Namibia quickly became one of my favorite countries for its varied landscape, colorful cultures and interesting history. So although I did not see the entire country, Namibia Part II is an opportunity for me to share a bit about what I saw and learned during my fascinating ten days touring with Wild Wind Safaris. Namibia Part II – Oh the Places You’ll Go.
Only a few years ago Namibia never showed up in articles or blogs about travel destinations. But then all of the sudden there it was – stunning photos of dunes and mountains, animals and oceans. Article after article listing it as a must see destination of 2017 or an out of the way place to see before the crowds of tourists discover it.
And so, I wanted to be there. I wanted to see what few people had yet seen. Namibia was high on my list.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of tourists, and plenty of tour operators and companies to help you find your way (check out the company we used and were so happy with: Wild Wind Safaris). But we didn’t meet any other Americans, and 99% of the tourists we met were German. Germans know about this place and flock here, partly because German is spoken here as is English, Afrikaans and tribal languages.
Most visitors come to go on safari in Etosha
National Park and it is a must of any visit to Namibia (see blog here). Etosha is not even remotely as crowded as the safari I did seven years ago in the Serengeti with about a million other people. Etosha was quiet and beautiful and amazing.
But a trip to Namibia really needs to include time to see and experience more than Etosha. I’ve come away from the country with an even greater appreciation of the remarkable geology of our earth, and an incredible insight to the importance of preserving cultures and not just objects and nature.
Until 1990 Namibia was part of South Africa (and from 1884 until after WWI it was a German colony). Gaining its independence the country has embraced tourism but being such a new country it still has its share of problems. Like many places we have been, government corruption takes much away from the average person and tribal cultures suffer. But the roads were remarkably good (even though Namibia has the highest car accident death rate in the world) and the people we met (mostly in the service industry) were incredibly friendly both with each other and us. In fact some of the friendliest and most genuine people we have met anywhere in our travels are the Namibians. That really hit home. We never felt like we were unsafe or being cheated in anyway – although warnings of pick pockets we took seriously.
Namibia has 13 ethnic groups scattered about the country and the native people identify with an ancestral tribe even if they no longer live in the region where that group is. Our amazing tour guide “Seven” explained to us some of the differences and he could look at nearly every person and know immediately what ethnic group they were from. Since we didn’t see the entire country we missed learning about most tribes, including the Owambo of the north, the tribe Seven is from.
We did get to learn about two distinctive tribes – the Himba and the Damara as well as a little bit about the Herero, an offshoot of the Himba.
One of my favorite experiences of the entire ten days was our short visit to a special Himba village where we were able to meet Himba women and children. Note the photos of these remarkable people. These are not costumes. This is the way they dress everyday. The hair style is really remarkable, and a female Himba begins wearing this hairstyle at puberty. The adornments are made partially of their real hair and animal hair and are updated every three months. Because of the shortage of water in the north of Namibia where the Himba people are found, they do not bath with water. Instead they daily “wash” their hair with smoke – literally holding their head as well as their underarms over a special perfumed smoke (similar to incense) that keeps bugs and (most) odor away. They also cover their bodies daily with a mixture of butter and ochre as a cleanser and repellant, this is what lends the red tone to their skin.
The village we visited was a special place because all the children here are orphans. This is a place where Himba orphans are brought to be raised in the culture of their parents rather than being adopted out of the culture. The women here care for these children as if they are their own and there is a school here too. The people are sustained by raising goats and cattle and they have access to a well so water is available but their bathing customs remain the same.
As we visited the women let us take photos and then they wanted to look at the photos on our phones. They seem to very much like to see themselves in a photo. The women’s first question to us was if we had children. When we said we had grown sons they wanted to know if we had grandchildren. When I said not yet they wanted to know why not? Why had we not yet chosen wives for our sons? My answer that our sons would hopefully marry someday and have kids didn’t seem to satisfy them. Their entire existence and culture is wrapped around family, child-bearing and daily survival.
Once again I am reminded of how many people live every day hand to mouth.
