Back Home, and Reflections on the Trip

May 9-10.  Start the long trek home with an 11:25 AM flight from Windhoek to Joburg.  Nevada and Bob Newman are on the same flight and we hang out together at the Windhoek airport.

Time for some reflections on the trip.  First, it was great to have Carol with me, for most of the trip.  In recent years, I’ve done a couple photography trips without her, and it’s just not as much fun.  Though I wish she’d been on the extension, I understand that she needed to get back to Judson.

  
The trip was terrific.  Logistically, everything went smoothly, the accommodations were excellent, as was the food and wine, and the guides were outstanding (which makes a huge difference).  As I said at the outset, Nevada runs a great trip.  She’s adventurous and fun.  The group, too, was very good.  We laughed a lot together.  While one always has some group members who you relate to better than others, none were people you would want to avoid at all costs, or even close to that.  

A digression here to illustrate the point.  On a trip that Carol and I took to Alaska many years ago, with our friends, Valerie and Michael Lewis, we were part of a small group of about twelve people.  One of the fellows, Leroy, was a total bore, and never stopped talking.  I started designating certain areas as “Leroy free zones” to Carol and the Lewises.  We often had choices of two things to do on the trip and I would wait to see what Leroy chose, and then choose the other option.  Carol, who in general is a far kinder and more tolerant person than I, explained that Leroy was just lonely, having lost his wife not long ago.  I speculated that his wife had suicided to avoid Leroy.

On the other hand, on the same Alaska trip, we met a couple from New York, Burt and Jannie, who became very close friends of ours and with whom we traveled every year.  We had a similar experience with a couple from Maryland, Joe and Madeline, who we met on our biking trip to New Zealand.  In both cases, the husband has, unfortunately, died, but we remain close friends with, and see, Jannie and Madeline.  I’m not sure we’ll have a similar experience on this trip, but that may well be because we were the only couple on the trip.

Back to the trip.  Although logistics and accommodations were excellent, in some ways it was not an easy trip.  We drove approximately 2000 miles.  While that’s an average of only about 150 miles a day, some days covered far more territory than others, and driving 2000 miles in Namibia bears little resemblance to driving that distance in the US.  While the vans were very comfortable and the fact that we had two fewer people than anticipated allowed us to spread out some, the air conditioning was not really adequate when we drove in the heat of the day.  

In addition to the driving, it was very hot in the middle of the day and dusty or sandy.  Walking in the sand, particularly in the dunes area, was not easy.  For me, this was complicated by having some knee and/or foot pain during a significant part of the trip.  Those pains waxed and waned, though they were not unbearable, and were definitely worth tolerating to experience the trip.  Most days, we were up and off very early in the morning and kept going for a long time.  Periodic midday rest periods were most welcome.  Finally, though, it’s hard to admit, these trips do not get easier as the years go by.  I’m not close to being ready to quit, but this realization is part of what compels me to do as much traveling as I can now, rather than waiting.

There were three major components to the trip–cultural, landscape and game viewing.  It’s easy for me to identify which of these three I’d have given up, if I had to–the game viewing.  It’s not that this aspect was not good–it was–but Carol and I have been very fortunate to do a good deal of this, and more exciting game viewing, before. 

The choice between landscape and culture is much more difficult.  I’m not really a landscape guy.  I like people and culture.  But if I had to pick one aspect of this trip that was most special, I would have to pick the landscape of the dunes.  They are so spectacular, and so unlike anything we’ve seen before, that they would have to be my top choice on this trip.  I’ve never seen such a magnificent and distinctive landscape.  The only thing that comes to mind as a comparison is the Grand Canyon.

That said, though, the people and culture were fabulous, too.  That’s why I travel–to see and experience people, and how they live.  We had a unique opportunity to experience some unusual and, unfortunately, dying cultures.  Indeed, while tourism may threaten and ultimately (though, happily, not yet) taint and change these cultures, without tourism some of them might have died already and certainly others would disappear in the not-too-distant future.  So, there’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between these cultures and tourism.  I think that, as the trip wore on, I became more conscious of the darker aspects of this symbiotic relationship and so became more uncomfortable “exploiting” these cultures for benign, but voyeuristic, purposes.

