First Impressions: Windhoek

Doors locked, windows up, gaps in traffic maintained, and eyes darting between mirrors and suspicious of any pedestrian coming too close. This was how we drove into Windhoek.

Most travelers to Namibia begin or end their trip in the capital city of Windhoek (windy corner). Having been warned that it is the location of the most crime in the country (as big cities tend to be), and assured that we wouldn’t be missing anything by skipping it, we had planned on avoiding it altogether, and managed to give it quite a wide berth up to that point.

B1 to Windhoek
Route to Windhoek…at least it was filled with warthogs.

Now we were rolling in despite ourselves to run some errands, and were rather weary of it. Actually, after the break-in that shocked our campsite earlier that morning, we were downright dreading it.

Coming off the highway, the city is big. It’s no Jo’burg, but it’s enough to remind us of the big city warnings.

But as we drive we begin to ease up a bit mentally. There are none of the throngs of loiterers that crowd the cities in South Africa, the other towns in Namibia. The people are dressed up, clean cut, relaxed. Most are on their way to or from something. They are busy, look occupied, have purpose.

Windhoek street
Entering deeper into Windhoek center….

As we get closer to the center, rich palms and luscious purple-flowered jacaranda trees neither of us have seen before burst out onto every street, splashing it with colour and making for an unexpectedly pleasant atmosphere. The city is actually kind of beautiful, kind of quaint.

Christus Kirche
Gorgeous jacarandas, lush trees, quirky center island choices….

A mechanic tells us that those that live here know Windhoek’s full of crime and they’re prepared for it: houses are compounds, guarded by tall fences and electrified wire reminiscent of Jo’burg. We keep our doors locked.

We sleep paranoid in a guarded campsite resort. In the morning we run errands.

Christ Church stands in the middle of a traffic circle. It is the only tourist attraction we actually see.

First Impressions: Livingstone

LOVE.

Zambia is beautiful. It is greener, lush-er, colourful-er than anything we’ve seen in the past nine weeks in Africa, the humid opposite of Namibia, and the Africa that we had come to see.

From the unorthodox air of formality at the border post –

an unclear order of a multitude of counters where we paid unexplained and unnamed fees, incorrectly entered information dismissed with the wave of a hand, breastfeeding with half the community present at the insurance window, and a suggestion box in the corner to let them know how best to run their border control

– to the fullness on the streets:

tall trees and bushes, semis swerving along potholed roads, children in tattered clothes running barefoot on the dirt, women in colourful patterns carrying something – everything – on their heads, and everyone on bicycles…

This is what we were waiting for.

bridge to zambia
Bridge over Zambezi into Zambia

Immediately Livingstone, the base town for Victoria Falls, felt familiar. It reminded me of Southeast Asia, a backpacker haunt, where the air is humid, the nights are hot, the music is on, and the chair is always in the lounge position if not actually a mattress. And I loved it.

vic falls
En route to Devil’s Pool on top of Victoria Falls.

But we entered after sunset, a bad idea for any town, and any camp: it is dark, it’s hard to get your bearings straight, you can’t see what anything really looks like, and inevitably the lights won’t work, the wifi will be broken, the water will be cold, and a dog around the corner won’t stop yapping. And being far away from the center, on an unlit road in a compound can only build on fear of what’s out there.

sesheke
Dusty colourful towns on the edges of roads is just what we wanted.

But the muezzin call woke me up at 4:45am and I loved it. And we moved camps to a backpacker haunt that’s off the main strip right where women in colourful patterns carry groceries home, children in white and brown uniforms walk to school, and silver taxis with a purple stripe carry business men to work, and it is exactly what we wanted.

Love love love.

Except the mosquitos. Damn they’re vicious.

Week 9: Onwards and Upwards

As I write this, we are sitting on a grassy tall bank of the Okavango River, watching eight hippos occassionally peer out from the water, yawn, and honk their nasal bark about 50 meters from us. And then locals float by on some mokoros (wooden boats). And then the hippos grunt at them for coming too close…

It all feels a bit surreal. We’re in a completely different environment than we were even a few days ago.

Waiting at Walvis Bay

I was of course on a high most of the week coming off my birthday on Sunday, though the rest of the week went by quite uneventfully as we waited for the Landy to be checked over and to hear something – anything – about Moreno’s passport. There’s taking a time out to relax, and then there’s waiting around, and by the time we left Walvis Bay Thursday morning we were so ready for a change.

Passport Drama

By that evening we were back in the capital, and, after some more dramatic emails between the embassy in Pretoria, DHL, and the Consulate in Windhoek (the passport temporarily went ‘missing’), we were given the go ahead to come and pick it up Friday morning. Finally!! (*applause and cheers*)

So with that, we headed north east towards the Caprivi Strip, where we are now, bordered on the north and south by Angola/Zambia and Botswana respectively.

