Sunrise on a giant dune in the Namib desert
This month has been marked by a truly unique travel experience for Sandy and myself in the deserts of Namibia. It has also seen the dreadful events in Paris which led to 130 people being killed by terrorist attacks in the Bataclan concert hall and other sites across the city. We happened to be in an idyllic lodge in central Namibia when the news of the unfolding horror of the attacks began to emerge. It is one of the characteristics of modern life that no matter how remote the location there is access to global news. As I reflected on the terrible and pointless savagery of the events in Paris I was struck how remarkable it is that the perpetrators were able to reconcile their terrible actions with being in such close proximity to, and knowledge of, the often young victims whose lives they were in the process of taking. Human history is of course littered with events, periods and even epochs of tremendous cruelty where the value of human life is subsumed to some group’s view of greater good and “the bigger picture” of power. The colonial period which afflicted Africa for so many centuries was characterised by the European powers believing that the benefits to their societies arising from access to resources or relative geopolitical advantage justified the oppression and destruction of the native populations. The story of Namibia, which was one that I had, to my shame, not know much about before this trip is one of the most sad and extreme examples of this theme.
A carving of a Kalahari bushman
Ancient dunes stretching to the horizon
Namibia is a fiercely beautiful country on the south western coast of the continent between South Africa and Angola. It is characterised by dense coastal fogs which cling to the Atlantic coast and a broad strip of immense prehistoric dunes which stretch in spectacular linear formations from the arid and aptly named Skeleton Coast to the marginally more fertile regions within. It was this apparent and real inhospitality which rendered the region one of the last to be subject to colonial exploitation, with Dutch, Portuguese and English explorers and settlers preferring to sail on past in search of more attractive locations and access points to Africa. By a historic chance therefore, when in the latter part of the 19th Century the rising German state sought belatedly to join the race for Africa, Namibia was an open space on the map. The Germans only formally recognised their “protection” of the country in 1884 and they were stripped of the colony in the Treaty of Versailles just 34 years later. In that short intervening period they had managed to exterminate some 80% of the indigenous population, especially the members of the Herero and Nama tribes who inhabited the north and south of the country respectively.
An acacia “forest” in Namibrand Park
The Kaiser’s Holocaust reminds us of a forgotten history
While in Namibia I read a particularly fascinating book called “The Kaiser’s Holocaust” which told the story of the occupation and its dreadful, and somewhat forgotten path. As recounted by the authors Casper Erichsen and David Olusoga, it also turns out that many of philosophies which were to underpin the later Third Reich, from genetic racism, Aryan supremacy to the imperative of seeking “lebensraum” were initially developed and trialled in the colony. Between 1904 and 1909 vast numbers of local people were forced into labour and “concentration” camps, modelled on the first such establishments developed by the British over the border in South Africa just a few years earlier in the Boer War. Aside from the eerie resonances of the systematic eradication of the local peoples and the later Jewish and Eastern European holocaust, the book also traces how many of those involved in the atrocities went on to be the leaders of the Nazi party. It is especially chilling to read that Herman Goering’s father was the first Governor of Namibia. After WWI, the hapless country was passed by the global powers in to the hands of South Africa, where it continued to be exploited by wealthy landowners and those keen to exploit its diamond wealth. It became a proving ground for the worst excesses of apartheit and found itself a bargaining chip in the regional conflicts of the 1960’s between South Africa, Angola and the Cold War powers. As a result, it was one of the last countries to gain independence, only achieving this as recently as 1990…and it took until 2004 for the German state to apologise for this forgotten tragedy.
