Hello Namibia, one of the earth’s least populated countries and where the vast open spaces may seem empty at first sight, but hide miraculous natural phenomena and overflow with wild animals. Add the rich history of an extremely friendly population, with many different colorful tribes, and it becomes one of the most beautiful and fascinating countries in Africa.
‘PRRRRR.’ A cheetah comes bounding up to us from behind. He licks our hands with his coarse tongue before nestling down behind us, still purring affectionately. “Don’t move,” warns Mario Nel of the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm. “If you look him right in the eyes, he might feel threatened and run off.” Little chance of that – we sit completely petrified; never before having such a colossal carnivore breathes down our necks. Before long, the animal loses interest in us and starts playing about with Mario. Were it not for the cheetah’s size (and raptor-like claws), it could easily be mistaken for a domestic pet. Mario has a lot of experience with cheetahs and is fairly at ease. He has, however, earned a few scars.
“Our project started out with this one,” says Mario. “We found him and his brothers on our farm. Their mother was already dead, probably killed by a farmer wanting to protect his livestock. Farmers pose the biggest threat to the cheetah; they are allowed to kill any cheetah that brings down any of their herd. We are cattle farmers as well, but feel that the cheetahs have a place here too. We ask colleagues to bring us ensnared cheetahs, or sell them on to us, rather than shooting them dead. We keep them in here, but the fences aren’t foolproof. If a cheetah wants to make his escape, he will – this country is theirs too, after all.”
Mario’s family welcomes tourists to the area so they may familiarize themselves with the world’s speediest land animal. In just a few seconds, the cheetah can reach speeds of up to 115km/hr. Fine for catching prey, but in the race for survival it may ultimately not be enough. Those record-breaking top speeds can only be reached in brief bursts. Not built for endurance, cheetahs face heart failure or even death if they run for too long. Moreover, cheetahs suffer from weak and undiversified genes, and they are not just prey for farmers but also other carnivores. The half-wild cheetahs at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm react enthusiastically to their visitors and leap onto the feeding truck, to much gasping and ooh-ing from onlookers. Mario’s mother manages to settle the crowd’s nerves somewhat as she presents us a juicy kudu steak with delicious chutney.
Namibia has emptiness in abundance
Otjitotongwe lies in the middle of no man’s land. Hurtling along the gravel roads at 140km/h, we see nothing of interest – not a soul – for hours. Namibia has emptiness in abundance, and it can be overwhelming. But the many contrasts of the countryside also convey a kind of everlasting joy; the arid desert, jagged mountains festooned with ancient petroglyphs, and smatterings of tidy German architecture. Here, the ferrous red sand dunes, the white, parched salt basins and the colossal blue sky rule all.
There is a great quantity of wild animals, but the inhabitants themselves are also diverse; no less than 11 domestic tribes, as well as Caucasians of German and South African origin, each with their own ideas about attire. History and culture – this is Africa at its most beautiful – and there is more good news. The political climate is stable, the phones work, the roads are excellent, and personal safety rates higher here than in many Western countries.
The endless barrenness of the savannah is suddenly broken by a colorfully clad figure – a hitchhiker, a woman from the Herero tribe. As we slow down to pick her up, several children scramble out from under the nearby bushes. We take them all with us, as Namibia boasts not one single public bus service. We ask where they’re from; for hours we’ve not seen a single village, nor farm – nor anything for that matter. The woman points toward a tire up the road. “See that? From here it’s another six kilometers.” The signage in Namibia aspires to be like that of a developed country, and no official signs lead the way to the ancient villages of these native tribes.
Reality may be a little behind
Once, Namibia belonged to everyone – whites and blacks wandered about, founding settlements, warring amongst themselves. In 1884, the Germans took control of the country. Their reign lasted until just after WWI, when South Africa and its rule of apartheid took control. Since 1990, Namibia has been an independent republic, and everyone is officially equal, although reality may be a little behind. The black majority now has political power, but most of the money still lies with the white minority.
Still, the quirky differences between Namibia’s populations remain a constant source of amusement. On the way to the Etosha Safari Park, we stop at a real German Konditorei and are treated to a heavenly Schwartzwälder Kirschtorte of a pedigree possibly no longer available in the Black Forest itself nowadays. The proprietor Manfred has never actually been to his country of origin but nevertheless serves us in a pair of traditional Lederhosen – in 40-degree heat. He’s taken aback at our surprise. “I wear these in the garden also,” he says matter-of-factly. Bemused, we step outside and are greeted by five traditionally dressed – where “traditional” usually means naked from the waist up – Himba women, who all wish to appear in a photo with us. It’s the kind of place where one could become schizophrenic.
