Apr 242015

From Walvis Bay, we drove up to the Skeleton Coast, which, technically, is the Namibian coast between the Kunene River and the Swakop River.

What are the skeletons on the coast, you wonder.

Shipwreck on the Skeleton Coast

A skeleton on the coast.

They’re wrecked ships. The name “Skeleton Coast” originated as the title for John Henry Marsh’s book about a shipwreck, and it was so apt, it stuck. Before the advent of modern navigation equipment, this coast, with its extreme wind and fog, was treacherous.

But it wasn’t the shipwrecks we were out to see. Nor was it the shore fisherfolks, though there were plenty of those, too. We were out to see Cape fur seals.

Fur seals at Cape Cross

Look at them all! Cape Cross Seal Reserve. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

The Namibian coast is home to many fur seal colonies, and we visited one of the largest at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve. One source says there might be 80,000–100,000 animals here during the peak season. We heard and smelled them all. Pyooo!

We saw a good many, too.

Cape Cross fur seals in the water

There are as many fur seals in the water as on the beach.

Pups are born in November and December, so we got to see them while they were still young, dark colored, and nursing, if they were able to find their mothers. Once they start going to sea to eat, I’m not sure reconnecting with Mom is guaranteed.

Cape Cross fur seals on the beach

So many cape fur seals!

Imagine trying to locate your mother in this mob.

Cape Cross fur seal pup calling

Mo-om! Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

Young ones bleat. Old ones bark and rumble in response. Oh, the noise, noise, noise, noise!

Fur Seals are Sea Lions, Cape Cross Seal Reserve

External ears + walking flippers = sea lion, not seal

Now, let’s get something straight. See those ears? Those walking flippers? These are seals only in name; in fact, they’re sea lions.

Cape Cross fur seal nursing

Nursing fur seal pup.

Lucky pups reconnect with Mom, but not every pup is lucky. We saw and smelled several dead ones on the beach, and this was well after the most vulnerable period for pups.

Fur seals lying around rundown picnic area

Fur seals take over the picnic area.

The seal reserve has a boardwalk that allows human visitors to walk through a small area of the colony. The animals are habituated and mostly don’t seem to mind the intrusion. They surround the boardwalk, though, and will bark if a visitor walks too near when going from the parking lot to the boardwalk.

The sea lions have taken over the picnic area, and they’ve even moved onto one end of the boardwalk, rendering it closed to humans.

Shaking Hands with a Cape Cross fur seal

Pleased to meet you. This hand is soft like a beaver’s hand. What? You’ve not shaken a beaver’s hand? Why not? Note all the fur on the boardwalk and sand.

Once on the boardwalk, we’re deemed okay, even as we walk overhead, kneel down beside them, shake hands, and exit near their usurped part of the boardwalk.

Cape Cross fur seal


Humans. So what?

Well, actually, this isn’t always true. Annually, beginning in July, young sea lions here at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve are killed for an overseas fur market. It’s a grim business, and, of course, it’s a source of controversy, which I will not address here.

Cape Cross fur seal lounging on rock

Rocks as lounge chairs.

The beach provides myriad comforts.

Cape Cross fur seal sleeping on a rock

Rocks as pillows.

A welcome respite from the rolling sea.

Cape Cross fur seal snoozing pair

Stuck between a rock and a soft friend.

Cape Cross fur seal mom and pup nuzzle

Awwww. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

We spent a good long time with the sea lions and came away with not just photos, memories, and ideas, but also the smell. A couple of hours amongst the adorable, stinky things and our clothes reeked!

Apr 232015

Twelve photos from each day of our Africa adventure.

We are now in Walvis Bay on the west coast of Namibia, looking at the Atlantic Ocean from the east, opposite from where I grew up.

Most Desolate Road in Namibia

“The most desolate road in Namibia.”

To get here, we took what our guidebook called “the most desolate road in Namibia.” Indeed, it was flat, white sand with occasional humps of vegetation as far as the eye can see, and farther. We saw mirages that looked like lakes reflecting trees and shrubs.

Looking across the Atlantic toward home.

Looking across the Atlantic toward home.

As we neared the Atlantic coast on the west side of the continent, we hit fog and the air got suddenly cool. I put on my long-sleeved shirt, not for sun protection but for warmth. Mike and I got our feet wet in the Atlantic; it wasn’t too awfully cold.

We spent a few days here in a chalet, getting cleaned up, rested, and reorganized. The weather wasn’t especially cooperative—foggy all morning then blustery all afternoon—but that was okay. We were ready for a break.

Pink Salt Pond, Walvis Bay, Namibia

The pink in this pond is from Halobacteria.

Salt, not for human consumption, is made in Walvis Bay. Salt for humans is made just north of here. Some of the salt ponds are pink, like this beach puddle. The pink is from organisms called “halobacteria,” but they’re no longer considered a bacteria. They’re something similar, though, and the name has yet to be officially changed. The pink color in the water increases the heat absorption of sunlight, increasing the temperature of the water and the evaporation rate—good things for salt production.

The halobacteria is also found in blue green algae which flamingos eat. Apparently, this is what gives flamingos their pink color. Cool, eh?

Salt Works, Walvis Bay, Namibia

Salt stacks.

Look at all that salt!

Flamingoes Feeding, Walvis Bay, Namibia

Greater flamingoes feeding at Walvis Bay. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

These flamingos are not feeding in a pink salt pond; that’s a succulent plant of some sort.

A black lab I used to sit did something I called “stomping rodents.” He’d go out in the snow to the base of trees and shrubs, stomp his front feet, then listen to hear if he’d stirred up any rodents. When he heard them, he’d plunge his nose and head into the snow and try to catch them. He ate what he caught and did pretty well for himself.

The flamingos are stomping sea creatures, pumping their skinny, pink legs like fitness gurus.

Greater Flamigo, Walvis Bay, Namibia

Greater Flamigo, Walvis Bay, Namibia

I claim to prefer the pinker flamingos, but the pink accents on the whiter flamingos are enough to satisfy me, too.

Great White Pelicans, Walvis Bay, Namibia

A pair of pelicans.

Flamingos aren’t the only pink-accented birds here. These pastel-faced Great White Pelicans are pretty dang cool.

Great White Pelican, Walvis Bay, Namibia

Such a pretty face. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

They hang out near the boardwalk, posing for passersby.

Dune 7, Walvis Bay, Namibia

Walking up Dune 7.

One of the attractions at Walvis Bay is the dunes. The blustery winds blow the sand around and into tall piles. People rent “quad bikes,” motorbikes, sand sleds, and the like to drive and slide around on the dunes.

Dune 7 is said to be the tallest dune in the area, though I’m not sure who’s measuring, how, or how often. But it’s the one to climb, so we headed out to climb it.

It’s not especially tall compared to mountains, but climbing up soft sand is a whole ‘nother can of centipedes. It’s brutal. You take a 12-inch step up but lose 9 inches as you put weight on that foot. It’s a trudge.

Dune 7 Ridge, Walvis Bay, Namibia

Walking the Dune 7 ridge. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

With hearts pounding and lungs gasping, we trudged slowly up, 20 steps at a time. We managed to stay somewhat out of the wind on the way up, but at the ridge, the wind whipped sand into nooks and crannies, my mouth and eyes, and camera crevices. We didn’t stay on the ridge long.

If not sledding or skiing down the dune, the thing to do is run. It’s actually hard to not run because it’s so steep. After all the effort to get up the dune, you’re down in a minute.

So much of our time is spent driving, it was nice to get out and get some exercise.

Cape Fur Seals, Cape Cross, Namibia

Cape Fur Seals, Cape Cross, Namibia. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

From Walvis Bay, we drove up the Skeleton Coast to Cape Cross where a colony of fur seals lives, hundreds and hundreds of fur seals, mostly moms and babies. There are other colonies up and down the coast, which means a lot of fur seals.

Cape fur seal mom and pup, Cape Cross

Cape fur seal mom and pup. Click for a larger (adorable) image. Use your back button to return here.

We have so many pictures that they’ll get their own post. This is a mom and baby. Mom is the light one; baby is the dark one. See their ears? That’s because fur seals are really sea lions, not seals. Seals don’t have external ears.

What’s with geese that are really ducks, seals that are really sea lions, black rhinos that are white, and bacteria that aren’t bacteria? It’s no wonder we’re all confused.

