Namibia: A Place of God

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Wow oh wow oh wow. Namibia. A vast land of endless hues, windswept dunes, semi-arid deserts, remarkable rock formations, amazing and in some cases severely endangered wildlife, incredible opportunities for outdoor adventure, endless blackness lit up by millions of stars twinkling at night, and, among its few inhabitants, ancestors of some of the most ancient forms of homo sapiens on the planet – the San Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert. Featuring just 3 people per kilometer, Nambia is the second least populated country on the planet, behind only Mongolia. Of more than 40,000 kilometers of road, only 5,000 are paved, most in and around the largest tourist attraction, Ethosa National Park, and the capital, Windhoek. While growing and an important segment of the economy, tourism, to our western eyes still seems nascent; over the last week, as we have driven from adventure to adventure, we often are the only car on the road – for hours at a time. However, as a wise friend in South Africa once said, don’t judge only based on the ultimate goal, but also on how much progress has been made. We understand current tourism levels are significantly higher than they were 10 years ago.

It strikes me that countries like Namibia and South Africa, like many sub-Saharan African countries, are comprised of some of the oldest populations/ethnic groups on the planet – some of the original inhabitants of earth – the San, the Khoi. Yet their governments are mere babies compared to the US – after the tumultuous years of Apartheid, South Africa just celebrated 28 years of independence, while Namibia only became independent from South Africa in 1990. Yet the earth of Southwestern Africa is so very very old.

We started this two week “let’s cap off our year in Cape Town” trip with very few expectations. I had always wanted to experience Namibia, having heard about the vast dunes of Soussevlei in the south. Yet because the lead up to the trip was filled with end of school year celebrations, tearful goodbyes to our Cape town friends and a visit with our amazing friend Jane Mingey from the US, we had little time to research and less time to develop expectations for our forthcoming adventure.  We relied on the expert advice of our friend Janine (highly highly recommended). However, I suspect even if we did have high expectations, they would have been blown out of the water – this place is remarkable, and unlike anywhere we’ve been in the world.

Our journey started on a promising note. Because our Cape Town to Namibia flight had been cancelled, we had to scramble a bit, scheduling accommodation for an additional night (since we now had to fly the day before originally planned). The airline did its part, putting us on another flight – in full first class style! And our Windhoek hotel was straight out of a Kimpton catalogue – very stylish and, in Luke’s terms, “fancy.” While not at all what we had expected, it was a comfortable and familiar start to the trip.

From Windhoek we travelled about 5 ½ hours on one of Namibia’s major highways to the southwest, to experience the Namib Desert, the world’s oldest desert (80 million years young) and the incredible dunes of Soussevlei, one of Namibia’s two world heritage sites. 5 hours of that major highway journey was on an unpaved road – our first experience with the Namibian highway system.

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We were up in the wee hours of the morning to drive about 90 minutes – all on dirt roads – to view the sunrise from Soussevlei and accompanying Deadvlei.  These incredible red dunes, stretching as far as the eye can see, are among the tallest in the world.  Luke was in heaven, ditching his shoes early on and venturing forth wherever his feet took him. Trudging up them was hard! Sliding down much easier. Watching the sun rise over distant hills and highlighting vibrant pinks and reds of the dunes as far as the eye could see, I had an overwhelming sense of calm and gratitude that God created such a miracle – and some quick prayers to mom up above to protect Luke from falling off a dune! We next visited the nearby Sesriem Canyon, shaped by the Tsauchab River over millions of years. A deep canyon etched into the earth, this allowed for more rock climbing and scrambling. The Canyon itself reminded me of the southwestern US, but I’ve never before seen dunes like that.

We spent two nights at the Namib Desert Lodge, and then totally switched gears by driving (4 ½ hours) to the seaside town of Swakopmund, where the vast dunes of the Namib Desert intersect with the Atlantic ocean. Where the Desert had been hot hot hot, the seaside town was enveloped in fog and felt downright chilly (at least by Cape Town standards, certainly not by Boston’s). Where we had stayed at a typical desert lodge, surrounded by red cliffs, in the south, our lodging in Swakop harkened again to a Kimpton: the Delight Hotel was filled with bright and whimsical colors and décor and seemed straight out of LA. We were a bit apprehensive at first in Swakop, not sure of the town or how we would spend our time. After viewing our first real Namibian sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, that apprehension turned to “delight” the next day as we went quadding and sand boarding on endless dunes at the intersection of desert and ocean.

