Jeff's Travelog: Namibia
Board: Macro Economics
Usually, I find the most entertaining (but not necessarily the ones which last in my mind are those with varying amounts of comedy, violence or sex. Today’s movie was the “Book Thief” which I will put in the category of “great story worth seeing”. I had read and appreciated (it’s hard to use the word “enjoyed” about a story with such pathos) the book a number of years ago, but had forgotten much of the story. I would highly recommend both the book and the movie to anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to read and/or see it.
Apr 4 Wavis Bay, Namibia
This is our first time to Namibia. To be honest, I didn’t do much in the way of planning for this stop as I spent my time choreographing India and South Africa. We are going to be returning later this year for an overnight stay, so this is a bit of a reconnaissance trip to find something exciting to do. Admittedly I had done a “bit” of research so I had a route in mind. The only thing lacking was transportation and people to share it with. Part of the challenge in a new port is to try to ascertain what the cost of transportation/touring should be, rather than the very inflated prices that the waiting drivers propose. They will try to charge by the person and I always like to negotiate by the vehicle. I always assume that about (the equivalent of) one US dollar per kilometer is a fair price for a “legal” (licensed and insured for tourism) taxi or van and bargain accordingly (since the drivers invariably start much higher, I obviously start much lower so that we hopefully compromise at a reasonable price. This process frequently upsets other Westerners as they think I am being cheap or trying to take advantage of poor downtrodden people. I take the attitude that their initial prices were chosen to be ridiculously high and, iof accepted, would not only brand me an idiot in their eyes, but make things more difficult or the next tourist to come along (there are many places in the world where, because of tourists habitually not following the local customs of bargaining, all tourist are now treated as fools). Anyhow, with a bit of spirited negotiation (culminating in my pulling passengers off the ship’s shuttle bus to town where their boarding was the equivalent of “walking out of the shop”) a rate for a 13 passenger tourist van for a full day of sightseeing divided out (for the 12 passengers who ended up joining) to your choice of 130 South African rand or $13US (or any mixture) per person (which was exactly 1/10 what the ship charged for the same trip – at $129 per person).
When dealing with unusual currencies in countries which you may not revisit, it is useful to minimize the confusion by using a currency which is mutually acceptable as legal tender. In Namibia, that means that South African rand (which has an identical value to the Namibian dollar and is used interchangeably in commerce) works best, but it’s important to make sure that one is given change in SA rand as well (rather than Namibian dollars). US dollars are frequently accepted as well at a 10 to 1 ratio, but that means you are receiving an unfavorable exchange rate by about 11% (still better than the ship offers).
Namibian citizens (similar to South Africans) generally fall into three racial groups. The Blacks make up about 75% of Namibia’s population. Whites make up about 6% and “Colored” makes up most of the balance (“Colored” being described here as mixed race in a fashion the Mestizo or Creole might be used elsewhere). Our rather light skinned and somewhat European featured driver was a member of this third group and explained that when South Africa was administering the country (which was previously German West Africa, but was then called South-West Africa) he was too Black to be admitted to the upper echelons of society, but after Namibia’s independence he is too White to do so. He and his son own a couple of vans which they use to provide tourist transport, but he says there has been a steady increase in small Chinese businesses opening up ever since Chinese companies started buying mineral resource companies and rights. He also said that cheap Chinese labor had been imported recently to work on projects sponsored with Chinese aid. Many of the larger indigenous companies are owned and managed by South Africans.
The tour route took us first to see large flocks of pink flamingos standing in the nearby shallows. Then it was off to see the “salt mines” (actually a plant for commercially processing sea salt). The homes facing the sea shore are quite large, fancy and modern. They belong to various politicians and other wealthy people and sell for $750,000US (+/-30%). Further out of town, but still near the sea, similar homes were in the $250,000US range. From there we entered the Namib Desert, heading through a barren landscape worthy of the depths of the Arabian Peninsula, but with the seashore paralleling us. Around a twenty minute drive took us to Dune Number 7, a huge ridge of red sand paralleling the road. It is possible to climb (laboriously) to the top and slide down for seconds of enjoyment as your shoes and clothing fill with sand (been there, done that in Wadi Rum, Jordan last year and don’t need to repeat).