Apr 222015

Twelve photos from each day of our Africa adventure.

After driving through the Palmwag Conservancy yesterday, we headed toward Twyfelfontein. I think that’s pronounced TWI-full-fawn-tine. That’s what my ears hear, anyway. We didn’t actually go to Twyfelfontein proper, but were in the vicinity.

We spent the night in another community campground, Aabadi Mountain Camp.

Sunset on rocky hill, Namibia

Rocky hill at sunset. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

The scenery around the campsite was nice, but the facilities were not as great as what we’ve had the past few nights. Adequate, mind you, but not as nice as others.

We got to watch the light change on this little red, rocky hill as the sun set. It was lovely.

Clouds over rocky hills.

Clouds, a welcome break from the sun.

Clouds rolled in late in the day, and we hoped we might get some rain, but, alas, we didn’t. The clouds cooled the air, though, and for that we were grateful.

Clouds roll in, Namibia

Clouds roll in.

They also made for some interesting light and shadows, a photographers playground.

Rainbow, Namibia


We didn’t get the rain, but we got a rainbow coming out of our pretty hill.

For the past several days, as we’ve been driving in the high, mountain deserts, we’ve been on the lookout for desert-adapted elephants. You might recall we found two waterholes in the Hoarusib riverbed that we figured (hoped) were dug by elephants. Maybe you’ve seen the documentary, too, where an elephant stops at a seemingly random spot in the desert and begins to dig with its foot, eventually finding water. I saw that ages ago, and it stuck with me.

But we haven’t seen any of the elephants.

Desert elephants don’t look different from other elephants, as far as I know, they just live in a harsher environment, traveling long distances to find food and water, and sometimes digging for water where they somehow know it will be. There are very few desert elephants, so seeing one would be a treat.

“We’re heading out of desert-elephant country now,” Mike said, expressing his disappointment in not finding one. We had, of course, been looking hard for them, driving long, difficult distances in hopes of seeing one or some.

Whenever Mike is the least bit pessimistic, I counter with cheerful optimism. “We’re not on the coast yet. We’ve still got a chance.”

Less than an hour later, when I had just started making up the cots in the tent, Mike whisper-shouted, “Jen, get out here. NOW!”

Desert-adapted Elephant, Namibia

Desert-adapted elephant.

Mike had been consulting maps in preparation for the following day, looked up, and smack-dab in front of him, twenty yards away (we measured it), was a single, male elephant—a desert-adapted elephant—strolling past our campsite.

Honestly, the ellie didn’t seem thrilled to discover humans out and about on the far side of the white truck. We were a bit of a surprise to him, it seemed. He turned and gave us a good, hard look. We slowly got ourselves closer to the truck while simultaneously getting the best views we could. It was just getting dark. In fact, it got dark as the elephant made its way through the campground.

Later that night, the same elephant returned to browse along the riverbed some 50 yards away. We heard him breaking branches and walked out to the river with the night-vision binoculars. There he was, just across the river, munching away.

According to the locals, it’s routine for a male to scout out an area before bringing the rest of the herd to it. The feeling seemed to be that this was a scout. I’m not sure I believe that, but what do I know?

Well done, Africa, on delivering the goods when I’ve gone out on a limb with my optimism. This isn’t the first time. I am grateful.

Petrified tree trunk, Namibia

Petrified tree trunk.

In the morning, our first stop was at a petrified forest with welwitschia mirabilis plants. This particular petrified forest, which we found with the help of the GPS rather than signs, is a national monument. There are other unofficial petrified forests around the official one, operated by local residents. They all advertise the welwitschia plants, too, and I’m sure they all have similar petrified-wood specimens.

Being at the official monument meant we had to be guided by a ranger who delivered the memorized spiel with nothing at all like genuine enthusiasm. This is one reason we despise guided excursions. But the petrified trees were cool. These were quite large pine trees, a species that no longer grows in Africa.

Petrified Forest, Namibia

Petrified forest.

Scientists think they were washed down to this area about 260 million years ago. That kind of time frame always blows my mind. Then the organic matter was slowly replaced by minerals.

Petrified wood and male welwitschia, Namibia

Petrified wood and male welwitschia.