A warthog giving her children a mud bath
Etosha National Park could easily be mistaken for God’s backyard. Young springboks sip quietly around a waterhole, and on the green spread-out plains, zebras and their young graze between giraffes. The gigantic African elephants prefer – as do we – the asphalt above the rough, shrub-strewn sand grounds. The rain run-off from the tar brings greener vegetation ot its verges. This is not only the biggest national park in Africa, but quite possibly the most alluring. We’re allowed to drive around on our own, without a guide, and that makes the safari just that extra bit special. No wobbly buses jam-packed with bothersome tourists blocking your view with their camera, or traffic jams of jeeps chasing a lion for the perfect shot.
We wait 15 minutes for a chameleon to cross the path in front of us and gape for what seems like hours at a warthog giving her children a mud bath. We are completely alone when a rhino comes barging through the shrubbery, making a path for itself – an absolutely amazing sight. The animals here are as excited as their visitors. They have very quickly become used to cars and camera lenses posing little danger during daylight. The majority of the meat-eaters come out just after sunset. A freshly woken lioness prepares herself for the next hunt, and a hyena searches for the rest of her clan. Back at camp, we watch the animals drinking from a moonlit waterhole just outside the fences.
After our extensive getting-to-know-you session with the animals, we now want to make acquaintance with the people. Half of Namibia’s 1.8million inhabitants live on ten percent of the land, in the scarcely visited north. To get there, we need to cross the Red Line, a series of control posts established by the Germans in 1896 after an epidemic hit their cattle stocks. The Red Line essentially separated the stately farms of the whites from the stock of the black farmers that grazed on common land. But the Red Line is more than just that. It represents the border between the first and third worlds of this country, between unrelenting emptiness and the chaotic African zest for life. Meanwhile, we see lots of interesting things along the way baobab trees, villages with women doing the washing, children swimming and exotic markets. For the first time during our visit, it smells like Africa; like an aromatic blend of wood fires, cattle, exotic dishes and unusual flora.
We’ve got to keep an eye on the traffic – it’s the end of the month and everyone has just been paid their salary. A popular investment this time of the month is in the many bottle shops – brightly colored houses with equally colorful names like Hard Work or Don’t Mind Your Wife Bar. Have Africans grasped the crux of modern living better than most? While we start worrying about tomorrow morning’s hangover after the third beer, these folk continue laughing and dancing exuberantly with friends and loved ones with a sense of abandon we only seem to muster on public holidays.
Our first authentic Namibian meal
Compared to the dreariness of the capital city of Windhoek, the provincial city of Opuwo is awesome. Many different tribes surround us in full costume; rotund Herero women with their vibrant clothes and striking headdresses, strapping Owambo boys resembling rappers from an MTV video, and the beautiful Himba girls with their pelt skirts, jewels of cast-off Western junk and naked breasts. There is nary a pale-skinned person to be seen, save the odd development worker here and there. In Ovambo, we eat our first authentic Namibian meal: mahango, stewed millet and goat. Although edible, it is unlikely to garner praise and isn’t a good ambassador for Namibian cuisine. The local beer is superb, and the locals are mad for it this evening. We go along for the ride, already wondering how many Nurofens we’ll need in the morning.
With our heads throbbing, we set out with Elisabeth the following morning. She is a member of the Himba tribe, who has offered to take us to the village of her birth. Once, Elisabeth showed promise at school and received lessons from the priests there. Unfortunately it didn’t help her find a better job, as she soon became lumbered with eight children. The many different fathers somehow managed to skirt all their responsibilities. Elisabeth’s village is a small encampment 15km outside the city. Here, the Himbas live as they have for centuries, in dark loam huts. The women cultivate corn and pumpkin and take care of the goats whilst the men occupy themselves with hanging out in the shade, just as they have done for hundreds of years. A small, thirsty child slips under a goat and begins sucking on its teat. The men appear half-Westernized, with trainers and T-shirts, but the women are still swathed in traditional clothing. The most striking thing about their appearance is the red concoction smeared all over their bodies – a mixture of butter, ash and red ochre. It is surprising a big cosmetics company has not patented the formula, because all the women have remarkably soft, supple skin. Rather awkwardly, we move about, wondering exactly what there is for us to find here.
