Day 8 (of 141): The last seven days have been epic, very fun and totally unexpected. I came into this trip without any expectations, and that’s how I plan on going for the rest of the trip, because it’s always more fun without expectations.
After departing Cape Town, we headed north to the Namibian border. There are 7 of us on the trip all the way to Cairo, and an additional 11 to Nairobi, plus two guides and an amazing chef named Charles from Kenya. I suspect I won’t be losing weight on this trip thanks to Charles’ cooking. There is strong representation on the trip by Aussies, Brits, Kiwis, Canadians and a couple Californians including myself. We caravan in Land Rovers and safari jeeps for local drives, and we also have a beautiful expedition truck nicknamed “Claudia” (after Claudia Schiffer) for long distance drives. Claudia is basically our home, our kitchen, our storage locker, our best friend, until she breaks down and cries… and then we have to push her to start, which we’ve had to do several times already when she gets stuck in the mud… it’s going to be a long drive pushing her to Cairo…
After eight hours of driving on the second day through the harsh Kalahari desert, we finally crossed the Orange river which demarcates the border between South Africa and Namibia. Unfortunately, the Orange river had flooded our campsite and burst its banks because of massive rains in Gauteng province in northern South Africa (near Johannesburg), and it all came swirling downriver. We saw a snake swim in the river right next to our pool, and as soon as we found out that it was a Cape Cobra snake (one of the most poisonous), we all jumped out of the gnarly green pool we were wading in since we couldn’t see the bottom! Thankfully, we weren’t staying in the cottages that were under water with cobras swimming all around! This was one time I was happy to be camping, in my own tent.
On our first full day in Namibia, we went to Fish River Canyon, which happens to be the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon (yeah, who knew?). It’s over 350 million years old. We had a couple sundowners at sunset and returned to basecamp, where it must have been 42 degrees Celsius in the shade at sunset (well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit). During the day, it was easily 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). It’s pointless to shower in the desert in this heat because you start sweating 5 minutes after finishing your shower. And when you’re bush camping, sometimes you go days without showers and have to rely on wet wipes.
I couldn’t take the heat anymore, so I decided to shave my head entirely. The local barber was hesitant at first, but then he really liked it at the end and asked me if I wanted to shave my eyebrows too. Funny. It’s unbelievable how much cooler one feels without hair! It’s actually downright chilly and draughty some mornings!
Our second night thankfully brought some relief from the heat, but only because we were stuck in a massive sandstorm with more than 50 mile an hour winds and tornadoes all around! Setting up a tent in 50+ mph winds is NOT easy, trust me! Sand, sand, sand EVERYWHERE! At night, you could still feel the heat of the desert radiate from the ground we were sleeping on. It’s so hot that all of my 6 month supply of chapstick melted. I guess the Namib is a good precursor of how things will be when we cross the Sahara in April.
On Day 5, we woke up before 4am (you know how much I love these) to go see a sunrise over the sand dunes of the Namib desert – the oldest and driest desert in the world. This had better be one spectacular sunrise for getting up so early! We got to Dune #45 just before sunrise, and after what seemed to be an eternity (i.e. 45 minutes) we finally made it to top of the 450 feet sand dune for a stunningly gorgeous sunrise over the Namib desert. We ran down the side of the dune and went to breakfast near Deadvlei – a former desert river oasis now cut off by new dunes. Deadvlei still has trees on it that have been dead for more than 600-900 years! It’s a hauntingly beautiful, yet eerie oasis. These trees have not decomposed because of the lack of humidity. The desert is so dry that it preserves all life for eons – a banana peal will stay intact for 30 years, while an orange peel will stay intact for more than 80 years!
The highlight of this first week was camping in the bush and learning from our bush ranger about the desert. The desert is not dead at all like we think it is; on the contrary, it’s teeming with life! The desert hates the rain though, because it makes the sand hard and animals can’t escape into the soft sand underneath where they live in the top 30cm of the sand. The animals can breathe underneath the sand because there is oxygen pockets between the sands, and they have smaller nostrils than a grain of sand which lets the oxygen in, but not the sand! Nature is amazing.
Because there is so little water in the desert, animals get their water by eating each other. Spiders eat ants, lizards eat spiders, snakes eat lizards, and snake eagles eat snakes. This is how water gets totally recycled in the bush! Last year there was 2mm of water in the Namib. Some trees and shrubs go between 5 and 25 years before drinking any rain water! For example, the acacia tree has roots that are 80m deep to get underwater drainage water from rains that came 5 years ago! And some animals, like the oryx can, go their entire lives (25 years) without every drinking any water!
