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april 4th, 2004 -> sand lover I: namibia

Leaving Etosha and its hidden elephants behind, we struck off to the southwest. Just outside the unremarkable town of Khorixas, we left the tarred road, and the dust from passing cars began to find its way into our eyes and throats. The sun had turned the van into a microwave. When we pulled over to visit the Petrified Forest, the ambient temperature was at least 100 degrees. The only plants that survived there were a few stunted camphor trees and the very odd and very old Walwescia plants.

A local guide took us on a short walking trail that climbed a hillock strewn with sections of petrified tree trunks. One of the sections was almost 40 meters long. The wood still looked alive; you could count the growth rings and see the knots and burls. We asked the guide how the trees came to be petrified. His unintelligible answer included something about Korea and a mudslide - I think. It would have been nice to look around and try to get a better explanation, but it was simply too hot. During the twenty minutes we spent walking, my feet had become sunburned.

Beyond the Petrified Forest, the landscape began to get more interesting. We had entered a rugged canyonland of ancient water-worn scarps and boulder-pile mountains. After setting up our tents at a campground that I can only remember as Abu Dhabi, we got back into the van and headed for Twyfelfontein (“Doubtful Spring”), one of Namibia’s best repositories of Khoi-San (Bushmen) rock art. The Bushmen had chosen an amazing venue for exhibiting their paintings. The Etjo Plateau was an enormous mesa of red sandstone. Over millenia, huge boulders had calved from the main plateau, creating a jumble of smooth-faced stones at its base. The paintings were wonderful and plentiful; animals seemed to bound across every boulder.

The problem (or perhaps, blessing) of a large group is that it is difficult to maintain seriousness. At the Petrified Forest, Akshay wondered aloud what it was that could have frightened the trees so badly. At Twyfelfontein, everyone took notice of the painting of a giraffe that appeared to be mounting a rhino. And then there was the penguin.

Our apathetic guide could do little but identify animals that were obvious to us all. “This is a rhino. That is an eland. There is an elephant.” Then she pointed to a drawing that had us confused. “And that is a penguin.” I managed to keep a straight face, but most of the group started chuckling. The guide was not amused. “A penguin?!” snorted Gabriela. That got everyone laughing. We were hundreds of kilometers from the sea, in a desert valley hemmed in by sheer cliffs. It was the last place you would expect to see the dapper birds waddling. (The fact is, there are penguins on the south coast of Namibia, and it is possible that the peripatetic Bushmen hunted them.)

The next day was a very long day of driving. For the first few hours, we drove within sight of the circular Brandberg mountain range – the highest in Namibia, at over 2500 meters. After stopping for snacks in an old mining town near the Brandbergs, Paul drove us to a line of graves inside the town. We didn’t really know why.

“These are the graves of the Polish men who burned the Ethiopians,” he explained. “The Ethiopians are poisonous. If you are camping, and you need firewood, don’t burn the Ethiopians.” It seemed like good advice, though I had never felt the urge to burn any Ethiopians when we were traveling there. Only later did we realize that he was saying 'Euphorbia' – the candelabra cacti that grow throughout Africa, and contain a poisonous latex. For the rest of the trip, whenever a fire was started, we reminded each other not to throw any Ethiopians on it.