SENSUOUS SOUTHERN AFRICA
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Africa! Both enticing and daunting impressions invade our homes through films and books: Wild animals roaming brilliant documentaries and appalling AIDS statistics, exciting new medicines and frightening new diseases, both out of the jungle, black people dancing and others killing each other, breathtaking sceneries and drought-ravaged countryside. Africa! Why travel there, when all this information is available at home on the couch? I’ve heard this question a number of times.
There is no verbal answer. The African wind must stroke you. You must drink in the scents and colours of the land, hear the noises of the day and of the night. You must accept both pleasure and discomfort. Listen. Watch. Smell. Taste. And touch. Before all, be touched.
My plane touched down at Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, built on the country’s northwest plateau, almost 1500 m above sea level. In the city’s National Gallery a young painter showed me photos of his work. When he noticed I liked his paintings, he tried so hard to get me to see the originals that sweat was running down his dark face. I had to tell him that I never buy anything when I’m still new in a country. If I could, I’d buy one of his paintings now. I liked the man and I believe he captured the soul of Zimbabwe, if not of Africa.
A museum overseer startled me with the request to film him with one of the Gallery’s showpieces he had carved from serpentine. I did. Then he let me see a picture of a sculpture he had exhibited in New Zealand a few years ago. I remembered the exhibition. I had been fascinated. Now here I found heaps of sculptures, paintings, carvings, not only in the Gallery, also outside in the streets or clustered around flower displays in the adjoining Harare Gardens. I would find similar artefacts in the other countries I’d visit, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Apparently, most of these items come from Zimbabwe. There’s a lot of talent here.
There’s also a lot of friendliness. People in Harare were easy to talk to, but not obtrusive. White Zimbabweans repeatedly told me not to pay much attention to the media. “We’re a peaceful country. We get on with each other. We’ve just got to wait for a change of government.” I gather the bands of the so-called black “war vet(eran)s” have been boosted by all kind of troublemakers. The government tacitly approves of their invasions of white-owned farms. Land itself is not the problem. There’s enough of it. The “war vets” want developed farmland. They haven’t got the means (or the skills) to turn land into farms themselves. I understand, loans have been offered, but are rejected as neo-colonialism.
Here in Harare I joined a tour organised by Phoenix, UK, and run by an efficient guide and a helpful driver. I was a newcomer. The group, young people, from various walks of life, from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, had started three weeks earlier - in Nairobi, Kenya. We were travelling high up in a safari truck where the sides consisting of canvas and transparent plastic could be rolled up and panorama windows allowed views across the top of the driver’s cabin. The lower part of the truck housed our baggage, water, food, camping equipment, tools, and the kitchen.
On the way from Harare to Gweru, the earth was dry, bedecked with granite boulders and sparse low forest or bush. We set up camp next to a dammed river at Antelope Game Park. I borrowed a kayak and was filming two bathing elephants when they started swimming towards me. I don’t think I’d have got out of their reach fast enough, if their keeper had been unable to call them back. I found tranquillity further downstream, low jungle along flat banks, waterfowl swimming or stalking, oblivious to any crocodiles lurking underneath.
Near sunset, I joined a small group, led by a gamekeeper, to walk with lions, beautiful animals, just about one year old, but big and strong enough to - playfully - ripping clothes and scratching skin. A few months later, they would have to be kept in cages at all times, having become too much of a risk, as demonstrated by the missing arm of a senior staff member.
It may seem odd that we wanted to look at the caged animals in the Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage near Bulawayo. However, we could familiarise ourselves with a good cross-section of African wildlife and besides, entrance fees help the orphanage. I found excellent displays of the fauna also in the Museum of Natural History in town, apart from showcases of flora, native culture, history, and geology.
Local tour operators took us to the Matopo Nature and Game Reserve while our truck proceeded (without us) to Victoria Falls. We walked through a land of split granite forming large outcrops and wide slopes. The top of a massive granite dome turned into a panoramic vantage point. We looked across to the distant “View of the World” where the founder of former Rhodesia, Cecil Rhodes, is entombed. I believe the Ndebele name for this place still is the “Dwelling Place of Benevolent Spirits”!
