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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Going Himba: Life in the Villiage

The Himbas have protocol. If you want to visit, you must - more or less - follow a prescribed script. We kind of fudged it, but Weston, our wonderful guide, let us slide. I think it had something to do with our enthusiasm. We had bought bags of goodies to present to the chief, who basically sizes up your offering to determine if you are worthy of visiting his village. You must get permission from the Chief before you're allowed in, no exceptions.

We were told to buy food that Himba's eat: mealie meal (cornmeal), sugar, oil and coffee. Well, I bought peanuts, raisins, a scrub brush, bread, lentils, coffee and tea, matches, oil, rice, salt and pepper. The pepper was tossed out by our guide before I even stepped foot on Himba soil. He was very reluctant to present our goodies to the chief; apparently our coffee was too expensive, there were too many American type foods and  the mealie meal was not quite right...I think he said it was too small a bag (or too big, we weren't quite sure) and too expensive a brand. I figured that if we are presenting this to the Chief for his blessing, I better get the good stuff.

We rolled up to this beautiful little village 20k from town. Weston jumped out of the car and headed for the Chief's house. From where Glenn and I sat, there seemed to be a bit of negotiation between Weston and the Chief.

We're in. Once you get the Chief's permission, you have carte blanche to roam the village. You are even allowed to pass through the sacred fire pit.

First, I must describe the Chief. He is old, but doesn't know how old. he has 6 wives and between 26-30 children. His father before him was also a chief; succession goes to the first born boy of the first wife (who is your first cousin). This particular Chief is a hero, a hunter who had killed many lions with his own blade. Weston drew our attention to the enormous bite scars on his leg. When asked how many people live in his village, he held his arms out and gestured across the horizon saying many...can't you see? Just look at all of these huts. Weston had already prepared us for such an answer, counting isn't part of their world.

We spent a half an hour or so with Chief before touring the village. Most of the ladies were out in the garden harvesting the corn, so we headed down the road to find them. We entered the garden through a pretty seriously fortified thorn bush fence and a gate stained red with Ochre. The ladies were busily harvesting the corn, babies were lost among the stalks and a bevy of children ran over to get a look at us. They really are just as curious about us as we are of them.

Glenn and I were gathered around a woman who sat shucking corn. Glenn happened to be standing in the path of the incoming buckets and quickly learned that the garden is not a place to stand around gawking. he was quickly put to work.

We returned to the village and thanked the Chief for welcoming us. We had such a wonderful day. He asked us questions about where we came from, how many children/cattle/goats we had and couldn't believe that we had none. I did boast about growing our own food and having chickens, but I don't think he was impressed. he asked Glenn if he had to cook his own food, or if I cooked for him.When Glenn said I was the cook, he asked if I cooked over a fire or with a machine. G told him that I could cook anywhere. We may have gained a tiny respect for that one.

As we were leaving we presented our gifts. In addition to the food, we had brought a soccer ball for the kids. I gave him some 'American' food, which he stashed for himself, and an orange. Chiefs like oranges. The rest of the goods we placed on the ground by his kitchen and said coudinowa (Bye bye in Himba) and headed back to town.

Wow. What a delight. GP and I had a wonderful time. Of course, it wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for our friend Weston. A Himba who ran away from his village as a very young boy because he wanted to know how it felt to ride in a car. He would watch the Herero children pass by their village and knew that in order to ride in a car, he needed an education. One day as he was shepherding his families goats, he made a break for it. Leaving the goats and his family behind he walked 2 days to reach Opuwo where a Herero family took him in. He put himself through primary school, secondary school and eventually attending college in Zimbabwe. He was remarkable to be with. He knew the Himbas because he is Himba.

Thank you Weston. We loved every minute of our time together. And Glenn has no idea how you kept your white shoes so clean out there.


