Namibia: A Trip to the Edge of the World

By Ankie Barnes

01A harsh deserted beauty

The older I get, the more I want to learn to keep my perspective fresh. Living in a global society and working with worldly clients demands it, and travel is the perfect classroom. Having been born and raised in South Africa, I am still one of the “new” Americans, even after 33 years of living here, and I retain a healthy dose of wanderlust. On this trip to Africa, as always, when the plane door first opened, the smells of the highveld grasses triggered memories of my early years. My senses went on high alert.

I visit Africa annually to see family and to visit places both familiar and new. I come back every time recharged, having learned new things, and seen older things with fresh eyes. On this last trip I was in the deserts of Namibia for Christmas and then in Cape Town for the New Year. There are severe contrasts between the two; they offer their different lessons and beauties.

03Desert dunes meet cold ocean

Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth as counted in people, plants and animals. Located on the southwest corner of the African continent, cooled on the coast by the ocean current coursing up from Antarctica and roasted on the interior by the African sun, it is home to the world’s largest sand-dune desert.

02Dunes as far as the eye can see

Much of the rest is parched, stony plains and mountains. Pockets of bush and life are found clustered around Namibia’s remaining water sources in its sandy riverbeds, spring-fed swamps, and in its few cities. There is a rare beauty to be found there, but it is tough and desolate. It’s no surprise that “Mad Max Fury Road” was filmed there. It looks post-apocalyptic. All that still lives there does so through a mixture of tenacity, technology and lack of alternatives.

04A Namibian river

Surprisingly, it has been home to people and a diverse wildlife population for thousands of years, but the end seems to be in sight: Namibia offers us both a snapshot of the future and window to the past.

Climate change has been in process for a long time and directly affects our ability to live in less than ideal places, which depends on a benevolent mixture of weather, water and topsoil. Four hundred years ago, Portuguese whalers worked this coast and traveled inland, finding huge expanses of savanna grassland supporting abundant wild game and, near its rivers, nomadic herding families.

05Rock-painting cave

We saw evidence of this earlier abundance in the ancient rock-paintings of game,

06Elephant rock painting

stone animal corrals and circles of old hut-cluster villages.

07Ancient lamb corral 

Today they stand alone in the stone and sand deserts; the rain has almost stopped, the top soils have washed out to sea. The last rainy season of note in Namibia was in 1985. Because most plant species need more than one rain event to grow, spread, and establish seeds, almost everything green we saw was 30 years old or more.

08aA survivor

A few of the hardiest wild game species remain: long-horned Oryx antelope, hyenas and jackals. Some species, like the elephants and lions, have adapted noticeably to survive desert life. The elephants are skinnier and have bigger foot-pads than their cousins elsewhere, and the lions can go as long as long a year without drinking water, getting their moisture solely from ingesting their prey.

Worthy destinations are far apart in this sparse country, so we traveled as one does in Alaska— by light plane, two of them in fact, to accommodate the family.

09The girls, saddling up 

After the initial nail-biting separation from our daughters and leaping into the air in car-sized flying equipment, it became great fun.

10Plane tag

We played plane-tag for four days across hundreds of miles, cruising, swooping, circling places of interest and landing almost anywhere—on beaches, sand deserts, and dusty air strips.

11Beach landing

12In the valleys of the moon

14Walking back to the chariots

13Namibian airstrip

We walked in the rocky plains, hills and river beds, saw 2,000-year-old “trees” that looked like old cacti, and played in the huge sand dunes.

15Dunescape

15aPlaying in the dunes

16The travelers

16bReadying the planes for another adventure

Nights were spent in small camps established by our hosts over the years at various small oases.

17Camp One

Camp ThreeCamp Three, on the river dividing Angola (left) and Namibia

These remote camps are supplied by truck out of the capital city Windhoek (“windy corner” in Afrikaans), up to 30 hours away from the furthest camp.

We were lucky to find one of the few desert elephant herds left, about 12 in all.

19A desert elephant, eating scrub bushes

They walk for miles daily to find enough to eat and dig for water in the dry riverbeds with their big feet.

20Digging for water

We saw a few grateful giraffes waiting patiently for their turn to drink after the elephants were done. Both species are noticeably diminished in stature, coloring and endurance by their static gene pool.

21Giraffe with light markings

The other populations of their kind are to be found in the next dry riverbed systems, separated by 70-plus miles of mountains and desert—too far to walk with no food or water. They can never mingle again.

These vestiges of life struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment made me reflect on all the conveniences and pleasures that our civilized life affords—fresh water, food, electricity, travel, and the leisure and intellectual pursuits it allows us.

21bSemi-abandoned village

22Struggling to survive, a herder and his cattle search for water

23A common sight

The march of natural desertification is already relentless in all the drier climates and is hastened by urban sprawl, monoculture farming and deforestation. Looking to Mars is interesting as a possible place to live, but Mars is already here in Namibia, Afghanistan, the Sudan and the Negev. After this experience I now support even more the initiatives around us to intelligently increase urban density, farm locally, foster natural energy use and consume less stuff.

Again, like Alaska, the country’s mineral wealth supports people’s ability to live there: “Modern” villages of dubious architectural merit, made of low-tech, metal-and-plastic houses, are common, and the distances between them spanned by fossil-fueled transport. Vestiges of an earlier and different way of living can still be seen. I was fascinated to see that the shelters and villages of the traditional peoples still living close to the earth; they still reflect the traditions established by available materials and climate, and are laid out according to symbolic planning principles.

The few remaining villages of the Himba people include simple huts, circular or parabolic on section, framed with twigs, covered in red mud, animal skins and found plastic.

24Himba village

25Mud hut, with the door “locked” 

They form a ring with openings/doors facing inwards, one hut per woman and offspring, one per man. They stand either in open desert or encircled by a rough wooden fence in areas where large game still lives nearby. They are centered around the two shared village/family structures of value: the twig “kraal” (corral) protecting any livestock at night and the sacred fire ring: a ring of rocks, with a few animal horns and twigs of special plants used in rituals I know nothing about….

26Fire ring, animal corral

Himba-sketch

The connection between these simple structures with our own vernacular traditions here at home was palpable. It reminded me how we people are all connected despite our differences in situation. Even in these extreme conditions, these traditions thrive and remain important to these people living on the edge of the world. They have been boiled down to the basics, revealing their collective meaning in practice and as symbols. As we experiment with and embrace what modern technology and architecture offers, it is helpful not to abandon the bedrock traditions and symbols of architecture that have developed meaning across generations.

28Heartbreaking beauty: An abandoned village

Next chapter: Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula