Please note another warning on the ensuing content -- lots of indigenous nudity, so if that offends you, please do not proceed.
The coolest thing I saw in all of Namibia was the scene at a gas station we stopped at in Opuwo on the way to Epupa Falls in Kaokoland. The primary traditional tribe in this region is the Himba, but others make their home here as well. We all got out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. While our guide was dealing with filling the gas tank and buying supplies at a convenience store, and most of the others were conversing with a hawker who sold necklaces to the few tourists who stopped into the gas station, I was fascinated with the scene around me and stood silently, almost invisible, against one of the gas pumps, where no one paid any attention to me. It was not a place where it would be appropriate to take photos, so I have none. But I’ll never forget it because I’ve never seen anything like it – such a mixing and amiable mingling of people dressing according to their traditional culture and ones adopting completely Western attire. Typically this choice of fashion is indicative of an overall mindset, and Western and traditional don’t always mix so well. But walking in and out of this small grocery store at the gas station were (a) barefoot Himba people in completely traditional dress with their red-ocher skin and elaborate hairstyles; (b) people from the Herero tribe whose traditional dress was clearly colorful fabric and large cloth hats in the shape of bullhorns or a banana – one woman got into her little pickup truck and her hat was so wide that the tip stuck well out of her window, she tried to roll it up but could not proceed beyond her hat; (c) people of an Angolan tribe (we were very near the border) with long hair separated into many narrow braids; (d) native people dressed completely in Western garb with shorts or jeans, a shirt and shoes, and close-cropped unremarkable hairstyles; and (e) a sprinkle of white people, which at that time was only our own small crew of seven. It was truly a glorious cultural mixing pot. I was so enthralled with that scene I really hated to get back in the truck and leave.
Before I left for Namibia, in a conversation with my friend, Laura, a regular traveler to Africa, I had just returned from Iran and was soon to leave for Namibia, and I was talking about the discomfort of having to be so covered up in Iran with the long pants, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf and how other women wore a full black chador; Laura said, “And when you go to Namibia, women will be pushing shopping carts around topless.” Indeed, having visited these two countries back to back was quite hilarious to witness the difference in women’s “modesty.” This is precisely why I am passionate about traveling the world … the differences among both geography and humanity are so monumental, so fascinating, so stunning in their polarity, I simply can’t bear not to discover and witness them myself.
But the traditional cultures in Namibia are at a crossroads -- with tradition on one side and modernization, which in my opinion is basically synonymous with homogeneity, on the other. Both the Himba and the San can earn a living by showing their traditions to tourists … as I showed in my post about the San living museum, and we were in Kaokoland to photograph the Himba – this is accomplished by finding someone who knows a local chief and can strike a deal in which the tourists bring specified gifts in return for being allowed into that clan’s kraal to photograph the people inside as they basically just go about their daily chores. So it’s different than the living museum the San have created. Nonetheless, in my opinion, these opportunities are valuable to the locals. They provide desperately needed income in endemically impoverished regions, and I think there is inherent value in preserving traditions even if they eventually become only for show, this is better than losing them altogether. At this unique moment in time, the Himba who choose to keep the traditional lifestyle are doing so for themselves, their own free choice of lifestyle which they simply allow visitors to glimpse.
It’s hard to know how to feel about this crossroads … how to give people on each side their rights and dignity, and my respect and support. Right or wrong, I admit my prejudice against the shedding of traditional culture. So you will nearly always find me enthusiastically portraying the traditional, though occasionally I turn perhaps hypocritical in disagreeing with some customs I find intolerably barbaric.
Anyhoo … let’s get on with some illustrations of the different lifestyles the Himba engage in. First, the traditional – where we were allowed inside one clan’s kraal. We had a translator, a local Himba lady who no longer lives in a kraal or dresses traditionally, and works in the local tourist industry (in a hotel and as a translator/guide). As we walked around, she explained to us what we were witnessing, so we weren’t just stumbling ignorantly around the kraal, which is good because it was important to know, for one thing, not to step over a fire – they’re sacred to the Himba.
The first people we met were the chief and the eldest of his three wives. The chief was basking in the sun in a chair, and his wife was weaving a small basket from dried grass. Notice her elaborate hairdo. The long clay-packed braids with the tufts of hair at the bottom are part of every woman’s hairdo, but the rest of it, the formations on top of their head, are designed by each individual according to their fancy as they grow older. Really fascinating.
This gal was making a porridge with mealie, a type of corn flour, over a fire. The flour is one of the gifts we brought, along with Vaseline … in the past the Himba used a natural emollient to mix with the red clay to make their skin coating … that beautiful red coating that makes their skin look like silk. Now, it’s easier just to mix in Vaseline.
Here you can kind of see the elaborate nature of the women’s skirts. They’re made of stiff, hardened cow hide shaped into various patterns. They don’t really look that comfortable, actually, even though they are beautiful. But then, these are people who sleep on hardened cow hide mats rather than soft hide mats, and instead of pillows, rest their head at night on wooden neck rests. So I guess they have a different definition of comfort.
This is one of the daughters of the chief – everyone refers to her as a “princess.” Certainly an exquisite girl. These aren’t the best pics of her, I had amateur problems dealing with the lighting. But you get the idea how stunning she is. I have a string of photos of her when she's outside, looking askance one direction or another. It startled me to find the shot, second below, of the princess suddenly looking toward the camera for one frame in the middle of the series. In the bottom photo, she is sitting inside her hut.
And I totally adore the men’s traditional hairstyle. In the second photo, you can see they even make little caps for their braids. Ran into those chaps while in the “modern” village and the fellow in the first photo we met inside the traditional kraal. The other guy featured doesn’t have the traditional ‘do, but I loved his smile and friendly disposition.
And of course, the children … how dear they are. I don’t have much in particular to say about them, so I’ll simply present a bunch of pics for you. The first photo, though, does particularly amuse me, because somehow to me these kids in this pose look like they are a superhero team of veteran hero and sidekick, like a Batman and Robin … having just thwarted some evil plot and now looking off into the distance scanning the horizon for the next villain to vanquish.
I don’t know why this photo turned out so grainy, but in any case, I love it. A Himba kid inside the traditional kraal to whom I gave my sunglasses to try on ... just looks like such a badass.
So at this crossroads in time and choice of lifestyle, it was encouraging to see children on both sides playing together. The people who have crossed the tracks and live now on the other side, outside a traditional kraal, dressed in Western clothing, still live nearby (they haven't all just moved to cities). In this case, there is a village right next to the small swath of tourist lodges along the edge of the Kunene River at Epupa Falls. We couldn't go back to the traditional kraal in the afternoon, which disappointed me, so our guide arranged for a local to take me and a couple others for a walk through this "modern" village nearby, where the children were at first willing to be in front of the camera lens, but soon were all-out clamoring for the attention.
This girl in the foreground, below, floored me with her poise and beauty in this shot, for such a young child. At first she seemed a little shy, her smile reserved, until her mom asked me to take a photo of them together, and then she opened up a generous smile. Her little pal was quite the silly jokester. Nearly every photo I have of the girl in the background, she is making some silly or hilarious face ... this (and the photo above) were her few calm moments.
But now comes the conundrum of the crossroads, something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. The first time I really confronted the issue was when I read Vine DeLoria’s book, The Noble Savage. It shocked and disillusioned me … my own sense of what I thought was right -- my sense that tradition trumped everything, its cultural value surpassed the value of everything else. As a general rule, my travel blog is for sharing what I see and hear (learn) while traveling, not for long discourses on cultural and anthropological theories or the complexities of wildlife and habitat conservation. But they are topics of interest to me. So let’s just stick to the visual presentation. I'll comment only that I personally found it hard to appreciate the "modern" village as much as the traditional kraal.
First, here are a couple domestic animals we ran into … a pig at the water’s edge, and a photo I just really love of a lone chicken strolling down the road (rather than across it). Does anyone ever ask why the chicken walked down the road?
This is a scene from the non-traditional village. In the second photo, if you can’t quite make it out, the mound beside the trash can is a mound of beer bottles.
These people offered us a drink of their homemade liquor. “Take just a tiny sip,” the guide said. At first I thought he said that for my own benefit because it was strong; later I considered it was probably because it might have been rude to drink too much of their hooch which had been offered for free. It tasted better than I thought it would.
