Sunday Morning ~ Swakopmund
July 22, 2018
Namibia is the only country in the world that has written into it’s constitution that animals have the freedom to roam unimpeded by fences. They don’t, however, have efficient wifi that we’ve found so I can’t fact check that, but that’s what Dion, our guide, told us at Twylfelfontein as we looked out over a vast expanse looking for desert elephants.
Driving to Twylfelfontein involved 200 kilometers early last Sunday morning on deserted stretches of straight smooth tarmac road to the town of Outjo. Huge termite hills along the roadside replaced the trees of the Caprivi Strip and we made it easily in two hours and found a sweet farmhouse restaurant open and serving breakfast. A sign on the window said “Free Wifi” and we thought it’d be perfect as we could post our blogs while we waited for the food to be served, but the “server could not connect”. We did, however, have a fabulous breakfast which filled us up for the rest of the day. Steak, sausage, eggs, hearty toast, and good coffee were definitely worth the stop. We filled the tank with gas, got a few groceries and a better road map and set off for Twyfelfontien, another 80 kilometers away on dirt washboard roads feeling like the car would come apart. Forty-four kilometers into it we came to a petrified forest, one of only three in the world (the others are in Arizona and Argentina). We stopped to walk around. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is beautifully managed. Namibia is promoting their natural environment (and ecotourism) as their greatest asset and I love it. I’ve maintained for years that the best way to help underdeveloped countries is to go on vacation there. If the economy relies on tourism there is incentive to keep it peaceful and clean. Namibia has embraced that and it is so heartening. They do also have a very vibrant mining industry and very low population so it’s not exactly fair to compare it to Malawi, but it is a great place to travel.
We paid the fee to get into the Petrified Forest Park, which is similar to the National Park in Arizona with fewer resources for tourists but there were working toilets. It’s a similar semi-arid desert landscape and our guide was incredibly knowledgable about the plant life and the history of the area. George asked him how he learned it all and he explained there is a program (US funded) that trains young people in tourism and hospitality. He said they go to the capital, Windhoek, and learn geography, history, and economics, as well as tourism skills. It is fantastic. He described how the glaciers moved these pine trees down from Central Africa to where they are now, petrified into stone. We walked the loop with him, spent some time looking at the crafts for sale in the dusty stalls, bought a Fanta to share in the “kiosk” which was a stall with hanging oil drum lids for walls. It was windblown and desolate but had charm. And there were quite a few tourists there, mostly from European countries; it was busier that I expected. Another forty eight kilometers on washboard roads with the dust from the few oncoming cars creating an absolute white out, and we were at Twylfelfontein. We found the community campsite where we wanted to stay with plenty of empty sites. It is on the bank of the Aba-Huab River, which is an ephemeral river––dry most of the year. There was not a drop of water anywhere near there. It was gorgeous desert landscape, though, and simple but sweet campsites under shade trees along the dry riverbed. Each site had it’s own power and a small light, a water tap, and barbecue (which they call braai here). The shower was shared with other campers, fabulously built under a huge tree with the taps coming out of a curved branch. It was a huge enclosure and showering in there I felt like Snow White. Birds were flitting all around singing and chirping. It was a kick. We camped there two nights and were hopeful about having wifi since there was a huge satellite disk at the reception area, but the manager told us it would be another month before it was installed. He said we could get wifi at the expensive lodge about 15 kilometers away. Having given up on the wifi we didn’t do much Sunday afternoon except settle into the campsite. Once that was accomplished, George joined other campers and the campground staff at the managers house to watch the final game of the World Cup. Not caring so much about that, I sat in the hammock and painted while watching a beautiful sunset. When the game ended I cooked supper and we went to bed rather late for us! The French campers were celebrating.
