Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Glimpse of the Kalahari Desert




The moments before dawn surpass the sunrise as the best time to be in the desert.  Last night’s battles for survival have ended and today’s have not yet begun.  Last night’s chill hangs heavy in the air as the sun prepares to share its morning warmth.  The ethereal quiet that overwhelms desert visitors is the dominant physical force.  All of this begins to change as the sun starts its march across the horizon.  The warming rays cause birds to begin singing.  Reptiles seek out a spot in the warming sun and the other half of life in the desert springs into action. 

Early morning on the Karoo near Calvinia

A morning of deathly silence and immense beauty began to unfold in front of me as I stood in a patch of desert near Calvinia watching the day begin.  No birds new to my list passed in front of me however that did not diminish the immenseness of the desert’s attractiveness near Calvinia as it had been earlier as I traversed the R 355 road through the Karoo desert.  Untouched, untrammeled, and undisturbed African wilderness extended from one horizon to the other.  For as far as my eyes could see there was nothing except Africa as it always has been.  It was another reason that I was beginning to feel like I did not ever want to depart Africa.

Althea, the breakfast hostess at the restaurant I visited last night was working when I returned from the desert.  She mentioned a couple from San Francisco that used to travel annually to Calvinia to view the riot of flowering plants in spring.   She wondered out loud why so few Americans travel to South Africa.

“My guess is that it’s out of fear of the unknown,” I said.  “Only eleven percent of Americans have a passport and that means that only about thirty million travel internationally.  Most of them, it seems, go to Mexico, the Caribbean or Europe.  Africa has negative connotations to too many people and too few Americans want to find out if it’s true.”

Americans, for all of our wealth and presumed power, are extremely parochial and nationalistic.  Fueled in part by the hyper-partisan right wing media industry, many people believe that America is the best, greatest, and only country worth knowing and woe be to anyone who disagrees with that myopic point of view.  Consider the anti-French hysteria that gripped the nation not long after America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Vive le France!

Possessing more testosterone than intelligence, former President (and I use that word loosely) George W. Bush made the nascent political decision to attack Iraq despite any and all evidence showing that Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the September 11 attacks on the United States.  The country had been fed heaping helpings of lies and obfuscation leading up to that invasion.  Pictures were painted of mushroom clouds draped over the American landscape if Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were not eliminated.  Otherwise honest and reliable Secretary of State Colin Powell sat in front of the United Nations and said with a straight face that the United States had “irrefutable evidence” that Hussein possessed all of those weapons and probably many more.  The only solution was to remove them forcefully.  President Bush cobbled together his poorly-named “Coalition of the Willing” and began preparations to invade a nation that never once threatened the United States.

France did not see things through the same cocky set of eyes that George Bush possessed.  France told the President to take a deep breath, think about what he was going to do, review the data again and look for a diplomatic solution to the issue.  When Bush moved forward in spite of the evidence and then asked France to join his loose-knit coalition, France loudly and proudly said “no.”  In fact, France said “hell no.”  What followed was a display of child-like parochialism likely never again to be seen on the world stage.  Americans began dumping their Evian bottled water because it was produced in France.  

After the French debacle Evian is the only bottled water I drink

The facades of French restaurants in Washington, D.C., New York City and elsewhere were vandalized, defaced and in some cases fire bombed.  Making matters worse the once-respected United States Congress agreed to change the name of “French Fries” on the Capitol restaurant menu to “Freedom Fries” as a form of protest against France.  The right wing media glommed on to this nonsense and fanned the flames of French hatred.  All across America people broke out in unscripted and spontaneous chants of “USA, USA, USA” while the rest of the world clutched its collective sides and doubled over in uncontrolled laughter.


"Freedom Fries" - How incredibly embarrassing is this?

The French debacle was only one of many situations where American actions proved that the Bush Administration deserved no place on the international stage.  In the end, France had every right to thumb its nose at the United States for wanting to be a bully in Iraq.  Despite the collective right wing outrage to the contrary which country – the United States or France – was correct?  History has shown unambiguously that it was not the United States. 

“It’s a shame,” I told her, “that more Americans don’t come to Calvinia or even to South Africa.  However we have allowed ourselves to be scared into a corner and I don’t see us climbing out of that corner any time soon.”

