Time Out in Africa: Part 12

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Time out graphic by Wotchit

This trip stems from a promise that El (my better half) and I had made to ourselves - when her exams were over we would take off for a while, travel the world, have a little fun. The aim was to do a wide variety of stuff – some touristy things, some mountains, see some friends and family. Most of this journal dates from notes I took in the evening - I have allowed hindsight to creep in in some places though...

Day 44 – Swakopmund and Mondesa – No Mopane, no gain...

We start by ambling round the shops a bit. Kudu and seal leather goods seem a popular option as do jewellry places and the usual afrotat goods. We visit all of the gem shops as we narrow down what El would like for her engagement ring. By the end of the day we know we're looking for a very blue tourmaline, either oval or rectangular, but can we find it?

Then it's time for our next cultural tour of Mondesa township and the DRC – ostensibly the Democratic Resettlement Community but in reality named after the other DRC, the Congo, as this was in the news for all the wrong reasons when the settlement was being founded. Mondesa was founded in the sixties, after the authorities moved all the black people out of Swakopmund. In a typical example of apartheid perversity, not only could black people not live in town, they also had to live separated by tribe. Some tribes were given advantages, others not - divide and rule at its finest.

We meet the oldest Damara lady in Mondesa – 78 years old, and as is traditional, looking after some of her grandchildren. She talks a bit about traditional food and ceremonies before the guide takes us to his house. It's made in corrugated iron and it must be possible to cook an egg on the table inside it in the summer. When there are sandstorms, the sand falls down inside. But it's not all bad. As our guide smilingly explains, the shack is 100% rainproof – because it never rains here.

Next on the programme is a discussion with a Herero lady. The Herero were a veritable thorn in the side of the German occupiers, who in response tried essentially to exterminate them (currently the subject of a claim against the German government in a New York court). She is very imposing – 'traditionally built' with wide petticoats accentuating her frame and wearing tribal headgear, a headscarf folded in the shape of cow horns, symbolising the importance of cattle to the Herero. When she explains the meaning of the hat, one of the Spanish guys we're with thinks she's taking the piss and asks her if it is a joke... Uh uh, deadly serious. She doesn't take it badly.

In general Mondesa seems a long way up the scale from the Cape Flats. The streets are wider, the houses are bigger, the street lighting is better and the township is a lot closer to town. The DRC is not great though. Swakopmund, like more or less the whole of Namibia, has a distinct water shortage problem, and the inhabitants of the DRC get their water through an ingenious if somewhat merciless system. They insert a key card into a tap. If there's money left on the card, then the tap gives them a bucket full of water. If not, nothing. In fact as nothing is rarely a good option when you're thirsty, they go to the cemetery where free, if illegal, water is available. We meet a local DRC painter, Ernest and his wife, Elsie. He has decorated their whole house with recycled bits and bobs and also does a nice line in hand painted T shirts, although he only has kid's sizes when we visit.

The tour finishes with lunch – wild spinach, beans, local nuts and dry fruits, maize patties and beer and mopane worms... These are not worms in fact, but caterpillars that live on the mopane tree, fried whole. They are like a very chewy dried apricot in texture, with a faint aftertaste of seafood. It needs chewing for a good 30 seconds before being swallowed, which is about 25 seconds longer than is pleasant, so I decide that one is enough. One of the Spanish guys, displaying fortitude beyond the call of duty, eats handfuls and proclaims them very tasty. But he is from Barcelona. El opts for the opposite tack of not trying them at all – she's noticed that they have still got their heads and legs on, and is fearful of making an impolite grimace and having to gob it somewhere.

Day 45 – The Namib Desert

The weather is perfect as Heinz, our elderly German guide, picks us up for a trip into the desert in his second hand Japanese van. Things to look at include what the brochure calls the lunar landscape – quartz sand, dolerite intrusions looking like walls or paths as they occupy the tops of ridges. Also welwitschia plants, some of them more than a thousand years old. Not what you would call beautiful, but certainly tough.

Any number of well-adapted plants have found their ecological niche in the desert. When it rains properly, as it last did a couple of years ago, the whole place comes alive, profiting from the rare access to moisture.

Perhaps the strangest site of the day is the golf course, perfectly green greens like some sort of desert mirage. It's the town's sewage water that keeps them green, although this is still a strange use for such a precious commodity in my book.

Last halt is the dunes, 90m high in rich golden and red hues. The sand is heated to the ideal temperature for lazing in, although where there are a lot of iron deposits the sand is black and a little too hot for bare feet.

In the evening we have an interesting political discussion with the owner of the hostel on inequalities between the west and Africa. He feels that movements such as Al Quaeda are more symptoms of combats between rich and poor than terrorism as such, and compares the current world trade system to apartheid – the majority being exploited for the benefit of a minority. We also talk about, and disagree on, the wisdom of the UK approach to the Zimbabwe crisis.

We go to bed to the sound of the horn of the desert train, carrying far into the night before it sets off across the arid terrain to Windhoek. It has a mournful sound to it, something of regret but also something of adventure.

Day 46 Swakopmund to Windhoek

As always, countryside that was fascinating the first time we saw it becomes deadly dull as we pass through a second time on our way back to the capital. In addition, the bus is full and we're jammed in. Still it gets us back for a small sum of cash, and we head straight out for what proves to be the final gem shop. The one advantage of having been to every jeweller in Swakopmund is that when El sees the blue oval tourmaline again, she knows that it's what she wants. The charming chap offers us a nice price and the deal is done.

Time Out in Africa



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