Some locations are special because of the beautiful landscapes or the vibrant cultures found there. Other places are extra special due to the unforgettable people you met while visiting there. On rare occasions you can experience all of this together in one place. Namibia was one of those places.
When I think of Namibia, I can never just think about a sparsely inhabited desert country in the Southwest of Africa. Any time I think of Namibia I have to think about Portugal, The Netherlands, England, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Ireland, and even Zimbabwe. Why is that? Sure, some of those places had an influence on Namibia in the past, but the reason is much more than that. I happened to share my Namibia experience with a special group of people from those far away places.
As I sat in my hot tub on a mid-January day this year in Central Oregon, the temperature was an unseasonably warm 50F that afternoon. The snows of early January had already melted. I hiked 11 miles in the desert that day, through sage, juniper, rabbitbrush and bitterbrush. I saw no other human the whole time I was hiking. I can’t be in a desert without thinking about one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world, the desert country of Namibia. And then my thoughts drift to the people who shared that adventure with me.
That begs the question…..”Does experiencing a dramatic landscape bring out the best in people?”
“Or does being surrounded by a stellar group of people enhance the interpretation of the landscape you are experiencing?”
Thinking about one’s Namibia experience will make you want to dance with joy! Just look below to see what happened to our driver Floyd, who was so happy to not be in Namibia with that OTHER group!
Only in Namibia could you see an elephant walking across a sand dune, or herds of exotic species of ungulates roaming over dry, sandy lake beds. Besides stunning desert scenery and abundant wildlife, Namibia also boasts a rich cultural history, from pictographs and rock art from ancient cultures, to towns with German colonial architecture which hints that a piece of Bavaria was plucked out of Europe and placed in a desert landscape. Diamonds are mined here, and Namibia is the only place in the world where several plant and animal species can be found.
Before I sat in the hot tub on that night in January, I checked the weather in Windhoek and Swakopmund, two places in Namibia. Windhoek’s high was 84F and the low was 63F. Swakopmund had a high of 71F and a low of 69. Both places reported showers, which is the time of year that the Inter-tropical convergence zone dips briefly into those latitudes during their summer. Melbourne, Australia, which is also experiencing summer in January reported a high of 87F under clear skies. It was clear and 48 in Lisbon. Amsterdam, Dublin and London had showers, but higher than normal temps for the Northern Winter. Both Seoul, South Korea and Kiel, Germany had clear skies with the coldest temperatures—lows in the mid teens to mid twenties. These are the places where my fellow travelers on my Namibia trip presently live. Now that I gathered meteorological data on cities where my fellow travelers live, I am free to open the cover of the hot tub and dream of Namibia and reminisce on that special trip.
We started as a group of unrelated foreigners choosing a three-week group camping excursion starting in Cape Town, South Africa and traveling through Namibia to Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was the first African experience for most of us. We chose a group camping excursion mostly for economic reasons and most of us were unsure of how the group dynamics would turn out. Our tour company, Nomad Adventures, was a South African based company, and our driver and guide were Zimbabwean nationals. It took just a few hundred miles and a couple of shared experiences to bring such a diverse group of people closer together.
At one of our first stops in the northern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa (RSA), we participated in a Braai, a South African style barbecue. Afterwards, we sat in a circle around a fire and introduced ourselves to one another. Ages ranged from late teens, twenties, forties, to those in their fifties. Beth and I were the lone Americans and the oldest in our early sixties. It was quite a diverse group. Although English was not the first language of many in the group, everyone had enough fluency in English to communicate with one another.
On the long road journeys on the truck, we heard conversations in Dutch, Portuguese, German, and various dialects of English. Each of us had a locker for our personal items at the rear of the seating area of the truck, which had a capacity to carry 24 passengers. Tents and sleeping pads provided by the company were housed either at the rear of the truck or in an outside compartment on the right side of the vehicle. Kitchen stuff was stored in an outside compartment on the left side. All of us were expected to work together setting up and breaking down camp each day, as well as performing KP duty. This helped us bond together. Although we always sat with the same riding partner, each day we all rotated clockwise to the next seating position. Whoever was sitting in the last two seats every day ended up being responsible for keeping the inside of the truck clean and tidy. This not only spread the cleaning duty equally to each of us, but it also made each person more cognizant of their own contribution to a messy environment. We all started to kick the desert dust off of our shoes each time we entered back into the truck. It also allowed for everyone to experience different vantage points from which to view the passing landscape as we toured the area.