The statue of Curt von Francois – one of the most aggressive of the first German colonial military leaders still stands in Windhoek
Landscape en route from Windhoek to Sossusvlei
Discovering this unknown history was a bi-product of a fascinating trip to an amazing part of the world which is now characterised by an emergent sense of independent pride and sustained democracy. It has a tourist industry which remains in the early stages of development and yet enjoys the relative sophistication of proximity to South Africa. The main attractions of the country are its spectacular landscapes and dramatic arid panoramas, as well as a particular blend of wildlife safari built around the flora and fauna which is able to thrive in such conditions. We had a brief ten-day visit to the country arranged at short notice to fill a gap in my dairy where I had pencilled “Go Somewhere Interesting”! We landed at Windhoek airport on a BA flight via Johannesburg and were immediately whisked south west to the dune region of Sossusvlei in a tiny plane which, to Sandy’s evident concern, bounced up and down in the thermals we encountered en route. Beneath us the scenery was remarkable both for its variety and its vibrant colours. Shades of ochre, yellow, burnt umber and red flowed across the dried up river beds, broad rocky valleys and towering volcanic piles. Over a near two hour flight we saw almost no signs of human habitation other than the dry lines of dirt tracks criss-crossing the deserts and plains below.
The volcanic mountains rising from the edge of the Namib desert
It was therefore all the more surprising to find ourselves in the relative luxury of the Kulala Desert Lodge a few miles from a desolate desert airstrip, and just a couple of hours later to be sampling the first of what became a nightly ritual of “sundowner” gin and tonics in a succession of dramatic locations. The lodge lies at the entrance to the Sossusvlei National park which is home to the amazing ancient dunes for which the country is famous. These towering structures were formed millennia ago by sands originally washed down from the Kalahari and then piled back up by the relentless lashing of the Atlantic Ocean. We set out for an early morning drive to see the sunrise catch the perfectly etched curves and slopes of the dune fields. Before it could get too hot, we joined other tourists to climb the famous Dune 45 which rises above the plain with a great arched back to provide spectacular views back over rippling sandscape.
The view from the summit of Dune 45
Travellers climbing Dune 45
It was then on to the surreal ancient tree “cemetery” of the Death Vlei. The blackened fingers of the infeasibly old trees are picked out against the tan and red of a “lake” of sand and surrounding dunes. Many of the trees are older than the millennium and have been dead for 300 years and yet you can still touch their crusty barks! The following day we travelled out to the Sesriem canyon which is the product of the very occasional rainfall in the region, when huge torrents of water crash through the landscape scouring ever deeper crevices in the pebble stones, sand and volcanic rock. In fact it has not rained in this part of Namibia (nor indeed much of the country) for the past three years and these extended draughts are part of the normal rhythm of the seasons (albeit probably recently exacerbated by climate change).
The ancient forest of Deadvlei
Spectacular view from Wolwedans Camp
For all its remote beauty it is relatively easy to get about in the country and we were driven for few hours south to the Namibrand National Park which clings to the side of the desert and dune region. Our camp at Wolwedans Dune Camp was made up of ten luxury raised tents perched on the lip of an ancient dune and looking out over a quite remarkable landscape of shimmering silver grasses, russet sands and craggy mountains. Herds of oryx, the national animal of Namibia, were clustered around the waterhole below the camp and we were treated to the first of several outstanding meals around the communal table.
The ostrich grass in Namibrand National Park
The safaris from this camp were as much about the views as the wildlife. Nonetheless we learnt a lot about the desert-adapted zebras, sand squirrels and herds of water buck and antelope which range across the vast panoramic landscapes. Here the ancient acacia “forest” is still alive and the gnarled trunks sit under green canopies which provide shade and food the oryx. A unique part of this stay was the evening walk conducted by two Kalahari bushmen who delighted in explaining the difference between male and female oryx droppings, the footprints of various bugs and lizards skittering across the sand and the techniques used by their tribes to eke out a living in such an inhospitable terrain.
Our bushmen guides click their way to another tale about dung or bugs!
All of this was conducted in a combination of English and the local “click” language with some extravagant histrionics which the RSC would have been proud of! Namibia, due to its limited population and industry is one of the parts of the world which experiences the least light pollution and we were treated to very special personal night sky exposition by an amateur astronomer from Belgium who happened to share our visit to the camp. The ability to see the Magellan nebula with the naked eye and hone in on double stars and black holes while sitting out on the edge of the desert was very special, as was the chance to catch Venus, Mars and Saturn all in a line in the early morning sky, just before the sunrise streamed through the entrance of our tent.
