Notes from the bottom left

October 2005

The Erongos

The Erongo hills are a spectacular range of mainly granite intrusions just to the East of the Namib. The whole area has been decared a conservation area that is maintained by the owners of the land. It is rich in arid land wild-life and also in ancient rock art. As a trial, I tried moving my office there

I’m sitting here in the shade of a huge granite boulder in the middle of the Erongo hills listening to the combined voices of the Tredegar and Rhos male voice choirs singing 'Cwm Rhondda’. ‘He’s been in Africa too long’, I hear you say.

Actually I’m testing my new camping system in preparation for the coming season. I used to camp here with Mike but he has now left for Ethiopia and so I've got to learn to do it all by myself. So I’ve got a lot of new essential features for camping wild here in Namibia. And one of those is a neat little inverter that converts the camping battery’s output to 240v AC so that I can listen to the sound of Wales on the iBook.

I have new fridge. It works off the camping battery and it has a little light on the outside that tells me what temperature it is on the inside. But it runs the camping battery down in two days so I can only use it on the road. So when I got here yesterday I lit the second fridge which works on gas. It only works, however, when it is perfectly horizontal and there is no wind. its windy so I wrapped the hammock around it. The new electric fridge nearly did not make its flight test; as I was about to set out I realised that its male plug was incompatible with my Landover female. I quickly went to see my 4x4 consultant who sold me a multipurpose male that, with just a few simple adapters, would fit any female. The Namibians think of everything.



Act cc, Erongo branch office

13th October - The thing about walking in the bush is that you know that all the time you are being watched.

You are watched by little things and by big things. Mostly they stay silent and just look. Sometimes you spot them, most times you dont. The pair of Klipspringer was easy to spot because the male made noise like a duck and rose vertically twice his height onto the top of a boulder, the better protect his lifelong spouse. Classic pose, feet close together.

The guidebook says that the Klipspringer is a small antelope that has rubber suckers in place of feet and that its fur is hollow like quills so that if it falls, it bounces. It has big dark African eyes.

Not all of the animals are watching, however. The largest antelope here, the oryx, probably has no natural predators around here as there are, so I’m told, no lions. And so when I stumbled across him sleeping under a tree and he leapt to his feet we were both equally taken aback. Facing me at 3 metres, he clearly had two choices, turn and run or run me through with one of his long straight pointed horns.

The guidebooks say that a cornered oryx is an animal to be avoided. Some add it has a perfect understanding of where in your body are your vital organs.

I had did the Namibian thing; stand and wait while a decision is made. After much thought, he turned and crashed silently off through the bush. Back to the office, unpunctured.

It was a thirsty walk. I took with me a litre of water freshly drawn from the new tank installed behind the rear wheel of the Landrover. It was the first time I had tested the tank and realised that I perhaps should have filled and drained it a few times. But when you are thirsty its surprising how quickly you get used to the taste of silicone. I realised that when I got back to the camp I had to face the tedium of yet another perfect Namibian sunset over the desert, so I thought it wise to resist the temptation to drink to much water in case I was not able to do justice to the beer necessary to make the sunset bearable. One eventually gets used to the sacrifices necessary to face the exigencies of life in the tropics.

13th October - Feeding

The Namibians are a nation of carnivors. My doctor once told me that his favourite vegetable is pork. Before you eat meat in Namibia, however, it is traditional to burn it on a fire. This is always done outside, by men only, using unspoken rituals handed down through generations from father to son. Always real wood is used, never charcoal; its pyrolytic carcinogens blending subtely with the rich cholesterols of the meat. I attempt to mimic the processes, understanding none of them.

Part of the ritual out here in the desert evening, is the head torch. I put it on but the batteries are almost dead. (Why did Mike’s head torch never suffer from dead batteries?). I focus its meagre yellow beam knowingly on the slowly carbonising sosaties (known elsewhere as kebabs). For me, however, being colourblind, the colour of cooked meat is no different from its colour when raw so the whole process is a careful charade, carried out for no reason than that is what is done. The sosaties taste, as mine always do, like salted paraffin; probably something to do with the powerful marinades that they are always soaked in here before being sold. I was planning to have bread with the sosaties but I remembered that I had left the bread in the fridge at home so I had raw carrots instead. They tasted like raw carrots.

For pudding I was planning on fresh grapes but I could not find them. In part this was due to my new 12v fluorescent camping light. When I plugged it into the socket it did not work. Only after I had tried all three of my new camping sockets did I realise that there was probably a short in the plug I had put on and, in which case, I had now blown all three camping circuit fuses. Fortunately it is about half way through Ramadan and the moon was pretty full and, in the clear air of the Erongos, very bright. So instead of grapes I found a tin of apricot halves.

All the guidebooks on camping in Africa are agreed on one thing. Dont forget your tin opener.

In the past I have always relied on Mike to remember the things that I forget; I think he had a special section of his take-with list headed, ‘things Andrew will forget’. Branching out independently is always a fraught with technical difficulties such as these. But my daughter and son-in-law had thoughtfully given me a Leatherman for just such an occasion. For those who have never met Leatherpeople, they are the US equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife, a pocketsized bunch of tools of every description but with no instructions about what tool is appropriate for which eventuality. 45 minutes later, however, the tin was somehow open and I was soaking the apricots in Parmalat instant custard (yes, and our main communications provider here in Africa is Worldcom).

