Monday, August 31, 2015

Southern Africa

Tree at sunset.-
Helmeringhausen [Namibia]

Africa holds an unmistakable allure.  There is something forbidden and exotic about this land and its people.  Though not my first time to this mystical continent, it is the first time that I feel I have arrived to the Africa envisioned since childhood. 

Life here takes a step away from rapid and modern and industrial to become more basic at all levels.  I feel the raw and tested strength of life.  Though life feels less fragile, there is no mistaking that life is more challenged and less predictable.  This is high-stakes living where strong thrive and “unstrong” don’t.  Death is ever-present; sometimes waiting, sometimes arriving, always in the background.

This struggle for life is beautifully and undeniably connected to the landscape in a way that permeates daily thoughts and habits.  There is a pulsating rhythm that twists and turns and sways through people’s thoughts and motions and actions.

People and cultures are timeless and undiluted.  Histories and traditions, though centuries old, are still trusted and followed.  Vivid colors mix with basic browns and blacks to create patterns and combinations that cannot exist elsewhere.  Languages churn and swirl like the eddies of a river... Tswana, Zulu, Venda, Xhosa, Bantu, Sesotho, Shona each with delicious clicks, clacks, and pops.  Conversations are often conducted in multiple languages where speaking five languages is a minimum, not beyond the norm.

Music weaves in and out of all facets of life.  Melodies are vibrant and full.  Rhythms can be amazingly complex with uncountable and layered beat patterns.  Dancing is expected no matter where one might find themself… church, weddings, bus stops, banks, grocery stores… it doesn’t matter where, it only matters that you shake when you feel it.

Above all this, what appeals to me most is the landscape.  The arid vastness of the land speaks to me as I travel upon it.  The landscape combines all facets of life into a masterpiece that is harsh and unforgiving and remarkable beautiful; combining features, flora, and fauna[1] and transcending into something stunning and undeniably African.

Within the natural realm, I’m surprised most by the sky.  Undoubtedly, this is partially due to my place of residence for the last several years in which I was confronted daily by the horrendous grays and the all-to-seldom blues of apocalyptic air pollution.  But, that can not be the only explanation.  The African sky takes on a life of it’s own and calls to me as never before. 

Windmill at sunrise.
-Talou's Lodge [Namibia]
Sunrise clearly mark change; change of life, change of pace.  The night-dwellers, human, beast and fowl[2] alike, begin to settle for their rest.  The day-dwellers begin to relax and stretch and take comfort as the slow shadows begin to appear.  Methodically, the shadows arrive to become long shadows and then slowly less-long shadows.  A monochromatic sepia light washes over the landscape emphasizing that this ancient and well-rehearsed routine has been choreographed with patience.  Motion becomes more evident as the first blues appear.  Inevitably, Helios[3] peaks his head above the horizon to ensure that the path is clear for his daily race across the sky.

Daytime seldom brings even the whisper of a cloud.  However, the ever shifting palette of blue, from pale robin egg blue on the horizon to deep indigo above, allow plenty of time to ponder.  I let my mind trace the paths that electromagnetic waves must follow before coloring the sky… traveling through trillions of years of space to arrive to Earth and how these waves collide with our atmosphere, causing electrons to become excited within the range of human sight and how, through the rotation of our planet, the waves must travel greater distances through the atmosphere during different times of the rotational period, causing a shift in the visual spectrum, painting brilliance upon the celestial sphere.  I ponder about the distances traveled by the light and question whether it is the greater distance traveled that actually creates the beauty; perhaps a karmic balance for all elements in which beauty arrives from the journey; wondering perhaps if that is what gives beauty to our own journeys.

Mountains of Lesotho at sunset.
-Matatiele [South Africa]
Sunset provides time to move from pondering to appreciation.  This phenomenon is based on the same scientific principles as sunrise, light traveling slower based on greater angles of travel.  Yet, this refraction gives way to a different spectrum of colors creating a brilliance unlike anything I have ever seen.  Before me, is a perfectly circular arc of colors that covers the entire visual spectrum.  In a stunning display, there is even hints of green, like a rainbow, covering the entire sky... but, in some way, this farewell feels more real and less ephemeral and deceptive than a rainbow.