Our local guide told me alcoholism is a big problem for Himba people who leave their traditional kraals. One unfortunate upshot, for example, is that crocodiles live on the banks of the Kunene River and he said it’s not uncommon for locals to get eaten because they’re so drunk they do ridiculously dumb things like try to swim across the river, or they fall out of their canoes because they’re too drunk to paddle. Why more of a problem for those who leave the traditional setting? Largely because of unemployment. Once they leave their traditional lifestyle of keeping livestock, they don't always find something else to do, so I guess boredom comes into play.
The marula tree grows across southern Africa and the fruit is often made into liquor. In fact, my favorite liquor in the whole world is amarula made in South Africa. It's a cream liqueur and delicious on ice or poured on ice cream! Anyway, I've even heard of animals getting drunk from eating overly ripe marula fruit. The local fellow told me that the Himba use marula oil (made from the fruit seeds) when pregnant women are not feeling well or worry they might be having problems with their baby ... they rub the oil on her stomach.
The woman below is not Himba, she’s from an Angolan tribe; and the man below was very accommodating when we asked to take his picture. I just love friendly people. Should I ever run into you on the street and you ask to take my picture, though it wouldn’t make a good one, I will always agree. :)
So my visit to the Himba culture, both traditional and changing, was brief, but it was an experience I'll never forget. The primary reason I wanted to go to Namibia was on account of the traditional cultures still existing. That ended up in meeting the Himba and the San. Originally I had thought to make this post about both Himba and San "at the crossroads" because the San of course are dealing with change, as well. But I think that would make this post overwhelming ... there are already 34 photos! So will save that bit for another time.
As the title suggests, Maui is an amazing island for its beauty and diversity in landscape and ecosystems. Most places and I are friends, but Maui and I have a special relationship wherein momentarily we were pitted against one another as foes. Though, me against Nature ... hardly a fair battle. I lost. But we'll get to that in a minute. Having been to Maui twice in recent years (three times total), I decided to post a roundup of my time there. If you haven't already been, maybe you'll see something here that nudges you to go.
Naturally, Maui is ringed by superb coastline and abundant marine life. Beaches are probably the first thing to spring to mind when the word "Maui" breaches your consciousness. So let's start instead with the more surprising features ... or the ones that surprised me, anyway.
Haleakala volcano. Visiting Haleakala was definitely a major highlight on Maui for me.
Our first glimpse of the extinct volcano came during a helicopter ride. We flew over the huge caldera. But truthfully, this is the least impressive view in my opinion. Hard to get a proper sense of scale and mystery or to feel its surreal nature.
The summit of Haleakala is above 10,000 feet. And it rises all the way from sea level straight up to that height, which is most impressive. Driving to the summit from the coast, you pass through several different ecosystems as well as drastically different climate. We started at the coastline at about 78 degrees, half way up we were engulfed in a fog bank and the thermometer registered 54 degrees. When we emerged at the summit, the sky was clear blue above us and 66 degrees. What was so cool is that huge blankets and towers of clouds lay below us as if we were in an airplane.
We hiked a short distance down into the caldera. It was a very surreal landscape. Apparently, you can actually camp down inside. The trail snaked back and forth traversing down the side of the volcano. Our shadows were amusingly elongated, much taller than our actual height. Clouds came and went with extreme rapidity. Sometimes you could see into the bottom of the caldera, then within minutes it would be completely obscured. Then just minutes later, voila! There it is again. Like a gigantic game of peek-a-boo. One time Erik and I sat down to take a self-timer photo and the clouds moved in like a sentient menace, something you'd read about in a Stephen King novel ... so quickly it was like the sky was breathing on us. Envision how fast you can see your breath travel on a cold winter's day ... we were so engulfed in this gray breath we could barely see the ground at our feet. The sun was obliterated. We sat silently in a creepy kind of awe. Then minutes later, the clouds thinned, the sun pierced through, one dagger of light at a time. And then it was sunny and cheerful again.