Do you remember watching your favorite Roadrunner cartoon as a kid where Wile E. Coyote would sneak up to the Roadrunner in a walking bush? Well, we owe this ingenious and ridiculous idea to the Bushmen. Bushmen had to sneak up to their prey because their poison darts only reached 5m. So sometimes they would have to sneak up to their prey carrying a bush for cover, and the early European settlers in Africa called them Bushmen for that! And you thought it only happened in cartoons… Apparently, they were so feared by the Europeans (and blacks too) that the Europeans settlers had license to kill Bushmen until as recently as 1918 and it wasn’t even considered murder!
After living for 30,000 years in the Namib, the Bushmen developed a yellow skin to blend in to the desert. Obviously, a black lion would stick out in the yellow desert, so it makes sense that natural selection preferred the yellow skin gene after thousands of years. A Bushman’s first lesson in life is to identify his mother’s footprint in the sand. This is how they identify where their families are in the desert in case they are out in the bush and get lost. Can you imagine having to track down your parents by the tracks of their shoes? The Bushmen are the real survivors of the desert; they’re ingenious and we have so much to learn from them. Unfortunately, their way of life has been totally decimated by modernity, and the 30,000 or so left now live in impoverished shantytowns in Namibia and South Africa.
On day 6, we drove to Swakopmund, the extreme sports adventure capital of Namibia, on the Atlantic ocean. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and I wanted to take a fun photo underneath the sign. Suddenly, I saw a tiny little snake crawling next to my foot. It slithered away very quickly and hid under a rock. I was about to move the rock when my guide told me that it was a very poisonous Viper snake and that removing the rock would likely make it recoil and attack me. Bad idea. It’s a long way to Cairo and I don’t want to play Russian roulette so soon…
We finally arrived in Swakopmund after taking the trans-Kalahari highway and had an early evening in a simple lodge (a bed for the first time in 7 days!) Though I must admit I‘m getting better at camping and enjoying it more and more as the days pass, there are fewer bed bugs and mosquitoes to worry about than the basic lodges we stay at. What I don’t like about bush camping is that we have to air dry our utensils, plates and cooking pots by flapping them individually in the air with our hands until they dry. We can’t use dishcloths to dry them because that would leave bacteria on the plates, and over the course of several days, that’s likely to give us all the stomach bug. So, dishcloths are illegal on this trip and we have to air dry them, which takes quite a while every breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s a funny sight to see a group of people all flapping plates at the same time, it’s sort of like a cross between doing jumping jacks and Chinese Tai Qi.
Swakopmund lived up to its reputation as the extreme sports capital of Namibia. Yesterday, I jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet over the Tropic of Capricorn and the Namib desert! Jumping out of a plane wasn’t scary at all! Thankfully I didn’t have vertigo anymore, even though I’m scared to bits of heights. I did a tandem jump with a jump master who is in full control of the parachute, and has jumped thousands of times over the last 10 years. Even though the plane doesn’t have doors on it, it’s a very calming experience to climb over the Namib desert and Atlantic ocean. 30 seconds before the jump, we got in position with our jump master, and before I could get scared about what I was about to do, we’ve hurtled ourselves out of a flying plane at 10,000 feet and are doing somersaults and backflips as we reach 300km per hour in about 3 seconds! Beat that Mr. Ferrari. The first second is the proverbial “oh shit” moment, and then you fly like a bird! We free dove for 30 seconds before we pulled our parachute and floated down while doing super fast spins for another 5 minutes until we reached ground. I must admit that skydiving was INCREDIBLY fun! All you can do is laugh! I now understand why people say skydiving is addicting (much more so than kiteboarding), I would do it again in a heartbeat!
We also sandboarded down some desert dunes, but it wasn’t as much fun as jumping out of plane, even though you’re speeding down a sand dune at 70+ km per hour, face first. The part that sucks is climbing back up the sand dune after every run while wearing snowboard boots in 100+ degree whether. Trust me, the repeated treks up the dunes were harder than a heavy Cindy Crossfit workout.
In the afternoon, we went on a township tour around Swakopmund. Townships are where the non-white population was sequestered during apartheid when South Africa controlled Namibia. They are shantytowns and middle class black neighborhoods all in one, and are the heart of African urban life. We met a beautiful village chief who is 86 years old, and then were entertained by a group of super fun kids singing and dancing for us while we ate dinner (roasted caterpillars!) at a shabeen (a local bar). A couple 12 year old girls had a crush on me (they couldn’t decide if I looked Mexican or like Kumar) and wouldn’t let me go until I gave them kisses on the cheeks. The other kids also wouldn’t leave me alone (I don’t think it had ANYTHING to do with the fact that I was passing out stickers). The kids had incredible personalities, and will go far in life with education; they had so much spunk and were full of smiles, even though they lived in poverty. Goes to show happiness doesn’t come through material possessions. It’s a good lesson to learn from Africa!