Weird & Wonderful

I’ll Never Get *Tired* Of This Playground

June 20, 2015
Ukrainian playground made of tires

I recently went to Ukraine for a week, for my grandpa’s 80th birthday. Cue horrified gasps from people who thought I was walking into an active war zone. But aside from stratospheric food prices (for a country where the average monthly wage is under $200 USD, $8 for a kilo of red peppers is ludicrous) and the looming fear of conscription, life goes on as usual in Ukraine. Five hours by car from Donetsk, there is no sense that war action is happening in the country. People go to work, sweet-looking stray dogs lounge hopefully in the markets, and parents drop their kids off at kindergarten.

Speaking of kindergarten, this is a very inelegant transition to talk about the most adorable playground I’ve ever come across. I’ve written before about decrepit Soviet-era playgrounds, and about the new-and-improved playgrounds being built all across Moscow… but I’ve never seen anything quite like this amazing place I stumbled on while wandering around on a very foggy, drizzly Saturday morning.

The entire square perimeter of the kindergarten building is full of weird little animals largely made of car tires and tin cans.

I don’t know how or why whoever built the playground got their hands on the contents of a tire factory, but they made amazing use of them. I didn’t have my big proper camera with me, so the small point-and-shoot had to suffice. It’s so weird but so delightful, so cute yet occasionally creepy… Without further ado, I give you Tire Playground.

Ukranian Kindergarten

Ukranian tire kindergarten
Ukranian tire kindergarten

Tire playground in UkraineUkranian playground made of tires

Ukrainian playground made of tires
Ukrainian playground made of tires

Ukrainian playground made of tires

MY FAVOURITE. So much detail! It’s equal parts delightful and disturbing.

Ukrainian playground made of tires
Ukrainian playground made of tires

Ukrainian playground made of tires
Ukrainian playground made of tires

Ukrainian playground made of tires

And there’s John Lennon, morose in the background.

In General, Writing

Procrastination and Learning to Fail

June 5, 2015

I’m thrown into a cold sweat at the idea of all those lost, wasted hours. It’s mortifying to think of how many words I could’ve written in the time I spent procrastinating from writing in the last decade. The Time Spent on Facebook calculator isn’t for the weak-hearted. Thank god there isn’t one for reddit. What’s weird, though, is that writing isn’t an unpleasant task… in fact, I feel the happiest, most productive and meaningful doing it. So why does the amount of time I spend avoiding writing eclipse the time I actually spend putting words down on the page?

The internet is flooded with cri-de-coeur pleas for help from fellow procrastinators and with reams of advice of varying usefulness (“Just do the work!” is about as helpful to a procrastinator as “Just cheer up!” is to someone depressed). There is so much written about procrastination precisely because it’s a bit of an epidemic. I particularly love the Wait But Why delightful explanations and solution. Tim Urban of Wait But Why receives more emails from readers about the procrastination posts than about all the other posts combined.

“And the emails aren’t quick, “Hey I liked the procrastination posts bye” notes—they’re thorough. And heartfelt. A good number of them mention that the posts made them cry. And they’re not crying because they were moved by my shitty stick drawings—they’re crying because they were reading about one of the biggest problems in their lives.”

This Atlantic article, Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators, is particularly revelatory. It’s a combination of relief and shame to read something that resonates so much with how I operate.

“Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. […]It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.”

That was my English class experience in a nut shell, putting off projects until the last minute because I knew I could pull something together the night before the due date and get 100% on it. All the short stories and poems I’ve written for school were without much effort but to lauded results. The barest display of writing ability brought perfect scores. But, as the article points out, “This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent.”

“If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.”

Ain’t that the painful truth. If you don’t try, you can’t fail. And I’m afraid that once I start writing, it will all be Very Bad and Not Good At All and An Unreadable Waste of Time.

The whole article is worth reading, but the key conclusion is that there are two types of people: those who believe success depends on natural talent, and therefore see challenges as an opportunity to fail and be unmasked as a talentless hack. And then there are those people who relish challenges, because they believe that talent can be nourished and grown, and therefore see challenges (and failure) as an opportunity to learn and get better.

“They fear nothing so much as finding out that they never had what it takes.”

While I’m not yet sure that I’ve managed to embrace failure in my writing career, I recently found a hobby that’s teaching me to be okay with failure.

How falling off rocks has taught me to fail

IMG_0577A few months ago I took up bouldering, a low-wall type of rock climbing without harness, careful clambering up routes, a.k.a. “problems”, of varying difficulty, where a slip means a fall onto the mats a couple of metres below. And what I find strange and interesting is how much rock climbing is slowly changing me, not just physically (I’m almost able to do one pull up! So close! Nearly there!), but mentally.

Our bouldering gym is small and packed, full of very friendly people who are very good at climbing. When you climb, you’re on display in front of others standing around waiting their turn and watching you succeed—or, more often, fail.

Initially, this public display of failure paralyzed me, similar to my writing paralysis. I would sit in the corner for twenty minutes watching others and then only climb the routes I knew I could do, because I didn’t want to fail—and so publicly. But then slowly, I would warm up and start trying routes that were difficult, routes that I fell off of again and again. I had never before taken up and stuck with an activity where failure was so constant and so public… and I suddenly learned that I didn’t mind all that much.

