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A Penguin? In Africa?

What’s that? You didn’t know there were penguins in Africa? Neither did I.

On the way back to Cape Town from Cape Point we saw a sign indicating a Penguin Colony in Seaforth. Seaforth is part of a chain of beach-front towns on the Cape Peninsula facing False Bay. Seal Island, and a number of rocks jut out of the water just off-shore. The waters are home to penguins, cormorants, seals, and the occasional great white shark.

It was hard enough to believe that there are penguins in Africa, but Seaforth is home to a sizable colony of them. We never even made it to the colony before we’d bumped into this guy:

African Penguin

above: a penguin in Seaforth, South Africa

He waddled across the intersection in front of our bakkie, not a bother on him. He stood by this storm drain, and turned and cocked his head to get a better look at us. He acted like he owned the place. Standing there in his little tuxedo, I thought I detected a hint of disdain in his body language. I guess he wasn’t impressed by our shorts and sandals.

I wasn’t sure why this little water fowl was more out of place: because he was wearing a dinner jacket in a beach town, or because he’s a damn penguin in Africa.

At the Two Oceans aquarium in Cape Town, they’ve got a few pairs of penguins just like the one we saw.

African Penguin at Two Oceans Aquarium

above: African Penguin in Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium

They were also fascinating to see, but there’s something special about encountering such an incongruity in the “wild”.

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Land’s End: the Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

above: Cape Point (Diaz Point) 30 miles south of Cape Town

After leaving Muizenberg, we continued further south towards the Cape of Good Hope. There highway had ended, replaced by a two lane street that took us through a series of beach front towns. Backed up with beach traffic, we slowly cruised by restaurants, book stores, and endless beach-front bars. It was tempting to pull the bakkie over and have a sundowner, but we wanted to see Cape Point.

Leaving the towns behind us, the now lonely road ascended above False Bay around the rocky cliff side. I found it tough to concentrate on the road, as the views of the water were spectacular. We passed by rocky islands populated with penguins and cormorants; my wife scanned hopefully for more seals.

There was a line of cars to get into the the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Finally paying our entry fee, we crawled on the narrow winding road through the rich, green plant life towards Cape Point. Traffic backed up at one stage as a group of baboons had decided on a family gathering right in the middle of the road. Cars slowly drove around them, wheels on either side of the baboons griding dirt, rocks, and branches into the non-existent shoulder. Cameras clicked furiously and whirred furiously. I saw some of the most awful, hemorroidal baboon asses that I’ve ever seen. I cannot erase those nasty images.

 

Sighting the light house signified we’d arrived at Cape Point (also known as Diaz Point). Even though it was the end of the day it was still packed with buses, cars, and wandering tourists. Children screeched in delight seemingly from every direction.

The old light house stood at the top of a cliff, and the hike was a zig-zagging path interspersed with stairs. We met crowds of people coming down the steps. The tourists were a mix of Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Americans. It seemed like I had to stop every three minutes to take a picture for a Russian, Coloured, German, Afrikaans or African-American family. Fine with me, as each “interruption” allowed me to catch my breath.

Who could blame them for wanting photos? The scenery was spectacular: the greens of the park and the blues of the water enriched by the setting sun; the incredible distances playing tricks on our eyes, as the grand scale of the landscape reduced the cliffs and mountains in the distance to miniature.

Standing in front of the light house at the tip of that cliff meant the ocean (and the sheer drop to it) was on three sides of us. We were so high up that the water seemed placid. The breakers looked like an unmoving ridge of white snow or ice. You had to squint in concentration to see that it was actually movin, and actually quite rough.
Another trail wound around the cliff below the light house. From there, we could see a huge colony of cormorants. Leaning over the edge, we were blasted by an unrelenting wind. The cormorants expended little effort to ride these updrafts around and above us.

The path was devoid of people when we began walking back to the parking lot. The temperature was dropping a notch with each new gust of wind. When we got back to the car park, ours was the last vehicle remaining.

It was time for that sundowner.

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Luderitz, Namibia: Fossilized Colonialism

Namibia Road Trip – Days #8 and 9: Luderitz

Luderitz Bucht

Luderitz Harbor – note the Germanic weather vane

Luderitz surprised almost as much as Swakopmund did, but for converse reasons. Whereas Swakopmund surprised me with its dominant German culture, Luderitz surprised me for its lack thereof.

I mean just look at the name: Luderitz. Can you get any more German than that? A look at a street map and all the names were German. I even found a Goeringstrasse! (Although I learned after we’d departed that this street fortunately referred to a former Commissioner of Southwest Africa, and not the mad Chief of Hitler’s Air Forces.) Naming a street after the prominent Nazi was such an act of defiance I simply assumed that Ludertiz would absolutely totally overshadow Swakopmund with its Teutonic swagger.

Wrong again.

The road to Luderitz was yet another strip of bulky black asphalt laid across a strip of lifeless white. To one side was the Namib Desert, to the other, the Restricted Diamond Area (“Sperrgebiet”). The only sign of life was the occasional ostrich or wild horse. The desert disappeared and the road then wound its way through a craggy, harsh terrain. The asphalt disappeared under skeins of sand slithering across the road. Strong gusts of wind beat at our truck. I could best compare the site to a harsh moon, or better yet, the lifeless planet LV-426 from my favorite flick. I know it sounds overly dramatic (or nerdy) to compare an African climate to a science fiction film, but I’m absolutely on the level when I say it was the spitting image, right down to the howling winds.

Rather than arriving at well manicured homes as in Swakopmund, we drove past a township situated on a barren hill. There were no municipal gardens, no orderly grid of streets. Unlike the Swakopmunders, the Luderitzers had never never been able to beat the grounds into a with the sense of order I’m sure they desired. Rough moon rock jutted out everywhere, reminding the locals just how tenuous a grip their civilization had there.

Luderitz slum

A not-so-Tuetonic Luderitz

Our accommodation was a German guest house. We navigated through sand streets (no paving here) and found the home ensconced behind high walls capped with cast iron fencing crowned with spikes. On all sides were “non-German” residents who didn’t bother with such extreme security measures (although they all had bars on their windows too).

Our host was a real, fifth generation Suedwester originally from Windhoek. He was a jovial chap and quite comfortable conversing in German (accent-free, of course), Afrikaans, or English. His wife greeted us in German; she spoke little English and no Afrikaans. (She was actually a German immigrant.) I couldn’t imagine how solitary her life was being unable to speak to anyone outside of their little enclave.

As if to underscore her solitude and helplessness, the neighbors across the street began to blast some awful Whitney Houston music from a parked car. I could see in her eyes the desire to whip out her Gesetzbuch and lob it across the street. But she had no power there. They had no power there.

Hard to believe that a steamship company once ran a regular route between Hamburg and Luderitz.

“Ja, it’s the end of the month,” she lamented, “and they tend to get very rowdy. You must be very careful if you plan on walking around tonight.”

They?

Our expectations of an orderly and Germanic Luderitz were further shattered when we visited the supermarket the next day. Back in Swakopmund, their Super Spar was as big as any supermarket in the US; the sparkling aisles in could easily accommodate three carts side-by-side piloted by enormously posteriored housewives – without their sweatpants even brushing. Swakopmund even featured a bakery, deli counter, butcher, and snack bar.

The Spar in downtown Luderitz was tiny. Sickly fluorescent bulbs flickered above us as I pushed my creaky cart over bumpy and ripped linoleum. The narrow aisles were crowded with shoppers. Instead of a deli counter, they had only N$ 5 heads of lettuce still covered in dirt and wormy tomatoes. Men stood idle outside.

I did meet a few German Luderitzers the next day, but never on the street. They were all like my German hostess: waiting behind their walls and watching German television on the satellite. Waiting to hand over the rest of the city to the native sons.

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Sosussvlei, Namibia: Tranquility at Last!

Namibia Road Trip – Day #7: Sosussvlei

Oryx at Sosussvlei

Above: a lone Oryx wanders across the dunes of Sosussvlei

We got underway early that afternoon, following a snaking asphalt strip due West into the Namib towards Sosussvlei. Our 4×4 bakkie was shoved violently across the road as we fought our way through a sandstorm. When we broke through the opaque cloud of dust, my jaw dropped…

I’d already been in Namibia a week, but the scope and scale of the landscape still blew my mind every damn day. Prior to the sand storm, the mountains had been steel gray or a classic tan speckled with scrub brush (think of those classic, washed out “African safari” photos from vintage issues of National Geographic from the 1960s that you leafed through when visiting Grandma). Now coming out of the sand storm, we were on a chalk-white plain, and the gray and tan peaks had been replaced by fossilized dunes of a deep cinnamon color. As we continued further west, the fossilized dunes were replaced by real ones.

The plain we were on opened up, extending half a mile to the left and right of us. On either side, the plain terminating abruptly at the base of the encroaching desert. Sand dunes towered ten stories high, the sand’s apricot color contrasting dramatically with the dried out white clay. This corridor west really played tricks on our sense of scale and distance, and I was about to learn a very hard lesson.

We pulled over at a site called Dune 45, which is famous for its sunrise and sunset photo opportunities. Dune 45 didn’t look that big from the car, even after I drove to the base of it.

I decided to climb it.

Ten minutes into my little stroll I was gasping for air and my calves were burning as the lactic acid began to build up in them. My route was a simple one: I followed the razor-like ridge the that separated the windward and leeward sides of the dune. I’d begun my climb at a casual walk, but as the angle rapidly steepened, my feet began to sink rapidly into the sand. I pushed harder and harder. Every step required more effort.

The sand was clearly a curse and at the same time, a bit of a blessing. It anchored me securely to the windward side of the dune. I looked over the razor’s edge, and the leeward side of the dune seemed like a straight, thirty-story drop from where I was standing. (Even though it really wasn’t.) Powerful winds shoved me, and I was thankful that my legs had disappeared into the dune.

Getting to the very top of Dune 45 was hardly motivating. The higher I got, the more dunes I saw. Unlike a mountain climb, where you achieve a sense of reward and finality when you reach the top, reaching the top of Dune 45 simply showed me that there were a thousand more dunes just like it.

As the wind continued its ferocious howling, I carefully twisted myself around to see the path I’d taken. The winds had already erased my footprints. Only the regular occurrence of depressions in the sand gave any hint that a living things had been there. A few more minutes and even those remnants of my trail would be gone too.

I felt insignificant.

As my feet sank deeper into the dune, plates of sand on the leeward side broke off and slid down. The plates would then break up and “liquify” before grinding to a halt. It was fascinating watching sand behave like a liquid, but also horrifying. I was now ten stories up. What if a bigger chunk of the dune broke off? I made a mental tick in the box next to “Climb Dune 45 at Sosussvlei” and got the hell out of there.

I slept like a baby that night. It helped that my fellow countrymen were gone, as were the other boisterous guests from the night before. (See “My Fellow Americans Abroad: Please Shut the F*ck UP!”) I was ready for the bat-eared foxes as well. As soon as they approached the campsite (around 9 pm), I zapped them in the eyes with my 1 million candlepower spotlight that came with my bakkie. They were easy to spot in the full moon, and using the powerful beam, I corralled three of them into the high grass beyond the edge of the settlement.

Three pairs of glowing yellow eyes peered warily into the intrusive spotlight. They never did enter the camp that night, but I could hear their yelps and howls of frustration carried across to us by the desert wind.

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Driving in Namibia, Part III: Travels Through Surreality

Namibia Road Trip – Day #5: Twyfelfontein to Swakopmund

On the road again

The landscape around Twyfelfontein was punctuated by mesas, small peaks, and curious piles of red or chocolate boulders, each stone as big as our truck. Some mounds were only 30 feet high, others towered far higher; it was as if a child god wanting to build sandcastles had packed a giant sand pail full with the boulders and slammed it down into the earth leaving a perfectly formed outpost of red stone on a dusty plain of yellow.

We went from the rich red mountains and dust of Twyfelfontein straight yellow rolling hills garnished with scrub brush. The yellow sands became golden, dotted with trees, shrubs, and the occasional ostrich. The hills became jagged brown rock and winding passes once again. In 115 F degree heat, we passed Herero women in full traditional dress (a kind of African take on the Victorian formal dress) selling crafts by the road side.

The road traced a path between what became mountains. The gravel strip that passed for a road became wider, and traced a wide path around the massive peak of Brandberg. a massive red peak that topped out at over 2,500 meters. We drove towards it for nearly an hour before I realized it would be another hour before we would get close to it. I felt like a explorer on Mars, approaching Olympus Mons on foot. It was humbling.

We left Brandberg behind as we passed the by town of Uis, where we were then spat out onto white sand flats. The gravel road was perfectly straight for over 60 miles. White sand flats were in every direction, and we passed no one. If you broke down out here, you were in a world of shit, for sure.

In a World of Shit

The white flats gave way to classic sand box-type sand, and eventually undulating dunes made of sand so fine it was like dust. It reminded me of a beach. Good thing, as in a sense, it was a beach. The huge blue mirage rippling in the heat ahead of us wasn’t a mirage at all, but the Atlantic Ocean. The gravel road we’d been travelling on turned into asphalt for a few feet before we came to a T intersection with the C34. We took a left and headed south towards Swakopmund.

The C34 is a strip of undulating, unmarked black asphalt lain across the dunes. It divides the Atlantic Ocean (and its spacious beach front) from a hundred miles of harsh desert. The asphalt stuck out against the brilliant yellow, but occasionally disappeared under skeins of sand carried by the unrelenting wind. As the asphalt road carried over an impossibly high dune, we could see for what seemed to be hundreds of miles in every direction, the space around us divided cleanly and concisely by the ocean, the road, and the horizon. The sand had an almost artificial tint to it. It was almost too yellow.

That high up, I felt like a tiny particle on a political map of Namibia, the entire country inked in this canary yellow. No doubt, South Africa was hued in Pink and neighboring Zaire in light green. In my imagination, we crawled slowly across the map, and I could make out the N, A, and M painted in black ink to the left of us; the I, B, I, A were just over the horizon.

There was no civilization for miles apart from the occasional bakkie carrying surf fishermen to their favorite spot.

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Etosha National Park: Desolation and Intimacy

Namibia Road Trip – Days #3 – 4: Etosha National Park

Zebras at Etosha

Etosha’s primary geographical feature is the vast Etosha Pan lake bed and the white sand desert that surrounds it. Despite its vast size (over 150 miles across), it is possible to see a lot of the park in a day. In this apparently lifeless desert, animals never wander aimlessly, but deliberately from one watering hole to the next. If you stake out a watering hole, you’re practically guaranteed incredible sites and photographic opportunities. Clear blue skies, and the heat and mirages rippling off of the flat white sands made for some dramatic shots as well. Etosha delivers, dammit.

Each rest camp in Etosha was situated next to a watering hole. This meant we never had to go out on an evening wildlife safari; when the sun went down, the wildlife came to us. The biggest rest camps at Etosha are actually former German military watering posts (“Wasserstellen”), as once the Schutztruppen got beyond the embryonic rail system, they had to continue on horseback from one water post to the next. Today, the watering holes have been given back to the wildlife, and the camps re-developed around them. The watering holes are floodlit, and benches are provided for guest. The animals are indeed separated from the rest camps by Jurassic Park-style barricades, but we were close. Damn close. We had ringside seats every evening. (I  did hear one unconfirmed story about a guy getting eaten by lions after falling asleep on the benches. I could see how it was possible, as a nimble lion could scale the stakes right up, but – again – this story is not confirmed.)

We sat there quietly with other guests, nursing a coffee or beer, and waited. The lighting is good enough that you don’t miss a thing (although the conditions were still not great for cameras or video). In no particular order, we saw zebras, lions, black rhinos, jackals, giraffes, springbok, and a lone hyena (although we heard more in the distance). The lions we saw were actually a mating pair, and they coupled briefly and violently for our edification before disappearing into the darkness.

The black rhinos kept us on the edge of our seats. Blind as bats, and more aggro than a group of drunken Italian football fans, the rhinos charged the lions and each other. As two rhinos were facing off, one of them bellowed with frustration. Its howl sounded somehow inorganic, like a cruise ship, a steam locomotive whistle, and five Mack trucks all sounding off at once; it made my hair stand on end. Following that primordial clarion call, any guests not already at the watering hole already scrambled from their camp sites to the barricade to see what was happening.

In our 40-odd hours in Etosha (one day and two nights), we saw more animals than in four full days in and around Kruger Park. Granted, the flora and consequently, the fauna of the two parks are not identical (e.g., there are no Water Buffalo, Hippos, or crocs in Etosha because it’s so dry), so the two parks are probably not worth comparing. If I had to choose, I suppose I’d have to go with Kruger Park, as it truly is the Mother of All Safari Parks, with a wider variety of animals and terrain.

African Elephant

Objects in Mirror are Closer than they Appear…

That being said, I loved the desolation and intimacy of Etosha. We rarely saw another vehicle except at the most popular watering holes (and even then only one or two other vehicles, max). I never got tired of seeing the same species again; even if it was my 100th Burchell’s Zebra of the day, I was still enraptured.

I think part of my enthrallment was due to the fact that we were seeing things that no one else would ever see. Sure, other visitors would see flavors of what we saw, but never in the exact same thing. The animals would never interact with them they way they interacted with us. It was a kind of intimacy, I suppose, and that feeling will stay with me forever.

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