Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Mazes of Marrakech – Erich

Sunday we flew out of Cape Town and into Doha, Qatar. We were just in the airport and only for a couple hours. But the flight there was amazing. We flew Qatar Airways who served us two delicious meals. I had chicken and pasta, and the sauce on the chicken was wonderful. My other meal was lamb biryani.

Two and half hours later, which was now Monday at 1 AM local time in Doha, but midnight to our bodies used to Cape Town, we flew out. We arrived in Casablanca, Morocco eight hours later, local time in Morocco was 6 AM. We all slept some on the second flight, but we were still tired.

From the airport we caught a train to a different station where we caught a train to Marrakech. The rest of the day we did a bit of exploring, ate a meal, got to our apartment, and went to bed by eight, because we were all exhausted.

Today, Tuesday, we headed into the Medina. I'll explain. Marrakech is a city surrounding an old city. Very old. The Medina, which is the old city, was built over 900 years ago. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And while the new city is much like you would expect from a western city, the Medina is entirely different.

Tower at the Center of the Medina
The Medina has narrow streets that bend every which way. The architecture is certainly not western and the houses are one continuous block of walls. Some of the alleys are so narrow you could probably only fit two people abreast. We explored down one and eventually it led to a dead end. There were doors all along it to get into various homes, but there was no way out but the way we came. And all of the buildings are easily three stories high, so you are in a canyon of walls.

This will eventually dead end
It's like movies where you see the people run into a narrow alley and then end up trapped at a dead end. Or in a James Bond movie when he rides a motorcycle through these tiny streets that are crowded with pedestrians. That is the Medina.

We saw plenty of people on motorcycles riding past, as well as some on bicycles. There were men pushing what looked like giant wheelbarrows. At two different times, we even saw donkeys pulling wagons through these narrow passages. And all the while, there are people walking through the streets.

Why do the people walk here? The souks! The streets in the Medina (not the super narrow ones that lead to dead ends, but the slightly wider ones) are full of shops along the ground level. There are cosmetic shops, carpet shops, pastry shops, restaurants, snack bars, little hotels, spas, places selling beautiful ceramic or metal dishes, spice vendors, lots of places selling sandals and cloth shoes, clothing stalls, and so much more.

But in addition to lining the streets, there are these souks. They are open air marketplaces where stall after stall is crammed right next to one another. The vendors are very friendly, certainly trying to get your attention when they realize you are a western tourist. But with a firm no (or la which is the Arabic word for no) they usually (though not always) leave you alone.

A Souk
In the middle of the Medina is a huge open square called the Jemaa El Fnaa. Here there are restaurants and stalls around the edges. But in the open square are more stands and areas that are not stands, but still have people selling something or performing. There are women offering to draw henna tattoos on you. There is an entire section of carts that sell orange juice. (They also sell jus de citron which is lemon and jus de pomplemousse which is grapefruit.)

Jemaa El Fnaa

Jemaa El Fnaa
But there are also performers. We saw snake charmers. There are men sitting and playing music and cobras as well as other snakes swaying. They really want you to stop and watch and to give them money. That's fine, but there are other ones who walk around with snakes (not cobras) and tell you touch them and then try to put them over your shoulders and take a picture. Of course they expect to be paid for this service.

I'm not afraid of snakes. At various science museums I have worked for, I have had to handle many snakes for demonstrations to the guests. But I wasn't excited about men foisting reptiles onto my shoulders when I was repeatedly saying “No. La. No.” It wasn't the snakes for me, it was the pushiness of the people.

We wandered through the Jemaa El Fnaa and the narrow streets. We bought various foods when we saw something we wanted. We had a savory panini viande hachee. (That's a grilled beef panini sandwich.) I loved it, and somehow it reminded me of pizza. I'm not sure what spice it was that made me think of it.

We bought some pastries from a shop. Alrica and I shared one that was like a croissant in shape, but had a honey glaze of some sort. The kids each got a flaky pastry that had sprinkles on the outside and a white icing like cream on the inside.

We bought pop (soda, call it what you will) that was Fanta Lemon. We've not seen that before. It was good, but it did have a bit of a sour kick. We bought fresh orange juice at one of the carts. A bit too pulpy for my taste, but super flavorful. At another cart we got fresh sugar cane juice. We watched as the proprietor juiced the cane. Hard to explain the taste. Certainly sweet, but not overly sweet. The signs all over the cart pronounced the many digestive benefits of sugar cane juice (though in French, so I didn't take the time to translate them all.)

There were many stands selling dried fruit. We stopped at one and bought dried kiwi. It tasted similar to fresh kiwi, of course, though had a very different texture. And the sweetness was more concentrated, though there was no juice, unlike a fresh kiwi. That is, of course, what dried means.

Our biggest purchase of the day was a scarf. It is purple with gold details. Syarra loved it and the people at the shop taught Alrica how to put it on Syarra as a headscarf. She doesn't yet look like a local, but it is adorable on her.

Syarra's Headscarf
 If you are ever in Marrakech, you definitely want to spend a lot of time in the Medina. But bring along something to help you navigate. I was using Google Maps on my cell phone and it did a great job of keeping track of where I was. I would have felt okay without it, but felt much more confident with it. It would not be too hard to get yourself totally lost in the twisting maze of tiny streets.

We will definitely be visiting the souks and the Medina again, many times, during our stay.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

How I Love Les Poissons – Erich

After Sesriem and Sossussvlei, we headed south through Namibia. Our stop that night was the Duwisib Farm Guest House and Caravan Park. Great place. It is next to Duwisib Castle, this strange medieval castle in Namibia. The castle is out of place, but around it is a working cattle and goat farm. And on that farm is a campground.

We were the only ones staying. The ablution facilities were nicer than the bathrooms in any home I've ever owned. It was really a well built campsite.