There are many cave paintings in this area, up to 6000 years old. We climbed into one of these primeval galleries. A variety of animals decorated the slanting walls, along with sketches of hunters and a depiction of what seemed to be a fortress. A prehistoric one? Great Zimbabwe, the ancient ruins? The natives hunted with bows and arrows. They attached quartz slivers to porcupine barbs and dipped them into poison from grubs found in paper bark trees. The arrows would get hooked in the flesh of the hapless animals that would be tracked steadfastly till they dropped dead. The hunters might have painted to capture the spirits of their prey. The chewed ends of special grass served as brushes. Ground minerals mixed with fat made colourful paints.
Everybody who joined the tour in Nairobi had been impressed by the wildlife in the Serengeti. I had my first chance of watching free animals in the Game Reserve which is tucked into scenic hills and valleys. We filmed many animals from our landrovers, but had to stalk rhinos on foot. Our guide warned us not to run when charged by these unpredictable beasts but failed to tell us of an alternative. At the end of the day, the tour operators dropped us off at the railway station for a night ride to Victoria Falls.
We found our safari truck parked in Shoestring Camping, our home for the next few nights, and our driver ready to take us to the Zambian side of the Falls. Cascades of various size tumble over the escarpment of near black volcanic rock. During and after the rainy season, they merge into a stupendous mass of raging water that throws spray like heavy rain over the canyon and its rims. Over millions of years the Zambezi has been cutting back into the rock, attacking fissures, forming strings of falls, always finding new weaknesses in the basalt and continuing its excavations until the present day zigzag system of gorges had been formed. There the river now sweeps down thrill-seeking rafters. The majority of our group joined in the following day. They were left with an unforgettable experience, including a broken tooth in the case of one unlucky female.
I chose to canoe the river above the falls. There, the banks are low, there are beautiful islands with lush vegetation, channels with churning rapids, and fine white sandy beaches. Unfortunately, swimming is not on, because of vicious crocodiles. Our guide, an athletic young local man, showed us scars on his arm, marks of a crocodile that had jumped out of the water. At that time, his company was still using plastic kayaks with thin gunwales. Only after one of the kayaks had been bitten apart, did they start using inflatable canoes with broad rims and dual compartments. In case of a croc attack, only one compartment would be damaged and the escaping air would scare the animal off. So the theory goes..
Other nasty inhabitants of the river are the hippos, very territorial animals. We saw many of them, as singles and in groups, their heads popping out of the water in places that our guide attempted to guess, aided by previous experience. He was able to direct us in time and got it wrong only once.. Hippos are particularly dangerous, when they encounter an obstacle between them and the bank. They can easily chase and obliterate a boat.
Not far from the water the land is dry, red sand studded with chunks of dark red rock, with ashen tall grass in between shrubs and frequently denuded trees, and the odd succulent. We observed foraging giraffes, impala, the ubiquitous warthogs, elephants guarding a mate that had collapsed. On one trip, our guide and his party had been threatened by an elephant. Shouting at the animal and throwing stones at it, he had managed to get everybody back into the boats. Twice, the giant had turned away, but the third time she had charged and would have trampled the guide and his boat, had she not stumbled into a ditch.
I wanted to see the Falls from the air, since David Livingstone described them “as sights so beautiful that angels must have stopped in their flight to gaze”. I paid for a microlight ride. I had to divest myself of all items that might come loose during the flight, damaging the propeller at the rear of this flying motorised bicycle. Unfortunately, my video camera had to stay behind too. We soared high above the Falls so that we would be able to glide to a landing spot in case of a motor failure. The pilot stalled the motor and took his hands off the handlebar to demonstrate how safe we were. We glided on without change. Strangely, I was not frightened by the fact that beyond my feet resting on supports like on a motorbike I looked down several hundred metres. Though having lost in size, the Falls still impressed as a boiling trough. Above them, hippos bathed in calm water, elephants, zebra and gazelle roamed the woodland.
Another way of seeing the terrain is from horseback. I joined the novices to be on the safe side. We trotted out into dry bushland, inspecting plants and animals. I tried to film an elephant while keeping the horse from turning. At the bank of the Zambezi we chanced upon hikers. The horses shied and one of our friends ended up on the ground. She remounted despite a hurting bum and, possibly, a cracked wrist. On the way back I found occasions to canter which I enjoyed, but at a wide-open space my horse turned to gallopping. Exhilarated if frightened, I held on for my dear life - and that of my camera.
When our truck rumbled out of Victoria Falls, half the group had left the tour and new people had come on board. However, the travelling routine was soon restored and some quirks well established. Names from TV families denoted teams sharing a duty roster, Fred was not a guy but our frisbee, “arshole” not a swearword but a ranking (albeit a lowly one) acquired in a card game, Sylvia not a girl but our truck, and a seductive term (that I even now dare not spell out) signified the safe with our valuables; it could only be opened with at least a second person present.
Observing animals in the wild creates special feelings, incomparable to watching them in captivity. This became abundantly clear in Botswana’s Chobe National Park whose wealth of wildlife would only be surpassed later by that of the Etosha plains. We mounted small 4WDs for an early morning drive. An old lion strutted along the road, lionesses surveyed the terrain from a shady hump, multitudes of springbok and impala skipped through the bush. A kudu, one of Africa’s biggest antelopes, showed his spiralling horns, a sabre antelope its sabre-like horns that can twist and break a lion’s neck. Birds flapped their colours, vultures lurked, marabou storks perched on nude branches, mongoose scurried about. Most impressive was a large herd of elephants that we met several times crisscrossing the park. The older animals immediately surrounded their little ones when we approached.
Cruising on the Chobe River at sunset, we came across many more of these giants, as they swam sluggishly ashore and then cast their black images onto the water. A large crocodile dozed on the bank. A seemingly endless file of buffalo paraded the flood plain across my camera.
Namibia extends a tentacle between Angola and Botswana as far as Zimbabwe: the Caprivi “Zipfel” (German for strip). We crossed into it coming from Botswana. The colour of the land shifted from reddish to beige. Trees and shrubs were still sporadic, as were groups of rectangular thatched huts, widely spaced, with fences of bundled reed or sticks. A police post marked the beginning of terrain where insurgents or bandits entering from Angola have assaulted vehicles. We were in time for joining a convoy that travelled under military escort through the unsafe area.
While part of our group stayed in the pretty Ngepi camp at the Okavango River, the others re-entered Botswana to explore the Okavango Delta. There the mighty river that springs forth in central Angola sprawls into a 15,000 km² maze of channels and lagoons before being sucked up by sun and sand in the Kalahari Desert. A motorboat whipped us through the contortions of narrow channels in miles of reed to a village. I marvelled at the driver’s ability to find his way. A truck run by the local eco-tourist venture carried us to a landing site of dugout canoes. Nowadays these are made of fibreglass instead of hollow tree trunks. Each canoe, propelled by a “poler”, a man with a long pole, can take two persons. We floated through tranquil landscape of reed and water to our campsite, the base for the coming two days. The water in the delta is allegedly of drinking quality; it’s pure apart from finely suspended vegetable matter. Contamination with bilharzia parasites is possible, but we had no alternative to drinking it.
One morning, our polers took us across the waterways for a hike on another shore. The sun cast over the waves sheets of gleaming gold and silver. Though reed crushed them into hundreds of shards, we still had to squint. Wet stalks brushed our skin, water lilies thronged the surface when channels widened, the scent of drying plants filled the air. Then we strode through tall grass and stands of shrubs and trees, stopping now and then to observe animals through binoculars. I still remember feeling the sun soak up the sweat from the skin, inhaling the fragrance of sun-drenched foliage and of rising dust, the occasional scratching of twigs or blades on arms and legs, drinking in the colours, the grey blue of mud-caked ground, the green of leaves, the gold of grass, and the pastel blue of the sky brushed over with opal clouds. I still sense my body drying out and tiredness creeping in.
There is a more sinister aspect to walking through apparently peaceful landscape, looking for animals. Having returned to camp, I praised the tranquillity of this area and asked the head guide whether he enjoyed walking here himself. Yes, he did “as long as he was on his own”, because of the tremendous responsibility he takes when guiding a group. This is how I heard about the hidden dangers, lions, buffaloes, and snakes. Our guides had no weapons, apart from one machete that wouldn’t be of much help in the case of an attack by a big animal. Eventually, the business venture would earn enough to buy rifles. Until then, the guides just hope for the best and rely on people to follow their instructions instead of panicking.
The next destination on the tour schedule was a limestone sinkhole, Otjikoto. It is so deep that the Germans dumped weaponry there towards the end of World War I, when they were about to lose Namibia (then Southwest Africa). I sat at the rim of the vertical walls of the near-circular lake deep below and watched the night shadows swallow it. I imagined the clanging of metal and the gurgling of the water as the heavy objects were vanishing, coming to rest on the slope of the inundated hole the depth of which remains to be fathomed.