There is a plant that lives inside the volcano and around the summit which is found nowhere else on earth except on the Haleakala and Mauna Kea volcanoes! It's the silversword, and I guess you can see how it got its name. They can live up to 90 years and they only flower once. Ever. Just once, and then they die. But look how spectacular their one moment of flowering glory is. That plant is amost as tall as I am (5'5").
The bamboo forest. This was so neat ... a path through huge bamboo shoots. It was visually enchanting, but also acoustically unique. The sound of the bamboo swaying gently in the breeze made kind of a creaking, knocking sound which echoed through the forest. Such a sense of mystery, as you can't see anything around you except the bamboo. But when you reach the end, a glorious surprise awaits you. Though, I'm going to spoil the surprise with a photo of the impressive waterfall. Even so, it is so much more impressive in person ... the sight, the sound, the feel of the spray, the smell of the foliage. You will still be surprised.
The Road to Hana ... a waterfall mecca. I was familiar with the road to Hana by name. Probably my dad and I drove around it when we visited the island in 1991, but I remember little from that trip, mostly the snorkeling. Everyone raves about the road to Hana. OK, so we had to check it out. And it's truly lovely. If we could clear away all the vehicle traffic, it would be a motorcyclist's dream ... a continuous snake of tight twists and turns. Beyond the fun road and the lush green iconic tropical landscape, the most compelling feature is the abundance of waterfalls. Here's a little sampler of some of the waterfalls available to visit. Some of these are just off the road, some you have to hike a little ways to reach, and some are on the trail to the bamboo forest (which is along the Hana road).
Helicopter Ride. We gained a special bird's eye view of some waterfalls when we flew over the island in an open-door helicopter. This was a pretty cool experience to see the island from above.
Ocean Aquarium. Being on an island surrounded by underwater wildlife, with tons of snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities, I actually didn't expect to find an aquarium. But it's a pretty nifty place - went there twice. (also a nice gift shop if you're souvenir or Christmas shopping). This first fish below was so amusing to watch ... he was exceedingly friendly (or hungry?) and kept coming up to us with that huge grin on his face. I kept thinking, "Hey hey hey, it's Fat Albert!"
Lavender Gardens. And who could resist a place called "the lavender gardens?" There are indeed acres of this heavenly-scented plant high up on a hillside that overlooks the ocean, and if you want any kind of lavender-scented or lavender-flavored product, this is the place for you! Additionally, the grounds contain a nice botanical garden with many varieties of flowers, bushes and trees beyond the numerous species of lavender to be found. Unfortunately, I was a delinquent botanical garden guest and didn't read the little signs which would have told me what plant this splendid flower below represents. It's about the size of a dinner plate!
Lahaina is a sweet town with several tasty restaurants and lots of art galleries. My in-laws are the sponsors of our recent two Maui trips, and their favorite things are Lapperts ice cream - which we have several times during the course of a trip - and the magic show, "Annabelle and Warren." A massive banyan tree fills a courtyard downtown which is usually filled in the daytime with arts and crafts stalls.
And now finally to the coast. A beautiful but dangerous place is the Olivine Pools. It's a steep but interesting hike down from the road to the pools through corridors of eroded lava rock. The red mineral stripe is a striking feature. Here is where the ocean and I faced off.
And you can see here who was the loser in my tussle with the ocean ... that would be me on the left in the photo below. (and there are more bandages you can't see beneath my clothes) But I got to see something most tourists don't -- the hospital emergency room! You can read the whole story of my experience at what we came to call the Olivine death pools. If you can believe it, I hiked all the way to the waterfall at the end of the bamboo forest like this.
And out of all these ethereal, powerful, surreal sights and experiences, what is my favorite thing about being on Maui? Being in my own little hotel room in the mornings. The in-laws have scored a scrumptious condo unit right on the shore in an area not overrun with hotels and timeshares. A peaceful place where ... and here is the best part ... I wake up in the morning, go out on the balcony and watch sea turtles swim along the shoreline. It's so neat. And if you go swimming, they will often pass right by you. It's amusing to watch other people in the water from above them on the balcony and see how close a turtle is to them, half of them don't even notice! Here is the view from the balcony, panning left to right -- you can see how clear the water is, making the sea turtles so easy to spot.