Desert zebras in Namibrand
Cloud patterns over the dunes on the way to Damaraland
We moved on from this unique and little-visited location to catch a scenic flight from Sossusvlei northwards up to Damaraland, taking in the Skeleton Coast. We took off over the almost unreal carpet of undulating crimson sand stretching to the horizon and could look down upon the small groups of climbers picked out through their shadows on the spines of the dunes below. It was very easy to see how the serried ranks of dunes stretched over some 150km had been created over the millennia from the westerly winds. As we neared the coast, our South African pilot delighted in swooping low (about 500ft!) over the rusting hulks of shipwrecks and the huge colonies of seals and sealions which cluster on the beaches, and tilting the plane just enough to make the stall alarms go off!
A wreck on the Skeleton Coast
The bizarre mineral colours of the landscape near Damaraland
As with our previous flight, every ten minutes the nature of the country below changed completely. We moved from the dunes and crystalline breakers to witness the perenniel fog which sits over the towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. Next we were peering across canyons to the Brandberg Mountain, the highest in the country, and then onto weird yellow rivers in a soup of chemical stone and sand colours. Ribs of volcanic rock marched across the landscape scored by winding riverbeds that looked like they had not seen water for a very long time. Soon, much to Sandy’s relief, we were bumping to a stop on the tiny airstrip at Damaraland.
Serenaded by the staff team at Damaraland Desert Camp
The welcome from the staff at our next camp was very special as we were serenaded by the whole team – a pattern which was repeated at virtually every meal and at our departure! A highlight of the first day in the somewhat bleak environment of Damaraland was an evening nature walk which took in the various exotic trees and bushes which have evolved to survive in such a desolate environment, including the deadly species of enormous euphorbia whose latex can kill at a single squirt!. Dinner took place around a raging campfire in the special native encampment alongside the camp ringed with stakes and accompanied by more singing. Breakfast was served at sunrise on a table perched on a hilltop with views down over a spreading plain before setting off on a very special safari ride.
Our guide points to the deadly euphorbia – from a distance!
One of the desert-adapted elephants in Damaraland
The object of the trip was to find the rare desert-adapted elephants which live in the area. We found the herd on the edge of the plain dismantling the scrub-like acacia trees and using their unique forelegs, adapted to walk in the sand. We spent well over an hour watching and following the awesome progress of the herd, which included several youngsters as they finished their lunch and moved on, in a stately procession, to a waterhole in a local tribal village.
The desperately poverty-stricken village on the edge of the Damaraland park
We visited this village again later in the afternoon to meet some of its (few) inhabitants. The poverty and desperation of the community was a great as many of the worst examples I have seen over the last five years in my role overseeing UK aid in Africa. This group had been forceably moved by the South African government from their homes in the fertile northern part of that country as recently as the 1970s as part of the aggressive apartheit policy. All the potential agricutural land in the then colony of Namibia had been parcelled out to South African landowners, leaving only this kind of arid marginal existence left. Some forty years later the last remnants of this group were still scratching out a living from a few goats, scraggy cattle and a relationship with the safari camp.
The elephants troop in a line to the waterhole
Stone carvings at Twyfelfontein
The last part of our adventure saw us taking to the road in a bold self-drive trip in robust Ford 4×4 from Damaraland to the Erindi Nature Reserve, in the Central Highlands north of Windhoek. Over the course of the near seven hour journey on dusty gravel roads we must have seen barely ten other vehicles. We passed through dramatic rock piles and vast farm estates, with only a few small townships to mark our progress. We paused en route to take in the prehistoric rock carvings at Twyfelfontein where ancient bushmen had created pictures of their prey and provided guides to the tracks of different species and the location of waterholes.