But it was only a way station on our way further south. We were heading toward the Fish River Canyon. The next night, we stopped just a bit north of the canyon at the Cañon Roadhouse. In this campground, we were not alone. We had plenty of company, including a cat who seemed to adopt us for the night. The Cañon Roadhouse is a fascinating place. They have a restaurant/store that is decked out with old cars. Some of them are just show pieces. Others have been remodeled into fireplaces. And in the middle of it all is a huge wooden bar covered in license plates from many different nations.

The dinner was excellent. I had springbok steak. It was a different flavor than beef, a bit tougher to cut and chew, but very good. Syarra had sosaties (which essentially means kebabs) that had both springbok and oryx. Carver had a chicken schnitzel, and Alrica had butternut florentine. It was a crazy butternut squash dish, delicious, with sauce and all kinds of flavors I couldn't identify. Great dinner.

So in addition to seeing so many animals, we have now eaten a huge variety of unusual game in our time in Africa: springbok, oryx, kudu, and warthog.

The next morning we headed to Fish River Canyon. Now, the Fish River is an interesting exception in Namibia. First, it is one of the few rivers that has at least some water in it all year long. Second, it is called the Fish River. Why is this so strange?

Well, most rivers in Namibia have a name in a local tongue. So we saw the Usab River and the Koigab River among others. Even those that have western names, like the southern border of Namibia which is named for William of Orange, generally have the German spelling or other European spelling that is not English. The aforementioned southern border river is usually spelled the Oranje River. But the Fish River has a name in English. As far as I can tell, it is unique in that regard. (I thought maybe the German word for fish was fish, so I looked it up. No, apparently it is fisch. So this truly is an English spelling.)

Fish River Canyon
 

But far more jaw-dropping than the name of the river is the canyon through which it flows. It is both gigantic and geologically bizarre. The Grand Canyon in Arizona is amazing, and as you would expect, it is carved out by a river. But this canyon is different, only part of it is carved by a river. Let me explain.

The story starts millions of years ago, when there is a mountain range here. But over time, it gets eroded down to being a plain. And underneath is all this rock. Now, the sea moves in, and this part of Namibia is under a shallow sea for a long time. Layers of sedimentary rock get laid down on top of the old rock. The old rock, through time and pressure becomes super dense metamorphic rock. So now we have a deep layer of metamorphic rock and on top of it, many layers of sedimentary rock.

The sea recedes. But now it gets even better. A strange tectonic activity occurs. There are two parallel faults. Essentially, two hunks of rock (on the sides of the faults) are uplifted while the hunk of rock in between the faults sinks downward. So it makes something like a canyon. Though it isn't a canyon. It's called a graben (which means trench). As if this weren't enough, an ice age comes, and a glacier further carves out the graben, removing most of the layer of sedimentary rock in the lower part.

Ice age ended, a few hundred thousand years pass, and now a river starts flowing, the Fish River (though there are no people around yet to call it that.) The river follows the path of the graben, because it is the easiest way to go. But the base of the graben is this dense metamorphic rock, and the river doesn't have the power to cut down into it. So it cuts sideways, basically spreading out across the width of the graben, flattening it.

Then continental drift comes along, and the mountains where the river has its source are raised higher. Now the river is coming down at a steeper angle and has more force to it. Now it can cut through the metamorphic rock and starts cutting down into it like most river canyons.

More time (lots of it) passes and people arrive on the scene. And what do we have here? It looks like a canyon in a canyon. I suppose technically it is a canyon in a graben, but let's not split hairs.

The canyon is beautiful, huge, impressive. It makes you feel small like all great huge natural features do. It is difficult to capture the magnitude of it in pictures.

Fish River Canyon
 

From May to September, a limited number of hikers are allowed to hike into the canyon. But at most thirty per day. And when you get in, it is a five day hike down to the end where you get out. You have to pack everything with you going in, and pack everything with you coming out. Getting a permit for that must be done far in advance.

And the worst part is the beginning. We saw where the hikers begin their trek, and it is a steep (at times almost vertical) path. A few parts have a chain to help you, but many do not. It is supposed to be 1.5 km to reach the river from the beginning of the path with a nearly 500 m change in elevation. Some hikers take upwards of two hours to make the climb down. I don't think it is for me. I like to hike, but I don't think I want to hike anything that steep for that long carrying that much weight on my back.

Where the Five Day Hike begins


At the southern end of the Fish River Canyon is Ai-Ais. This is a natural hot spring (65 degrees Celsius). We camped here. It was very hot when we arrived, so we decided to take a nice swim in their swimming pool. Clearly the swimming pool is heated by water from the spring. No, it was not 65 degrees Celsius (which is 149 degrees Fahrenheit), but it was no cooler than the air outside. So we couldn't get any relief from the heat there. The only slight relief was when you stepped out of the pool and the water on your body evaporated. But that only lasted a few seconds. (And at the same time, the brick surrounding the pool was so super heated by the sun that you were nearly burning the souls of your feet.)

That was our last night in Namibia. The next day was crossing the border, which is an adventure I suppose, but not one that makes good reading. From there we headed all the way south to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa. Of course, I have mentioned that in my post “Little Things Amuse Me” so there is no need to hash it out again.

If anyone is considering an African safari, I can say with some experience that a self-drive safari through Namibia is a very satisfying way to go.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Pets - Syarra

We are house sitting which means that, for free, we are staying at someone's house, but we have to watch the house. Currently, we are also watching pets: three dogs and a cat. The dogs are named Billy, who is the biggest, Phoebe, who is the next biggest, and Kiki, the little one. They are all fun dogs, but the really fun part is learning their differences.

One difference is that they are very different in the game of catch. Billy has fun once and only once. So when he gets that ball, it is his. Good thing we have two balls. Phoebe will want it thrown every once in a while. Kiki wants it thrown time and time again.