Bouldering’s teaching me the slow process of success, of failing again and again and again and again and yet again…until you eventually succeed. It’s helping me change my mentality about failure and being challenged.

“Before you are able to be good at something and do something important, you must first suck at something and have no clue what you’re doing. And in order to suck at something and have no clue what you’re doing, you must embarrass yourself in some shape or form, often repeatedly. And most people try to avoid embarrassing themselves, namely because it sucks.”—Mark Manson

It’s not uncommon to tackle a problem over and over again, over several hours or even several days, falling off every time. But the failure isn’t perpetual. You fall off, you adjust, you get back on. You try a different approach, changing your hold, a different move on a challenging section. Training in between climbing sessions to get just a bit stronger, get your grip just a bit tighter. Getting even one hold higher is cause for celebration. But that feeling of finally finishing a problem after countless attempts and slow progress? It’s incredible. It feels deserved, earned with calloused hands.

Am I still procrastinating? You bet your sweet reddit I am. Am I still afraid of failing at writing? As much as before. But it’s no longer a completely paralyzing fear. While there is no clear indicator of progress in writing like there is in climbing, no obvious “one hold higher”, I no longer feel as much pressure to be immediately good. Am I going to suck at writing sometimes? Yup, often. Am I going to produce stuff that is unreadable and unpublishable? All the time. But that’s okay. As long as I keep writing, a page at a time. Because that’s the only way to make it up the wall—by doing it.

Travel, Writing

How Not To Write About Travel

June 1, 2015

Reading my own writing is a particular form of torture. There’s for sure a place in Hades where writers have to re-read all of their old writing over and over again, existing in a perpetual state of despair. It’s a feeling very similar to watching a cringe scene on television (and oh my god I can’t stand cringe scenes, I had my ears plugged and face buried into a pillow through half of The Office) – a writhing, embarrassing discomfort of “How did I ever think THIS was GOOD?? How did I let other people read it?!” The discomfort increases exponentially to time passed since I last read that particular piece.

Which is why, having neglected this blog for a couple of months, I was cringing reading through some of the past entries. I know I keep saying this isn’t purely a travel blog, but the last dozen entries are indeed all about travel. Sometimes I feel like I capture the essence of the place in an original way, and I’m happy with my writing. But sometimes, despite my best intentions, I slip into a stereotypical kind of travelspeak, a National-Geographic-wannabe lyricism that, inevitably, comes off sounding nothing like National Geographic. This same style of writing has turned me off some travel blogs, so it’s embarrassing to see it crop up in my own writing.

I’m still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t for my blog, and am working on developing my blogging voice… which is way harder for me, somehow, than fiction. There’s something about this odd platform of speaking to untold strangers as though you’re speaking to a close friend, a combination of diary and public exposure, that I’m still trying to wrap my head (and writing) around.

In an effort to keep myself honest and my writing decent, I’ve decided to analyze what are the things that bother me the most in travel writing… some of them I have been guilty of, some of them I hope I get called out on should I ever use them. Some are blogging practices, some are language use, and some are just the whole attitude to travel writing.

1. Best kept secret / hidden gem

A secret underground flamenco society that had evaded outsiders for millenia until you, intrepid explorer, stumbled on it, is a best kept secret. A tiny cliffside restaurant in a small fishing village never frequented by tourists could be a hidden gem. Patagonia is not a hidden gem. The entire city of Prague is not a best kept secret. A secret isn’t something known (and frequented by) millions of tourists each year. If I read that, I just assume the writer isn’t very good at secrets. Or travel.

2. Any city description where “old and new, ancient and modern” is presented as a defining characteristic.

As pointed out by my ever-favourite travel writing expose, Smile When You’re Lying, welcome to every city, everywhere. That’s how life, and progress, work. Whether in Europe or Asia, Africa or South America, you can find a McDonalds next to a historical monument, ancient buildings contrasted against rising skyscrapers. That’s not to say that this is an inherently bad thing to write about – the particulars of the contrast could be genuinely fascinating in each location, and writing about the encroachment of modern Cairo onto the pyramids, or the Beijing hutongs being reinvented by rising tourism, could be a wonderful way to capture an aspect of the place. But presenting “contrast of old and new” as a revelatory observation and a unique characteristic in and of itself is just lazy writing.


3. Unique! Breathtaking! Must-see!

Sometimes it feels like in the early days of travel, a secret cabal of editors put together a list of the only twenty words allowed to describe travel destinations, and we’ve been using them non-stop since. I’m guilty of this – my Africa posts are bloated with unnecessary hyperbole, like there was a sale on adjectives and I cleared out the store. I’m learning, slowly, to mercilessly cull adjectives from my writing, especially the empty, sugary Amazings and Uniques and Incredibles.

4. “Indescribable”

Then why even bother writing about it if you can’t describe it?