As the twilight fades and darkness approaches, I become, for first time, confused by the sky.  For the first time, I am completely misplaced by what I don’t see in the great field of midnight blue.[4]

The momentary unbalance quickly gives way to complete wonder.  Never before have I been “lost” in the sky...  all the comforts of knowing have disappeared.  I don’t know how to find north; I don’t know how to approximate my attitude; I don’t recognize patterns; I don’t know the memorized constellations nor the stories that accompany them.  There are new stars in the sky, new points of reference that don’t evoke any stories nor knowledge.  Gone are the familiar dot-to-dot pictures that I have always relied on and thought about.

Awe and wonder enter where knowledge once existed to show me greater beauty, so often hidden by certainty and conviction.  I sense wonder and unknowing and now, see the first cloud of the entire day, the cloud of our Milky Way galaxy.  The awe of the starry mantle made from millions and billions and trillions points of light is beyond description.  These stars, and even entire galaxies, have sent their rays of light to travel across the vastness of time to tickle and twinkle and bewilder my sight.  Occasionally, a piece of the cloud falls, burning its way across the night sky; a reminder that nothing can last forever, not even galaxies.

Far too early for sunrise, the stars begin to disappear into new light; the gamut of astronomical wonders is not complete.  Selene[5] has also decided to appear on the celestial stage with her own remarkable three-movement dance of moonrise, moonlight, and moonset.  Not to be outdone by her brother, Helios, she gracefully glides through each piece, following the scientific processes but proceeding from a different milieu to provide silver and magic and glow with poise that leaves the viewer breathless.

Zambezi River at sunrise.
-Livingstone [Zambia]

1.  What?!?!?! What new devilry is this?!?!?! That's right folks, there are now enough blog posts to begin cross-referencing... check out the linked story at:  Mostly True-Travel Log: Etosha   -return to the story

2.  This area hosts over 800 bird species, including the world’s largest bird (the ostrich) and the world’s heaviest flying bird (the kori bustard).  Amongst this list is everything from sunbirds to flamingos, from the flamboyant lilac-breasted roller to the extravagant hoopoe, and countless “cities” built by the busy weavers who share their nests with the pygmy falcons, the world’s smallest raptor.   -return to the story

3.  Helios, from Greek mythology, is the sun personified as a god.  This father of Phaethon is generally represented as a charioteer who daily drives his vehicle across the sky.   -return to the story

4.  What?!?!?! What new devilry is this?!?!?! That's right folks, there are now enough blog posts to begin cross-referencing... check out the linked story at:  Mostly True-Travel Log: Fish River Canyon   -return to the story

5.  Selene, also from Greek mythology is the goddess of the moon.  Daughter of the titans Hyperion and Theia, she is sister to Helios, and Eos (goddess of the dawn).  Like her brother, she also drives her moon chariot across the heavens.   -return to the story

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Blue wildebeast.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]

We drove through the gate of Etosha[1] National Park with the last hour of daylight, the sun a sinking orange globe.  I feel an instant sense of arrival.  This is the Africa that I have dreamt about since my childhood.  The road continues straight through dry, dusty grasslands for as far as the eye can see.  The occasional tree acts as a lone sentinel on the horizon.  And there are animals, lots of animals!  I have not been disillusioned.

Curious giraffe.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
Though late, we have timed our arrival perfectly.  The wildlife are aligning their daily routines with the sky as it begins its daily transformation from intense blaze to a glorious palette of color.  This is the time of movement, the never-ending rotation between the nocturnal and diurnal.  Predator and prey alike shift their activities to prepare for night.  We immediately see springbok chasing each other, giraffes trotting towards unseen water holes, and ostriches taking a final dust bath for the day.  Elephants stop in their tracks to scrutinize and question our arrival as we race towards camp before the gate closes for the night.

We arrive to the camp five minutes after the sun sets, something that is NOT allowed.  We timidly drive through the gate knowing that we should have arrived before the sun disappears for the day.  Fortunately for us, the guard is talking with the camp mechanic and isn’t as strict with the time as he should be.  We hope that he will only be lax with us, for this gate, and the surrounding fence, is what protects us from the wildlife that inhabit the park.  Nobody wants to wake to an elephant or rhino or even worse at the door.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]

We hurry to our rondavel[2] before anyone realizes that we have arrived late and begin unpacking the car. 

Immediately outside the fence that surrounds the camp is a waterhole, the hub of life in this arid remnant of a prehistoric lake.  This waterhole provides us viewing opportunities and insight into the lives of the animals, for all must come to the water hole; survival depends on it.

