Cape Cross Seal Colony: If it smells like a dairy farm and sounds like a goat…

I expected it to be bad, but it was more intense than that. And louder. They sound like goats, but worse. And the smell? Ugh.

Cape Cross: The Current Colony

One of our stops on the Namibian coast was Cape Cross, named for the cross erected there in 1486 in honour of King John I of Portugal by Diego Cao, the first European to set foot there.

But what people really come to see at Cape Cross is the massive breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals. There are currently almost 100,000 seals at Cape Cross, making it one of the largest (and smelliest) colonies in all of Southern Africa.

Mass of cape fur seals, Cape Cross, Namibia - AnywhereBound
Just one sepia toned monochromatic mass.

The Breeding Cycle

The colony is made up of only adult females and their pups; the bulls only come around for the mating season. When the females are about three years old, they are mature enough to breed, which they do shortly after the arrival of the males.

The bulls will mate with each cow in their harem (5-25 females), and she will quickly become pregnant. The ova will start development after three months (ultimately giving those few months to rest). Most pups are born between late November and early December within a 34 day period . The bulls, on land at the time, will mate with each cow within a week of her giving birth.

Seal cub suckling, Cape Cross, Namibia - AnywhereBound
A cow and her cub. This cub must’ve been just under a year old.

Did you catch that timeline? The female gives birth in November, gets pregnant in December, the ova starts to develop in March, and then she gives birth again in November, ultimately making her pregnant almost all year for the rest of her life.

Risks and Dangers

(WARNING: If you don’t like the sight of dead animals, skip the photo below).

The Cape Cross seals are vulnerable to two main predators, the black-backed jackal and the brown hyena, who stalk at night. However, the mortality rate is partially high because of “trampling by other seals, drowning and abandonment.”

Alternatively, the mom and pup might be separated during a stampede, or she may be killed while at sea.  We couldn’t fathom all the little skulls lying around the area, until we realized that they were of the newborn pups, likely picked clean by the vulturous seagulls that were around.

Seagull picking at dead baby seal, Cape Cross, Namibia - AnywhereBound
So sad. So gross.

Life at Cape Cross

The seals at Cape Cross have the whole coastline there to themselves. Most lie around on the sand, sunbathing, quite a few right underneath the boardwalk designed to let visitors get a better view. Others sit on the rocks closer to the water, where they’re constantly drenched by the waves and more in the midst of the action, fighting and playing.

Seal establishing dominance
Seal establishing dominance

The third group is largely devoted to the water, frolicking in the giant waves. Besides sharks, which there aren’t many of here, the seals don’t have much to fear in the water, and are most agile and most protected there.

When the seals get out of the water, which is an art form in itself, they are immediately honking, calling, crying, looking for their mother, their group. It is a constant noise. Some of the seals sound like goats, others like fat men coughing up their lungs, others like menacing lions snarling and growling, all in a cacophony of horror movie sounds.

Cute little seal cub
Cute little seal cub resting under the walkway

Why you should visit

Visiting the colony at Cape Cross really presented an opportunity to watch the seals in their environment. Because of the sheer number of them, it was unlike anything possible at the zoo; here we were able to see their natural behaviours, the natural parts of the life cycle, play out.

It was actually remarkable to focus on a small group and watch them interact or ignore one another, decide to feed, or decide to walk away. We could’ve stayed there and watched them for hours.

Well, once we got over the smell.

Cape Cross Seal Colony, Namibia - AnywhereBound
Thousands and thousands of seals lining the coast

Then and Now: The Herero

In the afternoon of the same day we met the Himba, Weston, the owner of the campsite we were staying at in Opuwo, took us to see the Herero tribe. Though now they are easily distinguishable, the Herero and Himba are the same ethnicity, at least originally.

Spiritual Trifecta

Before the colonists arrived in Namibia, there was the Herero tribe: bare chested, ochre dyed, animal tending tribes who shared one language and one culture, tradition and beliefs.

The Herero believe in one god, Mukuru, but also place a great importance on the ancestors. There is a sacred fire near the centre of each village where about once a week the fire keeper sets it alight and communicates with the ancestors and Mukuru. The Herero also believe in omiti or witchcraft and make use of witch doctors.

herero sacred fire
The sacred fire in a Herero village

A Brief History

The Herero entered present day Namibia sometime around 1600 and later when the Nama people arrived, they began to war with them. Much later the Germans arrived, and in an attempt to put down an uprising by both the Herero and Nama, genocide was committed against the Herero people. About 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero perished after being pursued into the desert, away from the last watering holes.

herero boys
Two Herero boys on the steps.

At some point, some of the Herero fled to Angola where, without their livestock, they turned to begging various Angolan tribes for provisions to survive. In Angola, one tribe’s word for beggar was himba, and the name stuck. When large numbers of the new Himba returned to Namibia they found that the Herero who didn’t flee had abandoned many of their customs.

A New Culture

herero woman sewing dress
Herero woman sewing a traditional dress.

The women, of whom many worked as servants and housemaids to German families, adopted their own version of their madams’ dresses. They wear up to seven slips under a finely pleated dress and apron. Because the Herero did still tend cattle and count them as a measure of wealth, the women fashioned their hats to represent their pride and dependence on cows and shaped them into horns.

The Herero also adopted a square and rectangular housing design, but some retained the same method of construction featuring dung. Their villages still center around the sacred fire and while witchcraft and animism are still practiced, most Herero identify themselves as Christians.

herero house
Moreno with Herero boys and grandmother

So the Himba are the real Herero culturally, but the Herero managed to retain the name of their people despite embracing some western values and identity.  Don’d be shy about referring to the Himba as such though, they are fiercely proud of that name and what it identifies with.

Today the Herero and Himba and basically all of Namibia’s many ethnicities get along well and there is no longer any serious conflict.

A Day in a Traditional Himba Village

To visit or not to visit?

Weston, who owns the Orreness Campsite where we had spent the night, agreed to take us on a tour of a Himba village.

We had read about the Himba, a tradition people who walked around bare-chested and covered in red ochre, but had some deliberation about going to see their villages.  I pictured a scene in my head of bus loads of white tourists shoving long telephoto lenses in the faces of traditional people.  The term human zoo comes to mind.

I raised our concern with Weston, himself a Himba man, and he assured us that while there are some “hollywood” villages, he would take us about 30kms to some more traditional ones.  The people in the villages we would go to are actually “honoured to have guests from all over the world come to visit their homes and villages” said Weston, adding “a village without visitors is not a village”.  We were satisfied and set out.

Do as a Good Guest Does

himba shopping
Our shopping cart filled with provisions as a gift to the Himba.

Stop one was to a grocer to buy some gifts.  Its customary and good manners to not show up empty handed.  We buy two sacks of something akin to cornmeal, cooking oil, bread, tea, sugar and a small bag of sweets for the children.  The provisions are to be divided equally among the whole village by one of the chief’s wives.  We drive along a dusty road and stop in at several villages to see if there are any people there to visit.  The first village is empty save for two old women who tell Weston that the next village has more people in it.  The Himba are semi-nomadic and follow their cattle, sheep and goats to water and pastures.  The next village was about half occupied.

Getting to Know Each Other

We arrived and Weston instructed us to wait in the Landy while he pays respect to the chief, in this case the chief’s first wife, and asked for permission for our visit.  We were granted that.  Asking is just out of respect, much as you’d say hello and ask to come in rather than barge in on a neighbour.

herero chief
“The Boss” Himba  chief wannabe

To begin, we visit the elderly first wife of the chief to show respect. She thanks us for visiting and asks some questions of us:

“Are we married?  How many children do we have?  How many wives do I have?”  The Himba are polygamous.  “How old we are?  Where we are from?  And what is Canada like?”  She was genuinely curious about her visitors and most interested in how it is possible for Kat and I to live together and yet have no kids. I sheepishly informed her that “We are quite careful” and left it at that.

Weston took us next to meet two women who were happy to show off their cow skin skirts and leather aprons.  We are shown their ankle bracelets which serve to indicate if a woman has had children and how many.  They also wear a leather headdress which identifies a woman who has arrived at child bearing age.  There is a lot of thought and work put into their clothing and seeing it up close was quite interesting.

The Himba Shower

Next we are invited into a home to watch as one of the younger Himba women is preparing to colour herself.  The Himba are easily recognizable by their reddish skin colouring.  The woman sits on a cow hide in her dark but refreshingly cool hut made of sticks, mud and cow dung and is grinding ochre with stones into a fine powder. She then mixes the red powder with butter fat and rubs it into her skin and hair.  She instantly becomes shiny and bright reddish brown.

Himba breastfeeding
Young Himba woman breastfeeds her toddler.

This covering serves to protect the skin in such a dry climate, keep them clean and defend against mosquitos.  She then places some small pieces of a plant root found locally onto a tiny smouldering pile of coals from the night’s fire and the hut is filled with incense.  She bathes and deodorizes in the smoke.  The Himba think its ludicrous that we whites bathe with water so often, spray prefume and roll on deodorant.  Now she is clean and put together for a day in the Himba village.  Her one year old grabs hold of her breast and has a suckle.  His face is covered in red when he’s finished.

Little Adults

himba baby
Moreno with a Himba baby.

Something that stands out to me in the Himba village and in many places in the developing world is how well behaved the children are.  Its rare to hear a child cry and when they do its often due to a legitimate pain or as a very brief way to let mother know the child is hungry.  Once a Himba child is old enough to walk, he is already immersed in the responsibilities of tending to livestock.  Boys as young as five already take small herds of kids or lambs out of the village corral and to far away pastures.  Boys around ten can be seen many miles away from their homes with larger herds of larger animals.

himba hair
Himba children’s’ hair styles.

Only about 30% of Himba children go to school, but after seeing how their culture works and how they live within their means, I find myself questioning whether they could actually benefit from modern schooling.  How many ten year olds in the west are as practical or responsible or even as happy as a Himba boy with his animals?  Sure our children in Canada are tech savy enough to bypass the parental controls on the family computer so he can post to facebook, but can he plough a field, monitor 50 animals or fix the village water pump?  The children of the Himba seemed satisfied in life.