5. Authentic / Real

Unless you’re comparing the real Paris to the replica in Tianducheng, China, any aspect of Paris is just as real and authentic as any other one. It’s not just a set piece from Amelie, but a real place where all sorts of real people live and go about their daily lives that don’t always involve berets, baguettes, wine, and passionate lovers. Some aspects of a place may not fit with a visitor’s media-glossy expectation of it. So much so, that the Paris Syndrome is a real thing – a disillusionment and culture shock between expectation and reality so acute that it requires a 24-hour help line (run by the Japanese embassy, since it’s an affliction predominantly striking Japanese tourists). I’d rather hear about the unexpected sides of a city, than anything deemed “authentic”.

6. Being an authority on a place after a week

A post about your ten favourite meals in Rio during your two-week vacation? Awesome! A post about the ten best restaurants in Brasil after the same length trip? Unless you’re a gang of Michelin Guide writers, you don’t have the knowledge or authority for the task. I know a lot of content on the internet is recycled. Hell, probably every single item on this list can be found on twenty other blogs’ “How Not To Write About Travel” posts. There are plenty of topics that could be written about after a short trip… no need to pretend insider’s knowledge.

7. Travel as invariably life-changing

There is no doubt that for many, myself included, travel changed their lives – or at least altered them. It is perspective-changing and mind-opening, and part of the allure of travel for me is how it strips me down to the basics of me, plucks me out of my day-to-day life and deposits me somewhere wholly alien. And yet, so much of travel writing now seems nothing BUT soul-clutching manifestos of life meaning found after a drive through Portugal. Call it the Eat Pray Love effect or the Wild effect, it’s good in moderation… but if every trip is transcendental, no trip really is.

8. Everything is Awesome!

And its cousin, Everything is Awful! Travel is much like real life – and is, in fact, real life, albeit displaced. Yes, a lot of travel is Friendly Locals and Orgasm-Inducing Cuisine and Pristine Beaches and Stunning Architecture and Once-In-A-Lifetime Sunsets (see point 7, above). And yes, some travel is Dangerous Drivers and Wily Pickpockets and Tourism Scams and Food Poisoning and Horrible Weather Events. And both can happen interchangeably on a single trip. But much like I wouldn’t watch a movie that’s one-emotional-note throughout, I wouldn’t want to read writing where the writer is either constantly in paroxysms of euphoria, or in the depths of misfortune and despair (though the latter is at least more entertaining, in a Schadenfreude kind of way).

Those last two points are ones I’m trying to be particularly conscious of in my own writing. It’s hard to find that sweet spot of writing honestly about a place without hyperbole while presenting it in a new, interesting light. It applies to other writing, too, but travel writing is particularly susceptible to idealized, glossy treatment that doesn’t reflect the actual place in the least.

Africa, Travel

If You’re Lost in the Desert

March 26, 2015
Desert, Namibia

If you’re lost in the desert, shade can be death. The spindly trees stretching along a long-dried-out river bed looked so inviting, promising relief from the 45C heat. As I looked wistfully at the shade below the branches, our driver, Reinier, shook his head in caution “If you sit down under that tree, you won’t get up again.”

A sort of calmer, South African Steve Irwin full of fascinating life stories and a deep love for nature, Reinier was much more than a driver. When we arrived at our desert campground and found out that the owner was out of town for a few days and thus unavailable to take us on a desert walk, Reinier took a group of us into the desert himself. This isn’t a task to be undertaken lightly, since the desert is seriously deadly a creative plethora of ways.

What is considered a desert is as varied as what is considered a forest – from wide dunes, empty and rolling like waves, to this, a landscape of low dry vegetation, varying in shades of red, brown and yellow, valleys nestled within small hills, a line of trees tracing out what used to be an ancient river bed. It doesn’t look all that deadly at first glance. But Reinier dissuaded us of this. Being lost here is as incompatible to life as being stranded in rolling sand dunes. I was initially full of bravado – “How hot can it really be!” – but it didn’t take long to realize that death and delirium would come reallllly quickly if lost out there.

However, there are some strategies to increase your chance of survival.

DESERTpanoramaYou’ll need water, and you’ll need shelter.

First, the water. Find a desert melon – they grow on low vines along the ground, small and green and filled with enough moisture to help you survive. Don’t eat the random plants and grass growing around though… some of them are moisture-sapping, making you more dehydrated after consuming them (a.k.a. killing you quicker, rather than saving you).

No desert melon? No problem… See any fresh oryx dung around? The fresher the better. Squeeze the moisture out of that sucker and drink it. Poop water or dying of dehydration, your choice.

Speaking of oryx, don’t get within 50 metres of one – those rapier-straight horns are no joke, and they don’t much like company. You could find yourself handily impaled before you’ve had a chance to inquire about the availability any fresh dung.

Now that you have water, you need shelter from the punishing heat in a landscape that almost never sees a cloud. Back to those trees – the shade may be inviting, but that’s where poisonous ticks and scorpions lay in wait, waiting for animals to come hide out of the sun. Instead, bury yourself in the sand, head and all. The sand is porous enough that enough air gets through to allow breathing, but protecting you from the direct sun.

DESERT2A few of you lost together? Follow the example of every scary movie group of misfits and split up. Except unlike exploring a creepy rumoured-to-be-haunted castle in a slasher flick, splitting up in the desert actually maximizes your chances of survival. If your group of six travels together and finds one desert melon, split between you it won’t save anyone. But traveling in groups of two parallel to each other, you’re not only improving your chances of finding more melons, but one melon split between two people would realistically improve survival.

Back at the campground, after that grueling yet extremely educational three-hour walk in the heat, I floated submerged in a tiny pool not much bigger than a jacuzzi, and about as warm, trying to stave off a headache from overheating.

That night we followed our established pattern of foregoing tents in favour of sleeping on the ground under the stars, below a tiny stone wall separating the campground from a small man-made watering hole. The wall was really just decorative, a way of delineating the boundary between the domains of man and desert, and as I lay under a sky thick with stars, herds of zebras skittishly snorted a few metres away. They passed back and forth in the night, the clattering of hooves weaving in and out of my dreams of heat and sand and being lost. At one point, one of our group mates woke up to see an oryx having made its way over the wall and gently sniffing at a peacefully sleeping camper. It bounded away at the light of a phone camera.



Africa, Travel

Finally, Sossusvlei

March 19, 2015

Years ago, I saw a surreal image in National Geographic that I couldn’t believe was an unmanipulated photo. It was otherworldly, the colours all wrong – black trees writhing out of blue ground against a backdrop of vivid orange. It had been taken at sunset at Sossusvlei, a salt pan in the Namib desert where petrified skeletons of trees dry out among red dunes.

That photo captivated me and I kept the cut-out picture in my desk for years, an illustration of peculiar beauty and distant adventure and, especially, an inspiration to travel. But I never thought I’d see the place in person – Namibia seemed so remote, Sossusvlei an unreachable place in a desert halfway around the world.

DESERT_SOssusfromfarEven when I booked this trip, I didn’t immediately realize that we would be going to THAT place, the one from the photo. My first view of it was from the top of a dune, where the sand dropped away to a deep bowl, the salt pan a shimmering mirage edged by skeletal trees. The ground is a honeycomb of deep fissures, dry and cracked open by the relentless sun. Heat radiates off of it like a furnace, warping the air, and the trees are spaced apart and twisted, as though frozen in the middle of convulsions. Their bark is long gone, the branches spiralling up as though they are being wrung out of the last drops of moisture, fragile and enduring at the same time.

DESERT_SOssustrees3It was just brilliant being there, in this surreal landscape that feels completely sci-fi. Perhaps what earth would look like post-apocalyptically, when the last trace of humanity is gone.

But, without being too schmaltzy about it, standing on that salt pan also meant that instead of just saving photos of awesome places in desk drawers and dreaming about traveling some day, I was finally actually going to these places, taking my own photos, making my own travel inspiration.

After I came home, I posted the header photo here on reddit and imgur, and it took off for a brief moment internet popularity, being seen by over a million people in two days. While I’m very aware that the credit goes not to my photography skills, but to people’s fascination with this surreal place, nevertheless, it felt like it came full circle.

I realize how lucky I am to have the ability to travel right now, and I don’t want to squander the opportunity. Not everyone understands why I would be spending most of my money to travel right now, at a time when others are saving for mortgages, weddings, cars, babies… But everyone has different priorities, different things driving them to work, to save, to spend. Mine are, right now, this – salt pans and sand dunes, planes and trains. I’d love to be able to travel until I’m old and decrepit, still hoisting my backpack when I’m 90. But realistically, it might not be something I can do later in life, when work or family or other responsibilities might hold me back from being able to travel. So I travel now, as much as I can.


Africa, Travel

Sunrise on Dune 45, Namibia

March 12, 2015
Sunrise on Dune 45 over the Namib Desert, Namibia

Forty metres up the dune, I had to stop and lean over, gasping, hands on knees, my lungs burning in the pre-dawn chill, my mouth tasting sharp and metallic and kinda like my lungs were bleeding. Which is never a good thing. On either side of the narrow ridge leading up into the darkness, the edges of the dune fell away steeply. I had left my shoes at the bottom but was still (stupidly) wearing socks, and each of them was now stuffed with a softball-sized lump of sand. I emptied them into the wind and continued up, my feet sinking almost to the knee into the dune, swearing quietly under my breath.  The undulating dune tops were ghostly through the dawning light, and the road below us wound with the sparse headlights of others preparing to follow in our steps.

Climbing up Dune 45 in time to watch sunrise from the top is a favourite Namib desert tourist tradition. Our group were keeners, though (totally my type of people), and we were the first ones in the tiny dune 45 parking lot that morning, starting the climb in the shifting, pre-dawn darkness.

Eighty metres sounds dismissible. Usain Bolt ran one hundred in under ten seconds. I’m in good shape, I’ve ran half-marathons before. So, I was expecting a quick sprint to the top, to arrive there barely out of breath and within five minutes. Joke was on me, though. I didn’t count on the sand, devious and so fine that it poured like water from under my feet, making me sink knee-deep with each step. The wind was biting, the cold desert night not yet melted away under the heat of the sun, and we moved up painfully slow, each step an effort.

