Namibian Nights

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A rough, sandy excuse for a road led to the Spitzkoppe mountains. The sky was a searing blue lightly streaked with cloud. The peaks were the colour of caramel, the texture of crumpled paper. The afternoon sun lit the face of the rock, leaving their fissures and folds in deep shadow. The grass was the green-tinged yellow of over-ripened limes. In amongst it were spiky, highly poisonous, Damara milk bushes.

On the rock in a hollow at the base of one peak, there are Bushmen paintings of hunters, rhinos, giraffes and jackals. They have been there at least two millennia, and anything up to six. Yet they are out in the open as if painted last week and of no more significance than a tag on a shutter in a run-down part of town.

It is easy to see why Kubrick chose this timeless landscape for the dawn of man scene at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nothing much has changed since the Bushmen were there. A primitive toilet and the occasional notice are the only incursions of the modern world. The nearest town is 60km away. As so often in Africa, you come face-to-face with your own inconsequence in the earth’s epic narrative and see, for once, how petty, how parochial our conceits, our ambitions and anxieties are.   

We camped for the night in the lee of a mountain and the pegs got no purchase in the sand and the tents just sat on the ground, but it was a still night and there was no risk of them blowing away. Urban time has little meaning where there is nothing but natural light, so like the Bushmen millions of years before, we retired and rose with the sun.

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A little after dawn, we struck camp and headed out through the desert to the long, desolate shore known to the Bushmen as the Land God Made in Anger, to the Portuguese as the Gates of Hell, and now as the Skeleton Coast. Among the bleached bones of beached whales which birthed the modern name are the rusting hulks of over a thousand ships which ran aground on this treacherous shore.

Diogo Cão sailed down the coast in 1486 and planted a cross to claim the cape for Portugal, but the Portuguese never got a foothold in Namibia and the Germans, who did, took down the cross in the nineteenth century and shipped it back to Germany.

Cape Cross, where the old cross no longer stands, is home now to thousands of fur seals which swim backstroke in the surf, slide onto the rocks and lay in great piles on the sand, playing, fighting, mating and barking like fat men guffawing. They stink, of course, but they no doubt think the same about us.

© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 5

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We set off at first light in an old, open Land Rover.

Hard men in military fatigues paced the edge of the national park with AK47s. Ian stopped and spoke to them in sinNdebele and they slung their assault rifles over their shoulders and jumped on the running board and hitched a ride down the road. I assumed they were soldiers but Ian said they were rangers, protecting the park’s rhinos from poachers. It is a huge problem in a country with 90% unemployment and a black market willing to pay US $60,000 for a kilo of rhino horn. But it is a problem wherever there are wild rhino. South Africa lost the equivalent of one every eight hours in 2014. Some predict that they will be extinct in the wild within 20 years.

We stopped and jumped out and Ian led us deeper into the park on foot. The sun had taken the chill off the morning by then and the light was beginning to dazzle. The insects hummed and the Cape turtle doves incessantly voiced drink lager, drink lager, drink lager. We weaved around termite mounds taller than us and the gaping holes of old aardvark burrows, and Ian slowed us down and got us to crouch in single file, and we crept to within a few metres of a family of white rhino. The rhino sensed us and some looked up, but they decided that we were no threat to them.

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There is something ethereal about the country around the Matobo Hills. The dusty lanes overhung with trees. The bleached yellow grass, the vivid blue cloudless sky. The famous balancing boulders, the curvaceous granite hills. Water lilies floating on a reflective river. A profound sense of stillness. We drove deep into the communal lands, where joyful children ran out with fruit for sale. “You can leave what you like in the Land Rover,” Ian said confidently, “It’ll be safe enough here”.

We clambered to the top of a hill where the winds of millennia past had scooped out a cave, and the Bushmen of 11,000 BCE had painted stories on its walls of giraffes and lions and hunting and cooking and setting up camp, which it is easy to make sense of still. What is harder, though, is to comprehend as you look at these paintings – which are not fenced off, or behind glass, or supervised by guides – were already there at the end of the Ice Age, when the mammoths and sabre-toothed cats died out, when the Bronze and Iron Ages came and went, and Stonehenge was built in England, and the pyramids in Egypt, and a series of great empires waxed and waned, and the modern world slowly emerged and evolved, through wars and inventions and social change, into what it is today.

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At the township bar, where we stopped in the late afternoon, the beer-happy customers gyrated to dancehall which shook the walls, and Ian chatted to a wobbling man in sinNdebele, while we nodded and shook hands and said hello and sipped at the porridgy traditional beer served out of gallon drums. I had worried that people in Zim would be hostile, but found nothing but friendliness throughout the country. It is always a mistake, though, to assume that governments speak for their people, any more than mine does for me.

We trooped up the hill which they call World’s View and looked out across illimitable hills and over the park to the horizon with no sign at all that there might be a town within a thousand miles. A century old slab of brass is bolted to the rock and tersely engraved with the words: HERE LIE THE REMAINS OF CECIL JOHN RHODES.

The light began to fail and the sun slipped out of the sky and a band of orange spread up from the horizon and gradually faded out.

The peacefulness of it all,” Rhodes remarked, while sitting on this spot, “The chaotic grandeur of it. It creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we are”.

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© Richard Senior 2015