Monday, July 30, 2012

Namibia: Land of Sand and Diamonds

"Namib" means "vast place," and the desert lands of Namibia really puts the "namib" in Namibia.  We spent a week exploring Namibia, visiting the oldest and tallest sand dunes in the world, some of the richest diamond fields in the world, and lots and lots of vast, empty spaces.

Much of Namibia's rugged coastline is officially known as the "Skeleton Coast" because of the multitude of shipwrecks which have occurred there.  The local Bushmen call the coast, "The Land God Made in Anger," while Portuguese sailors referred to the coast as "The Gates of Hell."  Despite all of these scary names, we chose to begin our exploration of southern Namibia by driving to this coast, where ancient sand dunes meet the jagged coral, perpetually stormy seas, and frequently foggy skies.

 Above are photos of a ship-wreck visible from the coast.  Below is a reenactment of what I imagine a sailor might say upon seeing the shipwreck.

We visited the coastal town of Swakopmund, which began as a German colonial port town in 1892 and now is a resort town, which at the time of our visit was the home of Academy Award winning actress Charlize Theron.

Most of the buildings in Swakopmund are German colonial buildings, and most of the food served in the restaurants are standard Western fare aimed at tourists.  It doesn't feel much like the Africa people imagine, but I admit it was nice to eat a good pizza.

 An hour south of Swakopmund lies the largest salt fields in Africa, as seen in the photos above.  Each year 24 million tons of sea water is channeled into the salt fields, where evaporation leaves 650,000 tons of salt for export.  The salt we were standing on looked dirty to me, but maybe that's what is called, "seasoned salt."

Just north of the salt fields are natural lagoons filled with flamingos.

After a few days in Swakopmund, we hopped in our rental car and headed out to the barren Namib Desert.

I could fill an entire post with photos of the vast stretches of emptiness we encountered during our days of driving along the unpaved roads in the Namib Desert.  According to Wikipedia, Namibia is one of the least densely-populated nations on Earth--and if you drive around the country for a week, you won't need to look at Wikipedia to tell you that.  Below is a short video which gives you an idea of what it was like.
Where did we eat meals or use the bathroom during our days of driving through the desert?  See the photos below.

The last photo above shows one of my attempts to cover myself from the merciless glare of the sun.  I'm hoping this photo starts a fashion trend of people trying to emulate my "fleece-on-floppy-hat while wearing earbuds and eating imitation Cheetos" look.

You may have noticed that our car is a compact two-wheel drive vehicle which is poorly suited to the rough gravel roads of Namibia.  (Outside of towns, Namibia has very few paved roads.)  We had tire issues that required professional assistance twice during our week-long drive through Namibia.  Thankfully, we noticed our tire problems while we were refueling in civilization (which is a relative term in rural Namibia).  We signed up for the tire insurance plan with the car rental company, which turned out to be a wise decision.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why we would subject ourselves to a week of long, bumpy, desert drives.  One major reason was to witness the tallest sand dunes in the world.  The two above photos give a sense of the magnitude of these dunes.  Notice how the dunes tower over the full-grown trees and parked cars at the base of the dunes.  In the bottom photo, some people are visible climbing up the ridge of the dune.  Apparently, one of the ways scientists can date a sand dune is by the color of the sand.  The more reddish-orange the sand, the older the dune.  These are the oldest dunes in the world.

We climbed a slightly younger and shorter sand dune near Walvis Bay in Namibia.  In the first photo above, Beth is visible near the bottom of the photo (which is really above the mid-point of the dune).  Below is a short video of Nick and I climbing the dune.

The above photos show Shane and me standing atop the dune, trying to avoid swallowing the swirling sand.

Above is a video of me galloping down the dune.  Like many things in life, it takes longer to climb to the top than it does to fall to the bottom.

 We embarked on a hike through the Namib Desert to Deadvlei, which means "dead marsh" in Afrikaans.

Deadvlei is a dried clay pan surrounded by some of the tallest sand dunes in the world, the highest reaching 1200 feet tall.  This once was a marshy area where camel thorn trees grew.  Then a drought hit, and the trees withered and died about 900 years ago, leaving the dried tree remains which stand today.  Notice the moon which is visible in the second photo above.

