Glittering diamonds

We have hardly any space for souvenirs, so our purchases tend to be small and insignificant. I buy myself earrings in every country- usually aiming for something “crafty” made from local materials at an insignificant price ($4 or less!): coconut, coins, shells and sacred stones. It didn’t take a long time for me to start making jokes about purchasing earrings made from South Africa’s famous stone, the diamond. Although Danny continues to point out that he already bought me one of those, I heard a rumor that diamonds are found on the coastline of Namibia pretty regularly. As the first line of the guidebook states: “The shifting sands of the Namib Desert conceal the world’s largest stash of gemstone diamonds.” Now before I start an international diamond rush, let me assure you, the Naimibian government doesn’t let anyone get near their coast, deserts or diamond mining areas. Marked on the map as “restricted” areas we’ve heard stories of tourists receiving a visit from Namibian Police in the evening after stopping near a restricted area for a picture that afternoon, a violation which had been spotted from the air. Needless to say wandering into a restricted area, including the beach to scoop up diamonds isn’t really feasible.

No diamonds were to be seen along the road in Namibia so we headed to the next best place: Kimberley, home of “the big hole”. Trust me, its one big hole. Almost a century of diamond mining has left a big hole in downtown Kimberley, one that you have to see to believe. The story is not unlike that of the California Gold Rush: desperate for fortune people came from around the world to toil in the sun digging, sorting and mining for these precious stones.

In the chaos of the “diamond rush”, small time miners dug their claims to the very edge of their boundaries in the hope of finding the big one. Within a few years open mining had reduced the hillside to a honeycomb like structure, with small walkways separating family claims. As you can imagine, you can only dig so deep with a shovel and pick ax, and by the turn of the century a consolidated diamond mining company had been formed, laying the structure for today’s diamond giant: deBeers.

Having taken over the industry, the consolidated mining company moved to more modern mining methods, extracting diamonds from much deeper in the earth, leaving us with the “big hole” today. Although diamond mining continues to this day in and around Kimberly, the big hole is no longer an active mining site and has been turned into a wild west/frontier like tourist attraction. The museum tells the story of mining in Kimberly, but more interestingly of various diamond myths from around the world. Their vault contains diamonds of various states, cuts and polishes, although the most famous diamonds in the world are only displayed in replica.

A large percentage of the worlds diamonds come from southern africa, but none found their way into our souvenir collection. Granted, given the controversy surrounding some African diamonds frequently called “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” its probably not such a bad thing.

Whirlwind tour of Namibia

My boss used to say, it was real and it was good but it wasn’t real good.  That was Namibia. Namibia is a beautiful country, but it was difficult. Unable to get money out of several ATM’s, we had visions of wandering through the desert without cash or petrol.   Not exactly a “real good” start.

Namibia is a incredibly striking country, from the arid desert of the south to the lush forests in the north.  We only had a short amount of time in Namibia so we skipped things like sand boarding, which we had done in Peru and Nicaragua and instead spent our time, soaking in natural hot springs in the desert, climbing 100m high red sand dunes for sunrise, and night time game spotting.

At 65 degrees Celsius, the natural hot springs at Ai-Ais were to hot to even put a full foot in, so instead we opted for the indoor hot springs where the water is pumped into jacuzzi’s and slightly cooler. The national park accommodations were gorgeous and resembled a spa, but something about paying almost $40 a night to camp there put a bad taste in our mouth.

The scene repeated itself over and over again throughout Namibia, incredible natural beauty, incredible price tag.  See what  I mean, real and good, just not real good. By the time we reached Etosha National Park, a park we’d heard phenomenal things about since arriving on the continent, we were wondering if it was all worth it on a trip like ours.

We’ve seen a lot of game, but we went to Etosha having not seen any leopards nor cheetah.  Driving through the park we felt completely alone and went nearly two hours without seeing another car, or anything besides Zebra and Impala.  Just as we were about to turn around and head to camp we spotted a lion walking across the road 100 feet from the car.  Pulling slowly closer, we saw two juveniles sitting in the shade next to the road.  We watched the three of them from about 20 feet away, until the lions, who could care less about the approach of our vehicle, raised up slowly and walked to a nearby watering hole.  Excited at the proximity of our encounter we clamored on about how happy we were until we spotted a male…sitting at the edge of the road.  He sat no further from our car than two or three feet. When we zoom in on his picture, we can actually see the reflection of our car in the lions eye.  Talk about incredible.  In the end we saw six lions resting in the shade, but none ever as close at the male.

Tipped off by another traveler to say at Halali Camp  for its floodlight watering hole, we pulled into camp having spent the rest of the afternoon searching for another close encounter.  That night honey badgers came through the camp.  One of the most feared and aggressive animals in Africa, no animal messes with a honey badger.  Fortunately they moved on, and we walked out to the watering hole around 10pm.  Hearing rustling, we stepped into the viewing area and immediately spotted a rhinoceros in the light.  A few minutes later her calf appeared quickly followed by another rmother and calf.  As they stood drinking, playing and eating, a leopard (our first sighting, finally completing the big five!) approached through the trees.  Annoyed at the cats presence, the mothers stomped and false charged at the leopard. No sooner did the rhinoceroses defend their territory did we hear something approaching from the darkness.  Standing at attention, the leopard decided it was time to disappear into the darkness.

Like a King arriving at court, a male elephant crashed through the trees.  Unhappy to find someone else at his watering hole, he chased the rhinoceroses away before drinking, splashing and eating to his hearts content.  We’ve seen elephants chase buffalo, zebra and ostrich from a watering hole, but never rhinoceroses.  Although the elephant succeeded in scaring off the leopard, the rhinoceroses hung in the shadows, waiting for his highness to leave.  After having his fill, the elephant meandered away, or so we thought.  The rhinoceroses, emerging from the darkness, cautiously approached the watering hole only to have the elephant come at them from behind.  Running back into the bush the rhinoceroses waited until the elephant was completely gone, which took quite some time, before one mother and calf reappeared.  In the end it was an incredible moment, best summed up by the Italian guy on the bench near us.  “Wow.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. By the time we left Etosha our list of sightings sounded like a “12 nights of Christmas song”, which to our pleasure included two leopards!

Etosha was definitely the highlight of our time in Namibia, and the country is certainly beautiful and interesting, but we never felt comfortable in Namibia.  People were friendly, but not warm, polite but not welcoming.  Granted we only spent a little less than a week in the entire country, so its really not fair to pass judgment, but we never felt that we were able to see and experience “real” Namibia.