Difference number two: Attention. Let's mix it up. Kiki likes to get her tummy rubbed. Phoebe likes the general attention. And Billy likes it, but does not show it.

I like to see the differences between the dogs.

And the cat mostly hides.

I enjoy house sitting.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Namibian impressions - Alrica


Since everyone else has done a nice job of sharing details on our Namibian adventure, I won’t spend time doing that, but I wanted to share my general impressions. First, three weeks of camping is a long time for us. No matter how nice the “ablution facilities” were, I never felt entirely clean. And I will admit to being very pleased to have a couple hotel breaks along the way. However, I think there is no better way to really enjoy the various environments that Namibia has to offer. Every couple days, we would wake up to amazing sunrises and new lands to see.

Most of Namibia was hot and dry and our best way to deal with it was to do most of our traveling during the heat of the day when we could rely on the air-conditioned car to keep us cool. Still, we were easily going through 5-6 liters of water each day, which is tough when you are in a place that is so short on water. And we worried about whether the water in some places was properly filtered. So when we were in a place with a good water source, we filled all of our empty bottles, upwards of 30 liters each time, in case it needed to last a few days. Mornings would start with us doing some exploring, playing, and hiking before the sun got too hot and we would need to pack up camp.

By 5:00 or 6:00, the sun would start to head down and the winds would pick up, cooling us off. Many days this was about when we were arriving at our campsites and we got particularly good at setting up our tents in a wind storm. Nights were cool, clear, and beautiful.  With so little light pollution and humidity, we could see stars better than we had ever seen them before, and had a fun time learning the southern sky. It was amazing!


Mountains off in the distance

Driving through those mountains



Etosha Salt Pan


Those days of driving were different than what we were used to. In a fairly small country, there were empty deserts, rolling hills, sand dunes, mountains, beaches, savannahs, and forests. No billboards or even street signs. And everywhere were animals. 



Along the main roads (B roads), there were always fences alongside the road to make keep the animals back and the roads were well paved, moving along at 120 KPH. These fences didn’t actually keep the animals out and warthogs, impalas, and oryx were frequently feeding right alongside the highway. Less frequently were giraffe, wildebeest, and ostrich. That is just the wildlife; wandering herds of sheep, goats, cows, and horses were also often unescorted alongside the road. Luckily, once we were north of Windhoek, there were more animals than people around so sudden stops were not a problem. On the “C Roads,” fences were hit or miss, as was paving, and the speed dropped to 100 kph though it felt unsafe to go faster than about 70 kph, slowing down our travel pretty dramatically but allowing us to see all of the amazing sites. “D roads” or “Death Roads” as the kids referred to them were always dirt roads, but often the best way to get somewhere. Since we were visiting during the dry season, it wasn’t a problem that there were almost never bridges across rivers, most were dry. I can imagine that drivers during the wet season (January and February) would get the added experience of fording rivers. These D roads are also not leveled or graded so driving on the left was not an issue, everyone drove in the middle except when passing a rare car.

Seeing animals all the time was amazing, but perhaps not as amazing as how infrequently we saw people. Sometimes we would drive an hour and see nobody. And we had several of our campsites to ourselves. The most stressful part of this trip was actually the rare times we saw people. The people of Namibia are extremely poor, often barely scraping together an existence with farming goats or sheep. But people in the cities didn’t have that option. A stop at a grocery store meant fending off beggars and “artists” and dealing with parking attendants. A parking attendant is a guy in an orange vest who offers to keep an eye on your car for a price. Of course, if your car is vandalized, there is no recourse, nor do these people have any special skills, so you can take your chances or agree to their services. Most of the time we agreed because it was easier than arguing with them, but then I had to find a couple Namibian dollars to pay them with (can’t expect them to find change).

On the other hand, the Namibians that we really got to interact with, either at camp sites or at tourist sites, were really lovely, friendly people. We enjoyed hearing about their lives and opinions of things and loved hearing them talk to their friends. All of them spoke some level of English but were more comfortable in one of the native languages that include tongue clicks and other sounds that I can’t seem to master. Fascinating! And, unlike South Africans, Namibians seem to have fewer preconceived notions about Americans, either good or bad.

Our trip around Namibia was a great way to satisfy our wanderlust and we do highly recommend it to others!

Little Additions to Other Posts - Carver

Syarra named her shoes Indian and Atlantic after it. - Little Things Amuse Me
My picture of Bumbart from Organ Pipes - From the San to Skulls

I think Caravan Parks are where you can park and have bathrooms and other things but that don’t have pitches for tents and wouldn't be great to sleep in a normal tent. - Namibia 2
She is exaggerating when she says the wind could push us down. - Namibia 3

Now this is not very much for the post so I will give you a little more information about the house I am in now. This house is in Mowbray. Mowbray is in the Southern Suburbs and north of Kenilworth but not very far away. About a 10 minute drive. And it is free. A great way to keep our costs down! But the catch? Well, not a catch exactly. But we have 3 dogs and a cat to watch. The dogs are interesting. We take them to the Durban Road Park across the street usually 3 or 4 times a day. We only have to twice but it is fun. The house is on an empty road. I’ll post the address in Morocco, I would assume. Maybe before then. The dogs are Kiki, Phoebe, and Billy and the cat is Meeuki. Meeuki doesn't do much. She hides the whole time. When we take the dogs for a walk, Billy gets one of the two balls and never gives it up. Kiki will play Catch forever and gives it back quickly. And Pheobe sometimes gives it back. But you can take it from Pheobe. I've tried to take it from Billy but I can't.

Little Things Amuse Me – Erich

Today is the solstice. To most people reading this, it is the winter solstice. Where we are, it is the summer solstice. The solstice is a day with astronomical significance and a very different perspective in the two hemispheres. I find this interesting, and so it is a perfect day to post about other little things like this that I was so excited about.