If you're interested in seeing the rest of our photos you can check out our Picasa web album at,

Monday, May 24, 2010

Been Through the Desert on a Horse with No Name

We love Opuwo. It is a small town in Northwest Namibia. It isn't in the guidebooks. We just happened upon it due to circumstances. We had emerged from a week or so journey through the Palmwag Conservancy driving north through dry riverbeds, gorgeous arid mountains and sandy dunes; we were desperately in need of a shower and fresh food.

We started at Swakopmund on the west coast of Namibia a week or so earlier. One night at dinner we met Wayne, aka "Horse with no Name", and his beautiful anthropologist wife, Jenn, who rattled off a route north up dry river beds and over remote desert stretches. Wayne knows every mile of Namibia. We wrote the place names as fast as we could because we didn't have a map with us. The next morning we drove south up the coast, past Henties Bay, to the dry Messum River where we turned east heading away from the coast. This desert looks like Nevada or Arizona with no roads or people. We stopped at Messum Crater and drove up the river for 2 days towards to a circle of small mountains. We eventually broke through the mountains onto a dirt road to the Ugab River where we had to go in 4 low and air down through deep sand. Amazing camp sites on the Ugab and some scary noises in the night. At that point we were far from lions or elephants but didn't know that yet. The Ugab is like the Snake River with (almost) no water and driving the car up river is like a kayak trip. Spent 2 days on the Ugab and came out on a secondary dirt road; we checked out some bush paintings on the rocks and went to a town called Khorixas for a shower and food restock.

The next day we drove up to the confluence of the Ugab and the Sout River, continuing up the Sout. We found bushman art at the first wet spot in the river bed and took pics. We got more worried about lions as we progress north so we stayed near the car. Peeing has never been so exciting. We drove down the Sout River for a couple days then up the Haub River. The sand was deep and the camping was world class. We saw small animals like jackles and some springbok…the trees and vegetation started getting greener.

The upper Haub was swampy and Corrin rode the front bumper for a mile or so saving 12 small stinky turtles from sudden death by Land Cruiser. This stretch of the river had slowed to a trickle no wider than the ruts left in the road and the small little guys didn't stand a chance against our big fat Bridgestones.

We got back on the main gravel road toward Palmwag and the Aub Canyon. We went to the park office, got a day pass and refilled our fuel and water. The first day we only drove for a couple hours on slow rocky 4x4 roads and camped at the head of Aub Canyon.

The next day we hit the western trail and drove rolling desert hills over terrain that looked like Mars. We camped on Mars dropping into the Haonib River canyon the next day. The animals were getting bigger and bigger; we saw zebra, tons of springbok and oryx. In the Haonib we saw several giraffe families and were hot on the trail of some dessert elephants as we started seeing elephant poops and tracks.

We camped one night on the Haonib and went upriver toward the Elephant Song Rest Camp which was listed on our map and our GPS as deserted due to lions. Just before the end of the Haonib River we found our first desert elephant basking in the sun, drinking water and ripping up reeds. We met a family at Elephant Song that had reopened the camp. The lion problem was just one gate guard that had been eaten a few years back. The guy gave us a clipboard showing a car that got clubbed by an elephant, using a Mopane Tree limb, back in '99 to help sell his guiding services. We told him that we camped in the river fine, with no elephants clubbing our car. So far we have learned basic elephant tracking: elephants don't like flash cameras or flashlights, car alarms and you shouldn't camp under a Mopane Tree because it is their favorite food. We camped in the bush because Corrin thought the Elephant Song Camp was too getto and drove 20k to the small villiage of Sesfontain the next day. We were told that we could get everything we needed in Sesfontain, except fresh produce, which is all we needed, so we decided to drive to the nearest town to restock.

The town of Opuwo happens to be where some of the Himba Tribes settled after Namibias struggle for Independences in the 80's. Himbas still dress in skins, cover their bodies in red clay and adorn their hair in red clay dreads. We went to the Himba Village next to our camp site to buy wood last night and it was like going back a thousand years. The women were singing and dancing. All the young girls had babies on their backs. Today we will go downtown, post our pics and blog before going deeper into the desert to a larger Himba Village. We have been told to bring presents if we want to take pics so Corrin stocked up on honey, tea and other goods. I thought she should bring tobacco and alcohol, what they really want, but she disagreed.

