I lived in the desert of the American Southwest for about five years. My first house in Las Cruces, New Mexico was on the edge of town and overlooked a pile of sand that I first thought was left over from nearby construction. I soon came to realise that was just what living in the desert often looked like and that my house viewed a small arroyo, also known in various parts of the world as a wadi or wash, essentially a dry river bed with the water only flowing if there is a flood.
My second house had a view not only of the incredible Organ Mountains (now a National Monument) but another wide arroyo, this time a little greener yet no less forgiving in my eyes. I’d spend a lot of time driving through and working in remote desert thanks to my job and when I first returned to my hometown of Nelson, New Zealand after living in New Mexico I was shocked. The hills around Nelson basically looked like the land of Teletubbies because the green grass and trees appeared to be fluorescent and luminous after the landscape I’d gotten used to.
Back in New Mexico I’d often return to Las Cruces after a blistering hot day in the desert to relax on my patio which was probably a cool 105F compared to the 115F I’d endured at the Spaceport America construction site. As I surveyed the arroyo and mountains with a cool drink I’d wonder about the people who made this place home long before we had air-conditioning or light breathable clothing. Various Native American tribes have lived there for hundreds of years before white Americans arrived from the East in their thick heavy Victorian clothes to make it home. Desert animals are even more fascinating because they still don’t have reliable access to water or good places to cool off in the heat of summer. On a hot dry day this seemed insane to me when there were so many more forgiving areas to live in North America for creatures of the two, four or multi-legged variety.
These same thoughts had been playing through my head as we made our way through the Namib Desert. I would look at zebra and ostrich roaming the desert floor in the hottest parts of the day and wonder how they survived but more importantly, why they hadn’t migrated either north or south where life would be easier. Most of our drive through the Namib so far had been devoid of any signs of human habitation largely because the areas we travelled were either protected reserves or huge private farms where sparse herds of cattle and sheep were the only thing in sight. However, as we left Swakopmund to head for Namibia’s interior signs of human habitation began to appear more frequently along the sides of the road, mostly devoid of people but signs of their presence nonetheless. I was again fascinated by who lived here and how they survived, and by the end of the day I was surprised to find just how much an apparently sparse desert can offer if you just know where to look.
We were on our way to Spitzkoppe, sometimes referred to as the Matterhorn of Namibia due to the similar shape of this stark rocky mountain. But it lies in the middle of a desert plain a few hours drive from Swakopmund where you’ll find relatively few tourists, an incredible landscape of granite rock formations on a sandy desert floor and absolutely no Toblerone chocolate or skiing. Parts of the rock are estimated to be up to 120 million years old and as we stepped down from the truck to take in our first view of the area it certainly felt ancient.
We were in a region broadly known as Damaraland, a part of north-western Namibia that has long been occupied by the Damara people along with other ethnic groups including the San or Bushman. During the 1960s when Namibia was under South African rule and South Africa’s apartheid laws extended here, Damaraland became one of ten Bantustans or Homelands that were created by the government as a way of controlling the black population. On the face of it the creation of these homelands seemed well-intentioned. Ethnic groups would be given their own patch of land and allowed to govern themselves. The same thing was happening in South Africa and it was similar to the creation and enforcement of Native American reservations in North America.
The problem was that the real motivation was not only to contain ethnic groups in easy-to-manage areas away from white settlements, but also to deny them any claim to citizenship of either Namibia or South Africa so that they lost their rights. The idea was that because they were nationals of this new homeland then by default they weren’t nationals of any other country. It was essentially another way of ensuring the whites had full control of the areas they wanted, leaving the blacks to sort themselves out after they were forced to relocate to these lands which was done with varying degrees of brutality and success. Bantustans were controversial in South Africa and you can find a lot written about them whilst finding information online about the Namibian homelands is a little more difficult. These areas were dissolved when Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990.
But the human history of the area goes back far further than that, thousands of years in fact, evidenced by the ancient rock art that we were going to visit. After pulling into a small camp we had a hasty lunch before our guide briefed us. It was yet another hot day without a wisp of cloud in sight so I slathered on another layer of sunscreen and struck out with the group through the primeval landscape. The hike wound through the sandy desert floor and every time we turned a corner another incredible rock formation appeared, or at least a new view of something we had already seen. The wonderful thing about almost any rock formation is just how much they change according to the way the sunlight hits them or your vantage point. The magical part for me was knowing that humans had frequented here for thousands of years in the same hot dry weather. How did they survive when there seemed to be nothing but rock, sand and a few patches of dry-looking vegetation in sight?
We were soon entering Small Bushman’s Paradise, the more accessible of two areas containing rock art in Spitzkoppe, the other being Small Bushman’s Cave that apparently contains even better examples than we were about to view but involves a more lengthy and challenging hike. Our guide led us into the small overhang of a huge rock which he told us served as a shelter where San have camped for thousands of years whilst hunting in the area. Places like this are typical of the resting and cooking places used by hunter gatherers in the desert. The rock kept the area out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day making it an ideal spot to rest when most of the animals being hunted were doing the same. At night the rock walls provided both shelter from the wind and a relatively enclosed place for an open fire to contain heat whilst ventilating smoke on the chilly desert nights.
