A visit to a Himba village; Into the wasteland; The virtues of meerkats as household pets; Red rocks, ghost trees and petroglyphs; In which I get lost not once, not twice, but three times and am very nearly eaten by Mountain Elephants and leopards

The days are just packed right now. We’re moving quickly, never staying more than one night in a single place, and doing all kinds of things on the way. I keep thinking of the people from the first half of the tour, the ones who left at Livingstone, and thinking about how they’re missing all this neat stuff and how much they’d have enjoyed it.

Our first activity today was a visit to a village of the Himba tribe. They’re absolutely fascinating. It’s a culture which is both matrilineal and matriarchal. The men don’t work and don’t live with the women in the village, except for the headman and the witch doctor. I hate using the term “witch doctor”, it sounds so condescendingly colonialist. Say medicine man or shaman or bush doctor instead. In any case this particular village had neither at the moment. The headman had died and the shaman was off somewhere, so the sacred fire of wood and goat skulls was out, which I gather is quite a bad thing. The headman’s daughter was running the village when we were there.

Himba women twist extensions into their hair and cake them with red clay like Medusa with hair made of a kid’s plasticine snakes, and paint their skin head to foot in red dye. It looks striking with their bead jewellery. They go naked to the waist, but cover their ankles in thick wound wire cuffs, because ankles are private and taboo. The clay and skin-dye are signs of status for the women - ironically the headwoman has an allergy to the clay and can’t wear it. Women who are ready to have a child wear a headpiece that looks like horns - this advertises their availability without any need for negotiations. They pick one of the visiting men to be the father, let him move in, and kick him out when they’re tired of him.

Himba woman's hair

There were lots of little kids running around underfoot - one adorable little munchkin was wearing a Namibian flag as the bum-flap of her loincloth and tottered everywhere with a giant pumpkin grin. There were a few older girls, too. They wear their hair in two triangular braids over their foreheads until menarche, when they adopt the clay-dreadlock style. One of them, an utterly gorgeous, cocky little bitch, let me do some portraits of her after some (necessarily non-verbal) negotiation.

Himba child Himba girl

The Himba were the last outpost of civilization for us. We left them and headed out into the Namib desert. The air was blast-furnace hot and the heat-shimmer made mirages on the horizon of the scrubby landscape. Occasional hills of smooth, weathered red, orange or yellow rock dotted the land, but mostly it was low bushes shallowly rooted in sand. Red rocks and yellow land and the road, and nothing else. The sky was molten bronze and so hazy that it glowed everywhere above and the land all looked washed-out - thin and transparent, like a painting on onionskin paper held in front of a lamp. Our destination wasn’t deep in the desert, but it was still hammering hot when we got off the truck. The place was nice - a nice restaurant and a swimming pool (in the desert!). We were immediately suspicious since it was a large step up from our accommodations so far (we were right - the campsites were at least a kilometre away from the reception and restaurant through bush and winding sand roads, but that’s neither here nor there - we were impressed at the time). While I was looking at the pool I noticed, of all things, some kind of antelope or impala or something wandering around. It was about waist-high, with tan and white markings, big ears and little horns. It was completely unconcerned - in fact, I watched it take a piece of apple from a woman’s mouth! I found out later that she was one of the owners, so it must have been a pet antelope. Now, I think I can be forgiven for thinking that’s a bit odd and noteworthy, but when I went to call Sheryl over to see, she insisted I come look at what she’d found instead. I’m glad I did - under one of the chairs they’d discovered a little meerkat! They’re the cutest things ever, these little guys - like fluffy mongoose with pointy little black noses and big digging claws, about the size of a kitten. What the heck, I thought, and put my hand down to call it - and it jumped up and bounced chattering right over to me and shoved its nose in my hand to be petted. I picked it up and it tried to shove its nose in my mouth and then its little paws. When I wouldn’t let it dig in my mouth it settled for digging into my armpit, making a little chirping tik-tik sound, the whole time. Absolutely adorable. Her two kids came over and jumped on her which started a session of rolling around the floor in one big fuzzy ball of meerkat. The kids weren’t as interested in us - we only rated a cursory sniff of the hand before they were off. The owners told us later that they were perfect pets - not only are they cute and affectionate, they eat all the snakes and scorpions.

Sheryl with a meerkat

After setting up camp we all piled back onto the truck for a short drive to Brandberg, a huge outcropping of rock peaks in the desert, with the purpose of seeing some ancient petroglyphs. The rocks were incredible - deep, deep red, in fantastic cracked and broken shapes, piling up a hundred meters. Growing out of crevices in the rock piles were short, stunted trees. They were twisted by the canyon winds into fantastic contortions, and their leafless trunks and bare branches had been bleached by the sun to a dead white-grey that made me call them ghost trees. The white trees and red rocks were stunning against the blue, blue sky. I so badly wanted to take photos - I could have taken a hundred - but after three or four days without electricity at any of our campgrounds, all my batteries were dead and even my backup emergency batteries had lost heir charge (which brings their usefulness as an emergency backup rather into question, though I think it’s been weeks since I topped up their charge). I was bitterly disappointed that I couldn’t take any pictures. It was one of the most visually striking places I’ve ever seen. Sheryl was over the moon - not only were there amazing rocks, but also lots of little bright-coloured lizards. Rocks and lizards are Sheryl’s two favourite things in the world.

At the end of a hot two or three kilometres of walking we came to a shallow little cave or depression in the rock, which sheltered the Brandberg petroglyphs. The most famous of them is the so-called White Lady, an upright human figure which is actually male, not female - complete with spear and penis decoration. The paintings fascinated me. There were two layers of them scattered all over the rock. The older layer was about five thousand years old and were simple symbolic human and animal shapes in a reddish-brown ochre paint. The newer were three thousand years old and much more sophisticated both conceptually and in execution. There were four colours of paint - black, white, red and ochre, and the human and animal figures showed attempts at three-dimensional reproduction. There was lots of detail in the later figures - clothing, ornamentation and animal markings. Far and away most fascinating to me, though, were the aspects of animism and shamanism present in the work. Two of the animal figures had human legs in place of their own hind legs - shaman figures caught in the act of skin-changing between animal and human. A fully human-shaped shaman was also depicted, with a chalk-white human figure hovering above his head - his ghost out on a spirit journey. Thus were two of the traditional powers or aspects of the shaman demonstrated - shape-changing and spirit-questing. I found it absolutely absorbing, these hands and voices from the depths of the past, reaching forward all blindly unknowing. All the more so since, for all our current veneer of secular humanism or baroquely symbolic religion, even a cursory look at our culture’s talking cartoon animals and straight-faced discussion of life after death show how we’re still essentially animistic and dualistic in our beliefs.

Thoughts like these kept me occupied on the walk back to the truck, and trying to keep my head attached kept me busy on the bumpy drive to the campground. Once there, everyone scattered and I spent a few hours at the bar by the pool trying to get caught up on my journal. I must have been a little too focussed on it, because the next thing I knew it was quite dark and they were closing up and kicking me out. I realized that I had no idea how to get back to the campsite through the bush and over the sandy twisting roads. I thought I knew roughly which general direction it was in, but I wasn’t certain even of that. I set out with my flashlight and a certain amount of trepidation - the night was dark and full of terrors, after all. I’m used to that phrase being used in a metaphorical fashion, but here in Africa it’s decidedly literal. This camp is known for its population of bad-tempered Mountain Elephants, and the local leopard population had moved back in a couple of days previously, and there were a whole host of other assorted monsters ranging in size all the way from hyenas through to scorpions - none of which I was at all eager to meet.

Two minutes after venturing out I was impossibly lost. Every tree and bush looked the same in my flashlight, and the only artificial lights of be seen were from a couple of little buildings. I knew that I had to abandon the roads to find the campsite, which I wasn’t happy about at all, but did rather quickly when a big gray shape a few meters down the road turned out to be an elephant. I wandered completely lost for what felt like half an hour, fully aware of the stupidity of my situation and trying to keep myself calm. I was actually verging on real fear by the time I stumbled upon the truck and our campsite purely by accident. My relief was very short-lived, though. Sheryl had gone out looking for me and nobody knew if she was with people or alone, or how long she’d been gone. I knew I’d have to go back out there looking for her, so I clenched my teeth and set out, after making a few strongly-worded requests for accompaniment which all went ignored.

I ought to find reception, I reasoned, since if she hadn’t gotten lost herself she’d have gone there first looking for me. Through some sort of minor miracle I made it there on my first try (though I did end up taking the long way around and thought I was lost the whole time) and she was there with some other people. She’d just been considering setting out again looking for me, which would have made the whole thing a huge farce and vastly amusing until one of us got eaten by a leopard. It was bad enough when the two of us decided that it was time for bed and to try and find our tent together. Attentive readers will know what comes next. We were lost almost instantly and wandered in circles for ages. We knew we were wandering in circles because we kept seeing the same things over and over. The truck lights and the fire were long out at this point, so the only way we were going to find it was by literally stumbling over it. This we failed to do, but we didn’t meet with any misfortune either, at least.

We decided to try and find the others at the bar again, hoping that they hadn’t left and that they had a better idea how to get back to camp. They were still there, and once they’d got done laughing at us they paid their bill and got ready to leave. I, in a flash of sheer brilliance, asked directions from the manager. He said it was very simple, gave us directions and warned us about elephants and leopards. There were five of us who set out this time. One of the others claimed he knew for sure where the tents were, which meant that it took us a little longer to get lost this time - even with the directions. But it was a lot less scary in a group and eventually we saw some familiar sights that meant we were coming near to the campsite. There was one final obstacle between us and safely though - a pair of big eyes reflecting bright green in our flashlights, crouched low in the undergrowth. Shit, we thought, leopard, and froze where we stood. There was nothing to be done but to edge around the eyes, though, and they followed us every step of the way. Then they moved suddenly and our hearts all skipped a beat in primal terror until the owner of the eyes came into the light - it was the stupid pet antelope we’d seen at the swimming pool earlier that day. Feeling immensely relieved - and immensely foolish - we skipped on the few meters to our tents, the antelope following us. He was still outside Sheryl’s and my tent in the morning, so obviously the reports of leopards weren’t exaggerations and he wanted to stay where it was relatively safe.

I was too wound up to sleep that night, so I stayed up and read. Poor Sheryl was probably kept from sleep by the sound of my pages turning, and I certainly woke her up when I realized the tent was full of ants - tiny ones that had crawled through the holes in the window screening. In the end, though, the forces of exhaustion won out and I fell asleep. Being lost and in fear for your life really takes it out of you.

As a little epilogue, when we woke up in the morning the camp was full of hyena paw-prints. This gave me the idea of finding my own trail from the night before and following it to see where I’d been. The prints from the soles of my sneakers were easy to track - it turns out, infuriatingly and hilariously, that I’d been within fifty meters of the stupid truck at least twice, without realizing it.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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