Along the Dordogne River Valley – Life in the Past Lane

Along the Dordogne River Valley – Life in the Past Lane

Helen of Troy may have been the cause of a decade-long war and the launch of a thousand ships, but Eleanor of Aquitaine did her one better. Her own complicated matrimonial saga started a 300-year conflict between France and England, triggered a boom in fortress building and culminated in the Hundred Years’ War. Actually the war in question lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453, but let’s not quibble.

The Most Desirable Heiress of her Time

Dordogne-Castle.

Medieval castles punctuate the landscape of the Dordogne.

The trouble started in April 1137, when William X, Duke of Aquitaine, died leaving his eldest daughter, 15 year old Eleanor the most eligible heiress in Europe. The new Duchess’s lands, all of southwestern France, represented the largest and richest province of the country (almost one third of today’s France). In days when kidnapping an heiress was considered a viable option to secure a title, her father had had the foresight to appoint none other than the King of France as her guardian until a suitable suitor came along. However, Louis VI, already with one foot in the grave himself, thought it far more expeditious to bring Aquitaine under the French crown by marrying off Eleanor to his 17-year old heir, Prince Louis. A tidy solution that greatly increased the power of France and its ruling family. The wedding took place in July, followed within two weeks by the death of the king.

Dordogne-Laussel

Although in disrepair, the Chateau de Laussel continues to cut an imposing figure.

By all accounts, the young Louis VII was smitten with is new bride. She apparently was less enthusiastic. It took her 15 years, but she ultimately managed to get her marriage annulled by the pope in March 1152. Within 10 weeks she was remarried to Henri II, the soon to be King of England, bringing Aquitaine to the English crown in the process. And that’s when the mayhem really began.

Memories of a Turbulent Past

Dordogne-Beynac-et-Cazenac.

Clustered under its twelfth century fortress, the village of Beynac-et-Cazenac still thrives.

The French side may have shrugged off losing the Duchess, but the duchy was another story. On its eastern side the Perigord Noir, an exceptionally scenic area of rocky cliffs covered with forests of dark oaks at confluence of the Dordogne and the Vézère rivers, was especially contested. The Dordogne river became the border between the two enemy lines, causing both sides to build countless fortified castles, monasteries and bastides (walled villages) facing each other on both banks of the river. Many of them are still standing today, and most are beautifully maintained, making for stunning vistas and lots of impromptu photo stops. So dense are the touristic riches of the area that it would take a lengthy stay to do more than scratch the surface. Here is just a sampling of my favorite “must-sees.”

A Bastide in the Sky

Dordogne-Domme

The bastide de Domme has retained all its medieval charm.

Founded in 1283 on a high rocky outcrop overlooking the Dordogne, Domme is a bastide remarkable not only for the breathtaking 180 degree view of the valley from its vast terraced belvedere, but also for its intact yellow sandstone fortifications. The only entrance into the village is through a large fortified gate flanked by two imposing towers at the bottom of the central street. In addition to their protective purpose, the towers once served as prisons, and you can still see the religious symbols scratched in the stone by the Templars that were incarcerated there during the fourteenth century. At the top of the village, near the original covered market hall with its impressive carpentry roof supported by stone pillars, a discrete entrance leads into a network of caves beneath the village. These have been used as hideouts throughout eight hundred years of conflicts, most recently during World War II.

A Gem on the River

Dordogne-Roque Gageac pano.

The remains of the original cave fortress overhang the village.

Wedged against a high cliff overhanging a sundrenched curve of the north bank of the Dordogne, La Roque-Gageac is a photographer’s delight. Although sitting on a site believed to have been occupied since prehistoric times, its documented existence traces back to the mid-ninth century, when Vikings were sailing their longboats up the river with raiding on their mind. For the first few centuries of its existence, La Roque-Gageac was a troglodyte fortress, set in caves some 40 meters (130 feet) above the river, the remains of which can still be seen above the village today. It was not until the end of the Hundred Years’ War that the “Laroquois,” as its residents are called, felt safe enough to move down to the lovely Renaissance homes that we see today, lining the riverbank and the narrow footpaths climbing to the base of the cliff.

Dordogne-Roque-Gageac River.

La Roque-Gageac is at its most striking viewed from the river.

By then the Dordogne was plied by gabarres, the traditional flat-bottom barges that transported cargo down the river to Bordeaux until the arrival of the railroad put them out of business at the end of the nineteenth century. Today, the gabarres sail once more, taking tourists on a relaxed one-hour, seven-kilometer (4.5 mile) cruise downriver to the Castelnaud Bridge, at the base of the eponymous twelfth century fortress. It is the best way to see the village (and the castle). If you prefer to do your own paddling, there are kayaks for rent on the riverbank.

