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Letter 3: Nov. 22, 2005

Dear Friends:

We are back from 17 days in Namibia and hard at work on the
ENVS 84 research paper.  The term is rushing to a close and
ends in less than 8 days.  We take measure of time’s
passing: the jacaranda blossoms are almost gone;
thunderheads rise each day above the high veld and the
summer heat of South Africa; the university slowly empties
as its students complete final exams; we mark our own last
lectures, tests, plenary and team meetings. We plan and
contemplate our departures.

Journey across northern and then central Namibia, as we did
over the course of two weeks, and you might conclude that
the country is barren, dry, sterile.  Namibia is divided
into three physical regions: a low-lying coastal belt; a
central plateau; and the Kalahari Desert along the eastern
border.  The coastal belt includes the Namib Desert, the
oldest desert in the world. Only 50 mm of rain falls
annually in this region. Indeed, “Namib” means an area
where “there is nothing.”

But we found, to our surprise, that it is filled with life.
Dunes shift and change shape. The tracks of insects, small
mammals and reptiles criss-cross the hot sand.  Creatures
large and small adapt to the heat and dryness with unique
cooling mechanisms or by capturing droplets of moisture to
sustain themselves.  For example, one of the tenebronid
beetles stands on its front legs, spreads its wings to
create a sail-like trap, and captures small beads of
moisture from night fog that are then funneled into its
mouth. The Namib makes us alert in our observations, and
humble in our conclusions.

This year, joined by our “Swooper,” Prof. Ross Virginia, a
desert ecologist from Dartmouth’s ENVS faculty, we begin our
exploration and journey after flying into Windhoek‚s
airport.  Our drive into the city is 40 km long, and we have
brought the first rains of the season with us. Long whips of
rain, accented with bright whacks of lightening, reach from
sky to earth and sweep across the plains. At the Botanic
Gardens, a young researcher and Prof. Virginia give us a
thorough grounding in the plants and cacti we will see:  the
euphorbias, hoodia dordonii, welwitshia, the tiny lithops
(stone plants) and devil’s claw. That night we camp in a
rough and noisy spot located, as we learn early the next
morning, at the end of the municipal airport runway, the
convergence of two highways and ˆ just as Kathleen says from
the warmth of her sleeping bag ”at least there are no
trains”  along a major railroad line. 

But the students are in good cheer: Up at 0530, we all drop
our tents quickly, eat breakfast, and head north. This is a
working field trip: We pitch and drop our own tents.  The
students rotate on daily cooking and clean-up teams of four
students each.  The Crazy Kudu crew ˆ our outfitter - does
the cooking and driving.  Willem Ganeb, who has been with us
three years, runs the operation and serves as our guide and
birder (not to mention chef!); he is outstanding in each of
these. Ronnie Hoeseb and Koos Dauth each drive one of the
two coaches (with pop-up roofs for viewing); Ronnie is also
an excellent birder.  Manfred Iipinge, about the age of our
students, loads and off-loads our goods and tents, and plays
a wicked round of soccer with us. They are all native
Namibians and Willem is from Spitzkoppe, one of our camping
areas.  We are well-equipped to take on the gravel plains,
the mountains, the salt pans and the Namib.  We head north.

We make our first stop one of the best outdoor markets in
southern Africa noted for its woodcarvings.  Kathleen and I
discovered this in the mid-1990s when I was directing a
program in southern Africa from the University of Cambridge.
(At that time, we bought two 3-foot-high wood carvings, and
despite Kathleen’s prediction “you’ll never get these on
the airplane,” I found that the last row of a 747 has just
the right space for such objects, which are now safely in
our Norwich, Vt., home!)

Anyway, we briefed the students on this market and they
spent about two hours wandering through it bargaining,
walking away from a deal, walking back, bargaining some
more, etc. Small drums, animal figurines, round seeds with
miniature carvings on them; carved masks, boxes, spoons,
bowls ˆ even the inevitable spear - soon fill pockets and
overheads of the two coaches. Such markets offer insights
into a variety of issues; community-sustainability; impacts
on woodlands; protect of indigenous traditional art, etc.
We will explore another excellent market next week in
Manzini, Swaziland, where we will find among the clothing,
crafts and woodcarvings traditional healers with their
animal and vegetable materials ready for prescription!

We continued northward and camp this evening at the Cheetah
Conservation Fund‚s field station. This is a magnificent
site: flat dry savannah, tents scattered through the acacia
trees, the Waterberg plateau 30 miles away catching the last
rays of the African sunset. Almost all of the students go
for long runs.  We have lectures on the endangered cheetah,
the conflicts between cheetahs and farmers/farm livestock,
bush encroachment (which damages the cheetah‚s eyes as it
sprints toward game). Namibia has the largest number of
cheetahs, but they are also gravely endangered. Dr. Laurie
Marker, the CCF‚s director (and an American), gives us two
talks about the impacts of drought, subsistence and
commercial farming, over-grazing and bush encroachment as
threats to cheetah survival.

In the morning, we enter a large enclosure where 4 cheetahs
are undergoing rehabilitation from injuries (or abandonment)
and being trained to chase and kill prey.  The field
biologist and her four interns have rigged up a large square
of movable wire (about 100 yards on a side, 6 inches off the
ground) with a white rag attached at one point. They run the
wire with a battery, the rag bounces along looking like
food, and the cheetahs chase the rag and pounce on it, for
which they get a small piece of meat (from the trainer).  We
watch this at close hand inside the fence; we are, briefly,
able to be both predator and prey.

From the cheetah center we press northward to Etosha
National Park, Namibia’s largest and most famous reserve.
Our campsite, at Okaukuejo, is crowded, dusty, noisy.  It
reminds us of Skukusa Camp in Kruger.  The one saving
element in Okaukuejo is its floodlit waterhole ˆ a major
attraction in this parched region.  Here we observe
giraffes, black rhino, and lions at the waterhole, among the
usual springboks, kudu, jackals, et al.  Here, too, we learn
more about the expansion of Etosha park, the possible
construction of up-market tourist facilities, and the
engagement with indigenous communities.  Clearly, if these
large parks are to succeed economically and politically ˆ
putting aside the wildlife management concerns ˆ the
indigenous people living around and sometimes in them will
have to play a central role.  Local people will need to be
engaged in park development, wildlife protection and
resource management.

In Etosha we explore the various water holes and the
enormous Etosha Pan, a former prehistoric lake that still
floods occasionally and is large enough to be seen by
satellite. Prof. Virginia‚s playful and challenging skills
help us understanding the importance of this environment,
and we eagerly start our study of plains and desert geology
and plants. Now we begin to encounter the astonishing
persistence of life: from large gemsbok, desert zebra,
springbok, kudu, hartebeest, et al down to tiny cacti and
plants barely holding to the earth. We surprise a rare
honeybadger and, sadly, pause by a dead elephant felled by
drought and territorial dispute, whose huge, hollow and gray
remains are somehow held together only by weathering skin
and bones. 

We drop tents, eat and by 0800 are on our way to Tim
Osborne's farm, “Windpoort” not far from Etosha.  Tim and
Laurel are from Alaska, where Tim retired from the Fish &
Game Department, and they have bought a farm and now live in
Namibia in partnership with Wilferd Verfeld, who works for
the national parks in Etosha.  Tim and Wilferd host us
overnight in a rough and enjoyable campsite from which,
without any electricity seen anywhere, we find a new night
sky with planets and stars and two galaxies we have not seen
before. How can there be so many?

One of our tasks at “Windpoort” is to help Tim with his bird
banding, which we do enthusiastically. From a mist net the
students gently gather violet waxbills, a gabar goshawk,
quelea, sociable weavers, melba finch, the white-browed
sparrow weaver.  Tim ring bands each bird, measures its
wing, weighs it, takes a DNA blood sample, and hands it back
to a student, who then carries the bird outside for release.
Later that day, one of the students (under Tim‚s watchful
care) also climbs a small tree to bring down a goshawk chick
for banding, etc, before returning it carefully to the nest.

