3QD Column, Southwest Africa

My most recent On the Road column, as it appeared at 3 Quarks Daily:

On The Road: Southwest Africa

by Bill Murray

Former Finnish President and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari once gave a talk in our town and we went to see him. The distinguished gentleman who introduced him at Atlanta’s distinguished Piedmont Driving Club listed among Ahtisaari’s achievements “helping to achieve independence for Nambia.”

We visited Nambia a few years back, and found that the locals actually call it “Namibia.” Its European colonizers called it Southwest Africa. Call it what you like, it’s one of the world’s really remarkable places. Unusual things happen in Namibia.

Most places, rivers flow to the sea. The thousand-mile long Okavango River flows into desert, beginning in the highlands of Angola where it’s called the Cubango. The Cubango becomes the Kavango as it marks the Angola/Namibia border. There it hits a fault line and spills into the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where it is finally known as the Okavango.

It’s hard to visualize an inland delta, so consider its scientific definition; geographers call it an alluvial fan, depositing some two million tons of sand and silt every year and draining summer rain from a catchment area something like the size of Nepal or Tunisia.

This labyrinth of channels, islands and plains brings forth papyrus swamps, forests and savannah, providing habitats for elephant, lion, crocodile, hyena, leopard, zebra, cheetah, porcupine, monkey, serval, baboon, wild dog, hippo, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, kudu, warthog, impala, tsessebe and countless more.

On the way from Angola, the Okavango’s variously-named waters cross a cartophile’s delight, a relic of the Europeans’ Scramble for Africa called the Caprivi Strip. A bit of background:

The Scramble was Europe’s late 19th century wholesale rush to colonize the continent. Germany came late to the Scramble and left early when it was stripped of its colonies after World War One. Its important colonies were only four, roughly today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and a region in the east centered around today’s Tanzania.

The whole way through, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s gut told him to hang back from Africa. He put it in plaintive realpolitik terms: “Here is Russian and here is France,” he would declare, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Torschlusspanik is one of those German compound words, literally gate-shut-panic, its origin perhaps in medieval fear of being shut outside the city gates overnight. In the Scramble, modern day Torschlusspanik caught fire in Berlin.

As other Europeans madly claimed their bits of African coast, German importers were getting blistered by their British and French rivals. Both sides of the dockyards in Hamburg and Bremen, industrialists and labor alike, prevailed on Bismarck to commission the son of a Lutheran pastor, the explorer Gustav Nachtigal, to establish German protectorates along Africa’s west coast, in Cameroon and Togoland.

Further south, largely off European radar, Berlin granted a Bremen tobacco entrepreneur named Lüderitz protection for an exploratory base along a forbidding stretch of shoreline called the Skeleton Coast. The Skeleton Coast ran the length of today’s Namibia, between the British Cape Colony and Angola.

(Historically, the Portuguese outpaced all Europeans on a wild sprint down the coast a full 400 years before the Germans; mission after Portuguese sailing mission planted plinths, paeans to their king. But this was more exploration than conquest, more of a mad search for a way around the Cape and, for Portuguese purposes, around the trading houses in Venice and Cairo.

A notion had taken root, perhaps nothing more than a folk tale, but it pressed itself into the imagination of generations, and not just in Portugal; there was a river route across the continent, or at least to the Nile. Portuguese King João sailed caravels five hundred miles up the Senegal River; they were halted by rapids. His ships were blocked at the Barrakunda Falls on the River Gambia. These were persistent, painstaking, costly, sustained efforts in search of the presbyter Prester John, whose Christian kingdom was believed, for hundreds of years, to flourish among the Muslims and pagans, just over the horizon.)

But back to the late 19th century. In the early days of the Scramble, claiming territory for Europeans mostly meant collecting treaties with often illiterate local leaders along the coast. Dr. Nachtigal claimed Togoland and Cameroon this way in July 1884, and the German gunboat Wolf claimed Southwest Africa the next month. Down there, they put out wooden noticeboards proclaiming protection of the Reich that presumably no one could read.

