Skeleton Coast key to understanding beautiful Namibia

Thundering along the roads of Etosha National Game Reserve in northern Namibia in our rented camper van, we mow down plains tigers in their dozens, like it or not. 

Skeleton Coast key to understanding beautiful Namibia

Plains tigers, aka African monarchs, are beautiful butterflies, and I regret every one.

We must thunder, in order to glide over the corrugations in the hard-tack, biscuit-coloured road, gravel and dust on clay as hard as stone, blinding white in the sun.

And for “thunder”, read “rattle”, because every saucepan, knife, spoon and entrenching tool (a shovel is supplied in case a dig-out is necessary) bounces and rattles like the hell’s bells unless one maintains a lively gliding speed.

It’s a risk breaking your neck or pulverising your coccyx. I take my chances with the neck.

As I drive, my sharp-eyed wife scans the plains for game. Every now and then, an electric storm marches out of the distance, blue-black and punctuated with the flashes of its artillery.

It hits us, and the camper staggers under the force of the gusts slamming into the side.

In between the assaults, we see antelopes, zebras and a gnu or two. I have never seen rain like in Namibia.

Etosha Reserve, including the vast salt pan, covers 22,200sq km. Vast, like the Kalahari, which we crossed two days later on the Trans Kalahari Highway.

Now, that is a desolate spot. The Ethosa landscape is peppered with dense bushes and small trees: The Kalahari is all but naked for hundreds of kilometres. The first rest camp is 94km from the entrance gate.

That family groups of San Bushmen survived here over generations is extraordinary.

One author who lived amongst them, Van der Post, I think, said somewhere that when a San hunter spotted an antelope, he simply ran after it and kept on behind it day and night, until it faltered and fell, exhausted. He then killed it, butchered it and with the carcass on his shoulders, ran at the same steady pace back to his tribe.

We reached the Skeleton Coast, a thousand kilometres of beach beaten by a relentless sea.

The carcasses of long-lost ships lie rusted on the sand, cast ashore in some long-ago storm. We didn’t see any, but saw, every 100km or so, decaying outposts of failed human endeavour, rusted steel, broken walls.

After proceeding along B and C roads for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres — single-lane roads with a white line down the middle, roads that ran so straight one could, most of the time see 5km ahead (even 10km, measured on the ‘mileometre’) we headed for Swakopmund, a German town.

There, I swam in the cold Benguela Current and found it not cold at all, warmer than Courtmacsherry Bay in West Cork in September.

I was amazed. And flabbergasted at this anachronistic, time-warp of a town, with its streets, none less wide than Cork’s St Patrick Street, dusty, sandy streets laid out in grids, all of which bore German names (Kaiser Willem Strasse, etc) as did shops, businesses and guest houses, names proudly inscribed in the old German Gothic lettering.

In every town we passed through in Namibia, we saw German names, and met deep black Herero, Nama and Damara people with names like Wilhelmina, Heidi and Heinrich.

During their brief (30-year) and infamous occupation of Namibia (Sud Ouest Afrika) at the turn of the 20th century, German settlers and army almost succeeded in exterminating all of the Herero people (who had rebelled against them).

Some 20% survived by escaping into the deserts. However, German influence is accepted and even celebrated today.

Herero matrons still wear the huge Victorian dresses supported by numerous petticoats imposed on them by German missionaries a century ago.

The skirts, of extravagant material, are large as golf umbrellas and Herero ladies require the entire pavement to themselves.

Some 6% of Namibians are white, descendants of these Germans or Afrikaaners whose forebears, in the 18th and 19th century, crossed the Orange River into unknown territory, initially trekking all the way north to Angola.

Afrikaans is the language most spoken by the whites. Black Namibians often speak four languages. English is widely understood.

Watch out for warthogs, the roadside signs graphically warn: not deer, or cattle but warthogs!

Those we saw at a watering hole at dawn, along with gazelles, oryx and ostriches, wore formidable tusks.

On the mudflats of Walvis Bay, famed last port of call or ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope, 119,947 birds were counted on February 27 and 28.

Of these, 40,000 were flamingos. Walvis Bay will be, I hope, our next stop.

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