Rich wildlife heralded Etosha National Park well before the white tower of Fort Namutoni appeared. The fortress has long lost its original purpose, though it still seems to lend moral support to the office of the gatekeeper where the entrance fees must be paid. Driving in the Park turned out to be a revelry of game watching. Inhabiting the Park are 144 species of mammals alone, many roaming in stunningly large numbers, especially springbok, gemsbok, kudu, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, elephants, and even the more elusive rhino. They have plenty of space. The Park takes in an area more than half the size of the Netherlands! Campgrounds are sited near waterholes that are floodlit at night. Different species gather here, depending on the time of the day – or night; particularly popular are the mornings and evenings. In the early and late hours we also set out in our truck on photo safaris. We could never guess at what we would see. Once, we spied vultures finishing off some prey and did not have to look far for the predators. Silently, a pride of ten lions rested at the roadside. Crunching noises emerged from a thicket of bushes. Signs of wildlife peter out towards the edge of the Etosha Pan which stretches as a shimmering featureless plain of salt as far as the horizon.
After two days in the Park we continued our trip westward. We dropped in at a farm whose owners are building a reserve for raising and keeping cheetah. We played with pet cheetahs at the farmhouse. From a tree house on the grounds I looked out at the vast uninhabited terrain with fenced-in patches for the undomesticated large cats whose feeding we were to witness at the end of the day.
Twyfelfontein means “doubtful fountain”. A local guide took us to the little spring that flows and dries unpredictably. Then he led us up into the wild sandstone crags where jagged boulders take on shapes of phantom beasts and where skilful artists of past ages have carved images of animals and their footprints into the rocks. We set up camp in a dry riverbed behind a low bank in between measly trees. From a weather-cracked hill, we enjoyed the evening view of the surrounding moonlike landscape, drinking beer. Night had fallen when we gathered around the campfire for dinner.
Before dawn, we rose and drove into the Skeleton Coast Park, a strip of land along the Atlantic, a landscape devoid of any vegetation. There are plains that look as if somebody had smoothed out the sand and scattered stones evenly over it. Here and there stark hills of crumbling rocks grow from the ground. As we approached the sea, the hills turned into sand dunes reaching out to the ocean. This has always been a treacherous coast devouring many a ship. Any castaway making it to the shore would not have had a chance. We inspected shipwrecks and got ourselves stranded in the sand; with a spectacular thud the truck almost turned over. It took us more than three hours to dig it out.
After visiting the squawking, writhing colony of seals on surf-pounded Cape Cross, we got on our way to Swakopmund, driving across a yellow sandy plain with hillocks and patches of vegetation that looked like bison resting on the ground. The road jutted out straight at the horizon, hitting a cloudless sky soaked in sun and a bit of mist and exuding a chilly Atlantic breeze. Infrequently, we passed small settlements of cubic habitations on flat barren ground, a water cylinder high up, or a fence nearby, and a plant or two seeking the loving care of a home. A stark landscape.
The climate in Swakopmund reminded me a little of my hometown Wellington, New Zealand. A continual sea breeze cools strong brilliant sunshine. In the morning, mist may drive in from the cold Atlantic, wrapping the town in sheets of chilly air. Otherwise, Swakopmund’s streets betray the German colonial period; even German is widely spoken. The museum contains many exhibits from the German times, as well as ethnic artefacts, displays of animals, minerals, a model of a uranium mine, an antique pharmacy shop, a historic dental surgery, an old printing shop, and living rooms from the past. From the Woerman Tower I scanned the surroundings. The town snuggles up to the ocean and pushes straight into the barren sand dunes around it. Not far from the town, the dunes rise so tall they are used for sandboarding. We tried it.
A simple and most thrilling method is to lie down head first on a sheet of hardboard, pull its front edge towards your face, and let go. You may reach speeds of 80 km/h and lose bits of skin in the sand. I tried the more skilful approach akin to snowboarding, using a genuine snowboard and the boots to go with it. The board is waxed before every ride and the technique is the same as in snow. The sand there is beautiful, fine and homogeneous, albeit heavier and more resistant than powder snow. I enjoyed the runs a lot, much less the ascents, climbing up several hundred metres in boots that sank into the ever yielding sand, carrying board and helmet, while the sun was not only beating down but also bouncing off the slope.
Swakopmund also offers skydiving that can be put to eccentric use, like proposing by writing the fateful question into your palms and opening them to the camera that films your fall. You are certain to overwhelm your loved one, when she sees the video record of your stunt. I speak from experience because somebody was! We all were!
