The Garden Route is broadly defined as the area between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, which is really the southernmost part of the African continent. It is not so much because there are a lot of gardens here, but because the coast is a lot greener, compared to the mountains further north – thanks to these mountains, that catch the moist air from the ocean and cause the occasional rain shower. Mediterranean, mostly. Except that I focussed mostly on the mountain landscape itself.

May 15th – Stellenbosch

The continuation of my South Africa travels, after four days of Cape Town, picked up speed only slowly. Stellenbosch is only about 50 km east, but I managed to take quite a few hours to arrive, with a stop in Gordon’s Bay along the coast, and then in a few wineries. This is wine country, with vine yards everywhere, attractively coloured by the autumn. Most grapes had already been harvested, but in places the picking was still underway – done by black people, of course, in this white bulwark of Apartheid.

vine yards in full autumn colours, outside Stellenbosch
and this is the tiny Stellenbosch museum, Cape Dutch style architecture

Getting into Stellenbosch turned out to be a bit of a challenge, but after having driven around it three times, I finally found my way in. It is really a lovely village, with lots of old houses, in Cape Dutch, Georgian and Victorian style. Although I initially had planned to continue, I liked the place so much, that I decided to book into the local hotel, also situated in one of the historic buildings, and settle on the terrace with a bottle of wine.

workers getting the harvest in
my hotel, if I am not mistaken
a lovely place indeed, again helped by autumn colours
a rare tree in the Seweweekspoort gorge

May 16th – Ladismith

A bit of a drive, today, from Stellenbosch through beautiful mountains and charming little villages. I had read about one of these, Matjiesfontein, being a national monument, entirely consisting of old buildings only. Which was true, except that when I got there, it turned out to have a hotel, a post office and maybe five or six houses only. Still, it was quite a remarkable experience, and having a drink at the local pub really felt like being back in London again. All so utterly British! And that in the middle of nowhere! (no pictures, I am afraid…)

Close to Ladismith I came upon the Seweweekspoort, where the road goes through a spectacular gorge. Towering walls at both sides, a geological museum exposing a range of dazzling structures in the rock layers. All manner of faults and folds, both textbook examples and sheer-impossible textbook contradictions, could be identified, in the absence of almost all vegetation. Except for the various aloes that grow here, happy with a little water only.

more of the mountain scenery around the Seweweekspoort
aloe plants survive this dry mountain climate
these, too, are doing very well here
a humble little forest of aloe plants, and one flowering

May 17th – Oudtshoorn

It seems it doesn’t matter where you are in this country, everywhere nature is beautiful. The road to the Cango Caves, just above Oudtshoorn, is once again stunning. Part through a small river valley, part across a steep mountain pass, closed for long traffic because of the many sharp hairpins in the road. Not everything is tarmac, this was a gravel road, pretty dusty at times – especially when you turn 180o in one of those hairpins, back into your own dust.

a cabin in the woods, almost – fabulous landscape

The Cango Caves are another major tourist attraction. The first 45 minutes lead through the main caves, large hollow rooms, with an assortment of attractive rock formations, an alternation of stalactites and stalagmites. Each of the structures had been given its own name vaguely resembling its shape, like Cleopatra’s Needle, the Organ Pipes or the Ostrich Leg. There was a cross, a bible, a face, and a lot more, all being accompanied by a coloured light show and some pompous music.

The second part of the tour was more interesting, or daring, if you like. First, a tedious walk, not upright for most of the way, through the smaller and low centre part of the cave system. And then the really scary part: they had created a trail made up of the narrowest of passages through which you had to scramble up, corridors only passable on fours, crawling on your stomach, and of cracks in the rock through which you had to glide down. The narrowest passage was only 27 cms! Obviously, the Sissys turned back, the Machos went on. For inexplicable reasons, given a tendency for claustrophobia, I had sided with the Machos, and even worse, I went in first – and no way back anymore, for most of the way two people cannot pass each other. I still get the shivers when I think back. Frightening!

the ostriches, with tendency to all walk in the same direction

Oudtshoorn is the centre of ostrich farming. Really everywhere people are tending ostriches, on small holdings and on large farms, sometimes with hundreds of them. They are funny animals, moving in herds: at one moment all of them mover from left to right along the fence, and then one decides to turn, and they all turn, to run back again, for no apparent reason.

with safety in numbers, I guess
they are cute animals, aren’t they
alert at all times

In the evening I felt compelled to taste ostrich meat, I had never eaten that before. I expected something like chicken, or turkey, white meat, but what I got was more like steak, nicely cooked medium rare, and very tasty.

May 19th – Knysna

Although Knysna is a popular holiday place, it didn’t show. I walked from my hotel at one end of town to the ostrich meat restaurant at the other, and back, but the place was deserted in the evening, a Saturday night. Which suited me well.

I will have to adjust my plans, because I am progressing much slower than I had anticipated. Or maybe I just want to do too many things. I have already given up on the few days safari at the end of the trip, and I suppose that several of the rock painting sites I had intended to visit, will also have the be scrapped. But it is so beautiful here that I am not yet ready to move on.

Outside Knysna a road climbs up through the forests outside town into the Outeniqua Range, to the Prince Alfred Pass and to a place aptly called Avontuur (adventure, in English). On the way, a track leads to a viewing point near the summit of the Spitzkoppe, one of the mountains along the road. With, once again, splendid views, inland to further, and higher mountain ranges, whilst looking back you see Knysna, and the ocean beyond. The mountains here are greener, not as barren as earlier in the Karoo or the Cederberg.

mountain scenery, including geological violence in the back
some of the mountains here are a lot greener than what I saw earlier in the Karoo
the road to Avontuur
the Outeniqua Range, part of it
higher up, trees are scarce
tall trees in the Tsitsikamma forest

Beyond Avontuur I continued to the Meiringspoort, another steep gorge through the same mountains I crossed yesterday, and back across the Swartberg Pass, touted as ‘arguably the most spectacular in the country’. The road over the pass is over a hundred years old, built between 1881 and 1888, a solid piece of engineering. I won’t bore you again with how beautiful it is, here.

East of Knysna is the Tsitsikamma forest, which is a popular hiking area. When I decided to take the walk to the mouth of the Storms River, I was once again confronted with how developed everything here is. The ‘trail’ through the coastal forest has in fact been laid out with wooden planks, just in case you would get wet feet, and with wooden stairs and railings where it would get a little steep. Not the nature experience I was expecting, but then I was grateful for the real suspension bridge at the end of the trail, crossing the river.

the suspension bridge across the Storms River
quite a long way, seen from here
yet a narrow river gorge, even close to the sea

next: the Homelands

May 11th, 1991  – Cape Town

Yesterday I phoned my uncle, who lives in Cape Town. I haven’t seen him for, what?, 25 years, or so, and that was only once, at my parents’ house. The idea was to look him up, maybe have lunch, but he insisted I’d stay at his house, in Constancia, a wealthy suburb of Cape Town. Of course I agreed. Free lodging for a few days was not even the main driver. I was looking forward to meeting my cousins, too, and I needed to get some perspective from people who live in South Africa, on how they thought this country would develop beyond Apartheid, which inevitably would have to be abandoned some day soon, in the future.

The experience of last night, in the bar of the hotel, was not very uplifting. One of the local ‘whites’, a young guy, felt obliged to explain to me how we stupid Europeans, like all those stupid Americans, really didn’t understand a thing about Africa, and about South Africa. And he kept swearing at the Kaffirs – the derogative nickname for the black people in this country -, who cannot do anything right, who need to be supervised constantly, and who are, really, no good for anything. The frightening thing was that he was quite drunk, and that he probably meant every word of what he was saying. A revealing conversation. I suppose it is this type of people this country can really do without, if it ever wants to move on towards acceptance in the rest of the world.

the influence of the Dutch is still present, in Cape Town
Cape of Good Hope, at the far end of the peninsula just south of Cape Town

From Clanwilliam I drove through aptly named Citrusdal – indeed, one of the main orange growing areas, with at this time of the year trees heavy with bright fruits – and Ceres to Cape Town. More beautiful mountain scenery, once again helped by the brilliant autumn colours, and vineyards left and right. I will never forget my first reaction, upon entering Cape Town on a Saturday afternoon, a pleasant 25o C or so, car windows open, the smell of braai – the South African version of barbecue – wafting in from all sides: let’s trade in my return ticket, and stay here!

another view from Table Mountain
the mountains themselves, not everywhere equally table-like

From far away you see Table Mountain towering above the city, which has been built on its slopes. A large and spacious town, broad avenues, plentiful trees, all again in the most spectacular autumn colours, yellow, red, brown. Fabulous! The house of my uncle, which I found without much difficulty, did nothing to put my feet back to earth. He is an architect, and had designed his own house, on the lower slopes of the mountain. Four different terraces, glass walls all around, with views over Cape Town a little below. Outside shower, garden full of flowers. Idyllic is the word that comes to mind.

The next day my cousin Colin picked me up to walk up Table Mountain. This is one of the things you need to do, when in Cape Town. So we made our way to the top, that is to say, my cousin, who does this often, strolled to the top, I struggled. But the reward was waiting: magnificent views over Cape Town, really. And across the entire peninsula, in all directions.

spectacular view down onto Cape Town, from Table Mountain
once more, from Table Mountain

Downtown is equally nice. Most of the centre is low buildings, two- or three-story max., and fairly old, probably over a hundred years. Right in the middle of town is the Company Gardens, long ago started as the vegetable patch of the Dutch East Indies Company, now a botanical garden with a great collection of roses, amongst others. The waterfront, near the harbour, is full of nice seafood restaurants, in one of which I had dinner with my other cousin, Monique, and her family.

Oh, and I found out that you can also go up the Table Mountain by cable car, but never mind.

next: the Garden Route

you cannot get more South African than this
small fishing village outside Cape Town
the rose garden in the centre of Cape Town
a colony of cormorants, near Cape Point

May 10th, 1991 – Cederberg

Before my departure to Southern Africa I had written to the chief forester in the Cederberg area, in search of information about Bushmen paintings in the surroundings (remember this was long before the internet era, and long before universal email communication). He had enthusiastically replied, and told me to come and look him up once I had arrived in the area, so he could show me around. He had even included a map, with the main rock painting locations indicated.

I met him this morning, an amiable man, very knowledgeable. He apologised profusely, but unfortunately, he had to deal with a bush fire, so couldn’t accompany me to the sites. He pointed me in the right direction, though, so after an hour, or so, I took off, on my own again, armed with the map.