Half a continent away in East Africa, meanwhile, another German clergyman’s son named Carl Peters sought to confound British interests. The recently-deposed King Mwanga of Buganda was shopping for allies to help him reclaim his throne and offering treaties first come, first served. Peters did a deal even before he could get his government’s sanction, meaning to insert a Prussian wedge between British East Africa and their territory of Sudan to the north.

For most of the nineteenth century Britain held an island called Heligoland just 25 miles off the German coast that Bismarck coveted for a naval base. And Britain needed the German bits of east Africa that Carl Peters had cobbled together. Here were the seeds of a deal.

Germany got Heligoland by trading Zanzibar (the “Zan” in Tanzania) and renouncing sufficient East African claims for the Brits to build a railway from coastal Mombasa to Lake Victoria, and with that came a general demarcation of borders between Germany and Britain. Borders were settled in the west between Togo and the British Gold Coast, between German Cameroon and British Nigeria, and German areas of interest were recognized in Southwest Africa. And one more thing: Germany pocketed that curious bit of land called the Caprivi Strip.

Perhaps Caprivi felt he was pulling a fast one when he asked the Brits to toss in a tiny little sweetener, an odd, narrow bit of Bechuanaland running 280 miles inland. Most places the strip was hardly twenty miles across, never more than 65, but on Caprivi’s maps in Berlin the region’s waterways all converged there into the Zambezi River, which the Germans saw as a trade route through neighboring (and ill-defined) Zambia, and on across the continent.

As it dreamed of a river route connecting its sand-fly-ridden western territory with its East African holdings, Berlin overlooked just the slightest detail: Mosi-O-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders,” Victoria Falls. It must have warmed generations of colonial Brits’ hearts, knowing the Caprivi Strip was no sweetener at all.

The Strip, bordered by four countries, turned out to be useless for shipping and not even particularly mineral rich. Bismarck, a Caprivi critic, decided Germany had traded its “trousers for a button.” In 2013 Namibia renamed the Caprivi Strip the Zambezi Region, one of fourteen Namibian regions.

•••••

The coastal desert, the Namib, is nicknamed the Skeleton Coast after whale bones and shipwrecks. Inland lies the great Kalahari Desert and between them lie the lands of two indigenous groups, the Herero and the Nama, where there is a little more rainfall, enough to graze cattle. Here between the deserts the Germans settled their capital, Windhoek, and here they met the indigenous population.

Aggressive German pursuit of lebensraum caused predictable tension leading to a general uprising in 1904. Turns out that, reluctant about the colonizing game as Berlin seemed to be, while they were there they meant to give it a good run.

So the German General Lothar von Trotha, fresh from suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, hit local ground running, declaring that indigenous people “must vanish from the face of the earth.” He issued a vernichtungsbefehl (an extermination order). Von Trotha was running a little hot.

He built a perimeter and starved people in the desert, reducing the Herero from some 80,000 to about 15,000 and halving the Nama population to 10,000. “The natives must give way,” von Trotha declared.

The official military history of the affair declared the local people “victim to the nature of their own country,” but the Socialist opposition decried the ‘Hunnish’ character of German imperialism. The Nazis named a street in Munich after von Trotha, and in 2006 the city council changed its name to Herero Straße.

Caprivi’s folly and von Trotha’s brutality stand out as Germany’s most vivid African legacies. Berlin left scant enduring influence in East Africa, but German architecture survives today in the Namibian capital Windhoek, the coastal towns of Lüderitz and Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, and enough German is spoken in Windhoek to support a German-language daily newspaper, the Allgemeine Zeitung Namibia.

•••••

Late in the afternoon a pilot named Lindy, a very, very young woman with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, took three of us up in a Cessna for a trip out over the dunes. She explained that at the coast (55 kilometers away), sometimes they run safaris on the beach, so if we saw any cars we had to let her know immediately!

That was curious. Why?

