Day 646 – 6 December, 2016
A rusty squeaking bicycle. A polished marble countertop. Barefoot dusty children. White-haired European retirees with little dogs and designer handbags. Corrugated metal siding with peeling paint built as a temporary dwelling. Three story million dollar homes with manicured lawns and ocean views. Swakopmund is a living breathing oxymoron if there ever was one. A city on the coast, Swakopmund boasts wild beauty where the desert meets the ocean. Its temperate weather with dense fog keeps the temperatures bearable year round and in turn, it attracts international tourists and ex-pats who have invested in their second or third homes here. Boutiques selling curios, a German bakery, and modern eateries with a sushi menu or a selection of game meat, like springbok and kudu, line the main street. Outside of town, Swakopmund is surrounded by Mondesa, a township established about 60 years ago to provide a place for black Namibians to build a community of their own. The dirt roads and shacks, the improvised restaurants and beat-up aging cars are clustered into a haphazard pulsing and vibrant neighborhood. The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots is unapologetically bold and seemingly tolerated.
What I found most interesting is the abandonment. I visited in early December and I was assured by several locals that the Christmas and New Year’s holidays bring holiday makers from near and far. However, from my early December vantage point, I saw emptiness. The mansions were vacant except for the gardeners. The boutiques were closed. The beach too was empty, the beach umbrellas idle. I had a sushi dinner in a beach front restaurant as the only patron and I was attended to by three white-gloved servers out of sheer boredom. By contrast, a short drive through Mondesa demonstrated a city thriving from its own commerce and unorthodox business practice. People everywhere that seemed oblivious to the quiet city nearby. It might as well be another planet.
After a sad departure from N/a’an ku se, I piled into a cramped minivan with 12 other passengers en route from Windhoek to Swakopmund. I wanted to do something big, something to ease the emptiness of leaving those wild creatures behind. That’s not the real reason I jumped out of a plane; I jumped out of a plane because it’s awesome, although it certainly was a pleasant distraction. I skydived for the first time about 9 years earlier in New Zealand, on my first solo trip. It had been a bit spontaneous at the time, but I remember feeling the sheer exhilaration of the wind hitting my face and the backflip in my gut. I knew then that I would skydive again, but I had spent the last nine years looking for the perfect place to do it. A raw expanse of desert bleeding into the ocean sounded about right.
The small prop plane, able to hold no more than six passengers, was tucked away inside the hangar. The anticipation radiating from the instruction room was palpable as all of the other “jumpers” were first-timers. My tandem instructor adjusted my safety equipment and I didn’t feel the slightest bit nervous. My memory served me well – I knew that the fear is more in your mind than the reality of actually voluntarily jumping out of a plane. I thought of all the other scary things I have done since my first jump…climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, running with a cheetah, quitting my job to travel the world. I tried to reassure the others, but mostly I let the adrenaline take hold and surrendered to my own excitement as we leveled off at 12,000 ft and my tandem instructor threw us out the door with a somersault spin.
Nothing much compares to it. You don’t feel like a bird as some people would have you believe; you feel more like a bullet, which makes it no less exciting by the way. Rocketing through the air at 125mph, the G-force contorting your face with grotesque design, the ground looks like an abstract impression rather than actual earth. And then it all comes to a rather abrupt and premature halt when the cord is pulled and a powerful silence envelops your air space while you float the rest of the way back to earth. My tandem instructor spun us around in wide heart-pounding arcs, enough to make someone with a weaker stomach lose their composure. I could make the whole adrenaline-infused experience into a metaphor for my decision to travel the world and the subsequent adventures, but I’ll leave it with the reality of what it actually was – rock solid adventure with stunning views.
I stayed in a hostel that was located on the very thin gray area between the two worlds. I was told by the white owners to only walk toward the city and to leave all my valuables locked in my room. The black staff members assured me that everywhere in Swakopmund is perfectly safe, even at night. This contradiction was repeated time and again during my time in southern Africa. By pure coincidence, I had arrived with Antonia, another volunteer from N/a’an ku se. We had been booked on the same shuttle from Windhoek and she had delivered my sleeping bag that I had left at the sanctuary. I hadn’t known her while I was there, but it was reassuring to have a fellow volunteer nearby as we recounted our unbelievable wildlife encounters and our sadness at leaving it behind.
The next day Antonia and I decided to hire a guide to drive us up the Skeleton Coast, famous for eerie shipwrecks and deserted beaches. Ironically, our guide, Jack, was an American from California, who had settled in Namibia after marrying a local woman during his own extended travels 15 years earlier. He drove us past flamingos wading in the salt pans, a relatively recent shipwreck pounded by foaming waves, and a mountain range blanketed with lichen to the Cape Cross Seal Reserve at the northernmost point of our journey.
It was birthing season at the seal colony and while the seals are generally docile and accustomed to camera-wielding tourists, a few thousand tiny baby seals that need protecting are enough to turn a few thousand angry mothers into dangerous beasts. Before we even left the truck, you could hear the honking bellows of the mothers trying to locate their babies. The seal colony typically organizes itself into crushes, where one mother will “babysit” while the other mothers will swim and hunt for fish, so when they return, they use their unique call to locate their young. Sadly, during the separation many wander off or are crushed in the melee or are just hopelessly misdirected in the commotion.
Secondly, but not any less aggressive, we were overwhelmed by the smell. When countless newborn seals have died in the battle of survival of the fittest and their lifeless bodies decompose on the beach for weeks at a time, the stench is unforgettable. It’s as if you poured a glass of milk on top of raw beef and slipped it under the cushion of your sofa for a few weeks. It’s like that, only 100 times worse. In fact, when I returned later that day, I couldn’t escape the smell even after changing my clothes. This is when I realized the smell had saturated my hair and my skin and was only washed away after intense scrubbing in the shower.
Nevertheless, we cautiously approached the colony, keeping our heads on a swivel for fear that we would somehow walk between females and pups. The viewing boardwalk was guarded by a few feisty mommas and Jack instructed us to hop onto the railing to hopefully slip by out of reach, narrowly missing the mock charges launched by one. Several pups, with their poor eyesight, were wandering away from the colony, into the desert. These were likely to become a hearty meal for a jackal. Others followed our shadowy shapes, unable to see clearly that we were not their mothers. It was a sad and beautiful phenomenon that only a few of these babies were destined to make it past their first birthdays.
Returning back to Swakopmund along the desolate dirt road by which way we had come, Jack was enthusiastic to show us a red and green lichen pathway and an aqua salt pan. He drove off road for a few hundred meters and we continued on foot for a few hundred more, admiring our absolute isolation. It was a short hike with otherworldly views, but when it was time to return to the truck, it didn’t take a keen eye to see that we had desperately sunk into the soft sand. I’m sure Jack was sizing up Antonia and I as he calculated how far we were from the road and the remaining distance to civilization. For lack of better options and with insincere full confidence, he told us we should push while he would try to drive us out of the sand. It really is quite unsatisfactory to push until your face turns a crimson red while your feet are sliding backward in the gravel, but push we did…..and push and push and push. We used rocks as levers, dug some of the sand out of the way, and pushed again. Finally, little by little we felt the truck shift forward and we were out! There was no time to celebrate, though. Jack had his window down and was hollering for us to jump in. He was afraid to stop for fear we would get stuck again so Antonia and I had to do a running catapult back into the truck before we were truly on our way. Never a dull moment on this crazy adventure!