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The quadding definitely makes the top ten list of our most fabulous adventures this year. After getting his feet wet, Luke became group leader, following the Namibian guide Miles closely and becoming more and more adventurous every meter. Our three hour tour allowed ample time to skid and speed across dunes that average 200 meters in heights. A huge adrenaline rush and terrific time had by all. We also spent a bit of time sand boarding which is basically a summer-climate version of snow sledding. With an initial push by Martin, we screamed downhill on pieces of polished polyeurathane, trying to keep the sand out of our mouths and eyes and keep our legs and arms elevated so as not to get sand burns. Chris and I chose to do it only once, but our daredevil Charlotte, no surprise, kept trudging to ever higher heights from which to launch her missile. Luke boarded down once and morphed into a sand creature for an hour.  🙂

Perhaps the most unexpected and utter surprise was our next destination, the Mowane (“Place of God”) Mountain Camp in Damaraland. When we first reached the camp, hidden deep in rocky cliffs formed by eons of wind and geological evolution, we couldn’t see the reception, so artfully constructed to blend into the actual rocks. Our stay at this amazing eco-friendly lodge was as glamorous a rural stay as any of us will probably experience in our lifetimes, complete with luxury tents, candlelight dinners around a roaring fire and a daily “sundowner” up at the top of a cliff that felt like the top of the world.fullsizeoutput_3e8eIMG_5775IMG_5776

While at Mowane we signed up to track the elusive Namibian desert elephant (a phrase we must have said 100 times over the course of the day; saying merely “elephant” or “desert elephant” was simply not acceptable!) Our guide was the irrepressible Rosie, a 50-something powerhouse of a woman, who was the first black Namibian female guide in the country. She so inspired us with her tenacity in tracking the elephants who had retreated deep into the mountains to find respite from a 3 year drought. We were not as inspired by the lack of progress after Rosie’s incredible battle to become the first female guide 20 years ago; today there are only 4, including Rosie. Girl power!

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Real Life ENDEs! (Elusive Namibian Desert Elephant)

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Heaven hidden amongst the rocks
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Mowane lounge area
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The only one brave enough to dive into the glacial waters!

Upon leaving that heaven of a camp, we drove 4 hours – all on dirt roads – to reach the outskirts of Etosha National Park. As we got closer to the park we realized that every few miles or so there were rough wooden shacks erected by the side of the road, with Namibian tribespeople dressed in traditional clothes (meaning nothing on top for men and women, and modest covering over their private parts) hawking handmade wares and frantically trying to wave passing cars down. After hesitating to stop at the first few, we finally pulled into one “village” consisting of perhaps 20 men, women and children, each manning their own “shop.” They were led by one young man, speaking impeccable English, who served as our negotiator. While they assured us photographs were welcome, we felt uncomfortable with that dynamic, so after some minor bartering (by Charlotte, Luke and I; Chris just flat out paid a widely overly inflated asking price for a small wooden rhino!) and trying not to stare at these folks so different from us, we headed on.

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The next morning, we entered Etosha bright and early. Over the course of two full days we were BLOWN AWAY by the wildlife we encountered – millions of zebra, giraffe, kudo, gembok, guinea fowl and ostrich (Luke’s favorites), the evil honey badger, elephant, a lion, and – highlight of the week – 4 cheetah that we were able to track down all by ourselves, not with a guide. (We knew in general they were in a particular area and when we saw zebra running Charlotte used her expert eyes to identify them. Wow!)  On our way in we saw three white, ancient elephants the size of apartment buildings trudging right along ahead of us  WOW! In Etosha we stayed at one of our two favorite places of our trip – the amazing Mushara Bush Camp. While Mushara is billed as an affordable option for families and independent travelers (thus avoiding the busloads of Germans we had encountered at two larger lodges along the way), we found it unbelievably wonderful and completely fabulous! It is impossible to verbalize how amazing Etosha was – and how different from Kruger National Park. Far more open, with vast “pans” of salt and clay sand. No one gets out of cars; there is far more animal tracking on foot and off road in Kruger. And in Etosha, we met the other side of Rosie’s coin: our indefatigable guide Ute, a 76 year old take no prisoners chain smoking white Namibian of German descent, was proud to claim that she is the only white guide in Etosha, but all the black guides accept her. Ute was delighted that we experienced a kill by a small cat named a caracal – in her 30 years guiding she’d only seen three or four of them. VERY interesting!