Here's one: the Tropic of Capricorn. I stood on the Tropic of Capricorn. Twice, actually, once heading north into the tropics and once heading south out of the tropics.

The Tropics

That's a big thumbs up

Of course, one did not feel an immediate difference in temperature or climate crossing the line. But I was giddy when we first crossed. Here I was, in the tropics! I had left the temperate zone behind.

I know it is just a line, but not an arbitrary one. Today, on the solstice, the sun is directly over that line. I'm not there today, the longest day of the year, but it was still cool even on a pretty long though not the longest day. I'm sure we went far enough into the tropics and were close enough to the solstice that at some point, the sun was directly overhead. I just don't know when that was.

Another: Cape Agulhas. Now I am jumping forward to one of the last sites we saw. Cape Agulhas is the southernmost tip of Africa. That is not a man-made distinction. (One might argue that the idea of cardinal directions is man-made. I would say that east and west are natural phenomena based on sunrise and sunset. And north and south are also natural being the poles where the earth's axis would break through the surface if it were a physical thing. But the idea of orthogonal directions being important is very human. By the way, orthogonal essentially means perpendicular.)

But what is a man-made idea at Cape Agulhas is that this is where the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean meet. No, when we were at Cape Agulhas and looked into the water, I could not tell a difference in the currents or the color. It just looked like an ocean on a shore. But the idea excited me.

Where two oceans meet

The four of us at the marker

So you can better read the marker

I crawled over the rocks and lowered myself to the water. I stood in two oceans at once. My left foot in the Indian Ocean and my right foot in the Atlantic! I will admit that neither foot has gained any super powers, nor in any way become more distinct from the other foot in ways that it was not distinct before the two ocean experience. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to have stood in two oceans at once.

Maybe one day I can go to where the Pacific and Atlantic meet. (I think that's Cape Horn.) Or the Pacific and the Indian. (Not sure, maybe Indonesia? Probably a few points.) And don't even get me started on the Arctic or Antarctic Oceans meeting the others. (Though that would be a harder sell for my family, I suspect. And who would want to put their feet in those waters?)

I know I'm a geek and I geek out over certain weird things. (I was pretty excited to see Alpha Centauri too.) But don't we all have our unique geekiness? What's yours? Where would you become giddy because you got to be there?

Like the Sands of the Hourglass – Erich

When you think of a desert, do you think of huge dunes of sand in the hot sun with the wind blowing the small waves of sand into new patterns? Of course, many deserts don't look like that. But when we visited Sossussvlei and the dunes there, that is exactly what we saw.

The “thing to do” at Sossussvlei is to camp in the park and then wake up before dawn. Then you pack up and head out to Dune 45. It's tall, it's easily accessed from the road, and it's climbable. Mind you, it is not an easy climb. Not because it gets super steep, though it does have some relatively steep parts. But it is difficult because it is sand. Each step is in sand which moves under your feet. Your feet sink and slide back slightly down the hill. So for every step you take, you only make about half the distance you expect to make.

Why do you do this as the sun is rising? Because you are supposed to get the best pictures that way. Did we do the “thing to do”? Yes. Did we get the best pictures? No, but it wasn't because of the failure of the sun or Dune 45. It is just that we are not the greatest photographers in the world. But we tried.

View from Dune 45

We found Dune 45 okay. Walking back down, the kids decided they were Dune Monkeys. They would run ahead of Alrica and me, then dive into the dune and slide down a bit. They would wait there (sometimes making sand angels) and let Alrica and me pass. Then they began it again.

Dune Monkeys


What we enjoyed more than Dune 45 was “free exploration”. We drove to the far end of the park, as far as the road will take you. Here you can head out to various vleis or pans. These are areas that become lakes when the water flows. But all around them are dunes. We went out into the dunes toward Hidden Vlei. We never made it as far as the vlei because we were having too much fun playing on the dunes.

We would climb up various dunes and then run down them. Carver and Syarra discovered they could roll down them like you might roll down a hill. I never had the desire to spin quite that much, but they loved it. Climbing the dunes in the hot sun was like every great desert movie, well, except without camels.

Playing at the Dunes


We discovered that if you put one barefoot on the sunny side of the dune and the other on the shady side, there was a large difference in the temperature on your feet. Not subtle, probably upwards of ten degrees Celsius (around 18 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Also at the Sossussvlei National Park was Sesriem Canyon. This was one of my personal favorites. It is a deep canyon with caves and crevices all over its walls. You can climb down into the canyon. You can climb up the walls into various caves. There are no guide rails, no warning signs, no “staff only beyond this point” signs. You have to find where to put your feet if you are climbing, where to put your hands, where to go next.

For me, it was like being a Dungeons and Dragons character, wandering though a deep mountainous cavern in search of the entrance to the nefarious sorcerer's lair. My pictures don't do it justice. But I try.

Exploring Sesriem Canyon

Sesriem Canyon


Which would you prefer, the Lawrence of Arabia like setting or something more out of the Mines of Moria? Either way, you could experience both at Sossussvlei.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Long list and Surprise Post - Carver

So I am first going to list where we have stayed, a couple notes about them and whether or not I think anyone will write a blog post about it. I write this at Ai-Ais (/Ai-/Ais) and I have no idea when I will post this. Then I will pick one to write more about. List starts at Etosha but you have already heard about it so next:
Abu-Huab Campsite, at Twyfelfontein, millions of mosquitos, woke up to no water, no post.
Mile 72 campsite, on the Skeleton Coast, the water had to be manually filled into a tank and slow to get to our campsite, no post.
Footprints, in Swakopmund, a hotel, maybe there will be a post. 2 nights
Tsauchab River Camp, private campsite, very nice, maybe a post.
Sesriem, near Sossusvlei, Yes to a post.
Duwisib Guest Farm and Camping, at the Duwisib Castle, we never did the castle, very nice, no post.
Cañon Roadhouse, interesting dinner, yes to a post.
Then to Ai-Ais, yes to a post, I’m not spoiling any details for here.

Can you guess where the post will be about?

This is where: Sesriem.

I might not finish the post now but I have lots of time before Internet comes so I will tell when I start again.

Starting again in our house in Mowbray. Read another post for more details.

The Sesriem campsite was nice but the dunes were better. Not too far from Sesriem is Sossusvlei, a pan. And near Sossusvlei is Dead Vlei and Hidden Vlei. All three were a walk from the parking area. The first day, we decided on going to Hidden Vlei which was behind sand dunes. The area has many sand dunes. We didn't go to the actual pan because the dunes were so fun to climb and run down.

The next morning we went to Dune 45 incredibly early. We woke up at 4:30 and I don't think seeing the dune at sunrise was worth it. However, we saw Alpha Centauri which was amazing.

Starting again the next day.

After climbing Dune 45 and being a Dune 45 Monkey, we went to the dunes of Hidden Vlei again to play on the dunes more.

What is a Dune 45 Monkey, you ask? On the way down, I kept running past everyone and then jumping on the shady side of the dune. Once they passed, I did it again. And soon Syarra joined in. Unfortunately, we got to the bottom and wanted to take a picture of where we had jumped, however though we could see the marks, the camera could not because we had jumped on the shady side. This sounds not nearly so fun as you think. You just would have needed to see it to understand.

This time at Hidden Vlei, the sand was not blowing across the face of the dunes. You would think that sand blowing across the dunes would be awesome and it looked cool but it blows in your face. We put our feet on each side of a dune and had a cold foot and a warm foot. And we rolled, ran, and skated down the dunes.

How do you skate down, you ask? Syarra invented it and that is jumping and putting one foot out and sliding until you stop and doing it over and over, and eventually, you get to the bottom.

When I talked about the warm foot and the cold foot it made me think of L’ Aguilhas where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Continuing the list.
Ai-Ais
Rondeberg Resort, the place for boaters and fishermen to camp because it is on a dam, no post.
L’ Aguilhas, writing about this now
Mountain Breeze, nice campsite in Stellenbosch Area, no post
House I am in currently

The campsite at L’ Aguilhas was called the Cape Aguilhas Caravan Park.

Starting the next day

The campsite was fine but the next morning, we put our feet in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans at the same time! Wow! And a new tradition, anywhere important my Dad and I will ooh aah. It started in the Fish River Canyon at Ai-Ais but we couldn’t record it. Here is a picture and the video. And as I put up pictures and videos, I have another that has nothing to do with Cape Aguilhas. It was us driving through Namibia and we saw 2 impala fighting. It was on my iPad so it was convenient to put up here.

Blogger is weird about videos so you need a computer and then you might need to click on where the video should be for it to show it.


video video

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A New Night Sky – Erich

My last post was made when we had internet at a hotel in Swakopmund. Swakopmund is a beach city in Namibia, and it is the popular resort town for the mid-December to mid-January holidays. (That's summer here.) Many people from Namibia and South Africa like to relax in Swakop (which is what most locals call the city.) Swakop and nearby Walvis Bay are much cooler than the rest of Namibia and have some of the few approachable beaches on them.

We did not do much in Swakopmund. In fact, we stayed an extra day there due to sickness. Syarra had a fever, so we ended up doing two nights in a guest house and barely leaving the room. But the guest house itself was lovely. And (as it was during Hanukkah) even in Namibia, Alrica made us latkes for the holiday.
Namibian Latkes (similar to, but not entirely the same as American Latkes)
From there we traveled southeast. We first drove the road between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay which is gorgeous. You have the ocean to your west and huge sand dunes to your east. Partway between the two cities, we got stopped. Throughout Namibia they have these road checkpoints where the police might pull you over. We passed through several without eliciting any reaction from the officials. But at this one, they had us pull over and asked to see our passports, Alrica's driver's license, and the registration for the car. All was in order and we were on our way.

We continued into the Namib Desert and spent the night at the Tsauchab River Camp. This has got to be one of the most interesting and unique campgrounds I have ever seen. First, every site you can pitch your tent at is private and separated from the other sites. Each has its own ablution facility. Ours was built with a wild fig tree as part of the structure. And it was producing wild figs.

Fig Tree Ablution Facility
The owners of the Tsauchab River Camp, Johan and Nicky Steyn, have really done a lot with their land. There are many hiking trails, some of them going for miles (or kilometres.) Johan is an artist who makes sculptures, large and small, out of old pieces of metal that once had another purpose in life. So the campground is replete with little people, planes, vehicles, and animals.

But for me, my favorite part of that site was after the sun went down. We were far, far away from any city, town, or source of light. It was dark. And there were so many stars!

As a young boy I remember every once in a while going out into the country in Iowa and seeing a truly black sky with lots and lots of stars. I had forgotten how impressive the sky really is. And we had done it just right, as this was the night of the new moon.

We were staggered. As an example, we saw Orion. Yes, you can see him in both the southern and northern hemisphere because he is near the ecliptic. And I see Orion back at home too. But here, you could not only see Orion but within him are thousands, maybe millions of tiny, dim stars that you just cannot see when you are near light pollution.

We saw Sirius, super bright and seeming to change colors. And Alrica, looking with her naked eyes said “I think that's really two stars.” And we looked it up and she's right! Though the source we were reading said “Sirius is a binary star, but one can't see both stars with the naked eye.” Apparently, whoever wrote that doesn't have my wife's visual acuity.

We could make out the Andromeda Galaxy, and using binoculars, you could even see it was a spiral galaxy.