The Time Issue

Unfortunately, finally being able to work out the timing for the rest of the trip resulted in us calculating out how much time we in fact did not have. Consequently, we started doing exactly what we were trying to avoid – madly skimming through the guidebooks and maps all over again to determine how fast we could rush everything and/or what we were willing to cut out. We still don’t know anything for sure, and there’s a lot of dependent variables at play, but we now have three contingency plans based on various administrative limitations and differing timelines.

We’ll see.

Next up: Zambia!!!

Eat Diamonds, Shine All Day at Kolmanskop Ghost Town

“Welcomm to Kolmunh-skopp,” our tour guide said. “Rrrremeberrrr,” her r’s rolled for miles. “Do not go past the fence, it is forrrrbidden.”

And so began our tour of Kolmanskop, the abandoned diamond town on the coast of Namibia. It didn’t look like there was much around – ten minutes to one direction was the Atlantic Ocean, and everything else was desert – but numerous signs warned not to stray off the road: here, you were in the Sperrgebiet: forbidden territory.

kolmanskop houses
Kolmanskop and nothing but desert all around

Kolmanskop in its Heydey

The first diamond was found here in 1908 by a worker named Zacharias Lewala, who recognized a rock he found to be similar to the diamonds he’d seen in the Kimberely mine in South Africa.  He took it to his supervisor who then took it to be appraised, but the appraiser, knowing its true value, refused to appraise it until he was promised a share of half of the proceeds.

Kolmanskop exploded. A railway was built, water was brought in from South Africa, and a town was settled. There was a school, a shop, a bowling alley, an ice-factory, as well as a hospital with the first x-ray machine in Southern Africa.

meeting hall
This was the everything hall: it served as a banquet hall, a chapel, a meeting hall, a gym…
bowling alley
But the bowling alley was separate
bedroom
A lot of the rooms had been refitted to look they way they had been…
kitchen
…the furniture wasn’t all necessarily from within that particular house…
stove
…but was all collected from within Kolmanskop to outfit it as an example.

Abandoned

The town was abandoned in 1954 due to the gradual decline of diamond prices and the more prosperous deposits found further south.
While some of the dwellings had been preserved for archival and touristic purposes, the rest of the town was left to the forces of nature, which eventually windswept the desert through the doors and into every nook and cranny.

bathtub
A few of these lying around in various states of disrepair
sand in blue room
The abandoned houses all had some level of sand occupying them…
sand in yellow room
…some had more sand than others…
moreno in doorway
…some you could barely walk through!

Kolmanskop Now

The town is the only place within the Sperrgebiet that is easily accessible by tourists (and makes for some great photos – none of these have been touched up). The rest if off limits to tourists, except for controlled tours which visit some other ‘ghost towns’ in the area, and some that visit the mine in Elizabeth Bay, which is only 30 kilometers south, and is actually still operational.

decrepit stairs
A decrepit set of stairs in one of the houses
decrepit staircase
…of course we climbed them…

The diamond shop in Kolmanskop still has three diamonds for sale (ranging from $2,000 – $7,000 CDN), but when these finally sell, the shop will close for good.

signboard
“Eat diamonds for breakfast, shine all day” :)

First Impressions: Lüderitz

A gaudy hollywood sign with the word “Lüderitz” welcomes us from a nearby hill. The rest of the scenery we pass is less inviting – a land of flat mud, sand, monotone gray.

Luderitz beckons. Namibia - Anywhere Bound
Luderitz beckons…

The town is almost charming, if kitschy. It spans eight blocks of roads wider than necessary for the lack of traffic, eight blocks of banks and houses and shops decked in yellow and pink providing the German architecture the guidebooks obsess over.

Luderitz is 'known' for its quaint German architecture
Luderitz is ‘known’ for its quaint German architecture

Healthy palms line the sidewalks, and somewhere in the distance there is the cry of seagulls, a hint of water.

Luderitz bay, between mainland and Shark Island peninsula. Namibia - Anywhere Bound
Luderitz bay, between mainland and Shark Island peninsula

It is almost enough to trick us into thinking we are in some deserted charming neighborhood in Miami, but the cold harbor wind quickly snaps us back to reality.

We head straight for the Shark Island campsite passing signs for various backpacker hostels on the way. The small peninsula looks like what I imagine Newfoundland to be: rocky, gray, with colourful fishing villages perched atop the scrags…but with palm trees.

View out to Luderitz from Shark Island. Namibia - Anywhere Bound
View out to Luderitz from Shark Island

We dig out the socks and tights and fleeces and wind breakers that we so adamantly packed away just the day before and huddle with our campsite neighbors by the braai until it is too cold to sit outside.

The morning’s sun pierces our eyes. Our sunglasses only slightly shield us from the sand, which also inevitably makes it into our ears, our noses, our mouths, our hair. The road signs warn “WIND” and “SAND” as the tar is layered with yet another thin carpet of yellow and the irony eats away at the metal.

Wind. Luderitz, Namibia - Anywhere Bound
Wind? No way…

Everywhere we turn, wind and sand, together, as one inseparable entity.