Namibia - The Land God Made In Anger  

by Pool Builders on 04-03-2006 in Articles

Namibia is one of the most beautiful names in the world. It's mysterious, lyrical and evocative, and perfectly describes this Southern African country. The paradox of this name is that it's actually derived from the desert that makes up much of the country's geography. Although deserts have an exotic beauty and appeal their climatic extremes and almost inhospitable environment are a cruel reality.

In 1995 I visited Namibia with Zimbabwe's National Freshwater Angling team. My husband was representing Zimbabwe in a tournament against Namibia. Although the country had been independent for five years, it had only been a complete country for one year, when the southern port region of Walvis Bay had been handed back by South Africa.

We flew in to the capital city Windhoek from Harare, landing after a two hour flight. Our first surprise was the appearance of Windhoek. It's a very well developed, modern city; driving into town from the airport we felt we were on South Africa's roads. Many capital cities in Africa are dirty and badly maintained, with roads full of potholes, non-functioning traffic lights and a total absence of street signs - not to mention terrible drivers, beggars and street children. Before this visit South Africa was the only African country I'd visited with clean, orderly towns and cities. This is Namibia's legacy from that country, who first occupied Namibia during World War I. A brief history lesson is relevant at this point.

At the end of the 19th century Germany colonized Namibia, giving it the rather unimaginative name of South West Africa. In the south of the country, close to the South African border, the strategic port of Walvis Bay was under British control. At the end of the war South Africa administered the country legally until after the Second World War, when it unilaterally annexed the territory - without international recognition. In 1966 a guerrilla war broke out, finally ending in 1988 when South Africa agreed to relinquish control of the country. The war didn't stop the South Africans from installing the excellent infrastructure in Namibia, which has benefited the country considerably and is still very efficient at time of writing.
After dropping off our luggage we climbed into a minibus and went on a tour of Windhoek. The name means "windy corner", and it certainly lived up to its name that day. The architecture was impressive - there were some very modern buildings, occupied by many South African businesses and banks. A walk around the shops filled the women in our little party with glee - the shelves were stacked with fine South African products. It was encouraging to see the two countries had maintained their business links, because one often hears of African countries being deserted by previous colonial or administrative rulers after independence.

The German influence has been maintained, and a number of buildings and churches reflect the German colonization. There are three castles around Windhoek, the most famous of which is called Alte Feste, or "Old Fortress". This castle housed the German occupying forces when they first started building Windhoek.

When I was growing up in Zimbabwe we heard much about the Namibian War of Independence. The country was renowned as a hotbed of racial intolerance, and we believed that white people went there at their peril. Our visit to Namibia proved how inaccurate that perspective was. All cultures mixed freely and seemed very tolerant of each other. We wondered what on earth they'd ever fought about. The white Namibians we met had never considered themselves South African, and none of them had fought in the war.

The following morning, after a hearty breakfast we drove to the coastal town of Swakopmund, the second largest city in Namibia. We travelled through the Namib Desert, and it was a spectacular drive. It's considered the oldest desert in the world, with an estimated age of 80 million years. The annual rainfall average is 10 mm (0,25 inches), and there's virtually no vegetation. The sands are endless; a vast golden expanse stretching in all directions towards the horizon. The contrast between the golden sand and the azure sky was magnificent. We were the only sign of life, and our minibus and the road were the only indications of man's existence. The overwhelming power of nature was incredible, and we felt incredibly small and insignificant in this desert.

The world's largest sand dune is in the Namib Desert. Known as Dune Number Seven it is almost 390 metres in height (1,256 feet). Some of the more adventurous among us climbed a dune, but failed to get to the top. Walking through sand is incredibly tiring! Dune Number Seven is in a range of sand dunes located in a clay area called Sossusvlei. There have been a few occasions when the rainfall in the area has filled the vlei pans with water, and the sight this creates is stunning. The water is a turquoise colour, because the clay soils are so dense there is absolutely no water filtration. There is some very hardy vegetation around these dunes, and a couple of local settlements have sprung up in the area. The most wonderful aspect of these dunes is the almost complete lack of tourist development, so the area is undefiled by man. Travellers are able to visit the dunes with tour parties, but there are no hotels and other holiday conveniences.

Five hours later we arrived at Swakopmund. The visual impact of the town is formidable. It appears from the desert like a mirage, and it's so classically charming that it seems to be a piece of Europe transferred to Africa. Beyond the town is the Atlantic Ocean, adding to the alien, almost surreal sight. The German influence is very evident here, and it's not only limited to the architecture. German is widely spoken in Swakopmund, and the restaurants are full of delicious Bavarian cuisine and beer. The people who call this town home are a wonderful, eclectic mix of fishermen, safari operators, miners, African peoples and descendents of those early German settlers.

The town has plenty of bars, restaurants and theatres, and there's even a casino. During the years of South Africa's white minority rule gambling was banned, so South Africans often drove to Swakopmund to indulge. Swakopmund boasts several huge salt dunes. Some of the roads along the seafront are made of salt, something I found very hard to believe because of their dark grey colour - almost like tar and treacherous when wet.