And one last special thing I experienced on my most recent visit (August 2014) was the fabled "green flash!" Just as the sun dipped completely into the ocean there was a green flash that lasted only a fraction of a second. Every night wherever we ate dinner, we got a table with an ocean view hoping to witness this extremely rare phenomenon. What are the odds, right? But our last night we saw it. I almost wouldn't have believed it except a bunch of the waitstaff saw it also and everyone was exclaiming over it. So clearly, it wasn't just our imagination. Great ending to another great vacation.
I wrote this post as part of the #JustOneRhino travel bloggers campaign to support the Rhinos Without Borders initiative. The campaign is now over, the donation period has ended and travel prizes have been awarded. So I've removed those details from the bottom. You can still support the Rhinos Without Borders project directly.
It's been my immense privilege and pleasure to see both white and black rhinos in the wild in Africa. They are, to me, one of the most prehistoric-looking mammals on the planet. It's hard for me to call them "attractive," but rather, "fascinating." Utterly. Amazing creatures, and amazing survivalists.
Almost every day while I was volunteering taking census data in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in South Africa in 2010, I ran into a rhino, and usually more than one. All of my most heart-pounding adventures on foot were courtesy of rhinos. I think probably my fingerprints are still embedded in the skin of the ranger's forearm from the day when a black rhino charged a small group of zebra, who scattered, and then headed for the two of us. My ranger was, in the most literal sense, gripped by fear -- not because he was afraid but because wide-eyed, terrified me was gripping him so tightly. Clearly, we survived, but not before I lost about a pound in sweat.
Black rhinos are notoriously cranky and capricious. Though they are a bit smaller than white rhinos in body size, their ill temper can project them into more intimidating creatures. The difference between white and black rhinos has nothing to do with color, but mostly with body shape and eating habits. Black rhinos, such as the fellow below (in Etosha NP, Namibia) have a smaller, rounder head and a slightly prehensile upper lip; they are browsers, meaning they eat mostly leaves from low-growing bushes and trees. Their lip can grasp the branches so they can better strip the leaves.
White rhinos, on the other hand, are grazers ... they eat mostly grasses and have a longer head -- positively colossal -- with a very wide square upper lip ... I think of it kind of like a front loader, helping shovel in those short grasses off the ground.
These are the guys I ran into most often while walking through Hluhluwe-iMfolozi NP (HiP) in South Africa. Rhinos taught me how difficult it can be to obey orders from a ranger who is telling you not to move when all your adrenaline-soaked body wants to do is run like hell. Because rhinos have poor eyesight, it's best to stand still and pretend to be a tree unless you can find an actual tree to climb. Let me just tell you, you really have to fight your impulses to stand there and stare down a snorting multi-ton creature with a three-foot horn pointed at you. But when you do ... oh my, what exhilaration.
HiP is responsible for bringing back the white rhino population from nearly beyond the "brink" of extinction -- like, the rhinos were circling the drain with one foot already in it. It was an astounding accomplishment and wrote such an optimistic chapter in the annals of wildlife conservation. But the face of conservation had to change ... Africa's national parks became battle grounds. I remember reading, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, about Richard Leaky taking what then seemed a bold and drastic stand: forming paramilitary troops within national parks in Kenya who could execute poachers on sight. Now this military approach is a mandate if we are to offer meaningful protection for Africa's wildlife, and especially for the rhino species.
Right around 2010, rhino poaching in South Africa began to increase exponentially. When Erik and I were in Kruger, we saw truckloads of armed men driving down the roads. Usually if you see armed men roaming around, they are armed to protect, defend or assault humans for the sake of humans, but here we realized it was to protect animals. When I was volunteering in HiP, at first I thought our rangers had rifles to protect them and us from dangerous wildlife, but no, in fact the primary purpose of their weapons is to engage poachers and "eliminate" them when they are directly threatening wildlife. Think these militaristic measures are excessive? Poachers are paid to kill humans who stand in their way -- it's kill or be killed. A friend of mine interviewed a ranger in Zimbabwe who recounts a harrowing day under gunfire while on the job. Watch the interview HERE.