We are From a Cold Country

When we leave the freshly coloured woman’s hut we are invited to sit with some of the other women under a shade.  They shake hands and we all introduce ourselves.  Right away they comment to each other and Weston translates, “Kat’s skin and your skin are so cold”.  We laugh and tell them “We are from a cold country”.  They laugh back and tell us we “must let ourselves be warmed by the African sun”.

himba women touching
Himba women touch Kat to see if she is cold.

Sitting with the women and a few children is a highlight for me.  They seem quite casual and nonchalant.  They ask genuine questions like “Did your parents use something to pinch our noses as children so that they would grow so narrow?”  They are very interested in Kat’s piercings and ask if they hurt.  The Himba don’t pierce.

kats tongue
Kat showing her piercing to the Himba women

We are asked again how many wives, children, age and I’m even asked if I would like to marry a Himba.  The one next to me confesses a crush on me.  We share many laughs through translation and hand signals.

himba concubine
Moreno’s Himba concubine, just kidding. [Kat’s edit: Himba-Selfie!!]

Favourite Places of 2014

Last week, we posted our most memorable moments of 2014. This week we wanted to take you to some of our favourite places. In order of travel:

Berlin, Germany

reichstag
The Reichstag in Berlin

We only spent a few days in Berlin, mostly to visit a darling travel girlfriend of mine from southeast Asia, but our few days were the perfect balance of relaxing local-style and visiting all the tourist must-sees. Berlin was fantastic, and as it was also Moreno’s first time there, as a history nut, it was definitely a phenomenal learning experience.

Mesosaurus, Namibia

Crazy quiver trees at Mesosaurus bush camp
Crazy quiver trees at Mesosaurus bush camp

This wasn’t on our list of places to visit, and it’s not exactly a place we would drive out of our way to see, but the first time we laid eyes on the crazy quiver tree landscape at the Mesosaurus bush camp our first night in Namibia we were completely stunned and couldn’t get enough of how absolutely alien everything around us looked.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

Moreno silhouette at Fish River Canyon, Namibia
Moreno standing on the edge of Devil’s Peak at Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon was breathtakingly stunning, and standing on the edge of it while the wind whipped the light rain back off our clothes was one of our favourite experiences of the trip.

Sossusvlei, Namibia

People on dune, Sossusvlei, Namibia - AnywhereBound
Tourists climbing one of the dunes at Sossusvlei

One of the most popular destinations in Namibia that still manages to feel deserted, the dunes of Sossusvlei are some of the highest in the world and are something to behold. Next time, we climb even higher.

Ngepi Camp, Caprivi Strip, Namibia

The bar and reception at Ngepi Camp
The bar and reception at Ngepi Camp

The only actual campsite on this list, Ngepi Camp on the Caprivi Strip honestly goes down as one of our favourite places in Africa. I swear! The atmosphere of this place, the wilderness, the sounds, the treehouse feel, the outdoor bathrooms, the hippos on the lake…and (bonus!) completely sustainable and eco-friendly. Heaven.

Lake Malawi

beach swings
Just another gorgeous sunset right outside our bungalow

We only saw a snippet of Malawi and unfortunately it wasn’t our favourite part of the trip due to various other circumstances. That said, the lake itself was beautiful and we know we want to go back and tour around more of it.

Tofo, Mozambique

Bench outside Casa Barry, Tofo, Mozambique - AnywhereBound
Bench outside our bungalow at Tofo beach

Small enough to get to know quickly, but with enough amenities (not to mention yoga, snorkelling and diving!) to spend a good couple of weeks, the little village of Tofo quickly earned a soft spot in our hearts and became the place we’d definitely return to ‘next time around.’

Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Moreno with Policeman's helmet, Drakensberg, South Africa
Moreno facing the Policeman’s Helmet at Drakensberg North

The Drakensberg Mountains weren’t the type of mountains we expected but were nonetheless beautiful. The hikes alone could easily justify spending at least a week or two in the area and doing just that is also on our ‘when we return’ list.

Oh, and the colours are that intense.

Tsitsikamma, Garden Route, South Africa

Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma National Park…foggy but gorgeous

The weather was not in our favour when we visited the Garden Route but we could still tell (even through the dense fog) that the area was just gorgeous. We’d return to the Tsitsikamma Park in a heartbeat, but definitely want to visit the rest of the Garden Route as well.

The Cape Peninsula, South Africa

View from Chapman's Peak, Cape Peninsula, South Africa - AnywhereBound
Just one of the stunning views off Chapman’s Peak

Cape Town, Boulders Beach, Chapman’s Peak, the V&A Waterfront…I think I’m in love with this area. As I mentioned before, it’s the only place we agreed was actually more stunning than Vancouver (crazy, right?) and we could easily take our time exploring the area for more than the two days we had.

That sums up our 2014!

Next task: plan the year ahead. Stay tuned!