Here beside this petrified tree trunk is a welwitschia mirabilis plant. Again, I’ve seen “welwitschia” spelled with the s and without it. I choose to keep the s because I don’t want to be distracted by “witch” ideas and connotations when I think of this plant.

Welwitschia’s are cool because they don’t grow in many places. They can also live 2,000 years. Unlike other species of plants and animals, I think welwitschias look dumpy when young and get better looking as they age. How refreshing is that?

Female Welwitschia, Namibia

Female welwitschia.

The body of the plant looks like a giant clam. Male and female parts grow on separate plants, inside the clam shell. Males look like grass seed heads; females look like closed pine cones.

From the lips of the clam shell (yes, giant clams have lips) grow two leaves, one from each shell. These two leaves, however, somehow get shredded into ribbons so that it looks as though there are many leaves.

Mike and Granny Welwitschia

Mike and Granny Welwitschia

And now, once again, we’re going to play fast and loose with the idea of “daily” (Daily Dozen, remember) and jump ahead to a drive we took out of Walvis Bay. It was a desert driving tour with rather dubious viewpoints. We examined lichen at one, for instance, and were to note how 100-year-old tire tracks don’t disappear quickly in this environment. I’m sure these things are new to some people, but let’s be honest, they aren’t to us. Our expectations were fairly low, but we wanted to see the “moonscape” area and the granny or gramps of welwitschias, an individual plant that is said to be over 1,500 years old.

The moonscape was cool. Pretty canyons and rocks. And the desert itself was beautiful.

Mike, ever the pessimist, poo-pooed the grand welwitschia prior to seeing it, and, of course, I countered with annoying optimism. Africa delivered. Again. Africa is awesome that way. Granny welwitschia was, in fact, impressive.

Granny Welwitschia, Namibia

Granny Welwitschia. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

So, too, were surrounding specimens, which were similarly old and big. Mike didn’t bother to take his camera with him as we walked around the area, but he wound up wanting it, so I cheerfully ran back and got it for him.

Agave-like plant, Namibia

Agave-like plant. Or perhaps an African agave. Sure wish we had a good plant book.

I heart silly desert tours that turn out to be interesting. If you look hard enough, I think there are interesting and beautiful things everywhere.

Apr 212015

Twelve photos from each day of our Africa adventure.

After the challenging and spectacular Hoanib drive, we spent the night at another community campground in Khowarib.

When I registered, the woman tending the camp said, “You can take campsite 1.”

Knowing that what suits some people doesn’t suit us, and not seeing any other campers around, I asked, “May we choose a different site if we prefer?”

She smiled and nodded. “Yes. You’ll choose campsite 1.”

I believed her then.

The upper Hoanib River and canyon. We think.

The view upstream from Campsite 1. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

Campsite 1 was on a ledge overlooking this river canyon, which we think is still the Hoanib River. Here at the top of the river, a shallow, clear stream flowed, goats wandered the banks, and rosy-faced lovebirds flitted in the trees.

Hoanib River Canyon, downstream from Campsite 1.

Downstream from campsite 1.

The stream made a turn below Campsite 1.

As in the Puros community campground, each site had its own facilities: a shower, toilet, and bathroom sink set up in a stand of trees with stick privacy walls, and a kitchen counter with another sink, all with running water.

Shortly after we arrived, our host stopped by to say she was going home. “You’re in charge,” she said. “If anyone else comes, they can camp anywhere, and I’ll be back in the morning.”

No one else came.

Have I mentioned how much I like having these places to ourselves?

Chacma baboons scale the Hoanib canyon wall.

Chacma baboons scale the Hoanib canyon wall.

Chacma baboons scaled the canyon walls up to the campground, but they were not the thieving, nuisance sorts, and they stayed away from us. Good baboons.

The game park in the Palmwag Conservancy.

The game park in the Palmwag Conservancy. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

In the morning, we paid the Palmwag Conservancy to visit their game reserve. As far as game was concerned, our expectations were low based on what we’d read and the fact that this was a conservancy thing, not a national park. Conservancies are just communities; in fact, it’s just like the community campgrounds we’ve been staying in, only it’s a community game reserve. It’s not especially well developed, but there are 4WD tracks and the community offers guided trips. We, of course, chose to explore on our own despite a cautionary tale in our guidebook that described a guide getting lost and being found miles away on the Skeleton Coast, dehydrated and disoriented. This was a day trip for us; we didn’t wander off the main tracks.

