The Tradition of a Kiwi Beach Visit

It is 9am.  Jess’ dad decides the swells should be perfect for surfing. He is tanned, in shape, with warm eyes, a healthy face, and a baseball cap with a light ponytail sticking out from under it.

Kiwi tradition dictates lots of time spent in, on, or around the water, and he fits the bill. We pack into the car, windows littered with surfing stickers, and head off.

Paddleboarder
Paddleboarder taking on the waves.

The area is all windy roads hugged by impenetratable greenery – bush, palms, grass that goes up into the hills with the occasional toi-toi feather duster clumps of grass adding a light touch.

We arrive at Te Arai.

1. Climb the dune to watch how the waves break

Te Arai is a surf beach, and I follow Jess up the dune to where her dad is watching the waves break. My first New Zealand sand is just off-white and almost powdery fine between my toes. Heaven. There’s maybe 30 people in sight.

Comings-and-goings-on-Forestry,-New-Zealand-Kat-Nienartowicz,-Anywhere-Bound
Forestry – a perfect beach with almost no one around…

But the swell’s not breaking right.

We move on to Forestry, another beach just behind the bay cliff to the south. We climb the dune to watch how the waves break. There’s even less people here but is is decided that the surf is better. We’re staying.

2. Explore & Enjoy

We set up chairs and blankets and head in our separate directions.

Jess’s dad goes off to find surf. On any given day, depending on the water, Kiwis will surf, kayak, paddleboard – anything to get out on the water.

We ladies walk far along the beach and beachcomb the sand for seashells while waching oystercatchers with their long red beaks tap away at the shells.

An oyster catcher with its pronounced red beak
An oyster catcher with its pronounced red beak

3. Picnic

We sit, chat, and eat corned beef sandwiches, snacking inbetween with some carrots and chips.

It is warm in the sun but the moment that wind blows I zip up and feel ridiculous. We flip through magazines and make conversation with friends that stop by.

I can feel the heat of the sun of my face, the slight wind cooling my cheeks. There’s really no sound other than the waves lappping on the shore and breaking, and sometimes they crack so hard I look up expecting to see a broken surfboard.

Kat at Forestry Beach, watching the surfers
Watching the surfers, feeling the wind

The Last Untouched Te Arai

After a short nap, and meeting the rest of the family, it was decided that we were popping off to Te Arai late morning – the swells were going to be perfect.

Te Arai is on the east coast about an hour north of Auckland and, as the whole area, is known for its surfing.

Looking out at the swell
Looking out at the swell

We walked up a small white sand dune where Jess’s father is staring out onto the water. “I’ve been coming here for 40 years,” he said.

“Has anything changed?”

“Not really, just more people.”

“Well, it’s good they haven’t developed it at all.” I comment.

But there’s plans to, apparently. Te Arai is the last untouched ocean beach area in the region – it is home to endangered birds, threatened geckos, and a variety of fauna and flora – but there are currently plans in place to scrap the current zoning plans for development of a golf course, housing, restaurants.  It is largely protested, so for now, Kiwis can enjoy the surfing, kayaking, and beachcombing they so love the beach for.

An oyster catcher - just one of the species found at Te Arai
An oyster catcher – just one of the species found at Te Arai

But the swell is crashing too hard, with nowhere to turn out. This will not be the beach. We head just down the road to Forestry. There’s even less people here; clumps of about 4 or 5 hang out prepping their boards, about fifteen dot the waves. There’s more roll out here, and after another five minutes of contemplation, we decide to stay.

Waiting for the perfect wave
Waiting for the perfect wave

First Impressions: New Zealand

It smells sweet and warm. It is 5:30am and only 15°C but it is humid enough that the wind is pleasant.

It’s too dark to see how green it is.

The sun slowly comes up and my first real view is Orewa Beach with the tide out 100 meters, with giant pohutukawa “Christmas” trees, and those ragged Railey-esque cliffs jutting out to form bays at every corner.

Two hour nap. It feels so good to be horizontal.

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

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!!]