A Medieval Showcase

Sarlat-Gisson Manoir

The Manoir de Gisson, built for a family merchants, dominates the market square.

The most famous town in Perigord Noir, Sarlat-la-Canéda, or just plain Sarlat, is recognized as one of the most attractive medieval towns in France. Its traceable past began in the ninth century with the creation of a Benedictine abbey. As the abbey grew, so did the town around it, to become a wealthy local center of commerce. Many of the grand medieval houses we see today were built by rich merchants of that time. Unfortunately, like most of the region, Sarlat was brought to its knees by the Hundred Years’ War, and didn’t begin to rise again until the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Sarlat-Boetie

The birthplace and residence of native son Étienne de La Boétie, a revered fifteenth century writer and philosopher.

Another period of prosperity ensued, to which we owe the Renaissance gems of the city. Then came the Wars of Religion, and another thirty years of chaos and ruin. However, firmly Catholic Sarlat ended up on the winning side. The city, now a bishopric, was once again firmly established. Until the Revolution reshuffled the cards once more. Stripped of its religious importance and far removed from the main centers of powers, the city withered away, a forgotten backwater town until the second half of the twentieth century. A lucky turn of fate, as its isolation protected its historic center from the desecrations inflicted in the name of modernization on more prosperous town in the decades immediately following World War II. More recently, the importance of Sarlat’s cultural heritage recognized, sufficient funding was allocated to undertake an extensive program of restoration. The town center is now also listed as a protected area to restrict future development.

Sarlat-Market.

To this day, Sarlat remains the market hub of the Perigord Noir.

Beyond its return to its Medieval and Renaissance glory, the greatest charm of Sarlat is that, far from becoming a “museum city,” it remains a vibrant, lived-in place, and the thriving market town of its distant past. In addition to the weekly all-products market that fills its city center every Saturday, there is the twice-weekly food market (Wednesday and Saturday) and the traditional truffles and foie gras markets throughout the winter months. Meanwhile, during the warmer months, after the busses of day-trippers have moved on, the city slows down and the terraces of the old town fill up with resident taking in the atmosphere of another era while enjoying the duck confits, truffled foie gras salads and other traditional culinary delights of the region. Although the city can be explored in a few hours, it is worth planning to stay a day or two just to enjoy a rare moment of life in the past lane.

From its vast terraced belvedere, Domme offers a breathtaking view of the Dordogne Valley.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Sarlat is located 5.5 hours by car southwest of Paris 2.5 hours northeast of Bordeaux and 2.5 hours North of Toulouse. Nearest commercial airports are Brive Vallee Dordogne Airport 55 minutes northeast and Bergerac Dordogne Perigord Airport, 1.30 hour west of Sarlat.
  • Getting AroundAll these and more remarkable sites are within a 10-kilometer radius of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Dordogne Valley. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel in for its bucolic setting and superb gourmet restaurant in Condat-sur-Vézère.

Location, location, location!

Sarlat

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

On a September afternoon of 1940 in a quiet corner of the Dordogne in southwestern France, four teenagers were walking into the forest above the village of Montignac when their dog vanished into a hole. They crawled in to the rescue and stumbled upon one of the richest Stone Age art galleries in the world.

FR-Lascaux Bull.

The iconic Lascaux bulls.

La Grotte de Lascaux, or simply Lascaux as it is commonly known, is a network of limestone caves located high above the Vézère River valley. Over 600 paintings decorate its interior walls and ceiling. The polychrome images in vivid black, brown, red, yellow and white, are estimated to date back between 17,000 and 20,000 years. They represent mainly large mammals known through fossil records to have been native to the area at the time. Beyond their numbers, scale and age, it is their exceptional quality and sophistication that make them one of the greatest treasure trove of Paleolithic art ever discovered.

Patrimony in Peril

FR-Lascaux Chinese Horse.

The “Chinese” horse.

Lascaux opened to the public in 1948 and soon more than 1,000 visitors a day came to see the Stone Age pictures that changed the way we think about our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Within a few years, the paintings, which had remained in pristine condition for millennia in a cave sealed by the formation of a protective layer of clay in the soil, began to deteriorate. To stop the damage from the carbon dioxide and the rise in humidity generated by the presence of visitors, the cave was permanently closed in 1963.

FR-Lascaux red-black horse

The great black and red horse.