But this is South Africa, remember? After an hour’s drive, through some spectacular scenery, enlivened by autumn colours and vineyards, I reached the Matjies River site (nowadays also known as the Stadsaal Rocks), clearly sign posted to a small office, where the entrance fee was collected. The nearby paintings were a slightly disappointing: not many, and monochromatic only. And that in the company of another group of tourists, South Africans who, however, were enthusiastic rock art fanatics. Altogether nice enough, and no real effort.

the Cederberg mountains
full of autumn colours
and equally colourful vineyards
the main rock paintings panel at Matjieskloof (now called Stadsaal Rocks)
close-up of the Matjieskloof panel
and another close-up

According to the chief forester there were more paintings at a farm called Boontjieskloof, a private property where I arrived in the early afternoon. Having once more negotiated a series of gates, I encountered the new owners of the farm, who proudly told me that there were over 40 rock painting sites on their land. And they happily directed me to the two most famous ones, according to them.

some of the caves and overhangs at Boontjieskloof
hand print, another form of Bushmen rock art, also along the path
female dancers, om a panel along the path towards one of the main caves

I spent well almost two hours, moving from one cave to another overhang, crawling through bushes and scrambling over boulders, once again with that adventurous feeling I had on earlier rock painting discoveries. And, yes, the paintings here were more varied than the ones at Matjies River, more delicate, too. There was even a gallery with miniatures, pictures painted with incredible detail on a few square centimetres. Once again, the artistic capabilities of the Bushmen, more properly known as the San people, proved impressive.

central part of the cave, note the animals in red, but also in white
the first panel at Boontjieskloof (approx. 1.25 m wide)
detail of the centre part of the panel, note the slim bent-over figure – contrasting with the well-proportioned larger ones of the panel
another detail, small-scale playful antelopes
and another detail, all the way to the right-bottom side, more delicately painted antelopes
Boontjieskloof, what I called panel 2 & 3 at the time
a detail of the busy panel of dancers (from the overview): different colour dancers superimposed on each other (approx. 70 cm wide)
a detail of the left panel in the overview (approx. 80 cm top-to-bottom)
dancing women (approx. 60 cm wide)
another panel, different style, with more stylized animals and hunters (approx 2.5 m wide)
some of the miniature paintings

My pictures are from a few sites only, but there is much more, including the link between the engravings further north and the paintings here, in this article.

Next: Capetown

May 6th, 1991 – Upington

I entered South Africa in the middle of the night. The luxury touring I boarded in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, came with “refreshments, hot and cold meals and videos”, which meant two small cartons of apple juice, a meal you had to order yourself in a grubby restaurant halfway, during a 45 minute stop in Keetmanshoop, and a free viewing of The Sound of Music. As I sat next to a white Namibian lady who only spoke German, whilst the hostesses on the bus – the ones who distributed the apple juice – only spoke English or Afrikaans, I spent a significant part of the 11 hour journey translating the most trivial questions in English, and the increasingly irritated answers back into German.

one of the many Aloe species, endemic to South Africa

I got off in Upington, the first town inside South Africa at two in the morning  – I was the only one to get off, the rest of the passengers continued to Johannesburg. Based on earlier experience I feared not being able to get into the hotel so late at night, but I didn’t have to worry. This is South Africa, a notch, or a few notches, up from Zimbabwe and Namibia: the hotel was open, the receptionist was awake, and I got my room in no time.

The next morning I called the car rental company, who dropped the car at the hotel 15 minutes later, completed all the paper work in another 5  minutes, and I was ready to go. Again, quite a difference from my earlier renting cars, this trip, which often took hours to arrange.

May 7th – Brandvlei

From Upington I drove west, along the Orange River. Nice to see water again, and a green valley, trees, reeds, and agriculture, after the weeks of dry landscape and desert in Namibia. And immediately, with water and cultivation, come the people, the houses, and possibly more cars in a morning than I had seen on my entire Namibia trip.

Except that the green valley is limited to the river banks, outside the Augrabies Falls National Park, which was the target for the afternoon. Inside the park, bare rocks again. The main attraction of the park is the Augrabies Waterfall, where the Orange River drops some 56 meters down. True to form – this is South Africa – there is a restaurant, a tourist office and a souvenir shop near the falls, and to reach the falls there is a path over the boulders, complete with stairs constructed where it gets a little steeper, and easy steps made of rocks perfectly cemented together.

a young springbok, curious about other road users
the Orange River in the Augrabies National Park
the Augrabies Falls
wildlife in the park
the landscape, much of it bare rock

South of the park I drive through a landscape of rolling hills and yellowish, hard grass – probably not very tasty, because I didn’t see many animals – to Kenhardt. Just outside town is another Quiver Tree Forest, similar to what I had seen in Keetmanshoop in Namibia, but then ten times bigger. These are magnificent trees, and quite a few were blooming, with big, yellow flowers. Beautiful! But what is different here, is that I only saw mature trees, unlike earlier in Keetmanshoop, where small, younger trees were also numerous. I suppose this has something to do with the sign “quiver trees for sale”, complete with telephone number, which I saw just outside the forest area.

the Quiver Tree Forest at Kenhardt
the individual trees need their space
yellow flowers give the quiver tree a whole different appearance
they are beautiful, these quiver trees
one of the numerous salt pans in the Brandvlei area

May 8th – rock engravings and corbelled houses

Bushmen rock engravings
and more, more recent, engravings, of eland
graffiti, probably from Boer soldiers who were stationed at the hill site where the engravings occur

Leaving the farms with engravings behind, I drove to a place called Stuurmansfontein. I had once seen a photograph of the so-called corbelled houses that occur here, igloo-like or beehive-like structures built by the early settlers of the Karoo. It took me a while, after much searching and asking around – these things are somehow not signposted – but at the end of the day I did find a couple of them, built of rows of stone, in ever smaller circles, until a single stone can close the hut at the top. Quite an ingenious construction.

In the hotel in Brandvlei I got to talk to somebody who claimed that nearby, at several of the farms, there were lots of rock paintings. I hadn’t heard of those before, so I decided to go and explore those in more detail. I managed to find the first farm, or at least a miniature name plate along the road, and a dirt track inside. With a gate. So I got out of my car, opened the gate, drove through, got out again to close the gate, and continued. After another few hundred meters, next gate. And third. Until I finally reached the farm house, where  a young woman who only spoke Afrikaans explained to me where to go to see the paintings. Right! For a Dutchman Afrikaans is intelligible, rooted as it is in the Dutch language of 400 years ago, but she spoke it much too fast. Repeating the question didn’t help, as she would only speak louder, and even faster. So off I went, in the direction I though was the right one, only to get back to the farm in despair half an hour later. Where the woman pointed at a little hill, five minutes’ walk away. In the opposite direction of where I had gone.

But where I had expected a series of delicate Bushman paintings on the rock faces, similar to the ones I had seen in Zimbabwe and Namibia, I only encountered some rough engravings, of little artistic value, and on top of that, heavily vandalised by people who had put their names on the rocks, or their initials, some dates, and other useless scratches. I got to talk to another farmer, at another farm, who claimed that these engravings were not from Bushmen, but from Boer soldiers who fought the British in one of the many wars that had played out here in the previous century, and who were stationed on the hill. Yet, I believe the animal engravings are most likely done by Bushmen, similar to the ones I found in Namibia; the graffiti may well be from the Boer soldiers, remnants of Boer boredom some 100 years ago. Sadly, although they may not have been as skilful as the Bushmen in their artistic expressions, they were a lot more skilful at exterminating them, the original inhabitants of this part of Africa, of whom very few remain.

typical corbelled house, circular with reducing radius towrads the top, creating a stone roof
a construction similar to the corbelled houses, but perhaps newer, given its initially vertical walls
one of the windows

May 9th – Clanwilliam

Change of scenery: from the dry plains of the Karoo, around Brandvlei, I drove into the mountains, across two passes, and down to Clanwilliam, where life is a lot greener again. This is tea-growing country, one of the loveliest colours of green I know.

the dry plains of the Karoo, with their flat-topped mountains
greener landsacpe towrads Clanwilliam

Not having seen the sea for a while, I decided to get to coast first, a short drive from town. Lambert’s Bay is a small, unassuming fishing village. Strikingly, however, here again rules the fog, resulting from the cold water Benguela stream running along the coast, whilst a few hundred meters land inward there is bright sunshine.

fishing sloops stacked on the beach of Lambert’s Bay
and the larger-sacle fishing fleet, once again in the mist

next: to the rock paintings of the Cederberg

In addition to the White lady rock paintings in the Brandberg (of which I have posted the photos here), there are several other, more difficult to find rock shelters with San paintings – the San are commonly referred to as Bushmen. With a sketch map found in a travel guide at the time – this was in 1991 – I managed to find five more locations.

the sketch map I copied from an out-of-print guidebook

This entry covers some of the photographs I took at the Ostrich Shelter, the Jachman Shelter and the Hottentott Shelter, and a few more minor minor locations, often just supporting a few paintings only.

a row of antelopes, also in the Ostrich Shelter
and more antelopes, in bright colours (also Ostrich Shelter)
a man with a bow, in what is called the Jachman Shelter (which translates as Hunter’s Shelter)
a cheetah, perhaps (?), being hunted, in the Jachman Shelter
two people, man and woman, in the Jachman Shelter – earliest documentation of domestic violence?
this is the entire panel of paintings in the Hottentott Shelter, the last one I found with my sketch map
and another detail, a great rendering of a giraffe
detail of the panel, four dancers
outside the main panel of the Hottentott Shelter I found a painting of what looks like warriors
and several antelopes, also Hottentott Shelter

May 5th – Usakos

I have a few days left for rock paintings in Namibia, the recurring theme of this Southern Africa journey. So far I have only seen the rock engravings, at Twyfelfontein and at Peet Alberts Koppie, but now I head for the Brandberg. This is the location of the most famous rock painting of Namibia, the White Lady, as well other shelters.

The first stop is Usakos. There are lots of obscure rock paintings in this area, and apparently, the man at the Shell service station in town can give directions. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there, so I only managed to visit the most well-known of the paintings here, in Phillip’s Cave – the one that is well-signposted, including a designated small parking area and a well-marked path to the cave. This has long ago been declared a national monument; nothing like the Zimbabwe experience, where rock paintings are usually hard to find.

the view from within Phillip’s Cave
elephant rock

Phillips’s Cave itself is pretty small, not much more than a rock shelter, really, and there are not that many paintings. Which makes it all the more amazing that the Abbe Breuil, an authority on European rock paintings in the middle of the 20th Century, wrote a whole volume on the these images. Henri Breuil was also the one who established that the White Lady, where I will be going tomorrow, and which he found similar to 3000 year old figures from Crete, must have been painted by Greek artists who reached Southern Africa long ago. After all, it would have been unthinkable, would it not, that these images had been made by any of the primitive African tribes?

photo: elephant rock: except for paintings, the area around Phillip’s Cave is also known for its peculiar-shaped rocks, like this one in the form of an elephant

the main panel in Phillip’s Cave
zoom-in on the large walking figure of the main panel
a stylized figure of a man, with tall, white body
a white elephant, with other animals superimposed

May 6th – the Brandberg

When I arrived at the Central Hotel in Omaruru, where I had a booking for two nights, the hotel was closed. Only after repeatedly ringing the bell, and then banging the doors, somebody came outside to ask me what I wanted. The fact that I had a booking for two nights did not impress him, “Aber das Hotel ist geschlossen!” – the hotel was closed – until six o’clock. And it was now half past five. The idea of letting me in did not naturally occur to the hotel owner, and only after a lot of talking he agreed to let me in my room, but only in my room.

the road to the Brandberg

Exploring the rock paintings of the Brandberg is best done early morning, or late afternoon, because in the middle of the day it gets really hot. Yet, the first stop in the Brandberg, the painting of the White Lady, was still some two hours drive from Omaruru, and a 45 minute walk, so I left before 7 am, and without breakfast, because that would only be served after nine.