But what was very exciting to me was to see so many constellations that we cannot see in the northern hemisphere. There is the Southern Cross, the False Cross, Mensa, and Centauri. We also got to see the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds.

To be honest, that night, we could not see the Southern Cross as it was below the horizon. And we also could only see a few of the stars in Centauri, because many were below the horizon. But a couple days later we got up super early (you will have to read a different blog post to learn why) and we did see the the Southern Cross. Plus, we could see Alpha Centauri, the second nearest star to Earth!

That beautifully black night with its millions of stars is one of my favorite moments in Namibia. Of course, I have others, but that was a spectacle that was a true treat in today's well-lit world. You should all find a nice dark place to see the night sky. I think you will feel the same awe.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

From the San to Skulls – Erich

Continuing our saga through Namibia, after we left Etosha National Park, we headed west. After a quick stop for fuel and groceries in Outjo, we continued through Khorixas. Here we stopped for lunch, a fascinating experience. I had a steakburger, and the steak was made of kudu rather than beef. Syarra got borevors made of kudu as well. The kudu was good. Not tangy like lamb, but a different flavor than beef. A bit harder in texture, too.

Another couple of hours west brought us to the Aba Huab campsite on the side of the dry Aba Huab riverbed. This was not our favorite campsite. The site itself was fine. The showers and toilets were open air. The toilets were what Carver and I called semi-private. No door, but you would have to walk around a corner to see. Still, only one other site was occupied, so we did have pretty good privacy (not to be confused with the encryption system PGP. I do recognize that very few of my readers will even know why this is meant to be a joke.) The troubles we had were mosquitoes and water. The mosquitoes were voluminous and somehow we filled both tents with them. It was a mostly restless night and all of us have several new itchy bumps all over our skin. Hoorah! And then, to make matters even more fun, when we woke in the morning, all of the water in the campground was off. And unlike in the U.S.A., there is not always someone hosting at the campground, so I could find no one to ask about it. We just had to do without.

That day we visited a few locations. First we hit Organ Pipes. It is a shallow canyon, easy to walk down into. And along the sides of the canyon and thousands of dolomite pillars. They make mostly vertical columns. It does look like a large set of organ pipes. Carver thought it looked more like the skyscrapers of a big city and then smaller concentrations that were other parts of town, suburbs, or nearby boroughs. He even named all of the towns.

Organ Pipes

From there we swung by Burnt Mountain. Sadly, we did not get the full effect. It is a mountain made of a black shale that is surrounded by sandstone peaks. Supposedly in the early morning light or the late afternoon light, the black of the shale shimmers with many colors. But our skies were cloudy and we merely saw black against the sandy brown.

After that, we headed over to Twyfelfontein, Namibia's only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, some two to six thousand years ago, the San people (today known as the Bushmen) engraved pictures in the boulders in this area. The pictures show animals; the San were nomadic hunters who followed the herds. And often there is more to the engraving than that. Some of the animals will have indications that they are partly human. Part of the San religion involved the shaman shapeshifting into an animal form in order to heal the sick.
Panel including Lion Man, his tail bends up to a five fingered hand

You follow a guide, both because then you learn more and because they want to protect the site from any sort of vandalism. It was fascinating to hear about the San and why they used the rocks here. Sometimes it was to tell others what animals they had seen, even some that they had seen miles and miles away. For example, we saw engravings of seals and a penguin. Apparently, when the San made it as far as the ocean (which is a couple hundred miles away) they saw seals and penguins. And they recorded it in the rocks when they returned to this site.

Panel including a seal on the right
Panel including a penguin on the left

Sometimes it gave directions. One of the panels has a series of spots marked by two concentric circles. This represented various waterholes where the San would find the game. Today, those waterholes are dried up, so no one can say for sure what the orientation of the map is.

A couple of waterholes on the "map" with an oryx between

Finally, they sometimes used the rocks almost as a chalkboard in a school. Children had to know what various animals looked like.

From this area we went west again, all the way to the coast: the Skeleton Coast to be specific. The Skeleton Coast is the northern half of the coast of Namibia. It is an area with dangerous reefs, shifting currents, and regular fog. Many a ship has wrecked there, giving the area its macabre name. (Speaking of macabre, to enter and exit the park you must pass through a gate and guard house. The guard house at the southern end, called the Ugab River Gate, has a huge display of the skulls of many different animals on shelves outside the door. And the gates themselves are marked with the skull and crossbones you usually only see on pirate flags, in places where there are still pirates advertising their profession with flags.)

If you were shipwrecked on the coast, bad news. You would probably die in the wreck, but if you didn't, you would find yourself pinned between the ocean and the Namib Desert. It's the world's oldest desert and not an easy place to survive. There are several rivers flowing to the sea through this stretch, but they are almost always dry. One of them boasts that it actually flows at least once a year. Booyah!

We stopped at the site of the wreck of the South West Sea. Here, the ship lies in the surf, not much left but the lower part of the hull.

What remains of the South West Sea

We also stopped at the sight of the Winston Wreck, but we couldn't find it. However, we saw thousands of birds flocking and flying up and down together in huge waves.

From there we traveled south down the coast to the Mile 72 campsite. We were the only campers in this gigantic campground. We picked a site near the ocean. We hunted for minerals, which lie out on the surface here. Then we threw most of them into the ocean, because it is fun to hear the splash. Though Syarra kept a pocketful of the best ones.

Today it is onward to Swakopmund where I plan to post these entries.

Is there anything you wanted to know more about? Please, let me know.

