Monday, June 30, 2014

Brandberg Mountain Pictographs, Namibia

A bushman pictograph, high in the Brandberg Mountains of Namibia.
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On what was almost certainly a bright and warm Namibian morning two thousand years ago, give or take a few decades, a small group of Bushmen hunters left camp and headed out across the plains of southern Africa in what is now called Damaraland, Namibia, bows in hand, to find something to eat.  Tall golden grass brushed against their legs as they walked, and their bare feet left temporary impressions in the sand. It may have been even drier then than it is now, but if you lived in the desert, you knew where to find water and you knew where to find animals to eat. Kudus, oryx, and springboks were plentiful, and, if you were particularly ambitious (reckless?), you might even try to bring down an elephant with your puny little bow. 

Some animals knew how to find you, too. Maybe you were higher up the food chain than your ancestors, and your descendants would continue the ascent, finding clever ways to hunt and protect themselves, but you could still get eaten if you weren’t careful, and sometimes even if you were.  Still, it was a nice morning to be out hunting with old friends, sharing stories under the bright desert sun. 

That very same morning, a lioness waited in the tall grass for food to wander into her range.  She watched for much of the same prey as the Bushmen—small to medium sized ungulates for the most part.  Unlike the cocky Bushman, she knew better than to try to jump an elephant by herself, and she also knew that the Bushmen themselves could be either prey or predator, depending on circumstances.  As the small group of Bushmen hunters came into range, her ears perked up and her tail twitched back and forth involuntarily.  Her focus became absolute.

Two thousand years later, in May of 2014, on another bright and warm Namibian morning, I stood in front of a large granite boulder in the Brandberg Mountains, high above Damaraland, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the rock art before me.  The red ochre paint on light orange rock depicted a Bushman, fully panicked, running for his life, the lioness close on his heels.  His penis is fairly large in the picture (cultural vanity?), but his scrotum is nowhere to be seen; undoubtedly his balls had withdrawn deep into his abdomen for safe keeping.  He had the presence of mind to try to protect the rest of himself as well, and in the painting he strains desperately to look over his shoulder, mouth open in horror, preparing to shoot an arrow back at the lioness even as he runs full speed into the fog of time. 

We’ll never know how the story ends, but the humor suggests that it resolved well for the Bushman and perhaps not so well for the lioness. Or maybe not. Maybe Bushmen had a better sense of humor about carnivorous death than we do. 

There are lots of reasons for making art, and scholars speculate at length about the meanings of prehistoric rock art. In the Brandberg, there are thousands of rock art sites, and archaeologists like Harald Pager, the German who collaborated with Angula, my Namibian guide on this recent trip to the Brandberg, have made careers of documenting and interpreting it. Much of the art was more serious or ritualistic than the image of the hunted hunter. With great skill, Bushmen painted images of African mammals, snakes and lizards, and other Bushmen, alone and in groups, men and women.  Their work is dynamic, elegant, and beautiful, and I feel privileged to have seen some of it, guided by the man who discovered many sites.

The quirky filmmaker, Werner Herzog, explored 32,000-year-old art in his documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France.  In an interview, Tom Keogh of the Seattle Times asked Herzog what it was like to stand before the charcoal drawings, deep in the darkness of the cave.  “It’s just an overwhelming feeling of awe.  You sense somehow this is the origin of the modern human soul; this is the origin of art.”         

These days, most of us are hyper-connected to our circles of friends, obsessively informed about local and national politics, and at least aware of important global events. We are brilliant at connecting across space, and we like to brag: The world is small (!!).  

We brag less, though, about the passage of time, and most of us, without thinking about it very much, are more ephemeral than our grandparents, who left us boxes of meticulously written cursive letters describing their lives and black and white photographic prints.  We leave our grandchildren digital files in MS Outlook format and jpeg images stored on hard drives.

Two thousand years ago, high in an isolated mountain range in the Namib Desert, a Bushman left a picture of his panicked friend being chased by a lioness.  He committed his memory of that sunny morning to stone, format be damned, and gained a measure of immortality.

Angula near the top of Amis Canyon.  He originally discovered many of these rock art sites while working with German archaeologist, Harald Pager, who died in 1985.  Angula is still guiding (with his son Thomas), almost 30 years later, and he knows the Brandberg like nobody else.

A less traumatic hunt.   Pictograph in Gaasep Canyon (spelling different in different sources).

Giraffe with Bushmen.  In cave I call the Wave Cave because it resembles a breaking wave of granite.

A typical rock shelter.  Pictographs here are on the right-hand wall. 

A Bushman carrying arrows and a bow.

Pictographs in the Waterfall Cave, named for the seep dripping off the lip of the cave.  

Elaborate pictographs in the Snake Cave, one of the premier sites in the Brandberg.  It's names for a big pictograph of a "eared snake" on the outside of the cave.

Snake Cave pictographs.

Unusual pictographs in the Snake Cave.  I have no idea what they represent, but they are different than any others that I saw on the trip.  
The Snake Cave.

Pictograph with rock damage, probably natural.  Unlike in the U.S., I saw no obvious vandalism or graffiti at these sites, perhaps partly because they are difficult to access.  

What could go wrong?  Shooting an arrow at an elephant.

Thomas, son of Angula, at the Giant Man Cave, named for the obvious pictograph.

Giraffe pictographs in the Giant Man Cave.

Humans and giraffes in the Giant Man Cave.

Human figures in the Giant Man Cave.

Giant Man Cave.

Intricate running bowmen.  Notice the strange arrowheads, which seem two-pronged.  I saw this in a lot of pictographs, even though arrowheads found here are pointy like they are in most places.
The spectacular cave at the top of the Amis Gorge.  We hung out in this wonderful spot for a couple of hours during the heat of the day.  

Pictographs in the Amis Cave.

Amis Cave.

An "eared snake" and other animals in the Amis Cave.

Giraffes.  Amis Cave.

The view from the Amis Cave at the top of the Amis Gorge, our descent route out of the Brandberg.

Rock art in the upper reaches of the Amis Gorge.

Similar events, different weapons, 2000 years apart.  Brandberg pictograph on left with Robert Capa photograph of the Spanish Civil War.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Namibian Sand Dunes

The view from high on Dune 7, a particularly accessible dune near the port town of Walvis Bay, south of Swakopmund.
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If you search for “Namibia” and look through the Images that Google conjures up, they are dominated by photographs of sand dunes and the Himba people. The Himba are historically from northern Namibia and southern Angola (which borders Namibia to the north), but groups of them have moved farther south partly because there are tourist dollars to be had.  They are photographed far out of proportion to their presence on the greater Namibian landscape, probably because the women are traditionally bare-breasted and coated with a mixture of deep red ochre and animal fat scented with fragrances like myrrh.  This look is a little surprising when encountered in an otherwise European town like Swakopmund (established by the Germans), where tourists sit at upscale sidewalk cafes sipping lattes. 

Dunes, on the other hand, occupy a huge area in Namibia, especially along the coast, where they extend from the South African border all the way into Angola and inland for varying distances depending on the strength of the prevailing wind.     

The most common images are from Sossuvlei, where ancient orange dunes colored by oxidized iron stand photogenically above dry pans (flat lake beds) and dead scraggly trees.  Sossuvlei, like the Snake River Overlook or the Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park or Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, is one of those places where, at sunrise, photographers take a number and queue up with their tripods to capture their version of an iconic scene. 

Still, I wanted to go there, but I didn’t have enough time after my hike in the Brandberg Mountains.

