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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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Cape Town: Surfing Near the Top of the Food Chain

I was desperate to try a bit of surfing in Cape Town. Naturally, there are loads of places trying to sell you package tours, but we simply jumped in our bakkie and headed south towards the Cape of Good Hope.

South of Cape Town is a peninsula made up primarily of two national parks (Table Mountain National Park and Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve) and a chain of resort towns on the eastern coast. We pulled into Muizenberg, a town on False Bay known for its surf schools. After parking and dutifully paying the guard to watch our vehicle, I walked into one of the surf schools to suss things out.

The shop was bustling with activity. There were at least two groups suiting up and another group peeling off their wet suits and hitting the showers. Loads of rental boards were stacked up against the walls. A row of wet suits stood stiffly at attention on their hangars next to me. I asked if I could jump in on one of the lessons.

“I dunno,” the little surfer girl behind the register wondered. “They’re kind of young kids in both groups? Let’s see if I can sort you out.” And off she went out of the shop.

After a minute, she walked back in the shop with a guy I’d seen sleeping on his board in front of the surf shop.

“This is Jonno,” the girl indicated. “He’ll be your instructor for the next 90 minutes.”

Jonno rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and then offered his hand. He was the typical “surfer dude” right down to the sun-bleached, unkempt hair, and shark tooth necklace. He had his wet suit half peeled off, and I guess we’d interrupted his attempt to remedy his wet suit tan.

“How’s it, broo,” he muttered. “We gotta wait a while, yeah?”

“Sure,” I replied. “But why?”

“There’s a great white shark in the water? Shouldn’t be long though? Maybe 20 minutes, yeah?”

I’m not sure if it was a surfer thing, or an Afrikaner thing, but everything he said came out as a question.

“Oookay. How do you know there’s a shark in the water?”

“Just watch the flagpole, yeah? When the big white flag with the big shark on it comes down, it’s safe, yeah?”

Muizenberg

above: a white flag keeps swimmers and surfers out of the waters of False Bay in Muizenberg

“Gotcha,” I replied, plunking down my 150 Rand. “See you in 20.”

We walked outside.

“You want to come surfing too?” I asked my wife.

“With a shark in the water? Are you nuts?”

“You don’t have to swim faster than the shark, only faster than one or two other kids in the water,” I argued.

“No thanks. I prefer to stay at the top of the food chain.”

“But we’re still near the top out there. Just not at the top.”

She was already walking off. “I’ll see you back here in two hours.”

Muizenberg’s boardwalk had a respectable number of cafés and restaurants, so I didn’t have to worry about her.

The Cape Town area is well known for its great white shark population and for some spectacular shark attacks. The Saffers have a pretty elaborate shark detection system made up of aircraft, look-out towers, and the flag system to warn swimmers and surfers.

“The sharks love the seals, yeah?” Jonno explained. “Seal island is just offshore, which is why they cruise by here as well looking for a meal.”

“Have you ever seen a shark?” I asked.

“Ya ya. Plenty. Not too close, though, yeah? My dad’s board got bumped once though. Bumped once, and then it took out another surf board right next to him.”

“Close call.”

“Ya ya.”

The Afrikaner accent is so cool.

Summer holidays had just begun, and the beaches were packed. (In fact that very day, standard testing grades were released for South African high school students (“matrics”) across the nation. How one did on this testing determined one’s future. Amazingly, those who test highest are honored on the front page, and even more incredible, those who did crappy were shamed – their names also appeared in the papers with their miserable test scores!) It looked like everyone had come to Muizenberg to blow off steam – no matter what their results had been.

We found a little patch of sand to call our own so I could get some instruction on how to stand up on the board once in the water. After 10 minutes or so, the white flag with the shark profile on it came down and was replaced by a red one.

“What does a red flag mean?”

“It means that there was a shark in the water, but he’s not around here now.”

“Oookay.”

“But it safe now, yeah?”

We hit the water…

To say the water was cold is an understatement. It was freezing. A few people were simply taking brief dips in swimming trunks, but anyone on a board was in a wet suit. The water was choppy, but with very few pronounced waves worth riding.

“There’s on off-shore breeze, yeah? That’s why the water is so sloppy?”

“Wind coming from land makes for better waves?”

“Ya ya. There’s an excellent on-shore breeze on the Atlantic side of the peninsula right now. Eight-foot waves, mate. Imagine that, yeah?” His eyes became dreamy.

Despite the sloppy waves, I did get up on the deck after one attempt. (Years of snowboarding helps.) I got up a few more times after that, but I was really plodding through the water. We waited, in hopes that conditions would improve, and killed time talking about music. He was impressed when I told I’d seen Rage Against the Machine when their first album came out.

“When was that?” He marveled.

“Must have been around 1993,” I re[;ied.

“Whoah.”

He gave me God-like status when I told him I’d seen Metallica with Guns ‘n Roses and Faith No More in a stadium gig.

“Whoah. When was that?”

“Must have been ’91? 1992?”

“Whoah. I didn’t now Metallica was so old, yeah?”

I blinked in surprise. Old? Well, that was 15 years ago I suppose, but still.

Then I realized he was giving me that look. It was that look I used to give guys who’d seen Led Zeppelin live. It was a type of admiration, but kind of mixed with a “way to go, old dude” mentality.

Damn.

Conditions in the water only got worse. We were getting drubbed by small waves, none of which were worth riding. The red flag came down, replaced now by a black one.

“What does that one mean?”

“That means that they can’t see anything, yeah? There’s a lot of sand in the water? Decreases visibility.”

“So, is that bad?” I struggled.

“No. S’alright, yeah? See that over there?” He pointed out to sea. Through the waves, I saw a few shaped bobbing in the water. “Any shark out here will go after the seals before they come after us, yeah?”

I tried my best to catch a few more waves before I ran out of gas. 90 minutes of up-and-down on the deck and I was beat.

We walked past the red flag back to the surf shop.

I shook hands with Jonno before parting. “You should come back, yeah? Now that I got my test results, I’m here every day. Should be better conditions tomorrow. And Metallica’s coming here soon, yeah? Keep an eye out for that.”

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When the “Haves” Outnumber the “Have Nots”

Namibia to South Africa Road Trip – Day #11 – Fish River Canyon to Springbok, South Africa

As we drove deeper into South Africa, the sand and gently rolling hills that defined Namibia steadily gave way to steep hills with jagged outcroppings.

We’d entered Namaqualand. Famous for its wildflowers this, apparent wasteland explodes with color during the Winter rains. Too bad we were in the midst of Summer. As we neared Springbok, the heather that covered these hillsides teased us with a hint of green.

No matter. Now that the “roughing it” part of the trip was at an end (i.e., we were done sleeping on a bakkie in a rooftop tent), we’d booked a 5-star guest house in Springbok and planned to enjoy a little luxury.

I suppose 2-stars would have been sufficient – hot water and a bed alone would have been “luxurious” after being perpetually caked in dust, but I wanted all the extras: I wanted a mint on the pillow. (I also wanted to be comfortable in the knowledge that even if I didn’t eat the mint, I didn’t have to worry about a Black-backed Jackal coming in the middle of the night and eating it along with my foot). And I wanted air conditioning!

This place delivered. After marveling at the flush toilet and hot water on-demand for a while, I did enjoy my mint, as well as a complimentary sherry. The property was way up in the hills above Voortrekkerstraat, and from the plunge pool we had a terrific view of the surrounding hills and good portion of Springbok itself.

It was heaven. And unlike other places we’d stayed in Southern Africa, we weren’t prisoners restricted to the walled-in property of the guest house.

Driving through Springbok’s serene suburban streets, I was immediately struck by the lack of security measures typical of most of South Africa. Where were the high walls with barbed wire? Where were the shotgun-toting guards? Where was the electrified fence? Why weren’t there bars on all the windows? How come no one even bothered with those “Armed Response” warning signs? Why does the guest house have a fat, lazy Persian rather than two guard dogs? How come I could walk to town safely?

“Oh, we don’t have those kind of problems here,” the proprietress of our guest house explained.

A walk through town the next morning was a real eye-opener. Doors to banks and shops constantly ingested and dispensed customers. Entire families plied the streets laden with shopping bags. We watched a band set up in front of a store and begin playing reggae. I guess it was part of a store promotion. Children begged and whined for ice cream as reggae sound waves reverberated off the store fronts on both sides of Voortrekkerstraat.

And there was a Super Spar! A wonderful, glorious, mega-sized Super Spar! I think it might have even been bigger than the one in Swakopmund. It was like shopping in an air-conditioned jumbo-jet hangar – quite a difference from our Spar-experience in Luderitz.

Despite all the warnings I’d been given about South Africa (and the conditioning that had been beaten into me by decades of city living), I felt quite relaxed in Springbok. My only question was, why?

The mines had closed in Springbok a few years previous. Tourism for the wildflowers allegedly hadn’t filled the economic gap left by the mine closures, but the social impact of any resultant economic downturn wasn’t readily apparent to me.

“It’s because the old regime is still in charge in Springbok,” one white woman explained to me with a smile.

“Uh-huh.” I tried not to roll my eyes.

From what I saw, the Haves clearly outnumbered the Have-Nots, at least in down town Springbok. The clear majority of the Haves were Coloured.

At the bank, every single teller was Coloured. Only the manager was white. Our waitress was Coloured. Only the manager was white. The cashiers in every store were Coloured. Here, the management seemed to be a mixed of Coloured and white. (In any case, the customers were 75% Coloured.)

Does a city having the vestiges of a middle-class somehow relate to being able to safely walk its streets day or night?

I’ve mentioned the whites and the Coloureds, but haven’t mentioned black South Africans. That’s because I didn’t see many. Apart from a few customers at the restaurant, the only “real” black South Africans I saw were the attendants at the gas stations, and chambermaids at our guest house – just like everywhere else in Southern Africa.

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Top Ten Reasons Border Crossings Really, REALLY Suck

Namibia to South Africa Road Trip – Day #11 – Fish River Canyon to Springbok, South Africa

We weren’t airborne for more than a fraction of a second, but it seemed an eternity. When we landed with a tremendous mechanical bang, I was sure the dashboard was going to break off into our laps. It didn’t. I pulled over and gave our bakkie a once-over. Everything was fine. I assumed the plates we had in the back of the truck were broken. They weren’t.

A storm had ripped through the area around Fish River Canyon two days previous. The torrential rains had taken a chunk of the road with it downstream, replacing it with soft sand. The only way across the four meter gap was to cross it with sufficient speed, else we’d risk getting stuck in the sand. The alternative was to backtrack 80 miles. That wasn’t gonna happen.

I guess I was little overzealous taking the truck to 45 miles per hour, but teh truck was fine. And jumping the wash meant we were on track to get to the border by lunchtime, and arrive in Springbok, South Africa by early afternoon. We were also good for fuel, (I’d already learned my lessons regarding money, gas, and water.) Things seemed to be going our way for once!

It made me nervous. Clearly, the other shoe was gonna drop when we got to the border crossing.

Whether it’s a couple of grumpy Albanians with AKs or even grumpier U.S. Customs officials with attitudes – I’ve had so many bad experiences at border checkpoints, I drop to the floor in spasms at the thought of going through another one…

Border crossings, airport arrivals, bus and train stations, they’re all disorienting environments, and they’re potentially packed with predators, and incompetent or petty officials that will make your life miserable to line their pockets, compensate for personal inadequacies, or just kill time. I went mentally went through the endless list of things that could go wrong at the border crossing, and distilled it down to my top ten biggest fears of what awaited us:

10. The “Official” Helper – This is either a well-dressed guy, or a real idiot who claims to be “from the tourism board” and he’s there to help you. These “Helpers”are usually easy to spot,;I heard a laughable story of a “Helper” at Jo’burg airport who had a piss-poor laminated ID tied around his neck with a shoelace. But I got suckered once recently in Istanbul airport. The guy wore a jacket and had a fantastically huge laminated ID. Instead of taking me to a taxi stand, he took me to one of the many shuttle bus services that charge just as much as a taxi – if not more.

9. Pickpockets – Self-explanatory really. Bastards.

8. Paperwork not in Order – Everyone’s worst nightmare. Of course, you never really know if you’re paperworks in order, do you? It all depends on the uniformed mofo in front of you. Ultimately, they’re the ones that decide if you have the correct papers or not. Will he or won’t he stamp your passport? Is your car really allowed in their country or not? Play the waiting game and find out. The good news is everything’s negotiable, even if your paperwork really isn’t in order. The bad news: Maybe you have to pay for an additional “entry visa” (see Number 3 below).

7. Gypsy Cab Drivers – the lowest of the low, and a global plague. Whether it’s Kennedy Airport or a bus depot in rural Bulgaria, they will gouge the hell out of you on price, and literally take you for a ride. And, you’ll never get the smell of Eastern European tobacco out of your clothing, or that annoying song with the sitar that was on the radio out of your head – ever again.

6. Hotel Touts – irritating scum that they are, they’ll will harass you, aggravate you, and lie to you in order to get you to follow them to their hotel. When my wife was just another annoying backpacker in Asia, one tout looked her right in the eye and told her the hotel she’d booked had burned down, and his hotel was better. The hotel she’d booked was right behind him. Naturally, the “great hotel” they bring you to is usually on the far side of the island or miles from the city center, wedged in between the slaughterhouse and a safe house for Chinese Triads. And they’ll want a tip for bringing you there.

5. The Search for Luggage – The frantic attempt to reunite yourself with your belongings after a long trip. I don’t care if your flying Coconut Airways or British Airways, it’s a real act of faith giving your luggage away and believing you’ll see it again. (As I wrote earlier, I’d sooner trust my luggage to Coconut Airways than BA anyway.) The search is even more stressful if it’s a bus station and you’re busy fighting off touts, cab drivers, (see above), or the “Bum Rush” (see below).

4. The Luggage Search – a uniformed customs official (usualy really fat, and sometimes in mirror shades) rips open your luggage in hopes of finding a brick of hash, guns, the Beatles’ White Album, or perhaps your underwear. You can only grin and bear it … and be glad the condom of uncut Afghan Horse is tucked safely in your rectum.

3. The special fee for the “Entry Visa” – this is the unexpected fee that gringos and other clueless tourists have to pay that wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook and nobody ever told you about before you left. Usually never more than a few dollars (although it’s $20 in Turkey!), you usually receive a useless scrap of paper as evidence (although in Costa Rica and Turkey I got cool colorful paper stamps put into my passport).

2. The “Exit Visa” – see “Entry Visa” above. What’s that? Don’t want to pay? Then you can hang out in the seedy airport/bus terminal/ train station until you to, beyotch!

1. The “Bum Rush” – Hundreds of years before Public Enemy coined the term, small-time hoods used this technique of rushing the dumb-ass traveler who’s just stepped off the train/bus/aircraft/ship into a completely alien environment. At that magic moment you step onto the train platform, or walk through the bus terminal, you are so damn vulnerable. At a border crossing from Guatemala into El Salvador once, I dropped a $5 bill after having to pay an “Entry Visa” (see above) – it was gone before it even hit the ground. The worst incident I ever heard was a friend of mine in Gare du Nord in Paris: a gypsy women threw her baby at him ,forcing him to catch it, then she and her three other children expertly rifled his pockets, snatched the baby back, and were gone before he even knew what had happened.

Seeing this was a remote border crossing, my biggest fears were #1 through #3. Of course, #9 was a legitimate worry as well. Due to my wife’s Passport Problems (her passport was only valid for another 90 days, when the Namibians required six months), I wondered if we wouldn’t have to play a very long waiting game in order to be allowed to leave Namibia. Additionally, the gal at the car rental office said we’d have to pay an additional $400 to enter South Africa with a rental car. So I approached the border post fearing the worst.

The Namibian border official barely looked up from his football magazine as we lined up with the other drivers and dutifully filled out the important looking scraps of paper, signed the clipboard, and received the exit stamp.

The South African side of the border was nearly a mile down the road, and far better organized than most countries. A friendly official greeted us in our language of choice at the border, and gave us a processing documenting with room for three stamps. At station one (immigration), we received our first stamp on the processing document, and an exit stamp in our passport.

No one asked for the $400 for the rental truck.

At station two (customs) we had nothing to declare, so we quickly got another stamp on our processing document.

No one asked for the $400.

Station three was the South African Police Service. We chatted for a good ten minutes after they’d entered my driver’s license information into the computer. We got a friendly “welcome to South Africa” from them and a stern “please drive carefully”.

They didn’t ask for the $400 rental car free either.

We walked back to the truck, and handed our completed process document to the border officer that originally greeted us. She dutifully made notes on her clipboard whilst eyeballing the license plate and the registration sticker.

“Okay, you can go. Have a nice day.” She smiled.

As we slowly cruised through the border station to freedom, my wife turned and ask me, “shouldn’t we have asked to pay?”

“Uhm, not so much.”

I’ll never know if we really had to pay that $400. Maybe the girls at the rental office were wrong. Ultimately, it always comes down to number #8 above.

And remember: Everything’s negotiable

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A Misanthrope’s Perfect Christmas Dinner

Namibia Road Trip Days # 9 – 10: Fish River Canyon

The engine of our truck protested loudly as I used second to negotiate Namibia’s steep drops and inclines. I swear that with every hill we conquered, the needle on the fuel gauge drop a few liters. (I didn’t complain though. At least the road was paved.) We hadn’t seen another car for over an hour, and following our bizarre experience at Gaogeb we were happy to get a little alone time.

Black storm clouds loomed on the horizon. We couldn’t tell if they were coming towards us or not. The asphalt ended near Seeheim, where we took a right turn on a dirt track heading due South. The black clouds were still there, but we could see the storm had already passed through the area. Huge puddles filled the road, and fast-flowing rapids carried detritus into the road or simply carried the road away, leaving ever deepening ditches for us to slam into. At one turn, we watched in amazement as a chunk of road (packed gravel and sand) at least 8-foot square broke off and was carried downstream.

The road actually traversed the railroad tracks at least three times, and wouldn’t you know it, just after our third crossing, we actually saw a train . It was the first one I’d seen after driving for days alongside the rails in Namibia. The train itself was bright red freight train with a few cars. It looked almost miniature given the scale of the landscape around it. (In fact, given the narrow gauge of the tracks, it most likely was smaller than an American locomotive.) I honked and waved, and got a toot and wave in return. Driving in Namibia can be tedious, and since the train could only crawl with so many ostriches, domestic cattle, and antelope crossing the tracks, the conductor’s eyeballs must have been bleeding with boredom.

I was getting antsy when I saw lightning in the side-view mirror. I wanted to get to our campsite by the Fish River Canyon and set up camp quickly before the heavens opened up again. It was tempting to really floor it on the straightaway, but that was an invitation for disaster. You had no visibility on the steep hills; hit a ditch or a kudu that “just appeared out of nowhere” at 60 miles per hour, and it would not end well.

Two more hairpin turns and we were on the home stretch heading West towards the Fish River Canyon. The camp was less than 20 kilometers away. And the lighting was gone, replaced by a spectacular double-rainbow:

 

Namibian Double-Rainbow

 

Things were looking up.

The Hobas Campsite was just inside the gate of Fish River Canyon park. The grounds were well kept and quite charming, but the bathrooms barely functioned and the plunge pool looked more like a swamp.An unexpected bonus was that there couldn’t have been a dozen other people on the campground.

 

The storm clouds were gone by nightfall, and the southern sky lit up at night with a brilliance I’d never seen before. Mars was a bright orange ball, part of a string of three planets across the sky. Orion’s stars were as brilliant as xenon bulbs. Clouds of stars were visible in the night sky.You could walk at night without a flashlight, as the moon and the planets illuminated everything.

Christmas dinner the next night was a bit non-traditional. We had only some sketchy frozen chicken parts I’d found in a broken down freezer at the Spar in Luderitz and some carrots and pumpkin. I spiced up the chicken with half a jar of peri-peri powder, some minced garlic, a bottle of vinaigrette, and half a block of cow feta had left over. The chicken did not look good, so I literally caked it in peri-peri , salt, and minced garlic, drowned it in vinagrette, and shoved the feta inside the skin.

Thank God for the little refrigerator in our truck. We drank a chilled a bottle of white wine from the little metal cups that came with the truck.

The chicken was brilliant. Maybe our expectations were low because it was chicken from a Luderitz Spar on a braai, but it was delicious. The pumpkin and carrots, however, totally sucked. We drowned them in butter and sugar, but they tasted like nothing more than lumps flavored with butter and sugar. I couldn’t understand why they sucked so bad. The fridge had broken down twice underway. The controls were no good (I accidentally froze everything solid) and the wiring for the fridge was loose (I had to rewire it twice underway). Maybe that was what killed the veggies. In any case, the chicken was great, the wine was great, the coffee was the best.

 

 

We had to pull on fleece tops when the wind dropped the temperature to the low 70’s. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest Internet connection, from the nearest ATM, from the nearest traffic jam. No traffic. No shopping pressure. Christmas television specials. No last-minute shopping. No driving through snow to and from the relatives. No drunken office Christmas party. No shoveling snow. No idiots crashing into me because they don’t know how to drive in the snow. And more than 12 hours of sunlight on Christmas. The wind blew out our candles around 10:00 pm. Had we been at home, we’d have left the dishes for the morning, but jackals, hyenas, leopards, etc. dictated we scrub it clean and button the truck up tight before getting into the tent.

 

 

We were in bed by 10:15 and awoke the next morning at around 5:45 am with the sun. We took our time getting ready that morning. I scratched in my notebook for hours while we nursed coffee. It would be another scorcher. At least 90 degrees. We wished a Merry Christmas to the few others that had camped out over the holiday. We all grinned knowingly in our shorts and t-shirts.

 

The perfect way to spend Christmas when you’re sick of Winter and sick of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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