Sunday, February 7, 2010

Drove from the capital of Windhoek south to Rosh Pinah, about 500 miles, all paved (more on pavement later). Crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and a sign for a Mosasaur fossil. Found out later that Namibia and Angola are full of fossils with big teeth. It’s an ocean fossil, though the central Namibian desert is estimated to have been a desert for the past 45-55 million years. Looks like only yesterday driving through it….

Rosh Pinah (Lat 27.96 Long 16.76) is almost to South Africa, the Karoo desert. Lots of interesting succulents which we must dig up and transplant if they are in the way. Hope my thumb is greener than usual, this is important stuff. They have been here a long time. I space on desert names – Karoo, Namib, Kalahari, Sonora, Basin and Range, outback, Atacama, Patagonia, Arctic (not much precip, thousands of years of water frozen in the tundra). Tried to update the facebook pushpin map app showing the places I’ve been. It wouldn’t take Rosh Pinah. Oh Well.

Also in Southern Namibia is the Diamond Area. So rich in diamonds people are prohibited from going to the area without a permit. Remind me again why diamonds are valuable? Oh yeah, because marketing makes them so. Every diamond ever cut is still in existence, so market it as a wedding item you must be buried with, that will take a few out of the supply.

We do our thing in Rosh Pinah, where I entertain the crews with pictures of Nevada and Arizona so much like Namibia in appearance they are swearing it is a picture from this or that project inserted to fool them. Great time for all. Rosh Pinah is probably about the size of Winnemucca, without the big hotel/casino downtown. We stay at a small lodge with nicely upgraded KOA-style camping cabins. Covered porch, Sliding glass doors, two beds and shelves, LCD tv with sports (every hotel in Africa seems able to receive 4 sports channels minimum, along with CNN and Sky news), a bathroom with shower across the back. Quite comfortable. Looking out on a patch of lawn, two desert tortoises keeping the grass in check.

So we head north to Aus, then it’s into the desert. Alongside the road is a large strange metal contraption that on closer inspection appears to be a windmill designed for fabric sails, but the fabric apparently couldn’t stand up to the wind. Across the road, prickly pears grow in rows. I read later about an old farmer that makes prickly pear schnapps. Can’t be any worse than all the other stuff they make schnapps from and maybe this is the guy. Usually see it cultivated in rectangles for corrals, but it is a cash crop so someone must grow it in rows, I’ve just never seen it.

The windmill is our landmark for a left turn on another road, adventure awaits. We are driving up the east side of the Namib-Naukluft park. More ostrich, springbok and huge weaver nests that take over tree branches. We see a few of the big red dunes the area is famous for, a red haze above them from blowing sand and ridges so high they are swallowing small mountains. Stopping for fuel (never pass a gas station in the desert) where we pay about USD$1/liter for diesel, we take a wrong turn leaving the station. Fuel costs about the same where ever you go, no gouging in the isolated places, which is nice. Not like driving the Highway 50 loneliest road and paying the premium there.

So, wrong turn. It’s not bad, we don’t even realize for a while because the GPS (which I had roundly dissed) quit working back about the windmill. I think it overheated but it was done for the day. We passed Duwisib Castle ( and I knew we were on the wrong road. Interestingly, my guide had never heard of it while I told him the whole history and story of the castle. Geeks browsing Google Earth impress their friends, as I had looked at the pictures of the area I thought we were going before we left Windhoek.

Oh yeah, computer had decided to stop connecting to the internet in Rosh Pinah, even though the lodge had free wireless and a good connection the first day I was there. By the time I got to Swakopmund, the wireless didn’t work, a wired connection in the hotel room (which made the little light in the back blink approvingly) didn’t work and I was surviving connecting to the internet on my blackberry and a borrowed 3G card. Then the electronic rot got to the 3G connection too. And the blackberry switched to SOS only mode. All this lasted a couple days while we went about our business with full focus, undistracted by electronic umbilicals.

Suddenly, in the middle of the desert, my blackberry reconnected, and google latitude showed my location as London. A quick look around confirmed it was wrong.

One night, the water main into town broke. No water anywhere. We only got back into town from the job at 10, so no big deal. But I was dirty and dusty and decided before I fell into bed if there was no water in the morning I would take a bar of soap to the hotel pool. Lucky for the guests, there was a small dribble of water and that threat was averted.