This little fella below, whom I watched drink and splash in this water hole at sunset in Etosha National Park, Namibia ... yes, he, my friends, given the liberty to do so will grow into a magnificent beast. There aren't many instances in which I feel the word "beast" is the most appropriate description of an animal. But in the best possible way, I think it's awesome for a rhino. When you see a full-grown one trotting toward you, "beast" comes to mind with all the terror, awe and respect befitting such a title. But look at this little guy here ... still just a little lump of potential -- so precious, splish-splashing in the water, so sacred to nature and to evolution.
Do you know what their horns are made of? Keratin ... the same substance as fingernails. When rhinos are born, there's just a little patch of keratin from which a horn eventually sprouts and grows, and becomes lusted after by a voracious and ignorant market primarily in Asia ... it does not have medicinal or aphrodisiac powers, it's merely a wicked-giant fingernail. The only regrettable power the rhino horn has is to lay bare the worst in humanity, to flay us open and expose our mind-erasing, morality-erasing susceptibility to greed -- the greed of kingpins who hire the local poachers and sell the product -- and our failure to properly address the issues that nourish poverty, so that men are motivated to do anything to feed their family, putting their own lives at risk and decimating their own natural heritage.
I remember Erik and I driving around Kruger NP talking for hours brainstorming ideas on how to protect the rhinos, simply out of emotion for these creatures. The poaching situation is more complicated than it might seem. There is the demand, the supply, the bosses, the poverty-stricken locals, the high-tech poaching rings versus cash-strapped national parks, corruption. And then ... reading The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony illustrates another dimension: the bureaucracy, which would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic. And so now we are faced with only options of extreme measures to protect these creatures.
This is where the #JustOneRhino campaign comes in, which I'm pleased to support -- an initiative within the travel blogging community to help raise money to relocate rhinos from South Africa, the epicenter of the rhino poaching epidemic, to a secret location in Botswana, currently a low-poaching zone. The Rhinos Without Borders project seeks ultimately to relocate 100 rhinos, in order to provide them safety and boost the rhino population in Botswana, but the cost for each relocation is about $45,000 ... a daunting financial challenge. So the travel blogging community has banded together under the banner of Travelers Building Change to promote the Rhinos Without Borders initiative -- for several months, a different travel blogger each day is writing a post on their website about rhinos and this project. Read an interview with the project founders, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, at Green Global Travel.
If you have enjoyed seeing my pictures of rhinos from my travels, I respectfully suggest making a donation. Honestly -- this isn't an overstated doomsday sentence -- the opportunity to share such photos with you in the future is genuinely endangered and may not exist anymore before I retire from traveling. Rhinos aren't the only endangered species in Africa (and Africa is not the only continent with endangered species), and we can't all donate to every worthy conservation cause. I wish I could, but I don't have the resources and I'm sure you don't either. So we pick and choose and hope that the combined efforts of caring global citizens will ultimately help all of these worthy organizations and initiatives. This happens to be one I'm supporting and one I committed to sharing with others in partnership with Travelers Building Change. Now that the TBC campaign has ended, you can still support Rhinos Without Borders directly.
This rhino's got her eye on YOU! :) She was one of the rescued animals who made the UWEC (Uganda Wildlife Education Center) her home while I volunteered there. A magnificent white rhino. The last census report I heard on the northern white rhino, a subspecies native to Uganda and DRC, put the population at five -- the number of fingers you have on one hand. That's it. We failed to protect them. Hopefully we can redeem ourselves in southern Africa.
Learn More About and Support Rhinos Without Borders
The donors to the Travelers Building Change travel prize giveaway were those generous companies listed below.
One of the most joyful experiences I had in visiting Etosha Nationa Park in northern Namibia was watching animals tussling with one another. I never really saw much animal interaction in South Africa or Uganda, excepting all the various primates who were always extremely interactive. Our first night camping out in Namibia, at Sossusvlei National Park, a pair of springboks went sparring, horns locked, right through the edge of our camping spot. I saw especially a lot of impala chasing each other and locking horns with one another.