About forty miles north of Calvinia the composition of the desert soils made a demonstrable and measurable change.  Vegetation became widely scattered and the landscape took on the appearance of a moonscape.  I diverted east at Brandlvei and searched the surrounding desert for birds.  The species composition here was markedly different than just a few miles further south near Calvinia.  The changes came about because the landscape was transitioning from the Karoo Desert to the Kalahari.

The Kalahari Desert (it means “thirsty land” in Afrikaans) is a large semi-arid savanna extending over more than 350,000 square miles covering much of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa.   As semi-desert, with huge tracts of grazing after good rains, the Kalahari supports more animals and plants than a true desert such as the Namib to the west.  There are small amounts of rainfall and the summer temperature is very high. It usually receives up to eight inches of rain per year.  The surrounding Kalahari Basin covers more than 970,000 square miles extending farther into Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, and encroaching into parts of Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Ancient dry riverbeds traverse the central northern reaches of the Kalahari and provide standing pools of water during the rainy season.

Previously havens for wild animals from elephants to giraffes, and for predators such as lions and cheetah, the riverbeds are now mostly grazing spots, although leopards and cheetahs can still be found. Among deserts of the southern hemisphere the Kalahari most closely resembles some Australian deserts in its latitude and its mode of formation.  The Kalahari Desert was once a much wetter place. Ancient Lake Makgadikgadi covered the Makgadikgadi Pan until its final drainage some 10,000 years ago.  It may have once covered as much as 106,000 square miles.  Despite its aridity, the Kalahari supports a variety of fauna and flora. The native flora includes acacia trees and many other herbs and grasses. Some of the areas within the Kalahari are seasonal wetlands.  This area supports numerous salt-tolerant species.  In the rainy season tens of thousands of migrant birds visit the desert wetlands.

Downtown Brandlvei was a madhouse of activity when I was there

Brandlvei is a tiny village plopped down in the middle of nowhere at the edge of the Kalahari. There are several stores along the main street, one restaurant, one place that passes itself off as a hotel (of sorts) and a gasoline station.  Edward, an attorney from Cape Town, was filling his Land Rover with gasoline when I drove into the station to purchase some water.  He heard my voice when I spoke to the station attendant and asked if I was Canadian or American.  Confirming the latter he asked why I was in Brandlvei and I explained about bird watching.  His next question, by now quite predictable, was about my impressions of South Africa.  My answer was, by now, equally as predictable.  Edward told me that the “contrast between whites and blacks is just as stark out here in the desert as it is anywhere else in the country.” My response to Edward was that here it appeared that the chasm wasn’t between the haves and the have not’s” but between the haves and the never will have’s.

“The blacks wanted to rule the country and they have been for twenty years.  All they have done in that time is to make matters worse.  At its current rate of decay South Africa is going to be like all the other black-dominated countries in Africa in a few years,” Edward said.  He then added that “It’s not surprising that so much animosity exists, however nothing is holding the blacks back from improving their situation except the blacks themselves.”  As with so many similar conversations I had in South Africa, Edward’s opinions were stated openly and loudly and directly in front of a group of black people standing near him.  There was no effort to hide anything.

Miles of seemingly endless miles of desert passed by me as I traveled north.  Intermittent stops along the highway produced new birds for my list as gemsbok and springbok began to appear on the landscape.  Just before Kakamas, the road crested a small hill and then descended into the valley of the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa.   It rises in the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho and then flows westward through South Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. It forms part of the international borders between South Africa and Namibia and between South Africa and Lesotho, as well as several provincial borders within South Africa. Although the river does not pass through any major cities, it plays an important role in the South African economy by providing water for irrigation.

The Orange River - Lifeline of the Kalahari

In the last 500 miles of its course, the Orange receives many intermittent streams and several large wadis lead into it.  The Orange empties into the Atlantic at Alexander Bay which is about halfway between Cape Town and Walvis Bay.  About twenty miles from its mouth the river is completely obstructed by rapids and sand bars.  The river has a total length of about 1,400 miles. 