Our timing offers us a unique opportunity.  The night we arrive, the local lions kill a young elephant only 20 meters away from the water hole.  To our amazement, we awake to find two males vying for the privilege of dining on such a large meal.  The deep throaty rumbles for dominance permeate the camp as the two males intimidate each other without the need to expend valuable energy in physical combat.  The winner dines first on his choice of meat.  Once satiated, he wanders to the waterhole to drink his fill.  As he drinks and stretches in the morning sun, the less dominant male begins his meal, gorging himself with a lioness that appears to have a mild limp.

The King and his meal.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
The day continues like this.  The King walks where he pleases and eats at his leisure.  Occasional rumbles escape his throat, perhaps to ward off unseen rivals or perhaps to remind us that this is his kingdom.  As he wanders off for a drink, a temporary exchange of power takes place as the lion prince and his princess seat themselves at the dinner table.  A dance, choreographed by centuries of survival, develops as the lions circle and avoid each other in the eat-walk-drink-sleep-digest cycle.  For each intermission, the ever-present jesters briefly enter the hall, each jackal quickly ripping a piece off of the life-giving carcass and gulping it down before the prince and princess begin their meal.

There is still activity at the waterhole, but it is clear that these animals do not like being this close to lions; they only approach out of necessity.  Even so, it is undertaken cautiously and quickly.  Each time that a lion approaches the water, sound stops; life disappears.  Movement only slowly ebbs back well after the lions silently pad off into the brush.

Spotted hyena.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
The late afternoon sun brings rhinoceroses.  They are cautious, but somehow realize that the lions have gorged themselves to the point that they are no longer a severe threat.  The two take turns drinking and keeping watch, even remaining when the limping princess drinks from the other side of the small pool.

Evening fades into night, night darkens into midnight.  The witching hour arrives with an overpowering smell of decay and rot.  I am surprised that only now, well after the heat of the day has past, that we are beginning to smell the kill.  But, I am very mistaken.

This smell is not from the dead elephant, no, this oozing stench marks the arrival of the invading hordes… the hyena.  The smell is so powerful that breathing becomes difficult.  A gagging taste cakes our mouths as two harbingers arrive, then two more, and then one.

The prince and princess.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
(photo by Richard Wilkin III)
Only now do we realize that the lion forces have also changed.  Two rumbles come from the carcass, not as deep as before, but much more aggressive.  A third rumble is heard circling, well beyond our ability to see into the darkness of night.  We believe that three adolescent males are sharing the feed, now that the royal family has left.  We hear the noises of feasting; bones crunch and chomps escape as they greedily devour.  This overt indulgence is too much for the hyena.  The rabble form a loose affiliation to test the will power of the lions, each approaching the carcass and retreating, each probing, looking for weaknesses.

The three unite to thwart the hyena hordes with false charges and vocal threats.  For nearly an hour, we hear the cackles, the rumbles, and then the breaking brush.  Finally, without the numbers to overtake the lions, the hyena retreat.  Gratefully, the losers take with them the cankerous stench of rot, allowing us to breath freely again.

What we had guessed to be a victory for the three adolescents was not to be true, for the prince and princess shortly return to the kill.  The three youth must concede to royalty and leave the dinner table disgruntled, clamoring into the night.  The young couple enjoys the midnight snack only briefly… for, another low rumble, echoing in the cold, still air announces the arrival of the King.

Eye-to-eye with the King.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]
However, this time the prince is not content to sulk away.  He has decided to stand his ground.  After all, his princess must not doubt that he will someday rule.  Fierce roaring tears through the night, snarls of anger and rebellion echo through the camp.  Crashing and breaking ensue as the two wrestle through the brush and shake the ground.  The royal battle of usurpation has begun.

Quickly, yet somehow slowly, the battle is over.  The King must have survived the coup, for after several seconds, we see the princess in the moonlight running to the openness of the waterhole.  Slowly, quiet returns with the rumbles of content emerging from the King.

By morning, the lions have left.

Each night the lions return, each night we watch and listen.  We watch as they battle for food.  We listen as the males battle for a female in heat.  We are awoken by the triumphs and the defeats and hope that the fence will hold and the morning will find us safe.

