Monday, August 18, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

I left Matthias behind in Cape Town and caught a bus to Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. My bus arrived in the early hours of morning and I walked around like a turtle with my pack on my back to find a cup of coffee and a guest house to stay in that night. By far more modernized than any city in Africa - outside of South Africa - and once colonized by Germany, little Windhoek boasts fancy restaurants, colorful, modern buildings and a booming tourist industry.

I hadn't planned on going to Namibia but Alaister, a fellow-passenger on the Liemba coming down Lake Tanganyika, just insisted I see how beautiful that part of Africa was. Wide open country, breathtaking scenery, only 1.2 million inhabitants who speak German? I was sold.

I searched high and low in Windhoek to find a cheap rental car to tour the country. Because I had no camping gear with me to speak of, I thought first to find one of the over-equipped camping trucks that you see all over the wide dirt roads but the prices were so high, I settled on the smallest white car you can imagine. For two weeks I putted around Namibia's vast countryside, moving from the Etosha National Park to Twyfelfontain where ancient rock carvings fill a valley to the strangely European Swapokmund on the coast to little Solitaire in the midst of the Naukluft Mountains.

I listened to German or Afrikaans radio as I drove through clouds of dust and velvet red dunes. Navigating Namibia is like guessing the weather and I was in my element, taking turns as I felt like them. At one T intersection, I found that route C39 went all three ways! But with no schedule I stopped to ask directions and struck up odd conversations all over. I spent 11 days weaving around Namibia and racked up some serious alone time. After densely populated cities like Kigali and Llongwe, I was happy to see so much unspoiled landscape.

In Twyfelfontain, my Damara speaking guide drew on his hand how the click sounds in their language are written. You can hear what Damara sounds like here.
While driving through a lone valley, having not seen another soul for hours, I was thrilled to come across one of the famed Namibian desert elephants coming down the road toward me. He shuffled along looking rather old and disheveled, pulling up roadside weeds by the roots with his trunk, banging them on his front leg and then stuffing them into his mechanical mouth. Thinking I had finally come across an elephant I could observe and photograph up close, an elephant in the wild without the distractions of tour guides and crowds, I stopped the car and stretched out the window with my camera to wait for him to get closer. Suddenly, he stopped, perhaps seeing my camera flash, turned toward me and paused mid chew, and then with great noise and motion, charged my little car, ears out and flapping and trunk straight at me.
He was easily two times the size of my car, and god knows how much larger than me. I dove back into the car, cracking my camera on the glass of the window. The sharp metal-on-glass sound stopped him and we stared at each other for what felt like a long while. I shuddered, in the driver's seat, staring into his little eye, wondering what I should do. Then, as quickly as he had charged, he swung his head back to the right and continued down the road away from me in no hurry at all. As I looked into my rear view window, the sun was just setting behind the mountains of the valley and he shuffled off into the orange haze.
How close did he get to me? Well, I took this photo in the pause before he charged.

The extraordinary visitor's center at Twyfelfontain, an ecological building made of wire blocks of local stone and welded steel drums. Every architect I know should go see it for the fabulous way it melds the indigenous vernacular with practicality and sustainability.

The stone carvings in Twyfelfontain.


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