The guide explained that whilst some of the paintings appeared to be drawn purely for art’s sake, others were there to show fellow hunters what had been seen in the area so they knew what to look out for and whether or not this was a viable spot to base themselves. For example, rhino represented water to the San as they normally sighted them around watering holes, the direction the rhino is facing probably pointed to the direction of a nearby hole. The best way to find water in Africa is to look where the animals are heading in the morning and evening when they go for a drink themselves.
The art in this cave is thought to date from up to 4,000 years ago and we saw a mixture of red and white paintings. The red paint was crushed ochre mixed with animal blood with the white being made from crushed ostrich egg shells mixed with a type of white milk or sap from a tree. The actual painting was done by dipping ostrich feathers or perhaps animal bones into the colour paste.
Another excellent way to find both water and food in the desert is to know the trees. A relatively lush grove of trees might indicate a water source and a large bush might be a hiding place for birds or other animals taking shelter from the sun or keeping out of sight from other predators, thus providing a good hunting opportunity. Some trees contain water reserves in their trunks whilst other’s can be used to fashion weapons and cooking utensils. We also heard how trees and bushes were used to predict weather patterns, perhaps based on when something flowered or bore fruit. They also act as the Bushman pharmacy with many being used to produce medicines for various ailments. For example, a species of Adenium was used to poison arrowheads whilst aptly named Quiver Trees made quivers for San arrows. The Shepherd’s Tree can provide just about everything including food, a remedy for a sore stomach and a type of coffee that can be made from its roots.
We learned about these trees as we walked back to the truck and our guide also discussed the languages of this region, famous for the clicking and knocking sounds they utilize that we all tried yet largely failed to mimic. Languages using these sounds are collectively known as Khoisan languages and used to be widespread throughout Southern Africa, but Bantu migration several hundred years ago caused them to gradually die out until now there are just three ethnic groups left speaking them; the Damara, San and Nama.
We paid the guide then trundled away from Spitzkoppe toward our campsite near Brandberg just an hour or so away. Not far from our destination we pulled over at a tiny roadside craft market operated by local Himba. They are one of Namibia’s numerous relatively small ethnic groups and even today many retain their traditional way of life. The Himba are semi-nomadic and join a long line of ethnic groups in Africa who find it difficult to maintain this way of life now that so much land is either privately owned or set aside for reserves and national parks. This means they are largely unable to roam seasonally with their livestock to where the best food and water sources are so that you’ll often find them capitalizing on tourism instead of (or as a supplement to) their traditional means of subsistence.
This was the case at the place we stopped. Behind the rickety stalls we could see their homes at the foot of some shingly hills, constructed from sticks and mud to provide shade from the heat and warmth at night. We didn’t see many men as the women ran the stalls that sold mainly jewellery and similar trinkets. Children played in the sand nearby. The women were striking due to their hair that consisted of orange braids. The color came from covering their hair and skin with otjize, a paste made from ochre and butterfat that keeps off mosquitoes and the worst of the sun. Their heads were adorned with bulky decorations made from leather that I later found out was sheepskin and could indicate marital status or their place within the tribe.
Our Tour Leader had warned us that if we wanted to take photos we’d need to firstly seek permission and then either buy something or pay outright for the photos. A small basket was placed on the ground for us to put the money into if we weren’t already going to buy something. Many of my group felt extremely uncomfortable at this stop and I can understand why. If felt somewhat exploitative, like us privileged white tourists were forcing these people to put on a show for our entertainment, perhaps humiliating themselves in the process and somehow harming them in the long run. Whilst there is no doubt that this does happen around the world I think it is important to remember that this is how many indigenous people are now forced to make a living. As I mentioned earlier, their own government has generally been responsible for making it impossible for them to continue with traditional subsistence methods like farming and hunter gathering in modern times.
As a tourist, unless you plan to dedicate your life to improving conditions for that particular group in that particular country, the best thing you can normally do for the locals is spend your money. There are obvious exceptions such as when someone is clearly enslaved against their will or when something illegal or immoral is going on. But I personally don’t think any good will come from refusing to pay for photos or to buy trinkets from a roadside stall on purely moral grounds. The long-term effect is probably very little and the short-term one is that you’ve prevented them from making some money that day just to ease your conscience as you blow the equivalent of their weekly income on booze and food later that night whilst righteously discussing their plight with your traveling companions. In my opinion the best thing you can always do is just treat people with kindness and respect, if you can support their business efforts in the meantime then even better.
I learned a lot that day about how humans survive in the desert. As we pulled away from the Himba settlement I looked at the unforgiving landscape and was glad I didn’t ever have to survive in it without air-conditioning and a refrigerator, yet I maintain a huge amount of respect for any living thing that does.