The surrealistic landscape of Deadvlei exerts a strong pull on people to pose for photos, and we were unable to resist, as shown above.

We next traveled to the German colonial town of Luderitz, which is full of German art nouveau architecture from the early 1900's.  Given all of the German architecture, pubs, bakeries and sausage stores, this town seemed to belong more to Bavaria than to Africa.  Above is a video of our "hotel," which really was a sparsely-furnished 1910 house with appliances that belonged in a museum.  The proprietors of the hotel stopped by once a day for five minutes to ask how we were doing, but otherwise, we were left alone in the large house.  At least it was our least expensive hotel in Namibia.  
Probably the most common food we have seen throughout Namibia, Botswana and South Africa is a variant of beef jerky, which is called "biltong."  (Biltong differs from normal jerky in that vinegar and salt are used to cure the meat in biltong, but only salt is used in jerky.)  Above is a Shell ad showing biltong.  Below is a biltong shop in Luderitz.

 Above is Nick standing in front of the biltong section of a grocery store in Namibia.  Most grocery stores in southern Africa feature a similar array of cured and dried meats and game.  Among the types of meats we've seen made into biltong have been beef, ostrich, kudu, springbok, chicken, and even shark.  Biltong originated from the Afrikaaners, who traveled long distances through harsh country (such as is pictured above), and needed food which would not spoil.

Most of Namibia is a desert territory, with many dangers, such as poisonous snakes (a horned puff adder we saw outside a building near Luderitz is pictured above), high temperatures, little or no potable water, and a highly dangerous coastline.  So why would anyone bother to settle in such an area?  Scroll below for one answer.

Diamonds!  The desert areas of southern Namibia have produced over 100 million carats of high-quality diamonds, with more still being mined daily.  Many of these diamonds were simply lying in the sand, or buried just a few inches in the sand.  Apparently, at the time a rail worker accidentally discovered a diamond on the beach in 1908, thousands of diamonds were just lying on top of the sand, waiting to be collected.  This sparked a diamond rush, and by 1913, 20% of the world's diamonds were from Namibia.  By the way, in case you're wondering if I found an easy way to pay for this trip, that rock in my hand in the photo above is not a diamond ... at least as far as Namdeb Mining Corporation knows.

Although I did not steal a diamond in Namibia, many people have tried.  We toured a museum near Luderitz which chronicled the history of diamond mining, as well as diamond smuggling.  Apparently, De Beers and other corporations' efforts to prevent their miners from stealing diamonds led to advances in x-ray technology--the workers have always been strip-searched and x-rayed after each shift to make sure they haven't "misplaced" a diamond into any of their orifices.  Among the more creative ways workers have attempted to smuggle diamonds past the watchful eyes of corporate security guards is by training pigeons to fly the diamonds out of the diamonds fields, and by shooting arrows with diamonds attached over the diamond field fences in hopes of collecting the arrows later.

Diamonds may be forever, but diamond mining towns are not.  Above and below are some photos from the ghost town of Kolmanskop, near Luderitz.  This town sprang to life in the early 1900's when diamonds were discovered nearby.  By World War II, the town boasted a casino, bowling alley, large theatre and 250-bed hospital which featured the best x-ray machine in Africa (for security reasons more than health reasons).  By 1956, the diamonds had run out, and the town was abandoned for rich diamond fields elsewhere.  What remains is a deserted town left to the mercy of the shifting desert sands.

The Kolmanskop ghost town has been the setting for many movies, TV shows and photo shoots, and, like many before us, we could not resist the urge to fool around for the camera in this place, as seen below.  (Those are actual bathtubs which had been taken out of some of the houses by looters and left in the sands when they became too burdensome.)


Above is a video of Shane, Beth and I being silly.

Although we came to Kolmanskop to see a ghost town, we happened upon a school-group performing a concert in the old town theatre.  This provided us with a nice reminder that, while diamond mining towns like Kolmanskop are Namibia's past, people such as these children are Namibia's future.  And if these angelic-voiced kids are any indication, Namibia's future is bright.

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