Conscious of the significance of Lascaux, the French Ministry of Culture funded the creation of an exact replica of the main areas of the cave, the Hall of Bulls and the Axial Recess, which together contain a majority of the artwork at the site. This Lascaux II, built on the same hill and only 200 meters (650 feet) away from the original cave opened in 1983. Since then, it has received over 10 million visitors. But in time, there began to be signs that the traffic of too many visitors on top of the hill was affecting the original cave.

Meanwhile, a traveling exhibit dubbed Lascaux III, consisting of five life-size panels of images not included in Lascaux II as well as a virtual tour of the entire cave, has been seen in a number of European, North American and Asian destinations since 2012.

The Birth of Lascaux IV

It was in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the cave’s discovery, that the International Center of Rock Wall Art of Montignac-Lascaux project was announced. Its mission was to give better public access to the treasures of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site and foster a better understanding of the history and meaning of Paleolithic cave art. A design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. The proposal of Norwegian architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a founding principal of Oslo-based Snøhetta design studio, was selected from a field of 80 entries from all over the world.

FR-Lascaux IV.

The International Center of Rock Wall Art, a.k.a Lascaux IV.  in Montignac, Dordogne.

His sprawling concrete and glass structure is unobtrusively wedged into the base of the forested hill that contains both the original cave and its Lascaux II replica. Its design evokes a futuristic version of the rock shelters found throughout the Dordogne region.

The Lascaux IV Experience

FR-Lascaux Hall of Bulls.

The Hall of the Bulls.

Beyond the vast central reception area, the guided visit follows a thoughtfully choreographed itinerary, starting with a glass elevator ride to the Belvedere rooftop. From there, the view of the Vézère River valley and the village of Montignac is what the four boys would have seen on that long ago September afternoon. And in case we fail to make the connection, a discrete sound track in the woods evokes their presence and that of their adventurous canine companion. Then it’s down the slight incline of a canyon-like corridor open to the sky, into a dark projection space where a short film takes us back to the Magdalenian period (17,000 to 12,000 years ago) with its tundra landscape, woolly rhinos, bison, lions and Cro-Magnon men. Another brief walk outside and we reenter the building. Suddenly, we are in the cave, right at the boulder where the original exploration began.

FR-Lascaux stags.

The stags sport spectacular antlers.

A moment later, we arrive at the Hall of the Bulls. Although I have seen many reproductions over the years, the in-situ sight of the massive beasts in motion leaves me breathless. The cool temperature, the subdued lighting that hints at the flicker of oil lamps, the faintly stale cave smell, the muffled sounds, everything “feels right.” To allow full focus on the experience, digital devices don’t work in the cave, and photography is strictly prohibited.

As I go further into the tunnels, more animal figures keep coming at me, beautifully detailed stags with their elaborate antlers, galloping horses, fighting ibex and bison shedding their winter coat. As the passage narrows and its ceiling lowers, I find myself closer to red and black cows and polychrome horses. Their proximity makes it easier to spot how the original artists incorporated the faintest relief in the rock into their work.

Stone Age Art in Today’s World

FR-Lascaux falling horse.

The falling horse.

The entire cave and its overwhelming paintings are reproduced down to millimeter accuracy. The latest advances in laser imaging technology, 3D digital scanning and printing enabled today’s artists to recreate every nook and cranny in minute detail. The use of polystyrene, resin and fiberglass “stone veil” coating recreated the walls and their covering, including the ubiquitous streaks of moonmilk and even the faint sparkle that still exist in places.

 

FR-Lascaux deers/

The herd of swimming deers

High definition images of the paintings were then projected onto this perfect Stone Age canvas and manually copied pixel by pixel. At the end of the passage known as the Axial Recess, I pass the famous painting of the falling horse, before looping back to a side passage with a herd of swimming deer on the right wall and two massive bison on the left. By the time I exit the cave, I am breathless with awe at the timeless power of the art within. Is this perfect duplicate any less powerful, less meaningful than the original? This is the source of much controversy, and ultimately a matter of personal opinion. For me, it evokes the same emotional reaction that expect I would I have experienced in the original.

FR-Lascaux Studio.

The cave’s major works are represented in life-size units hanging from the ceiling.

The guided tour ends as we exit the cave and enter the Lascaux Studio, a vast hall where all the  major works from the cave are represented in eight life-size units hanging from the ceiling. Some of the panels include ultraviolet demonstrations of prehistoric engraving and painting techniques. Here visitors are free to explore and snap pictures to their heart’s content. Guides remain on hand to answer any questions.

The Gallerly of Imagination

FR-Lascaux virtual reality.

Virtual reality stations are available to visitors.

Further along, virtual reality stations enable visitors to scan the surface of the model and view the works from various vantage points within the cave.

The last space is the Gallery of Imagination, a digital cave where 90 large floating touch-screens explore the connections between cave art and contemporary art.