But the view was worth all the clambering and sweating and swearing. At the flat top, our whole group sat in a line, huddling for warmth, and watching as the desert slowly woke up. The sun is fierce and golden right away, spilling over the dunes and immediately warming up everything in its path. The descent is much faster that the climb – you just step off the edge and careen down the dune at top speed, churning up a wake of sand, and hoping you don’t trip and eat sand.


Africa, Travel

Skydiving in Swakopmund

March 5, 2015

Swakopmund is a sleepy tourist town perched where the Namib desert meets the Atlantic ocean, and it specializes in providing adrenaline in the desert (and above it) for willing adventurers.

As we sat in the excursion company’s office watching the video outlining our daredevil options, I had an internal crisis. I like to think of my myself as daring and adventurous, yet I’m also pretty anxious and over-thinking. I frequently have to evaluate if a worry I feel is justified, my instincts rightfully telling me to back up… or if it’s just blown out of proportion with anxiety, preventing me from doing something excellent. I’ve always wanted to skydive, and yet the concept of jumping out of an airplane made every worst case scenario alarm in my head go off at once.

So when I signed my name up for the next day’s skydive, I was somewhere in the confusing middle ground between very excited and very terrified.

Skydiving in Swakopmund, NamibiaHowever, I’m also excellent at self-convincing, and have a well-worn strategy: I just imagine that this is my life now – whatever the situation may be. Like when the temperature dipped over 40C, and the sun felt like it was slowly skinning me, I thought (while wringing sweat out of my shirt) “This is just my life now, I am someone who thrives in heat.” And the heat somehow became a tiny bit more bearable.

So the following day, as we climbed into a minibus that took us into the desert, to the tiny tarmac of Ground Rush Adventures, as I suited up and strapped in, I blanked out all thoughts except, “This is just my life now – I am a skydiver, leaping out of planes over the desert and the ocean. It’s just what I do now.”

I figured if I pretend to be cool, calm and confident, then maybe I’d feel it. Fake it ’till you make it.

Skydiving in Swakopmund, NamibiaThe airplane was tiny, just big enough for two tandem pairs, and a fifth person – who in our case was Gregoire, one of the instructors, doing a jump for fun from 4,000 feet (you can see his departure in the video above). Seeing him casually dive out of the plane head-first wasn’t reassuring, somehow. Oh, and the plane didn’t actually have a door – and as we were simply sitting on the bottom of the plane, right beside the gaping opening, I tried to surreptitiously cling onto anything that looked sturdy enough (instructor included).

I expected some kind of a countdown, a few moments to steel myself, but when the jump came, it came so suddenly that I was in the air before I realized what had happened. One moment we were on the edge of the plane as I dutifully tucked my feet under and threw my head back… and the next I was tumbling through the emptiness, my mind suddenly realizing that I willingly jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet into the vast and open sky.

The first two seconds were just the wild howl of my survival instinct wishing to claw its way back into the plane and into safety… but then I realized how beautiful it is. At 10,000 feet, the ground is so far below that it doesn’t look like it’s coming closer during the fall, adding to the sense of floating. The desert, red and bulbous with dunes, stretches out on one side, curving into the gleaming ocean, where a low bank of clouds was rolling in like waves. It’s surreal to be surrounded on all sides by air and nothingless, floating through it so far from the ground.

Skydiving in Swakopmund, NamibiaThe moment of the chute being pulled is literally breathtaking, the sudden g-force a shock after the weightless free-fall. But then the tandem instructor gave me control of the chute, and (after he assured me that I “can’t fuck it up”) we did some fun side-spirals down to the ground, to a faultless, dandelion-soft landing.

The adrenaline rush is unlike anything else. It made me feel wondrously alive, exuberantly so. And despite any past reservations, I wanted to march right back up to that plane and jump again. And again. And again.

Quad biking in the Namib Desert, NamibiaEarlier in the day I’d also gone quad biking in the desert, climbing up dunes in ATVs – which, it turns out, are very different from handling bikes or cars.

I was constantly on the edge of my comfort zone, maxing out the throttle, and it took all I had to keep my focus and control of the ATV. The ride was a wild careen up and down steep dunes, climbing shifting sand only to turn sharply and speed back down to the next incline. It was terrifically fun, and a great way to get into the heart of the dunes.

The desert is an optical illusion, playing tricks on the mind – dune edges seem like flat land while straightaways appear to drop down into imagined valleys, and the sand undulates in the shimmering heat. Everything is too bright, the sand unflinchingly yellow, the sky devastatingly blue. And nothing else around, no reprieve for the eyes from the endless expanse of sand under the endless expanse of sky, no kink in the landscape for the gaze to rest on.

When we stopped for a photo break, the wind whistled through the ATVs, turning them into mournful, eerie wind instruments. They sang in a chorus of soft metal trembling, adding to the sense of the otherworldly and surreal.

Quad biking int he Namib Desert, Namibia

Africa, Travel

Under the Stars in Spitzkoppe, Namibia

February 26, 2015
Spitzkoppe, Namibia

Sometimes the best intentions are waylaid by unforeseen circumstances.