"OK, let's rumble!" these guys say. This pair in particular really went at each other -- backing up to get a running start and throwing their whole bodies into the collision, heads pushed into the dirt. It was kind of thrilling to watch such live action. (p.s. note that most of the photos in this post can be viewed larger by right clicking and opening in a new tab)
And now let's chase each other! I love how the guy on the left is about to slide out in the turn, all four legs angled out. There's a lot at stake, as the champion impala males will take control over a whole harem of ewes, usually somewhere between 15 and 30.
The ladies, of course, are far more sensible and have a drink together at the watering hole ... harem mates, I suppose.
In this case, the fella on the right looks at a bit of a disadvantage with only a single full-size horn -- the second horn is just kind of a stump. I don't know if it broke off or was a birth defect.
One morning we spied these adorable lions cubs playing next to a water hole ... pouncing on one another and tussling. First time I've ever seen this in the wild, so it was quite exciting ... unfortunately, at the very edge of my camera lens's ability to capture (these are hugely cropped in), but it was brilliant just to watch them, photos aside.
A masterful pounce .....
And a masterful paw in the eye .....
Most of the action in Etosha is at the water holes. My first night in the park, I was enthralled to find several bull elephants sparring with one another. They weren't very serious about it, just sort of testing each other out. But it was fun to watch their interaction. I'm not sure how to gauge their age except by their body size as the elephants in northern Namibia have much smaller tusks than those in East Africa. But other elephants were quite a bit larger than these fellows, so I'm presuming they were on the younger side.
Fascinating to watch the interaction of their trunks .....
Here a couple youngsters are rough-housing in a boggy marsh. One definitely has the upper hand on the other one! I completely botched the photo opportunity -- not focused and especially the exposure was radically off ... it's a little less distracting viewed in black and white. And the little tykes are so cute in any case.
All these instances mentioned so far were in fun or only preparing for more serious confrontations, or ended without injury. But ultimately, the animals play for keeps. This poor black rhino had really taken a beating. Sad to say, the other side of him looked almost worse. He couldn't put weight on his one back leg. On the encouraging side, we saw him on several consecutive days, so he was hanging in there. But I wouldn't call his plight optimistic. By the end, he was looking pretty worn down, even a little emaciated. Our guide said his most likely fate was that lions would get him, sensing a relatively easy take-down. It was sad, but of course we all know that's the way nature works. It's humbling, in a way, to watch it play out on these vast plains in such an ancient drama.
But to end on a little happier note, here are two white rhinos sparring at a game reserve outside Windhoek. They almost ran into the safari vehicle, they were so close, not paying any attention to us as they squared off against one another.
Hope you enjoyed a little peek at some of the African animal's world of encounters and interactions. One particularly amusing interaction I saw, perhaps the most amusing as well as startling, was at a water hole in Etosha where two black rhinos were posturing with one another. They'd been at it for awhile and suddenly a very large bull elephant who had been hanging out at the water hole sucked up a trunk full of water and sprayed it directly at the rhinos! It was as if he just reached the end of his tolerance watching them bully one another, and just said, "Hey guys, cut it out!" The ploy, in fact, worked.
Content warning: If for some freaky reason you can’t handle or don’t appreciate indigenous nudity, then this post is not for you.
One of Earth’s most glorious and ancient geologic creations is the diamond. Before plants had even crept their roots up onto the dry land outside the salty womb of the Pre-Cambrian era, the mantle of our molten planet was already crushing minerals in the middle of its stable continental plates with terrifically immense pressure and heat, forming the most perfect of crystals – diamonds. (Usually they make their way nearer to the surface via tubes formed during periods of deep volcanic activity.) That most beautiful of stones has been held and cradled in the Earth for so very long, before she ever even dreamed up the wild notion of humanity.
The indigenous people who eventually staked their lives on top of these gems, as if all forms of ancientness must be cradled in the same space, are the San people of southern Africa – perhaps the oldest ancestral tribe on the planet. A study of African genetic diversity indicated the San to be one of the five populations with the highest levels … meaning they are among the oldest surviving people on our planet – the seed, the tiny seed that much of African population and culture grew their roots from and spread. Imagine a 70,000-year old tree, it’s height and girth and root system, and one tribe nestled, still alive, in the middle. Where the planet’s oldest gems lie, so do humanity’s – a cultural gem which has withstood the pressure of time like few others.
