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A global education May 29, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Creatures, Eco-goodness, Education, Home and away, Hot, Namibia, Oh..interesting, Out of the city, The job, Time out, VSO.

One of the perks of being a VSO in Namibia is that we get Global Education trips (other VSO countries don’t get them!). VSO subsidise trips for about 30 volunteers to go to a particular part of Namibia to learn about an aspect of the country. The trips are decided and arranged by volunteers, and are a great opportunity to meet other volunteers from different backgrounds and living in different regions, as well as a chance to catch up with some of the group that I came out with. This trip was to look at Desert Conservation and Tourism, based in Swakopmund on the coast with a night camping at Gobabeb Desert Research Station in the er.. desert. And being a Global Education trip, and the VSO motto being “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives”, I feel it is appropriate to share my findings and learnings with you.

To the Coast

On Thursday we loaded up the combi and the Windhoek volunteers set off across the desert to the coast. I’ve been to Swakop before and found it unpleasant. It was windy and grey, the coast was unimpressive, and the town was oppressively German, like apartheid had never been made illegal. But this return trip opened my eyes. It was warm and sunny, the beach was clean and the ocean sparkling in the afternoon light, and I began to appreciate the architecture and localness of this strange small town. Swakopmund has a big German strong hold, and the centre of the town looks clean and well to do, the township hidden well away from the centre, just the way the locals have always like it. I also appreciated that no buildings or houses had high walls or electric fences like Windhoek, and it had a friendlier and safer ambience.

Arriving well before the others driving down from the north, there was time for a wander along the beach, admiring the old Lighthouse, the colonial buildings and the peaking sand dunes to the south, butting up against the ocean. I couldn’t live there, but it now seems a more appealing option for a weekend break, being only 3 hours drive away.

To the desert

Friday morning, we anticipated a talk from a local desert expert, who also happens to be the Namibian Surf Association President who I was very keen to meet, but he was in South Africa and therefore didn’t come. Instead we skipped off down to the Village Café for coffee and cake, before heading out to the desert.

The road south from Swakop to Walvis Bay is wrapped tightly between the ocean and sand dunes, which are a great tourist attraction. Quad biking, sand boarding, dune drives and all sorts are on offer….at a cost. Whilst being financially feasible, these activities are incredibly destructive to this unique and ultra-sensitive eco-system. Pollution, erosion and litter are destroying the delicate natural balance that many species have specially adapted and evolved to live in.

On a lighter note, there is a brilliant anti-drink-driving sign on the way into Walvis: a martini glass with a set of car keys in it, in a big red circle with a big red line through it. Translates as: don’t drop your car keys in your cocktail, as the automatic lock may stop working and it will take you forever to find your car if you are drunk.

We drove 2 hours into the middle of the Namib Desert, along the Kuiseb Delta onto the
Kuiseb River. This is an ephemeral river, which is dry on the surface with a deep underground water table. To the north are gravel plains for miles and miles. Much of the gravel plains are granite, the source of 70% of the world’s granite supply. Dramatically there is a line of trees and fauna, running along the Kuiseb River, from east to west. Immediately beyond the Kuiseb River are massive red sand dunes, stretching again for miles and miles. Along the road there were a few Topnaar communities, desolate clusters of patchwork metal shacks, with the odd donkey and goat wandering around the scrub and washing line of clothes collecting sand in the breeze. I wonder what they do for a living. No one seems to know. They used to thrive on the flora and fauna of the river bed, keeping much livestock, but since a dam was built downstream to prevent the drastic flooding of the delta every 8 years or so, the flora has since depleted as has the local Topnaar population.

We arrived latest at Gobabeb Desert Research Centre after another vehicle got a nasty flat tyre. The others had already set up their tents in the shade of the river bed, so we quickly joined them before being met by two American researchers for a sunset nature walk. These college graduates had been living here for almost a year – quite an experience! They took us on walks through the three very unique ecosystems existing right alongside each other: the gravel plains, the ephemeral river bed and the sand dunes. We learnt about how different animals and plants had adapted to live in this extreme environment, how they prevent water loss, protect themselves against the sun and predators and how they breed. On the whole, plants there have tiny, waxy leaves to prevent water loss, and lots of throns to ward off predators. Animal-wise, they have an abundance of beetles and other creepy-crawlies, like lizards, chameleons, ants as well as the odd donkey and
Cape Fox, hyena and jackal. There were also various sparrows and guinea fowl flocking around the river bed. The walk ended at sunset on top of a red dune over looking the magical desert vista. One can see for miles and miles in all directions, with every colour imaginable bouncing off the sand and rock as the sunset. To the east, a blue shadow was cast over the landscape, which we were told was the shadow of the earth – I don’t know if this is true but it seemed feasible and quite incredible to see.

