Text and Photographs Ron Swilling
Text and Photographs Ron Swilling
‘S pent the afternoon with a bull elephant,’ is how I started my email to a friend from Olifantsrus Camp in Etosha National Park. It was a rare privilege. Even more so because I had the strong feeling that this wise old giant had a large and deep memory bank. I felt sure, watching his calm composure from just metres away, that he had witnessed the transformation of the site over the years from an elephant abattoir – used to process meat from the elephant culls in the 80s – to a tourist campsite. A large metal frame with a pulley and several elephant skulls still stand as a grisly reminder. He tolerated my presence patiently as he savoured the clean water near the hide, only using the muddy mush further out as brown body paint to keep away the bugs. Elephants know what is what.
The grand and exhilarating experience continued in epic proportions. In this wild Eden, zebra, hartebeest, wildebeest, kudu, gemsbok and springbok congregated skittishly around the waterhole, warily eyeing the lionesses lying nearby, as the wind blew dust across the vast plains in great gusts and the sandgrouse circled and landed, shouting ‘Kelkiewyn!’ to all the world.
I left overwhelmed with the immensity and power of it. What could possibly equal the experience? At the next waterhole, I skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust. I had received my answer and spent long, quiet, happy moments watching the antics of elephant calves tumbling playfully in the mud before I reluctantly moved on.
THE LAND OF THE O’S
Galton Gate, Etosha’s western gateway, ushered me into a different world and I had to quickly adjust my thinking as I made my way out of the wildlife sanctuary northwards into the ‘O’ regions, slowing down for the goats and cows that frequently crossed the road. I was entering the Owamboland of old, home to eight Owambo groups, some still represented by royalty. Here, the road leads through rural areas characterised by makalani palms, oshanas (seasonal ponds) and homesteads, interrupted at regular intervals by the bustle of towns with their sprawling and sparklingly new shopping centres.
At the junction to Opuwo, a woman flagged me down outside the Sun City bar. I slowed to a stop, my intention to barter with her – a lift for a photograph. But, you can’t let expectations interfere with a good journey and I let her hop aboard anyway when I realised that we shared no common language. We travelled together communicating with smiles and sign language – and she graciously posed for a shot while we waited at some road works. As we neared her destination, she reached into her bra, took out her packet of money and offered to pay for the trip as is the local custom.
My next lot of passengers on the short gravel road to the Ongulumbashe heritage site was under the incorrect impression that my vehicle was a taxi and hardly greeted me as they piled in. It wasn’t worth the effort of explaining otherwise with limited mutual language, so I played my accidental role of taxi driver as expected. They were pleasantly surprised on disembarking that they didn’t owe anything. The short dusty road soon ended at a cul-de-sac where the larger than life statue of Sam Nujoma (Namibia’s first president), dedicated to the country’s liberation struggle, towers robustly above the trees.
OF PALACES AND BAOBABS
I didn’t linger. The highlight and my main destination at Tsandi was the Uukwaluudhi Royal Homestead, the former residence of King Taapopi, who now lives next door in a modern brick residence. When I reached the Lost Key shebeen (bar), I realised that I had bypassed the homestead and backtracked to find it on the outskirts of the town. The road sign lay inconspicuously on the ground against the entrance gate, baking in the bright sunshine. Unusually – and refreshingly – the Uukwaluudhi Royal Homestead is free of the glitz and glamour of western palaces, its European equivalent. A palisade of stout mopane branches encircles the large homestead and extends inwards forming a maze of passageways in the interior, built to deter wild animals – and enemies. The huts for the various living quarters and the areas set aside for specific and diverse purposes, from receiving visitors to storing grain, are found inside this circular maze. Nowhere else is a guide so sorely needed! This is a place that requires you to leave a trail of cookie crumbs behind you, Hansel and Gretel style, or to keep your eyes glued to your guide’s back.
The typical and traditional Owambo homestead design is repeated in a simpler and smaller scale throughout the Owambo regions, with a perimeter fence surrounding several huts. These days, however, with fewer trees and the availability of alternative materials, corrugated sheeting or bricks often replace the branch palisades, as well as being the construction material of choice for some of the huts inside.
Further north, behind the open market in Outapi, I visited one of my favourite places for absolute charm. Also revered as a national heritage site, the Ombalantu Baobab is a gigantic 1000-year-old tree, with a circumference of 25 metres. It would take 13 people with their arms outstretched to circle its base! The tree once served as a place of refuge for the Ombalantu people, who hid in its centre during tribal wars long ago. It has since said to have been a prison, a shop and a chapel. Today, it holds a lectern and a few pews. I am told that three couples have been married in its arboreal heart, a fine beginning for a life of growth and cyclic blossoming.
A distinctive Owambo character pervades the O regions. Women wearing the quintessential puffy-sleeved dresses add a splash of colour to the towns and a collection of shebeens lines the streets. They bear intriguingly wacky names like Top Life and Reality Bar, and their clients sit and relax in plastic chairs outside drinking the local grainy brew or bottled Namibian beer. I offered a lift to a mature woman wearing a crisp, clean dress and possessing a sombre Owambo beauty. A lift for a photograph. Nuns in vivid purple dresses posed happily on the side of the street, generously offering their good will free of charge.
UPSIDE DOWN HATS & LOCAL LIFE
Heading eastward, followed by dark ominous clouds and the promise of a rain shower, another favourite haunt drew me in a few kilometres southeast of Ondangwa. Nakambale, the simple and evocative museum, was home to Finnish missionary Martti Rautanen in the early 1900s. He was nicknamed after his hat that resembled a type of Owambo basket – an okambale – if turned upside down. Reverend Rautanen was instrumental in translating the bible into the local language. The thick walls and cool interior hold the old energy of the place and its last resident, his daughter Kuku Johanna, whose antiquated furniture has been preserved in her bedroom at the back of the house.
As the night and rain came in I found cosy and dry lodging inside the display Ndonga homestead in a hut marked ‘Storage hut for beers and other supplies’, weaving my way through the maze of passageways and using my footprints in the sand to mark my way. If booked in advance, manager Maggie Kanaante cooks up a traditional meal of mahangu (a type of millet) porridge – best eaten with the hands – and chicken and spinach, accompanied by oshikundu, a thick mahangu drink. She also takes you into the adjacent homestead to watch the women pounding grain with a large pestle and mortar, making oil from the kernels of marula fruit and weaving baskets from the fronds of makalani palms. It’s a friendly and easy way to be introduced to the fascinating culture of the Owambo people and to take a peek through the cultural window into their everyday lives.
In the morning the rain promised to continue and the goats were lined up against the wall of the old church for protection. An old ox-wagon watched, unimpressed at the commotion. It stands next to the small graveyard which holds the bones of the former residents deep in its soil. The sprawling century-old church is now only open for important ceremonies, while the Sunday worshippers flock to the church in the next street, which has been joyfully daubed in a coat of bright orange.
BACK TO THE ROAD…
Time had flown too fast and the road was once again calling, as was the next glittering destination. The journey of discovery, always best appreciated if taken slowly, had used up its allotted time. I reassured myself, knowing I would return to do it all again. Over the years it had become a colourful way of travelling through northern Namibia and a corridor into the Kavango and Zambezi regions.
WHERE TO STAY:
This article was first published in the Travel News Namibia Winter 2017 issue.