Irrigation in the vast area downstream of the Vanderkloof Dam was made possible by the construction of two dams. Old, established irrigation schemes have also benefitted because regulation of the flow is now possible. In recent years the wine producing areas along the Orange River have also grown in importance. Irrigation in the Eastern Cape has also received a tremendous boost, not only from the additional water that is being made available but also owing to improvement in water quality. Without this improvement the citrus growers would have continued to experience productivity losses

In 1867, the first diamond discovered in South Africa, the Eureka Diamond, was found near Hopetown on the Orange River.  Two years later, a much larger diamond known as the Star of South Africa, was found in the same area causing an almost instantaneous diamond rush. This was soon eclipsed by the diamond rush to mine diamonds at Kimberley in 1871 although alluvial diamonds continued to be found in the Orange. Today, several commercial diamond mines operate on the last stretch of the river, as well as the beaches around its mouth.

Upington South Africa on the Orange River

Upington is the largest South African settlement in the Kalahari.  Nestled in the valley of the Orange River its wide quiet streets and thick riverside vegetation provide a peaceful respite from the scorching desert that surrounds the city.  Its municipal airport with a couple of flights daily to Cape Town and to Johannesburg serves as the focal point of much of what makes Upington the regional business center.

The Lonely Planet travel guide to South Africa said, without equivocation, that a guesthouse on River Street was simply the best place to stay in Upington.  Having carried Lonely Planet with me to every country I have ever spent a night in, I have yet to find a single thing wrong with their interpretations, the schedules provided or the recommendations they make.  It quickly became a no-brainer that I wanted to stay at this guesthouse. 

Upington is the jumping off point for treks north to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.  An amalgamation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park comprises an area of nearly eight million acres is one of very few conservation areas of this magnitude left in the world.
Red sand dunes, sparse vegetation and the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob show off antelope and predator species to spectacular advantage.  Kgalagadi is also a haven for birders, especially those interested in birds of prey. 

I traveled the road north toward the park for about 100 miles but turned around just short of the Transfrontier Park. Gemsbok dotted the landscape as I traveled north.  Most were in groups of two to eight and they seemed to be evenly distributed across the landscape. They are light brownish-grey to tan with lighter patches toward the bottom rear of the rump. Their tails are long and black in color. A blackish stripe extends from the chin down the lower edge of the neck, through the juncture of the shoulder and leg along the lower flank of each side to the blackish section of the rear leg. They have muscular necks and shoulders and their legs have white 'socks' with a black patch on the front of both the front legs and both genders have long, straight horns.

Gemsbok were widely hunted for their spectacular horns that average nearly three feet long.  From a distance the only outward difference between males and females is their horns, and many mistake females for males. In males, these horns are perfectly straight, extending from the base of the skull to a slight outward and rearward angle. Females have longer, thinner horns with a slight outward and rearward curve in addition to their angle.  Females use their horns to defend themselves and their offspring from predators, while males primarily use their horns to defend their territories from other males. Gemsbok are one of the few antelope species where female trophies are sometimes more desirable than male ones. Few large mammals are more emblematic of the Kalahari than is the gemsbok.

My quest along this road was pygmy falcon, a diminutive bird of prey that is slightly smaller but more agile than an American robin.  Pygmy falcon builds its nest in the dome-looking communal nest structures occupied by colonies of nesting social weavers.  This example of mutualism is difficult to grasp because the value the weavers receive from nesting near the falcons is not the least bit apparent.  Despite their being an abundance of social weaver colonial nests, sometimes attached to every wooden pole for a mile or more of power line, I had yet to see one. My patience was running low when, 100 miles north of Upington, I found a pair of falcons displaying to each other over a social weaver nest.  Satisfied with my views of the birds I turned around and began my return to Upington.  As I passed through the Kalahari Desert that I had just traveled without seeing a single pygmy falcon in 100 miles, on my return there were five pairs conspicuously flying around near several other social weaver colonial nests.  The last pair, the one nearest to Upington, was four miles north of the city.