The scenery was beautiful, again like the desert southwest US: red, rocky peaks and mesas; rocky slopes and plains; dry grass; and these large, succulent silversword-like plants that we’re calling “slate pencil” bushes because the branches remind us of slate-pencil urchin spines. The plant isn’t in my book, so I don’t know what it really is. If you know, please share.

Canyon in the Palmwag Conservancy

A small canyon in the park. Clickable pic.

Some red-rock canyons . . .

Wide-open valley, Palmwag Conservancy

Wide-open spaces. Clickable pic.

. . . and wide-open valleys.

Ostriches in the Palmwag Conservancy game park.

Ostriches in the Palmwag Conservancy game park. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

We saw the usual dry-environment suspects, including ostriches. They’re standing in front of the slate-pencil bushes, so you can see how big the bushes are. Ostriches are about 6 feet tall.

Gemsbok Herd, Palmwag Conservancy

Gemsbok herd. Palmwag Conservancy. Clickable pic.

And there were gemsbok, lots and lots of beautiful gemsbok.

Have you noticed that we haven’t seen any baby gemsboks? I’ve noticed. My book says that babies are kept hidden from the herd—not just us, but the herd—for the first month.

It seems to me, they keep the young ones hidden longer than that: I haven’t seen any with horns less than a foot long.

Interesting, eh? Of course, I’m dying to see a gemsbok baby.


A wee jackal.

We also saw several jackals. The slate-pencil bushes provide great, shady cover.

Rocky Landscape, Palmwag Conservancy

Rocky landscape.

And then there were a mom and baby rhino, several giraffes, springbok, a meercat, and a couple of hyraxes, but they were all at a distance that didn’t make for nice pictures, so I’m giving you this picture instead.

Palmwag Conservancy.

Palmwag Conservancy. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

Yep. I can imagine getting lost out there.

Clouds Roll In, Palmwag Conservancy

Clouds roll in. Clickable pic. That’s too many clickable pics. Someone isn’t being very disciplined today. Ahem.

Do you think these clouds bring rain? It rained yesterday, fairly hard for a brief period of time. Everybody wants rain, including us.

Apr 202015

Twelve photos from each day of our Africa adventure.

Did you notice the change from game viewing to scenery viewing? How could you not, right? We’re out of the wildlife-heavy parks, heading into the desert. Wildlife is everywhere (sort of), so keep your eye out for it, but it’s likely we won’t see as much from here on out.

Today we left the Puros Community Campground and the Hoarusib River, backtracking the way we had come, but then we turned off the known route down the Ganamub Canyon to the Hoanib River valley, which would take us back to Sesfontein and “real” roads. That’s for all you map followers (Barb and Beck) and enjoyers of funny names (all of us).

Sandy riverbed.

Leaving our campsite on the Hoarusib River.

As you already know, it’s beautiful rocky mountain, canyon, riverbed country. Montana’s big sky is humbled by the sky here. The wide-open beautiful space, the blue-blue sky, the rugged rocks, the dramatic mountains and canyons, the life that persists out here—they all inspire and uplift. I literally breathe deeply in an effort to take it all in.

Giraffe in the shade

It’s cool to see you here, giraffe.

There is wildlife out here; it’s just not as abundant as it was in the parks. We saw a few giraffes today.

Mountain zebras in the shade.

Hi, zebras.

And small groups of mountain zebras, mostly at a distance.

Circles of plain sand where nothing grows.

Mysterious “fairy circles.” Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

These are “fairy circles.” They’re round patches of earth on which nothing grows. Our book tells us that it’s uncertain what causes this, and I can’t understand why someone hasn’t figured it out. Is it really impossible to figure out? How is the soil in the circle different from the soil outside the circle? I want answers!

But I don’t have any, so I’ll just enjoy the weird, polka-dot landscape.

A natural rock arch.

A hole in the rocks.

Hole in rock = photo op. Such a blue sky to shine through the gap.