Leaving the Osbornes, we drive across Damaraland and camp at
the foot of Spitzkoppie, grandly referred to as Namibia‚s
"Matterhorn" because of its shape (but not its height, only
about 6,000 feet).  Once again, the campsite is rugged and
spectacular, located outside a small local community where
Willem (one of our guides) grew up.  We are surrounded by
large, rounded rocky hills, which we climb and that evening
a village group joins us for dancing and singing just after
dinner.  We next pass through the old mining town of Uis,
where the tin mine has closed and put people out of work.
This is also a source of Namibia‚s semi-precious stones.  On
our way, we stop in another indigenous community, the Tsiseb
Conservancy, where some of the local people work as guides.
We are taken on a long hike into the barren hills by a young
man and woman from the Daureb Mountain Guide Center to see
San/Bushman cave paintings, including the famous “White
Lady” (actually a man). We continue to observe and discuss
the role of local people in tourism, and are beginning to
put together a clear picture of the interactions between
tourism, development, conservation and indigenous
communities.  Back in Pretoria, this will form part of the
core of the students‚ ENVS 84 paper. 

That night, we camp at Brandberg, the country‚s highest peak
(2,573 meters) under camel thorn trees.  Prof. Virginia
leads us on a guided tour of the dry river bed, where we
discuss the camel thorn (acacia erioloba), whose seed pod
looks like a large ear lobe and drops at the beginning of
the dry season, and the faidherbia albida, whose seed pods
are now scattered about the river bed. Local goat herders
are gathering these pods and putting them into large feed
bags. We ask the students to observe this, and tell us why.
 (Three years of drought have greatly diminished grassland
food sources, and the seed pods offer short-term food
sources for livestock.)

We next head for a welcome break at Swakopmund, pausing at
the cape seal colony to observe sea lions along the beach.
This is a breeding and killing ground: tiny black seal pups
being born here at this time of year attract jackals in from
the desert. Bones and half-eaten pup carcasses are strewn
about the beach. Seal moms are watchful over the tiny survivors.

The halfway point is broken with a welcomed laundry, shower
and restaurant food break in Swakopmund, on the Atlantic
coast.  In Swakopmund, Prof. Virginia lectures on Namibia‚s
abundant off-shore coastal fisheries and we visit the
Rossing Mine, the world‚s largest open pit uranium mine.  We
study the tensions between mining (which has dropped from
20% of Namibia‚s GDP to 13% in the last five years),
agriculture, tourism.  Is Nambia going to develop top-market
tourism to replace that loss of mining revenue?  If so, how
will this affect the indigenous rural communities we have
seen and their potential role in tourism?

Of-shore, Namibia has two major assets: a sea-bed diamond
industry (along with a large section of the southern coast
given over to diamond mining), and one of the only 2
remaining global fisheries that are sustainable (out of a
total of 15).  That fishery is a major asset and the country
sells concessions to European (EU) countries for rights to
fish there. Diamonds, fish, seals, cattle, tourism, and
mining shape and form this developing country‚s economic future.

But, as the goat herders remind us, drought and poverty
remain. During these journeys we also see for the first time
small communities of people living in poverty in the desert.
 They cluster in small groups of tin-roof shacks. Water
comes to them by truck provided by the government. Their
income is largely formed around raising goats and
participating at the entry level in tourist activities.  It
is a troubling encounter that slowly shapes our academic
investigation and to which we return during the remainder of
the trip.

We spend the next week in the desert, including two days
camping in a dry riverbed at the Gobabeb Desert Research
Station in the heart of the Namib.  We do field work in the
early mornings and later in the afternoons or evenings. One
student (Joy Shockley) has “happy birthday” sung outside her
tent in Damara at 0600! One night at Gobabeb we study
scorpions, and spot them glowing with a battery-operated,
infra-red lamp.  Many are in the trees over our tents! 

We are very lucky with the weather: cool, sometimes
overcast, never hot. But we are still gritty; sand blows
into our tents and covers our sleeping bags.  Some of us can
hear the sand along our shirt collars when we turn our
heads.  But the students are tough, resilient, uncomplaining
even when we give them the first of two long desert
examinations (oral in the field; written when we return to
Pretoria).  They are fully acclimatized; they can get up,
eat breakfast, pack, break camp and get underway in 90
minutes flat.  Kathleen and I are impressed with them and
their collective spirit.

