In a small dome, surrounded by friends, I donned a white face mask and a burnt orange-colored wedding headdress. My eyes sparkled and, despite the mask covering, I smiled.
But, this wasn't my wedding day. Rather, my joy came from experiencing something unexpected: We were invited into a home in a Himba village where we learned about the people of this tribe and their culture and customs. In times of the pandemic, I celebrated the orange stains of otjize on my face and clothes while I tested the bridal headdress.
COVID-19 set many plans to travel the world back. Tourists and destination managers scaled back their plans to include domestic locations, while hotels and restaurants closed. Many global airlines shutdown for a period and have a limited (and constantly changing) flight schedule as they dust off their planes and take to the skies again. Tour guides along with their mainstays, souvenir shops, and activity companies shuttered. The entire industry melted under the pandemic pressure.
After seven months in my little corner of Abu Dhabi, my wanderlust got the best of me. Still questioning the ethics of traveling, my safety from COVID-19, and the safety of others, I hopped on an Ethiopian Airline flight bound for Windhoek. Our guides, George and Gabriel "Shabba" met us with grins – and ready to hit the road.
Have You Held a Crocodile?
Our first stop was at The Crocodile Farm Otjiwarango for lunch. If you imagine that crocodile is on the menu, you are correct. The crocs on the farm come from the Kunene River on the Angolan border. The Farm exists to bring awareness about crocodiles, help preserve the population, and some end up on the table of a lovely outdoor cafe.
After lunch, we each took turns holding a one-year-old croc. The little guy was a bit skittish and given any leeway, he took initiative to use his little razor teeth. Our handler only received a scratch during one hand-off – enough to give us all a scare.
The Kunene River flows like a ribbon marking the boundary between Angola and Namibia. We visited when the water was low, but Epupa Falls still roared outside our lofted "treehouses" at Epupa Falls Lodge. We saw the falls by evening and morning light – the early sun proving to be an incredible backdrop to capture the mist (and the bugs) in the air. From just the right angle, we could capture the incredible rainbow rising up out of the waterfall, too.
We stayed in this beautiful spot for two nights – the vastness of this waterfall cannot be captured on camera, but in two days we experienced the full spectrum of Namibia's side of Epupa Falls – sunsets behind brilliant orange hillsides and rainbows in the Falls' mist at sunrise. The surrounding landscape was a "Garden of Eden" for the eyes.
"Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too." - Marcus Aurelius
The Herero People
Today, less than 10% of Namibia's population belong to the Herero people who were native to the land and were pushed aside by German colonization. They fell under a 1904 extermination order that predated the Holocaust. Some are now suing Germany for reparations [link to 2018 NPR article]. Our two local guides belong to the Herero People and gave us an exceptional background about their history in Namibia as we explored the Country's geography.
Different from the other tribes in Namibia, the Herero adopted and kept German dress in their traditions. Despite the impractical nature of the clothing in the heat, women proudly wear grand Victorian-style dresses made with layers of fabric that puff out from their waists. The women also wear a headdress that honors their cattle culture called otjikaiva. A scarf is wrapped around their head and newspaper in a way that resembles horns. Even those who have adopted more modern clothes, will dress in this way for special events and ceremonies. Especially at these events, men will wear a military-style suit jacket that may display a badge indicating their family line.
The Himba People
Part of our stay up north, in the Kunene Region near the Angola border, was spending an afternoon in a Himba village. Being welcomed into someone's home is a privilege in our daily life and offers a very intimate view of life behind closed doors. I was impressed by the openness of the people in this village to share their life with us. In a way, this represented our welcome throughout the country. Particularly due to the pandemic drying up tourism, we were often greeted with smiles from grateful hotel and restaurant owners along the way to introduced us to the amazing Country of Namibia.
I snapped a couple of my favorite photos when we met two women riding donkeys down the road we travelled on. After asking permission to take photos, our guides chatted with them while we admired their otjize-colored plaited hair and red-tinted skin.
Though their dress was not influenced by the colonists, and they practice subsistence living rather than pastoral practices of the Herero, the Himba People are a subgroup of the Herero. Women run the village life and during our visit, only one man, the village leader, was present while the rest of the men and boys were out tending their herds of animals. This leaves the women to gather wood, cook, look after children, and share plenty of laughs and smiles with each other.
We learned many new things from the OvaHimba who we met – about their way of life, traditional dress, and accessories. The tribe may be considered minimalist to us, but those objects and cultural practices hold significance and tell the story of the Himba people.
Click on the images above to zoom in and read more about the Himba practices and adornments.
Elephants of Palmwag
The Palmwag Lodge unexpectedly and magically appeared as a stopping place along our way to Namibia's coastline. The photos I grabbed while we stayed in lodge on the edge of an elephant watering hole appear like we were also on the edge of the entire continent of Africa. Jumbo, a famous and frequent elephant at the Lodge made his presence known as we were preparing for bed. What a treat to watch him feed amidst the palms and tall grasses at night. On the trip, we encountered one other elephant in the wild - and saw the "evidence" another left as it crossed the road.