Social weaver builds these elaborate communal nest structures on powerline poles and dead trees throughout the Kalahari

Since arriving in South Africa I had kept notes on the frequency and abundance of obese people I encountered.  I was especially interested in determining how many obese black people there were.  My interest stemmed from the plague of obesity that has overwhelmed the United States, especially among black people.  On arrival in Upington I saw my fifth obese South African and the first one that was black.  Why this population, black or white, is not overwhelmed with obesity is a mystery.  The United States holds the dubious distinction of having the highest obesity rate in the world.  Here a full 30.6 percent of the population is obese or morbidly obese. By comparison 3.3 percent of South Africans can be considered obese.

Once in France, after completing a gargantuan seven-course French meal that dripped with cholesterol I asked the waiter why I had not seen any obese French people.  Given the richness of French food and the love affair the French maintain with their food it was easy to imagine the entire country carrying as much or more extra weight than Americans.  “We walk everywhere go,” the waiter said, “and we drink plenty of red wine. I am convinced that is why we French are slender.”

The same might be true for South Africans especially those living away from cities where walking or bicycling are more frequent forms of transport.  Another thing that may contribute to the lack of obesity among South Africans is that unlike the United States, in South Africa there is not a fast food place like McDonald’s or Burger King on every other street corner.  Yes, they are there.  The golden arches have probably been erected in every country that has a pulse and, unfortunately, that includes South Africa, however they are not everywhere in South Africa.   There were more KFC stores than any other American-style fast food restaurant.  At least chicken has some potential for being a healthy food.


The N10 highway from Upington to the Namibia border traverses about seventy five miles of pure Kalahari Desert.  There is one small intersection with a dirt road about forty miles from Upington.  Otherwise it is completely wild and untamed and untrammeled desert.  Flocks of springbok bounded away from the highway as I sped west.  Herds of gemsbok showed off their terrific horns at three different places along the highway. Swallow-tailed bee-eaters hawked insects in one tree-lined valley, and Kalahari scrub-robins occupied every other reach of power line. Large predators were conspicuously absent from the conglomeration of wildlife which made me wonder what forces are in play that keep the population of ungulate grazers from overpopulating and ruining the desert vegetation.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater was conspicuous in shrubby stream beds along the route

My trip from Upington to the Namibia border was completed slightly more than an hour.  South Africa required me to first complete a police interrogation before completing the departure information before customs did a thorough search of my car and its contents.  Immigration and the police both scanned my passport and each told me they were verifying my information with INTERPOL.  Apparently the government of Iceland never put me on their wanted list when I skipped out on a parking ticket in Reykjavik sixteen years earlier because everything was approved.  While immigration was still in the INTERPOL database I asked one of the agents to check to see if they had any information on the war crimes committed by George Bush or Dick Cheney. The immigration agent gave me a huge toothy smile and said, “I love it - another American who hates George Bush as much as I do.”  She then sent me on to Namibia.

Probably ten miles of desert separate the South African border post (actually on the border) and the Namibian post in a nearby small town.  On the Namibian side everything lacked the feeling of modernity that travelers enjoy in South Africa.  Here in Namibia I felt like I did when crossing into Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland.  Everything was older. Everything was dirtier and as my friend John Sidle would say, everything was more African.

Nobody at the Namibian border post was quite prepared for my request to stay in their country for one day.  “I’m just bird watching,” I started, “and nobody I know has ever been to Namibia.” 

Each person at each stop of the Namibian immigration process looked at me like I was crazy when I explained the purpose of my trip.  The two inspectors who examined my car were at first baffled and then intrigued that I carried nothing with me in the trunk of my car other than a spare tire. “But where is your luggage,” the customs officer asked. 

I explained that my luggage was at my guesthouse in Upington and I would be returning there in the evening.  I then opened the contents of my miniature day pack.  It included a book on the birds of Southern Africa, a bottle of water, a highway map of Namibia, a granola bar, my passport, and a small roll of toilet paper.

“But you do not have enough for a long stay in Namibia,” the second customs officer told me when he finished rifling through my day pack. Explaining once again that my purpose was to be in Namibia for only one day (as sunlight was quickly slipping away) I was told that I needed to talk with a supervisor.

Daniel, a massive powerful man maybe thirty years old was built like a left tackle.  He occupied most of the space behind his desk as I entered his cubicle that passed off as a supervisor’s office.

“My associate tells me that you want to visit Namibia but for only one day.  Is that correct,” Daniel barked.