Instead, I drove east from Uis to the Skeleton Coast at Henties Bay and, after a short northward detour to see a very stinky seal colony at Cape Cross, drove south to the sprawling German tourist town of Swakopmund, just north of a vast dune field that famously extends right down to the Atlantic Ocean.  The ocean here is cooled by the Antarctic Benguela Current which causes chilly fog banks to roll up onto the dunes, providing a tiny amount of moisture for some of the creatures that live there—mostly insects but a few snakes, lizards, and mammals.  These dunes are part of the vast Namib-Naukluft National Park, and eventually the entire coast of Namibia will be parkland.    

Often in the winter, a notorious East Wind blows hard from the interior out to sea, bringing hot temperatures and dust storms.  The Swakop locals hate it, but for me it was interesting, and I hiked in the dunes in the hot howling wind and blowing sand, and it was not hard to imagine what it would be like to be lost in a vast desert in a sandstorm, even though my rental car was near and I was safely contained between a dirt highway to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.  In the valleys between dunes, the wind was not strong, but at their crests you could hardly stand up. 

Caretaker's hut, near Dune 7.

A losing battle.  Attempts at planting greenery near Dune 7.

The view from Dune 7.

Picnic area at the base of Dune 7, with a local volleyball team preparing to train by running up and down the dunes to "help us jump better."  I could barely walk up the dune, even after a week of backpacking.

More remote dunes, southeast of Swakop.

A clay layer in the sand.

Flamingoes in a small pond near the coast.

Evening light.

The East Wind blows.

Blowing sand in a strong East Wind.

Dune patterns

Plants are rare but present in places.  These shrubs are called Dollar Bush (Zygophyllum stapffii for you botanists), because the leaves resemble dollar coins (for you economists).  

The view from a dune crest during an East Wind, which kept knocking me to my knees.  The sheltered pan below looks inviting.

Wind patterns.

Wind patterns.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How to Hike in the Brandberg Mountains and Climb the Konigstein, Namibia

Bushman rock art in the "Snake Cave" in the Brandberg Massif.

I’ll have a lot of photos and stories from my Africa trip to post in the next few months.  This post is meant for people who might be looking for information on hiking in the Brandberg and climbing the Konigstein, which happens to be the tallest peak in Namibia (a little over 2500 m).  I wasn’t able to find one consolidated place that described the logistics, so I’ll provide an overview here based on my experience.  Thanks to Mark Jenkins, who also did this hike.  He provided me with some of this info ahead of time. 

Exploring Namibia’s Brandberg Massif was something that I’d wanted to do since I first ran across a satellite image of the area while preparing a lecture for one of my remote sensing classes.  The massif, which has a remarkably round footprint in the Namib Desert when viewed from above, looked exotic and interesting, and a little research revealed the famous Bushman rock art there, providing further enticement.  When the opportunity came to make the trip after working in Uganda for One School at a Time, I took it. 

The Brandberg, as seen by the Landsat 5 satellite (NASA image).

 When to go:  The Namibian summer is beastly, with temperatures in the 100s.  If at all possible, travel in the Namibian winter (June, July, August).  Temperatures during this time are perfect, with 70s in the day and lows from the 50s to around freezing at night (bring some warm clothes).  Water is a critical factor.  Summer is the “rainy” season, and if the rains came there is well-spaced water along the hike that lasts through the winter.  If it was dry, you’ll have to carry a LOT of water, which is heavy, and you’ll have less hiking options!  I hiked in early June, after a wet summer, and water was plentiful after the first day, though a little scarce on the descent down Amis Canyon at the end of the hike. 

Guides Angula (front) and his son, Thomas, at the first water we encountered.

Flights:  Most flights go through Jo’burg, South Africa to get to Windhoek.  Both airports are very upscale, with all amenities. 

On the tarmac at the Windhoek Airport.  Nice dry air and palm trees.

 Car Rental:  You do not need a 4WD or high clearance to drive to Uis.  You can save money by renting a small 2WD car instead, unless you plan to do other trips before or after the hike that require a heavier duty car.  I rented a very tiny little Toyota car that did fine (one flat tire).  There are many places in Windhoek that offer 4WD camping rigs, but of course they are more expensive.

