Tuesday, February 14, 2017

That's Swakopmund With a 'K',a 'P', and a 'Mund'

Promised lands aren't always what they're cracked up to be.  My fascination with Namibia started out in 2003, when I nibbled its southernmost part.  There the sky was so electric blue that the whole place seemed way psychedelic.

Here in the far north the situation was much more prosaic.  The land was flat and scrubby, though now green because of the rains.  Still nothing picturesque.  And went I went off of the paved road to head towards Etosha National Park the rains meant that there were a lot of puddles to splash through.

Ah, Etosha!  Upscale tourist magnet land of innumerable elephants and rhinos.  Now I had been forewarned that there wouldn't be many large animals during the rainy season, but still...  And when I saw a few giraffes shortly after I had entered the gates I was certainly expecting to see something more.

But that, except for some ostriches and the occasional zebra or impala antelope, was about it.  And looking around me as I continued into the park it was hard to believe that even they could survive here.  Because Etosha is mainly a big, flat, ugly salt pan with hardly anything growing on it.  And the heat and humidity were something else.  As were the ruts in the roads.  Especially the side ones that I kept taking in vain hopes of seeing something.

This took most of the day, until I reached the main 'rest camp'.  Here I paid way too much for a substandard room and made one more fruitless drive before the sun went down and they locked us in for the night.  At 8 I walked over to the famous watering hole, where supposedly in the dry season thirsty animals tramp many miles to all crowd around and drink.  Nothing tonight.  I waited patiently for an hour, and as with most of life, my patience was rewarded with more nothing.  I started becoming suspicious that Etosha is just a scam perpetuated on upscale tourists, who then are too embarrassed to report back that they've been had.  But everyone keeps assuring me that, yes, in the dry season this place is just chockablock with critters.

Well, I still don't know what all those large mammals could possibly subsist on around here, wet season or dry.  But if I were one of them, and I had a nice cubbyhole somewhere, I certainly wouldn't trudge all the way over here if there were any puddles nearby.

Speaking of puddles, it turned out that the silt from the salt pan creates the thickest, scaliest, whitishist mud imaginable.  So now my nice little rentacar looked like a godawful mess.

The next morning I made one more attempt at a 'game drive', gave up, and headed out of the park and south for around 80 miles.  Here, along with the first small hills, was the clean, prosperous little town of Outjo, with significantly more whites than Ondangwa and significantly more prosperity.  I whiled around a bit and also finally found a Namibia road map.  Then I headed west.

It soon got much drier and started looking quite a bit like our Southwest.  About 50 miles along I turned left onto a gravel road.  My memory of Namibian gravel roads from 2003 is that they were really good and that everyone drove really fast on them.  I wasn't going that fast, but I made the mistake of hitting the brakes whilst rounding a curve and for a few heart pounding moments it was like I was on ice, totally out of control.  After that was over I realized that at my age I probably shouldn't be having heart pounding moments at the end of nowhere.

I was searching for the famous 'rock finger' a 500 foot high slender pinnacle all alone by itself, like you might see in southern Utah.  It was nice and all, and the surrounding cliffs in the distance were like you see in New Mexico, but what was really interesting was that, as is the case all over Namibia, somebody had built a tourist lodge all the way in the middle of this emptiness.  And when I drove up the small hill to check it out the view would have made Arizona Highways proud.  But it was 100 degrees outside, so I didn't stick around.

Back to the main road, and at 85 miles due west of Outjo was the town of Khorixas.  On the map the two appear to be the same size, but now I was in the middle of Damaraland, the poorest area of Namibia, and this 'town' was scarcely a block long.  It did have a semi-reasonably priced lodge, although said lodge had no a/c.  Of course, at this point I had little choice in the matter.

Khorixas looked like the kind of place that the rains never came to, but this afternoon happened to be the day when they actually did.  You see, although Ondangwa and Etosha were giant puddles now, it takes forever for the clouds to make it this far west.  At the 'needle' lodge I saw a bolt of lightning against a blue sky.  Here the thunder was rolling and the clouds were darkening.  It finally started raining lightly around 6.

Although I'm stressing my mind and body a lot less than on previous trips, it's still getting to be too much.  So the next morning I decided to stay here another night.  After all, it was a suitably bizarre lodge and town.  And my only activity would be driving 50-60 miles to some world famous rock paintings and then coming back.

First, I hadn't realized that the pavement stopped at the town's western edge.  Also that, this being the poorest part of Namibia AND the rainy season, the roads would be in really bad shape.  So I poked along at less than 40 mph until I got to the turnoff, then less than 30 mph until I got to the World Heritage Site.