The desert is a silent, powerful teacher.  We spend a hot
morning at Gobabeb driving deep into the desert on a Unimog
-- a large, rocking vehicle with two-foot-wide tires.  We
study vegetation, beetles and the golden desert mole, which
is blind, nocturnal and listens for its prey (crickets, etc)
by sticking its head into the sand. We spot its tracks and
the small depression where its head went below the surface,
to listen.

In addition to 5 large Readers for the Pretoria segment of
this term, we have also distributed to the students 3
Readers on the Namibia trip.  The students are assigned
sections, and in the evenings Prof. Virginia reviews each:
on desert ecology, „the water that makes men mad‰, sand
dunes, the Etosha Pan, wildlife, livestock, tropical
diseases, ephemeral rivers and their catchments, etc. Among
one of the most interesting readings is the comparison
between the book “Adrift” about a young solo racer‚s yacht
sinking and his survival at sea for 76 days, and „The
Sheltering Desert‰, about two young German geologists who
fled into the Namibian desert in 1940 and survived for three
years, to avoid internment (or possible return to Hitler‚s
Germany) during World War Two.  The “desert” of sea and
land are compared. The two books offer us the opportunity to
discuss water, food, climate, survival, desert resources, etc.
Between Gobabeb and Sesreim, we stop and walk into the
desert to the first encampment these geologists set up, in
1940. It is a 2 kilometer walk across barren, rocky and
undulating landscape with sharp drops into narrow canyons.
Their first site, which they called “Carp Cliff (they
discovered carp, of all things, in a water hole along the
floor of one of these canyons), is on a ledge sheltered by
an overhanging lip. The stonewalls they built; the
definition of their “kitchen” and “living room,” even the
shallow depressions they dug for their sleeping pits,
remain. It is as though they heard us coming and slipped
away momentarily.

At Sesriem we camp on the edge of the Namib Desert and the
world‚s highest sand dunes.  As we travel, by mid-morning we
spot the desert to our left: a line of dunes on the
horizon.  We debate the color: I think muted pink, but the
more artistic in our group suggest ochre, ferrous tint,
umber.  We agree on burnt sienna.  Whatever the color,
there is a sense of wildness, power and drama as the desert
draws us to it.  We will later see its deception as well:
mirages that look like water with tree “islands” or the
ocean with breaking waves.

Our formal classroom is, of course, the desert itself.  At
Gobabeb we climb a tall, nearby dune to watch the sunset.
At Sesreim, we rise at 0400 and drive 50 km into the desert
in darkness before climbing Dune 45 to watch the sunrise.
Dune 45 is about 800-900 feet high and probably a transverse
dune, a simple, wave-like shape with abundant sand
perpendicular to the wind direction.  Kathleen and I can
reach only the halfway point across a sandy ridge, but most
of the students scramble up to the peak.  They fall silent.
 For the next 30 minutes or so, with only the sound of the
wind, we watch sunrise over the Namib Desert.

The descent is fun.  Kathleen sets out, cautiously at first,
straight down the slip face of the dune.  I follow, but at
an angle.  The first step is the most difficult: The dune’s
face appears to fall sharply hundreds of feet to the desert
floor.  It looks like you will step over the dune crest and
plunge directly and swiftly to the bottom.  But in fact the
sand slows you and allows you to run across the face as
though skiing on snow.  Some of the students tumble down the
dune face; others sprint straight down or, like me, cross it
at an angle.  Is this proper behavior for environmental
studies students?  Are we damaging this ecosystem?  In fact,
these dunes are “alive”: they shift with the wind and within
hours all trace of our presence will be quietly erased by
the desert sands.  This is a powerful lesson for us.  There
is no trace of our coming and none remains of our passing.
Our passing causes only a momentary imprint. The desert --
and Africa -- are timeless; we are not. 

We spend our last few nights in the desert at Naukluft, a
small campsite along a dry riverbed.  The students finish
their oral exams, take walks, go swimming in large, flowing
pools. The desert teaches us many lessons. What matters is
that we made this journey and we bring back with us all that
we have learned, and will soon share with you.  

Happy Thanksgiving:

 

Jack and Kathleen