North (V)

1.15.2016

The Beast of the Southern Wild is quiet when we wake. We break down camp and get on the road early, driving just a few kilometers before arriving at Twyfelfontein. Home to Africa's densest concentration of ancient rock engravings, we take a tour of the remnants of a many-thousand-year-old San people, hundreds of doodles and drawings of elephants and giraffes and rhinos and zebras and footprints etched artfully into the sandstones piled in the valley around us. Along the hike, we meet an older trio traveling from South Africa, and I ask the man if he's been to Namibia before. "Yes," he answers, "During the war." He pauses and adds, "I was here with the South Africans."

"Ah," I say, and sensing my discomfort, he qualifies once more: "I'm not proud of it, but you know."

I don't really know, but I want to. I've been struggling with this since first landing in Cape Town: the strangeness of being perceived white in a land that has suffered so much at the hands of white people. All throughout Namibia we meet Germans and Brits and it's tricky because these aren't the same Germans and Brits who massacred hundreds of thousand of Himba and Herero and Damara and more, but they practically are; they're the children or the grandchildren of those very people, and so while they are innocent they are nonetheless complicit: they still live and farm and work on stolen Namibian lands; they still speak German and forego the native tongues and I'm left to wonder: why are you still here?

It's an intractable problem not unlike our own, and I'm aware of the hypocrisy too. Sure, the wounds are a little more scabbed and scarred back in the States, but here we are, great globs of so-called "white people" carving the faces of genocidal maniacs into the sacred mountains of the Lakota, pushing our First Nations onto ever-dwindling reservations like an endangered species, and embroidering racial slurs on football jerseys—and that's just speaking of those we found here, not the ones later dragged across the Atlantic unwanting and unwilling. 

Imperialism is dead in name, but I can't seem to find its corpse back home, or here in Namibia. The restaurants of Swakopmund are filled with white, German-speaking patrons, and they're waited on by the black Namibians whom they ignore as their plates are cleared, and there are no black diners and there are no white servers, just as back home our servant class—our Uber drivers, our cleaning staff, our delivery men—are overwhelmingly people of color. We don't call it slavery because slavery is "dead"; instead we call it the brave new sharing economy, though what we're really sharing is servants. And when the wages those servants earn pay for white-owned apartments and white-owned supermarkets and white-owned hospitals and there's nothing left but the ability to survive, can slavery—imperialism, colonialism, aristocracy, indentured servitude, whatever we choose to call it—really be considered a thing of the past?

These thoughts swirl through my mind as we walk through the rocky lands before things fell apart, as I make idle conversation with the man who just decades earlier invaded Namibia to shoot and slaughter its people for being bold and brash enough to ask for a little thing like self-determination from the South Africans—who aren't actually South Africans, of course, but Northern Europeans who came to a continent uninvited and didn't have the good manners to let their hosts set the house rules—and who now, just a few years after his failed war, has come back, uninvited again, to have a pretty look at the rock art. It isn't fair, I know, to heap such responsibility on a mere man, but I'm troubled and I'm disappointed and I'm frustrated by an Africa that still feels conquered, and perhaps irreversibly so.

Like it, we trudge on.

***

Our next stop of the day is a petrified forest, an out-of-the-way detour to one of the few places in the world with petrified trees: fallen trunks that, submerged in mineral water and kept under pressure for millions of years, have transformed from wood to rock that keeps the shape of the wood it once was: quartz tree rings, granite tree knots, that sort of thing. I'd seen the petrified forest of Arizona a few years back, and thus wasn't terribly impressed—petrified wood is one of those things that you see once and you're like, oh, that's cool, but that doesn't exactly ignite the embers of passion deep within the soul, unless maybe you're a particularly passionate geologist.