We drove another quarter hour and ended up in the very Germanic town of Swakopmund. This place is an anomaly in that the population is largely white, the language spoken is German, rather than the more usual Afrikaans (a Flemish dialect) spoken by nearly everyone elsewhere and the food rivals that of Bavaria (though oysters are prevalent, as well as cheap here) and the local beer (named Windhoek Draught at a café named Bojo where the free internet is protected by the password “madmaxfuryroad”) is excellent. We wandered around the town for a couple of hours. We were attracted by an outfit named Sossusfly (www.sossufly.com) who offers small plane charters (up to five passengers) at about $150US per person, per hour along the Skeleton Coast and over the moonscape-like sand dunes. In looking for a novel way to fill our upcoming overnight stay, we are looking at flights, safaris in the Kalahari Desert (though I suspect we may be at least temporarily safaried out by then) and a couple of other ideas. There were a couple of crafts markets selling carved wooden models of the “Big Five” animals, animal horns, bracelets and so on. The vendors see desperate for business, but again vigorous bargaining is required to get rational prices (medium sized wooden animals run about $6-$7 and one meter long ibex horns are about $15). There were also some tribal women who sat naked from the waist up, with their hare held in place by some brown colored material (clay?, dung?) who were selling a variety of hand-made bracelets ($4 for worked copper and $2 for wood after bargaining – with free photo ops thrown in – else they asked $10 for photos, but would settle for a buck).
All in all, the day was very interesting for a minimum expense.
We have received news that, because of concern about the spread of the Ebola virus in western Africa, the next three stops on the trip will be canceled and a couple of stops in the Cape Verde Islands (were there last year and a little peeved that I went to the trouble of getting visas for Gambia and Senegal, but will be missing them) and St. Lucia will be added as well in the Caribbean competing with the vast contents of Carnival, Norwegian and other ships will be substituted. The good news, I guess, is that we can stop taking anti-malaria pills as we are no longer heading for West Africa and can save them for when we return in a few months. In the meantime the port dates have changed so the future postings of this report will be pretty erratic (erotic?).
Someone must have raided the larder as we had a barbeque today consisting of zebra, crocodile, warthog and ostrich. I passed on the warthog, found the croc far tougher than I remember, the ostrich very good and the zebra surprisingly better. I liberally sprinkled piri-piri spicy chili sauce on the meat (with some Mexican salsa on the side to cool things down) to give it a bit of pizazz (after a month in India “spicy” is now just a relative thing).
Apr 8 Jamestown, Saint Helena
Uninhabited when first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, Saint Helena was garrisoned by the British during the 17th century (to be used as a refreshment station for ships travelling to and from the East). It acquired fame as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte's exile, from 1815 until his death in 1821, but its importance as a port of call declined after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Saint Helena has three smaller dependencies: Ascension Island is the site of a US Air Force auxiliary airfield; Tristan da Cunha is home to a very small community reliant on fishing for income; Gough Island has a meteorological station.
Saint Helena's most famous resident, of course, was Napoleon, who was exiled there by the British. Apparently Elba was not far enough away. He died here, and you can visit his, but his remains were disinterred and are now at Les Invalides in Paris.
The island is still heavily dependent on British aid to run basic functions. There is pretty much only a single road about one mile long. There is no mobile network on the island! Telecommunications are particularly expensive -- don't expect to be able to use the Internet for extended periods of time. There are Wi-Fi hotspots in Consulate Hotel and in Ann's Place for £6/hour. There are no bugs or animals of concern (with the exception of scorpions).
As in many other countries, for Police Emergencies call 999.
The grandest house on the island is that of the governor. It looks like it was lifted straight out of 18th century England. There are land tortoises on the grounds, including one purported to be the oldest living vertebrate in the world. Though many endemic species have become extinct, there are some left to be seen. Cabbage trees, gum trees and the local ebony can all be seen. The ebony was thought to be extinct until a local botanist found a specimen hanging off a cliff. It is being propagated and planted around the island. The islanders have also begun to restore the native forests of the island.
Two animals are of note. The giant earwig was the largest in the world. Truly a terrifying beast for those who fear earwigs, it was between two and three inches long. The species was made extinct by researchers who literally collected them all.
The second species is a happier story. Though endangered, with only about 300 remaining, the Saint Helena Wirebird is a plover-like bird with long beak and legs. It is a land bird, and can be found in open areas. The playing fields behind the high school are a particularly good place to look without having to take a longer hike. The Wirebird is Saint Helena's national bird.
