We have been taking our time settling in back home and taking full advantage of the holidays (because we were due for a vacation), but with the new year, I thought I’d take a quick look back and share with you some of the most memorable moments of the year (in order of occurrence).
Hiking Monte Pasubio [Vicenza, Italy]
The Monte Pasubio tunnels are an important part of Italian history that Moreno just happens to be super interested in (WW1). He wanted to hike them when we heard about them last time we were in Italy, and this year while I stayed sniffling in bed, he ventured off and checked it off his Italy bucketlist.
First wildlife sightings [Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa]
Pilanesberg was just a couple hours outside of Johannesburg and was our first experience seeing all these animals in the wild. It was surreal to see them not in their own designated zones like in a zoo, instead there were zebras hanging out with wildebeest while ostriches ran around and we never quite got over feeling like we were in a movie.
Tracking our first cheetah [Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa]
It’s one thing to spot a lazy lion chillin’ under a tree when there’s already three other vehicles parked taking photos and giving away its position, and a whole other to watch other animals’ behaviour and patiently track and wait for a cheetah to appear. Suffice it to say we were very proud of ourselves.
Getting blown away at Cape Diaz [Luderitz, Namibia]
Moreno took a video of me standing on top of this lookout at Cape Diaz on the Atlantic coast trying to explain just how windy it was while holding on to one of the pillars and to my hood. I can tell you it was so windy you can’t actually hear anything.
Seeing (and getting charged by) elephants in the wild [Damaraland, Namibia]
Not necessarily a pleasant moment, but a memorable one nonetheless. Seeing elephants in the wild was probably one of my most vivid African dreams, and Moreno getting charged by one while I hid in the bushes definitely delivered.
Skydiving [Swakopmund, Namibia]
Probably the funnest experience of the whole trip, we tandem skydived for my birthday to a backdrop of ocean and desert. Definitely made up for not bungee jumping!
Whitewater rafting [Victoria Falls, Zambia]
We were a bit hesitant about doing the whitewater rafting at Vic Falls but in the end were wishing we had signed up for the full day! Even the flipping over was a thrill – and helped us cool off from the Zambian midday heat.
Canoe Trip [Lower Zambezi, Zambia]
When we post the video of the elephant that sloshed over to us (a good three or less meters away) you’ll be able to imagine how absolutely magnificent, and absolutely terrifying, they truly are.
Bush camping [Lower Zambezi, Zambia]
An experience in its own right, camping on a small island on the Zambezi River with a group of great people and hearing all the wildlife around was heart pounding and one of those experiences where we caught ourselves thinking, “life is good.”
Snorkelling with whale sharks [Tofo, Mozambique]
Snorkelling in Tofo was particularly amazing because somewhere along the line I had developed a fear of such things…snorkeling, deep water – it wasn’t my favourite situation to be in. But throughout our trip we had done enough little things that by the time our ocean safari guide yelled, “Whale shark! Jump!” I jumped in that water with the rest of them :D
Getting pampered at Rosendal Winery & Wellness Retreat [Robertson, South Africa]
Perhaps not as exhilarating as some of the other things on the list but we wished we had more time at this winery and spa anyway. The food was delicious, the wine was free, the spa treatments were sooooo relaxing, and we walked around as if on a lavender filled cloud 9 the whole time. Perfect for settling down a bit before coming home.
And that’s it. Well, actually, there’s a lot of things that could’ve made the list. Some of the top ones were actually meeting up with friends in Germany and Italy, and my whole family being together (for the first time ever) in Poland.
MORENO:After visiting Twyfelfontein, we had allotted another day to visit some nearby sites, but bumping into Jan and Jessica, a German couple we met in Sossusvlei, we were convinced that by passing up on some of these sites we wouldn’t be missing much.
We still planned to drive to Namibia’s highest peak, Brandberg, to find camp, but after being asked about our plans by a game driver on the road, we were persuaded to call it a day and find somewhere to sleep nearby.
We followed him to Aabadi Camp where desert elephants had just been spotted. We drove the Landy right down into a sandy riverbed in the direction of the elephants’ last known whereabouts. The sand got deeper and softer and my tire pressure was too high for it while my confidence in sand still somewhat low. So I decided to turn back before getting stuck.
Back in Jo’burg, James had warned us about the power and danger that elephants can present. “The elephant is a sexual animal: if it decides it doesn’t like you, you’re f*#%ed.” He told us about elephants driving their tusks through the metal bodies of safari jeeps and even knocking over SUV’s and stomping on them. With those ideas in my head, I was happy to head back to the camp’s bar for a beer.
To Walk or Rove
The game driver was still there and asked if we saw the elephants, and I reported that we had not gone that far in the Land Rover for fear of getting stuck but might go on foot. He warned us definitely not to go on foot, but assured us that we had the right vehicle and to just drop the tire pressure to between 1-2 bar (an unfamiliar unit of measure for me) and “go for it.”
“If you find you’re getting stuck,” he added, “Drop it into low range and go for it. If you get into more trouble, lock the diff and go for it.” And then he added, “But, if you still get stuck, you’re f*#%ed. Wait for me in my Land Cruiser.”
Even as a new Land Rover owner, my ears burned at the thought of being rescued by a Toyota. I said that we would go back and give it a try. “You’re going on foot aren’t you?” he asked. It’s as if he could read the hesitation on my face. I denied the accusation and he smiled knowing that we were not going in the Landy.
So we grabbed a camera and lens and set out on foot over red boulders on the side of the river in search of the beasts, making sure to stay out of the dry riverbed. We were alone and at some point began to feel like there might be any number of predatory cats lurking behind a rock waiting to pounce on us delicious pieces of Canadian bacon. We ventured a bit further and then the fears disappeared when we I spotted a smallish, if you can ever say small when refering to an animal of its’ size, elephant.