In my case, the intention was a guided walk around the granite cliffs of Spitzkoppe to the ancient rock paintings in Bushman’s Paradise… and the unforeseen circumstances were 40+C heat and a tiny bar with cold beer, a shady patio, comfortable hammocks, good friends, and a pair of adorable, domesticated meerkats (more on those later).

As I sipped an icy beer mixed with pineapple Fanta (a Namibian shanty of our own creation) while sprawled in the shade in a hammock with a meerkat curled up on me, I looked out into the shimmering heat of the yellow cliffs, the ground practically sizzling, and decided that today I wasn’t going to be a proactive tourist visiting all the sites. Today I was going to siesta with a vengeance.

We had gone south from Damaraland, following the line of the distant coast to Spitzkoppe, the “Matterhorn of Africa”.  Rounded granite cliffs rose up all around us, smooth and bulbous like massive cairns and more than 700 million years old. It was like driving through a graveyard for giants, the elevation and the heat rising steadily.

Spitzkoppe, NamibiaThese types of cliffs–dome-shaped, steep-sided, bald rock cliffs–are also called bornhardts. At Spitzkoppe they spring up out of the flat dry land, some clustering, others standing solid and solitary apart.

Our campground was nestled beside one of these curving domes, and at first we set up tents under the shade of the lone tree… But a thorough campsite exploration discovered a cave within the cliff, dry and sandy-bottomed, the rock walls stained with candle soot and sloping up to the blue sky above. In a gleeful moment we decided scorpions be damned, we’re having a sleepover under the stars, and took down the tents, dragging just the sleeping pads and sleeping bags into the cave.

By the way, the scorpion concern wasn’t just a baseless worry. At one point back at the bar, Tom, one of the domesticated meerkats (who was actually a girl meerkat, as was her sister Jerry), suddenly began to energetically claw at the ground near our feet.

As we watched, horrified, she pulled a huge brown scorpion out of the sand and proceeded to delicately eat it, spitting out the sting. She then went back to nap sprawled in the shade as we hurriedly gathered up our feet.

Spitzkoppe, NamibiaThose meerkats, though. Oh man.

When I first walked up to the bar and saw one star-fishing on the cool concrete, I was delighted at seeing a wild meerkat up close. But when I realized that not only were they domesticated, but very willing to be cuddled, I almost imploded with happiness.

If the trip had ended right then and there as I was cradling a sleepy, purring meerkat, I wouldn’t have minded because my life was at its absolute apex.

They are interactive and exceptionally curious, clambering all over the table in exploration of our hands, glasses, cigarette butts, watches, bracelets, hats. There was something reminiscent of tiny raccoons about them, the same dexterous and humanoid use of paws, and the same mischievous glint in their eyes.

I spent most of my time at the bar trying to figure out a way to convince Canadian border agents that the two meerkats in my luggage were essential service animals.

Meerkat, Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Domesticated meerkats at Spitzkoppe, Namibia

Once the sun rolled down from its hottest point and we had run out of beer money, we decided to walk back to the campground and explore the famed Rock Bridge nearby. The overhang of rock was visible from our campsite, like a distant eye through which the setting sun’s rays slanted sharply.

The cliffs look deceptively accessible, but the slippery, perfectly smooth granite actually presents a serious challenge for rock climbers. One slip and it’s a long slide down.

Some of the earliest climbers attempting to conquer the highest peak in the area, Spitzkoppe itself, even carved steps into the rock after being repeatedly defeated by an extraordinarily smooth 3-metre-high band of granite near the top. The surface is polished, and hands struggle to find purchase as feet begin to slowly slip down the curve, but we scouted the flattest routes and climbed through the Rock Bridge to an outcropping just beyond it overlooking the whole area.

Rock Bridge, Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Spitzkoppe, NamibiaThe view is worth the clamber, a panorama of toasted yellow domes, their sharp day-end shadows stretching across the flatlands. Namibia feels like a secret, especially in low season.  It had never been on my travel list, and I had gone on this trip through a combination of timing, convenience, and value-for-money, but I am so glad I did and discovered this incredible country.

I woke up suddenly in the middle of that night, and then I lay awake for a long time, warm in my sleeping bag, looking at the starriest sky I had ever seen shining down through the opening above me, beyond the stones perched precariously for millennia.

Stars at Spitzkoppe, Namibia
G Adventures truck at Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Sunrise at Spitzkoppe, Namibia

Africa, National Parks, Travel

Red Rocks and Petroglyphs: Twyfelfontein, Namibia

February 24, 2015
The Lion Man engravings at Twyfelfontein, Damaraland, Namibia

From Etosha, we headed southwest, into the dry interior leading up to the coast.

On the way, we stopped for groceries at one of the many small towns, where I went to top up our supply of cider (which was particularly refreshing in the 35+C heat). Okay Bottle Store had the grand total of one bottle of cider on the nearly empty shelves. The counter was covered with a massive sign, Absolutely no smoking inside this building. Prohibited by law. Behind the counter was a large, florid man with thinning blonde hair, whose late twenties were about to start a rapid slide into forties. His puffy eyes had trouble finding purchase on anything, and he squinted somewhere beyond the bare shelves, sucking on a cigarette and using a coffee cup as an ashtray. The air was hazy with grey smoke, two empty cigarette packs stacked neatly on the no-smoking sign. It was such a wonderful flouting of the rules, that it made me inexplicably delighted.

