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

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!

A History Lesson in Berlin

Our side trip to Berlin was only intended to be a quick visit with some friends and a stopover beween Vancouver and Poland.  Once on the ground, I was sucked in by its history, and my interest in the Second World War meant my eyes and ears were open to taking in more than just bier and currywurst.

The Berlin Wall

Bricks signifying where the Berlin Wall once stood.
Bricks on the sidewalk signify where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Kat’s friend and travel companion from southeast Asia now lives in Berlin. She gave us our first taste of history by pointing out the paving bricks that wind their way through Berlin’s neighborhoods marking the location of the mostly torn down Berlin Wall.  They are a stark reminder of how Cold War politics cut the world in two and literally divided a city.

Stolpersteine: Emotional Stumbling Blocks

On a walk along a quiet side street in Berlin’s Kreuzburg neighborhood our friend come tour guide directed our attention to a grouping of small brass plaques sunken into the sidewalk.  The words are in German.  There are dates and a name.  None of it has meaning until the last word is read. Auschwitz.

Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin
Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin.

Motivated by a conversation with a Cologne resident who denied that any Sinti or Roma (gypsies) had lived in her neighborhood before the war, artist Gunter Demnig began a quest to symbolically return the missing and murdered holocaust victims to their homes.  Stolpersteine, meaning stumbling blocks, are 10x10cm concrete paving blocks with brass plaques offering some details of a former resident or worker.

The stolpersteine are placed at the foot of the door of the last known place of residence or work of a victim.  These small and simple markers may not protrude from the ground for one to trip over, but do induce an emotional “stumble” as one walks the streets of Berlin and spots a shiny plaque on the ground in front of a doorway that reads, “Here lived Arthur Simon, born October 1872, deported March 2, 1943, murdered in Auschwitz.”

Topography of Terror: Where Horrible Decisions Were Made

Further into the centre of the city or mitte, meaning middle, we arrived at the site that once housed the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Now the Topography of Terror, an indoor/outdoor museum documenting the rise of Nazism, occupies the land, chronicling some of the cold decisions that were made inside the darkest offices of the Third Reich.

A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin
A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin

Here “the Jewish and Gypsy question” was answered with concise and deliberate plans of action.  The idea of erasing whole populations and whole cultures was drawn up in this place.  For instance, the plans to invade Poland, destroy Warsaw, and force labour upon, deport or murder its citizens were conjured up inside these neat offices by well educated men in pressed uniforms and peaked caps.  The heartless logic the Nazis employed is sickening, and some of the featured quotes really drive home that effect.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews

In the heart of the capital is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a huge site of stelae in varying heights and set in undulating terrain.  More than 2,700 concrete slabs occupy almost 5 acres right by the famous Brandenburg Gate: a site fitting to honor the Jewish victims, and a massive symbol of the responsibility the Germans feel as a people and a nation for the crimes of their grandfathers.

Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe
Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

However, it feels somewhat insufficient as a memorial given the gravity of the occasion being memorialized. The signs referring to the Memorial are barely noticeable.  Without prior knowledge it is difficult to tell exactly what the area is supposed to be and there are no markings of any kind on any of the blocks.  Luckily, there is no graffiti thanks to a high tech anti-graffiti coating used on the blocks, but it isn’t without a perverse irony that the same company that made the coating also made Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers where so many of the memorialized Jews here were put to death.

There is no mention of the reason these people were murdered, by what mechanism or by whose hands.  There is no information available, not one sign asking for respectful behavior. This utter lack of guidance means what you are likely to see are children and parents playing hide and seek in the maze-like setting, teenagers jumping on the blocks, families sitting and eating on them, and countless people taking tasteless selfies with thumbs up, big smiles and even middle fingers in front of what is supposed to be a solemn place.  It would appear that the only ones who come to reflect on the six million Jews who were put to death are the informed.

Berlin: An Important Stop

Being my first and long anticipated visit to Germany I am thrilled to have been pulled in by its history.  Despite what I feel about the need for more information around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I am mostly satisfied and moved by Germany’s attempts to atone for the sins of the Nazis.  I’m happy Berlin became a stop on our short European trip and can say that no trip here would be complete without a visit to some of these important sites.

The controversy of St. Teresa

I read about the controversy surrounding the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa sculpture before I saw it. The arguments, referring to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s depiction of Teresa of Avila in a state of pure ecstasy upon being struck in the heart by a cherub, were based on the artist’s depiction of said ecstasy: her facial expression was perceivable as inappropriate – was Bernini guilty of being lascivious and portraying an innocent virgin as a prostitute, or did society only perceive it as such because it will throw in immorality wherever it can?

If this is the controversy, then we’re arguing about Bernini’s work and whether he himself meant for the saint to be viewed as sexual or enlightened. But assuming, like any artist, he was simply depicting his interpretation of her account, couldn’t we also argue his interpretation as artistic license like any other work he had sculpted? We would then turn to her actual account, to see how he could have possibly interpreted (or misinterpreted) her words into what he designed.

Before detailing the moment of ecstasy, St. Teresa gives the context of it, describing the angel that appears before her. She then goes on to say:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet, which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

I beg to argue that the controversy should have nothing to do with Bernini at all.  If Bernini was working from her account, it shouldn’t matter whether he meant it to look divine or whether he meant it to look sexual – his work of art is in his ability to correctly attribute her facial expression to her written account of how she felt – and that he does impeccably. Whether she really envisioned an angel, or whether she imagined the whole thing while instead experiencing an orgasm can be a topic of debate, but the controversy against Bernini is moot.

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Santa Maria della Vittoria, Repubblica. Free. Various opening times

and no, i’m not giving you any more details [roma, italy]

Just a quickie because I didn’t go inside, but if I did, Palazzo Spada would probably be my favourite of Borromini’s works (and we all know by now how partial I am to Bernini’s dimples and his anything-goes demeanor).

I couldn’t quite imagine what my guidebook was talking about when it said that thanks to Borromini’s optical illusion, the gallery looks longer than it is…but then I saw it’s architecture, all mathematically equated, sketched out on a sign in front of the Palazzo. And then I saw what it would look like had I been right inside on an image on another sign. And it was amazing.

It would likely be even more amazing in real life, so you should go and check it out. Heck, you should at least go and check out the poster.