The painted desert of Namibia – the San Diego Union-Tribune
Editor’s Note: When Leucadia resident Allan Karl found himself at a crossroads in his life – unemployed and recently divorced – he hopped on his motorbike and spent the next three years traveling to around the world – alone. Karl’s new book “Forks: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine and Connection” chronicles his 62,000 mile journey across five continents. This excerpt talks about his travels through Namibia.
Namibia’s signature image has to be the glorious orange-colored dunes of the Namib Desert. They extend over almost the entire coastline. Namibia’s most famous and densely concentrated attraction, and possibly the largest, is around Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft Park, about 240 miles north of the South African border. Surrounded by vast arid plains dotted with acacia and quiver trees, succulent shrubs and sage, Sossusvlei is an area where strong coastal winds move and displace the golden and red sands, throwing them into a sea of massive dunes and an endless range of geometric patterns. undulating patterns and textures.
I plan my adventure from the small village of Aus, once a WWI prison camp for German soldiers. Aus is a small village with a few shops, a gas station and the Klein-Aus-Vista Lodge. The lodge is perched on top of a hill outside of town, offering vistas of the southernmost part of the desert. The landscape appears painted – gold, yellow and ocher – and, at sunset, the horizon appears to be on fire – deep red and orange. Finally, the sky turns black, perforated with tiny holes of light, a breathtaking fan of stars. Up there, shining so bright that it attracts attention, reigns a constellation that I can never see at home: the Southern Cross.
Only a handful of paved roads stretch across Namibia, none leading to Sossusvlei. Most travelers here must use 4×4 vehicles. Since the quality of the roads varies from deep sand and boulders to smooth, well-graded gravel, it is common for drivers who have driven a few miles on smooth, graded portions to accelerate with confidence, only to then charge without the know in gravel, rock, or a section of loose sand, lose control, crash and tip over.
As I leave Aus, I realize that the desert winds not only create the charming and ever-changing dunes of the Namib Desert, but also contribute to the ever-changing road conditions. My first 18 miles are in deep sand which always makes me tense. My front tire foams and my rear wheel slips as I try to find the perfect speed. It plays tricks with my mind, straining me so much that I can’t enjoy the ride or the beautiful scenery.
Through a valley, I must pass through dangerously deep cavities of large boulders and loose sand. When the road is not a river of rocks and sand, it is severely washed. The endless pounding gives me a headache, shakes my nerves.
I travel through savannah, deserts and mountain passes. It’s a scenic overdose. Curved acacia trees glide elegantly over golden yellow brushes, red clay and ivory white sand washes. I am surprised when the only vehicle I have seen in two hours passes in front of me as if I were standing still, leaving me in a cloud of dust. I keep moving but I often stop to take breaks.
The Sossuvlei dunes are accessible from the small village of Sesriem and are best seen at dawn. As the sun rises, the dunes shine and shadows move in the changing light, revealing wave textures and star patterns. The massive formations rise above the desert floor and twist into towering winding walls of luminescent orange and red.
Arriving at Sesriem after battling my last wash and his marble-sized deep gravel patch, I learn that the public campground is full. The five-star resort just outside the park is out of my price range, but the resort manager offers me a special rate for travelers at his other property, about four miles from town. They are small tent structures built on solid foundations, with functional bathrooms and comfortable beds. The manager invites me to dinner at the resort and offers to drive me so that I don’t have to drive at night on sandy roads.
Dinner is served on an outdoor terrace with all the amenities you would expect from a first-class resort: polished chefs in uniform, hand-carved game, fresh salads, grilled vegetables, homemade breads and sweet desserts. I watch antelopes drink from a distant waterhole while I eat exotic meats such as zebra, impala, oryx, elk, crocodile, and ostrich. By trying each one, I find oryx to be the tastiest on my palate: lean, tender and flavorful. I feel lucky but realize this is a special occasion and justify the decadence as a reward for the long day on rough roads.
As much as I am moved by the art of Sossuvlei, I am always in search of discovery of African fauna and traditional African culture. I camp for three nights and explore Namibia’s largest salt marsh and wildlife sanctuary, Etosha National Park, where I see giraffes and rhinos for the first time, before heading to Opuwo, a small town in the northern Namibia Kaokoland, near the border with Angola. .
Kaokoland is a wild, rocky and arid desert sandwiched between two rivers that, at first glance, gives the impression of stepping into a National Geographic special or a film set for pre-colonial African history. It is real, and it is home to the Himba, a semi-nomadic tribe of tall native pastoralists with striking features who live traditional lives in huts and raise goats and cattle as they have done for centuries.
Women, to protect their skin from the harsh desert conditions, use ocher mixed with butter or animal fat, giving their skin a reddish glow. The men use dusty and brown earth. They all dress in loincloths or short skirts with ornaments of shells, pearls, bone and iron. Women weave animal hair into their headdresses and twist them into braids covered with ocher clay. They never bathe, instead using lotions made from animal fat and ocher. They clean their clothes and blankets with the smoke from the small fires set inside their huts, which are made of sticks, mud and excrement. The scent is unmistakable.
The first village I visit is a semi-permanent settlement of half a dozen structures without electricity or running water. Every day, morning and evening, women walk eight kilometers to a common water source to fill their water jugs.
I bring several gallons of water to another village further away from a water point and without huts. I snuggle up with 20 children and women under the cover of a net of dried sticks and plastic sheeting to protect me from the midday sun. Under a tree, I spot what looks like an anorexic goat, moaning in pain and too weak to stand. Without water and all the pastures parched by four years of drought, I’m sure he will be dead by morning.
I know that the water I give these people will only last a few days, but in Opuwo, only 50 kilometers away, there is running water, electricity and a supermarket. Most Himba will never visit Opuwo, although they are aware of a life very different from theirs. It makes me sad, but they seem happy. They choose their traditional life and prefer to trade crops, animals and crafts rather than using hard currency. Maybe they are sad for me. Perhaps they have learned from the mutable dunes to recognize what lasts; that their way of life works with nature and is therefore ecologically sustainable, while the machinery of what we call civilization – with all its running water, electricity and supermarkets – goes against the laws of nature and compromises, even destroys, the planet.
About the book
“Forks: a quest for culture, cuisine and connection”
Author: Allan Karl; Twitter: @allankarl
Info: Posted by WorldRider Productions; hard cover; $ 39. Available locally at Warwicks in La Jolla and Barnes & Noble, and online at Amazon or through the author’s websites, www.forksthebook.com and www.allankarl.com.