Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Namibia Style

I recently returned from a wonderful vacation in Swakopmund, Namibia. While it was certainly a place I had never dreamed of going before Peace Corps, I had a great time.

Getting to the country was ridiculously easy. I hopped aboard the Intercape bus in my shopping town and headed west. Instead of switching to a bus pointed south to Cape Town from Upington, I went north to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. We crossed the border in a drenching rainstorm, but by the time we arrived in the city it was looking clear and sunny. I may have been delirious though. It was very early, and sleeping on a bus is even more difficult for me than sleeping on a plane.

In Windhoek, at the backpackers, my traveling companion and I were lucky enough to run into a cabal of Peace Corps Namibia volunteers who were headed to the same place we were the next day. They pointed us in the direction of a Mugg and Bean coffee shop/restaurant, and we set off to explore the city.

As it was a holiday, most everything was closed up, but the cultural museum looked interesting from the outside and the gardens at Parliament Park were lovely. They were also home to a large collection of fearless lizards who vogued for numerous photos. Windhoek also has a large and exceptionally beautiful church set on a hill overlooking the city. It's also the focus of a series of photos.

Following our day in the "big" city, we set off with several Namibian volunteers to find out way to Swakopmund. It was quite an exciting trip. The first leg of the journey passed by a game park, and M was an excellent spotter of oryx and a warthog family. Please note, the warthog family was not in the game park. They were just having a stroll along the road, not too far from a warthog crossing sign. Yes, they're real.

The landscape changed dramatically from the green hills of Windhoek to a desert moonscape outside of Swakopmund. Northern Namibia was flooded earlier this year, so the landscape was substantially more lush than normal, but the Namib desert was still desert. Little but sand and the odd water pipeline for as far as the eye could see. I didn't even see Swakopmund until we were practically on top of it.

Swakopmund is an old German colonial town, built on the Atlantic coastline just north of some giant sand dunes and the more industrial town of Walvis Bay. Swakop is super-touristy and a very popular seaside destination for Africans and foreign tourists alike. We we first arrived, it was cloudy and overcast, but the weather cleared and we enjoyed clear skies and sunny days for the rest of our trip (even if the Atlantic sea breeze was a bit chilly at times).

Most of our time was spent eating. There were oysters galore, and too many pastries and desserts to count. Okay, that's not really true. I had 1.5 chocolate mousse, 2 ice cream cones, 3 cherries jubilee, 1 rum ball and several slices of cake. It was all delicious, but nothing beats oysters at a classy restaurant on the jetty during sunset. That was definitely a highlight.

It was well-deserved after an hour spent quad biking in the dunes. I had never been quad biking before, and I found it rather unsettling. I'd sooner go skydiving again than quad biking, but it was a worthwhile experience. The quad bikes were basically roofless golf carts with the handling of an old, rickety golf cart. It had been long, long while since I last operated a motor vehicle, so the quad bike took me a while to get used to. I was driving pretty slowly as I tried desperately to figure out how to steer. Thus, I began falling behind the rest of the pack. Our guide's brilliant solution to this problem was to place me straight behind him. Great, because now I'd be lost, but an unfortunate event for everyone behind me because I'm terrible at quad biking.

The guide would speed up a sand dune, turn, and fly back down. I'd grit my teeth, start going up, feel the pull of gravity on one side, slow down due to paralyzing (and utterly irrational) fear, and proceed to flail wildly in order to get myself back on even ground while remaining upright. I'm sure it was quite theatrical, but it was probably pretty annoying for the more serious thrill-seekers behind me.

The intense concentration on staying alive meant there was little time for sightseeing. According to a few photos I blindly snapped during a short break, the scenery was pretty spectacular. It was all giant, reddish sand dunes with occassional glimpses of flashing ocean. There are certainly uglier places to die, but I'm quite glad I lived to go back a few days later, on foot, and soak in the sights in a more relaxed environment.

The next day we hopped aboard a shuttle to the nearby town of Walvis Bay where we boarded a catamaran for a cruise through Sandwich Harbour. I love sandwiches and I love harbours, so it was basically the perfect trip.
Not only did we see seals, but two actually boarded the boat. The first was cute, but the second was a bit scary. He seemed to think the first seal on board was getting a bit too much attention, so he hopped right up. The captain couldn't get him to behave himself either. He just wandered where pleased, bumping into passengers (myself included) at his leisure. I guess there's a reason wild animals are best left in the wild. Still, I did get to pet a seal and that was pretty neat.

When the seal finally did leave, we headed out into dolphin country and saw at least a dozen bottle-nose dolphins. Then we spotted a jackal lounging on a patch of sandy beach. He looked a bit confused when he saw the boat coming, and he stood and trotted into the waves. It was strange to see an animal I strongly associate with land standing in an ocean, but apparently jackals are seal predators and we were just one historic lighthouse away from a seal colony.

Our vacation in Swakopmund was over much too soon, and it's been difficult to return to my one room and my spider infestation and my long trips in taxis. Oh well, only a couple months until my next trip!

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