My very small rental car in the very large Namib Desert, west of Uis.

 Permit:  You must have a permit to hike in the Brandberg.  This needs to be acquired ahead of time.  The easiest way is to contact Basil at the Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis and let him get the permit and organize your trip.  He will e-mail you the permit application which you can fill out and return to him, and he’ll get your permit before you arrive.  Cost is 150 Namibian Dollars (about $15 USD).  Basil can also organize your guide(s).  Ideally, try to go with Angula, a local man who discovered many of the rock art sites while working with German archaeologist Harold Pager.  Angula doesn’t speak English, but his son Thomas (also a guide) does, so I hired both of them.  It’s nice to have Thomas along to translate and so that you have someone to talk with!  Angula is great even without direct English communication, but you can get more information if you have Thomas along as a translator.  When I went (June 2014) Angula charged $50/day and Thomas charged $30/day.  Angula is at least in his 50s (stories vary), so I don’t know how much longer he’ll want to keep guiding, but he’s extremely strong by any measure.

Me with Thomas (left) and his father, Angula at the trailhead, about to begin the hike.  

 Money:  The Namibian currency is the Namibian dollar, and the exchange to USD is about 10 to 1, so $100 Namibian equals about $10 US (as of June 2014).  The Namibian Dollar is tied one-to-one to the South African Rand, and Rands can be used in Namibia, but not necessarily vice versa.  Note that if you have leftover Namibian money at the end of your trip, exchange it in Windhoek before you leave.  I didn’t know this and waited until I got to Jo’burg, where nobody would exchange it (anyone want to buy some Namibian Dollars??!!)
Windhoek:  Windhoek is the capital of Namibia.  The main city is modern, relatively calm, and easy to drive in, even if you aren’t used to driving on the left side of the road.  Trips to the Brandberg will probably begin with a flight into the Hosea Kutako International Airport, about 40 km west of the city and connected by the B6, a good highway with little traffic.   As with any city, there are many places to stay in Windhoek with a full range of prices.  In general, I found that accommodation in Namibia was very nice and reasonably priced.  In Windhoek, I stayed in the Hotel Uhland, where deluxe rooms ($70+/night) were very cushy, and standard rooms ($50+/night) were predictably less so.  There are many backpacker places and more upscale hotels.  Shopping in Windhoek is easy, so you might take advantage, though goods for you hike can also be purchased in Uis (the nearest town to the Brandberg and site of the Brandberg Rest Camp).  Note that on the hike you will need to cook your own food, so you’ll need at least a minimal cookpot and utensils, etc., and a stove, although you can also cook over a fire if you don’t want to buy a stove.  You might be able to buy a cheap stove in Uis, but don’t count on it.  There are lots of safari supply places in Windhoek.  Grocery stores are better stocked in Windhoek than Uis, but you can get the food you need in either place.  You can also camp inexpensively in many places.  Windhoek seems very safe during the day, but oddly empty of people at night, which makes one feel vulnerable walking around.  I recommend either driving yourself around at night (to get dinner or whatever), or using taxis, which aren’t expensive.  There are good restaurants in Windhoek. See the Lonely Planet Guide for  descriptions. 

The dining area at the Hotel Uhland in Windhoek.  Pretty cushy!

 Driving from Windhoek to Uis:  The drive to the Uis takes about 5 hours or so, and is easy.  There are many places to get gas along the way, though you could make it all the way to Uis on less than a tank, and there’s gas at Uis.  The first half is on good paved highway, and the second on good graded gravel road.  The drive takes you though acacia woodland, quite dense in places but thinning out to grassland as you drive west.  Watch for animals.  I saw baboons, warthogs, and ostrich, though not many.  