We'll post our paparazzi shots later.

Glenn (and Corrin)

Friday, May 14, 2010

What? The biggest tourist destination is a dried pond?

Entering Namibia from South Africa was easier than crossing into Canada from the US. Since this was officially our first border crossing, we didn't quite know what to expect. We arrived totally prepared and basically were asked how long we wanted to stay - we said 2 months – the boarder agent issued the 2 month visa and welcomed us to Namibia as he stamped our passports. That was it. We drove off giggling like two kids who successfully robbed a cookie jar. Not that we had anything to hide, but we had read and heard about the horrors of border crossing and were prepared for something way, way worse. One gentleman told us to never leave our car unattended at a boarder. "One of you must stay with the car, while the other goes in with the papers. Otherwise you'll come back to a car with no wheels/headlights/etc." Um, ya.
I am writing all of this so we can go back and revel in the ease of border crossing into at least one African country. We had been told to bring a bunch of 1X1" passport photos to hand over at the boarders, one boarder was said to need 8 of them; apparently when traveling through Africa you are required to leave behind a paper-trail of tiny little photos of yourself. I can see them stuffed in an old tattered box collecting dust, but apparently the entering boarder and the exiting boarder post get together and somehow your little photos reunite, ensuring that you actually left the country. But what if they didn't match up? Would they send out a search crew with your tiny little photo? Are there people who travel through the villages armed with small photos of missing tourists asking, "Have you seen this women/man?" It cracks me up. We actually were required to hand over a couple of our mini headshots to The South African Municipality when registering our car, so maybe it is a good thing that we have a bag of these little guys.
Living in a technologically advanced country makes travel in a not so tec savvy country very amusing.
Our first few days were spent in The Fish River Canyon, Namibia's equivalent of The Grand Canyon. I have to say, aside from the thorn bushes, there were a lot of similarities. Both canyons cut through semi arid deserts bisected by a network of feeder streams. Here most of these rivers were dry, due to the lack of rains this year, but the ravines left behind were just as spectacular. Having LOVED our excursion down the Grand, we wouldn't dream of leaving without checking it out from top to bottom; so despite not having a permit (required of all through hikers, day hikers were explicitly forbidden) we skirted the signs and headed down the rocky path. (Why are rules so hard for some of us?) Of course, I was wearing a denim pencil skirt [think: tight and unforgiving] and wedge healed flip-flops so the boulder fields and chain assisted side walls were kind of a big deal at first. But as the hike wore on I became more worried about the one liter of water we carried between us, the length of the hike and the seriously high potential for a flip-flop blowout along the way. I just kept thinking of our friend Wags and Death in the Canyon, the collected stories of fatal mishaps in the Grand Canyon. This was the book he continuously referenced during our 18 day adventure down the Grand Canyon.
About halfway down I became the water police, rationing Glenn's sips to one or two glugs and no more. It was a seriously long and arduous hike and we are fairly seasoned when it comes to hikes. When we finally reached the river at the bottom we met a group of hikers who felt a little less studly about their feat once they saw a woman in a tight skirt, floppy sombrero and high heeled flip-flops emerge from behind them. They said I should bronze my flippers and have them mounted, but of course, I am always in inappropriate footwear, so this was nothing new.
I cannot remember a swim feeling so wonderful, and as much as we would have liked to have swum for hours, not knowing whether or not crocks inhabit a particular river will generally keep it brief. Of course it didn't help that a little fishy decided to sample my toe as I was wading in…eekkk. We swam it up and headed out.
Our next destination was Luderitz, a small coastal town on the northern edge of Namibia's forbidden Diamond Area (a piece of land the size of New England owned by DeBeers. If you are interested in corruption, look into this little monopoly). In Luderitz we restocked the fridge, picked up some supplies and caught up on email. From there we drove north to Namibia's biggest tourist destination, the Sossusvlei pan, a dry salt lake surrounded by the World's highest sand dunes. According to our traveler's Bible, AKA The Lonely Planet, you are supposed to get up before dawn, charge the park gate and be the first to drive the 60 kilometers into the park before dawn's light casts gorgeous shadows onto the dunes. So, of course we did just this; me driving like a maniac in the pre dawn hours with Glenn sleepily bumping along in our bed in the back. And as good tourists we followed the rules and arrived at Sossusvlei before dawn, but were totally surrounded in dense fog. Humm. Since this is the desert and it is essentially winter here, we decided to wait out the fog. Besides, it was freezing out there.
Around 11:00 we emerged from the camper, fed and caffeinated. Despite being slightly groggy from napping all morning we headed for the sand. The fog had lifted, but of course we missed the morning shadows, so much for the epic shot. About an hour later we summated the top of Big Daddy (which I was calling Sossusvlei the entire time, not knowing that the major attraction was a salt lake, not a big dune). Aside from a few stragglers on some of the lesser dunes, we had the place to ourselves. From the top you could see forever. It was fantastic, but G was barefoot and the sand was warming at an alarming rate so we opted for the steepest pitch down into the real Sossusvlei, the dried salt lake below. I have run headfirst down many a dune, but none of them were quite this tall or this steep. We raced down, laughing all the way.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You call this food?