The town at sunrise and sunset is magnificent, because the setting sun turns the sand dunes a deep shade of red. The light in the air seems to glow from the reflection off the sand. Because of the icy Atlantic Ocean a mist rolls over the town in the mornings and evenings, giving it a ghostly, ethereal appearance. The first day we spent there we saw a tree called welwitschia mirabilis. Although it never grows higher than two metres it has an underground root system of up to four metres. They look as though they've been thrown into the desert to fend for themselves, lying mournfully on the sand, almost recoiling from the harsh sunlight. These plants only bear two leaves, growing in opposite directions. If one of the leaves dies so does the plant. We didn't see the oldest specimen, which is more than 2000 years old. The plants we saw were only 500 years old - mere youngsters in comparison!

The next morning we went shark fishing along the beach. To my surprise the beach was very inhospitable. There were more stones and rocks than sand, and the wind blowing in from the Atlantic was icy cold. I love sea shells, but there was nothing except fragments on the rocky beach. Although the sun was shining and we'd been very warm during breakfast in town we found ourselves wrapping up warmly for the day spent on the beach. This part of Namibia is called The Skeleton Coast, and the name has nothing to do with the description of the beaches. It dates back several hundred years ago when Portuguese seafarers and spice traders from the Dutch East India Company sailed around the Cape to India. Many ships came to grief along the treacherous shores of the Skeleton Coast, victims of the harsh Atlantic Ocean, the submerged rocky coastline and the regular fogs and mists. In the days before man-powered boats, it was possible to get ashore, but impossible to return to sea, unless one travelled north for a few hundred miles in the hot, arid desert. Many men died making this trek, their skeletons scattered along the coastline. Several shipwrecks have been found inland, deposited there by the relentless Atlantic waves and the gale-force winds. The men caught Bronze Sharks, Kob and Rays. All fish were weighed, tagged and released.

The next morning we drove back inland to the venue for the international fishing competition, Hardap Dam. The dam is the largest in Namibia, with an 865 metre (2,838 foot) dam wall and a surface area of over 25 kilometres (ten square miles) - when full. The year we went there was a drought in Southern Africa and the dam was just 25 percent full. The water was also a ghastly pea green colour. I couldn't believe people were fishing, swimming and waterskiing in and on the water, but Hardap Dam is a popular resort and nobody seemed to mind.

Hardap Dam is located in the semi desert region of Namibia, so there was a lot of hardy vegetation in the region, namely succulents and aloes. The bird life around the dam was plentiful and varied. We were accommodated in several chalets, with access to the resort's restaurant and swimming pool (full of nice clean water). We were there in November, which is mid summer. The climate is typical of any desert region; day time temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Farenheit), plummeting close to zero at night

We spent four days at Hardap Dam. I was the only non-fishing member of the team, so I stayed by the swimming pool and went on a few game drives. Although the region is semi-desert there's a variety of wild animals, including ostriches, zebras, warthog, kudu, springbok and oryx. There's also a small population of black rhinoceros. The anglers spent the day fishing for carp, and it was tough. Firstly the fishing spots had to be ground baited to attract the carp and keep them there until the fishermen were ready. We would prepare the bait the night before in our chalets. This was a complex operation - a stiff porridge was prepared from maize meal and caramel flavouring added. The consistency was very important, because the next morning the bait was placed in a firm, hard ball over a hook, which was then cast from the bank into the water. The angler had to be careful that the bait didn't fly off during casting or disintegrate when it hit the water. The Zimbabwean team struggled to perfect their technique during the practice day, but they'd improved the day the international started. The rod is horizontally balanced on supports while the fisherman rushes back to his bait bucket to prepare another rod. Once caught the fish were weighed and then released. It was very tiring rushing between the water and the bank all day in the searing heat.

Our evenings after we'd prepared the bait were great fun. The Namibian team taught us a game called Spread the Virus. Zimbabweans had just discovered a rather potent liquor called sambuca, and we were intrigued. It wasn't just the potency of this drink, it was the different colours. I thought (and still do think) it tasted really disgusting. To avoid drinking it required great conentration. Each player dipped a forefinger in the sambuca, and a flame was passed from one player's finger to the next until someone stopped the flame or it went out. As a forfeit the player drank a tot measure of sambuca, and then the game would start again. There's a strict routine to follow if one wants to avoid drinking the sambuca. Wet the finger in the liquid, take the flame, pass it to the next player and extinguish the flame by closing the finger in the palm or putting it into the mouth. Great mirth was caused by inebriated players trying to light the flame when the finger had been in the mouth, or trying meto extinguish the flan in the glass of liquor. Flames frequently covered the table that night, and we actually managed to pass the flame between eight of us for 17 rounds before it was finally extinguished. It took several days to get the dark colour of the sambuca off our stained fingers.

There's much more to Namibia than we saw on the trip. The legendary Okavango Swamps in the north on the border with Angola are world famous for their flora and fauna. Close by is the Caprivi Strip, a narrow corridor that was especially demarcated to allow the German colonisers access to the Zambezi River. These areas are renowned for their wonderful variety of African wildlife, and attract visitors from all over the world. There are at least 450 different animal species. The port town of Walvis Bay is full of great historical information and references to do with its rather unorthodox history. With a population of 1,8 million on its 825,000 kilometre (330,000 mile) surface Nambia must surely reflect one of the world's least dense population figures.

Namibia has been called "The Land God Made In Anger", a reference to its unique and often brutal geography. And indeed the climate and the landscape are impressive, stark and intimidating. However the wonderful, friendly attitude of the people is as striking as the landscape. It's refreshing to see how a country once ravaged by a vicious civil war can, fifteen years after the end of conflict, be held up as a shining example of African democracy. Sadly there are very few countries in that unique continent that can lay claim to this statement. Which is why Namibia is a very special place.

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