We spied them, growing in numbers, from the safety of the rocks for about fifteen minutes before feeling brave and curious enough to climb down and track the herd as it moved along, feeding as it went.
Walking with Elephants
The walk was magical. We weren’t in our vehicle like in Pilanesburg where we first saw elephants. There was no noisy diesel motor or air conditioner blowing or windows in the way. It was just us and about twenty giants…and Jan and Jessica who we just sighted scrambling over the rocks coming to our position (we just keep finding eachother).
Together and in silence we moved along the bank of the riverbed in the direction of the herd, hiding behind trees, careful not to get too close, and keen to keep an eye on the one that would occasionally take notice of our presence and grunt.
Eventually we followed the elephants back to our camp, but now it was getting harder to keep track of not only all the elephants but also Kat’s whereabouts as all were spreading out.
KAT (interjection): At this point, we were very close to them, and the bank was pretty much level with the ground. I was no longer comfortable with following Moreno, but as the elephants were right there, a few meters in front of us, I didn’t want to speak above a whisper and catch their attention. Moreno did not hear or see me go around the bush on the safe side, slowly making my way to a bush further away where Jan and Jessica had joined the rest of the camp in taking photos of the passing elephants from a safe distance.
As I rounded the bush, I immediately noticed an elephant further off in the river bed but with a very direct view of me. The camp audience looked to me. So did the elephant. I felt so exposed, I didn’t want to move, and was sure that once trampled I’d be a statistic case of ‘tourist that was stupid enough to be in the open with an elephant.’ I proceeded to slowly make my way behind a flimsy tree surrounded by sparse bushes, about ten meters away from the bank. I could see the rest of the camp people another 15 meters off from me, but didn’t feel safe to walk there just yet.
MORENO: I had a good idea of where the mean one was. One elephant in particular was the only one to take notice of us and its demeanor was obviously not to be our friend. This elephant was always a ways off to the rear. I had moved closer to the edge of the riverbed and then right in front of me I noticed one behind a bush. Not more than five meters distance and some thin, leafy elephant food separated us.
My immediate reaction was shock that this five ton creature could be so close without making a sound. You would think something so large would move about with loud, thundering steps, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, but they can be remarkably quiet. So I stood motionless, but the elephant moved around the bush to reach more clumps of leaves and then made eye contact with me.
I was told they have poor vision. Perhaps they do but with me standing there in my jet black shirt against a light background and only a car length away it was obvious that it would see me. Yet I remained still, praying I was wrong and simultaniously in awe of this up close experience with such a massive and intelligent mammal. Then in my stillness, with its eyes locked on mine, it scoffs, flaps its ears and takes a few aggressive steps in my direction.
KAT: I have no idea where Moreno is, but have everyone else in my view and all of a sudden, as one, they all give out a low panicked “Oooh.” And shuffle away another few meters. I know instinctively Moreno’s pissing off an elephant but can’t see anything just yet.
MORENO: My internal “Oh shit” meter is off the charts. I take three slow steps backwards, and then it charges at me. Just as I turn away to begin my sprint I hear the unmistakable sound of it trumpeting and its footsteps now pounding much louder than my heart.
KAT: And all I hear is a trumpet sound and then the very quick pitter patter of feet somewhere to my left. *facepalm*
MORENO: I run about 50 meters checking over my shoulder to see it still coming, but it does eventually stop after about 15 meters. It’s only when I stop (even further away) that I see that Kat is not where I thought she was, but instead hiding behind a shrub with the elephant standing quite close to her now.
KAT: It’s silent. I manage to peer through some of the shurbbery and sure enough see an elephant face, bright white tusks, facing up past me towards where the footsteps have gone. Luckily, I don’t actually realize how close it is to me. I know it can’t see me because I’m smartly wearing my blendy safari shirt but I’m terrified of it hearing me crouched there, angry that I’m hiding. I look behind me. The toilet is about twenty meters away, but the walls are made of wooden sticks that even if I would make a run for it, the elephant could trample.
We had just watched Jurassic Park and all I could think was, Oh I am not going down in a toilet stall. I considered making a break for the rest of the camp people, but I couldn’t see them anymore. I did manage to be consious of the fact that they could probably see me and that I probably looked ridiculous, so while stuck for what seemed like ever hiding behind this flimsy tree, terrified the elephant would come after me if I made a run for it, I also attempted to look completely in my element and nonchalant.
Unfortunately, looking for an escape route, I lost my view of the elephant, and when I turned back, couldn’t see it any longer. Panic set in. Could I just not see it any more or was it slowly making its way in my direction, ever so quietly like I knew it was capable without me knowing? Visions of elephant popping out from behind the tree flooded my brain and I decided to go around the other way to get a better view.
MORENO: I didn’t want to shout to Kat, but I could see that she didn’t have a clear site of where the elephant was and wouldn’t know how close danger was. After a few attempts of hissing and arm waving, further agrivating the beast which maintained its staredown with me, I got her attention when she finally turned around. I signalled her to stay low and move back to keep the shrub between her and the elephant.
KAT: I was relieved to see Moreno, and glad he could guide me somehow, but after telling me to stay down, he just stood there and smiled. I frantically threw my arms in the air, signalling “Now what??” But he just stood there. I looked back on the other side and saw moving elephants, so assumed the path was clear and made my way to Moreno.
MORENO: Our signals got crossed and she started towards me, but it was at the same moment that the elephant turned and made off in the opposite direction. It didn’t see her. All were safe, just left with an adrenaline overload and pounding chests.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Healthy palms line the sidewalks, and somewhere in the distance there is the cry of seagulls, a hint of water.
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.
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.
Everywhere we turn, wind and sand, together, as one inseparable entity.