Another attraction is fishing off Swakopmund. However, if you should catch a good size fish and want to prepare a meal, take good care! Don’t throw a spanner, or rather a sharp knife, into the cogs of the trip!
We followed the coast south into the Namib Naukluft NP. As the sun tired over the flat land, shadows sprang up from the contours of rocks, branches, or clumps of grass, and tinkered with the colours of the day. We approached Mirabib. When driving around this lone giant lump, its massive shadow threatened to fuse our truck into its huge dark aura. We set up camp near an overhang of this “inselberg” and watched the sunset from its broad shoulder. Aeons of weather have but shaved off slivers of granite that lie there and would remain motionless if not touched by the feet of climbers like us.
We had to leave the following morning a lot earlier than planned. Preparing for dinner the fish he had caught, our driver had severed the tendon of a finger. We made a time-consuming detour to the hospital in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, a modern, bustling city. From now on, our driver would carry on with a sown-up hand and a partly immobilised arm.
At Sesriem we watched the sun set behind enormous dunes and got up after only a few hours’ sleep to arrive in time for the sunrise over Sossuvlei. The strenuous climb up a 200 - 300 m sand dune was worth the magic moments on top, as the red-orange-yellow glow of the day awaking behind curvaceous crests invaded the shadows of the night and chased them into the deep folds of the terrain. Later in the day, a tour operator herded us into a truck that lurched into the National Park. We jumped off at a “dead swamp” and climbed another enormous sand dune to soak up the sun and the exceptional views before returning to Sesriem. From there we proceeded to have a look at Duwisib castle, built by an eccentric German baron. It’s a baby castle but with a touch of class.
White glare surrounds the ghost town of Kolmanskop near Lüderitz. Set in undulating sand, it was only abandoned in the second half of the 20th century when the diamond mine it served ran out of its precious stones. The buildings are still intact enough to reflect the architecture and the spirit of the past.
Like Swakopmund, Lüderitz nestles around a natural harbour. From the “Felsenkirche”, the Church on the Rock, I had the impression of a European town, so out of place on this isolated curious site. The barren surroundings differ from those around Swakopmund only in that here they are white grey rock rather than the yellowish sand there.
One of Namibia’s wonders is Fish River Canyon. This 160 km long and 27 km wide gorge lures hikers with a five-day, 90 km endurance trail. Tempting as this may be, we had to opt for a less time-consuming activity. What better place for a sunset BBQ than the rim of the cliffs that drop abruptly 550 m into the canyon! Or was it? We shivered cooking and eating our dinner.
The next day we followed, at a respectful distance, the long gash in the table-like terrain, until the road wound us away and through hills of huge boulders and on towards the South African border. We crossed it at the Orange River. Near Springbok the country slowly turned green and farther south took on an almost European character. At a scenic lake in Clanwilliams we pitched our tents for the last time. From then on we would stay in hostels. We were nearing Capetown, our last destination, and would have reached it within a day, if not.., well, there was Stellenbosch. This lovely town is situated in attractive landscape with strangely shaped mountains embracing green valleys and neat villages. The wineries there are absolutely worth visiting, not only for tasting the excellent wines but also because of their beautiful buildings in Cape Dutch style and park-like surroundings.
Immediately after our arrival in Capetown we booked a trip to infamous Robben Island, originally a place for locking lepers away, later turned into a prison. Nelson Mandela had to spend the best years of his life here. My second visit was to Table Mountain. It bathed in brilliant sunshine when I boarded the gondolas which turn 360º on their steep flight up, revealing the breathtaking panorama of this great city. I walked all the way from one end of the “table” to the other, admiring the “fynbos”, as the unique flora there is called, and sampling the impressive views of the city, its surroundings and the entire peninsula reaching to the Cape of Good Hope.
I returned in the afternoon and it was Saturday. Then offices and shops have closed and the city centre is quite deserted. Having been warned about the risk of walking around at such a time with valuable items like my video camera, I decided to board a “topless” (roofless) bus for a sightseeing tour through and around the city.
From the high plateau close to the centre of the continent I had wended my way down to the Southern Ocean. So it seems fitting that I should finish my sightseeing in the excellent aquarium at Victoria & Alfred Wharf. I went in twice, the second time armed with my camera to film the colourful marine life and, last but not least, the feeding of the sharks.
Copyright © Joe Paul 2001
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