Kudu at sunset.
-Etosha Salt Pan [Namibia]

List of Identified Animals:
Big Guys
African Elephant Rhinoceros (Black/White) Giraffe Burchell’s Zebra
Hippopotamus Water Buffalo

African Lion

Spotted Hyena Side-stripped Jackal Cape Fox Bat-eared Fox

Grass Eaters
Kudu Oryx Red Hartebeast Blue Wildebeast
Black-faced Impala Springbok Klipspringer Damara dik-dik
Steenbok Common Duker

Small Guys
Warthog Honey Badger Banded Mongoose Yellow Mongoose
Porcupine Scrub Hare Tree Squirrel Ground Squirrel
Rock Hyrax (Dassie)

Cute little Burchell's zebra Large male rhinoceros

List of Identified Birds:
Big Guys
Common Ostrich Kori Bustard[3] Northern Black Korhaan Red-crested Korhaan
Secretarybird Black Stork White Stork Saddle-billed Stork
Blue Crane Grey-crowned Crane Cattle Egret Great Egret
African Spoonbill Grey Heron Black-headed Heron

African Harrier-hawk African Fish Eagle Red-footed Falcon Ovambo Sparrowhawk
Rock Kestrel Shikra Pied Kingfisher Striped Kingfisher

The Others
African Hoopoe Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill Red-Billed Hornbill African Grey Hornbill
Burchells’ Starling Pale-winged Starling Golden-tailed Woodpecker Bearded Woodpecker
Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater White-Backed mousebird Blue Waxbill Greater Painted Snipe[4]
Helmeted Guineafowl Lilac-breasted Roller Rockrunner Pied Crow
Red-billed Teal Cape Teal Black-necked Grebe Sociable Weaver
Red-knobbed Coot[5]

Common ostrich Kori bustard

The Elusive Ones:
Eland Leopard Cheetah

Oryx on the dunes Secretary bird on the dunes
(Photos by Richard Wilkin III)

1.  Etosha means “Great White Place” from the dry salt pan that dominates the park.  Etosha park covers an area of nearly 23,000 km2, reduced from it’s original size of over 80,000 km2.   -return to the story

2.  From the Afrikaans word, rondawel, this is a traditional circular African dwelling with a conical thatched roof.   -return to the story

3.  The kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) is the largest flying bird of Africa (the male kori bustard may be the heaviest living animal capable of flight).  This species, like most bustards, is a ground-dwelling bird and an opportunistic omnivore.  The male kori bustard is 120 to 150 cm (3'11" to 4'11") tall and has a wingspan from 230 to 275 cm (7'7" to 9'0").  Male birds typically weigh between 7 and 19 kg (15 and 42 lb) which can be more than twice as heavy than the female.  Males attempt to breed with as many females as possible and then take no part in the raising of the young.  The nest is a shallow hollow in the earth, often disguised by nearby obstructive objects such as trees.  The name is derived from the Tswana name for this bird, kgori.   -return to the story

4.  Go figure... this guy really does exist...   -return to the story

5.  Boy, oh boy... what a name this guy has...   -return to the story

Elephants bathing

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fish River Canyon

View from the top.
-Fish River Canyon [Namibia]

After three days of driving, we have arrived.  Our destination is Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa and the second largest in the world[1].

It’s difficult to describe how remote this area truly is.

We have driven over 1,500 kilometers through vast desert regions.  These immense tracks of land are so barren and desolate that they have been given their own name, veld[2].  As we traverse the highveld, we see the occasional animal; an ostrich, a goat, a few springbok.  But, these sightings serve more as markers of time rather than an event.

Even with this dearth of wildlife, we see more animals than humans.  This is unforgiving country; life does not come cheaply for any in this part of the world.

We survive by stopping at each of the occasional outposts of humanity along the way.  Though the categorizations of these groupings stay the same, the definitions are much different.  The word house translates as a biltong[3] stand two hours drive from anything recognizable. Town is a single gas station, open for only five hours a day.  Village is a solitary farms that scratches its existence from the dusty landscape, clinging to the windmill that sluggishly pumps water.  The great truth of this region is water equals life.  The lack of water sets the stage for the great kismetic drama that unfolds each day in which all life must wage a tenuous struggle.

Now, we have arrived to the canyon rim and I stand overlooking our route for the next six days.  We have 100 kilometers[4] to travel before arriving to our destination, a hot-spring oasis that promises warm beds and luxurious swimming.

