Notes from Namibia: part four

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

When it comes to fabulous weather and wildlife, there is nowhere like Namibia, says Adrienne. Over the next few weeks, she will be sharing her notes from Namibia – arguably Africa at its most authentic – exclusively with CD-Traveller readers. Today: A brief lesson in culture and politics

An early start for another game drive. I was woken by lions calling to each other, so got up early and managed to get another trip to the floodlit waterhole. As we were heading out before breakfast we just had a snack. Tuhafeni knew a place to go and see lions – the Okondeka water hole – but they only went there every other day. Have we picked the right day?

It was! As we slew to a halt we could see in the distance a small group of females! We went to the main viewing area and parked alongside a couple of South African vehicles, whose occupants were breaking the law by standing on their vehicles roofs. (Namibian law requires people to stay inside their vehicles at all times in the national parks.) But what really struck me about them was that they were facing the opposite direction from the lions and didn’t move a muscle the whole time.

We watched for a while longer but I spotted that the South Africans were all still looking, motionless in the same direction they had been when we arrived. Ten more lions including cubs were heading towards us to meet up with the first three! Once again we gawped at the majesty of nature as the groups met – cubs either playing confidently, or behaving more cautiously, all of them just out of range of even my 500mm lens.

After a hungrily consumed breakfast we again broke camp and were soon bumping along on our way to Kamanjab in Damaraland. Here we were to experience tribal culture and spend some time with the Himba. On our way we stop at Outjo – a commercial centre for the white-owned farms in the area. The name is a Herero word meaning ‘little hills’. A trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies was followed by a trip to SWA Gemstones and a little light retail therapy.

The campsite at Kamanjab was another wilderness site enclosed by sensuously rounded granite But it was on farmland and was therefore free of larger predators. Snakes would be sheltering by the rocks as it was winter. We did have one predator – a domestic cat! Kitty was very friendly, although it didn’t come when our guides to the village collected us a 4pm. On our way to the village we were coached in some basic Himba phrases.

Mor-way means hello; we were told that when we say it to the Himba ladies they would say something back to us. Then we were to say na-wa. We never found out what this meant, but when we went through this process at the meeting point it generated much hilarity among the Himba women. We hoped it was appreciative laughter. Were we set up?

It was now that I began to appreciate culture shock. I became very shy and reluctant to take photos, thinking it too intrusive. But this turned out to be a demonstration village not their actual home. It was constructed specifically to develop a deeper understanding a traditional Namibian tribe and tourists. As such the villagers were paid a wage and not only expected to have their photo taken, but actually wanted to be photographed! Keen followers of photographic technology developments they greatly appreciated the advent of digital cameras. They have no mirrors and were consistently fascinated by being able to see what they look like!

Once I understood this I was perfectly happy to snap away, and share my results. The children were especially keen and I was soon swamped by eager kids, all trying to persuade me to take their pictures over, and over, and over again. So much so that I didn’t learn much about Himba society!

I managed to catch up with the group in the chief’s hut. Here we learned more about Himba culture and were given a taster of the three hour cleansing ritual the women observe every morning. They don’t use water to clean with, but herbs ground up and mixed with greased sticks. These sticks are burned in a small box and the smoke is used to freshen the skin. The girl who demonstrated this to us showed us how the smoke is dispersed using a conical cover made of woven twigs.

We are also shown hunting bows and arrows, male head-rests (Himba pillows carved from wood), and a 100-year old horn used to call the animals back. The Himba girl was very impressed by my successful attempts at blowing the horn which, made from bone and clay has long-since been retired from active service.

As with everywhere in Africa we were then guided to the shop. In this instance we were all happy to buy some items offered – all made by Himba tribe members at the demonstration village. We learned also that they get to keep the proceeds of sales.

It is only when we left the camp that the older women in our group began to express their real opinions. We saw a lot of separation, a key part of the culture shock for all of us. In the hut, women and men were separated by an imaginary line that runs through its middle. It is a matter of offense for either gender to overstep this line. We too had been thus separated, and as we had sat in our gender groups we learned that in Himba culture “there is no such thing as jealousy – if a man wants a woman he goes to the Chief’s wife and she selects one for him”. Virginity it turns out is less prized in a wife than a proven ability to breed. Women in Himba culture, it seems, are only valued if they have babies.

Dinner was being prepared when we got back – a BBQ  We had time to climb the rocks behind us before we ate, so we took some beers with us to enjoy as sundowners. The expanse of bush was especially beautiful in the fading light of the setting sun. I lay down on the rock and fluked a rather good shot of the moon coming up.

After dinner we sat drinking wine and discussing Namibian social politics, issues with alcohol and AIDS. All are as big a problem as anywhere in Africa, but the government doesn’t seem to try to hide behind myths, and is trying to do something about it. We were heartened to learn that Namibia does seem to learn from its neighbours – buying land back from whites, rather than taking it by force, and investing some 20% of GDP in education.

Next morning proved to be a really hot day, so we were all glad to be breaking camp early. We were off to the Brandberg Massif. We were not attempting the Burnt Mountain’s highest peak – the Königstein (a three day trek), but we were off to see other things. First stop was the Petrified Forest. Fascinating, but somehow pedestrian after the last few days.  Still we also got to see the Namibian National Plant, the Welwitschia Mirabilis. It come in male and female forms and grows very slowly – about 2.5cms (1 inch) per year.

Next stop was  a national monument, Twyfelfontein, which we learned meant ‘doubtful fountain.’ Here we were to see rock engravings that date back to 300BC carved by the San people (known to us as the Bushmen of the Kalahari). It was also the most exercise we had had in days. Our guide Englehardt didn’t seem to like or trust white people, but was polite and informative. The carvings were simple and beautiful. Surprisingly, one depicted a creature that one wouldn’t have expected to see in the desert, but I won’t say any more here, in case you decide to visit someday to find out for yourself.

Our final destination for the day was the campsite at the Brandberg Massif. Another wilderness site, we appeared to once again be completely alone. After living in such a crowded country as England for so long, it was wonderfully refreshing to have so much space and silence.

To read  part five of Adrienne’s Namibian adventure, don’t forget to log onto the CD-Traveller website next Monday (November 14).


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