St Helena has a very limited public bus service. Introduced only in 2003, the routes and timetables are designed primarily to satisfy the needs of locals. Buses are rare, usually going once or twice only on some weekdays. Visitors can, with some planning use the bus service to reach some of the island's attractions and walking opportunities. Check timetables carefully and allow sufficient time to catch the return bus otherwise you may face a long walk back to Jamestown. Stops are well marked, but a nice wave will also get the driver to stop
Taxis are also available in Jamestown (the rank is behind the Tourist Information Office) at negotiable prices from £15 a person (due to high fuel costs at £1.59 a liter and limited local business opportunities), but we paid $20 per person for the two of us for a full tour of the island from an “unofficial” cab. License plate numbers are a bit disconcerting here as they are numbers which are three or four digits long. Since many of the mountain roads single lane, the right of way is for the car heading uphill and the downhill facing car has to pull to the side. Saint Helena drives on the left, as in the United Kingdom. Likewise, the traffic signage in Saint Helena resembles that of the United Kingdom.
The official language of Saint Helena is English. However it is often spoken with a strong accent and using ordinary English words in unusual ways. This dialect is locally known as "Saint". Examples include "What your name is?" and "Us need one new tyre" (us = 'we' and 'one' is used where 'a' or 'an' might be expected). Since the total population of the island is less than that of my former high school, all of the “Saints” know each other and wave as they drive around.
Though the island culture is a melange of people from all over the world, immigration essentially ended long ago, and the Malay, Indian, African and other immigrants to the island have not maintained their original languages or cultures. "Intermarriage" has been the standard on the island for so long that there are no racial differences to be made, let alone linguistic ones.
Purchases are made in Saint Helena Pounds. The Saint Helena Pound is held at parity with the British pound and British money can be used on the island. Some shops also accept US Dollars and Euro at appalling exchange rates).
There is a bank on the island which opens weekdays and Saturday mornings, but has no ATM, so be sure to plan ahead. The bank can use your ATM or credit/debit card to give you money (at a price). Cash can be changed on the ship on the way to the island, but St. Helena money is rarely available in banks outside the St. Helena / Ascension / Tristan area so don't worry about changing in advance.
The Museum of Saint Helena is located in an early 19th century warehouse at the foot of Jacob's Ladder in Jamestown. It has a variety of exhibits on the island's history and natural history. The Cenotaph on the wharf in Jamestown includes the names of all Saints who died in the two world wars, including those who perished in a German U-boat attack in James Harbor in 1941.
Jacob's LadderJacob's Ladder is the somewhat misnamed staircase that rises from Jamestown to Half Tree Hollow high above. It is said to have 699 steps. The "Ladder" was built in 1829 as an inclined plane to bring goods down from the farming areas in the center of the island, and manure up out of town. The planes are on either side of the steps, and the cart on one side was used to counterweight the cart on the other. The Ladder is a prodigious climb (and I’ve already paid my dues on a 700 step climb to a temple in China a few years ago). In addition to its length, its stairs are somewhat high, making the climb all the more difficult. There are railings, but no landings for the entire length (those who are afraid of heights may not want to look down). If you see a kid around, you might want to ask them to show you how to slide down the railings; they are reputed to have invented a way to do this scary feat without killing themselves. The Ladder is lit at night.
The Castle was built by the British in 1659 shortly after they took over the island. It serves as the seat of government, and even if you are not on a tour, you can probably peek into the Council Chambers. The Archives and Administration of the island are also located in the Castle. Very nearby is the Courthouse, which has a lovely building in itself and well worth a look. It houses both the Magistrates and Supreme Courts.
The Post Office is in a rather disappointing building that looks as though it could be much more interesting with a little help. It was apparently once an Officer's Mess. Of course, this is the place where you can buy one of Saint Helena's most famous exports: postage stamps. The Post Office sends out the stamps of Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha to philatelists all over the world.
Broadway House is an 18th century building that contains the island's museum (open M-F 8:30AM-4PM).
Longwood House, in the town of the same name, was the home in which Napoleon spent the great majority of his time on Saint Helena and also where he died. It has several wings and contains the type of furniture it would have when he lived there, though most of the originals have been carried off elsewhere. The house is run as a museum and maintained by the French government. It is set in a grounds filled with flowers, and the gardens are well worth some time on their own. Napoleon died at Longwood House.
(Looking for Napoleon in all the wrong places)