An elephant meets a crocodile outside our lodge window in Erindi
The Erindi Nature Reserve is a private reserve, once again owned by a South African, which covers some 70,000 hectares containing some 15,000 animals collected from across the country. It did feel a bit of cheat when we looked out from our luxury lodge over a landscape filled with giraffes nibbling acacia trees, hippos wallowing in the mud and elephants at play. This feeling was sharpened when a truck pulled up on the waterhole bank opposite the bar and dumped a dead wildebeest to entertain a pack of wild dogs, which proceeded to tear it to pieces as we ate our own (excellent) dinner!
Sharing our evening meal with that being enjoyed by a pack of wild dogs!
A baby giraffe suckling in the Erindi Reserve
A lioness fresh from the kill
Nonetheless, our safari trips from the camp were fun and we saw a huge range of animals including antelopes of all sizes and species, crocodiles, bat-eared foxes, countless giraffes and ostriches and even a single elusive rhino. The highlight was definitely a male lion and two females fresh from a wildebeest kill – and this time it was for real, as proved by the scars on the lioness which had brought down the hapless klll. The guides were very knowledgeable and the opportunities for pictures were amazing. We had chosen to go to Namibia because we thought it would be “somewhere interesting” and it more than lived up to our expectations.
Antelope at the waterhole
The male lion fresh from enjoying the meal caught by his wife!
Standing by one of the giant termite hills in Erindi
Deer in the headlights of the safari truck!
Traditional Namibian tribal art
We took some 3,000 photographs between us over ten days – fortunately now edited down! This is a country which deserves a break and which seems to be emerging from its dreadful century in relatively good shape. The people are proud and happy that they have, to date, been able to chart a relatively stable democratic path. The iniquities left over from the colonial phase are still evident however and it will be important to see how much of growing tourist potential ends up in the hands of the Namibians as opposed to the foreign landowners.
Giraffe in the sunset at Erindi
Autumn in Luxembourg – a gentile city in the heart of Europe
While in Erindi we heard the news of the Paris atrocities and the realities of a febrile international environment hit home. Over the course of a month the context of that other desert conflict, surrounding Syria and ISIL, has been turned on its head by the downing of the Russian airliner and the attacks in France. The pressure to “do something” is mounting and there are signs of a slightly more integrated international response with the passing of the Security Council resolution. The truth remains though that the means to defeating Islamic State on the ground are less clear and the important factor of a non-western led ground force with a coherent end game seems a long way off. Meanwhile sadly the kind of horrors which were handed out to the native Namibians a century ago are being experienced across Syria and have found themselves to the streets of a major European capital.
Dramatic scenes at the Clarkson, Hammond and May show at the O2
Even before the Bataclan attack I was struck in a visit to Luxembourg for the Atento Board meeting by the huge presence of police and troops around the European Parliament – this is clearly going to be a new normal. That said, Alex attended the England vs France football game at Wembley just days after the attack and spoke movingly of the spine-tingling sense of unity and resilience as the crowd of some 90,000 sang the Marseilles! Aside from the Atento Board, I attended my first meeting of the Cranleigh School Governing Body, where my long time colleague Adrian Lajtha was voted in as the Chairman-elect, and a fascinating briefing session with the nutrition team at the Childrens Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). My activities this month also included an invitation to the Justinians Dinner for senior lawyers in the City with my friend Margaret Chamberlain – where the highlight is the ceremonial passing round and eating of a giant cheese souffle!
Wintry tides rush in during a trip to Croyde
Other less cerebral entertainment this month included two trips to the O2 – one to take in the Las Vegas band Imagine Dragons and another to watch Clarkson, Hammond and May in their post-Top Gear live show! Matt has completed his final month with Accenture in Milan and travelled out to Verona and Como, as well as being invited to watch AC Milan play at the San Siro. Meanwhile Alex has been juggling his studies in Bath with the various celebrations for his girlfriend Katie’s 21st birthday. So a month of real highs and lows ends with a hope for calm heads to prevail as we head into the season of peace and goodwill to all men!