Ad-lib Namib – Seals, Sand and Skeletons

Tired, but very exhilarated, from trekking the dunes, we made our way to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay (pronounced Vahl-vish Bae-i-y by many). This area was another that we had heard conflicting views about. Vivek knew of Walvis Bay as his previous employer had business there, and had a few colleagues that had been to the area. Many people – in person and through online reviews – highlighted the fact that it was an industrial port, and discouraged spending too much time there. When we arrived there, we were welcomed with a beautiful sunset, and startled with an immediate drop in temperature. We also learnt that Walvis Bay is home to a large number of flamingos, and I was very excited at the prospect of seeing them up close for the first time.

As we were driving down from the dunes, the plan was to pass through Walvis Bay and then drive an hour further to Swakopmund on the same day, where we would then spend the night. We ended up getting into Walvis Bay much later than expected, right at sunset, and figured we would take a break there so we could go out on a catamaran oyster and dolphin tour the next day (recommended by a friend in Windhoek). We found our way to an unusual camping site, which was actually a paved complex surrounded by a plot wall, with bamboo separators encompassing areas covered in raked sand, for a “real” but-very-artificial experience.

Vivek and I quickly set up our roof tent, as the windows and lamp posts of the house next door peeked over the plot wall, and made a quick dinner. We boiled extra water to ensure our hot water bottle would keep us warm during the night, given that the tent canvas covering didn’t really provide much respite against the frigid ocean wind. Half asleep the next morning, I remember a vivid dream of water being splashed on my face as a dripping sound got progressively louder…being near the coast, the tent had accumulated condensation, and the point where the droplets became too heavy to hold onto the canvas happened to be right above my head. We became familiar with this, as it happened very often from this point on. Needless to say, our paper towel supplies dwindled quickly, as we couldn’t wrap the roof tent up when it was wet.

The following day was when we were meant to see the flamingos, but no such luck. We weren’t sure whether it was the drop in temperature or some other irregular occurrence that hampered our viewing, but we were both pretty disappointed since no-one else could explain the missing birds from this “permanent” colony. We were up bright and early, and joined a very full bus of adults and a few children to go on a catamaran tour. It was a little more touristy than either of us prefer, with tame (but free) seals coming on board, seagulls being fed and a guide explaining certain things in English, and then following her schpeel with another in German. It was really surprising how many people began speaking with you in German, simply assuming that since you were present in the area, that’s the language we should speak. I missed Richa, my sister-in-law, here as her German language skills would have been a great addition to my time spent people-watching.

On the catamaran tour, we learnt of the extensive oyster farming that took place in the area. Hollow plastic barrels bobbed on the ocean’s surface and held up baskets of oysters, each of which were hand scrubbed every 6 weeks. Several tonnes of oysters are shipped internationally, to South Africa and Indonesia. There was a third country too, but neither Vivek nor I remember very well. I guess that’s what happens when you wait this long to update a blog :p. I remember being quite surprised at which country it was and am leaning towards China. Back to the oysters – so, many of you know that everyone in New Orleans (NOLA) is proud of the freshness, quality and ubiquity of gulf oysters. Although I was sure to try them out, the size of the oysters made them less appreciated, given an already existing aversion of mine to snot-like textures in food. That said, I’ve figured it out – you have to use Tabasco (only the green one), fresh lemon, and freshly cracked pepper! Vivek wasn’t convinced by my epiphany and stayed true to NOLA oysters and the red Tabasco-lemon-horse radish requirement. I will have to go back to NOLA to make sure.

On our way back, we managed to see six flamingos in the distance! Once we made it back to the pier, we quickly returned to our modern camping facility and made our way on to Swakopmund. It was a quiet Sunday and we found that although it was a nice change, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing for us with all the hostels and backpacker lodges closed up for the day. We were lucky enough to find a comparable Airbnb as we sat by the beach watching the sun set, feeding our slowly increasing anxiety with lots of scrumptious biltong (Southern Africa’s answer to beef jerky, but not necessarily made with beef).

IMG_0831It was difficult to say whether or not Swakopmund was “more German than some German towns”, as one of the people we met in Windhoek said. It definitely had a European flair to it, with all the galleries, cafes and bakeries lining the streets. We welcomed the gluten-filled deliciousness and the free WiFi that came with it. It gave us some time to catch up with family and friends, our blogs, and our research for the next spot. We walked around town and absorbed the creativity that peppered small alley ways and shops. Though we promised ourselves to come away with as few souvenirs as possible – considering our lack of space – we couldn’t help but buy two small paintings that reflected what we saw thus far – dunes, oryx (es?) and zebras.

After 3 days of being able to watch a bit of the Zambia under-20 matches (access to Dstv/cable from the Airbnb), doing mass amounts of laundry that reeked of wood fires, and being able to have a proper home-cooked meal, we started our way up to Skeleton Coast.

Due to timing and the cost of the tour, we couldn’t see where the dunes touched the ocean – we needed a full day and had to go with experienced drivers. It wasn’t advisable (or allowed?) for one to take a personal 4×4 and drive there. Although a bit disappointed, we had hoped to see something similar on our drive through skeleton coast. We had exactly 3 hours to get from the entrance to the area to the Springbokwasser gate (with a stop to see the biggest seal colony in the region) – where we would be camping for the night, but the gates closed at 5pm. So, my attempts to get artsy pics on the way were contained and we rushed through this coast that had stranded many ships and people before us.

Our first stop was Cape Cross, one of the largest cape fur seal colonies in the world. I cannot begin to describe the stench that consumed us as we stepped out of the car. Seals were lying on top of one other, surrounded by their moulted fur, urine and faeces. Their gagging sounds didn’t help the controlled attempts to keep any food down. That said, I have never seen so many seals in one place before. They surprisingly sound like sheep – and their “bleats” and the strong stench were so disorienting that you couldn’t help but be in absolute intrigue.

Skeleton coast is so eerily beautiful – you see nothing but sand, ocean and wrecks (of ships and an oil rig). Due to the adverse weather effects of the area, many ships got caught in the current and were pushed ashore and unable to continue their journeys.  There is nothing but desert for miles and miles, and so even if they did get to shore, there are many stories about people starving and dying due to the uninhabitability of this area, but we never saw any human bones, probably swept away by the sand or the ocean. We did see seagull and fish bones but needed a permit to go see the bigger shipwrecks and whale carcasses.

As we made our way across the Skeleton Coast, many people were selling salt crystals that were obtained from the salt mine and the vast salt plains. Due to the heat, there was a large trust system in place where people left their wares on the side of the road, with a note (or an implicit understanding that you would leave what you felt was fair) and a small money-box. We were tempted but the pink salt crystals were too brittle for our man-handled backpacks. We took a close-up photo and left a small tip.

We missed out on one of the wrecks as the sun started setting, and the winds became stronger, sweeping vast amounts of sand particles across the landscape.

We finally made it as Mr. Gift was lowering the Namibian flag and was not the most pleased as two novices pulled up asking to stay at the empty camping grounds. After we settled in and shared a drink, Gift was lovely company. We got ready for dinner and wrapped our night up early with big plans to head out around 8am the next morning, to make our way to Etosha National Park.

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