Namibian Desert Flora
Continuing across the Namibian desert from Palmwag, we set out toward the west coast while driving through a great deal of parched land on the north side of the Torra Conservancy. The landscapes we encountered under the sun often seemed forlorn, but if you look closely across the Namib Desert, you may spot a few bold plants taking root. We stopped in a couple places to see life amidst the rocks and sand.
Deadly melkbos adds faint green punctuations throughout the dry landscape. Scientifically called, Euphorbia damarana, melkbos is also known as Damara milk-bush – and can kill most every creature that comes into contact with it's milky sap. The substance is so irritative that it can create a boil with any contact on human skin. You might imagine that a dab of this liquid on the tip of an arrow would be an incredible defense mechanism for humans to use as well.
Namibia's national plant, Welwitschia, is much friendlier than melkbos. The wilty-looking leaves grow in a large pair close to the ground. Taking about 20 years to blossom, the plant grows separately as a male and female version for pollination. A mere 20 years is a modest maturity span compared to its potential 2,000 year lifespan. Without our astute guides, we would have missed this roadside wonder.
Seals and Seals
Our travels brought us to the Skeleton Coast of Namibia – located on the west side of the country and along the foggy and tumultuous Atlantic Ocean. The fog rarely produces rain on the beaches making the area a desolate desert, impassable on foot. The skeletons of ships are scattered along this stretch of turbulent ocean – along with those of whales and seals. I had heard so much about this area, I thought it would be more memorable. In fact, I had a stomach bug this day and I was a little bored by all the sand and fog.
More fascinating to me, just south of the trepidatious park entrance, we visited the Cape Cross Seal Colony. While these photos might look cute and cuddly, this "world’s largest breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals" (Arctocephalus pusillus), is one of the most peculiarly smelly places I've been.
Unbeknownst to us during our visit, we were witnessing one of the largest die-off events of this seal population. With no clear reason for this sad outcome for thousands of baby seals, it seems that many mothers were malnourished and unable to carry their young to term.
We saw this sad phenomenon again when we kayaked with the seals at Pelican Point near Walvis Bay. At this place, we also encountered mass red-colored jellyfish washed up on the beaches – likely perished due to a lack of the right oxygenated sea conditions. Despite this blatant carnage, Pelican Point Kayaking with the seals turned out to be an outright joy. The critters appears to flirt with us and our cameras by bobbing up next to our kayaks, flipping their tails, and occasionally nibbling on an oar.
Flamingos and pelicans fly free from Pelican Point and Walvis Bay. I never realized how approachable a pelican might be until I captured these big birds on my camera, while flamingos spooked easily and awkwardly took to the air when our van lumbered past their flocks. Black-backed Jackals roamed the sand for their next meal – likely an easy diet of seals when we visited.
Namib Desert Excursions
From Walvis Bay, we continued southeast through the Namib Desert and stopped along the way to stretch our legs and capture those curious photo ops in interesting places – like at the invisible Tropic of Capricorn line of latitude that crossed our path toward Sossusvlei. The sign was certainly the most poignant marker on this calculated latitude as far as our eyes could see.
Further south, a curious plant silouetted itself along a hillside. The Quiver Tree is named because the branches of this succulent can be hollowed out and used as a quiver. Even the trunk is traditionally used for storage as there is a white powder on the exterior that reflects the sun and can keep items cooler in brutal weather.
We identified so many critters while road tripping around northwest Namibia: Steenbock, crocodile, warthog, ostrich, springbok, babboon, giraffe, elephant, aardvark (deceased), oryx, seal, flamingo, jackal, pelican, jelly fish, ground squirrels, dwarf beaked snake, dung beetle, sociable weaver, and we even ate some mopani worms. If only for the animal sitings, the trip would be phenomenal. And yet here, there are so many other memories that captured my attention!
Sands of Sossusvlei
Along with our visit to the Himba village and kayaking with the fur seals, our last stop at Sossusvlei was no less impactful. Seeing the sand dunes rising from the Sossusvlei salt and clay pan punctuated my trip to Namibia – and my photographs – in light and shadows. One of the first dunes in sight from the Park'e entrance, Dune 45, is easy to reach in time for sunrise. Usually hundreds would climb the ridge of the dune, creating a firmer path to ascend. On this morning, during the pandemic (October 2020), we were the only people setting foot in soft sand and laboring each step as we reached the highest point possible before the sun peeked over the horizon.
The shifting sands, and the sunrise-tinted and ever-changing bold red, orange, and yellow highlights and shadows over the landscape will remain in my memory - along with the incredible amount of sand I poured out of my shoes!
We discovered Deadvlei in near solitude as well that morning. The space could typically see one or two thousand people per day and in our entire visit, we only saw four other tourists. Our photos are free from wandering photo bombers and we spent some time moving in this windy, dusty space marveling at the dead trees that have become monuments of time and shifting sands.
Our hearts were full of this amazing opportunity to explore places untouched for so long – but with an edge of disappointment for the tourism industry in Namibia. No visitors means no money and that has ripple affects in communities and around the world.
If you have an opportunity to travel safely, please pack your PPE, mind your distances, and make it happen. Responsible tourism is part of reviving local economies and the opportunities you can have are irreplaceable.
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” - Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
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© 2020-2021 Andrea Rip | The Earth Ink. All rights reserved.
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