Experiencing the villages on this trip was quite different than experiencing the rural villages we’ve visited in Ghana and Nigeria.  In one sense, we experienced these villages more fully than we have in Ghana (I’ll use that as a shorthand for Ghana and Nigeria), because we were often in these villages for at least two or three hours and several times visited the same village twice.  In Ghana, we typically visited a village for an hour, or even less, though we often went back to the same village in subsequent years.  In Namibia, our interactions were with individual villagers, whereas in Ghana it was with Chiefs.  In Ghana some of the Chiefs have become real friends.  We know one another and greet each other warmly.  In Namibia, the relationship is with people in the village.  For Nevada it’s real, as she goes back from year to year and brings them photos.  The rest of us, though, are highly unlikely ever to see these people again.

There was a more “legitimate” reason for visiting the Ghana villages, because our friends (and, to a much lesser extent, we) were helping with long term issues, such as clean water, education, health and agriculture.  This legitimacy made the visits to Ghanaian villages more comfortable and less voyeuristic than the visits on this trip.  It’s not that I and others on the trip were not genuinely interested in these people and their cultures, but any contribution we might be making to improving their lives was very indirect and incidental.  In other words, buying jewelry or crafts is different from building a well, adding a school room or supporting a medical clinic.  That’s not to say that what we did in Namibia was “wrong” or lacked value, it was just very different.

I would be very interested to know what the people in the villages in Namibia and Ghana really think of us, and our visits.  My hunch is that they would feel very differently about us.  I may never know.  In retrospect, I think my interest in making a contribution to the church in Namibia is probably a desire to make our Namibia visit a bit more like our Ghana visits.

As you know, this was a photography trip, so let me reflect a bit on that.  I probably took around 3500 photos on the trip.  That may seem like a lot, but I expect that I took far fewer photos than anyone else (except Carol, of course).  In many, perhaps most or even all cases, I think other group members may have taken two or three times the number of photos that I took. 

Photography of the villages and the dunes was great fun.  The wildlife photography was much less so. Of the 3500 photos I took (of which perhaps 500 or so are wildlife), I imagine that only a couple of the wildlife photos will interest me enough to spend much time revising them.  The landscape and village photos will take the bulk of my time.

Though this was not a workshop intended to teach photography, I learned quite a bit.  Most helpful were the sessions I had with Nevada reviewing my photos.  But also, just watching her work and working along side her and talking with and watching other group member was also instructive.  All of the others are more into the equipment and technical aspects of photography than I am.  For almost all of our visits they carried two heavy cameras, with multiple lenses and, sometimes, with heavy tripods (I used a small and rather useless tripod a couple times).  

For some of the wildlife photography, I used my Nikon, with a 300 mm zoom lens.  But I didn’t really like doing it.  The damn thing was heavy, and I was out of practice using it.  I was a lot happier and more comfortable with my much lighter Sony NEX 7, with an 18-200 mm zoom lens.  I intend to compare the Nikon and Sony photos, but my instinct is to stick with the Sony and just accept that there are photos I won’t be able to get.  

Sorry to bore you with all this, but, as you can see, I’m still working through some issues.  Bottom line is that I think I’m content to remain a rank amateur.  Though I’d like to improve and learn, I’m primarily interested in the creative aspects.  Clearly there is an overlap between equipment and technical knowledge and creative possibilities, but carrying a lot of heavy equipment and spending a lot of time on technical matters that don’t really interest me would detract from my enjoyment of photography.  So, for now, anyway, I’m prepared to trade a bit of creative possibility for comfort.  Besides, I can make up for part (though by no means all) of the creative possibilities in the post-processing work of fine tuning and improving images on the computer.
For all of you who have followed, and especially those who have commented or emailed about the blog, thanks for your interest.  I enjoy hearing from you, and that’s part of what motivates me to write the blog.

You’ve worked hard, though, so take a break.  Our next trip is not until next month.

