Twyfelfontein and the Skeleton Coast

22 July 2018

[Above photo:  Linda making breakfast at Mondjilo, on our way to the Waterberg Plateau.]

“Twyfelfontein” means “Doubtful Spring”. We have been in very arid conditions (less than 100mm of rain per year, about 4 Twyfelfontein inches. Seattle gets around 40-45 inches per year) since leaving the Zambezi Region (Caprivi Strip). We came to Twyfelfontein to see the petroglyphs, up to 6000 year old stone engravings of animals, waterholes, and human hand- or foot-prints.   Some of the figures are fantastic, half lion-half man or other creations, which were felt to be created by their shaman when in a trance.  The area is rich with them. Engravings, unlike paintings, are found on exposed surfaces, not in caves or under ledges.  These are from early hunter-gatherers (Bushmen or San people) who moved in small, leaderless groups around the area.

In contrast with the petroglyphs were the ruins of a mudbrick cottage built in 1939 by a German Jew, Levin, who farmed sheep here with his wife and five children. They had fled Nazi Germany in 1939 for this German colony (Independence for Namibia was in 1990.) and then, I assume, fled into the wilderness to avoid persecution by the colonial authorities. They farmed for 12 years. When they realized that the war was over and that they spent much more time away from than at home as nomadic pastoralists, seeking feed for their sheep,  they gave it up. They headed to Windhoek and, literally, greener pastures. Anyway, evidence of their habitation has tumbled down in 50+ years and will vanish in another 50, whereas the San endure in their rock art.
We also visited a Living Village of the Damara people, another group of hunter-gatherers turned pastoralists and, later, farmers. It was a reconstruction, with Damara people in skins and beads, of daily life in a small village. It wasn’t hokey, as I’d feared, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, especially watching the men start a fire and the women make ostrich shell buttons.  So many bare breasts I began to wonder why we fetishize those of our women.

Then came the huge transition from 4 inches of rain per year to less than one inch per year as we drove west through the Namib Desert to the coast. The desert runs the length of Namibia and all of the coastline is a protected area, save a few towns, villages, lodges, and campsites. As we descended gradually from 2500 feet to sea level the vegetation disappeared, along with any sign of habitation, save a Springbok who ran across the road in front of our car and a single giraffe in the distance. Finally, we were in a land of gravel flats and sand dunes with the rare succulent.

When we entered the Skeleton Coast Park gate, the wind was blowing so hard it pushed us around, made opening the car doors dangerous, and had shredded the two flags flying so that about only a ragged 1/2 of each remained. The park ranger who took our fees looked dispirited from living in such an outpost, confirming that it had been this windy “for weeks”. At least 30 knots, double reefed with a handkerchief for a jib, if sailing. The coast was shrouded in fog and we turned north, driving to the northernmost point possible, Terrace Bay. As Linda pointed out, it was her vision of the Aleutians. Large metal sheds, no shrubs or greenery save two palm trees strangely out of place, and cold, foggy, and damp.  Our cottage, however, was cute and functional, right on the beach and with a fridge for our cold packs. And the restaurant had exquisite meals, for some strange reason. A fabulous butternut squash soup, a delicious sauce for the mussels, and fresh-caught Kingclip (a white fish) cooked to perfection, as were the veges. We were hungry, as well.

Walking on the beach in Terrace Bay recalled the age of the round, storm-smoothed stones and the immutability of the landscape. The beach was littered with bones, immense whale heads and pelvises, other mammal bones, and countless shells of a variety of crustaceans. With the dunes behind us, we watched a few locals surf-cast, one pulling in a lovely 5-7 pound fish of some variety. The next day, as we drove south on the coast, we stopped at a shipwreck to see those bones and at an abandoned oil rig to photograph “coastal lace”, huge plates of thick steel decayed by the salt air. A ghostly fog swirled around everything, transforming it from a moonscape to a dystopian fantasy.  [A Mad Max-type action film that won all the Academy Awards a few years back was filmed in this desert, an ideal setting for depicting the end of the world.]  And yet, small numbers of large mammals such as lions, elephants, rhinos, jackals, hyenas, and a variety of antelope manage to survive here, often around the “ephemeral rivers” as they are called. Arising in the interior of Namibia and flowing toward the coast, they vanish, reappear, and vanish again, often with no through-flow at all except in a rare flood year.