Explaining to Daniel that he was correct he wanted to know how far I was going to travel and why did I want to go there.  Telling him I wanted to travel about 100 miles further west to Karasburg and that my purpose was to look for birds and to learn a little about Namibia he revealed the real purpose for the amount of attention I was receiving. Apparently this border crossing is used extensively and heavily by drug traffickers. Because I was traveling alone and without any luggage other than my binoculars and my day pack, I fit a profile that Namibia customs had developed.

Frustrated, I said to Daniel, “you have looked everywhere in my car and found nothing.  You have looked in my day pack and found nothing.  You have patted me down and found nothing.  (I was wearing a t shirt, running shorts and Jesus sandals so there was little to pat down).  About the only place you haven’t looked in is my asshole and I promise you there is nothing there.  So, sir, what is the hold up?  I would like to spend some time here but if this inquisition is going to continue then I’ll just return to South Africa.  They seem to like me there.”

“Alright, sir,” Daniel said while still barking at me.  “You make a good point.  Now give me your passport and I will stamp you in and you are free to go.  However you must check in with me on your return this afternoon.  I want to make sure you were actually doing what you said you were going to be doing.”



The Namibia border control post - the modernity of South Africa has disappeared

Once when crossing the United States border with Mexico, my friend Jon Andrew and I fit a similar profile and were detained and interrogated by US Customs agents. Because we had minimal luggage and had been in Mexico only a few days we fit their profile and the suspicion began.  We were finally let go when I showed my US government identification badge to a fellow Federal employee.  We were released with an apology.  That courtesy wasn’t extended in Namibia.  Before leaving the border post Daniel made sure that I paid the $220 Namibian dollar road tax so I could traverse the 100 miles of toad to Karasburg and return.

The dry lands of Namibia were inhabited since early times by Bushmen, Damara, and Namaqua and since about the 14th century AD by immigrating Bantu who came with the Bantu expansion.  It became a German protectorate in 1884 and remained a German colony until the end of the First World War.  In 1920, the League of Nations mandated the country to South Africa, which imposed its laws and, from 1948, its apartheid policy.  Uprisings and demands by African leaders led the UN to assume direct responsibility over the territory. It recognized the South West Africa People’s Organization as the official representative of the Namibian people in 1973. Namibia, however, remained under South African administration during this time. Following internal violence, South Africa installed an interim administration in Namibia in 1985. Namibia obtained full independence from South Africa in 1990, with the exception of Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands, which remained under South African control until 1994.

Namibia has a population of 2.1 million people and a stable multi-party parliamentary democracy.  Agriculture, cattle and sheep herding, tourism and mining for diamonds, uranium, gold, silver and other metals form the backbone of the nation’s economy.   Given the presence of the arid Namib Desert, it is one of the least densely populated countries in the world.  Almost half of the population lives below the international poverty line, and the nation has suffered heavily from the effects of HIV and AIDS.

The aptly-named Cinnamon-breasted Bunting

As I drove west through the blistering hot day I encountered several bird species I had not been able to find just a few miles away in South Africa.  Namaqua sandgrouse erupted from the road’s edge at almost predictable intervals while lark-like buntings sang abundantly from electric wires.  Cinnamon-breasted buntings and black-chested prinia competed with desert cisticola for supremacy in nearly every thorn-filled waterway that I passed. Gemsbok and springbok were everywhere and one of the species of duiker darted across the road before its identity could be unraveled.  Again there were no signs of large predators.  Something was keeping these grazer populations in check only I was unable to figure out what it was.


Rush hour in downtown Karasburg Namibia

Karasburg is a town of about 4,000 people in the middle of the Kalahari Desert.  It’s the largest town for hundreds of miles in any direction.  Local information said that sheep farming was the main regional industry however in the 100 miles that I passed through getting to Karasburg I did not see a single sheep.  Karasburg is also a major truck stop for transport vehicles passing from South Africa to Namibia.  More local information said that the town had a busy train station but when I found it the station looked dilapidated and I wondered when the last train passed through here.  More important than the train was wondering where it originated and where its final destination might be. 

