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

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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

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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.