Monday, August 25, 2008

The Lure of Namibia

AS the first rays of the sun pierce the thick darkness of the Namibian desert, sinuous ridges of quartz sand ignite in a firestorm of seared orange. Then the sky lightens to the new day, revealing the sea of sand mountains, their crisp edges and perfect curves wrought and polished by the expert chisel of the Kalahari and Atlantic winds.

With the tracks of yesterday’s visitors to the Sossusvlei dunes burnished by the breeze, you can’t resist trudging — perhaps plodding or crawling — up at least one of the pristine hills, some towering to 1,000 feet, instinctively looking for shimmers of water. But from the top, there’s no sign of the sea; it retreated millions of years ago, back when continents were drifting wildly.

What’s left is a dazzling geological display of possibly the world’s highest sand dunes, extending for 400 miles along the coast and more than 80 miles inland. Those naïve enough to believe that a dune is a dune is a dune are faced with a dizzying array of sand configurations: parabolic dunes with dynamic slip faces, long and narrow transverse dunes, dunes petrified by ancient climate change, and star dunes formed by winds that buffet them from all sides.

It’s the sort of environment that evokes foreboding, although the greatest danger is probably a broken fan belt or a serious case of hysteria induced by the appearance of an enormous dancing spider. But for miles around — 13,000 square miles, roughly the size of Maryland — there is no radio signal to relieve the silence, no town to break up an empty plain with a horizon so horizontal that it fades into a mirage. Only the skittering of the occasional hardy gecko suggests that you’re not the last vestige of life on a seared and waterless planet.

Such a forbidding panorama hardly seems the stuff of a compelling journey. But Namibia, a country of stark beauty and riveting contradictions, should be at the top of any serious traveler’s want-to-visit list.

The landscape is otherworldly, from the ocean of blood red crests along Dune Alley at Sossusvlei (pronounced SOSS-oo-vlay) to the gravity-defying rock formations and petrified forest of Damaraland, in the country’s center. Even beside the main highway, there are enough elephants, giraffes and springbok to satisfy those who can’t imagine a southern African trip without big game.

And the mind-boggling juxtaposition of women draped in skins that covered animals a week earlier against shopping malls offering a full selection of Ray-Bans, or of face powder ground in a mortar and pestle cheek by jowl with shiny Hummers, leads you into the heart of a modern Africa tangled by time, defined by the collision of centuries and traditions.

Namibia isn’t easy, especially for travelers whose notion of a vacation is dashing from one sight to another, or for urbanites who need regular fixes of bright lights and noisy streets. Except for those with pockets deep enough to arrange chartered flights between the dunes and the Damara homesteads, it demands patience with corrugated gravel roads and mile after mile of what poets are fond of calling terrible beauty.

“LOOK, a different kind of nothingness!” exclaimed my husband, Dennis, his New York candor more prosaic than poetic, as we drove around Namibia last January. The austere landscape had shifted from barren scrubland to enormous jumbles of rocks that looked as if God had forgotten to straighten them up.

Yet there is something beguiling about the bleakness of this place that you miss if you bop across the country by air, from warthog to lion, from sand spout to watering hole. Namibia is as much about the environmental and human interstices between sites as about the sites themselves.

By far the most mesmerizing of those sites is in the northwest corner of the country, in Kunene. This is not tourist Africa, which is fast becoming one gigantic game park, or the show Africa of tribesmen and women who dress up like their grandparents for visitors but go home and don jeans before heading out to the local disco. This is dusty, chaotic Africa, where donkey carts are more common conveyances than buses, where animals are killed for clothing as well as for food, and where words like globalization and the Internet have not yet entered the popular vocabulary.

All the paradoxes of modern Africa seem to be concentrated in that remote corner of Namibia, and they are at their most glaring inside the OK Grocer, on the edge of the dusty town of Opuwo, just 100 miles south of the Angolan border. There on a morning in late January, two Himba women, their breasts bared, their waists draped with multilayered goatskin miniskirts, ogled the rich German-style cream cakes on display. The glass of the showcase was already streaked with red from the mixture of fat, ash and ochre-colored mud with which Himba woman coat their bodies and hair, their homemade version of Clarins Hydra-Wear.

In the adjacent aisle, a stout Herero matron examined the meager selection of vegetables. Decked out in her traditional garb — a long-sleeved and long-skirted dress that could have been a costume for a Victorian period drama if not for the hat, an oversized, cloth-covered pan with what appeared to be a baguette sitting on top — she culled disapprovingly through a bin of potatoes and harrumphed before she hiked up her prodigious skirts and walked out.

At the checkout counter, a Timba teenager waiting for the clerk to ring up a pile of cooking oil, salt and beans sported the beads and brassiere that distinguish her from her Himba cousins, although one of her breasts was hanging out, whether as a fashion statement or because she’d gotten up late, it was unclear. Behind her, a young white woman flicked her ponytail impatiently; all she was buying was a single jar of cocktail olives.

Outside, two bull-necked Afrikaners sipped tea in the garden of the adjacent coffee shop, and a Himba man in a Cal State T-shirt and a two-panel skirt — short and gathered in the front, long and straight in back — distractedly herded goats down the main street while chatting on his cellphone.

I seemed to be the only person in town who found the scene noteworthy.