A waitress named Annabelle working in the restaurant where I ate lunch told me that despite its small size and relative unimportance Karasburg had its share of political drama.  “We had an election here last year and about 700 people voted in it,” she said.  “They elected a new city council.  The Southwest African People’s Party won most of the votes and decided who it wanted for our mayor.  But another party, the Democrats, said the election was full of fraud and they got the election overturned.  It only stopped when this guy that everyone liked was named mayor.”

What actually happened was about 800 votes were cast and after allegations of fraud the person selected as mayor was recalled.  Once removed from office, Ernest Anderson was installed as mayor. Annabelle had the right idea but just had a few facts out of place.

I asked her what people did to relax in Karasburg.  “Relax,” she said, “What do you mean relax?”  Annabelle said there was not much to do in this little town almost 400 miles south of the Namibian capital of Windhoek.  Making matters worse it is nearly 550 miles and thirteen hours driving to Walvis Bay, the nearest Namibian town on the coast.

“We have a movie theater and many bars here,” she said.  “Mainly what we do for recreation is we get drunk or get stoned or maybe both and then we fuck.”

HIV/AIDS is a huge public health problem in Namibia where the average life expectancy is now forty nine years old.  The virus is spread primarily through heterosexual sex involving high rates of multiple partners, low rates of condom use and very high rates of alcohol abuse.  Nearly one out of every five children under eighteen years old has lost at last one parent and frequently both parents to AIDS.  Recent surveys by the Namibian government revealed that eighteen percent of the people between fifteen and forty nine years old carry the virus with twenty seven percent of the people between thirty and thirty four years old infected.  With those statistics I wondered what the infection rate was like in Karasburg and how much the boredom of life in the Kalahari Desert contributed to that rate.

Daniel was nowhere to be found when I returned to the Namibian border post in late afternoon.  Formalities were much simpler and faster than when entering the country and I was quickly on my way back to South Africa where an immigration officer, on seeing the origin of my passport, asked me “What’s it like in America?”

How do you answer a question like that?   It is like being asked, “What does air smell like?” or “How does your skin feel after you shave?” I told the agent about Florida’s beaches and how they resemble those near Port Elizabeth.  I mentioned that much of southern Arizona looks exactly like the desert here where he lived.  I told him the story of how cold it gets in winter in northern Wisconsin where I am from.  I laughed at his response when I converted the -62 degrees F temperature in my home town on January 1, 1974 to degrees Celsius.  I told him about the huge amounts of snow that fall in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, about the rocky coastline of Maine, about the beauty of the North Dakota prairie and about the immensity of New York City.

Tallee, the immigration officer, said “We see America on television. We watch CSI: Miami, Law and Order, the Closer, and other shows like that.  If they are all true then there must be more crime in America than in South Africa!”

Tallee then said he wanted to travel to America one day and I asked him why.  “You have everything in America. Everything.”  He then added “You don’t have the race problems in America that we have in South Africa.  Everyone seems to get along.” Tallee needs to start watching MSNBC and other news outlets. At least I’m glad someone things we all get along in America.

An extremely emaciated woman approached me at the border post and asked for a ride to Upington.  I had been warned every place I had been to never under any circumstances give “them” a ride no matter what the excuse or reason.  I told her no and then told her why.

“But I need to get to the doctor. I think I have AIDS and I need to be tested.”  Given her emaciated condition I would not be surprised if he did have the virus.  Elizabeth, the owner of my guesthouse in Upington told me later that evening that I had made the correct decision.

“She could have had a knife or a gun or maybe both.  You just never can trust them especially when you are so isolated.  I just never trust them anywhere.”

After exploring the Kalahari for another full morning I spent my final afternoon in the garden of my guesthouse drinking Windhoek beer and watching the Orange River flow by me on its way to its meeting with the Atlantic Ocean.  Across the river from where I sat there were two black South Africans fishing with just a hook and a hand-held line. As they sat in anticipation of making a catch, three white people in open-top style kayaks paddled near the blacks.  Each white person had expensive looking fishing tackle in each of their kayaks.  They each cast their lures into the river and one white person quickly caught a fish that he immediately released into the river in front of one of the blacks.  Meanwhile, “they” sat on the bank fishing with a hand held line and caught nothing.

2 comments: