JULY 16: SWAKUPMUND & TWYFELFONTEIN
satisfied at the previous day's welwichia watching, (or "velvitchia vatching," if you will -- namibia was once colonized by the germans), we finally got to an internet cafe that actually provided internet access, stocked up on water and snacks for the car, and headed towards twyfelfontein (which means doubtful spring, in case you were wondering.) but a few more words about swakupmund before we go:
imagine a german idea of an african beach town. now imagine the abandoned feeling of a beach town just about anywhere in the world in the off season. and then consider the fact that in this particular town, it can get hotter in the winter than in the summer. and so it was: sunny and quite hot, all the shops closed, hardly a person in sight. i saw a poster for the swakupmund high school production of grease...unfortunately i didn't get the chance to take it in. next time.
so off we were headed to tywfelfontein, the draw of which is the concentration of ancient rock engravings and paintings from as recently as 2000 years ago and as far back as 6000, with a lovely lodge near by. (in most of namibia, small enclaves arise at points of interest in what otherwise is the middle of nowhere. the staff often live on site, returning to their actual homes during the intervals between shifts often lasting a few months. namibia is a large country with a small population. people know one another here.) we drove north and inland, having skipped a diversion up the skeleton coast to see seals in order to give ourselves the much-needed gift of a short car ride for the day. (at this point we were nearly 2/3 of the through the country towards its northern border with angola.) we arrived early in the afternoon, just in time to rent some bicycles and ride out into the gorgeous landscape, grasses, sage colored shrubs and small mountains glowing in the low light, and then out to the gravel airstrip as the sun was setting. speaking of airstrips, i should mention that i hardly saw a plane overhead the entire trip through namibia. no contrails, no light pollution. just uninterrupted sky.
that night we signed up for a stargazing trip, where we drove out of range from the lights of the lodge equipped with a small telescope and a german astronomer with a thick accent and dubious credentials. if only i could do justice to the description of the sky. the milkyway stretched, clear as a bell, from one end of the horizon to the other. the only interference was the dust that ringed the horizon, remnants of that sand storm we had heard about earlier in the week. there were shooting stars less fleeting than languishing through space, then succumbing to the darkness. it was a gift of the sublime to be looking at that sky, though little realities creaped back in: it became cold and late, and a group of american retirees ostensibly also out to see the stars were tending more towards carrying on like teenagers. it was a good night, and we were getting up at 6am the next morning for a 3-hour sunrise hike.
JULY 17: TWYFELFONTEIN, THE PETRIFIED FOREST, & AN ORYX IN THE NIGHT
i awoke about 10 minutes before our sunrise hike was to begin, threw on my boots, and hurried over to the lodge to get a few precious sips of coffee before we set out. i had become used to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine, and had gone to sleep well past midnight. and if you know me you know how serious i am about my morning coffee. but i digress. we started up a steep and rocky incline, following our guide, thankful to be outside before the days heat took hold. rock paintings were on the route. it's still untouched enough in the area to imagine yourself standing in the same spot thousands of years earlier. i was glad to come in contact with some human elements from the same era as my subjects for my work, a longevity of another sort.
tywfelfontein itself has a visitor center, and guided informational tours are included with the small fee for admission. the site consists mostly of engravings as opposed to paintings, with local animals as almost exclusive subject matter. i found one of a lion with a hand at the end of its tail to be the most compelling, believed to have been created by a shaman. also of particular interest were some engravings of penguins and seals, a sign that they had travelled to the coast, though they read more as sketches done from memory than the confident renditions of more familiar giraffes and antelope.
it was at least 1pm as we completed the tour, sun high and very hot overhead, us having been swept into the walk without a chance to run back to the car for water or proper shoes. i was dehydrated (and apparently delirious, since at the time it seemed like a good idea to drink a pineapple fanta back at the visitors center. i quickly regained my senses and switched back to water.) there was a gift shop as well, filled with local crafts from a community job-building program, each individual item sweetly labeled with the name of the person who had made it. as we lingered, enjoying the shade and admiring the goods, some of the staff approached us and asked for a ride back to the local village. we ended up driving two women a few miles, a favor to them but really a tread for us as they spoke damara nama as we drove -- a wonderful language containing a number of different clicking sounds. (we tried a couple basics, my name is ____, thank you, etc, with little accuracy or hope of retention.) one of the women shared a story (in english) of how she had made a comment about a japanese man who had walked into the center -- "wow, he's tall!" she had exclaimed to one of her co-workers, only to have him retort, without a beat and in her own language, "you should be careful what you say!" she sticks to english now to avoid further embarrassment, though she was also impressed at how well and how quickly this stranger had learned her language.
next on the agenda: the petrified forest, though not before stopping in a ditch on the side of the road to make some sandwiches. we laughed as the dust from passing cars settled on the food and stuck to our hands, sticky with oranges and peanut butter. when we got the petrified forest we asked for the whirlwind tour: i was headachy and tired from the dehydration and lack of sleep, but i certainly didn't want to miss it. and i'm so glad we didn't. i was surprised to learn that the petrified trees are conifers -- incongruous in the desert as there isn't a living conifer in sight. but let's not forget the welwitchia! the following week, at ernst van jaarsfeld's office in kirstenbosch, the very first thing he did was show me a terribly familiar photo he had taken of a welwitchia -- a conifer -- growing at what would have been the crown of the largest of the petrified trees at this very site. what an energizing light of recognition.
so we had really packed in a lot of activity in the last 24 hours, and now we were in for a long drive to mt. etjo safari lodge. as the light crept towards dusk and then into darkness, the small roads got smaller and animals made themselves at home in harm's way. CM was behind the wheel, avoiding rabbits, steinbok, a large male kudu, guinea fowl, and horses. it was dark and getting late as we got closer to the lodge. i saw some eyes on the side of the road, figuring it was a grazing horse or donkey that was likely to stay put as we drove past. it turned out to be neither equine or sensible, but rather an oryx, huge and confused, bolting out in front of our car. i cried out to CM, who had not yet seen it, just in the nick of time, and she swerved and braked us to safety.
shaken and tired, we made it to the lodge, through the security gate (the one that keeps the animals in), and checked in for the night.
the quirks and charms of mt. etjo, a night in windhoek, and one last day in cape town.