 Good to Know

  • Getting There The Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art) in Montignac, Dordogne, France, which is home to Lascaux IV, is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux, (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).
  • VisitingLascaux IV is open daily throughout the year – Consult their website for opening hours, which vary with the seasons, and advanced tickets purchases (strongly recommended).
  • The entire Lascaux IV site is fully wheelchair accessible.
  • Lascaux was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 as part of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.
  • In addition to Lascaux IV, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen credits include the Oslo Opera House, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy range of the Lascaux site. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel for its bucolic setting, superb gourmet restaurant and close proximity (eight kilometers, i.e. five miles) via a scenic back road from Lascaux.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lascaux IV

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

After the featureless desolation of the Skeleton Coast, entering Damaraland feels like emerging onto another planet. Under an improbably vivid sky, a prehistoric landscape of massive conical granite kopjies and mountaintops flattened by an eternity of erosion rises from barren gravel plains to an endless horizon.

Life in the Desert

Damaraland-Kudus

Kudus manage to exist on the sparse vegetation.

Yet occasional patches of dusty vegetation hint at water somewhere below the parched ground. In a land that receives less than 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) of annual rainfall, and sometime none at all, camel thorn acacias outline the bed of an ephemeral river quickly absorbed into underground aquifers for storage. Beneath the trees, a family of kudus methodically munches on the sparse shrubbery. Further on, we come across clumps of euphorbia, their spindly grey stems toxic to all living things except oryx and rhinos. Then Jimmy Limbo, our outstanding Wilderness Safaris guide, points to something that has to be one of the most bizarre plants on the planet.

Damaraland-Welwitschia.

The welwitschia plant traces back to Jurassic times.

At first glance, it looks like an old tire blown to shreds, with rubbery red berries growing out of it. It’s the welwitschia, two strap-shaped leaves growing from a woody center (or caudex) to reach up to two meters (6.5 feet) in length. Like blades of grass, the leaves grow from the base, so that they can keep going even when their tip gets worn off. The oldest living specimens are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Long before the plant, which traces back to the Jurassic period and is endemic to Damaraland, was “discovered” in 1859 by Friedrich Welwitsch, it was known as onvanga (desert onion) to the Herero people.

Mountains of Burnished Gold

Namibia-Damaraland

The colossal sandstone ridges are ablaze in the setting sun.

We have been driving for a couple of hours, Jimmy unerringly stirring our custom-built land cruiser through the unchartered immensity of a scenery that keeps getting ever more dramatic. The setting sun is turning the mountains into a colossal backdrop of burnished gold by the time we reach our small, semi-permanent private camp of domed tents tucked within the spectacular boulders of a sandstone ridge. After dinner, a braai (southern African barbecue) under a canopy of stars, a spectacular full moon rises, as if on cue, over the ridge.

Damaraland-giraffe

Angola giraffes have adapated to the arid rockly terrain.

Morning comes early, and most of the day is spent bouncing on the back of the land cruiser, tracking rare desert-adapted elephants through an ever-changing scenery of rock and sand. Incredibly, this sun-baked land is able to sustain small populations of creatures who have adapted their life-style to survive in these almost waterless conditions. We sight small herds of springboks, oryx, ostriches and even the occasional zebra and giraffe, as well as desert squirrels and birds.

Damaraland-Desert squirrel.

The desert squirrel uses its bushy tail for shade.

 

The elephants, although they have left a number of clues of their recent passage, keep eluding us. These pachyderms, who can travel up to 70 kilometers (over 40 miles) per day in their quest for food and water, seem to have headed for the hills. But Jimmy will not be stymied. We follow their uphill tracks onto a rocky terrain that lends a whole new meaning to off-road driving, to the base of a ridge where we abandon the car. It’s on foot from here on. I stumble my way to the top in his wake.

Damaraland-Desert elephants.

Desert elephants are constantly on the move in seach of water.

By the time I have caught my breath, a small line of elephants are moving toward us on the path below, three adults and three calves in various stages of maturity, bronzed with desert dust. Even from up here, they appear visibly leaner that their brethrens of the savannah, and with longer, thinner legs that enable them to travel long distances to reach a water source. They browse sparingly, without tearing off the trees like elephants living in higher rainfall areas. From our perch, we observe them for some time in detail, until they continue on their ponderous way up and vanish over the opposite ridge.

An Uncertain Spring

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Valley.

The sandstone valley of Twyfelfontein holds one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Africa.