Yet the whole country is very clean, shockingly litter-free, as I realized when a plastic bag blew past me on my way back to the truck – the first piece of garbage on the loose I had seen in Namibia.

But we were heading away from towns and to the arid  red rocks of Damaraland.

Pavement made way for deeply rutted gravel roads, twisting and lurching, the truck churning up clouds of thick yellow dust. Brown inverted triangles of bushes were interspersed with acidic green trees, too bright for this rocky land of dry river beds.

Carcasses of cars, rusted deep brown by the sun, stuck out of the sand around rickety dwellings cobbled together from  scraps of metal and plastic. Behind them flat spines of Damaraland and Spitzkoppe were layered like cake, slowly rising in elevation the further inland we traveled.

Twyfelfontein, NamibiaOur destination was Twyfelfontein or /Ui-//aes, meaning “an uncertain spring”. The area used to be a farmstead, named for the sparse and temperamental stream that trickled from one of the rock faces. It is now Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site (as of 2007) and museum, and holds one of the largest concentrations of rock petroglyphs in Africa.

The museum itself is made entirely of metal barrels, brown and corrugated in the heat, looking like something out of Star Wars in the red Martian landscape. While most of our group chose to stay out of the punishing noon sun by playing cards on the shaded museum patio, a handful of us braved the guided 40-minute walk clambering the red stones to the engravings.

Created by nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes who travelled through the area in small family groups, the oldest engravings are estimated to be 10,000 years old. The Lion Man trail winds up and down the rocks, looping past several of these engravings, where we were taken by our terrific guide Annalise.

Twyfelfontein, Namibia guided walkDespite being created thousands of years ago, the engravings are still very distinct – and it’s unmistakeable what animals are portrayed. I could see the elegant necks and delicate horns of giraffes, the distinctive curve of ostrich plumage, the deep impression of a kudu hoof print.

What particularly thrilled me were the engraving of animals that never occurred in the area, coastal animals like penguins and sea lions and flamingoes, which indicates that the hunter-gatherer tribes had come from the ocean, more than 100km away. And 100km is no easy feat in this land where water is sparse and the heat punishing, clouds never marring the deep blue sky.

Annalise took us through the archaeological meaning behind the carvings.

There was a huge vertical stone depicting various animal foot prints, likely used to teach young hunters how to track. Another massive horizontal flat stone  was laid out like a map, showing the location of all waterholes in the area – a filled-in circle within a circle, the symbol that is still used on modern maps, like the Etosha National Park map, to depict waterholes.

Twyfelfontein, Namibia guided tour of the rock engravingsThere is a distinct sense of discovery and history deep in these hills.

There are many world-renowned archaeological sites, like the Lascaux cave paintings, which are alternatively opened to torrents of visitors, then closed again to mitigate the damage. Others than receive so many tourists (like Stonehenge) and are so heavily commercialized and encroached on by modernity (like the Pyramids) that any sense of historical connection fades under the onslaught.

Meanwhile Twyfelfontain, with its demure museum building looking temporary and ramshackle and the only sign of human activity, retains the sense of time immemorial.

While some engravings were behind minimal barriers, others were out in the open, and if not for the guide pointing them out (and warning us not to accidentally lean on one), we might have missed them among the red rocks. Aside from a distant couple finishing another guided walk, we were the only visitors.

The sun was scorching, searing through my shirt, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the conditions under which these nomadic tribes would travel, stopping by the uncertain spring to rest and carve these petroglyphs to share their experience. It’s the closest I even felt to something so distant in history.

Twyfelfontein, Namibia guided tour of the rock engravingsThen yesterday I was having a great conversation with a friend about communication, specifically digital communication and the upswing in pictographic communication – like the increasing use of emoji, or even the proliferation of high-quality street art in cities around the world. Their company (that I help out with from time to time) recently released a predicative emoji feature for their mobile keyboard, with the keyboard presenting top emoji suggestions based on what you’re typing.

It’s interesting to think about emoji and street art and these ancient petroglyphs in the context of each other. It’s like we can’t quite get away from pictographic representation, and for all the words that we use, sometimes a single picture really expresses sentiment best. Be it a 5,000-year-old etching in on a stone, or a sad face emoji.

Twyfelfontein, Namibia guided tour of the rock engravingsTwyfelfontein, Namibia guided tour of the rock engravings

Africa, Travel

Namibia: Etosha National Park

February 7, 2015
Lioness, Etosha National Park

Several hours into our first proper game drive we were coming up empty-handed. Aside from the perpetual springbok and the eternal zebras, our truck rolled down the empty dust roads of Etosha National Park while we silently strained our eyes to make out any movement against the browned grass.

But somehow, I didn’t terribly mind the lack of animal sightings. I was still in a post-Canadian-winter daze, having landed only two days before after 36 hours of travel, hardly believing that I was now in Africa, hot breeze blowing through the open truck windows, and a herd of zebras grazing in the distance. The sky was all cloud, heavy and ragged, a distant rainstorm slashing grey rain in sheets on the horizon. The air smelled of wet dust.

