Sunday, January 31, 2016

Swakopmund, Namibia, Part 1: Visiting Cape Seals....in Germany??

Doesn't the name "Swakopmund" just scream German?  Fitting, because this town on the Western coast of Namibia is like taking a step into Germany.  All the streets, the buildings, the people, the names - it is super trippy.

After Etosha, we spent the day driving down to the city of Swakopmund.

What It's All About:
Swakopmund is a coastal town in Namibia that is a beautiful, popular vacation spot for many Namibians. It's got gorgeous coast, but is also super accessible to tons of other activities and sights, as it is a part of the Skeleton Coast - named such due to the seal/whale bones that used to wash ashore due to the whaling industry, but more recently because of the number of shipwrecks that have happened on the coast.  As is such, Swakopmund is not only a charming city itself, but you have easy access to things like fishing, visiting the crazy desert landscape of sand dunes, numerous animal colonies (flamingoes, seals, pelicans, etc), etc.   

Swakopmund.....or Munich!??

Since Namibia was a former German colony, you see a lot of German influence everywhere - especially evident in Swakopmund. After days of driving through total wilderness, plains, and desert, it's weird to enter the city and feel like you're in Bavaria.

Main Street

Real talk: and keep in mind this is just my own personal opinion and I don't have nearly the depth of knowledge or experience to comment more in-depth, but I was also a little uncomfy because the town felt very divided to me (Namibia was ruled by South Africa after Germany, so all the South African laws, such as apartheid, were also in effect here).  To this day, there's a pretty big income inequality in Namibia as a result of these laws (Namibia is one of the 5 worst African countries in terms of the discrepancy between rich and poor) - this is evident in much of the country, but I felt it particularly in Swakopmund. For the most part, it seemed like all the hotel/lodge/restaurant/business owners were white, and all the people vacationing were white, and all the workers/employees/service people were black.  I know apartheid and racial inequality are touchy issues, but I noticed it right off the bat without meaning to, and I didn't love that part of it.

Overall though, we spent a good amount of time in Swakopmund and I really enjoyed our time there.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Cruised from Etosha to the coast to get to Swakopmund. The coolest thing about Namibia is the constantly-changing landscapes.  You can seriously go from leafy green plains, to stunning mountain views, to harsh desert dunes, to gorgeous coast.  It looks like 10 different alien planets rolled into one - all so DIFFERENT and crazy-looking.

Green and mountain-y

Then crazy and desert and empty

On a stopover to a winery, they were roasting this (pig? sheep? goat?) on a spit

We did a wine tasting, but more importantly, the winery had all these adorable pet dogs running around

Puppy on left, old crotchety dachshund on the right (I have a soft spot for old, crotchety dogs seeing as how I used to own one).

  • We arrived in Swakopmund that evening, just in time for sunset!

In true hobo, ghetto backpacker-form, we brought our own wine to drink on the benches to watch the sunset.

And took entertaining sunset photos.

Chun Li, present.

Crooked levitating pose, of course.

Panorama of the lovely sunset looking over the deserted beach

We then went to this adorable, renowned seafood restaurant overlooking the water called The Tug

  • The next morning, Jesse and I took our trusty little truck and drove it a couple hours north along the coast to a point called Cape Cross. Cape Cross is originally named by a Portuguese sailor, and is now best-known for its HUMONGOUS SEAL COLONY.  It's home to a colony of cape fur seals (which are different than regular seals because they have ears! Eee how cute is that!) - around 80,000 to 100,000 of them at any given time. 

Views of the coast on the way up - stunning

And then we arrived at Cape Cross! And were promptly greeted by this seal, who had managed to climb over the seal-proof gate onto the human walkway

Joke is that you can smell Cape Cross before you see it (which is true, the entire place reeeeeeked of seal poo).

They were all just lazing around like beached wha-......seals?

At the entrance to Cape Cross, we were handed a fact sheet about cape fur seals. Apparently breeding season is in December, so the cape was chock full of baby seals. SO MANY BABY SEALS.

The baby seals all bleat like sheep - apparently all mom seals have one baby seal, and they find each other solely based on the sounds of their bleating.

Which is crazy, because how do you find ANYone in this mess?