The word Twylfelfontein means Doubtful Spring. I thought it was a German word, but it is Afrikaans. It was named by the German who settled there in 1945 to farm sheep. The spring is in the middle of a desert that gets 4mm of rain a year. I can see why it might be doubtful but it is an incredible oasis in the desert. When the water was more plentiful it attracted loads of animals and was a hunting site for the San people. It has the largest collection of rock engravings in Africa and is another UNESCO World Heritage site. Again, the guide was knowledgeable and professional and it was a great tour. This rock art is younger by a few thousand years than the rock paintings we saw in South Africa and in Malawi. These are engravings into the soft sandstone so they aren’t protected by caves. They are all over the place and the guide told us they are finding hundreds more each year. From there we went to a “Living Museum” where villagers take tourists on a sample of daily village life. It was staged to the max but also interesting, especially the desert walk to see plants used in herbal remedies and a demonstration of spear hunting. It ended with a traditional dance and a walk through a gift stall. It was a little hokey, but still, I thought it was worth it. We found the luxury lodge built into the rocks three kilometers down another washboard road, got a coffee, posted our blogs, then went to see the Organ Pipes, rock formations formed 120 million years ago into columns that look just like organ pipes. It was pretty cool. Near there was a place called Burnt Mountain, which the guidebook says is a fascinating sight at sunset when it looks like the mountain is on fire. It’s basically a heap of black shale and sandstone and we sat there waiting for the color to change but it never did. It went from black to blacker and then it was dark. That was the first bust of the trip but we didn’t have to spend anything on it except a few hot hours reading, waiting for the sunset.
Tuesday we had to decide if we were going to do the Skeleton Coast or not. From everything I read it sounded mysterious and deserted, but also fascinating and I really wanted to go. We’d also heard that it’s easy to get stuck in the sand and you shouldn’t go without two vehicles. But the more we talked to people from the area, the more we thought we could pull it off, and we decided to head there Tuesday morning. George called the one and only place to stay at Terrace Bay, as far north as you can drive on the coast, to make sure we had a room for the night. It’s a long way to go on a questionable road to be turned away, so that was the one place we booked ahead. They had a room so we decided to go for it. It involved driving 120 kilometers on the familiar washboard road to the gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park, then another hundred to Terrace Bay on a road that goes right along the Atlantic Ocean. It’s called Skeleton Coast because of all the shipwrecks there. It’s where the Namib Desert meets the Atlantic and it was so cool! The drive wasn’t bad at all, except for the gale winds blowing the car around. When we got out at the park gate to register and pay the entrance fee, I couldn’t close the car door the wind was so bad. Sand was blowing sideways across the road, just like a snowstorm. Fortunately it was flat enough the sand just kept going and didn’t pile up. When we got to the coast it was an incredible site to see the waves through the fog crashing onto desert sand dunes. Really incredible. The guidebook said Terrace Bay was eery and I’d agree with that description. It’s what I envision the Aleutian Islands to be like. There is nothing there except moonscape and sand on a cold and rough ocean. The lodge there,run by the National Park, looks like old military housing. Aluminum sheeting for the roofs and the very basic construction looked quite utilitarian. But they’d planted a few palm trees and had a few odd street lights and the chalets, all facing the water, had cotton sheets and warm duvets. It was cold, like summer-in-Maine cold, but not terrible. Windy and desolate, but funky and cool. As we were driving there George read in the guidebook that they had a fish cleaning station and he said, “So there must be some industry!” When we walked along the beach there was a stone sink with a cut off hose where fisherman could clean the fish they caught from the shore, and that was the fish cleaning station. Not quite an industry. The restaurant served dinner and breakfast and was the best food we’ve had yet! Fabulous fresh fish and good wine served by friendly staff dressed in fleece jackets and knitted caps. The dining room looked like a cafeteria but the service was like a five star place. We loved it. That said, one night was enough there and we headed south along the long deserted road to Cape Cross where the biggest colony of cape fur seals lives. Thank God there was a gas pump at Terrace Bay because we never would have made it back down the coast. It was housed in a little shed and you have to find the guy to open it to pump you some gas, but good thing.