Oh, Etosha – Erich

Let me tell you about two amazing days in Etosha National Park. But first, let me explain what it is. Etosha is built around the Etosha Pan. This is a salt pan. A few hundred million years ago, this was a lake. A few different rivers flowed into it. But then there was a change in elevations due to continental drift. And the rivers took a different course. So the lake dried up, leaving a huge lake shaped salt and sediment pile. When it rains, the salt pan is very permeable, so the water can soak through it. But beneath the salt layer is a clay layer that is impermeable. The water flows downhill (mostly south) on this clay layer until the clay layer meets the ground level and the water comes out.

This has formed watering holes for the animals. There are three kinds, as I learned. Contact springs are when the water is between a permeable and impermeable layer, and the water cannot go down the impermeable layers so it has no choice but to soak up to the surface. Water level springs are when the elevation of the land dips below the water table level. And artesian springs are when pressure from the weight of material above the water presses on the water, forcing it up and out of the ground.

Regardless of the types, the watering holes are places where many, many animals congregate to get a drink. There are many watering holes along the southern and western edge of the salt pan. So lots of game is found here.

When the first European settlers came, they thought this place was great! Hunting paradise. But about 100 years ago, the then governor of the region declared the lands around Etosha Pan as a preserve. He was trying to stabilize populations of these animals. Now it is a national park and there are huge herds of many different antelope species and so much more.

Etosha is a driving park. We camped at Okaukuejo, a campsite with swimming pool, restaurant, and most significantly, a permanent watering hole that is floodlit. So you can even watch at night and possibly see some of the nocturnal species. But when not in camp, we drove to various watering holes to see what we could see.

Let me tell you some of the most impressive moments we experienced. Then I will give you a full list of the different species we saw.

Our first night in Okaukuejo, we went to the floodlit watering hole after dark. There was thunder and lightning. Seeing the lightning in the background was an experience I cannot easily describe in words. At first, there were only a pair of ducks in the water itself. We felt a few drops and were about to leave when Syarra saw something coming. We stayed and watched and a white rhinoceros and her baby came down to the watering hole to drink. They hung out for awhile and then headed out. After that, we also saw (more or less in silhouette) a giraffe browsing on trees in the distance beyond the reach of the floodlights. When the lightning flashed, we could sometimes make out its shape more fully. But it never decided to drink and to come into the light.

The next day, we were traveling from watering hole to watering hole. Along the roads we saw many species, including some that are very rarely seen. For example, we saw a honey badger. It walks much like the badgers in the U.S.A. But they have black fur on their sides and underside. Their tops are more of a tan or brown. They are called honey badgers because they work together in symbiosis with a species called the honey bird to get honey. The birds apparently lead the badger to a place where there is a bees' nest. Then the badger breaks into it and eats honey. After which the honey bird gets to enjoy the mess of honey left, for the badger is neither complete nor neat in his honey consumption.

But perhaps most exciting and even rarer than the honey badger, we saw a leopard. We were at a watering hole called Aus. There we saw some kudu (large antelope with twisting horns and thin white stripes on their sides) drinking. After they left, we were about to leave. But along came a leopard! It didn't walk to the watering hole, but went partially around it. It got to a stand of trees and then laid down to rest. Leopards are the rarest of what is often known as the big five. So we stayed to watch. A bit later, three springbok (another antelope species that is a bit smaller than the kudu, though still large, and has a lighter coat) came toward the watering hole. But they seemed to suspect something was wrong. They were very slow to approach. Meanwhile, from the other side, a whole troop of kudu and several warthogs came stomping in. They must not have smelled anything amiss or suspected the presence of the leopard, because they happily marched to the watering hole.

While the kudu and warthog were approaching, the leopard got up, walked to a stone structure, leaped up onto it in one big jump, and then went over the wall. None of the prey species saw him. We thought perhaps the leopard was trying to get into a position to surprise one of the kudu or warthogs. We stayed until both of those groups had enjoyed enough water and left. But we never saw the leopard attack. Maybe that wasn't the plan after all. Still, we considered ourselves incredibly lucky to have seen the leopard at all.

Rhinoceros

Impala seeking the shade
Ostrich
Zebra
Hyena

Here is a more comprehensive list of many of the animals we saw at Etosha National Park:
  • Leopard
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Side-striped jackal
  • Spotted hyena
  • Gemsbok (a type of oryx)
  • Blue wildebeest (which is also called the brindled gnu and isn't blue)
  • Red hartebeest (which isn't fire engine red, but does have a reddish brown coat)
  • Bontebok
  • Kudu
  • Impala
  • Black-faced impala
  • Springbok
  • Steenbok
  • Damara dik-dik
  • Black rhinoceros
  • White rhinoceros (which is not white, but its name comes from the Dutch word for “wide”)
  • Zebra
  • Warthog
  • Honey badger
  • Goshawk
  • Korhaan

If any of you have any interest in going to see the animals of Africa, ask me about Etosha and how you can do it. I can't imagine that you will be disappointed.

LARPing - Carver

I decided to save the major details for other people. Syarra and I have been hogging all the action because we have time to sit in the backseat and write a blog post. This isn’t exactly a minor detail, but an idea. Now I am sitting in the backseat and writing a blog post but I will not hog all the action this time. Now this is getting a little redundant but read on, it gets more interesting.

So, that was the skin of the blog post. This is the juicy, meaty, fatty part. Starting out simple, before we get to LARPing, you need some context. LARPing stands for Live Action Role Playing. As a family, we play a role playing game called D&D. You should look that up and maybe even try playing (there are probably D&D groups near you). If you live in Lancaster, the Ephrata Public Library had one and I would assume it is still there. You don’t need to start but if you want to finish reading this, you should look up the idea of a role playing game.