Pano of all the seals - it's hard to see the sheer number of them, it just looks like tiny black patches


They also have taken up residence under the walkway - as you're walking along it, you can feel and see all the seals bumping around underneath and scooting in and out

This is a former picnic area - which has completely been overtaken by the seals. Under all the benches, tables etc. are tons and tons and tons of baby seals crammed in, which is hard to see because baby seals are jet-black

  • After Cape Cross and its billion seals, we headed back down the coast - on the way, we stopped at one of the many shipwreck sites that dot the Skeleton Coast. Throughout history, there have been a significant amount of shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast - thick fog usually grounds the boat, and back in the day, sailors would crash their boats on accident and then make it to land, only to find hundreds of miles of empty, dry, harsh desert landscape. Consequently, many of them died searching for food and water. Anyhow, you can still visit some of the shipwreck sites today - it's crazy because a lot of them are prone to the elements and there's ships that look like they've marooned in the middle of the desert, because the strong winds and endless sand quickly cover things over and swallow them up.

This is all you see for hundreds of miles

And this. Desert as far as the eye can see. Looks inhospitable.

This shipwreck we visited is called Zeila - this one ran aground off-shore in 2008

Now the ship just sits and waits for tourists to take cheesy photos with it

  • Arriving back in Swakopmund, we took a walk to the main beach - it was gorgeous and lined with a boardwalk full of cafes and delicious treats (ICE CREAM), and seriously could have been a scene straight out of California.

There's even a picturesque lighthouse

Palm tree-fringed beach

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • ~27% of baby cape seals don't survive to adulthood, due to a combination of drowning, ocean predators, land predators, being stampeded by fellow baby seals, etc.
  • There are more than a thousand vessels whose remains are littered around the Skeleton Coast. Only a handful are visible today.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Etosha National Park, Namibia: "It Would Be Hard To Not See Animals Here"

Direct quote from my Lonely P.  Which is how I'm going to explain later, when you find out that we somehow roped ourselves into yet another safari. I may eat my words later, but I'm not sure I ever need to go on safari again.

From Botswana, we wanted to make our way to Namibia - which is a popular route - but involved a series of buses, transfers, and.....*drumroll* hitch-hiking!  It's a pretty common method of transportation out here - any given time, you'll see people by the side of the highway with hand stuck out for a ride.  Also, it's a lot more reliable given we had multiple experiences where buses didn't bother showing up randomly, or timetables would be totally different depending on who we asked, or multiple people would give completely conflicting information. People just aren't as fussed about schedules and times and reliability in Botswana - you just have to shrug it off and go with the flow. All we had to tell ourselves was that we would somehow, some way make it to our destination at some point in time.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Our journey from Maun, Botswana to Windhoek, Namibia involved the following:
A local bus that arrived 3.5 hours after we were told it would. And then it didn't even go to the destination we wanted. So we had to have a stopover in the Botswanan city of Ghanzi for a night.
(For photo reference, there was also a lady who sold the world's largest bananas on the bus.)

The next morning, we waited for a bus from Ghanzi, Botswana to Charles Hill, Botswana (the border town before you cross into Namibia). The driver ended up never showing. So then we were relegated to hitch-hiking.
(Photo reference: Yep, I am looking like a hot mess and eating spoonfuls of peanut butter dipped in sprinkles. Because I have quickly embraced being a hobo.)

Two hours of hitch-hiking later (which is an incredibly difficult task when only one car passes on the highway every 20 minutes) - we finally hitched a ride in the back of a truck with three other men that had been hoping to take the same bus. It was the windiest two hours of my entire life.  And the driver got a speeding ticket on the way - oops - but points for efficiency!  He was incredibly kind and stopped a time or two to check that the two foreigners were surviving in the back.

We got dropped off in Charles Hill, Botswana - where we quickly hitched another ride with a man who was managing a construction company. He had one of his drivers come pick us up, as his driver was driving this semi all the way to Windhoek.

We did have to go through customs to enter Namibia with the driver. And then we staged a photo shoot with the driver's truck, which I'm sure he appreciated. Seriously though, this thing was massive.

Inside the spacious semi with our new driver friend! I was sitting on the bed, and I may have used it to nap for 3 hours on the way. 

Views from the semi. Namibia is gorgeous!

  • The driver dropped us off in Windhoek around 5pm - we had him drop us off at an ATM so we could get cash, and then we got a taxi to our hostel for the night. Total cost of transport from Botswana to Namibia - $0!  I could get used to this hitch-hiking thing.

We have arrived in Windhoek! As evidenced by this Windhoek beer.