Wednesday (God, I’m only on Wednesday?) we were comfy in a nice lodge on the water at Cape Cross and Thursday morning after a run on the beach and a nice breakfast in the lovely dining room we walked the three kilometers over to see the seal colony. That was something. 250,000 seals all barking, rolling, pooping, breastfeeding, sunbathing, and romping in the water. It was an incredible sight. I’ve seen a few seal colonies in New Zealand and South Africa, but nothing like this. It was amazing and with the desert dunes behind us and the Atlantic ocean in front of us, I’m glad we didn’t miss it. The smell was memorable as well. We walked back to the lodge along the beach and saw skull after skull of baby seal. There were dead seals all over the place. They get killed by hyena and jackel, but also by getting crushed by the huge males when they come for mating season in December. That must be a sight to see. At the places we stopped to see shipwrecks we also saw huge whale skeletons and see why the national park is named skeleton coast. The name really fits. They do cull the seal population now but I’m not sure what they do with the hides and flesh. They were selling seal oil at the entrance to the park, and some small sealskin wallets, but in my opinion, boots would be a better use of the hide. There was no one to ask why they don’t go collect all the baby seal carcasses. Really, there were hundreds of them rotted into the sand. It took us a little while to realize that’s what we were walking on.
We left there after a tour of the small museum and drove another two hours to Swakopmund where we are still. Swakop is the name of the river, which is dry most of the year, and “mund” means “mouth” so we’re camping at the mouth of the river. This is a resort town on the coast and it is sweet as can be. We found a campground on the water and decided to use this as a base for exploring this area. Plus, we needed to get a tire patched. We’d driven thousands of kilometers with a slow leak from a screw puncture and didn’t want our luck to run out. George took care of that on Friday morning and we were free to explore.
A word about the campgrounds in this country. They are fantastic. They all have their own personality, but are all incredibly comfortable. Most of them have power at each site so we’re able to charge phones and laptops, they have really clean toilets and huge showers, hot water, and some have restaurants and camp stores. It is so easy to camp in this country! Swakopmund is a small city and we had several campgrounds and a million hotels to choose from. The one we are at is right on the water but has a grass fence protecting the campsites from the wind. There are twenty four sites all around a center grassy area like a village green. Each site has a thatched roof over the sandy platform where you pitch your tent, a picnic table, a parking spot for the car, a little brick walkway around to the ablution block and two wooden chairs by the little garden planted in front of each site. It’s adorable! It’s like a suburban pow wow. There is also a barbecue at each site and free wifi which actually works, so I’m hopeful about posting this in an hour. There is a great museum we spent half a day in on Friday, a fascinating gem museum which houses the largest crystal cluster in the world and where it’s possible to buy any amount of fantastic jewelry. Gorgeous stuff. And you can watch it being made. Well done. Yesterday we drove the thirty kilometers to Walvis Bay to see huge flocks of flamingoes and had a fabulous lunch of mussels, oysters, and yellow tail fish at a sweet place on the waterfront. They also had good microbrews. We considered leaving today, but wanted a day just to catch up on laundry, and writing, and we still need to visit the aquarium which we’ll do this afternoon. I went to mass this morning then George met me for breakfast at an outdoor cafe. When we walked back to the campsite we went by the aquarium to see the hours and saw, ironically, that’s where to buy fishing licenses.
Tomorrow we’ll leave early to drive to Namib Naukluft Park to see the huge dunes and then see where to go from there. We’re still enjoying taking it a day at a time and like the flexibility. We’re learning about the country as we go so it’s changing what we want to see and for how long. I, for instance, didn’t think I’d like staying in Swakopmund so long, but I love it here. It’s very European and comfortable. Sidewalk cafes serving cappuccino appeal to me for a few days. And camping, it’s cheap!
Ok, now to post this and try to get some photos on Facebook and off to walk around. Loving life.
Love to all,
ps. Now it’s Monday. Internet was down on Sunday….