We continue north, and the beautiful drive of yesterday carries on just as beautifully. Lauren spots a giraffe in the distance and we stop to watch it, and then there's another, and we watch the pair roam freely and wildly and it's just lovely. Later on, we camp at a small village site, and the next day we spot more giraffes, a whole family of them, and we have the magnificent sight all to ourselves.
We're headed to Opuwo, a small city (albeit one of Namibia's largest) just shy of the Angolan border; it's here that we'll turn around. We expect a quick drive and a long stay in Opuwo, but find quite the opposite. The main road is closed for blasting, and so we're forced onto a bumpy detour that triples the travel time.

It's a D road, which means it's slow-going. The Namibian road code is a brilliant thing: there are B roads (like the B1, the main artery through the country), and they're all tarred and sealed and smooth and easily navigable, and one can expect to travel a hundred or hundred-twenty kilometers per hour on the B roads without a worry. Then there are C roads (say, the C329): not sealed, not tarred, just fairly smooth and evenly-spread gravel or salt that should be minded with care, but can certainly handle speeds of eighty kilometers per hour or more. And then there are the D roads (the D3707, for instance), potholed and sandy with sharp rocks abound, and those should be driven with caution and patience; some stretches might mirror C roads, but others can't be managed at much more than thirty kilometers per hour.

There are worse roads, too: the N roads are mostly private, and thus can be really great or outright awful, depending on who owns them. There are no A roads—this classification is curiously reserved for something aspirational, something better than sealed tar: a great conveyor belt of the future, perhaps. On our journey, we've been fortunate enough to travel C roads most of the way, with the occasional B road, a few good D roads, and some worse-off D roads along the way.

This is not one of the good D roads. A washboard surface with pointy bits and loose sand in nearly every ridge, we crawl along it at a glacial pace, bumping and bouncing in bone-breaking fashion the first half of the way. Eventually it smooths out, approximating almost a C road, and it's only then I feel able to take my eyes off the road for a moment and appreciate the horizon ahead: limitless, untouched, wild. But eyes back to the road. Instead of evading potholes we're now avoiding the wild ahead of us: swerving around thick, foot-long millipedes just trying to cross the street, stopping to move small tortoises—who seem positively enraged to have the progress of tedious hours uprooted by our meddling—into the safety of the shoulder.

We make it to Opuwo and it's a stark break from the peace and quiet of the open road before us. Before we can pull properly up to the petrol pump our truck is besieged by a dozen souls trying to sell us something: guided tours, souvenirs, hash. I hop out and attempt to top off the gas tank, and all the while I'm hounded by a man who introduces himself as Moses, a tour guide who would be happy to take us to see the Himba people.

People come north for this, the Himba. A tribe known best for their bare-breasted women who coat their skin and dreads in the red clay of the earth and thus seem to glow an almost alien orange, the more intrepid travelers trek up here to take a few photographs of a Himba village—the kind with the one-room huts and the medicine man—and head back home and tell great tales about the "real Africa" they were brave enough to bear.

Of course, there isn't a whole lot authentic about this experience. The Himba tours—the name itself likening the Himba to a safari animal to be ogled at—bring red-cheeked tourists to what's referred to as "tourist villages" (or, again with the ogling: "living museums") and these aren't real Himba settlements, but a charade for the entertainment of the onlooker: here, take a photograph; here, allow us to smear some clay on you; here, support us by buying a necklace—it's authentically African! 

The Himba, like the overwhelming majority of the world's people, have been Westernized, assimilated into a great capitalist culture that doesn't have the time or patience for ancient traditions. The Himba, like the rest of Namibia and like us, shop at the OK Grocer; indeed, we seem them piling canned beans and bread and sweets into the shopping carts they push around the supermarket. Some of them now drive cars, and others wear Western clothes, and among those still in the traditional dress, many wear it like a uniform: they smear themselves with clay and they strap on their iconic boots and they drive into Opuwo with baskets of trinkets to sell to tourists, because tourists prefer to buy their trinkets from a "native" and not the guy next to her wearing an overstock t-shirt that reads Don't worry, I have enough swag for the both of us.

It's the type of voyeurism that led to Americans and Europeans sticking bushmen and pygmies in zoos—right next to the elephants and the chimpanzees—in the last century, the kind of voyeurism that led to anthropological accounts and oh-so-politicaly-incorrect letters home to Britain or Belgium or Portugal of "savages;" it's the kind of voyeurism that leads twenty-something white girls to climb off of tour buses, squint around some dusty African village, and pull the first naked black child they can find close (but not too close) to take a photograph with and upload it to the internet and call it cultural immersion as the bus idles exhaust in the background.

It's the kind of voyeurism I want no part of. Sure, there are still authentic Himba still living in authentic Himba villages, practicing their authentic Himba traditions (like, incidentally, cliterectomy), but these are places where foreigners are not welcome to, or should, go. Driving down Opuwo's main, swampy drag, this is the feeling I get here, too: that we're not actually welcome, that no one has invited us, that this isn't Windhoek with an international airport, or Sossusvlei with its tourist lodge; this is Opuwo, and it's our home, and please leave us alone.

We search for a place to get passport photographs taken (I still need those for the replacement), and Lauren buys a few swaths of fabric, and though we had planned to stay the night, that feeling of being uninvited and unwanted just festers and grows within me, and I express my discomfort to Lauren and ask if we can't move on and she kindly agrees. And so back down we go: not the same road, but thirty kilometers east and mostly parallel from there heading south, and we sidle up right along the western edge of Etosha National Park on a smooth, sealed road.

All along the route—all along northern Namibia, really—we pass these strange phallic mounds. Some stand on their own and some have branches sticking out, and others seem not as far along in their growth (or destruction, as the case may be); they're red sandy cones surrounding a tree trunk and pointing up.

If you'd ask me to describe a termite mound, I'd paint a picture of a slightly-oversized anthill, because I don't know any better and have never actually seen a termite mound. And I can't say for sure that these odd formations are termite mounds, because every Namibian I ask at a rest stop or petrol pump looks at me puzzled when I ask "what those mounds back there are," like they're just mirages of the mind. But I think they're termite mounds, and they're massive in size, and the termites that build them are not just eating the scraps of deadwood or nibbling at branches but engulfing mature trees without a care, swallowing the entirety of a plant—its trunk, its twigs, its branches and its leaves—until all but a lone, desolate stick pokes out, like the last survivor standing on the hull of the Titanic.

They grow in abundance as we near Etosha: more trees, more termites. The landscape is positively lush. It's storming in the distance and it's almost five in the evening and we don't really have a plan for the night. We have reservations in Etosha—the only campsite reservations we made in the whole of Namibia—but our stretch there isn't supposed to begin until two days' hence, and even once we get to the park gate we're still hours from the campsite: with wildlife abound, Etosha's speed limit is sixty kilometers per hour and driving in the dark is forbidden.

WIthout a plan, we chance for the gate, and surprisingly we're let in. There's a camp about sixty kilometers from us—so an hour's drive without stops—and the woman at the gate tells us to hurry, because it's getting dark and a storm is brewing. But of course there are stops. We're entering one of Africa's best-protected wildernesses, and we're not but ten kilometers into the park before I brake for zebras, gemsbok, springbok, kudu, and giraffe just going about their business. A little later on, Lauren cries "elephants!", and we pull out our binoculars and spy them far in the distance, a dozen or so of them walking along far from human reach. One can't exit their car on the lone road of Etosha—because, well, lions, and rhinos, and general preservation—and so most of Etosha is inaccessible to humans: what you see is what you get.

I'd love to stay for longer and watch the elephants do their elephant thing, but we have far to go and little daylight to go it in. Over an hour later, we arrive at the rest camp in just the nick of time, and we grab a spot and set up camp and rise early the next morning to keep going.