  • The next morning, Jesse and I headed down the rental car office to pick ourselves up a sweet ride for our time through Namibia. This is because the sites in Namibia are super far apart, there's really good road infrastructure/signage, and rental cars are relatively cheap (compared to the rest of Africa, anyway). Anyhow, we walked in to rent a small sedan - and walked out with:

Oh, a giant 4-wheel-drive honker complete with pop-up tent at top. My visions of a lovely 10-day Namibian drive have now morphed into a 10-day camping trip. How. Howwwwwww.

This may be hard to see, but ta-daaaaa! Pop-up tent has been activated. This is one of our campsites, and I have to say that I surprisingly really love sleeping in the tent. It's incredibly spacious inside, there's all these cute little windows and cubbyholes and nooks/crannies, and I love burrowing myself into my sleeping bag when it gets cold at night. Only downfalls - waking up at the ass crack of dawn when the sun turns the tent into a sauna.

Don't judge me, but this is the very first meal I've made on my own in 7.5 months of travel - and Jesse made it.

  • A day in, we reached Etosha National Park!  Ok, let me explain myself here. We have a Lonely Planet Southern Africa book which encompasses seven countries. SEVEN. And Etosha National Park in Namibia is the SECOND most recommended place the book highlights in ALL of Southern Africa  (first is Victoria Falls, in case you were wondering). Basically, the book said there's so much wildlife here that you would be crazy not to visit.

Entrance to Etosha!

Very interesting landscape. But problem number one: we did a self-drive, and neither Jesse or I are safari guides (unless having gone on 5 safaris makes me one), so we may have missed a lot of animals. Part of having a guide is the guide's ability to spot animals in the bush, as well as know which roads to go down and where the best parts are at the best times of day. Jesse and I's safari was like the blind leading the blind.

As evidenced by me aimlessly driving down random roads and pretending to show invisible animals out the window.

And then I spotted this deer with HUGE EARS.

And then: a giraffe! Eeeeee

This giraffe stared at us for a long time.

There was a part of the park where there were zillions of hawks circling around. Kind of like Hitchcock.

A wildebeest!

Zebras!! That medium-sized zebra in the middle seriously gave us the stink-eye for like, 10 minutes straight. He would walk forward a little when the other zebras would walk, and then he would glare at us. 

Mom and baby zeebs

Mom and baby deer

Near the exit of the park - a friendly giraffe!

Who was accompanied by a shy giraffe.

  • So I seriously just raced through those photos, but I would like to point out that Etosha is HUGE and we drove through it for like, 5 hours straight. This also may be due to the fact that I chose some rather questionable roads and it had downpoured the night before, so we ended up on some serious back-alley poorly-maintained roads with huge water-filled potholes. You know, the kind where you can't tell how deep they are until half your truck is already tipped inside it.  Thank God for 4WD. Our beautiful truck now looks like it has been driven through a million mud pits. Which it has. Overall, it was cool getting to do our own self-drive (and trying to use knowledge we've picked up along the way), and Etosha is beautiful, so no regrets. 

Sunset from our campsite that night.

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Namibian and South African zebras look different than other ones in Africa - they have reddish muzzles and browner white parts, and their stripes don't go all the way around their stomachs.
  • Spotting animals is hard. Seriously. You would think it'd be easy because sometimes they're huge, but when all around you is vast, open plains, it makes it so much more difficult!  We also managed to see some elephants and tons of kudu.
  • To hitchhike in Botswana, you stand by the road and make a kind of "come here" gesture quickly with your palm.
  • I managed to drive our 4WD manual truck without killing either of us, which I think deserves a tiny prop. Not only is the steering wheel on the opposite side and you have to drive on the opposite side of the road (so left turns become the easy, fun ones!), but everything else is in reverse too - the shift stick (seriously, so trippy having to do this with my left hand), the windshield wipers, the lights, etc.  More than once, I've tried to turn and the wipers come on instead of the blinking turn symbols. 
  • Windhoek is the capital of Namibia, and it's only been around since 1990.  Before that, Namibia was occupied by South Africa (so the effects of apartheid are very evident here as well, for example: 5% of the population is white, but 50% of the farming land is owned by whites), and before that, it was colonized by Germany. It's weird because so many Germans still live here, and so many buildings look decidedly German, and the streets all have super complex names that end in "strasse" - German for the word street.