

Seal colony

Surfing our wake



But the biggest score was the sighting of a gray whale on our way back to shore.  Gray whales were thought to be extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for some 300 years, with the first southern hemisphere sighting only one month before.  Apparently, for marine biologists, this is a pretty big deal.  The Wikipedia entry for gray whales even has an update from our sighting in June, 2013:  

The gray whale is distributed in an eastern North Pacific (North American) population and a critically endangered western North Pacific (Asian) population. North Atlantic populations were extirpated (perhaps by whaling) on the European coast before 500 AD and on the American coast around the late 17th to early 18th centuries.[6] However, on May 8, 2010, a sighting of a gray whale was confirmed off the coast of Israel in the Mediterranean Sea,[7] leading some scientists to think they might be repopulating old breeding grounds that have not been used for centuries.[7] In May and June 2013 a gray whale was sighted off the coast of Namibia -- the first confirmed in the Southern Hemisphere.

That was us!

Grey whaling in the southern Atlantic

So the dolphin cruise became a seal 'n whale cruise, which just goes to show that even things that go awry may be awry for the better.

July 21, 2013

Day 8 (skeletons haunting)

It was on a date, years ago, that I first heard about Sossusvlei and the red sand dunes of Namibia. 


It was the awkward phase where you just throw all of your conversational spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.  So when he said he wanted to go to Namibia to see the famous dunes, I said, "Me too!"  Because, a.) it seemed like the correct response, and b.) those dunes sounded awesome, so why not?  

It's a conversation and person I hadn't thought about in years (a desire to visit Sossusvlei and a mutual friend being the only two things we had in common), but came back to me when we started driving through the Namib Desert.  

Namib Dessert, oldest in the world

We arrived first thing in the morning, just after sunrise, following a night of uncharacteristically warm winds.  The ridges and valleys of the dunes point North to South and never change, either in direction or location, due to a plant that holds the the sand in place.  Because of this permanence, each dune can be identified by name or number, recognizable year by year, decade by decade.  Dune 45 is the one open to the public, and thus the one we ascended that early morning.  

Atop Dune 45

Walking the ridge

The long way down

And I though, "I made it!"  Which was followed by the thought, "I bet I beat that guy here!"  Which was followed by the thought, "Should I try to be less competitive?"  Which was followed by the thought, "Given my reputation for being overly-intense during bus trivia quizzes, probably."  Which was followed by the thought, "Eh, that sounds like work and I'm more-or-less OK with myself as is, so let's just forget this one-sided conversation and move on with life."

So, moving on.  

Climbing the spine of the dune felt precarious, as though a misstep could send you sliding and tumbling all the way back down, Jack and Jill style.  Which is close to what happened anyway.  After an hour or so of playing in the sand, above the world, we descended in a helter-skelter race down the face of the dune. 

Super Dune Race 45!

Pouring the sand from my shoes

After emptying the desert from my shoes and leaving Dune 45, we continued on to Dead Vlei, which roughly means, "the place where water goes to die."  


Dead Vlei is a patch of limestone amidst the tallest dunes in the world, where the Tsauchab River used to drain, way back when.  But it dried out so quickly and thoroughly that there isn't even enough moisture for normal decomposition.  That means that the trees that used to live in the marsh have been desiccated to the point of near-complete preservation.  Timber skeletons haunting an anti-oasis.  A beautiful graveyard.  

And if you're a better photographer than I, then you can see them like this.  

These Sossusvlei pictures are some of my favorites from the entire trip, and perusing through them, I was delighted to see this:

Where did that hat come from?

I had no idea at the time that I was capturing a hat-in-flight, and the sun-glare was so intense that I often couldn't see my camera display anyway.  Perhaps the hat was thinking, "Screw these thousands of kilometers riding on a bus- I'm BREAKING FREE!"

Or perhaps someone was trying to catch a shovel-snouted lizard.  

Photo credit: Irina Chernetskaya
Lizard-catching credit: Mat Dry

Shovel-snouted lizards are endemic to the Namib Desert, and they do a thermal "dance" across the sand to avoid scorching themselves on the burning terrain.  When they see predators (birds) flying above, they dive shovel-snout first into the sand.  And that's how you catch them.  They run to fast to snatch, but if you toss a hat in the air, they'll stop running and burrow several inches into the sand from where you can easily scoop them up.  

Who ever knows what you'll find lurking in those places you discussed so many years ago?  

July 18, 2013

Days 6-7 (no-man's land)

Looking at any map, you'll see a bunch of solid lines marking the boundaries between countries.  But that single, solid line isn't reality.  On the ground (at least in Southern and East Africa), you first go through an emmigration office to leave the country you're in, and then you either walk or drive a ways to a separate immigration office to enter the country to which you're heading.  Leaving you with a period of time and space in a literal no-man's land.  Really, the maps should show two parallel lines at all boarders, with a vacant, unaffiliated space between.

And while the very easy way to view this process is as a hassle (double the paperwork, double the lines, and twice the immigration officers scrutinizing your movements) there's also the chance that maybe they're right.  Maybe it's good to spend some time in no-man's land.  To completely finish with one thing before you start the next.  Perhaps this just the bureaucratic equivalent to asking: Why the rush?  Why such a hurry to take two separate things (an end and a beginning) and smush them into one?  Just wait.  Take a minute.  Breath the unaffiliated air, unencumbered.

Which is all just to say that we crossed our first boarder today, from South Africa to Namibia.


Driving into and through Namibia felt like driving into a Calvin and Hobbes moonscape.  Which, let's be honest, is exactly what I was hoping it would feel like.  (Who doesn't want to be Spaceman Spiff?)  We drove by craggy rocks and funky looking trees, alternating with vast stretches of shrubbery in warm afternoon sun.

Spiff coming in for crash landing!

Dry, cracked earth

Scenic shrubbery


The first evening brought us to sunset at Fish River Canyon, the second-largest canyon in the world, after the Grand one.  

Technically, it's two canyons.  The first caused by tectonic shifting, and the second caused by river water erosion.  As this was being explained to me in the fading light, I kept squinting, trying to identify the second canyon.  Where is it?  Is it beyond those hills?  I only see one...

And then I realized- it's not two separate canyons, but rather a canyon twice over.  The second carved into the belly of the first.  

Our second night in Namibia was spent camping in the Helmeringhausen Area, just outside of the Namib Dessert, where we watched the sky turn from pink to dusk, and then whiled away the night with drinks around the campfire.

Our guide found a scorpion and put him in a halved soda bottle.  Scorpions have the unique quality of fluorescing under black-lights, with no apparent or known evolutionary cause.  

As if the opportunity to impress at a roller-rink 80s night weren't evolutionary reason enough?