Nature, red in tooth and claw - the Cape Cross seal colony; On to Swakopmund; In which I eat an entire ostrich

Sheryl and I woke up before dawn, snatched a quick breakfast and headed out to explore more rocks before the truck ft at 8. I felt like a bit of a jerk because I kept having to hurry her along - she loves the rocks so much that we’d have missed the truck for sure, or had everyone waiting for us or out searching for us.

It was a couple of hours’ drive to our first destination of the day, the Cape Cross seal colony. Upwards of two hundred thousand fur seals live at Cape Cross, we were told, and it certainly smells like it. I’ve rarely smelled anything so sickening in my entire life. The stench of the place is unbearable and it hits you like a hammer. It’s birthing season for fur seals right now, so the numbers were even higher. We’d been warned that there would be some dead seal pups, partly because of natural attrition but mostly because the hyenas prey on them, darting into the mass of animals, snatching a pup and dragging it off. Nothing could have prepared me, though. There was a walkway built along the edge of the colony, and to reach it we had to walk across a hundred meters of sand - sand scattered with dead seal pups all rotting under the fierce sun. I counted thirty in that single stretch, but when I reached the walkway it was far worse. I’m not a bleeding heart. I do love animals, but I understand natural selection and predation and the need to generate lots of offspring to compensate for a high mortality rate. But the scale of waste displayed here made me want to vomit. The sheer, blind, brutal stupidity of nature was on full show, and it horrified me. Thousands of animals packed like sardines of top of each other, writhing and thrashing for space; pups calling for lost mothers and vice versa; giant males gnashing their jaws and biting anything they could reach.

The Cape Cross seal colony

And the dead. There were thousands. The whole colony was scattered with them, the live seals rolling over and around and through them. The walkway was lined on both sides with dead and dying seal pups, all looking up with imbecilic, empty eyes and bawling unceasingly. They were packed so tightly, dead against living, that they could hardly move. Some of them had made it onto the surface of the walkway and, dying, just stared with white-filmed stupid eyes at anything that approached. I have a strong stomach, but as I stumbled horrified through them with my sleeve over my mouth and nose, I wanted to throw up - if only to register a protest at this disgusting miscreation.

Fur seal pup at Cape Cross

Dead fur seal pup at Cape Cross

Let me emphasize that nothing was out of the ordinary, here. There was no disease, there was no industrial pollutant at work, there had been no unexpected drop in the food supply or increase in the population. This was business as usual - a perfectly normal birthing season at Cape Cross. The sickening blind idiocy of nature and the unknowing, instinct-ridden self-destructivity of the seals made me want to club the entire species to death and start again with something with a better answer to the challenges of its environment. To be sure, this is classic Darwinian Natural Selection at work, but god I wanted to hurry it along. One tiny adjustment to their behaviour - an instinct to spread out a little - would increase their survival rate drastically.

Nature can be beautiful, certainly, but it can raise horrors too. I’ll certainly use the Cape Cross seal colony as an example when debating in the future about vegetarianism, ethical ecological management and genetic engineering with those who believe in the essential perfection and goodness of nature and the essential corruption and evil of humankind. As we left, though, I kept my sentiments to myself so as not to spoil anyone else’s visit. Nobody but me seemed bothered by it - even Sheryl, who I would have expected to be in tears over it, had just shrugged if off. So there’s something for all of you who think I’m a hard-nosed cynical bastard.

After the seal colony the group went on to the town of Swakopmund. Swakopmund is a big tourist centre and like other places (Livingstone or Queenstown in New Zealand) has billed itself as a centre for “extreme sports”. I fully support his concentration, by the way. It’s nice to have somewhere for the mindless adrenaline addicts and stupid jocks to go so that they don’t annoy people with brains. Surprisingly, Swakopmund seems to be a nice little town despite this. The tourist section of town is clean, modern and quite charming really. There’s a nice beach, too. The town shows a heavy German influence in its architecture and street names - it was part of the German colony of Southwest Africa at one point. The main language is Afrikaans, though - it (and all of Namibia) was part of South Africa less than twenty years ago.

It’s cheap here, too - Namibia in general is a lot cheaper than any of the East African countries, but it’s very apparent in Swakopmund. Sheryl fought hard to get us an upgrade at our hotel from dorm beds to a double room, which cost us the grand sum of 150 Namibian dollars a night (about CAD$18.75). We get a refund of N$70 for the unused dorm beds, too, so it’s really only costing us CAD$10. The food is good and cheap too. The group had dinner a a nice restaurant, and after the tip our share, including a starter and a bottle of wine, was N$300 (CAD$37.50) - still an extravagance for us, but still comparatively cheap. I had a big ostrich steak. I’ve never had ostrich before - it was quite good, a nice light red meat. They served me so much that I had to fight to finish it all. Ostriches, by the way, are not at all endangered, and this was farmed ostrich anyway, so no ecological guilt for me beyond the usual incurred by eating meat at all. I also tried a bit of someone else’s oryx and kudu steaks - two hoofed animals with (I think) curved and spiralling horns respectively. They were good, but I wouldn’t order either again - I don’t think I could distinguish them from beef.

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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