***

The lifeblood of Etosha, like the lifeblood of most African plains, is the watering hole. Etosha has quite a few, and in the dry pan, it's the great equalizer: all animals must drink at some point (except maybe the gemsbok, who's said to get her water from eating wild melons).

On the way to camp, we stop at a few of them. It's a glorious thing: in one glance we spot dozens of species peacefully coexisting: two gemsbok running laps around the hole, fifty springbok grazing on the green grass, a herd of zebras approaching warily and taking turns drinking, an ostrich with her head in the dirt, a hairy wildebeest looking like it had a hard night, a warthog kneeling on its front quarters and crawling across the grass with hearty chews. We drive on and there are hyenas and hartebeests and black-faced impalas, and kudu with those magnificent spiraling horns.

We arrive at camp and are warned of jackals, and they're everywhere: little dog-like scavengers that roam about camp picking on leftovers and litter. We extend our reservation a day, adding tonight, and in the heat of the day we eat and drink and write in the shade by the pool. That night I'm woken by what sounds like elephants trumpeting.

There's a waterhole right at the edge of camp, and the following morning we bring books and sit by it and watch the rhythms of the African morning play in front of us. More kudu and springbok and oryx, and a herd of zebra numbering fifty or more. We see the familiar communal nests of the social weavers in the tree above our heads, and identify yellow-billed hornbills chirping nearby. A meter-long monitor crawls slowly up ahead and a determined tortoise hurries by right where we're sitting. A lion roars in the distance and we spot it shading under a big tree; later that night, we catch a small pride taking a drink once all the other animals have scattered.

It's hard not to feel like a tourist, here in Etosha. We're surrounded by Teddy Roosevelts in their wide-brimmed hats and khaki pants and grey beards, and there's a pool and there are chips and it's far from the wild Africa of the savannah; it's the Africa with fences to keep the lions away. Caravans peel out three times a day shuttling tourists with lenses that cost more than the cameras they're attached to, and it's easy viewing here at camp: you have a bench and a watering hole and all you have to do is bear the heat and watch, and even if you can't bear the heat you can just jump in the pool and come back later.

This is true of all Namibia, really—the Namibia we've traveled, at least. Here we are in our great big truck with bottled water to last for weeks and spare tires and a pop-up tent on the roof and a propane stove and refrigerator—for goodness sake, a refrigerator in a car—and I too have a camera with a big fancy lens and I too want to see a lion and I too can race away from the places I don't like and set up a comfortable camp at those I do.

Traveling by automobile is strange to me. It's easy, and in that is the problem: it's insular, and sure you're at the mercy of the road but just barely: the risk is minimal and the bubble is strong and if it gets hot there's air conditioning and if you're carrying too much there's a trunk to throw stuff in and if you don't want to be somewhere you just drive away, no worrying about weather or bus schedules or train strikes or even the need to communicate in something other than English.

I think about it, and I realize that right now it doesn't really matter. Where there are trains I will take trains and where there are buses I will take buses and where there are smooth roads I will take a bicycle or a scooter or a good pair of sneakers, but here the reality is that there are not: there are not trains in any great number, there are not buses in any great network, the roads we have traveled could not be traveled by bike or scooter; the stretches of desert cannot be traveled on foot. This is the Africa we have, and it has been an adventure nevertheless, and with that I'm happy and I'm content.

And besides, it's not wilderness delivered to your doorstep. We want to see elephants—Lauren especially—but the elephants are gone, and the rhinos too, off into the bush with the start of the rainy season. Instead we get the coming rains, and they're an experience in their own right: rolling thunder in the distance, lighting bolts that dance across the horizon tap-tap-tapping across the earth, that exhilarating wind that tells you a storm is coming and for whatever reason makes you really come alive. We sleep through downpours and the surface water piles up and suddenly all of Etosha is watering holes, little overnight puddles and dish-sized ponds, and the animals have deserted us for the privacy of the bush. We rest a few days, and then off we go, too.

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