We were on the road staying in a different bush camp each night for several days following Etosha and preceding our stop in Swakopmund – a luxurious four days that we’d get to enjoy the luxury of a dorm bed. What was fast becoming apparent in Namibia was the difficulty of maintaining bodily comfort due to the excessive swings in ambient temperature each day. Mornings waking up huddled in my 15 degree F sleeping bag were cold, breath creating its own fog on exhalation. They required long pants, and fleece layers as well as my wooly hat. However, by 10am we were often sweltering in the heat of the sun, the temperature starting to soar and then bake us through to sunset when it would turn around and plummet once again.
I came up with an ingenious routine of dressing in layers that could be easily peeled away – so I’d wear my shorts under my long pants, and my tank top underneath a t-shirt and long sleeved shirt and fleece on top, knowing that I could peel the clothes and stow them comfortably in my day bag.
There were times, however, when even this wasn’t adequate – such as during our drive south once we’d hit the western coast of Namibia, known as the skeleton coast, presumably because of the number of ships that had wrecked here as well as the number of skeletons that amass on the shores of the massively populated seal colonies. Apparently, this area gets a lot of its wind currents from Antarctica, and on two separate days, the cold was so bitter that it sent all of us diving into our lockers to extract our sleeping bags which we proceeded to climb into, fully clothed, even as we sat on our chairs huddled together for collective warmth.
Namibia is covered with desert landscapes, but also incredibly beautiful rock formations, sand dunes, and miles and miles of beautiful sandy beaches. Our first stop after leaving Etosha National Park was the Petrified forest park where we endured blistering sun and temperatures for a thankfully short walk to view the petrified logs. Later we were taken to a rather strange and somewhat disturbing “Cheetah Park” where the white Namibian owners had 3 cheetahs kept in a domestic capacity as pets, together with a group of “fenced in” cheetahs that they fed daily as part of their artificial cheetah safari. Enquiring as to how they came to have cheetahs on their farm, the owner told a rather disturbing story, but didn’t seem to have any ethical issues with it himself. He basically explained that cheetahs had been attacking and eating his cows, and that he’d taken to shooting them (around 10-15 years ago) but then one time, decided that he’d catch them instead using a trap. After successfully trapping one female cheetah, it turned out she was pregnant, and so he decided to take the cubs away from their mother and keep them as pets, and later charge people to come to his home and have pictures taken with his cuddly friends. Of course, he used slightly different verbiage – but this was the gist of it.
What made the place even more suspect was that we were later driven around what was essentially a penned in area of land where we observed maybe twenty cheetahs all waiting to be fed by the chunks of meat the driver would heave into the air. Some of the cheetahs looked a little sickly, like they’d been physically harassed by the other cheetahs, and besides my obvious concern over their well being in this regard, I couldn’t shake the feeling that cheetahs really should be roaming free, hunting, and catching their own food.
Hoping for a more authentic experience than the Cheetah park, we headed the next morning on a visit of a Himba tribal village. Many of the Himba people living in rural Namibia still live with their traditions and customs that are unavoidably startling and somewhat uncomfortable for us westerners to observe – especially when it is presented in this fashion of “come to our village and see our naked women, our huts, and our children presented to you as if they are exhibits in a museum.” Except the exhibits are alive and you feel as though you’re violating their rights to privacy taking photos (which they encouraged us to) as if they’re lions in a game reserve. Ultimately, however, the culture of the Himba people is so foreign and fascinating, that one feels compelled to go and see for oneself, and one can’t help but take photos and swallow the given discomfort that accompanies the experience.
Young men of the Himba tribe have their three front lower teeth knocked out by their fathers when they are young teenagers. We were informed that this both distinguishes their tribal roots and also aids in the pronunciation of their dialect. Women are mostly naked, dressed in little more than leather strap-like skirts and elaborate beadwork about their necks and chest. Most notable, however, is the habit of the women not to bathe – at all. Instead, they keep “clean” through a combination of spreading Okra-based paint onto their skin (which gives them their rich rust-orange like color) and sitting in the huts and “smoking” themselves – which is exactly what it sounds like: sitting in an oxygen deprived hut directly in front of a fire and letting the smoke cleanse your body (though exactly how this happens I’m not sure.)
The men, apparently, wash as we do with soap and water. Of course, I felt a natural revulsion for their sanitary practices, and I recognize how ethnocentric that stance is, but I’m ok with it. Making it even more difficult to believe – the women also put copious amounts of okra onto their hair, creating these elaborate headdresses out of their own tresses that they then embellish at the ends with circular mounds of animal fur.
I found myself aching to ask how/what the women used during their menstrual cycles and whether they could use water during this time for their ablutions. I was left, unfortunately, to wonder.
This visit had been a highlight for Andy, a beloved member of our group, who was also celebrating his 46th birthday on the same day. There were the obvious jokes about getting to see naked women on his birthday. Since we were facing a very long drive to our bush camp that evening, we all decided to stock up on some booze to go along with the game bbq dinner Tabitha had promised to make us that evening, as a treat. Around 2pm in the afternoon, someone suggested we crack open the alcohol stash and make a party of the afternoon’s drive, and that was it.
Truck Party time.
Andy put on a rocking compilation of music and we were all soon singing along and dancing up and down the central walkway of the truck. We just about managed to get out of the truck and scramble to dizzying high viewpoints as the truck stopped at scenic photo opps along the way, though the climbs got progressively more difficult the more libations we imbibed.
By the time we got to the absolutely stunning setting for our bush camp, it was already time for sunset and most of us were winding down from our “night” of drinking. The meal that night was the most memorable of the whole trip – we ate Oryx or Gemsbok and it was quite possibly the most delicious meat I’ve ever put in my mouth.
By 8 o clock, Andy had collapsed asleep in his tent, so any further party plans were soon squished besides the few of us who decided to make a night of sleeping directly under the stars sans our tents.
Nicely recovered from what had been a “day of revelry” – we happily set off towards the skeleton coast, first re-tracing our route a few miles as two members of the group had lost articles of clothing and hats during the dancing and truck party the afternoon prior. Half successful, we turned about and headed towards the aforementioned block of cold air that hit us a few hours later, promptly finding us inside our sleeping bags in due course. We had a number of strange stops that day before our perhaps even more strange stop that night at our camp (that had showers!!) at Hettie’s Bay. We visited an abandoned oil mining shaft in the desert, a shipwreck on the beach, several more cliff top view points, and most surprising of all – Cape Cross Seal Colony.
Never have I seen this many seals in one place. It made the Galapagos look like a quiet vacation spot for seals by comparison. There were literally thousands of them crowded on the beach as far as the eye could see, lots and lots of young pups all screeching for their mothers amongst the masses. If you looked carefully, you could also spot lots of pups that hadn’t survived and their remaining skeletons littering the beach too. Reading the interpretive signs that were on display, we were disturbed to read that during the summer months when the pups are born, thousands can perish on a given day if the wind dies down for an extended period of hours – offering no relief from the relentless heat that they are just too weak to survive.
The temperature dropped even further as we arrived in Hettie’s Bay – a very very strange and somewhat creepily deserted town that was home for the night. As it was the birthday of another member of our group, I made my best effort to go out for a drink after dinner – and found myself in a pub that somewhat resembled one of the nasty run down pubs they have in Everett along the Aurora highway. Except with really bad Afrikaans music playing.
I was very happy to arrive in Swakopmund the next day, and the weird Germanness of the town was overlooked, for now, because of the prospect of sheets and a bed for the next re-humanizing four days.