We’ve spent the last two days in Upington, a smallish boarder town which, luckily for us, just happens to cater to 4X4 overlanders preparing for their journeys north. Despite all of our preparation thus far, we still have a few loose ends to wrap up before leaving South Africa. We are: having a second solar panel mounted on the roof to help offset the drain on the batteries from the refrigerator/freezer, installing a new set of speakers, having hammocks sewn, stocking up on spare Toyota parts, mailing off all of our bulky kite surfing gear and doing laundry; basically things that make living out of a car more comfortable. We did briefly discuss the possibility of a satellite internet connection, but that was quickly nixed by el Hefe, who claims to have been a slave to the internet for far too long. Can’t say I disagree.

Glenn and I are looking forward to crossing the border. We’ve heard such wonderful accounts of Namibia from other travelers. For starters, it has one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world, comprised of apricot –colored dunes (some say the tallest in the world) interspersed with expanses of hard dry pan. There are places where the dunes actually roar when you drive or walk on them. Air trapped beneath the surface amplifies the sound of the shifting sand. To the north lies the Etosha pan, the most famous wild-life park in the country, hemmed in by the Namib, one of the most barren, inhospitable landscaped in Africa. The Kalahari covers the southern portion of the country, a huge expanse of semi-arid desert stretching from Namibia, through South Africa, Botswana, Angola, parts of The Congo and into Zimbabwe.

Thanks to Germany’s foray into colonialism, Namibia has a significant German population in addition to the native Nama and Herero people. Not to mention a nomadic tribe of “Tree Sleepers” that we’ve been told we must go find. The town of Swakopmund is even said to be more German than Germany. And since I am one of the few people who happen to love German food, I am stoked.

After eating out regularily for nearly 3 months, I can honestly say that South Africa has its fair share of bad food, and then some. I mean really, beef flavored MSG? It is sold here right near the section of corn chips sweetened with aspartame…yes, here the Beef Steak flavored Doritos are overly sweetened with toxic sweeteners that most American consumers have rejected (no, plain corn flavor isn’t an option, but peach chutney, tomato and onion are!). Aspartame in your Doritoes makes high-fructose corn syrup seem like a healthy alternative. Is this what the world gets? Americas most undesirable cast-offs. All of the experimental items that no longer have a market back home. I am sure I could find something made with Olestra if I checked the lables. Not that Doritos are a benchmark of any kind, but hey, with fresh avocados being sold window-side at the traffic stops - and the Americas far, far away - you take what you can. Scooping up a big swath of guacamole with a potato chip just isn’t quite right.