A sign pointed down some sandy tracks directing visitors to “the reception area.” We pulled up to a large tree, parked and waited as per the instructions nailed to the tree. The tree was, in fact, the reception desk for the Ju/'Hoansi-San Living Museum. (like all living museums, it’s a place for this tribe to preserve their ancient traditions and share them with visitors) Surprisingly quickly, a guide/translator came to the car and took our “order” from the list of options available for tourists, which was nailed to the reception tree … we could choose to see craft and tool-making, or singing and dancing, or a full day witnessing many different activities, etc., there were 5 or 6 options. We arrived late in the afternoon and had only a couple hours, so we chose to see craft and tool-making. We were pointed down a sandy path through some dry, scrubby bushes, and soon we came into a clearing.
Here women sat making jewelry and purses (which are for sale in a sort of outdoor gallery near the reception tree), made from natural materials such as seeds and stones, stitched with twine ... really lovely and high-quality creations. The first woman below could hardly be a better model for one of her necklaces.
Men were preparing materials for traditional tool making. Dressed in traditional loincloths, the men’s bodies were tall, slim, taught and impossibly lithe. The San are traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, and have lived with little modification to their traditional ways until the last century. The hunters used poison arrows to shoot their prey, following it sometimes for miles while the poison worked into its system and the animal finally collapsed. The men at the living museum made a bow and arrows from scratch right there on the spot for us. I was amazed at how little time it took to construct them, and then we got a demonstration and were allowed to try shooting an arrow if we wished. Knowing without question what a spectacular failure I would be, I suppose I should have tried it purely for the amusement of the San, but I was timid, and refrained.
The San are keepers of humanity's most ancient knowledge ... they can still recreate the most sacred of our discoveries, those that transformed us, elevated us and led us to transcend. They maintain the roots of culture. Some of the most ancient thoughts have been thought there -- the most ancient words spoken and listened to, growing into many eventual languages. These people are like the crocodiles … incredible survivalists from whom other cultures have gone on to evolve, but they were so perfect that they stayed, the kernel, largely unchanged for so long. They were efficient, proficient, champions of cultural evolution. I said in my first thoughts on Namibia (in my post, "Size") that the curtain of time feels thin here, the past profoundly tangible. But on further reflection, maybe that quiet feeling of the profound isn’t because the curtain is thin, rather, in fact, the issue is that it’s so thick -- there’s just so much that has happened in this space where the same core of humans have lived for tens of thousands of years, all of it has stacked up until you just can’t help but walk through some of it. Existence here doesn’t have the light weight and texture of air; instead it’s like wading through water. Below, men start a fire by hand with a stick and kindling.
Other authors have spoken of transcendental experiences, witnessing the past literally before their eyes, for example Tom Brown Jr. of Native Americans in The Tracker and James Stephenson of another ancestral African tribe, the Hadza, in The Language of the Land. They claim there are special sacred places where you can sit still and the ancestors will appear ... not to communicate with you, but they are simply kind of like ghosts, going about their activities doing what they did in the past and you can sit in silent witness. They say it's like pulling back a curtain in these places, but maybe it’s just that time is not an arrow that has moved forward, as we often imagine, but perhaps it's more like a series of slides -- each second is a slide and you can insert yourself at any point in the slide show. Maybe some spaces on earth are more accessible for sitting further back in the show, maybe where the space is so thick with human history.
The beauty of a diamond is its complex refraction. One ray of light hits it, and the light refracts into many beams directed back out into the world. The San children who roamed around in the clearing seemed so carefree and infectiously joyous. It was as if the sunlight pierced the men and women in the clearing all the way through to the ancestor spirits of that long ago mother tribe, refracted and came back through the wide eyes and shining smiles of the children, projecting that deep history up and forward through their plump little bodies. Growing up in the living museum gives them the opportunity to carry the ancestral traditions and spirits in their hearts and keep them alive for the whole world to hold.
This photo below happens to be my favorite of all the photos I took at the Ju/'Hoansi-San Living Museum. I love the expression on the face of the kid on the left (click on pic to see larger) and the way the children are accented in the lighting.