We did not visit a Herero village but these people endured near genocide by the Germans who wanted their land and intended to eliminate the Herero race to have it and the 1904 Battle of Waterberg ensued. Half of the total Herero population was
killed. Luckily not all were massacred and today the women have developed a very unique dress that is a unique mix of Victorian gown and petticoat and a unique cloth headpiece that is designed to resemble the horns of a cow. Today the Herero people continue a battle in court with the German government for retribution for all they lost during the genocide period.
The Damara people, the other tribe we learned about, are the oldest tribe in Namibia. They came from the East and settled in the middle region of the country. This tribe was primarily hunter gatherers and pastoral, raising cattle and sheep and living off the land. The Damara have an incredibly unique language known as “click” language. The language uses a complicated system of mouth and tongue clicks and is very musical and fun to hear. The village we visited was a reproduction of how a village would have looked hundreds of years ago. Where the Himba live in huts made from wood, mud and cow dung, the Damara live in huts made of wood and thatch. The Damara dress was tied to the animals they raised creating clothing from
sheepskins. The women use ochre on their cheeks much like we use blush today. Music and dance and making ornamental jewelry and carvings were a big part of their culture, where the women did domestic chores and the men tended the livestock.
The geology and scenery of Namibia is as diverse as its ancient people. The incredibly beautiful red sand dunes of the Sossusvlei region are the oldest dunes in the world and the stark beauty of these dunes is remarkable. The turquoise blue water of the Atlantic Ocean at Swakopmund in contrast provides visitors and locals a cool get-away from the heat of the interior. Here on the Atlantic the fog settles every day and so do thousands and thousands of fur seals, flamingoes and other shore birds. Local seafood is a treat including the KingKlip and Kabaljou two of the most popular and most delicious fish caught locally and served everywhere.
From the ocean heading east within minutes you are back in the arid desert where the welwitschia plant grows – the only region in the world this unusual plant is found and growing as big as ten feet across and living as much as 2000 years I was reminded of Audrey Two in Little Shop of Horrors. The inhospitable environment has little greenery and almost no animals except birds. The valley of the moon and eroding mountain range are desolate yet beautiful in their own way – especially the interesting dolerite dike a natural phenomenon of black sunburnt rock that runs along the ridge of the mountains like the spine of a dragon. This area is home to the largest Uranium mine in the world.
Namibia’s storage hunter-gatherers and Bushman (San) people were nomadic and traveled the country wherever the animals were. Their history is written on stones in several regions and we visited two fascinating sights to learn more. The Twyfelfontein site is today a UNESCO Heritage site in the Kuene region. Guides take visitors on a walking tour of the hundreds of rock etchings estimated to be several thousands of years old. The etchings depict animals as well as human footprints and tell a story of the nomad life and the animals they followed for substenance. It is thought this place was both a message board and a spiritual gathering place for thousands of years.
Even more amazing though was the preserved painting of “The White Lady” estimated to be 6000 years old. This painting is located in a very remote region of the Brandberg Mountain, Namibia’s highest mountain. It is a two mile hike to visit it. Not as many people see The White Lady because the trek and the heat make it difficult. I’m glad we endured it however in 100 degree temperatures. Very different than the rock etchings, these paintings are preserved because they are inside a cave and out of direct sunlight. Discovered in 1918 and now a protected heritage site, the White Lady is actually not a lady at all. Early anthropologists believed it to be an Egyptian women, but today archeologist know it is a local tribal shaman, painted with the traditional white a shaman would have on his legs and body from dust and mud. The painting includes other human figures and many animals all painted with ochre (red), egg, animals oils, charcoal and blood. The painting has luckily withstood the test of time, although since its discovery humans have touched it and thrown liquid on it to try and see it better and this has deteriorated it. Today though it is protected and can only be reached with a guide who makes sure no one does any damage to it. It was a beautiful and remarkable world heritage site to enjoy.
The Namibian people have a great deal to be proud of and I hope this beautiful country overcomes its problems and finds its strength in the world. It has so much to offer, charm and beauty, history and culture. I will never forget my time here and I can say with all seriousness it is by far my favorite African country of the seven I have been to.
Thank you Namibia. Thank you Wild Wind Safaris. Thank you Seven for showing us your remarkable home.