The next day, we visit Twyfelfontein (or Uncertain Spring in Afrikaans), so named by a settler, David Levine, who bough land there in 1948 in hope that the spring on the property would provide sufficient water for his family and livestock. Today, the name, along with a couple of crumbling walls from his tiny homestead, are all that remain from his twelve-year experiment.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein engravings.

The engravings include a diversity of animals and foot prints.

However, the Twyfelfontein valley, has been inhabited by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, the first Damara people, since approximately 6,000 years ago. Then 2,000 to 2,500 years ago came the Khoikhoi herders, an ethnic group related to the San (Bushmen). Both groups used the valley, then known under its Damara name of |Ui-||Aes (or jumping waterhole in Bushmen click language), as a place of worship to conduct their chamanist rituals. On the slopes of the sandstone table mountain that flanks the valley, these early Damara left us one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa. All are chiseled in exposed locations on the massive rock face of free-standing boulders. The Khoikhoi also produced some rock engravings that can be clearly differentiated from the earlier ones. In all, over 2500 engravings have been identified so far, making the valley one of the oldest and most important open-air art galleries in Africa. UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein a World Heritage Site in 2007.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Lion Man.

Twyfelfontein’s most intriguing figure is known as the Lion Man.

The images depict an astonishing diversity of animals, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, oryx , kudus, zebras and more, as well as foot prints. There are also a few instances of animals that do not occur in the area, such as seals and flamingos. Did some of these hunter-gatherers come from the coastal area more than 100 kilometers of arid desert away? Some graphics are also believed to be maps showing the location of waterholes. Originally, the theory was that people simply depicted what they saw around them and the game they hunted. Could they have also served an educational purpose? Today these engraving are thought to represent the transformation of humans into animals, an important aspect of the belief system and shamanist rituals of their authors.

One of the most notable is the Lion Man. This lion is represented with a prey in his mouth, five toes on each foot (whereas lions only have four), and a very tall tail that ends with a six-toed footprint. Could this deliberate combination of human and animal features indicate that this shaman has transform into a lion? All these unanswered questions only add to the magic of Twyfelfontein.

Damaraland-Vista

Prehistoric Damaraland vista.

Good to Know

  • Twyfelfontein is easily accessible by road. From the main (paved) road C39 betweem Sesfontein and Khorixas, take the secondary (gravel) road D3214 for approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the site. The visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, with last admission at 3:30 pm. The engravings can only be visited with a local guide following a predetermined itinerary. Admission is N$ 50, or approximately $ 4 US, guided tour included.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

The ocean mist that hovered over Swakopmund when we arrived yesterday has lifted this morning. The sun is shining over the quaint pseudo-Bavarian seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, just the right preface to an early harbor cruise. Unfortunately, by the time we reach Walvis Bay, the country’s main deepwater commercial harbor 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the south, the fog has rolled in again. The horizon is an eerie line of black shadow ships fading into an uncertain curtain of gray gauze.

A Morning on the Water

Walvis-Perican lighthouse.

The Pelican Bay lighthouse emerges from the morning fog.

A slick catamaran, the Silvermoon, pulls up to the jetty, and we are off. A trio of white pelicans make their characteristic wobbly landing on the roof of the cabin and invite themselves for the ride. We pass oyster farms, a delicacy for which the area is famous, on our way to Pelican Point, the sandy peninsula that protects Walvis Bay from the assault of Atlantic Ocean. Next to its landmark lighthouse, a 34 meter (112 foot) high cast iron structure built in 1932 and still in use, the point is home to a resident colony of Cape fur seals estimated at 60,000.

Walvis Bay-Cape fur seal.

Cape fur seals put on quite a show near our boat.

Beyond the point, we sail toward a line of ships and oilrigs that have come from the offshore drilling fields of Angola for maintenance and garaging. This is a unique opportunity to get a close look at one of these giant drilling platforms. The tour ends with a copious tasting lunch of fresh local oysters (yes, they are delicious) and other regional seafood specialties as we return to port.

 

 

Walvis Bay-Lagoon.

The Walvis Bay Lagoon is host to thousands of flamingos.

Back on solid ground and with the sun now high overhead, we stop by the Walvis Bay Lagoon, one of southern Africa’s major coastal wetlands and migratory bird sanctuary, where thousands of flamingos are busy feasting on crustaceans.

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton Coast Experience

Skeleton Coast-drilling wreck.

Not all wrecks came from the sea. Deep in the dunes, this is all that remains of an aborted attempt to drill for oil.

We head north the next morning. Within a half hour from the center of Swakopmund, all signs of life fade away. Ahead of us is an endless dirt trail between rolling dunes and pounding surf. This is the West Coast Recreational Area, the southern end of the windswept strip of desert that covers the 500 kilometers (300 miles) of Atlantic coast from Swakopmund to the Angolan border, now known as Skeleton Coast. Long before it got its sinister moniker from the bones that once filled the shore, remnants of the whaling industry’s heydays, early Portuguese explorers were referring to the area as “the Gates of Hell.” Enough said. Today the skeletons that remain are most likely to be those of twentieth century ships that fell victim to hidden rocky outcrops and blinding fog.

Namibia_Skeleton Coast_Zeila,

The fishing troller Zeila, stranded on 25 August 2008 just south of Henties Bay.

An hour into the trip we stop to check out one of these skeletons, the Zeila, a rusting fishing trawler stranded in 2008. Now just another convenient perch for passing seabirds, it is slowy disintegrating under the relentless battering of the ocean. Moments later, we come upon the incongruous sight of a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s Henties Bay (population 8,000), which owes its existence to the discovery of a rare fresh water source there in 1886, and its prosperity to current day anglers who find it a bountiful fishing destination. We stop just long enough for gas and continue on to Cape Cross.

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Cape Cross-Seals.

Cape Cross is home of one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in southern Africa.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Henties Bay, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to one of the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in southern Africa (150,000 to 210,000, depending on who you ask). Either way, it’s a hugely impressive sight, and an aggression to other senses. The stench of guano hanging over the site is overwhelming, as is the din of continuous bleating from this enormous herd of sea mammals. Cape Cross owes its name to the first European known to have set foot on the Namibian coast in 1486, Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão, who erected a stone cross on the spot. The original cross found its way to Germany 1893. It can be seen today in the New Hall of the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin. An exact replica was erected in 1980 on the spot where the original once stood.

Skeleton Coast-Dunedlin

The British cargo-passenger liner Dunedlin stranded on 29 November 1942 south of the Kunene River.

After a windblown picnic lunch on what has to be one of the longest beach in the world, contemplating the remains of the Dunedlin Star, a British cargo ship stranded in 1942, , we enter the Skeleton Coast National Park at its southern Ugab Gate. Said gate is actually a double portal emblazoned with giant skulls and crossbones, a none too subtle “don’t say we didn’t warn you” message. We continue on, undaunted. After another two hours of empty sea and sand, we take a sharp turn to the east, to emerge at the Springbokwasser Gate onto an alien planet of cone-shaped mountaintops, brushed with copper by a relentless sun. After the Khomas Highland, the Great Dune Field, and Skeleton Coast, I had been wondering what our awesome Wilderness Safaris guide Jimmy Limbo could possibly do for an encore? We’ve just reached the answer. We are about to enter surreally magnificent Damaraland!

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. An historic building in its own right, it is ideally located in the historic center of town and within a few minutes’ walk from the waterfront. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . Tel: + 264 64 414 200.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Catamaran Charters depart every morning from Walvis Bay Waterfront, Atlantic Street, Walvis Bay, Namibia. All their catamarans feature on-deck seating as well an a large interior lounge. All their tours are led by experienced local guides. Contact: e-mail dolphin@iway.na, tel. +264 (0)64 200798.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Skeleton Coast

Walvis Bay

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

On the third morning of my journey across Namibia, I leave behind the red sands of the Great Dune Field and head north along the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Craggy mountains still dominate the landscape, but at their base, what was barren desert when I entered the area two days ago is turning into something like a green five-o’clock shadow. I now understand the excitement of Jimmy, m amazing Wilderness Safaris guide, at the very prospect of rain.

Welcome to Solitaire

Namib-Oryx new grass.

Oryx are drawn to the new grass.

The wildlife is out in force at this promise of new grass. Small herds of springboks join the ubiquitous oryx. We also spot our first zebras and blue wildebeests. After a couple of hours of bouncing on a washboard dirt road leaving a massive trail of dust in our wake, we pull into Solitaire. The tiny desert outpost at the junction of the two gravel roads that are the main tourist routes in the area, is a de-rigueur stop for travelers. The place is right out of a 1950’s western movie set. It announces itself with deteriorating carcasses of vintage American cars scattered in the sand around the compound, and sign that goes straight to the point. “Welcome to Solitaire”.

Originally built in 1848 as a sheep farm by a Mr. van Collier, Solitaire was named by his wife, or so the story goes, both because there were diamonds in the area and the place fit the name (definitely the middle of nowhere!). Since then, it has developed into a gas station, the only place to get fuel on 340 kilometer (210 mile) trip the between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay, a post office and general store, and a bakery.

The Moose McGregor Desert Bakery

Namibia-Solitaire_1.