Before the dark and cold engulfed us, we ran down the steep edge of the sand dune, plunging knee deep in sand as each step pounded down the loose escarpment, stumbling onto the harder ground of the dark riverbed at the bottom. Over-excited, our group of 30 eagerly wandered back to the campsite through the riverbed woods and set about making curry and daal for us all. Much laughter, stories and beer were shared around the fire under the bright night sky that night.

Desert Life and back to the Coast

I woke crankily on Saturday morning, after a night kept awake by the rustle of creatures stalking around the campsite. And after the freeze that gripped the Cape last week, and from previous desert camping experiences, I was fully prepared to freeze that night; I was wrong and was woken by a crisp warmth throughout the night. Thanks to the wondrousness of staying at a desert research centre, we were all treated to warm showers, which is rather surreal when you are in one of the driest places on earth.

Camp was dismantled quickly and efficiently, as many of us are now seasoned campers, and we walked up to the Desert Research Centre for a tour. We were shown their Solar Panels and how they store and manage their energy, as well as addressing the issue of the pending global energy crisis. Solar and wind are indeed strong solutions at the first instance, but on learning about the incredible amount of energy needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines themselves, and their relevant efficiency, the story doesn’t seem so straight forward. Add to that the fact that a lot of people, particularly in the developing world, just aren’t interested or don’t understand about energy efficiency and are quite happy doing it the way they know, as I have painfully learnt through my work, solar may not be the solution. Whilst these alternative technologies offer much hope for the future scientifically, they are not always the socio-cultural solution.

Gobabeb has been a research centre since the 1960s and is one of the leading desert research centres in the world, attracting visitors and researchers from all over; there is some really fascinating work going on there, much of it linking to the work I do in Ovitoto. For more information, go to the link:

We then watched a most insightful video (produced by the fantastic BBC) called Dunes, looking at how the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world, was formed. Apparently, much of the sand came from the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa, washed down stream through the Orange River into the South Atlantic. The Benguela Current then pushed it north and inland, when it washed up on beaches, and the fierce prevailing winds pushed them further inland, first creating crescents of sand, but then the vast valleys of peaks and troughs which distinguish the desert landscape. Fantastic. I felt very much like an ant in a sandpit.

Piling back into the vehicles, we drove back across the gravel plains, which resembles a moon-like landscape. As we approached the coast, the outline of the coastal sand dunes emerged from the horizon with a glowing aura of white. As we approached, we saw through the dunes that the fog had rolled in, a unique metrological event but common in this area due to the conflict between the soaring desert heat and the
Antarctic ocean current.

Back in Swakop, a friend and I headed for the nearest pub (a real pub!!) to catch the end of England’s dismal defeat by the South Africans. We didn’t even stay for the end to avoid abuse from locals. Joined by some other friends, we wandered the foggy streets of Swakopmund, where we encountered a German festival. On the main street was a beer bar, an Umpa-umpa band and some very oddly dressed people (some of this is just locals, others were for the festival). They were unseasonally announcing their Prince and Princess of the German community, who raise money for and go around visiting German community centres across Namibia. This did seem a rather odd concept in a country where the German population own a drastic amount of the national wealth, whilst the original Namibians are left on marginal land, living on the edge of existence. Whilst this merry group of Germans whirled each other around to the music and filled themselves with Tafel Lager, dressed in capes and fancy hats, a handful of shoeless, scruffy black kids hung around the edge, seeking leftover scraps of boerwurst hotdogs and dropped pennies.

That evening, volunteers who live in the North and haven’t seen the coast or a decent restaurant in months flocked to the fine seafood restaurants on the coast to get filled up. The night did take a rather odd turn when we ended up at some god-awful Afrikaaner nightclub, playing Afrikaans pop music in a setting similar to a bomb shelter. It was a scaring experience.

By the time I emerged on Sunday morning for breakfast at our hostel, almost all the other volunteers had left, many having to drive at least 9 hours to get back to their home village. We however had the luxury of sleeping on the beach for a few hours before a lazy lunch, getting back to Windhoek just before sunset.

Truly exhausted, I am now realising how much I learnt over the Global Education Weekend: about the desert, the coast, the Topnaar community, the Germans, as well as learning plenty from the experiences of volunteers in other parts of the country. I realised how damaging humans can be to the environment, and how the environment will just get its own back one day if we don’t start to take a little accountability and responsibility for our actions. I also realised how diverse and awe-inspiringly beautiful this country is; an unassumingly lovable space.

PS: Photos can be found on the Flickr link to the right. You will also find some pictures from a recent trip to the Okavango Delta in Botswana.



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