Invited to a “Braii” (say “bri” like fry) in Swakopmund. Crayfish split down the back, cleaned and barbequed. They must be 65 mm in body length to be legally taken, so these are not the freshwater crawdads you get at Pappadeaux’s. Looked like small lobsters without the claws. Break off the feelers, make a cut down the back of the body and the tail, split and clean, ready for “que”. Tasted like well cooked crustacean. They are gathered by wading into chest deep water, then holding your breath while reaching onto rock holes, nooks and crannys. Occasional other sharks and fish with teeth take umbrage at the intrusion, so our intrepid gatherer wears gloves. Your intrepid author wears dry clothes, as there is no way I’m reaching into rock holes in the cold ocean.

Drove the back way from Swakopmund to Windhoek. Dirt road all the way, but for the most part better maintained than similar dirt roads in the US. About 250 miles, dirt all the way. Across a bleak desert with the occasional welwitschia and some scrub grasses. Two meerkats run across the road, one turning and stopping to look at us as we pass. Shortly after that, an ostrich ran across in front of us. I’m told there are few collisions between vehicles and wildlife here. Whether that is due to low traffic or natural predators that keep the larger wildlife wary, I don’t know.

Buffet dinner in the hotel. Your choice of traditional African dishes; sliced beef tongue, oxtail stew and beef tripe. I had tried all but the tripe, so tripe it was. The tripe looked to be in a curry sauce. It wasn’t. Sorry, didn’t finish that and went to the stir-fry table.

Got on the hotel elevator in Windhoek. Young guy wearing a Russian Union Rugby shirt. We were both headed to the same floor. In my best Russian (not too good 30 years after learning it) I asked how the game was, good or bad. “Good” (khorosho), he said and smiled. We were at our floor. “Seventh” he said quietly. We both smiled and got off. Diplomacy continues apace…

Had to extend a night, so checked back in to the same hotel. Got a room on the top floor, which I have never had before. I knew it would be a great view from the tallest building downtown. Until I got in the elevator and realized there was no 13th floor. Spent my last night in Windhoek on the 13th (14th) floor. Dinner buffet this night was not traditional food and included some good curry, so success all around.

Johannesburg airport, international arrival. Paperless! In this computer age, your passport is scanned, as is the visa stamp entered into it, paperless in, paperless out really nice. Clear Immigration quickly, get my bag quickly and headed out, just need to pass through Customs. Always a stress test for retired smugglers. And there, on the last corner before you go through Customs, is a duty-free store. And in front of the store is a counter. And on the counter is your choice of 4 kinds of Glen Fiddich Scotch to sample!

Two small sips of a small batch 15 year old Scotch and the Customs jitters as well as that dry tickling throat that always seems to happen when you fly are just scenery in the pre-frontal cortex. Hunter Thompson was right. Better living through chemistry.

Fly all night, rush to make a connection that is late to leave, late to arrive and late for the next connection, meanwhile I need to pass through Tanzania immigration. I have a work visa purchased at a small-town immigration desk 3 months ago for a 1 year visa. They approved a three month extension. Doesn’t matter, I had time to make my connection.

Arrived in Mwanza feeling pretty good and worked the afternoon while making plans to head to the bush the next day. Next morning we head for Tulawaka.

We pass through an area of Baobab trees. Huge, hollow trees, they produce a fruit that is used locally and store water. A couple really old ones (it is thought they live to 300 years or more) have fallen over, showing hollow trunks 15 feet across.

Okay, I have to say this story is word of mouth only, but the guy telling me was quite earnest. If it’s baloney, he is a great storyteller. He is from the slopes of Kilimanjaro, a green area between Arusha and the mountain. He tells me that in that area the wily rabbits have learned to stand up and drink milk from cow udders. If the herdsman tries to chase them away, the rabbit suddenly tearing away from the udder will tear the udder with his teeth. I admit it sounds fishy, but he took me in.

Highlands near Burundi, thick forest after passing through agricultural area of small plots, rice paddies and corn in the drier areas. Rice farmers work in ankle deep water barefoot all day using only a hoe to cultivate the small plots. This is only one way in which they risk Schistosomiasis, as they also swim and bathe in poor water.

Malaria is a huge problem, one that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on. The foundation made a lot of enemies with new approaches to research and aid, but seems in a short time to have become a major player. I struggle with NGO’s, as their resources all seem to be squandered by the time they get to the people they are supposed to help. Maybe the new approaches of the BMGF will help to change that.

Driving at night, rural Tanzania. The paved roads are two lanes, of varying quality, often with large unexpected potholes and typically with the shoulder decaying. Every small town and village has large speed bumps on entry and exit and occasionally in the middle of town if there is a market area. Sometimes you don’t even see that there is a village there, and the speed bump isn’t marked. You become alert to these by the high volume of skid marks found just before the bump.