Speaking of blue sky . . . the sky here is often blue because it rains so infrequently. In talking with Mickey at the Himba village, we asked, “Is it going to rain tomorrow?” When Mickey understood the question, she laughed at the absurdity and shook her head. “Maybe it will rain next year.”

Maybe it will rain next year.

That stuck with me. What a concept. That’s way-yonder out of my experience. It’s hard to imagine no chance of rain for many months, especially after a very dry rainy season. Day in and day out blue sky, sunny, hot, dry.

White sand, green shrubs, rocky mountains.

Scenery from the Hoarusib, Ganamub, Hoanib 4WD route. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

Blue sky, rocky mountains, desert-adapted greenery, sand and rocks. And us.

A whole herd of gemsbok in the shade.

A whole herd of gemsbok in the shade. Clickable pic.

A herd of gemsbok. These hardy antelope, not dependent on surface water, are always immaculately dressed in their zippered cardigans and knee socks. They dress like preppy college students but get on and survive like rugby players. Of all the antelope we’ve seen, these are my favorites. Someday I’ll explain why in detail.

Mike driving.


The Ganamub Canyon route was a piece of cake, and the Hoanib River was fine at first, too. In general, we never went anywhere where we couldn’t turn around and get out the way we’d come. We are not big four-wheel-drivers; we are gentle folk who dislike the vertebrae-smashing, whiplash-inducing, teeth-cracking bumping and vibrating of tracks treated as roads. But we also love getting out to remote places, so we do what we have to do, as gently and carefully as we can.

Unfortunately, the farther along the Hoanib we went, the worse it got: long stretches of soft sand, flowing water in the river, steep banks, sharp turns, multiple tracks confusing the route. Sesfontein, with its real (albeit gravel) road, was only a few miles away if we braved it through whatever lay ahead. If we turned around, it would take hours to get there.

During a many-mile stretch of deep, soft sand, we came upon a group of springbok lingering in the track. “It’s up to you, springbok, to get out of the way,” Mike said. “I’m not stopping.”

They figured it out.

Note the thumbs out on the steering wheel, not wrapped around it. Soft sand can yank the wheel, breaking a thumb if it’s wrapped around. Well done!

Ostriches jogging in the Hoanib River.

Ostriches jogging in the Hoanib River. Clickable pic.

Ostriches on a PT run in the Hoanib River bed. Ohmygosh, they look funny running like that!

Mike walking the sand track to find the best route.

Scouting out the best route.

Scouting out the best route.

It was a difficult and sometimes stressful drive. Mike was pushed beyond his comfort zone. At one point, I was certain we were going to smash in the whole front end of the truck. The steep, sandy bank looked more like a wall than anything a truck could drive up and over, but up it went, turning sharply in soft sand at the top, no less. Four-wheel driving in the US is not as extreme as it is here in Africa. Being a solo vehicle, we did not want to get stuck.

We had a satellite phone if we got into too much trouble.

Driving on the Hoanib River

On the Hoanib River.

We made it. The truck and Mike did great. Mike insists the credit goes to the truck; the most he did was make suggestions.

The down side of Mike driving is that we don’t have as many pictures of the day as we would have if someone else had been driving.

Hoanib River, Namibia.

Hoanib River, Namibia. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

In the end, Mike deemed the experience worth the stress. It is beautiful out there.

Apr 182015

Everywhere we went in Kaokokland, from Kunene River Lodge to the Puros Community Campground, “Himba tours” were offered. The Himba are an African tribe in northwestern Namibia, nomadic cattle herders who continue to live today much as they did 100 and 1,000 years ago. They’re the kind of people written about and photographed for National Geographic.

On a Himba tour, a guide would take you to a real Himba village (as opposed to one of the fake ones, I presume) where you could openly gawk, ask questions and get answers in English, take photos, and buy the handicrafts of the villagers.

Honestly, I wanted to do all those things, but not on a tour with fellow gawkers that I didn’t know.

At the Puros community campground, which we had entirely to ourselves, I was surprised to find such a tour offered. I didn’t expect the community to be that organized or attentive to guests. I was impressed and pleased with the service we’d already received, and so was happy to support the community with my money. A tour here would surely be a private affair, just what I wanted.