But Etosha, that “Great White Place” stretching through a salt pan and across 22,000 square kilometres in the north of Namibia, rarely disappoints.

Etosha National Park, NamibiaWithin a few hours our dry spell was broken by a trio of lanky giraffes slowly making their way down to a watering hole, herds of gemsbok and wildebeest grazing in the tall grass, and even a lioness, aloof and sinewy, stretching sensuously right beside our truck like an oversized house cat.

We also saw eight black rhinos, which is incredible considering how critically endangered they are and how few of them there are in the park (I heard the unconfirmed number that there may be as few at 20 of them in Etosha, but the park does not publicly release their numbers).

It was also wet season, and therefore baby season, with mini versions of the animals even more heart-arrestingly adorable than their full-grown versions (as things in miniature always are). While a zebra is impressive, a baby zebra is blubberingly cute. A baby springbok looks like a toy, giant ears balanced on a tiny delicate head and supported by spindly legs no thicker than my pinky finger.

Game drive: black rhino at Etosha National Park, Namibia
Game Drive: baby zebra in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Ostriches in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Baby springbok in Etosha National Park, Namibia

It was almost jarring to see that many animals in such concentration. The first group of zebras was terribly exciting, slow stripes moving through the browned grass in the distance. But by the end of our second day in Etosha, I had seen hundreds of them across the plains and at every watering hole, more populous than pigeons in Toronto. The springbok were even more common, undeniably adorable in their Tigger-like bouncing, but their sheer numbers a clear illustration of why springbok steak could be found on most restaurant menus (and is delicious, sorry vegetarian friends).

For all that Etosha doesn’t disappoint, our night game drive experience is illustrative of the luck involved in animal sightings – we only saw three rhinos by a watering hole, and nothing else (an owl aside) in the whole three hours of the drive. In fact, still jet lagged, and hypnotized by the red floodlight sweeping back and forth in front of the jeep, I spent the whole drive fighting sleep and losing the battle.

Yet two days later, as I was chatting to a lovely elderly lady about her game viewing, I mentioned our unfortunate night drive. Her response was, “Oh, you’re the ones we heard about!”

Turns out she went on a night game drive and saw rhinos galore, herds of elephants, even some lions, and the guide told them how the night before he had “A group of very nice people who saw absolutely nothing.” At least we went down in infamy.

Gemsbok, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Giraffes in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Etosha National Park, NamibiaThe watering hole beside the Etosha campground, lit by floodlights at night and protected by a raised viewing promenade with benches, was phenomenal for animal viewing.

Two of my favourite animals moments came while sitting on one of those benches.

One was on the last night, as two of our group members who had gone down to the waterhole sprinted back into camp, flailing their arms, “Elephants, elephants at the watering hole!”

We hadn’t seen elephants yet, had spent that entire day driving around the park to not a single elephant sighting. And I really wanted to see elephants. They are a contradiction, something simultaneously so prehistoric yet futuristic about them, so awkward yet majestic. Plus they’re just straight up wonderful. So this was a rallying cry. We dropped all post-dinner chores and scrambled to the watering hole, where the benches were full with silent observers, watching the elephant couple making their way slowly down to the water.

Elephants in Etosha National Park, NamibiaThey are so slow and still, moving a limb and then pausing for long moments, as though posing. Sweetly affectionate with each other, they entwined trunks and touched foreheads, swaying gently. They were there for a long time, but as soon as the wind changed and they sensed us, they slowly lumbered off into the night. I walked off on my own to the edge of the viewing platform to watch them as long as possible, their slow procession into the darkness, the sky behind them rolling with silent waves of sheet lightning

The following morning, my tentmate Sarah and I woke up for absolutely no reason just after four in the morning and decided to walk down to the watering hole.

It was still dark, but the kind of diluted darkness when night begins to dissolve gently an hour before dawn. It was cool and silent down by the water, shapes blending into one another in the deceptive gloom, where rocks would look like animals… and a lioness looked like a rock.

Etosha National Park, NamibiaShe sat still for the longest time, bent down to the water like a gargoyle, but lifted her head when a guttural roar echoed out of the darkness. Two male lions descended to the water and she joined them.

That roaring, a deep rolling grunting, went right through me. It’s resonant, echoing against something primal and primitive in my bones. Maybe harkening back to the days where that roar sent a chill through our bipedal ancestors out on the savannah plains, maybe just the natural tremour of hearing an apex predator display their power.

You could see it in the way the animals went down to the water. The zebras and springbok would proceed cautiously, skittish at any sound, some looking out into the distance and keeping watch while others drank with their ears perched forward. But the lions descended without hesitation, every step a powerful contraction of muscle and sinew.

In summary, before I use up all the adjectives, Etosha was brilliant. I’ve been conflicted about zoos in the past, or other interactions with captive animals (like swimming with dolphins in Cuba), but here there was no such ambivalence. We were the ones who were contained, watching the animals roaming free.

Salt pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Sunrise in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Rainstorm in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Etosha shows its moods through its massive sky, scooping low and wide over the plains.