Uis is a very small town associated with a now defunct tin mine (they are making brick now from clay in the mine tailings).  The Brandberg RestCamp is well-signed and easy to find, and it directly across the street from the only supermarket in town, which is more than sufficient for trip needs.  There is also an ATM at the store that allows withdrawals of 1500 N$ at a crack (about $150).  In fact, there are ATMs at most gas stations, so you can get cash.  The Rest Camp takes credit cards, but the guides require cash, so you’ll need to get enough cash built up to pay them at the end of the trip.  My bank only allows me to make one ATM withdrawal a day, so if yours is the same, keep that in mind and plan ahead. 

The C36 to Uis.  Well-graded gravel with occasional baboons.  

 Brandberg Rest Camp:  The Brandberg Rest Camp offers very nice rooms and camping, along with a decent meals, wireless internet, a pool, and lots of information and guided side trips (e.g., looking for desert elephants, going the White Lady rock art site, etc.).  There are other places to stay in Uis if the Rest Camp is booked (I stayed at the “balloon place” down the road one night, which was also very nice).  Basil owns the Rest Camp and is extremely gregarious and friendly, not to mention helpful.  He was gone to Windhoek for business when I arrived, but had left his friend Louis in charge, who was great.  Louis helped me negotiate with the guides, and he drove us to the trailhead and picked us up at the end, as well as taking me on a drive after my hike to look for elephants. 

The Brandberg Rest Camp.  Also very cushy.

Maps:  I didn’t have a map, which felt a little odd, since I never knew exactly where we were or where we were going.  There is a government mapping and survey agency that has an office in Windhoek, and you can buy good maps there.  I saw a nice topo map posted on the wall of the grocery store in Uis, just behind the ATM. 

The Hike:  You can climb the Konigstein and see some of the premier rock art in a 3-day trip up and down Gaasep Canyon, or you can do a 5-day trip and exit Amis Canyon (Amis means Ostrich in a local language), which is what I did.  I’d recommend the latter if possible.  The deciding factor is water availability.  If it’s dry, you’ll have to do the up and down trip and climb the Konigstein as a day hike from your camp at the only water—at the top of Gaasep.  If the preceeding season was wet, there is nicely spaced water along the hike.  Bring a filter and/or purification tablets.  In either case, the first day is the toughest, since you’ll be gaining a lot of elevation in steep, rugged terrain and carrying all of your water. 

Angula and Thomas walking back to camp after climbing the Konigstein.

Pack as lightly as possible, obviously.  A tent is nice to have, but not essential.  If you aren’t fit for backpacking uphill, you’ll suffer.  It might be good to carry enough water to camp part way up rather than trying to hike all the way to the first water.  All depends on your fitness level.  There is nice rock art on the hike up, and it’s nice to be able to take the time to enjoy it.  We climbed the Konigstein on the second day of our hike.  We hiked to a campsite at the base (where there is water), stopping to see the famous and outstanding Snake Cave along the way, and then climbed the peak without packs and returned to camp in time to make dinner.  It can be cold and windy on the summit, so bring appropriate clothes.  The climb is just a scramble up boulders and isn’t difficult.  Approach shoes with sticky rubber are nice to have, but not essential.  The final 3 days of my hike were shorter, with lots of stops to see art or to relax.  We camped at a gorgeous place called The Cataract on the 3rd night (waterfall, pools, etc.), and part way down Amis on the 4th and last night.  Note that the descent (either down Amis or down the way you came up) is steep and rocky, so if you have old knees (like mine) plan on beating them up.  We were at the bottom of Amis by mid-morning of the 5th day.  Note that someone (you and/or guides) should carry a cell phone on the hike to call the Rest Camp and arrange a pick-up time.  There is (amazingly) cell coverage at the top of Amis Canyon. 

On the summit of the Konigstein, with Angula (photo by Thomas!).

 That’s it in a nutshell.  It’s all pretty easy to set up if you allow Basil to make the arrangements, and the hike is beautiful, so if you get the chance, take it.  I'll edit this as I think of other things.  Feel free to e-mail me if you have questions.