peace in namibia

This world is jam-packed with people. According to the World Population Clock there are over 7.4 billion people on this planet at this very moment! All those people make for a loud, busy, and chaotic world. So imagine a time when the world was quiet! No, not “solitude on a beach” quiet or “hiking a mountain” quiet, but rather “where-the-heck-is-everyone?” quiet! I’m talking, “Have I just survived an apocalypse” quiet. That’s the type of quiet that can be found in Namibia… one of this world’s most beautiful, untouched, and QUIET locales. For our week in Namibia, one of the only distraction we would encounter on a long strip of road were warthog caution signs (which we actually needed to avoid a family of warthogs running across the highway), post-apocalyptic car carcasses, or long vast salt pans.

We decided to explore Namibia with our friend Katherine and her two boys (long-time friends from our Nairobi days) as a way of escaping the chaos of city life in Johannesburg. We knew we were getting what we expected on the fly over in to Windhoek (the capital city). We were in awe by the view from the plane windows–where was the city? After taking care of business (read: claiming bags, renting cars, and loading up with provisions) our awe remained unchanged. Single lane, lightly tarmac roads lead in and out of the airport and through the capital city.

The first leg of our journey lead us 4 hours north to Etosha National Park. Knowing it was the last safari of our “Africa 2.0” journey, we couldn’t depart this beautiful continent without one more fabulous safari. So we bunked down to lavishly air-conditioned tents at Etosha Village and prepared to be impressed.

 

A chilly morning safari showcased pronking Springboks enjoying the morning sun, ostriches racing through the savannah, leopards in a tree, and so much more. But after hours of safari-ing (yes, I just made that word up!) near the Etosha Salt Pan we deserved a respite from the crazy Namibian heat! So back to camp and the pool!

We ended our time in Etosha enjoying the beautiful panorama of the game park with a private sundowner. The sunset over the gorgeous vistas accompanied by delicious South African wines, fabulous nibbles, and great friends was a fabulous experience. We thought our adventure couldn’t get better, quieter, and more amazing… but then we drove Southwest to Damaraland.

PetrifiedForestNamed after the Damaras who inhabit this land, Damaraland has a tainted history. In the 1970s, Damarland was named a black state (bantustan) by the Apartheid government of South West Africa (which is now Namibia) and considered a gifted territory for the Damara people. This desolate and inhospitable land is hot, rocky, and vast with amazing mountain escarpments around every corner. After hours of driving in near isolation we stopped to take a tour at the Petrfied Forest near Khorixas. The forest of prehistoric trees were petrified after being buried under sand, mud, and rock for millions of years.

But pre-historic history aside, nothing was more spectacular than the rocky drive that led us to the desert oasis of Mowani Mountain Camp.

Isolated in the middle of the Damaraland lies its hidden gem–Mowani Mountain Camp. With “tented” cabins overshadowed by vast boulders which became the kids’ playground. We never appreciated a desert the way we appreciated it here. Climbing 30 steps between ancient boulders, we reached the lookout which served as the nightly sundowner spot. Peaceful and serene, the Namibian landscape became part of our soul.

In the morning, we headed out to find the rare desert-adapted elephants. According to the airplane magazine, scientists are considering whether the Namibian elephants should be classified as their own species. These amazing elephants are one of only two populations of elephants who have been able to survive in such arid and hostile environments. From afar, they look just like other African elephants, but up close, one observes thinner bodies, longer legs, and wider foot beds to accommodate their vast bodies in a search for food and water.

We rounded out our safari with a trip to Namibia’s first World Heritage Site: Twyfelfontein rock art. The rock engravings tell the story of nomadic people from the past 6,000-2,000 years. According to our tour guide, the rock art tells stories about rituals, hunting, beliefs, and varied animal life. After this, we saw rock formations of a different type as stopped to see the “organ pipes,” dolerite rock formations. If you’re in to geology, you can learn more about this phenomenal site.

The last stop on our trip to Namibia was a stop at Swakopmund. This region of Namibia is famous for serving as the backdrop for many movies including the post-apocalyptic film, Mad Max Fury Road. On our long, bumpy, and somewhat intimidating drive (we past many burned out, broken down cars and many topless Himba women trying to get us to shop in their roadside stalls!)