… (Looking up role playing games)

All right, now we can continue. We were talking about this as we drove yesterday, ate dinner yesterday, and breakfast this morning. Keep in mind that I wrote this on December 3rd and I might not post it that day. So today means December 3rd and yesterday means December 2nd. So LARPing would be a role playing game where you are the character. It would most likely be D&D which is the most common role playing game. We were discussing as we left Brukkaros that this would be great land to build a LARPing palace. It was all a goofy idea but I found something more in it. LARPing is small, just groups who get together because it is fun. A LARPing business would be a huge step up from current LARPing. But what if we bought a bunch of land near Brukkaros. It is a sandy soil that is hard to grow in. So the land would be cheap but fine for LARPing. The business would hire the poor locals to put on costumes, act like monsters, swing fake swords, and do what the DM tells them to. The DM might need to be more experienced. The issue is transport. The players would walk to the dungeon where the monsters were from the city as the characters. However getting them to the Brukkaros area will be hard. Will the players care enough to fly to Windhoek and then drive to Brukkaros? Probably not. So there are some issues. And maybe it is just a crazy idea. Maybe LARPing will stay confined to small groups. But maybe the idea will work. And if I can make a profitable LARPing business, I plan on being the DM.

This post had no details that other people will want to write about, I would assume.

Waterberg Plateau – Erich

Our last posts were made on December 2 or 3 as we stayed one night in an exceptionally nice Hilton hotel in Windhoek, Namibia. Aside from the internet being a bit jumpy, the experience was delectable. There was a rooftop heated pool, set at a bathwater like temperature of 38 degrees Celsius. Next to this was an executive lounge that offered fruit and nuts and tea, as well as computers, printers, and a printout of news of the day from various nations (U.S.A. included.) We were given a free upgrade to a two room suite, each room as big as a standard hotel room. In the bathroom was a warming rack for your bath towels. I mean, this is serious spoilage. And the hotel's restaurant offered a buffet with delicious choices and so many desserts your head might spin. (Especially after the sugar rush.)

The next day, after another swim, we left the hotel and headed north out of Windhoek. As we traveled, we saw warthog, baboon, and giraffe. That afternoon we reached Waterberg Plateau Park. Here our accommodations were what they would call a caravan park. It's camping, but it would work for RVs as well. You have hopefully seen Syarra's post showing you what we are traveling in, so you know we aren't quite a recreational vehicle, but we pack our tents on our roof. The ablution facilities (as they call the rooms where the toilets and showers are) were very functional, though not fancy. Plus they offered two rooms with large sinks for cleaning dishes (which we took advantage of) and clothing (which we did not).

We grilled borevors (a special South African/Namibian kind of beef sausage that has been mentioned in the blog before) and had a relaxing dinner. Our dinner companion was a warthog who was grazing in the grass right next to our site. When warthog graze, they bend down onto their front knees and then walk that way as they get to the next bit of grass. But when anyone comes near, they hop up on their legs again and run with their tails straight up in the air. It was Alrica's birthday that day, so she got the honor of naming our friend. I'm not sure I would have chosen Mister Grumplestein, but he doesn't look entirely dissimilar from the Grumplesteins I have known in the past.
Mister Grumplestein
Also present in the campsite were packs of banded mongoose (is the plural mongeese or mongooses or just mongoose?). We saw a scrub hare. It was like a large tawny rabbit with extra long ears. But when he runs, it isn't in the back foot then front foot hop of the rabbits I'm used to. It looks more like the gallop of a horse.

The next morning, we got up just as dawn was breaking and had a quick breakfast. It was time to hike! Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to hike as there are more animals out and as it is much cooler than the middle part of the day. We hiked up the Mountain View Trail. Waterberg Plateau Park truly is along a plateau. The campground is at the bottom of the mountain. But the trail we took scaled the side of it and brought us up to the top of the plateau. Here we had amazing views of the landscapes below. They aren't lush, but covered with scrub.

The Plateau from below

Along the way we saw more banded mongooses (I'm going with mongooses). We saw a couple of rock hyrax, which are also called dassies. These look like large brown rodents. But apparently they are more closely related to African elephants than any other animal. You wouldn't know it from looking at them. We spied a family of black long low creatures. I'm not sure what they were, but they looked like the kinds of things one would have trapped for the furring industry. Maybe they were sable? We also saw several of the Damara dik-dik which is the world's smallest antelope species. They are small, maybe a foot and a half tall to two and half feet tall. The males have two short black horns.

The most dangerous creatures we saw were baboons. Everyone warns visitors about the baboons. They have figured out that humans with backpacks means food. They also know how to steal out of your vehicle. I was told that if I saw baboons, they probably would ignore me. But if not, I was to shout and throw a rock in their direction, that would scatter them. When we saw them, I had a rock at the ready, but I never needed to use it.

While we were able to climb to the top of the plateau, we had to stop there at the edge. The plateau is protected. To go onto the plateau you either must do a guided tour or get a permit. But the permits must be requested months in advance. And they only give out six or fewer at any one time. They are trying to protect the ecosystem up there.

We climbed back down the plateau and took a swim in the super clear pool there. After that we relaxed a bit, then had lunch at the park's restaurant. After lunch, we stayed at our camp in the heat of the day and played some cards. Later, Syarra and I went for another hike. After that, I went for a hike by myself (no one else really wanted to join me.)

I had a great time. At one point, I saw a bird in a tree with something in its beak. So I took out some binoculars and focused in. It was an owl, staring right at me. In its beak was a dead lizard. It stared at me, I stared at it, and eventually we both decided that was enough of that. I saw more warthog, mongooses, and a rodent that looked like a shaggy gray mouse but slightly larger than I think of mice as being. It was too quick for me to get a detailed view.

We stayed one more night at Waterberg, and wow, it stormed. But our tents kept us dry and the strong winds felt good. The next morning, we again got ready early. This time we packed everything up to head out for Etosha National Park.

That's where I am now, and as I type this, a black bird with red rings around its eyes is staring at me. But I will tell you about Etosha (or someone in the family will) in another post. Because this is already getting long, and trust me, there is a lot to tell about Etosha.