Arriving at the well-signposted parking lot, I had my first disappointment. There were already four other cars! Once again, this is not like Zimbabwe, where you have the paintings entirely for yourself. On the way to the shelter itself I met the first tourists coming back, already, but the real big shock came at the site, where I encountered no less than 15 Germans! This is not how it is supposed to be. Next, I discovered that the paintings were fenced off, you couldn’t really come close. For good reasons, obviously; there have been problems with vandalism, people have this irredeemable urge to write their own names on the rock next to the paintings, some even think it necessary to add their own expressions of rock art to the gallery, and for a while it was popular to splash lemon juice on the paintings, to try to enhance them. So I had to content with observing the paintings through bars, luckily in peace and quietness after a while, when the Germans returned to the parking lot again.

the main rock paintings panel in the Maack Shelter, with the White Lady

The White Lady, the main painting at the Maack Shelter, in fact is not a lady and isn’t white either. The paint is, but the figure is a shaman, now generally accepted to have been painted by the Bushmen, perhaps some 2000 years ago – and not by some visiting Mediterranean people, as suggested by Abbe Henri Brueil in the years after WW II. Another fact is that this is definitely one of the most beautiful rock painting scenes that I have observed so far, varied in subject matter with people and several animals, detailed in the execution of the paintings, and the range of colours used. Well worth the drive, and the walk.

bright painting of a gemsbok, an oryx-like animal
detail of the White Lady, which is in fact a dark-coloured man, a San shaman
on the same panel, another beautifully painted figure
and, all the way to the left on the main panel, another figure, more likely to be a lady
a brilliant zebra, also from the main panel in the Maack Shelter (in the centre of the panel overview)
three people in trance, richly coloured, also Maack Shelter (see left top on the panel overview)
this is a giraffe with a red-lined neck, at a location along the south-east stream, the first location I found from my sketch map

And it got even better. The Brandberg area is home to many more paintings. Unlike the White Lady, however, these are a lot less famous, and there are no tracks, no signposting, no nothing. Except that earlier, I had found a sketch map with another ten shelters annotated. So I set off from Maack Shelter with the White Lady to try to find some of the others. It was already getting a lot hotter, and without tracks I found myself scrambling up and downhill, over boulders, and rapidly exhausting myself. But with some success: by one o’clock I had found five out of eight locations – the other two were clearly too far away. And even though the paintings were not as spectacular as the White Lady panel, there is a certain satisfaction in finding the shelters, without anybody else around – no tourists, no guides -, and nothing but my sketch map.

There are more photos of rock paintings here.

I finally got back to the parking lot by three o’clock, exhausted, but with a good feeling of achievement. Never mind that I did exactly what I was not supposed to do: wandering around the Brandberg at midday!

in the so-called Ostrich Shelter: two ostriches, of which only the white pigment has been left, the rest has been eroded

April 30th – Luderitz

I know I keep repeating myself, but this country is unbelievably beautiful. Yesterday I made my way from Windhoek, where I rented a car, to a place called Maltahohe. On the way, I passed the small town of Solitaire, which honoured its name: there is nothing here, except a general store and a petrol station. I had chosen a smaller road, across the Spreethoogte Pass – poor road, and incredibly steep. But from the pass you have a magnificent view: you look down on the sandy Namib Desert, with so here and there dark, rocky hills sticking out, and in the distance the reddish dunes. There are no photographs that do justice to this view!

perfect exposure of a dolerite dyke

Maltahohe was a bit of a strange place, the first time I didn’t really feel welcome. I found my hotel all right, even got a meal and a beer, but the atmosphere was tense all the time, unfriendly. They speak German here, like they do in many parts of the country, a remnant of the German colonial era. The first Germans established themselves in the early 1880s, the German government got involved in around 1890, but this lasted only until 1915, when the German colony was forced to capitulate to British-oriented semi-independent Union of South Africa during the First World War. Yet, in other places in Namibia German-speakers have been as welcoming as English- and Afrikaans-speakers, I don’t know why Maltahohe was different.

sparse vegetation
the view, but I am afraid a photo is nothing compared to the real thing

Maltahohe was a bit of a strange place, the first time I didn’t really feel welcome. I found my hotel all right, even got a meal and a beer, but the atmosphere was tense all the time, unfriendly. They speak German here, like they do in many parts of the country, a remnant of the German colonial era. The first Germans established themselves in the early 1880s, the German government got involved in around 1890, but this lasted only until 1915, when the German colony was forced to capitulate to British-oriented semi-independent Union of South Africa during the First World War. Yet, in other places in Namibia German-speakers have been as welcoming as English- and Afrikaans-speakers, I don’t know why Maltahohe was different.

Outside Maltahohe is the Duwisib Castle, one of those German follies from colonial times. A rich army officer-turned- farmer had it built in 1908, hoping to make it the centre of his 60,000 hectare property. But he went on a business trip in 1914, and then, when the war broke out, never returned. The house is still in good shape, though, testimony to German solidity.