They could spoil our fun, she grinned. We were required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there she said she would drop us to 500. Where in the world can you flaunt rules like this if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia, she wondered. And so we did. I expect everybody does.

They’ve numbered the dunes by kilometers of distance past the town of Sesriem, and Lindy did a pinwheel around Dune 45, somehow an icon. Our Land Rover had stopped for us to see it, too, that morning, and indeed, folks had been already there and climbing it. Now, just before sundown Dune 45, and all of the dunes, stood deserted. Everyone had to be out of the park at night.

We did another long turn around “Big Daddy,” which local pride boasts as the world’s tallest sand dune (dunes in Iran and Algeria are apparently taller), and in the same sweep took in the striking Deadvlei, a former oasis whose water source changed course, starving its camelthorn trees.

The road ends at Deadvlei and beyond nothing but dunes stretch north to south, horizon to horizon. A curious landscape took hold, orange sand exposed inside low green vegetation in what they called fairy circles. They reckon trees died and somehow poisoned the soil. Nothing grows in the circles, defying intuition about the regenerative power of nature. Somehow in my imagination these were akin to those counterintuitive hexagonal basalt “biscuits” in Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway.

The coast gained focus, and we cruised over a fallen-in diamond mine and the fallen-in settlement around it. The entire idea of it, a man-made place, was jarring, its perpendiculars entirely out of sorts with the natural swirls of the desert that resembled nothing more than crumpled bed sheets.

We came down low along the water’s edge over seal colonies, dozens of them that stretched for miles, and over a shipwreck. This was the Eduard Bohlen, now rusted to its remaining rafters, a cargo ship launched from Hamburg some hundred and thirty years ago.

Hamburg’s Woermann Line operated the Bohlen as a mail ship between Germany and West Africa for four years. Then the Bohlen transported Herero prisoners, sold to the Brits in Cape Town as cheap labor. Then it ran aground in fog while supplying equipment to diamond miners.

Though some hundred meters out to sea, the crew could walk to shore at low tide. The ship even remained accessible enough that after a failed attempt to tow it off the sand bar, miners used it as a hotel. The manager claimed the captain’s cabin.

In a hundred twenty years the Bohlen has sailed 400 meters inland. The expansion of the Namib Desert is one more Namibian geographic oddity. The desert is reclaiming the sea.

New Travel Column at 3QD

My monthly travel column, about southwest Africa is live now at 3QuarksDaily. Read it at 3QD now, and I’ll put it up here on CSW in a few days. It’s a consideration of dodgy and disastrous colonialism in Southwest Africa, with a little flying adventure on the side.

Namibian Drought

Drought has forced Namibia to sell 1,000 wild animals. The Namibian:

Africa Vignette 10: Over Namibia

Late in the afternoon, as the light over the Sossusvlei turns sideways, a Cessna gains speed, pounding along the grass strip as a pilot named Lindy, an unsettlingly young girl with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, lifts us into the air for a trip out over the Namibian dunes.

Sometimes they run safaris on the beach (55 kilometers away), she explains, and it is most vital that if we see any cars we must let her know immediately!

That’s curious. Why?

They could spoil our fun, she grins. We are required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there we will joy ride at 500. Where in all this world can you flaunt the rules if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia?

They’ve numbered the dunes 1 to 70 or 80 by the road from the Sesreim gate to Sossusvlei. Lindy pinwheels the Cessna around Dune 45, a star dune that like certain celebrities has become famous for being famous. While Dune 45 is tall and striking in its own right, it is best known because it is close to the road and lots of people climb it.

Dune 45

Bernard, driving this morning, stopped for us to see it, too, and indeed, folks had already scaled Dune 45 and were clamoring back down. Before sundown though, dune 45 and all of the other dunes stand deserted. Everyone must leave the park at night.

We do a long turn around “Big Daddy,” which they repute to be the world’s tallest sand dune, and in the same sweep, take in the dead vlei and Sossusvlei, and the dune we climbed that morning. They call that one “Big Mama.”

The road ends here. Here to the shore, nothing but dunes, horizon to horizon. No place for engine trouble.