When we set up tents for the night, we pitched them right next to each other, like you would see in a refugee camp. In effect, we were refugees from four different continents all huddled together for safety in a land that was both wondrous and strange at the same time to all of us. On the banks of the Orange River on our last night in RSA, I got to know two of the German travelers whose tent was pitched next to hours. We gazed at the beautiful sunset setting over the mountains of southern Namibia across the river. The Orange River would be the last perennial stream we would see for a couple of weeks. When I close my eyes, I can immediately transport myself back to that exact moment in time.
Each travel day around lunchtime, our guides would find a nice area to stop by the roadside. Everyone pitched in for meal prep. Camaraderie was born out of this time of working together.
Once we prepped the meals, we formed a line for the buffet and then sat in a circle. After breaking bread together, we would chat with each other and then clean the dishes and stow away the gear and the food.
Working together and sharing meals was nice, but it was really the shared experiences that brought us closer together. Occasionally someone would opt out of a scheduled group excursion, but more often we did things together. I stayed behind one evening to wash clothes in camp and relax, while the rest of the group went on an evening drive. I enjoyed the peaceful tranquility of the desert, while they spotted groups of springbok and zebra. One other time I chose not to pay extra to go sand boarding down the dunes near Swakopmund, as I let the younger folk bond together.
But there were a few excursions we took together that really stand out as tightening our bond through shared experiences. I fondly remember an early morning hike on Dune 45 in Namib-Naukluft National Park. We woke up before dawn and boarded our truck and queued in line with trucks and vans from other companies at the gate to the national park. Dune 45 is one of the highest dunes in the park and the only one permitted for visitors to hike on. Our driver floored the gas pedal and we raced to be one of the first groups to arrive at the foot of the giant dune. We all cheered him on with race fever and felt like Mad Max being chased through the desert. Actually, Namibia was one of the filming locations for those post-apocalyptic desert wastelands in that movie series.
We took off our boots and shoes and trudged up the steep dune face in the early morning light. The sand was tarsal-chilling cold, but who cared? We made good time to the top as our hearts were beating as fast of a hummingbird’s due to the aerobic workout. From our perch atop the dune, we were free to survey the Mars-like landscape and then watch the sun rise over the Eastern horizon. As we slowly descended, the sun began to warm the sand. At the bottom, I glanced to my left to spot an ostrich streaking across the bottom of the dune. And the day was just getting started!
Later that day, we visited the Dead Vlei (the Dutch word for swamp) where shifting sand dunes cut off an ephemeral stream hundreds of years ago. The extremely arid environment has preserved the dead trees as if they were petrified. The scene is surreal, as if Salvador Dali himself would have created it. I saw another ostrich sprinting over the red sand, but by the time I readied the camera to document that moment, the bird had already disappeared.
One other moment that day brought me closer to my newfound friends. As the route to the Vlei was so sandy, the national park had to shuttle small numbers of tourists from the main road to the Vlei. Lines waiting for the shuttles were long. A group of Spanish tourists tried to cut in line and they pretended not to understand English, as our group scolded them. Since I used to live in Mexico, I started shouting at them in Spanish and shaming them for their bad behavior. Surprised by a foreigner scolding them in their native tongue, they hung their heads and finally moved to the end of the line.
From that incident, I immediately gained favor with two of the Portuguese ladies, as the two cultures who share the Iberian peninsula have tension between them. I apologized to the ladies that I did not also know their language, and admitted that Portuguese was not only a prettier language, but that the Portuguese people obviously had better manners. Of course they already knew that to be true.
We would spot wildlife while riding and staring out the windows of the truck. We developed signals and hand gestures to designate for each type of animal. One of my new favorite animals is the Oryx, also referred to as a Gemsbok. A member of the antelope family, the Oryx has striking black and white facial markings and extremely long, straight horns. The picture below shows the group using our signal that an Oryx has been spotted.
Another memorable moment from that trip was the stop at the Tropic of Capricorn to take some photos. A feeling of gratitude for latitude came over me and I put a lip lock on my wife of 25 years. The group hooted and hollered to see that two old people could still have sexual attraction for one another!
Early this February we broke a record for a high temperature for that time of year here in Oregon, with the mercury nearly hitting 70 degrees. I checked the weather in other parts of the world. It was only a few degrees warmer that day in Melbourne, where it is actually SUMMER. It was a frosty low of 4 degrees in Kiel, Germany. It was raining in the desert in Namibia, with Windhoek reporting a high of 79. “How are my trip companions doing?”, I wondered.
