I have good news about the culmination of my internship…but first!
An interruption to fill you in on my most recent adventures.
My friend Casey and I recently ventured to the hot and dry land of Namibia for a weeklong road trip. The name Namibia comes from the Nama word meaning “vast place of nothingness.” We discovered this to be true in the sense that the country is quite uninhabited by people with a population of only 3.1 million, most likely due to the inhospitable environment of primarily desert. Although we crossed paths with very view people (and when we did they were usually tourists like us), we did see a plethora of wildlife. A friend told me that the bushmen living in Namibia referred to the country as “the land God made in anger.” Yes, our first impression of the country was that the environment and landscape was very harsh. But it was an incredibly beautiful country as well. The isolation of the country was powerful; we felt very far from any form of civilization most of the time. And this is what made our time there feel so special.
Our trip began with the unfortunate circumstance of having our rental car broken into while we parked it on the street in Muizenberg at 6 am to fetch something inside for 10 minutes. Fortunately only one bag was stolen containing food and sadly Casey’s camera. Because both Casey and I have not had a car while we have been living here, we weren’t accustomed to making sure to not leave bags visible in the car, even if only for a short while. One of the downfalls of living in this beautiful country is the fact that you constantly have to be looking over your shoulder due to the high crime rate. I’ve actually felt very safe while living here but am aware that crime is happening all around me. Two of my friends have been pickpocketed, a neighbor up the street was attacked when he came outside while two men were trying to break into his empty car, and I am constantly advised to not walk alone at night. After the long wait to get the broken window replaced, we found our spirits uplifted as we hit the road headed north.
Due to our later than expected start, we arrived at the border in the dark. Our first stop was at a campground on the Orange River, which separates South Africa from Namibia. The following day we had a 33 km paddling trip on the river booked with the company Amanzi River Trails. A native guide named Mario would be taking us down the lazy river to make sure we didn’t take any channels that would bring us to a dead end. After a short ten minute drive in the dark from the border post town of Noordoewer, we arrived at our destination. As we went up to the tiki-like bar to check in, we were warmly greeted by the owner of the company, Colleen. I was put into contact with Colleen by Teuns Kok, an avid adventurer who I have been working with in the non-motorised transportation department for the city. Colleen immediately hooked us up with dinner and sat down to chat with us about Teuns’ incredible paddling abilities. Tired from the eight hour drive and eager to look at the starry sky, we hit the hay early that night after playing a game of cribbage (Casey is a math tutor at a small college in Muizenberg; I can see why he loves the counting game of cribbage). When I awoke the next morning, I was stunned by where we had slept. I knew we were camped right alongside the river but I had no idea what it looked like:
My first impression of the river and surrounding environment was
surprise. I was amazed that a river could be found flowing through such rough,
dry terrain. Naked, orange-ish brown mountains of rocks and sand bordered
either side of the large but calm river. As we rounded a bend, I felt as if we
were on a different planet. Picture your mind’s version of Mars with a
reflective river on it. I had never seen such a barren landscape. The only green
could be seen alongside the banks of the river. And this is where the most
activity we saw taking place. When we beached the boats to cool off in the
water and eat lunch, I followed a goat path through a pass to the other side of
the mountain. I distinctly remember my ears ringing because there was no sound.
It was completely silent; no wind, crickets, water, animals. Nothing. I did
come across a scorpion though. While exploring, I ran into some goats greedily
feasting on whatever vegetation they could find. A farmer was slowly herding
the goats along the river. Mario and the farmer exchanged a greeting in
Afrikaans, one of the many languages of Namibia.
Coming across the goats and a farmer, where there was no farm in sight, was a surprise. But I did not expect what we came across next. As Mario led us on, he shouted something incomprehensible to us from up ahead. As we drew nearer, I realized he was telling us to look at the cows. I could not help but laugh when we witnessed cows standing in the shallow water feeding on the high grass. The landscape of the river transitioned before our eyes to that of smooth boulders and tall grass growing in the river. It tickled me to see these random cows standing in this river where the only grass existed. The thing that was not funny about the situation was how skinny the cows were. It didn’t appear that there was much for them to eat.
In the middle of this harsh mountainous desert with a river being the only source of water, we were surprised to discover more wildlife. Next we came upon wild horses. Five beautiful slender horses were standing in the water grazing on the green grass as we paddled by. How did they get here? I don’t know but there was something mystical about them. I was wondering if a unicorn would emerge from the bushes next!