While exploring around Puros early in the morning, we followed a 4WD track up a rocky hill that struck me as more suitable for climbing on foot than tires. At the top, we had a wonderful 360-degree view of the Hoarusib River valley.

Himba village from a distance.

Himba village from a distance. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

Himba village, closer

Zooming in on the Himba village. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

At the edge of the valley, we were surprised to discover a fenced compound with mud and stick huts. Vehicle tracks between the compound and the community campground hinted that this might be the village the tour visits. Or not.

Himba women walking the trail to get water.

Himba women walking the trail to get water.

As we studied and enjoyed the landscape, three women, each carrying a five-gallon bucket, walked from the compound to the dry Hoarusib riverbed.

I think the fenced area that I’m calling a “compound” is called a “village” by locals. It’s so tiny, though, that I think “village” is misleading. I don’t think there are more than three or four families here, and they may all be related. I don’t know.

Himba women getting water from a waterhole.

Himba women getting water from a waterhole.

We figured they were getting water. The buckets tipped us off. All three of us have lived in the Bush where we hauled water the same way. I wonder if these women would be surprised to learn that, or if they would understand that was unusual for Americans.

The girl on the left in the t-shirt is named Mickey, or something that sounds like that to our ears. She speaks English moderately well. The other two do not speak English.

Mickey and the woman on the right have scarves on their heads to cushion and help balance the full water buckets that will soon be up there. The woman in the middle has an ornament on her head that I think prevents her from carrying anything that way.

Because we were curious and already gawking, and because we’ve all carried water ourselves, and because it was a long way from the water hole to the compound, and because we just happened to be where they were at this time, and because Mike’s brother is willing to do this kind of thing while Mike and I are not, we offered to give them a ride back. They accepted with smiles.

At first, they just put their buckets on the tailgate of the truck, but then were persuaded to hop on themselves; we’d go very slowly.

Once at the compound, Mickey invited us in . . . for N$30 (thirty Namibian dollars, which equals about three US dollars) per person. Good on her!

Mickey, I suspect, is a tour guide. She put on her guide hat as soon as we arrived. As I understand it, she was born in this village—right there in that compound, I think—but went away somewhere to school and learned English. I didn’t understand where.

At one point, Mickey picked up a toddler, and I noticed they looked alike. I figured the child was hers, but Mickey said the girl was her little sister, “We have the same mother.” That implies they have different fathers. That jibes with what someone else explained to me about African social structure: Multiple partners are not uncommon, which is part of the reason AIDS is such a problem here in Africa.

We paid Mickey and embarked on a private Himba tour. In addition to Mickey, there were four women in the compound and a bunch of kids. No men. The men were all in Puros we were told, or out with the cattle which were taken rather far away due to the drought and lack of suitable pasture nearby.

It was weird and uncomfortable for me and Mike. What do we do? What do we say? Mike is uncomfortable taking pictures of people, but that’s what our tour fee pays for. Even so, we hemmed and hawed and squirmed while Denny made himself at home and chatted up Mickey.

Himba children in the village.

Himba children in the village.

Mike and I headed for the kids who were gawking at us as blantantly as we were gawking at them. Hooray for kids and their curious, straightforward hearts! Mike picked up three rocks and juggled, which they found amusing. Having won the children’s approval, we relaxed a little.

Himba huts

Huts in the village.

Mike took pictures of the compound, and I joined the conversation with Mickey. I had tons of questions, but Mickey’s English was limited, and so, then, were my questions.

I wanted to know what they ate. The answer seems to be “not much.” As elsewhere, cornmeal is the staple, cooked like polenta. Himba are herders, so they eat goat and beef. I asked about local plants that they might gather and eat, and a palm fruit was the only answer I got. A child was eating one. First the skin and flesh are eaten from the outside, and the shell is cracked and the nut inside is eaten.

This same nut—a palm nut?—is carved nowadays and sold as an ornament. It’s sometimes called “vegetable ivory,” and is offered as a sustainable alternative to carved elephant tusks. However, given what these people are eating, I wonder if the nuts should be used this way rather than eaten.

Stall with Himba handicrafts.

Stall with Himba handicrafts.

In the middle of the compound was a stand loaded with handicrafts made by the residents. Mickey led us there, naturally.

Himba handicrafts.

Himba handicrafts. Clickable pic.

There were bracelets and necklaces made from leather, palm-frond fibers, seeds, and beads. There were carved palm-nut ornaments, and wood carved into giraffes and gemsbok and elephants and zebras. There were woven baskets and trays.

As we looked over the merchandise—which I enjoyed; it was great—the women came out and stood behind the sections that held their work. We knew who had made what, and I loved that. Any money we handed over went directly to the crafter.

Himba woman and me.

Himba woman and me.

We purchased a number of palm nuts carved by this woman.

Himba woman with her baby.

Himba woman with her baby.

At that point, she was very happy and friendly, and it was easier to take her photo. Her child is eating the flesh of a palm fruit.

The woman was wearing a goat-skin skirt—or perhaps it’s cow skin. What do I know? She didn’t speak English.

Her belt, as best I could make out, is leather covered with ochre clay. Tiny metal beads were strung together and pressed into the ochre. It weighs a ton . . . or at least several pounds. I picked one up. The anklet on her left foot and her head ornament appear to be made similarly. The anklet on her right foot is ochre-covered fabric.

The string around her waist is made from palm fibers, and I’m not sure what is strung on her necklaces.

Her hair is braided into many strands coated with ochre. She joked that I needed to fix my hair similarly, which Mickey had to translate for me. I would have let her do it if she had offered.

Her body is coated with ochre, too—ochre powder mixed with animal fat and herbs, called “otjize.” This protects the skin from sun and bugs. I’m sure it also removes dead skin and more as it dries and wears off. I understand it’s taboo for women to bathe with water.

I asked where they get the ochre. “Far away,” Mickey said. Our guidebook indicated that ochre is available in just one place in the country. I wonder that the Himba use it so much when it must come from so far away. I suppose it’s like diamonds or gold or any other status symbol: it’s more precious because it’s not easily available.

Himba woman cooking cornmeal porridge

A Himba woman cooks porridge.

While we were there, one of the women prepared a pot of cornmeal mush, called “pap” here. (It’s pronounced “pop.”) I know it as “polenta.” Also cooking on the fire was a #10 can of water and bark which would become the black dye used to color some of the handicrafts.

Himba children eat porridge.

Himba children eat porridge.

The pap was given to the children who dove in with their fingers, scooping out a mouthful at a time.

Himba mud hut

Himba mud hut. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

We asked if we might see inside a hut, and we were invited to go in this one. Maybe I could stand up straight in the middle, but I didn’t try. It’s used only for sleeping, though, and who stands up to sleep? These people spend their days mostly outside.

I’ve been calling them mud huts, but the mud here was animal dung, and I have since read that that’s the norm. It did not smell like a barnyard.

Inside the Himba mud hut.

Inside the Himba mud hut. Clickable pic.

We asked how many people sleep in this hut. Five. I’m sure several are children, but still . . . that’s a lot of people in this tiny space and no privacy for anyone.

Inside a mud hut.

Inside a mud hut. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

The belongings inside the hut included several blankets and pieces of fabric, three skin skirts, jars of ochre and who-knows-what, a belt, an animal tail, and a woven tray or plate. Cooking implements are kept elsewhere. Someone mentioned “day huts” and “night huts,” so perhaps each family unit has two huts.

Himba children try on my hat and bandana.

Himba children try on my hat and bandana.

Before we left, Mike took my hat off my head and plopped it on Mickey’s little sister’s head. Seeing that, a little boy wanted desperately to try on my bandana; he looked as though he might cry if I refused. When I put it on his head, he gave me a big smile that was full of tiny brown teeth being eaten away by cavities. I was glad to think these are baby teeth that will fall and be replaced, but then what? We’re not elephants: We have just one set of replacement teeth.

It was a weird, somewhat uncomfortable experience, but I’m so glad we did it. Looking back, I wish I’d asked a million other questions. One woman beat palm leaves against the fence, and I wish I’d asked if I might help her, if she might show me how she braided a necklace from the fiber. Heck, I even wish I’d asked if I might sleep over. I could have made dinner, brought a snack, showed them my embroidery, traded bracelets . . . . I know, however, that we’re lucky we did as much as we did. Maybe next time I won’t feel so awkward. Maybe.