Another Day in Swakopmund

10626315_1506924832884578_4563379588386492756_o

Another day in Swakopmund, another group of travellers, another early minibus out to the dunes.

This pretty German Colonial town is marketed as Namibia’s adventure capital. There is sandboarding, quad-biking, ballooning, camel-riding, sky-diving, parascending and deep-sea fishing. Yesterday was sandboarding, today is ATV’s.

10483829_1506924856217909_3267453773235826632_o

Travellers stepped out of the minibuses which had collected them from tour agents, guest houses and campsites around town. We were funnelled inside, given waivers to sign and helmets to wear, and led off in small groups.

I pulled on the helmet, started the quad bike and we rolled out of the centre in line astern behind the guide, past grassy hillocks into the open desert. The sun cast long shadows behind us, the sky was a deep and improbable blue, the sand glowed orange and pink.

10476592_1506924616217933_4095106581700795756_o (1)

Skudding across the floor of the desert, throttle wide open, engine howling, feeling the heat rise from the crankcase, looping up, along and down a high dune, treating it like a berm on a mountain bike trail, kicking up the odd puff of sand; back onto the flat, then bumping over the crest of a smaller dune. The driver in front takes the next one too slow and bogs down; the back wheels dig in, churning up sand in clouds. I swerve round her and keep the throttle open and make it up and over the top, getting momentarily airborne.

It is a landscape of majestic nothingness: a sea of sand blown into waves by the wind, the colours changing as the sun rises as the morning unfolds. They filmed Mad Max: Fury Road here, using these dunes to represent the apocalyptic landscape of a world after a nuclear war. In reality, the toxic smoke would block the sun for years and start another ice age, but only the cockroaches and hardier sorts of wasp would mind: humans and everything else would be extinct.

10380258_1506924759551252_4146798193992310735_o

The guide raised his hand to get us to stop, left his quad bike running and walked off into the desert. He came back with a namaqua chameleon in his hand. When he released it, the dark chameleon began to lighten until it was a similar colour to the sand, although it is said to be a myth that they change colour for camouflage. It shuffled off, then, with its comedy power walk, all elbows and knees.

We pressed on into the desert and the surefooted ATV’s clung to the side of the dunes, and powered up steep slopes and rolled down the other side, and I felt in control throughout and never in much danger and came round to thinking that the popular idea that these things are deathtraps was just scaremongering by the tabloid press.

Then I heard later that one of the guys I had got the minibus with that morning had gone over the handlebars and wound up in hospital with a broken scapula.

© Richard Senior 2016              

65km/h on a Sandboard

(120)

Swakopmund, Namibia. A mind-bending, hallucinatory place: an authentic slice of small-town Germany deep in Southern Africa. Cutesy, pastel-coloured Jugendstil buildings. Signs on store fronts in Gothic script, all umlauts and harsh consonants. A Lutherian church; a bierhaus selling good lager and sturdy plates of sausage and sauerkraut.

Leave town early in the morning in an old Volkswagen minibus. The sandboards strapped to the roof; a mangy dog standing on my knees so it can look out the window, wobbling as it tries to keep its balance.

Arrive at the dunes. Take down a sandboard, change into snowboard boots; trudge up the long curving track to the top. Grab a cloth, dip it in wax and smear it over the bottom of the sandboard. Find a place to sit at the edge of the slope.

(76)

Third in line. The first guy struggles to stay on his feet, falls over a few times, wobbles, squats and touches the ground, as if reassuring himself it is there. The second is an experienced snowboarder and streaks down the dune at speed, slaloming round imaginary poles to show off.

My go then. Follow the instructions: turn my back to the slope, do a backwards roll. Straight away scudding diagonally across the dune, balancing better than expected.

Picking up speed. Halfway down. Much faster now; faster than feels comfortable on a first attempt. Shift my weight to my toes to slow the board; but it digs in and stops dead and the kinetic energy flings me forward onto the sand and rolls me like a barrel with the board still clipped to my boots.

(121)

Unclip from the board, spit out the sand, empty it from each of my pockets in turn, wipe the thick off my arms, then plod back up to the top of the dune.

You looked like a helicopter trying to take off sideways,” someone says.

I get further down the slope on my second run then come off again, but not as spectacularly. Land head-first. Glad of the pisspot helmet. But it rattles my brain nonetheless. On the third run – or it might have been the fourth – I glide all the way to the bottom and feel good. The snowboarder, by then, is doing jumps.

(222)

Move to a different slope, and a different, brutally straightforward, style of sandboarding. Take a big sheet of plywood, lay face-down on it, lift my feet, grab the corners and curl them up, then just hang on as the board careens down the slope. There is no slowing, or stopping, or steering, as there is with a proper sandboard: just staying on or coming off. It feels stupidly fast – I will find out how fast – and totally out of control, which I suppose it is, except I could bail if an unexpected springbok suddenly heaves into view.

Whisk past the guy at the bottom with the speed camera, heading for the run-off slope. Somehow hit it at the wrong angle, bury the board in the sand, fly a few metres then bury myself. Spit out the sand, shake it from my hair, rub it from my t-shirt, empty my pockets again.

65k,” the guy with the camera says.

© Richard Senior 2016

Namibian Nights

DSC_0067

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.

DSC_0221

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

Poling Day

DSC_0976

The Okavango River was clogged with chest-high papyrus reeds and looked from the bank like a field after weeks of rain. As the polers approached, they seemed to be floating supernaturally over the ground, until they came closer and you could see their makoros through the reeds.

They were modern makoros, made of fibreglass, instead of the hollowed-out trunks of sausage trees. I had seen Malawian fishermen in the traditional sort; but they are rare, now, in Botswana. I slung the tent and my day bag inside, and the poler took my bedding roll, unfurled it with a flourish and fashioned it into a seat. I sat between the bags and he stood at the stern and poled us away from the bank. The flat-bottomed makoro slid over the reeds with a gentle rasping sound, and into a channel where the reeds towered over us and brushed against my arms either side, and the makoro creaked and the water lapped against it and there was a splash like a pebble flicked into a pond when the poler sunk the pole to the bottom to push us along.

We followed the small procession of makoros as it snaked along the channel. Flies droned and dragonflies hissed; kingfishers trilled and barbets chattered and lilac-breasted rollers made a sound like a man half-heartedly sawing wood.  Cape Turtle Doves kept up the chant they start at dawn and never let up all day: Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana….

DSC_0951 edit

The channel widened further in, and water lilies were scattered across the space which the reeds had surrendered; a little further, we were out in the open river. It was a deep blue against the green and yellow of the reeds, and the poler’s reflection shimmered in the surface. The papyrus closed in on us again as we neared the uninhabited island where we were to camp for the night. The polers ran the makoros aground, and we jumped out, pitched the tents, dug a toilet, gathered firewood and sat out the heat of the day.

In the late afternoon, we set out again in the makoros. Bullfrogs growled, hammerkops manically cackled, and a bush shrike seemed to be trying to whistle When the Saints Go Marching In. A family of hippos waded between islands in front of us. The weaver birds’ massive communal nests hung from branches over the river. They are built like city apartment blocks, with chambers for each of a hundred pairs, or more.

The sun leaked out of the sky and dripped onto the horizon and its orange effulgence spread over the water. In the half-light, as we creaked and splashed back to our island, the papyrus around us erupted with whistles and cackles, trills and chirps, shrieks and hisses and the hammer-drill grunts of the hippos.

DSC_0996 edit

© Richard Senior 2015