The coast gains focus, and in time we cruise over a fallen-in diamond mining settlement, its man-made perpendiculars entirely out of sorts with the natural swirls of the desert that resemble nothing more organized than crumpled bed sheets.

We swoop down low along the water’s edge above seal colonies, thousands of seals lounging for miles up the coast, up to the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen, a cargo ship that ran aground in fog back 1909 and still lies in place, four hundred meters from the coast.

The Eduard Bohlen

•••••

See more photos from Namibia in the Namibia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 3: Germany Enters the Scramble

Tanzania generally comprises the former German East Africa. Germany came late to the Scramble for Africa, as the Europeans’ colonizing land grabs came to be known, and left early, because it was stripped of its colonies after the Great War. Its important colonies were only four – today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and today’s Tanzania, in the east.

For a while, German Chancellor Bismarck hung back from colonizing Africa with plaintive realpolitik: “Here is Russia and here is France,” he said, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Bismarck was no cosmopolitan, hardly a product of the European salon. A provincial, a scion of Prussia, he declared “The only healthy basis of a large state which differentiates it essentially from a petty state, is state egoism and not romanticism.” And by 1884, as Britain and France were madly laying their African stakes, a sense the Germans called Torschlusspanik, or “door-closing-panic,” took hold in Germany, a fear that it might be left out. Traders felt mercantile pressure from their British and French rivals, and let the government know it.

Maybe it was best to get while the getting was still good. Bismarck reexamined, applied a dose of egoism and with the support and urging of business interests from Hamburg and Bremen, Bismarck instructed the German explorer Dr. Gustav Nachtigal to seize Cameroon, Togoland and Southwest Africa, which is now Namibia.

Climbing sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia.

See more photos from Namibia in the Namibia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Where is Nambia?

A number of years ago my Finnish wife and I attended a reception for the Nobel laureate and former Finnish Prime Minister Martti Ahtisaari. In the 1970s Mr. Ahtisaari worked on the question of Namibian independence from South Africa, something the local host mentioned in his introduction. Unfortunately, and to much snickering, the host pronounced Namibia as “Nambia.” We put it down to our living in the provinces, way down in Atlanta.

Alas, the American president does not share this excuse. Speaking in non-provincial New York yesterday, Mr. Trump declared, “Nambia’s health system is increasingly self-sufficient.” Written copies of his remarks reflected the country’s actual name. This makes it clear enough to me that the president of the United States has never heard of Namibia. Sure, Namibia is a fairly obscure country, and too many people fail to differentiate between the astounding array of cultures on the African continent. In fact, some even think Africa is a country. But it’s still disappointing.

And unseemly. Beyond falling short of the ideal that our leader should be a student of the world, and beyond the obvious lack of a staff willing and able to head off stupid mistakes (if Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State, by golly he’d fix it), Mr. Trump’s engagement with Africa seems to be summed up in his further remark that, “Africa has tremendous business potential. I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich.” Kevin Sieff makes the comparison:

And if you’re unfamiliar with King Leopold, well just sort of never mind.

Namibia, by the way, is just slap flat gorgeous. Have a look at some photos in the Namibia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Africa Vignette Series

n1

At the end of the month we’re heading to the Maasai Mara for the annual wildebeest migration. Between now and then, here is a blizzard of little African vignettes. They are just short little bits, not in any particular order, not particularly edited. Maybe they’ll entice you to visit too one day. Hope you enjoy them. All the photos in this series are from EarthPhotos.com.

7 Namibia

Late in the afternoon our pilot, a very young girl with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, took three of us up in a Cessna for a trip out over the dunes. She explained that at the coast (55 kilometers away), sometimes they run safaris on the beach, so if we saw any cars we had to let her know immediately!

That was curious. Why?

They could spoil our fun, she grinned. We were required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there she said she would drop us illegally to 500.

Where in the world can you flaunt rules like this if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia!? And so we did.

We retraced the morning’s route from the airstrip across the road from our lodge, into the park and down along the tar road.