Just to drive home my point I’ll give you today’s lunch scenario. I’ll preface this by saying Happy Freedom Day! Today is the holiday that celebrates Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Africans have a lot of holidays; so many that most people don’t even know what they all represent. Because of the holiday, the two notable restaurants in town were closed, so we ‘lucked out’ when the third was open.

Being vegetarian I ordered a chicken salad without the chicken, and explained to the waitress that I don’t eat meat, so if she could just ask the chef to leave it off that would be great. What I received was a giant bowl of the most awful salad imaginable, probably worse than you can imagine, because before encountering the South African salad (think soggy iceburg, bad mayo and canned items such as mushrooms, asparagus and baby corn), I didn’t know you could commit such atrocities against raw veggies. This whole mess was topped off with a pile of onion rings that, on my best guess, were originally cooked a day or so ago then ‘refried’ in cold, rancid oil to sufficiently saturate them through. The soggy mound of onion rings was then drenched in a fluorescent orange sauce that might have been a sweetened, spiced ‘mayonnaise’ of some sort, but the kind that doesn’t need refrigerated; you know the stuff, artificial flavors and preservatives in an industrial sized jug, purchased in a store that sells packing materials, POS tape and long-life ‘sauces’ to restranteurs who can’t be bothered to actually serve real food (probably the same stuff we serve to our kids in schools across America). And all of that deliciousness was just the top of the salad! Once I dug down a bit I found a sweet and tangy white version of the same mayo and I don’t even know what was below that. I stopped digging. So I decided to cut my losses and order an omelet.

“May I have a small omelet without meat, please?”

Out comes a large bacon and ham omelet drowning in mayo sauce. So I explain to the waitress, again, that I don’t eat meat.

“This omelet has bacon and ham in it, I ordered one without meat. Could you please ask the cook to make me an omelet with just tomatoes, onion and cheese? Oh, and no mayo, please.”

The third lunch arrives. It is an omelet with tomatoes, onions and HAM! To top it off, the ‘cook’ had sprinkled the entire omelet with a seasoning mixture which was sweet, probably aspartame and beef flavored MSG. The entire omelet was disgustingly sweet and tasted nothing like eggs. However, there was no mayo sauce on this round, but at this point I just couldn’t hang. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and go for a bag of sesame pretzels and a few tangerines. However, the restaurant itself was very nice looking…which in South Africa seems to take precedence over edible food. Here, the fancier the restaurant, the worse the food, generally speaking.

One of my favorite chefs (and people) is South African, so I may have arrived with unusually high hopes, thinking that he hails from the land of delicious food. Then again, some substances were never meant to be classified as food: like aspartame, no refrigeration require ‘mayonnaise’ and beef flavored MSG. Yet, these items (from American companies no less) have found their way onto the shelves of the South African supermarket, go figure. Foreign countries have long been the dumping ground for all our chemical waste. If The States are ahead of the curve when it comes to food (I would disagree. Our labeling laws are horrible) - and we are just now on the cusp of a food revolution – then, South African’s have a few more toxic years ahead of them. Sorry for offloading our entire lot of disgusting cast-offs on you guys and good luck over the next 10 years; you might want to eat in.

PS: We have had some absolutely fabulous meals at a few Restaurants; notably Manna Epicurious, Bird’s CafĂ©, La Jardine, Bizerca and The Eastern Bazaar in Cape Town, Isle de pan in Knysna and the Outdoor Restaurant in Lambert’s Bay (not really a restaurant, but a wall of thorn bushes with a dirt floor and possibly the best seafood in all of South Africa. So they aren’t all bad, but if you find yourself hungry in the RSA, the odds are stacked against you. Ok. I am done, enough food ranting for a while. Namibia, dust off the fondue forks… here we come.

* This post is a week old. Apparently RSA experienced a country wide, week long internet outage. Can you imagine if this happened in the US?