As the sun was nestling its way between the mountains, we heard a group of baboons loudly scrambling down the mountain on the opposite side of the river. One baby could be seen being carried by its mother on her back. A fire kept us warm as the evening grew chilly. I laid on my back to gaze at the incredible night sky sparkling with stars; shooting stars appeared every which way and I have never seen such a clear Milky Way. I stared at the sky for hours feeling an immense peace of mind with the wilderness we were surrounded by. At about 4 am the baboons who had come down the mountain to sleep arose and made their way back up the mountain barking like dogs.
Back on the river that morning, we paddled another 9 km to a pullout point where we would be picked up by Colleen. She drove us back to the campground on one of the few paved roads in Namibia. We thanked her for everything and hit a gravel road in our Volkswagon Polo to drive to our next destination: the Fish River Canyon. Apparently it is the second biggest canyon in the world next to the Grand Canyon. On the way there, we passed no cars on the long gravel road we were driving on. All around us was a vast desert with no signs of life save a herd of antelope looking like a mirage in the distance. We did drive by a shanty town with shacks made out of straw.
When we arrived at the canyon around 3 pm there was one other group of people there. The canyon is located in the Ais-Ais/Ritchersveld National Park. Soon after we arrived, the other group left and we were the only two people overlooking this immense canyon. The Fish River snakes its way through the deep canyon.
We had decided that we were going to camp that night on the side of the road. We found a spot where we could make a small fire and enjoy some rice, beans, and cheese (RBC), one of my favorite camping dishes because of its simplicity and delicious taste. We were tucked in our sleeping bags under the stars by 9 pm. In the middle of the night we were startled by the sound of hooves trampling the ground nearby. It was so dark that we could not tell what it was but by the sound of the hooves we knew there were many. One of the animals stopped and made a noise that sounded like a horse sighing. I wondered if it could be zebras.
The following day we got on the road early to make the long drive to Sossusvlei, an oasis of giant sand dunes. During the drive, we saw an incredible amount of wildlife and the scenery was out of this world. The most popular animal we saw was antelope, specifically gemsbok and springbok. We saw ostrich, a fox, kudu, and a pair of warthogs jogged across the road right in front of the car. I was very excited to see zebra right after we passed a sign warning of zebras. We also passed a sign for giraffe but unfortunately didn’t spot any. We decided to take the most scenic route which borders the Namib desert, a much longer way to travel but definitely worth the while. The views were stunning:
In the late afternoon we finally reached the entrance to Sossusvlei. Just in time for sunset. We parked the car and started running up the mountain of a dune. It reminded me of when I was mountaineering in the North Cascades last spring and we had to “kick steps” in the snow as we climbed up a mountain, forming something similar to a staircase so it was easier to hike. However, kicking steps in the sand proved to be much more difficult as the sand does not retain its form like snow does when you pack it down. In my sandals I could feel the soft, cold sand running over my toes. Once we reached the top, the sun had already set but the lighting was amazing. I looked out onto the plains below and was in awe.
We planned to wake up early the next morning to catch the sunrise over the dunes. We were first in line at the gate to the 60 km tar road that ends in a 4×4 lover’s paradise with thick, deep sand to play around in. We were able to catch a ride on a jeep that could handle the rough terrain better than our Polo. The rest of the trek was to be done on foot. A passenger in the jeep who was familiar with the area told us to “climb up that dune over there and then go down to Dead Vlei. We’ll meet you back here in an hour.” We weren’t really sure what he was talking about and what the heck is the Dead Vlei? I saw some people on a dune up ahead and decided to hike up the one with people on it. Another passenger named Gui tagged along with us. Gui was a French gentleman who had rode his bicycle to Sossuvlei all the way from Johannesburg! I started talking to him about what routes were best to take.
We soon found out what Dead Vlei is. It is a clay pan where water once existed. Now that it has dried up, the trees that were living there are dead as there is no water to enable them to survive. It was a bit eerie looking when we walked amongst the dead trees.
Being able to catch both the sunset and the sunrise over the dunes was quite a treat. The way the wind swept the sand to form these unique shaped dunes was fascinating and the early morning shadows made for great photos.
The rest of the trip was a great deal of driving on mostly gravel backcountry roads, sleeping out under the stars every night, passing through the teeniest tiniest towns, and enjoying the fresh air of the desert. Namibia was truly an amazing place that made me realize I miss being in the wilderness far from the hustle and bustle of the city.