And the desert again

Tuesday 25 to Saturday 29 October

After enjoying a cooler, more humid climate and getting a heap of laundry done in Swakopmund, we were back on the road. First heading north along the Barren Skeleton Coast of the Atlantic Ocean to Hentiesbaai on a smooth salt road and then heading east. The road gradually returned to the corrugated gravel we have become used to.

The instructions for our next stop were confusing. Telling us to head to Twyfelfontein and stop to see the White Lady Rock Art at Brandberg Mountain. We were to stay at the Brandberg Mountain, which is the highest mountain in Namibia, rising to 2,573m

As it turned out we weren’t going to Twyfelfontein at all, so the journey was very short and we arrived  at the White Lady Chalet early. We were forced to wait in reception until our room was ready.

By then it was very hot and our enthusiasm for exploring the area had waned.

Our chalet room was the most modest to date. A simple stone room with two beds and nets above. Power was 6v supplied from a solar panel and provided three lights. Hot water was from a fire geyser- a reused 20 gallon gas cylinder that has a wood fire lit under it at 5am and 5pm. Signs around warned guests to be wary of the Desert Elephants and certainly not to feed them as this could lead to them becoming aggressive in which case they would be shot.

The chalets were some distance from the lodge where meals were served. We were also told to be on the lookout for snakes and scorpions.

An interesting place to stay.

The only attraction, other than self preservation, was an excursion to see the White Lady Rock Art in the Brandberg Mountain. We got smart and went early. It was a 15km drive and a 1 hour hike to reach the art. The area has been well preserved and the entry fee included a guide for a reasonable $14.00. Our guide was Marcus and he had the ability to talk without drawing breath.

There were elephant droppings, some of them quite recent. Elephant footprints indicated they had been hiking in the same direction as us. Most native Africans consider elephants to be the most dangerous animal. They are unpredictable, fast and strong. Marcus was already giving us instructions on what to do should we encounter the two females that were known to be in the area. Stay still until it is safe; retreat up the rocks; do not speak, stay quiet.

As it turned out the elephants were on the other side of the river bed, high up in the rocks. When you couldn’t see them you could hear the snap of the trees they were breaking down for food. They are actually very destructive.

We had seen rock art in Spain, but it was too fragile to allow photography.

This art was first noticed by the German Reinhard Maack in 1914 who published information about it. A French anthropologist Henri Breuil used one of the figures, which is white, to argue it was a Phoenician, who he believed travelled this far south. The theory was subsequently disproved and all figures considered to be between 5000 and 2000 years old, from the period when there was more water and the bushmen lived in the mountains.

Marcus pointed out that all the animals and human figures were pointing towards Etosha where there are still many waterholes today.

Unlike the rock art we saw in Spain where calendars and counters were represented, this art was representational and portrayed animals and spiritual acts such as the medicine man dancing. Certainly older than the Spanish art.

The rock art excursion was finished before 11am and there was still a whole day ahead of us.

There was a pool to sit by and a one hole golf course.

Marcus had suggested we drive up the Ugab River bed to the dam, in our 4WD. With vague instructions from reception we found our way into the dry riverbed and set out. This was Bruce’s first serious experience driving in a sandy river bed and we really weren’t sure how far we could trust ourselves without getting bogged. We eventually turned around and it was on our way back, about 2km from the lodge that we saw the two elephants, one sleeping on his side, the other taking a dust bath.

I was entertained for much of the afternoon watching two birds feed their young in a nest under the pagoda.

We decided to walk to the restaurant that evening. It wasn’t far but there was a constant danger of creatures. When we returned to our room I could hear water running, but thought nothing of it.

The next morning was another story – not a drop of water came out of the taps, the hot tap nor the cold tap. I had heard someone come around to light the fire for the hot water service a couple of hours earlier.

I went out to investigate and found the hot water service on the ground, and a trail of water across the sand. The people at reception suggested we go to the camp showers for ablutions.

After breakfast we returned to our chalet to find one of the maintenance men rebuilding the hot water service. Elephants, he said. They are always after water and will go to any lengths to get to it, even destroying the wall built around the hot water service for protection. I think he was quite used to repairing the hot water services.

We left the White Lady Lodge with a very long drive ahead of us. There was a detour to see some of Namibia’s most prized archaeological sites.

Our first stop was at the Petrified Forest. Actually it’s not a forest. It’s a pile of logs that had flowed down an ancient river in Central Africa, toward the end of the ice age that occurred 280 million years ago. These logs must have travelled hundreds of kilometres before they came to a stop and were almost immediately covered by silt, and so the chemical process started to fossilise them. Our guide told us it is likely that many more logs are buried deeper and they will be exposed as natural erosion continues. However the government has banned digging for them as a way of protecting the heritage.

I think one of the joys of touring in Namibia is the attempt the government has made to protect its heritage.  That certainly was not evident in Kenya and Tanzania.

The fossils look so like real trees, with growth rings, bark and even charcoal. To touch them was surprising as the day was very hot. It felt like touching a hot iron.

We were also shown the Welwetschias which is an ancient slow growing plant. It is named after the Austrian botanist, explorer and medical doctor, Friedrich Welwitsch, in 1859 who first identified them. A small 10yo plant shows just how slowly these plants grow.

As we were travelling north we noticed some greenery – the Butterfly Tree or mopane.  The leaves are a pretty butterfly shape on a soft green. It is extraordinarily useful to the native Africans for firewood and medicine.

As we drive out of the centre we passed several other places where you can see the petrified forest, but they are ‘unofficial’.

Our next stop was to Twyfelfontein which in Afrikaans means Doubtful Spring. Afrikaaans speaking Boers moved to the area after World War II, but had difficulty finding water.

Six thousand years ago the area was inhabited by stone age hunter-gatherers of the Wilton Stone Age Culture. These ancient people created a lot of rock art engravings (petroglyphs) which told stories and pointed to locations of water and food, rather like a giant map.

More than two thousand years ago the area was inhabited by the Khoikjio ethnic group, who produced rock art. Once again, the art told stories and provided education on where to hunt, find water and shelter.

Our young, enthusiastic guide Quinton kept us entertained as he educated us on the history of this amazing place.

The visitors centre was an interesting construction of recycled materials. Feature walls were created using the tops and bottoms of 44 gallon oil drums. The drums had been sliced in half lengthwise to create overlapping half circle roof tiles, much as you would see in terracotta rooves. Combined with the straw lining they created an air pocket as insulation against the heat.

We were somewhat concerned when we got back to our car and plugged the address of our next accommodation into the TomTom. It showed a five and a half hour, 250km drive, arriving after 8pm. We had been warned not to drive at dawn or dusk because you are more likely to come across animals on the road.

We had learned from experience that the estimates of the TomTom can be quite exaggerated. The roads in Namibia are generally good but are gravelled. The official speed limit on these roads is 80kph. Doing the maths we had at least 3 hours ahead of us.

As we drove through the rocky Damaraland we had a little rain. This land is parched and waiting for the rain. We only hoped the rain would wait a little longer and we would have a mostly dry journey.

All went well, we made up time and arrived in time to settle in to the Toko Lodge and enjoy a cold beer/wine before dinner.

Some of our accommodation includes dinner and some don’t. Whatever, there is little choice in these small establishments that are many kilometres away from the nearest village. Toko Lodge did not include meals and they did not offer a choice. They served Eland steak the first night and Eland stew the second night.

It was after breakfast on our first morning that one of the staff came up to Bruce and said he had noticed a problem with our car. That’s a little scary when you are in the middle of nowhere.

As it turned out, the right rear wheel was deflating. Our host offered to look at the tyre and fix it if they could. They soon found a small rod, probably a bit of camshaft from a broken engine, in the tyre, and happily repaired it. They did first check if the cost of $NB50 was acceptable (about $AUD5).

We spent the morning visiting a Katenda Himba Village.  The Himba people do not usually live in this part of Damaraland, however the government is attempting to resettle as many native people on land as they can.  Our host’s family had given this tribe some of their farmland, which they could now use for their own purposes. Typically the men will travel hundreds of kilometres grazing their stock, while the women stay home and tend to their families. The older children were at school, but there were plenty of young children begging for the lollipops that some tourists had brought with them.

The women do not wash, instead they use a herbal smoke to cleanse their bodies, and coat their bodies with a mixture of sand and herbs. They weave their hair into dreadlocks and decorate their bodies with numerous beads and leather strips.

It was such an interesting visit, including a dance routine and a further opportunity to buy.

Toko Lodge was an interesting place.  The land that had been part of the farm had been sold to the government (the preferred purchaser), who were in the process of establishing smaller farming settlements for the local people.  Our host was concerned that these settlements would not be viable.  We couldn’t help but think of the difficulty many returned soldiers had in Australia, trying to make a living on the small soldier settlements that were offered after the first and second world wars.

Bird life in Africa is wonderful, and Toko Lodge was not exception.  In fact Toko is the African name for the hornbill. The hornbills generally delighted us, except at daybreak when they tapped their huge beaks on our bedroom window – they can be very noisy.