We descend 600 meters down the canyon wall with the fading rays of afternoon, arriving to the canyon bottom as the first stars appear[5].  We can afford a lavish dinner at this stage of our journey and opt to eat the heavy, perishable foods to lighten the packs and take-on additional calories.   Hunger is not assuaged with the main course, so we move to some of the back-up rice, finishing by roasting popcorn and sharing stories of past adventures.  Tonight we feast.  We feast on the meal, the sounds, the isolation.

The morning brings bitter desert cold, a sharp contrast from the heat of day.  I am awakened by the squawking of winged camp-robbers.  A few exploratory scouts have discovered the remaining popcorn kernels and begin calling in the main troops for an all-out assault to seize our leftovers.  I jump out of bed, a open sleeping bag on a sandy river bank, to mount my defense… a handful of sand that sends the noisy birds dodging and scattering to nearby rocks.

Ready for action.
-Fish River Canyon [Namibia]
As we finish breakfast, another group of backpackers exiting the canyon, pass our camp.  Today is the only day that we will see people.  First this group, then three day-hikers, and finally, a French couple that has decided to exit the canyon early, nature has proven too unpredictable for their tastes.  For the remainder of the trip, we don’t see people, we don’t see planes, we don’t hear noise.  Our isolation is emphasized and enjoyed.  We are away and removed.  Our only connection to the outside world are the satellites seen patrolling the night skies[5].  Each of us comments on the singular remoteness[6] that can only exist in a few extraordinary places on our planet.

Each day, we hike among the massive canyon cliffs, we trudge through ankle-deep sand, we move through boulder fields ranging from elephant to dassie size.  We find a big rock on which to cook lunch, we make camp and campfire, we cook and eat and drink boiled water.  Predictably, we find our way by following the isolated pools left by the fading river.  Practically, we must follow these pools for survival.

Conversation changes in these conditions.  There isn’t the need to say something for the sake of obligation.  We walk together, lost in individual thought, for hours.  There is unspoken understanding in the silence.  A different language develops in which a whistle is more appropriate than a sentence; a glance communicates more than a city’s paragraph.  When there is the need to speak, a hoarse whisper will suffice.

And so our routine continues.  Each relishes the time for solitary thought, enjoying the unparalleled desert beauty and irreplaceable camaraderie.  Day in, day out... sunrise, sunset.

We know we are close.  The map indicates a final bend in the canyon, but the sure-fire sign is a German couple that has hiked from the hot-springs.  They still have full water bottles; we can only be an hour away.

The next sign of civilization is a water pump station.  The sight brings an audible disappointment.  Without a word, we all know that the magic has begun to fade, the tranquility is ebbing away.  We all know what waits at the end of this pipeline.

We make the final steps, crossing a rock retaining wall and walking through the unoccupied campsites, to be greeted by clapping from an unknown group sitting at the poolside cafe.

Kilometer 85.
-Fish River Canyon [Namibia]

1.  Second only to the Grand Canyon found in the USA.   -return to the story

2.  Veld is an Afrikaans word (a derivative from Dutch) meaning “field”.  It is typically classified by the altitude of the region as highveld, middleveld, and lowveld.  In Namibia, the veld is amongst the driest regions of the planet at 8.0 mm (0.32 inches) of average rainfall and 3,707 average hours of sunlight per year placing it as #8 in both categories (#1 in average annual rainfall is Arica, Chile at 0.7 mm; #1 in average annual hours of sunlight is Yuma, Arizona, USA at 4,127 hours).   -return to the story

3.  Biltong, another Afrikaans word, is a dried meat product, similar to jerky.   -return to the story

4.  In full disclosure, let’s call it 100 ± 8 km, rounded to the nearest three figure number.   -return to the story

5.  What?!?!?! What new devilry is this?!?!?! That's right folks, there are now enough blog posts to begin cross-referencing... check out the linked story at:  Mostly True-Travel Log: Southern Africa   -return to the story

6.  Namibia is one of the least populated places in the world at 2.2 people per square kilometer, second only to Mongolia at 1.7 people per square kilometer and followed by Australia at 2.6 people per square kilometer.  This small country produced $900 million USD in the diamond industry in 2006 making it #6 in the world and is the #3 country in the world in education expenditures as a percent of the gross national product at 8.5% behind Kiribati (11.4%) and Moldova (10.3%) and ahead of Denmark (7.7%).   -return to the story