Luderitz itself is a small coastal town, described by the guide books as lovely, and full of beautiful old German colonial architecture. Which, I suppose, is a matter of taste.

the Duwisib Castle outside Maltahohe
everywhere along the road to Luderitz, dunes
near Luderitz, quite a few wild horses wander the desert; no idea how they survive in this environment
a salt pan, in the southern Namib desert

May 1st – Kolmanskop

First of May is a public holiday in Namibia, so everything was closed today. However, I managed to join a sailing trip for a couple of hours, on the turbulent waters offshore. The boat also went as close as possible – which wasn’t very close – to a small island that houses a penguin colony. For somebody who has never seen penguins before, a nice experience, even though they were much smaller than I had imagined.

the penguin colony on an island in front of the Luderitz coast
the penguins are pretty small, actually
but make a nice enough picture, against the rough Atlantic background

Outside Luderitz is a small ghost town, Kolmanskop. In 1908 this was a flourishing town, thanks to the diamond mine that was opened nearby. At the time it had a school, a kindergarten, even an ice factory, and the directors of the mine lived in spacious villas. But the mine closed in 1930, everybody left, and nowadays the desert has taken over much of the town; sand has built up against the houses, dunes wander through the streets. You need a permit to visit the town, or join a group, which is what I did. In retrospect, it is probably better to arrange your own permit; my group, about twenty people, of which almost half were screaming children, was quite noisy, which undermines the idea of being in a ghost town somewhat!

and more houses, almost overrun by sand
the abandoned director villas in Kolmanskop
inside one of them: the small theatre, perhaps?
unassuming landscape on the way to Keetmanshoop

May 3rd – Keetmanshoop

Keetmanshoop is, with its 15,000 inhabitants, a relatively large town in Namibia. It is also one of the oldest, having been established in 1860 for the German Rhenish Mission. A rich industrialist, Johan Keetmann, provided the funds for this.

the quiver tree forest near Keetmanshoop
a quiver tree
and another one

Two hours south of Keetmanshoop is the Fish River canyon, which is claimed to be the second largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the USA. It is another spectacular view, of what is now a pitiful little stream, which in earlier days managed to cut itself more than 500 meters deep into the horizontal rock layers. And the good thing is, there are a lot less tourists than at the Grand Canyon.

Fish River Canyon
with a better view of the pitiful stream at the bottom
and more of the canyon
dusty vegetation in the desert

It is a 500 km drive back to Windhoek, from Keetmanshoop. A long, dead straight, and dead boring all-tarmac road, this time.

next: last stop in Namibia, the rock piantings of the Brandberg

thanks to the cold water upwelling along the Namibia coast, fishing is the thing to do!

April 18th, 1991 – the Skeleton Coast

The first few days of my two-week minivan tour was south of Windhoek, but now we move to the north. Our first stop is the seal colony at Cape Cross. I had seen a few seal before, in my life, but never had I seen thousands and thousands of them – my own estimate, admittedly. Stumbling over, and under, each other, fighting for a place on a sunny rock. Or swimming, apparently having fun, rolling over and turning upside down in the water.

On the way to Terrace Bay, our next camping place, we cross more of the Namib Desert. There is no sand left on the surface, all of it has been blown away by the constant south-westerly, resulting in extensive gravel plains. But if you walk on it, your feet sink in deeply, because below the gravel is plenty of soft sand left, protected as it there is from the wind.

the Cape Cross seal colony
they make noise, them seals
here is still plenty of space for more
young one, with moustache
individual seals enjoying the sun
the desert, hardly any sand left

The plains are almost completely devoid of any vegetation, except from the occasional low scrubs. Yet, in some places, near the dry river beds, strings of green curl through the desert, and grasses, low trees and even reeds, sometimes. Obviously, below the surface is still sufficient water available, even though these rivers carry water only a few days per year, if at all. In dryer areas we also encounter the occasional plants, weird species, with sturdy leaves crawling over the sand.

So far we have been driving in bright sunshine, but closer to Terrace Bay – no more than a small holiday camp with bungalows – it becomes cold and foggy, but only in the few hundred meters along the coast. Inland, sun and heat remain, but at the interface between desert and ocean the hot air comes into contact with the air over the water, which is much cooler because of the Benguela Current, an ocean current that brings cold water all the way from the Antarctic. Which causes condensation, resulting in a dense band of mist along the coast. You literally walk from the hot desert into an uncomfortably cold cloud.

At times the clouds continue offshore, which for centuries has caused poor visibility for ships travelling along this stretch, and thus a lot of wrecks from ships that ran aground. Which is why they call this the Skeleton Coast, with plenty of evidence on the beach.

one of the creepy leaf plants
or this one, equally beautiful
this, too, is a survivor in the desert
the clouds along the Skeleton Coast
one of many the skeletons

April 19th – Twyfelfontein

The landscape in Namibia continues to amaze me. From the gravel-like desert plains along the coast we drove land inwards, were we found ourselves in another spectacular mountain scenery, dominated by flat-topped table mountains. And with the changing sunlight, the colours changed, too, from an initial greyish-brown to a fabulous, bright, dark red.