Any potential human habitation here is on the map. We anticipated going to an ATM and getting gas and groceries in Torra Bay, just below Terrace Bay. However, Torra Bay is a fishing camp, a series of ablution blocks, camping pitches, and a bar/restaurant which is open only in December and January each year. Everything was locked up. Cormorants and an occasional Pied Crow rested on the water towers; two jackals sniffed hopefully around underneath, hoping that one of the birds would forget the dangers lurking beneath them and attempt an earth landing.

After driving down the coast, we settled into a lodge at Cape Cross with a balcony overlooking the endless sand beach and the ocean. The cold and wind and relative bleakness of the camping pitches encouraged a retreat to more comfortable circumstances. Cape Cross was “discovered” by a Portuguese explorer in 1486; he placed a stone cross, inscribed with a tribute to his king, on the headland. The Germans removed it and it now rests in a museum in Berlin. There is a replica at the Cape.

Cape Cross is the site of a massive (>100,000) Cape Fur Seal colony. The bulls don’t come ashore to fight and procreate until October, so it is populated with many, many females and pups. The latter squawk, nurse, and frolic in the water near shore. Their mothers mainly sunbathe, recalling days on the beach in S. California. Their smell is fiercely pungent. What we realized only later, as we walked away, is that a lot of the smell is from the rotting bodies of crushed pups. Apparently the fathers, distracted and neglectful, roll over on the little ones. The beach is littered with small skulls, skins, rib cages, etc. Grisly as nature gets, I think.

We’re now at a very nice campground in Swacopmund, where tonight will be our 4th. The Tiger Reef campground is on a point where the Swacop River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The beaches are beautifully sandy, the surf has 3-5 breaks so is wonderfully soothing all night long, and the water is as frigid as Penobscot Bay in Maine (59◦). We’re enjoying this little resort town with good restaurants, lovely walks (We walk 5-7miles per day; Linda runs an additional 3 miles.), and a nearly-empty campground with privacy and all the amenities (Wi-Fi, hot water, braii pit, and electrical outlets; life has gotten fairly simple). We walk through a slit in the fence and are on the beach. There is a brackish pool, the only liquid trace of the Swacop River, near our campsite. One evening I counted nine Greater Flamingoes, a Grey Heron, a White Pelican, a Western Great Egret, and a gathering of Kelp Gulls and some sort of tern in the pool. Behind our campsite is a weaver’s nest with a pair inhabiting it. A flock of more than 50 Helmeted Guinea Fowl prance carelessly about the Swacopmund waterfront park.

I had the screw removed from our tire; it took 20 minutes start to finish and on the repaired tire we drove to Walvis Bay yesterday. On the way the views were stunning, with huge golden sand dunes to the left, blue and white breakers on the right.  Walvis Bay is the major deep-water port on the west coast of Africa below Angola and though it sits in the middle of Namibia’s coast, the British in South Africa seized it and didn’t turn it over to Namibia until 4 years after Namibian independence.  There is an immense lagoon and it is populated with tens of thousands of Lesser and Greater Flamingos.  We walked and drove for miles, exploring the dunes and salt ponds, spotting birds. Lunch on the waterfront was special, with fresh oysters and mussels, as well as catch-of-the-day cooked to perfection.

Tomorrow we’ll leave early for Sossusvlei, the massive and intensely-colored sand-dunes that are emblematic of Namibia. It is in the middle of the Great Sand Sea. (“Now, don’t track any of that into the tent”.)

DT’s performance with Vlad was extraordinary, even for him. Then his back-pedaling—“I meant to say ‘No’ when I said “Yes”. It is amazing to me, given all the spooks and covert practices in our many intelligence agencies, that he hasn’t been stopped or muzzled. It is much better for us, however, that this play itself out so that the ultra-right doesn’t have a martyr and some can see the gross error of their ways. He that glitters (“Fools gold”, we used to call it when panning in the Sierras.) and makes manifold promises cannot be counted on for better health care, a better economy, more security, or a better job. (Might as well throw in a better marriage, as well. It’s no more fanciful!) If only he doesn’t get us into a nuclear war. Or sell Manhattan to the Chinese for $27.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s