It seems clear that it is up to these people to decide when (and if) they wish to join the modern world or not. In any case, their children attend school, they receive medical attention, so why don’t we just let them be? I guess it’s because of curiosity; we want to see for ourselves these peaceful folk living according to ancient tradition. But change is inevitable. The Himba girls form a willing prey for young Western men, and the construction of a large dam nearby will soon drive them from their land.
The Namib is God’s sandpit
If Etosha is God’s backyard, then the Namib is his sandpit. Nowhere is the desert more impressive and varied than in this country; it encompasses a variety of landscapes, from inventive sand formations to savage mountains. The assortment of scenery reflects the activities on offer. We camp on a riverbed, but also in a five-star hotel with air conditioning and ethnic art on the walls. We go on safari in a Land Rover – and on horse – and see scorpions and jackals. The desert flora is also impressive: wild olive trees, lichens, and Namibia’s botanical oddity, the Welwitschia mirabilis or ‘tweeblaarkanniedood’ (literally two leaves cannot die). The Welwitschia, which lives for around 1000 years, gets its name from the two long leaves that flap out of the ground like the arms of a corkscrew. The desert demands attention, and we stay five days, which is just long enough for you to get used to the silence and allow this place to do its magical purifying work on your soul. In the evenings, we nestle underneath a canopy of stars. In the distance, lizards growl and bark at one another, and a hyena howls. These scant echoes only emphasize the silence. No stereos, no TV, no Internet, no mobile phones and no noisy neighbors. Only peace.
On the way to Swakopmund, we stop at Cape Cross and witness the biggest colony of seals we’ve ever seen. Literally thousands lie on top of each other on the rocks. Portly mothers stretch out in the sun, keeping an eye on the offspring of their girlfriends while they dive into the waves in search of fish. The noise and the stench are both overwhelming. My shoes got dirty and even though I cleaned them, for weeks afterward I was chased by dogs who wanted to chew on them.
Just like so many beautiful places in this country, we are the only people here. But unfortunately, the seals are not safe from humans. Once a year, in July, tens of thousands of seal pups and bulls are legally culled because “they eat too much fish”. Never mind the fact that Cape Fur seals are an endangered species, classified as Appendix 2 animals on the CITES list.
Swakopmund was a little too worldly for our tastes, and the inland town of Solitaire is a breath of fresh air. This dusty little hamlet brings to mind the 1988 film Bagdad Café. For many years, this place was a dilapidated petrol station (with often barely a drop of the stuff about), but recently Solitaire has enjoyed a resurgence. Ton van der Lee, a Dutch filmmaker on a soul-searching expedition, lived in Solitaire for a time and wrote a book of his adventures. You can stay overnight and take pleasure in the delightful home-baked bread made by Moose, one of the main characters in van der Lee’s story. Aside from its literary connections, Solitaire is a great starting point for desert treks, but unfortunately for us, time is running out and we must soldier on toward the best part of our journey: Sossusvlei.
One of the most beautiful places on the planet
We’ve definitely saved the best for last. Sossusvlei is, without embellishment, one of the ten most beautiful places on this planet. It’s also easy to get to. And, like the rest of the country, it is practically deserted. As before, we’re joined by a handful of other travelers. Sossusvlei is a massive salt basin surrounded by the highest sand dunes in the world, which are sculpted into new forms daily by the strong winds. The jewel in the crown is Dode Vlei (Dead Valley), a white salt basin surrounded by black carbonized trees, witnesses of a more sultry time and the backdrop for many a TV commercial.
We stretch out in the shadow of a sand dune and familiarize ourselves with the desert community. Blue beetles (tok-tokkies) struggle through the orange sand, on the run from the Namaqua chameleon, which is on a 200-a-day tok-tokkie diet. A viper elegantly flicks itself sideways up one of the dunes. We decide to follow its lead and brave our fear of heights. Out of breath and a little anxious, we reach the narrow peak of a relatively small sand dune, wind blasting through our ears. With our goal firmly achieved, we resolve to return to the bottom. Taking a deep breath, we plunge down the slope, and roll through the glowing sand for what seems like minutes.
If there was ever a moment where we felt at one with the earth, it’s this one.