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By this point, ten days into the trip, we were all a little tired, dirty, and perhaps ready to go home. We also knew that Janine would not disappoint…..and she didn’t.  Our final destination – the Na’ankuse Animal Sanctuary – completely and utterly blew us away.  All we knew was that we had a full day drive to get there. The kids kept asking about our accommodation; I thought it might be a tent but wasn’t too sure. Imagine our surprise when we realized we were staying in one of several villas located on a 33,000 hecter sanctuary established to provide a home for animals who otherwise could not survive – because they are orphaned, abandoned, or habituated to humans (and thus unable to cope in nature). In addition to supporting wildlife, Na’ankuse works to support the San people, establishing the area’s first hospital, ensuring educational opportunities from pre-school up, and creating employment opportunities in an area with very few jobs. Na’ankuse is similar to the Bulungula Incubator in SA’s Eastern Cape in that its founders seem very strategic, well funded, and connected. Na’ankuse’s founder is close with Angelina Jolie, whose daughter Shiloh was born in Namibia and who apparently has a house on the property. Similar to Mowani, N/a’an ku sê is a Juǀ’hoan word that means “God will protect us”, or “God watches over us.”

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Na’ankuse’s “carnivorous feeding” tour allowed us to watch a well-trained guide feed wild dogs, caracals, baboons, leopards, cheetahs, and lions. It was awesome to finally understand the difference between a cheetah (faster, taller, skinnier) and a leopard (completely stunning, stockier, tougher), to get a better understanding of animal rehabilitation and preservation (most of these animals have no chance of being set free and thus are being taken care of), and, perhaps not as awesome, to be within 5 feet of a roaring, angry lion. (That was scary.) We were thankful for the electric fence separating us!

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Na’ankuse also provided us with a chance to interact with local people, for which I was particularly grateful, since to that point we hadn’t visited any schools or gotten off the tourist circuit. We spent a morning and an evening with an extended family of about 20 San Bushman, led by Rebe, a very articulate English speaking young man whose formal education stopped in 8th grade. In the morning, they gave us a tour of their village (a few huts and a fire ring) and showed us how they use indigeneous plants for healing, medicine and nutrition. In the evening, we joined for storytelling around the fire, and listened raptly (thanks to Rebe) as they laughed and shared centuries old tales about the connection between mankind and nature. The lead storyteller was a sinewy, hilarious and incredibly fit 77 year old who has experienced untold stories in his lifetime.  It’s too bad we didn’t video him – he was a great example of an excellent public speaker!  We didn’t understand a word he said (he spoke in his native tongue featuring upteen klicks and klocks!) but were riveted by his presentation.

It was amazing and humbling – these people have such wisdom, peace, experience and a connection to the earth that in our modern frantic world we are sorely missing. Many of the medicines we so rely on are originally from the very plants the men pointed out. Originally we were uncomfortable that we might be exploiting them; but it became crystal clear to us that this is one of several strategies Na’ankuse is implementing to expose indigenous Africans to foreigners for income creation and culture sharing, and to provide us with cultural and education experiences. Of course we purchased several of the handicrafts they had painstakingly created (like a bracelet of ostrich shell which must have take hours to create); we are assured 100% of the proceeds goes directly to the family, which will divvy it up amongst themselves. I could write a book on reflections from this experience, but for now I know the memories we have of our time with this family will provide solace and peace as we find ourselves back in our busy, sometimes stressed out, overloaded world. Surrounded by their love and warmth, listening to the klicks and klocks of the Bushman language, and gazing up at the universe of stars twinkling in the Namibian desert which we know we will not see again anytime soon – we could not have had a better ending to our Namibian adventure, and for Chris, for his South African year. #grateful #amazed #humbled #reflective #thisplace

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Heading home to Cape Town!

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