Thursday, December 20, 2012

Namibian Road Trip!

I loved Namibian mornings.  Compared to most capital cities, mornings in Windhoek dawn quietly - there's not much traffic to crowd the streets, and the colors of the sunset slowly moved across the cityscape as if God were pulling back a blanket.  Our hotel was across the street from the Namibian Supreme Court, so it became the morning landmark I gazed at to watch the progress of the sun.  Well okay, "gazed" might be a little generous...mostly, I squinted sleepily out the window and then got tea as quickly as possible from the spot downstairs that quickly became my favorite coffeeshop/home decorating store on earth.
You think I'm kidding about the greatness of this place, but I'm not.  Even their milk pitcher promised great things!
Our next morning in Namibia didn't allow much time for watching sunrises or sipping cappuccinos, however - it was road trip time!  The trip from Windhoek (in the middle of Namibia) to Swakopmund (on the coast) was about five hours and I was determined not to sleep for a moment - this was the only real wildlife-watching opportunity we'd get!
One of the countless dirt roads stretching into the Namibian wilderness.
The thing no one tells you about Africa is that it's not easy to see the animals.  On PBS it seems they're everywhere - I've never even noticed African foliage because the only thing you see are the cats, elephants and giraffes.  In real life, you've moved past the animals before your brain even registers their presence.  I'm sure it's different in a safari jeep than it was in our van rushing along a highway but the principle seems similar: the trees, brush and colors designed to blend with the natural wildlife?  Yeah, it actually blends with the wildlife.  My contact lenses repeatedly dried into crunchy plastic on my eyes as I stared at the landscape so hard I forgot to blink.  Face pressed to the glass, camera ready, eyes alert...and thankfully, it was not wasted effort.  The camera part was wasted effort, though - all I got was this blurry photo of a warthog.
I finally gave up on photography and just enjoyed seeing the animals for myself.  Babboons, warthogs, lots of springbok and other antelope-like creatures...I got to send them my split-second greetings as we flew past.  My travel pals had a giraffe sighting but I missed it.  And really, wouldn't you?!
Eternal gratitude goes to Ardy, who managed to take this photo AND added the red arrow.  Without it I'd never even be able to pretend I could see the giraffe.
These coveted animal sightings were infrequent during the long drive, but watching Namibia sail by was very entertaining anyway.  The landscape looked so much like Arizona, it gave me an odd sensation that somehow I was traveling in time and had arrived at home.  Plus, there were lots of less popular wildlife sightings, like these interesting nest-like baskets that hung from many of the trees:
On the left of this photograph, hanging from a branch...many trees had so many of these that I lost count.

And then there was my personal favorite, the termite towers.  Absolutely phenomenal from a scientific and/or architectural perspective but the thought of it will make your skin crawl!

Like most other countries, Namibia's empty spaces were dotted with glimpses of civilization.  We stopped at a couple but mostly we just glimpsed these small communities through the window.  None of them reflected the African tribal culture I'd seen portrayed in documentaries about the nation; each of these roadside societies shared the heavily German vibe we'd seen in Windhoek.

I didn't know it then, but the transition from trees and bushes to this desolate desert meant the ocean was near.

Unfortunately, we hadn't left the townships behind in the big city - overcrowded, underprivileged areas surrounded Swakopmund, as well.  Colorful laundry hung from crumbling plywood shacks made semi-waterproof only by black plastic tarps.  Mothers walked with small children in dusty streets, and men lounged in doorways of makeshift businesses.  It was bitingly cold, with wind that embraced you with chilling discomfort as soon as you stepped outdoors.

After the reality of the township, the perfection of our hotel seemed inappropriate and even distasteful.  I was in no way ungrateful for the lovely accommodation and loved every moment we spent there, but was thankful the simple and comfortable rooms did not live up to the exterior's grandeur.
Swakopmund (pronounced Swa-KOPE-mund) was founded in 1892 and is home to approximately 42,000 people.  Those Germans didn't show a lot of creativity in their naming process - the name simply means "mouth of the Swakop," since the Swakop River runs into the sea there.  This Arizona girl has a hard time processing the fact, but it's true: this ocean town is in the Namib Desert.
We didn't get to see much of the town but from what we did see, it felt like a very small town.  If you like German food, it could be a great vacation spot: Beach? Check.  Sand Dunes? Check.  Well-kept, lovely community? Check.
We had only been in Swakopmund for less than an hour but we were already scheduled to leave for a discussion panel. We rebelled just a tiny bit, squeezing in a lunch break at this amazing restaurant on the Swakopmund Jetty before the 45-minute drive to our meeting. 
 Because nothing says "I'm in a beachfront vacation town" like a business suit and heels!

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