Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Walvis Bay, Namibia

Walvis Bay, Namibia
May 11, 2010

Namibia is a country of giant sand dunes, so large that they can be seen from space. Therefore, the most important thing to do in Namibia was to see the dunes. No dunes are located near Luderitz, our first stop in Namibia; however, some large dunes are located near Walvis Bay, although the very large dunes are in the east of Namibia, not close to the port where the ship stopped. While I was in Cape Town, I stopped into the Namibia tourism office to try to find a guide to take us into the desert when the ship stopped in Walvis Bay. It turned out that Mazda Corporation was having a large conference in Walvis Bay the same day the ship stopped there, so finding a local guide was difficult. However, after some work, I did locate an experienced guide with a four-wheel drive Land Rover. I had invited Bas and Monique to go with me, and the guide met us at the pier at 7:30 a.m., just after the ship docked.

The large dunes near Walvis Bay are located in Sandwich Harbor, an hour’s drive south of Walvis Bay. We stopped first to pick up some sandwiches at a local bakery/sandwich shop, which was packed with locals also getting sandwiches. After we set out, we passed the Walvis Bay Lagoon just on the south side of Walvis Bay, and we stopped to look at, and photograph the thousands of pink flamingos there. Our guide said that the number of pink flamingos was estimated to be about 70,000. They eat crustaceans in the lagoon waters, which gives them their pink color. We walked out into the mud to take photos, but still, most of the flamingos were too far out in the water for really good photos.

Our next stop was the local salt processing plant, which was quite large. The guide said that the plant was owned by the government, and processed more than two million pounds of salt each year. The salt is used for commercial purposes. Some sizeable dunes are located near the salt plant, and our driver took us on our first ride up to the top and down the very steep slopes again. I was surprised that a vehicle could drive on top of the dunes, and also surprised that it could safely go down such steep slopes. He warned us not to be concerned; he said he was experienced and knew what he was doing. He did make sure that we were wearing our seat belts, however.

We then drove south along the coast for an hour. We stopped several times to take photos, particularly when we saw a huge flock of cormorants sitting on the shore. It was a great photo, especially when Bas ran yelling at them to make them fly. As we drove farther south, we entered Namib Naukluft Park, where a permit was required to enter. Our guide had already obtained the permit. As we continued, the dunes formed a tall wall directly by the shore, leaving only one lane for a vehicle to pass, and at times, the water washed over the lane and we had to drive through the water to continue. Our guide said that in previous years, many houses were located along the beach, but the sand dunes eventually buried them. We passed a single lone building still remaining.

When we got to Sandwich Harbor, several vehicles were already there, and our guide told us it was organized tours from the ship. They had not stopped for sandwiches or to view the flamingos, but had driven directly there. They parked at the base of the dunes, and a couple of people climbed a dune; however, they did not drive into the dunes, which our driver did immediately. To drive up steep dunes and then down again, where one cannot see what is below is a scary experience; however, he reassured us that he had been doing that for the past 11 years and we did not need to worry. We scaled dunes as high as a twenty-story building and dropped down slopes of more than 60 degrees. It was an amazing experience. We stopped in several places for photos and simply to gaze in wonder at the dunes. We were unable to take any photo that adequately showed the height or steepness of the dunes.

Around noon, a problem arose. Our driver informed us that we could stop and eat our sandwiches, and then he would take us back to the ship. We had contracted with him for the full day, to be returned to the ship at 5:00 p.m.; however, he said that we had misunderstood and that he would take us only to see the dunes, and then return us to the ship. After some discussion, we made it very clear to him that it was his misunderstanding and not ours, that we had contracted with him for the full day, and that was what we wanted. The implication was quite clear that if he wanted full payment, he would give us a full day. After a time, he agreed.

Our guide had been very friendly and very talkative on the way down, informing us about everything we saw. However, we drove back to Walvis Bay in silence, not stopping until we got back to the salt plant, where we took photos. We then requested that he take us to a place with restrooms, and that request seemed to surprise him; however, he complied. He then informed us that he would take us to “Dune 7”, a mid-sized dune located just outside town, where we would have lunch at one of the picnic tables there. Dune 7 is a local recreation area for families, and many children were there playing on the dune when we arrived. They had fun climbing the dune and sliding down.

After lunch, we drove north by a back road that was not paved, but was as smooth as a paved road. After a time, we arrived about 10 miles east of Swakopmund, and turned east onto a road called Welwitschia Drive, an alternating gravel and paved road. We drove along that road for 10-15 miles, before turning around and heading back into Swakopmund. Welwitschia is a plant that grows in the desert and survives for a very long time; average specimens are 500-600 years old, and the oldest ones are 2000 years old. The plant has large flat leaves that grow along the ground, and the plant has a root that reaches down as much as 20 feet. The leaves are very strong and cannot be torn; however, animals in the desert scratch at the leaves with their teeth for the moisture in them. Welwitschia Drive has been called a moon landscape, and it does resemble photos of the moon landscape. It is very barren.

We then drove into the little town of Swakopmund, a pretty tourist town with a nice beach and very pretty painted buildings, some of which have onion domes on them. A former German town in which German is still spoken widely, the town is a very popular beach town for Germans. We drove around the town taking photos of the interesting buildings, including the railway station built in 1901, and still one of the finest in Southern Africa. We then stopped into the famous CafĂ© Anton, a German confectionary, for cappuccino and apple strudel. We sat outside on a pretty terrace, and it was cool in the shade. We noticed that most of the guests were speaking German. After our coffee and strudel, we walked around the area to take photos of the lighthouse and a beautiful building that resembled a castle. It was originally constructed as a vacation house for the Kaiser, and is now used as the Namibia President’s vacation home. While we were in Swakopmund, we stopped at an ATM to get cash to pay the guide in Namibian dollars.

The drive back to Walvis Bay is very pretty, along a very modern highway that runs along the coast between the two towns. Many homes have recently been constructed along this road next to the beach, and our guide told us that the homes were built and owned by locals, mostly, although a few were owned or rented to foreigners. This is the area where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt came to live before the birth of their baby. As we reentered Walvis Bay, our guide pointed out housing developments (or townships) on both sides of the road -- one side for “coloreds” and the other side for “blacks”. In South Africa and Namibia, “coloreds” are a distinct group of people who are of mixed race and who speak Afrikaans almost exclusively, whereas “blacks” speak English along with their tribal language. The “coloreds” consider themselves a distinct group from “blacks”.

We returned to the ship at 4:30 and paid our guide his full amount and departed happily. It was a very good day, particularly the ride in the dunes, which is an unforgettable experience.

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