Solitaire is a must stop for anyone traveling through the area,

The bakery is the main attraction these days, its apple pie famous beyond the borders of Namibia. It’s more like a crumble actually, but lets not quibble. It too comes with a story. Three decades or so ago, a Scottish adventurer, and a man bigger than life in every way, Percy Cross “Moose” McGregor came into town and never left. He was a wonderful baker who started to sell baked goods, including the aforementioned pie (from an old family recipe, of course), and the word spread around the world. Sadly, Moose passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on. His meal-size squares of delicious Moose apple pie, served right out of the pan and still warm from the oven, are clearly the reason why a stop at Solitaire now figures on every tourist itinerary.

Tropic of Capricorn

Namib-Kuyseb River.

The ephemeral Kuiseb River meanders through the canyon,

Just 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Solitaire, we pass the Tropic of Capricorn. Then the road starts climbing in twist and turns, going around drop-offs sufficiently steep they warrant the first guardrails I have seen on this trip, to the top of the Gaub Pass. I take in the spectacular view of the stark schist rock face the Kuiseb Canyon below and black badlands undulating from its rim to the horizon as we snake down toward the river. The canyon was formed five million years ago, when a wetter climate prevailed in the interior and the river chiseled a narrow gorge through the Great Escarpment.

Namib-West of Kuiseb.

West of the Kuiseb Pass, the desert is framed by  mountains..

Today, the Kuiseb River is a sluggish ribbon of opaque brown water in no rush to vanish into the dunes some 80 kilometers (50 miles) downstream. Yet this is an exceptional sight, since for most of the year this ephemeral river is no more than a broad, dry sandy riverbed.

One more arduous climb on the other side of the canyon over the Kuiseb Pass, and the landscape goes through another metamorphosis as we head west toward Walvis Bay. We are back into the desert, flat, empty, endless; 140 kilometers (85 miles) of desolation framed by the distant outline of rocky outcrops worn smooth by an eternity of sand and wind.

Walvis-Oil rig.

The ouline of an oil rig appears from the mist off Walvis Bay.

Suddenly the gravel road turns to tarmac, and an immensity of colorless water rolls through the sea fog, with the eerie outline of an oil-drilling platform suspended above it. Walvis Bay, the only deepwater commercial seaport in Namibia, is also a servicing and parking destination for rigs and ships from the offshore drilling sites of Angola to the north.

 

 

The Swakopmund Time Warp

Namibia-Swakopmund.

The onion dome of the Swakopmund Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.

It’s another half-hour ride up the coast to Swakopmund, where we enter yet another time warp. Founded at the turn of the twentieth century, in the haydays of German South-West Africa, this resort town remains a living monument to its colonial past. It may be one hundred years since Germany relinquished the control of Namibia, but its cultural influence remains entrenched throughout the town. From the onion dome of the Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church to the neat, white-trimmed pastel buildings and the German street signage in angular Gothic script, all of it channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Even the ocean mist, which lifts only briefly today, conspires to give the town the feel of a small, off-season Baltic coast vacation town that time forgot.

Swakopmumd-Hansa Hotel.

The Hansa Hotel (circa 1905) retains its old-world atmosphere.

The Hansa Hotel, where we spend the next two nights, is right in character. The oldest hotel in town (circa 1905), it is an integral part of the local architectural heritage. Although fully renovated in 2014, it retains its traditional old-world atmosphere, with welcome twenty-first century additions such as air-conditioning and reliable WiFi throughout. Its central location, a few minutes’ walk away from everywhere in the historic center and the waterfront, is ideal to explore the city at leisure.

 

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . + 264 64 414 200.
  •  Wilderness Safaries  is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa, recognized for its responsible tourism practices over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Solitaire

Sossusvlei

Swakopmund

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Early wake-up call this morning. As I walk into the chill of the desert night toward the pale light of the refectory tent, my sleep-addled brain tries to take stock. This is Day Two of my journey through Namibia. I am at the tiny Kulala Adventurers Camp, deep in the Namib, the legendary desert that gave the country its name. And I have a sand dune to scale by 7:00 am.

A Namib Dawn

Namibia-Kulala dawn.

A springbok welcomes the dawn in the Kulala Wildernes Reserve.

It’s taken me years to get here, but I am finally about to see the sun rise over the highest dunes on the planet. The reality of the moment doesn’t fully sink in until we, my four fellow adventure travelers and I, are bumping along a sand trail that only our guide, Jimmy Limbo, can detect across the shadow landscape of the private Kulala Wilderness Reserve. The sky begins to glow with pre-dawn light and shortly thereafter we reach the private Wilderness Safaris entrance into the park. It’s precisely sunrise, the official opening time of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Although “our” gate follows the same schedule as the public Sesriem Gate, it has the huge advantage to be a good 25 kilometers closer to the dune field and not subject to any entrance formality delays. For almost one hour, we have the rare privilege to experience the intense silence and awesome grandeur of the oldest desert in the world in exquisite solitude.