14th October - Its getting hot

Incredibly common

I’m not altogether convinced that moving my office to under a tree in the middle of the Erongos was entirely a good idea. I’ve just lunched on bread and cheese (but without the bread, vid. sup.) and the temperature is rising now. It is probably in the high 30s (I have forgotten to bring the thermometer) and I have stripped off. Not right off, the guidebooks are unanimous about never exposing any dangly bits in Africa. On account of the leopards.

If I sit near the edge of the long huge boulder in the shade of which I have camped, I can feel the coolness of the boulder. But scientific theory tells us that it is heat that is radiated not coolth. I’ll call it ‘intelligent design’, then I dont have to worry about explanations.

There are three birds pecking up the crumbs that I would have dropped had I remembered the bread. The guidebookbook says they are sparrow weavers. You know your identification is right when the book calls them incredibly, unbelievably, common.

But this one is not even in the guidebook

A black and white Chat. Not in the books.

A local variant, so the birding community tells me, of the Mountain Chat, the Dark Capped Mountain Chat. Now apparently renamed the Dark Capped Mountain Wheater



Always impeccably placed

The Erongos are made mainly of granite. They say that long ago there was a massive layer of sandstone covering this area and that here and there the less dense boiling granite rose through massive fissures within it where it cooled slowly leaving huge horizontal and vertical contraction cracks in it. Over the millennia, the sand eroded into the South Atlantic leaving the granitic intrusions behind like piles of immense primeval lego bricks bit with knobbly bits that never really fitted neatly together. So over the years the structures all came tumbling down and their sharp bits weathered round. Huge egg-shaped lumps sit on their sharp ends looking as though a slight push would send them rolling. And atop many, always impeccably placed, a baboon turd.

Walking among these things is not easy because most of them are far to big to climb up and too close together to squeeze between. But I had noticed a slope to near the top of one of the hills where the boulders were quite small. From the top there was a fine view out across the desert, always breathtaking, even in the dust haze turned up by the storm devils. Prominent was the Brandberg, the largest of the granite upwellings and Namibia, highest mountain at about 3000m (though only 1500m above its desert plateau) just discernible below.

The Brandberg should by now be a World Heritage Site but it isn't. It has been a sacred place here for thousands of years and is a magnificent gallery of rock art, even, and unusually for rock art, on the top. Its most well-known painting is the 'White Lady of the Brandberg' which is rather special because of the unusually good state of preservation of the white pigment. It is not, in fact, a portrait of a white or a lady but it was long recognised that the ‘Black Gentleman of the Brandberg’ would probably not sell quite as well. It was named the ‘White Lady’ by one of the first Europeans to see it and who convinced himself that it was (a) a lady and (b) white in order to establish a link between it (and hence rock art here generally) and Egyptian painting of a similar age, there being clearly, in his view, no way that the ancestors of the current inhabitants of the region could have produced such works.

Instead of the Brandberg they made an nondescript place called Twyfelfontein into a World Heritage Site because it has a posh hotel.

15th October - Rain

I woke up this morning to a dark grey sky and the sound of thunder. It is not supposed to rain in this very German part of Namibia until after the Kaiser’s birthday at the end of February. But I’m often amazed at the meteorological impact that just one camping brit is able to command. I shifted everything under cover and watched the lightning and the falling storm. But it never quite did the trick, the rain visiibly evaporated on the way down and never reached the ground. Things here often dont quite work as they should; not quite enough brits around any more I suppose.

Towards the evening of day, however, some of the rain made it all the way down. Rain always generates a variety of natural smells where it falls, depending on what kind of nature it falls on.In the Erongos it falls on countless tonnes of sundried dassie shit.

The dassie is the Afrikaans name for Rock Hyrax, a kind of large guinea-pig rodent-like furry omnivor that lives in the primeval contraction cracks of the granite piles and appears in droves towards sundown to munch its way through whatever it can find to munch its way through. Oddly, I have never met anyone who has owned up to eating one, from which I conclude it must taste pretty bad. Except that all the old rock art sites that have been excavated have revealed lots of Dassie bones; painters like eating Dassies perhaps, or maybe Dassie meat drives you to paint.

The guidebooks say that the dassie's closest living relative is the elephant. I’m unimpressed by this conclusion; it sounds like pub-talk between some old disgruntled field biologists after they've had a few. "Let's spread it around that the dassie's related to the elephant and see how long it takes to get into the guidebooks".

The various secretions of the dassie are of interest. At least, to those who have an interest in dassie secretions. Living in a hot dry climate it produces highly concentrated brown sticky urine which quickly sets on the rock to give it a fine french polish-like finish that seems highly resistant to sun and rain. There could well be a hitherto unexploited local industry here. Dassie turds are small hard round things that accumulate everywhere and seem to be largely immune from the normal processes of decomposition. So the Erongos are ankle deep in them. And when it rains, they pong like nothing else.

Galarella nigrata

Spotting an unusual animal is always exciting. You don't expect mongooses to be black. All the guidebooks say they are browish greyish. But the mongoose sitting on its hind legs watching me was all black. In the farlookers it had a fine deep russet tinge to its fur except for the end of its tail which was all black. I blinked and it was gone.