More Rhinos and Back to Windhoek

May 8.  After I posted last night’s entry, another rhino came to the watering hole and, with Nevada’s help, I manages to get some photos of him in the moonlight.  Not great, but, hey, it’s something, so don’t complain.
For our last real day of the trip, we met for breakfast at 5:30.  Yikes; this is a vacation? We set out into Etosha again and spend four or five hors viewing game.  Our prize pot is two white rhinos (the two we saw last night were black rhinos.  Again we do not spot lions, leopards or cheetah (nor did we’re elephants today), but other wildlife is prolific, especially around water holes.  Around one waterhole, we saw seven different kinds of animals–kudu, springbok, oryx, zebra, ostrich, warthogs and Impala.
After the park, we go back to the lodge, pack quickly and set out driving back to Windhoek, stopping for lunch at a restaurant en route.  We arrive back at Galton House, our home for the third time, at about 6 PM.  We met for drinks at seven and I read the extension part of my fake blog for the trip, which people seemed to enjoy.  Very good and relaxed dinner, saw a terrific slide show that Bob Newman did on his Myanmar trip with Nevada and then said fond farewells to those who we might not see, given our different travel times and itineraries tomorrow.

   
       

   
       

Etosha National Park

 May 7.  Another long 10-hour driving day, but this one is different, because most of it is an extended game drive through Etosha National Park, the second most popular tourist destination in Namibia, after the dunes.
We leave at 7, after an early breakfast, passing again through the incredible melting pot town of Opuwo.  Spend a little time finding air for a low tire, the drive a couple hours to Etosha.  There is considerable game along the road, and this feels much more like the safaris Carol and I have been on in other trips.  The best game viewing, though, is at water holes, where often diverse groups of animals congregate to drink and bathe,  we probably stop at 7 or 8, squeezing a quick toasted cheese and tomato lunch in between.  There are signs in a number of places indicating that facilities and roads have been constructed with funds from Millenium Challenge Grants from the U.S.  It’s nice to see that we’re doing some good for Namibia, and that it is being recognized. 
Etosha National Park, translated as the ‘Place of Mirages’, Land of Dry Water’ or the ‘Great White Place’, covers 22 270 km², of which over 5,000 km² is made up of saline depressions or ‘pans’. The largest of these pans, the Etosha Pan, can be classified as a saline desert in its own right. The Etosha Pan lies in the Owambo Basin, on the northwestern edge of the Namibian Kalahari Desert. Until three million years ago it formed part of a huge, shallow lake that was reduced to a complex of saltpans when the major river that fed it, the Kunene, changed course and began to flow to the Atlantic instead. If the lake existed today, it would be the third largest in the world. Etosha Pan is the largest of the pans at 4 760 km². It is nowadays filled with water only when sufficient rain falls to the north in Angola, inducing floods to flow southward along the Cuvelai drainage system. The Park consists of grassland, woodland and savannah. Game viewing centers around the numerous springs and waterholes where several different species can often be seen at one time. The Park boasts some 114 mammal and over 340 bird species. Wildlife we saw included elephant, giraffe, blue wildebeest, eland, gemsbok (oryx), zebra, rhino, hyena, and warthog, as well as the endemic black-faced impala.

 

Andersson’s Camp is located just 4.5 km from Etosha National Park’s Andersson Gate, Andersson’s Camp takes its name from Charles Andersson, the Swedish explorer who first ‘discovered’ the Etosha Pan with Sir Francis Galton in 1851. Set against a backdrop of the low Ondundozonanandana Mountains, Andersson’s Camp is located within the private Ongava Game Reserve that borders onto Etosha National Park. The Ongava Game Reserve is typified by white calcrete soils, rocky outcrops and scrub-covered plains that support a rich variety of game such as giraffe, lion, rhino and various antelope species. The Camp overlooks a waterhole where guests can enjoy the interaction of wildlife coming and going throughout the day and night.

 

This former farmstead has been tastefully rebuilt to modern-day standards. The design and construction of Andersson’s Camp was guided primarily by the principles of environmental sustainability – reduce, reuse, recycle. The old farmhouse now forms the main dining, bar and swimming pool area of Andersson’s Camp, with guest tents radiating outwards into the secluded Mopane woodlands typical of the region. Tents are constructed using a clever mix of calcrete stone cladding, canvas and wood, with double-door entrances and a small verandah that is an extension of the elevated wooden decks on which the tents are raised. The open-air en-suite bathrooms continue the unique design. Andersson’s Camp’s close proximity to Etosha National Park is ideal for game drive excursions into Etosha to take in the array of game found there.
Andersson Camp is comfortable, quaint and authentic.  At dinner we can look at the camp’s waterhole from the deck.  After dinner we go to an underground hide, no more than ten meters from the waterhole, where we can observe and photograph wildlife.  We see a rhinoceros, but I do not have the right equipment to be able to photograph it at night.  Which is okay.  Just means I saw it, but you don’t.  Seems fair; after all, I paid for the damn trip.

 

          

   
        

Our Last Two Villages

May 6.  After breakfast, we set out to visit a Zemba village.  The Zembas are closely related to the Himba and Herero people we have seen, but their dress and hair styles differ somewhat, and the women do not use ochre on their ski, and retire rather early..
As the bus pulls up, Tarry and our local guide, Festus, are clearly having a serious discussion with the chief.  Part of the deal is that our guides bring materials and food stuffs to the village in turn for their cooperation.  While we brought maize, tea and a few other things, apparently we failed to bring the snuff that the chief had requested.  The matter is resolved when Tarry promises to get the snuff to the chief later.  At this point, we are free to get off the bus and photograph, which we do for a couple hours.
While each village and the people we see are different, there is getting to be a certain repetitive aspect to it, and I’m not as gung-ho about photographing as I was in the earlier villages.  Fortunately, the timing is good, since we will visit only one more village, before going to Etosha National Park tomorrow to view game.

   
       

   
 

En route back to our lodge, we visit a place called Scents of Namibia. While its a relatively small place, here the oils used for Namibian soap, perfume and lotions are processed from resins brought from the Northwest part of Namibia.  The processed oils are then transported to Windhoek, where they are made ready for shipment, both within Namibia and internationally, where they are utilized by many well-known perfume and lotion makers.  A plaque acknowledges that the plant was constructed with funds provided through Millenium Grants by the U.S.  We watch an interesting 6-minute video, get a tour of the plant and some members of the group make purchases.
We stop at an ATM and grocery store on the way back to the lodge, then talk for a long time, as it takes inordinately long to get our lunch.  We have an hour and a half to rest before setting out at 3:30 for another Zemba village.  This one is more remote and covers a larger area.  We have some difficulty finding it, but when we do, we have another interesting experience photographing in the village.

   
       

   
       

We return to the lodge, clean up a bit and then have dinner together.l

More Himbas, Town and a Hot Stone Massage

May 5.  Breakfast at the lodge and a 7 o’clock departure for another Himba village.  This one is larger than the others we visited, and hairstyle and jewelry differ somewhat.  Our local guide, Festus, explains Himba customs and answers questions.  Again we are free to wander around the village to photograph and are invited in to see a Himba woman apply ochre and perfume.
After we’ve walked around for quite some time, a large circle is formed with Himba women and children seated with jewelry, carvings and other crafts in front of them.  We all walk around and wind up buying some things.  The sales effort is more aggressive than what we’ve encountered elsewhere, but not offensive.  And buying a few things seems a fair trade off for the access we’ve been granted.
   
       

   
  

     

  

         

   
     

We drive into town and wander around the stores and a nearby market with stalls.  There is an amazing array of different people and grabs (and lack thereof), and wandering into a grocery store, a barber shop and a pool hall is quite an experience.  By late morning, it is very hot and dusty, so we return to the hotel for a bit of relaxation and for lunch.
   

  

      

At 3:30, the rest of the group is visiting another Himba village, but I feel Himbaed out at this point and so have elected to stay back, relax and have a terrific and relaxed hot stone massage.  A good decision, I think.

Reconnect with the group for drinks and dinner.