You really haven’t fully experienced how spectacular a sunset can be until you’ve seen some from the southern parts of Africa. Add those to an active group excursion paddling the Okavango delta in Botswana, and you will cherish a memory that will be with you until you draw your last breath!
Traveling by Mokoro through the Okavango was so magical that you wanted to do it again the next day. But be sure to stay in water shallow enough so that you won’t be surprised by an angry hippo surfacing below you boat!
Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is another must see place. It is hard to believe that such a bleak looking landscape with little vegetation can support such large numbers of wildlife.
You might even be lucky enough to spot a leopard close up. The shot below did not need a zoom lens, as the leopard walked right up to the truck we were in. We gently opened the window just enough to shoot the camera without opening it enough to have the leopard jump at us.
Traveling through the scrub forest of Acacia trees, we would see giraffe heads poking up out of the forest. It reminded us of the movie Jurassic Park, where Brontosaurus heads poked through forest canopies. We named this area of Etosha “Giraffic Park.”
The campgrounds in the park have chain link fences around them. Not only does this prevent campers from being eaten, but stadium seating on the human side of the fence allows for excellent viewing of wildlife around the water hole just outside of the camp. However, seeing an elephant getting an erection can really make a human feel quite inadequate! It was equally interesting to be near the waterhole at night listening to the animal sounds of all sorts of species.
In late February we finally had a cold winter’s day in Oregon. That night it snowed and the temps dropped down to the single digits (in Fahrenheit!) Only my colleague from Seoul had a colder night than I had. Besides researching meteorological data around the world, I focused on current events. Covid case counts are finally on the decline here in the USA. Russia is amassing troops on their border with Ukraine. They also had troops staged in Belarus. Europe was concerned, but nothing had happened yet. My thoughts drifted southward to Namibia and the Tropic of Capricorn.
The first day of Spring brought cold temps and some rain here. I had just changed the water in the hot tub and wanted to soak, but had to stay inside. I’m thinking of Namibia again. But when thinking about my travel buddies around the world, I am now thinking about more than the weather they are experiencing. While the cases of the Omicron variant are on the decline here and mask mandates are being relaxed, other parts of the world have rising case numbers. Namibia and most all Sub-Saharan countries have appallingly low vaccination rates. South Africa was just beginning to reopen to tourism after being shut down for much of the Covid surge. The last year must have been hard economically for the guides on our trip. More concerning than that is the worry of the horrible war in Ukraine spreading to other parts of Europe. Putin’s war is on the doorstep of my friends in other parts of that continent. Refugees from that war are relocating throughout Europe. Fuel costs and inflation are very high there due to Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. How will the loss of Ukranian wheat harvests affect food scarcity in Sub-Saharan Africa? When thinking of Namibia now, these thoughts come to mind.
Our Portuguese friends left the tour in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. We still retained the bulk of our group for the remainder of the trip through Botswana and onto Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Other tourists occupied their seats on the truck, but in no way could they replace them. We still had many memorable experiences together, such as hiking with warthogs near Victoria Falls, and walking past a hippo grazing outside of our restaurant in downtown Vic Falls. Beth and I walked across the friendship bridge with three of our fellow Dutch travelers to film them bungee jumping from the high bridge. They were grateful to have someone to film their daring dives and we were glad to be able to live vicariously through them and not have to jump ourselves!
I had two questions at the beginning of this story. To respond to them, I think that any Namibia experience would be worthwhile, even if you did it alone. I also think that a trip anywhere with this same group would be a success. That still doesn’t answer the question as to which is more important…..the people or the land.
Let’s assume that there exists a symbiotic relationship between the two. Stunningly beautiful unique landscapes may bring out the best in people. And sharing an experience with beautiful people may enhance your perception of a landscape. Also, being with people of different cultures allow one to see the experience from a multitude of perspectives. When you have all of that at the same time, you are indeed fortunate to have made such an unforgettable experience.
Maybe our Namibia experience could serve as a model for the United Nations. Maybe that global organization should reconsider holding their meetings in a building on the east side of Manhattan in New York City. Instead, have them all take a group camping trip together through Namibia. Have them share a unique experience together where they help each other set up tents; where they prep meals together; where they feel joy together. I wonder what the world might look like after that.
At the very least, I will try to comport myself on any future trip with the Namibia experience as my guide, and hope to become part of a community wherever I go.