I paid my money and was assigned my guide.  I agreed on the short tour, which consisted of walking along a flat dirt track for about half a kilometer in 98 degree heat with no shade, then scrambling up some rocks, then being shown two largish flat rocks on which someone had drawn elephants and giraffes the the like up to 6000 years ago, then turning around and walking back.

The map showed another way back to Khorixas, and I never like to retrace steps, so...  To make a long drive short, I jounced horribly along at 20 mph for the next several hours in my teeny little rentacar.  And I realized why old people had always bought giant Buicks and Lincolns.  Not because they were conspicuous consumers, but because their tired bones demanded that they do it.

For no apparent reason on Sunday morning I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the long road ahead of me.  Due west on a gravel road across a Mohave Desert type landscape until I hit the ocean.  Off I went, occasionally being able to do 45.

I had certainly been thwarted in my elephant quest, but here in the middle of the friggin' desert I came upon a herd of 11 desert giraffes.  That's right, in the desert.  So that they have to bend all the way down in order to eat anything.  Which sort of defeats the whole purpose of being a giraffe.  But they were there, right by the road.  And I saw them and hung out with them.

Then nothing much for the next hundred miles or so.  I got to the gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park, got a permit to drive through, and then drove down the long incline towards the Atlantic Ocean.
'Skeleton Coast' is certainly evocative, and it has the reputation for being one of the bleakest spots on Earth.  But I wouldn't call it bleak, because there's a certain beauty implied in 'bleak'.  This is just kind of weird and ugly, which you wouldn't expect from being right next to the ocean.  But the ocean itself is cold, and except for morning fogs no real moisture is ever deposited here.  So it is mostly flat gravel plains.

I turned north and drove for about 60 miles to the outpost of Terrace Bay.  This is a defunct mining camp which has been turned into a small fisherman's 'resort', though that is really stretching the word.  And I counted exactly one vehicle among the 30 isolated cabins.  But the drive up and back featured dunes, mountains in the background, and often the ocean on the other side.

When I returned to the 'T', however, and continued south, all interesting features immediately disappeared.  Just flat ugly gravel all around me.  Even the ocean was gone.  And it was that way until I got to the southern park gate, had them check my permit, and re-entered normal Namibia.

Now I was in a hurry, though, because there was a seal reserve which closed at 5, and it was already past 4.  Not properly signed, it took me a while to find it, and when I went in to pay for my entrance it was 4:45.  I joked with the girl about letting me stay some extra minutes, but African officials, like TSA workers, don't cotton to joking.  Anyway I drove up to where the seals were.

It is claimed that the reserve has 100,000 seals.  I didn't count that many, but there were definitely thousands.  And each was a female with a three month old black pup.  All extremely cute.  Most of them were lolling around, a few occasionally growled and snapped at each other.  Out at the water's edge hundreds of them were constantly going in and coming out.  Pups were going in all on their own.  Most of the seaks waddled away when you got close, but one or two of them actually came at me and were aggressive.  So I had to get aggressive right back.

After around fifteen minutes a young British couple drove up for their second look-see of the day and we got to talking.  One thing led to another and soon it was 6:15.  Well, no one had ever come and told us to leave.  And they wouldn't lock the gate on us, would they?

They did.  So the Brits had to go get the lady, who came back and yelled at me for staying too long.  I then had to bribe her with a nice cake that I had.  But the gate was duly opened and I was on my way.

Hettie's Bay was another 40 miles, and was a nice, small fishing/tourist town.  Lots of fishermen at the campground but no one else but me at the only hotel in town.  Here was also the first gas station in 600 kilometers.  Which is how far I had driven today.

Monday morning it was 50 miles further into Swakopmund, Namibia's big, giant holiday resort. Except that it was the off, off season.  And 'big' and 'giant' are all relative, considering that it was Namibia.  Also, Namibia started off being yet another German colony, only this time they really meant to settle the place.  So Swakopmund is also known for its great old German buildings.  And indeed there are some incredibly well kept German Victorian structures, with their gables and turrets and such.

But that's the problem.  Everything about Swakopmund is so clean and neat and well kept up that at best it is like a vaguely German themed theme park.  Especially if, like me, you've just been spending weeks in the 'real' Africa.  The one that's dirty and poor and where not much of anything is kept up.

Oh well, I'm sure that I can adjust.  Right now though I just need to find a place to lay my increasingly weary head.