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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Himba woman’s leather skirt and accessories.
Himba leather apron and shell details.
Himba ladies in the village.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
One of the most popular destinations in Namibia that still manages to feel deserted, the dunes ofSossusvlei 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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.