In the daylight, everyone walks along the side of the road. The main concern is to be alert for oncoming traffic dodging potholes or bicycles, of which there are many. Bicycles serve as a primary means of transportation and commerce in this area, transporting charcoal (huge sacks), chickens (“chooks” – in large wooden cages that look like willow-woven lobster traps with bigger openings ), chopped sugar cane and wood (cane is chopped to about 2 meter lengths so sticks out in the road) and a whole bunch more that doesn’t even start with CH. The most interesting are the taxis. These are bicycles outfitted with a padded seat over the back wheel and when you just can’t walk any more, these guys will get you where you are going, paved or dirt, hill or flat. The muscles on every one of the workers are obvious; I don’t think I saw 2 overweight children in all the hundreds of miles of traveling I did in the countryside.

The tour de France would have very different faces if these guys had access to technology and fancy jerseys.

A courteous honk well away from the bicycle riders and they move courteously to the side of the road. The walkers stay off the tar unless there is no traffic.

After dark, everything changes. Because the footpaths that parallel the road are used by people, goats, cows and bicycles; they are not always worn smooth. Because the tar shoulder is usually disintegrating, it is not a good place to walk. So after dark, people, goats, cows, bicycles and the odd dog all travel on the tar road. There are no street lights in the countryside, no one carries a flashlight or wears reflective clothing. Most don’t even wear light colored clothing. Add to this picture vehicles with misadjusted, inoperable or simply unused headlights, including everything from heavy trucks to motorcycles.
Dante’s circle of driving hell would look like this. A steady stream of people walking, riding bicycles, often side by side flash by on your left (driving in Tanzania is on the left due to British cruelty), so you keep to the center of the two lanes, hoping all follow the unposted but almost universally understood law of Staying Out Of the Way of Larger Vehicles. Just as you relax, thinking everyone is doing as they should, a large truck blasts out of the darkness on your right. Only a split second to react, you must also follow the law of staying out of the way. Was there a pedestrian to your left before you saw the truck? A bicyclist? You have no time to think or remember, you must get out of the way. Dodging left just in time, you miss the truck (or according to the Law, it misses you). After the fact you realize there were no pedestrians or bicyclists in the way, this time.

We drive into Mwanza without hitting anyone or anything. It’s a good night. Mwanza is a city, the streets are very crowded, but there is somehow more order because in the city people know other rules about staying clear of vehicles, driving with your headlights on and other tactics to keep us all alive.

Flying out of Mwanza the next day, I have a conversation with an Australian who has spent a good deal of time in Mwanza and he tells me how much better the roads have gotten. He is traveling with his daughter, taking her to see the Serengeti. It turns out I already know his son, from both Australia and Tanzania. The world keeps getting smaller.

Out of Mwanza to Nairobi, with a stop in Kilimajaro. The mountain isn’t visible today, shrouded in it’s usual clouds. A young American girl gets on. She seems confused then says, “Am I supposed to just sit anywhere?” with a whine that tells all she would rather know which is her seat. Welcome to Africa, find one that looks comfortable.

Exit row safety briefing in Nairobi. “When the pilot gives the word, look outside. If outside looks better than inside, open the door.” Ranks right up there with Serengeti snake advice. “If you see a snake, do not go nearer.”

Short overnight in Johannesburg, then on to Walvis Bay, Namibia. So cool to see local geology as you land. The soil has been scoured off, exposing the underlying rocks. Large cracks and seams, all scraped flat as though by glaciers. Here the wind has done the work of the glaciers. Walvis Bay is a port town, the flight has Russian and Philippino sailors catching their ships while in port.

20 miles up the road, I return to Swakopmund. Think a small San Diego on the ocean. Beautiful town, great weather, nice people. Gets really crowded around Christmas and New Year’s, it’s settling down now to the slow pace it is famous for. Adventure activities abound, a little like Moab, Utah. You can go parasailing, quad biking in the dunes, skydiving or bounce over roads for miles to look at dunes and wildlife. Did that a couple weeks ago, just work this time.

I’m staying at the Swakopmund Hotel, the old train station. The original stonework in the old photos in every room is very interesting, though it has been painted over now. A welcome card in the room contains a postcard with a picture of the original station, I’ll try to scan and post it when I get home.

Home, a couple more days and I’ll be headed back to ice and snow. I’ll miss Africa, but I am ready to be home.