They’ve numbered the dunes, 1 to 70 or 80, and we did a pinwheel around Dune 45, somehow an icon. Bernard had stopped for us to see it, too, driving us in the morning, and indeed, folks had been already there and climbing it.

Before sundown, though, dune 45, and all of the dunes, stood deserted. Everyone had to be out of the park at night.

We did a long turn around “Big Daddy,” which they repute to be the world’s tallest sand dune, and in the same sweep took in the dead vlei and Sossusvlei, and the dune we’d climbed in the morning. They call that one “Big Mama.”

The road ends here and beyond, nothing but dunes, horizon to horizon, and no place for engine trouble.

This entire series of vignettes will reside here, in the Africa section. If you enjoy them please have a look at my two travel books, Common Sense and Whiskey and Visiting Chernobyl.

Textures: A Simple Example

In yesterday's Wednesday HDR post of Mt. Cotopaxi, Ecuador with an added texture, I suggested you go out and shoot your own textures and experiment with them in Photoshop. Thought I'd show you an example. This is a photo of the docks at Windhoek, Namibia:

Windhoek

This is just some random, ordinary wall I shot in Riga, Latvia:

Textureexample

Here they are, combined in Photoshop:

Namibiawithtexture
This was one of my early efforts with textures and it surely will never win any awards, but it also didn't cost $100 – $400, and I learned a whole lot in the process. Just get out there and try it for yourself.

Three Africa Links, Fine for Weekend Perusing

Deadvlei

A 3,000 Mile Adventure Across Namibia

• A nicely done photojournalism site: Africa Knows

• An engaging five part series on travel across Africa from World Hum: The Roads Between Us

(Photo from Dead Vlei, Namibia. Click it to make it much bigger. More in the Namibia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.)

 

Nambia, Namibia … Whatever

Nambia

Former Finnish President, international fixer and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari once gave a talk in our town and we went to see him. The distinguished gentleman who introduced him to the distinguished crowd at Atlanta's distinguished Piedmont Driving Club listed among his achievements "helping to achieve independence for Nambia."

We visited Nambia a few years back, and found that the locals actually call it "Namibia."

•••••

Late in the afternoon our pilot, a very young girl with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, took three of us up in a Cessna for a trip out over the dunes. She explained that at the coast (55 kilometers away), sometimes they run safaris on the beach, so if we saw any cars we had to let her know immediately!

That was curious. Why?

They could spoil our fun, she grinned. We were required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there she said she would drop us illegally to 500.

Where in the world can you flaunt rules like this if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia!? And so we did.

We retraced the morning’s route from the airstrip across the road from our lodge, into the park and down along the tar road.

They’ve numbered the dunes, 1 to 70 or 80, and we did a pinwheel around Dune 45, somehow an icon. Bernard had stopped for us to see it, too, driving us in the morning, and indeed, folks had been already there and climbing it.

Before sundown, though, dune 45, and all of the dunes, stood deserted. Everyone had to be out of the park at night.

We did a long turn around “Big Daddy,” which they repute to be the world’s tallest sand dune, and in the same sweep took in the dead vlei and Sossusvlei, and the dune we’d climbed in the morning. They call that one “Big Mama.”

The road ends here and beyond, nothing but dunes, horizon to horizon, and no place for engine trouble.

The coast gained focus, and in time we cruised over a fallen-in diamond mining settlement. The sight of it was jarring, its man-made perpendiculars entirely out of sorts with the natural swirls of the desert, which often resembled nothing more than crumpled bed sheets.

Shipwreck

The shipwreck on the Namibian beach.

We came down low along the water’s edge to see seal colonies, dozens, that stretched for miles, up to a shipwreck and then back over the dunes to a curious landscape, low green vegetation spotted with circles they called fairy circles. They reckon trees died and somehow poisoned the soil, and nothing grows in the circles.

•••••

For complicated reasons we had one way tickets to Namibia. Those thin, slick, mimeographed handwritten ones.

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