Namibia-Naukluft sunrise.

Sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains.

Jimmy drives straight to the Elim Dune, the farthest inland dune, somewhat off the main track that leads from the Sesriem Gate to the heart of Sossusvlei. It is sprinkled with tufts of dry grass that help a bit with the climb. And it offers a unique view of the sun rising over the Naukluft Mountains and the sea of apricot dunes rippling to the horizon.

 

Beyond the Sunrise

Namib-Dune 45.

Dune 45 is arguably the most photographed dune on the planet.

As the sun begins to arch up, we get back on the road more traveled, the 60 kilometer (37 mile) stretch of asphalt maintained by the park from the Sesriem Gate to a central parking area in the heart of the dune field. There, self-drive tourists must park their car; only serious all-wheel-drive vehicles allowed beyond this point. Other visitors may either hike or use a shuttle to go to further into the dunes. Our “Wilderness Mobile,” an imposing custom designed all-terrain Land Cruiser, gets more than a few covetous glances as we go by.

A lone centuries-old camel thorn tree suggest we are nearing the Sossusvlei area.

Jimmy points out Dune 45, thus named for the sensible reason that it stands 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the entrance gate. Located fairly near the road, with an unusual S-shaped edge and a few picturesque trees lining its base, the 170 meter (560 foot) high dune is one of the most photographed in the park. And climbing is allowed, which also gives it supporting cast status in adventure travel anecdote throughout the world. We snap shots of the celebrity from every possible angle, but no taker for a climb among our lot.

Namib-Big Daddy.

Big Daddy is the ultimate hike in Sossuslvei.

Then we come to Big Daddy. At a height of 330 meters (1050 feet), it is the highest dune in the park and one the highest in the world. I do believe one of us does climb some or all of it. I am too busy dragging myself up a much less impressive incline to get to the Deadvlei (Afrikaan for Dead Lake) pan to take notice.

 

 

 

Namibia-DeadVlei,

A surrealist landscape 900 years in the making.

Once a small basin moist enough to allow camel thorn trees to grow, Deadvlei dried up some 900 years ago due to climate change and encroaching dunes. Today, in the relentless mid-morning sun, the vision of skeletal remains of dead trees rising from the cracked white clay floor against a backdrop of orange dunes looks like a colossal surrealist fresco.

 

Life in the Namib

Namib-Oryx.

This Oryx enjoys the remains of yesterday’s rare downpour.

I’ve come to Namibia for the scenery, not expecting to see much wildlife in such a barren land. Yet the regal Oryx, these desert antelopes with majestic sword-like horns that I had only come across once before in the Kalahari, are everywhere. In spite of the scorching midday heat, we see them repeatedly on our drive back across the Kulala Reserve. We also spot ostriches strutting nonchalantly across the sand, and the occasional springbok. We even get a glance at a silver-back jackal stealthily on the prowl.

A magical Kulala sunset.

After lunch at the camp, I spend  the early hours of the afternoon on the shaded porch of my tent, taking in the stillness of the desert. Its endless vistas of rock and sand look like an overexposed photo in the harsh light of the overhead sun. Then, as it begins to dip down and the landscape regains its full power, Jimmy has one more treat in store for today, a sunset drive to the top of a nearby ridge. He muscles the truck expertly up a perilous rocky slope that I would find hard to handle even on foot, to the top of a mountain with a 360 degree view that redefines infinity. And where we sip our sundowner cocktail while dusk swallows up the horizon.

We enjoy a hearty braai, the traditional southern African barbecue, under the stars,  accompanied by a chorus of barking geckos. Tomorrow, we head north toward the Atlantic Coast and Walvis Bay.

Namib-Kula Sunset 2.

 

Good to Know 

  • A Dune Primer – The Great Dune Field around Sossusvlei is thought to have formed some five million years ago, when sand colored by iron oxide washed from the Orange River in the Kalahari to the sea. The Benguela Current drove the sand north, then northwest winds blew it back inland and began shaping the dunes. The quartz sand that made the Namib dunes shimmers in different colors; the more intense the shade of red, the older the dune. The wind constantly reshapes the dunes, depositing the sand on the windward side. It then slides down on the leeward side (the slip face), which is therefore the steeper side of the dune.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades, recognized for its responsible tourism practices. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arranged my journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo-traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Sossusvlei