On a continent where centuries of European encroachments have inexorably eroded tradition, Africans who cling to outward manifestations of their culture are the rarest of sights. And there’s perhaps nowhere in the region where outsiders can mingle with them more easily, more casually, than in Opuwo.

But Namibia is nothing if not unpredictable, and just a day’s drive from the OK Grocer, you can find yourself among meticulously coiffed Germans shopping for springbok-skin photo albums, handcrafted silver jewelry encrusted with malachite or mandarin garnet, and elephant-hide belts in the elegant boutiques of Swakopmund, a surreal seaside town that feels like a cross between Brighton-by-the-Sea and Bavaria.

For decades until 1914, Namibia was a German colony, South West Africa, and even 94 years after Germany lost it as the spoils of defeat in World War I, the Teutonic imprint on Swakop, as locals call the city, remains unmistakable. The standard plats du jour are schnitzel and bratwurst; the architecture of the old prison, the train station, the jail and dozens of other structures is late 19th-century Munich; and the streets are so tidy that Kaiser Wilhelm, for whom the main avenue was named until the government changed it six years ago, would be proud.

The only clear sign that the town is actually in Africa is the throng of black workers who pick up the trash before it can hit the ground. Blond children scoot around on bicycles, elderly German couples take their evening constitutionals along the waterfront and teenagers who look surprisingly like California surfer dudes guide tourists through an utterly un-African extreme sports scene: sand boarding, sand sledding, sand skiing and sand sailing — none of which includes a dune lift, so all of which demand repeated uphill slogs through the sand and the inhalation of lungfuls of Namibian dust.

With its traffic lights, pubs and trendy restaurants, Swakop provides a delightful respite from the grinding isolation that is most of the country. But the illusion of Europe embedded deep in the heart of Africa vanishes barely a mile from the center of town.

Minutes beyond the city limits, it’s hard to recall that chimera at all. The scene becomes a panorama of desolation, of rocks and scrubby trees, lava fields and herds of goats. The occasional Damara and Herero homesteads bear no trace of the Germanic penchant for order; they are tiny mean huts cobbled together from sheet metal, elephant dung, car doors, truck canopies, straw and whatever else is at hand.

This is a wild land of enormous skies, nomadic herders and vast farms with the thinnest possible veneer of modernity. For decades, the Skeleton Coast, north of Swakopmund, buffeted by impenetrable fog, perilous cross currents and treacherous reefs, has been a graveyard for ships, and Kaokoland, the ruggedly inaccessible northern mountains shrouded by the mists of the Atlantic, wasn’t fully explored until the second half of the 20th century.

Where Namibia meets both Angola and the sea, hunters and gatherers still wander remote mountains. In a country twice the size of California but with just two million inhabitants, the major cities, Swakopmund and Windhoek, the capital, feel like prefabricated alien entities plopped down without any local roots.

EXPLORING the back roads on our own in a rented 4 x 4 truck, we found ourselves drag racing with ostriches — and discovering that despite their awkward gait, they usually win. And we wound up eating lunch at the old German fort at Sesfontein that looks so much like part of a movie set for a film like “Beau Geste” that I couldn’t help but wonder whether Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and their pals from the French Foreign Legion were about to ride up on their camels.

In Damaraland, we wended our way around the Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain (8,440 feet), and lingered at the gallery of 6,000-year-old San petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein. If you’re as lucky as we were, a desert-adapted elephant will saunter by before you check in at a luxurious lodge where the wine is always at a perfect temperature, and a much-needed massage may be available.

Namibia might have a lot of nothingness, but that nothingness can be viewed with sundowners from the verandas of any of dozens of high-end lodges and tented camps or at one of the plethora of guest farms that provide a glimpse into what feels like the last redoubt of white colonial Africa.

While the game-viewing at Etosha National Park and along the Botswanan border is among the best in southern Africa, Namibia is one of the few countries where visitors are likely to see serious game outside of a park. So you don’t merely check off animals or the sights marked in guidebooks as “highlights.”

You can be waylaid by the unexpected baboon sitting atop a fence post by the side of the road, by the odd shovel-mouthed lizard, or by the huge haystacklike homes of sociable weaver birds. After a week, it felt ordinary to spot an elephant tusk as we drove down the road or to glimpse a giraffe chomping on a tree when we pulled over for a sandwich or ran into town for milk.

But when I dream of Namibia, it is not of the Big Five, or the little antelopes and warthogs, but of the OK Grocer. As I wandered out of it on my first day in Opuwo, my mouth still agape from the richness of clanging cultures, a Himba woman approached me, covetously eyeing the sleeveless short dress I’d bought at Banana Republic and offering to sell me bits and pieces of her own outfit — a necklace or two, a beaded ankle bracelet, a woven container of the ochre mixture she smothers on her hair.

I was more covetous than she was. I would get an original; she would wind up with off the rack. But even as I purchased a fabulous ankle bracelet made of metal beads wrought from melted wire, I flashed back to the women inside the supermarket and their obvious hunger for the most untraditional of cream cakes, at least in Himba terms, and couldn’t help but wonder how soon the woman in front of me would trade in her goatskins for clothes like mine.

Go soon to Namibia. The rhinos will always be there, but Banana Republic might be as well.

As seen in the New York Times
August 24, 2008


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