At Twyfelfontein, once an Afrikaner farm – with a spring of questionable reliability -, but long abandoned, there are thousands of rock engravings. This is unusual in Southern Africa, where most rock art is in the form of paintings. The origin of the engravings is also somewhat doubtful: some write that they are not older than 2000 years, with the latest having been produced around 1800 AD, others claim that the engravings outdate any of the rock paintings, like those in the nearby Brandberg area, and go back perhaps 10,000 years, to a hunter-gatherer society preceding the San people (more commonly referred to as Bushmen). Problem is that dating them is next to impossible, in the absence of pigment.

the sandstones near Twyfelfontein
the best-known panel in Twyfelfontein, with giraffe and long-tailed lion

The images themselves are nice enough, but artistically – at least in my view – not comparable to the rock paintings I saw in Zimbabwe, or indeed the ones I found later in the Brandberg area. They are rather crude, but then, I suppose, if you have no other tools than stone, only a bit harder than the sandstone that serves as base for the engravings, it is not easy to create a lot of detail. They are mostly of animals, and while some of them are obviously lions and giraffes, others are much harder to identify, also by the specialists.

one of the larer engraving panels in Twyfelfontein – and the inevitable graffiti
one of the estetically better ones, two rhinoceroses
a kudu, or an eland
and another one I like, a stylized elephant
another giraffe, and what looks like two footprints
yeah, and these ones are a lot simpler, yet not necessarily later additions

April 21st  – Damaraland

basalt pipes in Damaraland

We spent two nights in a camp deep in the middle of nowhere, in Damaraland, a vast area of 600 by 200 km, of which Khorixas is the administrative centre. There is a certain romance in staying at a camp in the middle of nowhere, a camp where the toilet is a hole in the ground with a chair placed over it, the seat cushion replaced by a toilet seat, and the flushing mechanism replaced by a pile of sand and a shovel. The shower is a bucket with a shower head attached to it, over a couple of planks; the drain is the desert itself. But I wonder how feasible the business plan for this camp is. Of course, the scenery all around is fabulous, but there is little else to do than taking a few uncomfortable walks, trying not to break your neck on the boulders you need to climb over. There is hardly any game, and no birds either. And you need to bring everything: there are no towns or villages with convenience stores, there are no fuel station and no garages. When, on the way to the camp, we got our second flat tyre, we spent two hours repairing.

the landscape in Damaraland
the occasional tree nested in basalts
near Khorixas is a petrified forest, although it is unclear whether this was indeed a forest, or the wood remains have been flooded in, through flash flows – but this is a full-size tree!
and that it has been wood, at one stage, is unmistakable

April 22nd – Peet Alberts Koppie

Another site with rock engravings is Peet Alberts Koppie, more or less on the way to the Etosha National Park. Somehow, I didn’t write about this place in my letters home, at the time, but I do have some photos, nice enough to share here.

The engravings are similar to those at Twyfelfontein.

the rocks at Peet Alberts Koppie
one of the main panels, on a large rock face
detail of the panel
more giraffes
and even more, almost hidden near the ground
a stylish antelope
and a leopard (perhaps)
and how about this for artistry? sunken relief, the stripes of the zebra the only surface rock left on the animal

April 27th – Etosha National Park

In the years I lived in Tanzania several safari enthusiasts I met talked about Etosha, Namibia’s main safari destination. The parks in Tanzania, well, OK, but those were nothing compared to Etosha! So I came to Etosha with high expectations. And as so often with high expectations, they are bound to disappoint.

Perhaps it was the infrastructure. In Tanzania we drove on sandy tracks, four-wheel drive terrain, deep and often water-filled holes in the road. If you spotted game in the distance, you would steer off the road, to get a closer look. Or to check whether any animals were hiding behind the bushes. Sense of adventure. In Etosha a saloon car will suffice, and so did our minivan, on the comfortable tarmac roads. Or on the well-maintained secondary gravel roads. All within the high fence that delineates the outline of the park, and prevent wild animals from escaping.

We saw plenty of game, but mostly the common ones, various antelope species like springbok, gemsbok, and kudu, or zebra, and some wildebeest. Plentiful giraffes, too. And two lions, chasing a wildebeest young, two cheetah in captivity, and three elephants and a rhino near a flood-lit waterhole behind one of the lodges in the park. Distinctly less adventurous than what I was used to in Tanzania, shall we say. The price for being spoiled.

young springbuck in Etosha National Park
excellent gravel roads
magnificent animals, these gemsbuck (very similar to the oryx)

The only other distraction in the three days we spent in Etosha were, you guessed it, the birds! Now you know my views on bird watching already, but obviously I was the only one in the group with a limited interest. So we stopped for every small, ugly, brownish flying or hopping object, compared it extensively with drawings and photos in the various bird watcher’s books, and declared it rare and special, after all. Just like the previous little, brownish, ugly thing we had seen.

gemsbuck gathered on the shore of the salt pan in the middle of the Etosha Park
collective drinking moment for zebras
collective drinking moment for giraffes
male kudu
and the rest of his family
a duiker, one of the smallest deer
and here again, the duiker
mongoose coming to have a look outside
and not all animals are necessarily wild
sunset over a water hole
tame cheetah (really)

April 28th – the end of the tour

The last day and night we spent in a very pleasant Guest lodge, called Okonjima. Little activity, other than eating and drinking, and playing with the tame cheetah they keep here, in the garden. As long as the tame cheetah is not chasing the tame baboon, which they also keep.

Back in Windhoek we all go our own way again. I once again realise that I am not the organised tour type, although without it, I would probably not have seen so much as I did during the past two weeks, without camping gear for many of the remote locations we visited, and without the mechanical skills to travel confidently through the middle of nowhere.

But what a fabulous country this is! And there is more to come…

next: to the south of Namibia

otherwise I would not have come so close
Moringa trees in the rocky landscape
Moringa trees are also called phantom trees
another tree against a stark blue sky

April 13th, 1991 – Windhoek

Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, is quite a nice town, with a small centre that, on further inspection, turns out to be almost the entire town. Pretty houses, shopping malls, supermarkets, all very well organised. But coming from Harare in Zimbabwe, the thing that strikes me here most is that almost everybody in the streets is white – quite remarkable in a country where, according to the latest statistics, 92.5% of the population is black. I guess that has something to do with the pre-independence apartheid-practice of forcing black people to the so-called homelands only, which allowed only those with a job, and an associated travel permit, to enter the whites-only areas. Independence only having been achieved about one year old, it obviously takes time to get accustomed to your rights.

the quiver tree, a common sight in Namibia
the landscape outside Windhoek, dry and rocky
a lonely tree in the Namib desert landscape
Naukluft Mountains, with a bit more vegetation and beginning autumn colours

April 14th – the bird watching

For the next two weeks of this journey I have signed up for a camping trip, with a small group of like-minded tourists. So I got picked up from my hotel in the morning, with a minivan in which the other seven or eight participants had already assembled. First stop was the Naukluft Park, 250 km south of Windhoek.

The first hours of exposure to Namibian country side were not very exciting: a very dry country, very few trees; there is just a bit of yellowish, burnt grass, and some low scrub, that’s all. No people, either. And thus no traffic: where in many other African country roads are full of all sorts of busses, here the roads are empty, like the land.

Closer to the park the scenery gets a little better, still very dry, but in the distance some mountains appear. Bare rocks, still hardly any vegetation, except for some cacti on the ridges. But in the subsurface, there must be some water, because in and along the dry river beds we see the occasional trees.

The main activity in the park is walking and bird watching: remarkably, there are still quite a lot of birds around, despite the dryness and the limited vegetation. Personally I am not much into bird watching – I like seeing beautiful, brightly coloured birds for their aesthetic qualities, but I have little interest in the details, in the minor differences between sub-species. But watching the bird watchers is quite entertaining in itself. Our group would arrive at a tree, and one of the members would spot a bird, upon which everybody stops to pull out their binoculars. First challenge is to point out where the bird is, which goes something like this: “see the second tree left of those three big rocks? Halfway up that large branch, five leaves to the right, then two branches down, that’s where he is!”. By then, somebody else will have see another bird, and tells the others where to look (“no, no, to the right of the two thin protruding branches, and then up!”), which greatly adds to the overall confusion. When everybody is finally focused on the same bird, the conversation continues: “look, that is a white-tailed what-so-ever”, “what sort of what-so-ever?”, “a white-tailed what-so-ever”. I would have thought you can see that it is white-tailed, or red-breasted, or yellow-spotted, or whichever other characteristic are being used to describe the bird, but apparently, that is all not so clear, not even through binoculars. Anyhow, walking in the park is quite pleasant, and some of the birds are quite nice.

Cactus is often the only vegetation on the mountain slopes
they can be nice, them birds!
a tree embedded in rock, Naukluft Park
there is even a little real water in the park
another view of the Namib desert, not yet the sandy version
the sands blown onto the rocks are also colouring light green
a thin green veil from germinating grasses after a little rain

April 16th – Sossusvlei

My initial reservations about the Namibian countryside had to be adjusted. From Naukluft we drove west, to Sesriem, which is no more than a camping place, really, in the Namib desert. Initially we were still surrounded by the rocky hills, but increasingly they were partly being covered with sand, that had blown up against them. Quite recently it had rained a little, and this had been enough to germinate the grasses, which now cover the yellow sand with a green haze, against a background of dark, black rocks and the red and purple of the sand dunes that increasingly appeared, the further west we came. Quite spectacular, especially in the late afternoon sunlight!

Sesriem Canyon, close to our camp site
the canyon even supports a tree, just one
and a rock wall, heavily eroded
our campsite is being watched for left-overs, by a jacketl

The next day, very early and still in the dark, we left for Sossusvlei, famous for the highest dunes in the world. We arrived just as the sun came up, and whilst walking up the biggest dune, which is some 350 meters high, we got to see more and more from the landscape around us. What had initially been still in the shadow started to colour in the early morning light, gradually changing in all grades of yellow and orange and red. And from the top – after a strenuous climb through soft sand – we have a superb view of ridge after ridge of sand dunes, perfectly crescent-shaped by the wind. I was just a bit quicker than the rest of the group, which had the advantage that I walked up through undisturbed sand – beautiful! – and that I had about 5 or 10 minutes alone, at the top, without anybody else. Magic!

approaching Sossusvlei, early morning
climbing up in the eraly sunlight
wind ripples being the only disturbance of the virgin sand slopes
the view from above
more view from above
sharp crest, perfectly shaped
and even more view
dune on the move!
lone grass growing on a dune crest
and this is probably the most photographed tree in the world – the only one at this Sossusvlei dune
sand-covered tree in the Namib desert
it is incredible that there are still animals, like this oryx, living here
this is Kuiseb Canyon, on the way to Swakopmund
another view, same canyon

April 17th – Swakopmund

The main ports along Namibia’s coast are Walvisbay and Swakupmund. In 1991, Walvisbay was still a South African enclave, and in order to get in, one needed to go through formal border crossing formalities. We did, to get to a lagoon full of flamingos.

We slept in Swakopmund, in proper beds in holiday bungalows, which was a nice break from the tents and matrass-on-the-floor routine of the past few days.

next: to the north


Swakopmund lighthouse, behind the palm trees
the flamingos at the lagoon near Walvis Bay
they decide to take off
and a little later all of them have gone

The rock paintings at Diana’s Vow, some 170 km east of Harare on the way to the Eastern Highlands, are not in a cave, but merely under an overhanging rock. They are easily reached, and worth the detour. Although the painted area is quite small, the quality of the images, the detail and the colour settings, are better than most other Zimbabwe paintings. Material found under the overhang has been dated to 500-1000 years ago, relatively recent.

see also:

the panel with rock paintings, about 1×2 meters
the main character in Diana’s Vow
in even more detail: delicately painted
the busy lower-central part of the panel
and some of the figures in detail
further detail, some animals and hunters