Iwona
Photo by former parent, Iwona Szczepanska

Swakopmund is an interesting city because it is a small port town  and beach resort amidst the remnants of German colonialism all backdropped by the Namib desert. Swakopmund is an adventurers paradise. From airplane flyovers of the Namib desert to quad biking through the dunes, from German beer and sauerkraut tastings to bike tours and sand boarding–there is something to do for everyone! We decided on some dune exploration and a desert safari that taught us so much about the ecology of the Namib desert.

All in all, this was a glorious holiday and a MUST SEE for anyone in southern Africa. The history, geology, ecology, and serenity that can be found in this gorgeous country are unmatched! We’re glad we came.

a southern african journey

 

Africa is a gorgeous country. It is a country of diverse landscapes, gorgeous vistas, interesting culture, and amazing people. And this “winter”, we had the opportunity to experience South Africa’s gifts by taking a trip along its Western Cape.

After traveling to our respective homes and enjoying a fabulous Northern hemisphere summer, we flew back home to Johannesburg and arrived to a chilly winter. After a quick 12 hour turn-around, our own family holiday got us back in a plane heading towards the famous Garden Route. After a short flight to George, we drove to Knysna and started our adventure on Houseboat Myrtle in the Knysna Lagoon. This was an exciting challenge for all of us as we maneuvered our dinghy to our Houseboat, converted dining tables in to sleeping spaces, and learned how pitch water out of our dinghy after the nightly downpours.

On our first full day at the coast, we drove through the rain to get to the coastal town of Sedgefield hearing that their Wild Oat’s Community Market was not to be missed. Boy were they right! The ambiance was charming and breakfast was spectacular. The kids noshed on morning burritos, Nutella waffles, and hot cocoa, while Rob and I tried a variety of coffees and teas and a menagerie of baked goods. Unfortunately, the winter weather pounced and we had to dodge puddles to drop off our purchases in the rental car. But just as we were readying ourselves for departure, we saw a sign for the Sedgefield Craft Brewery. Well… we just had to go! We met the proprietor, a former techie from Joburg, who chatted with Rob over a pint (or two or three) of his delicious brews which helped Rob’s retirement dream grow.

The next day, we drove west through the bright yellow canola fields on our quest to reach the 4th oldest village in all of South Africa–Swellendam. On our long journey, we stopped at nearly every ocean vista, Trip Advisor recommend locale, or any interesting farm stall we passed on the ride. Arriving in Swellendam, we were not expecting to see a city bursting at the seams with gorgeous Cape Dutch architecture, it was as if we had stepped back in time… and to Holland! Swellendam, particularly our host, Karin, are full of stories desperate to be told. Families that have lived, worked, farmed, and created in this area for generations! Despite a strong desire to stay at the Old Thatch Guest House even longer, the siren call of the whales was beckoning.

On our way to Hermanus, we made a detour at Cape Agulhas. Though not as famous as The Cape of Good Hope (where the currents of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet), Cape Agulhas is the true southernmost tip of Africa. This location serves as the division of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. With little to see, but a dangerously rocky coastline, the recently manicured trail was full of educational vignettes and brilliant flora.

Within a few hours… we had reached our destination: Hermanus. This small seaside retreat is famous for it’s whale watching (which is at its peak between June and December). From the cliffs at the village square, the loud trumpeting sounds of the Whale Crier can be heard. These morse-code like toots alert tourists to the whereabouts (and behavior) of whales just off shore. From our lazy walks through the cliff paths or lunch with a view, we could see whales spouting and breaching within a kilometer from shore.



Despite all the fun and adventures we had had up to this point, the highlight (and Xavier’s 12th birthday gift) was our whale watching trip. We woke up before the sun and drove to the Old Harbor. After a brief training and some warm beverages, we  boarded the boat and made our way through violently choppy waters. For just over 30 minutes we were meters away from the Souther Right Whales. Because of their curious nature and the ease at which they could be hunted, the “right” whale were just the “right” ones to be hunted. These gentle giants came within meters of our boat just to investigate.


While enjoying our water safari, the choppy waters took their toll on one of the Langlands foursome. Angela realized that she is not destined to live at sea when her face turned green, the sweat beaded around her brow, and she was down for the count–literally!

From the golden farms and fields inland to the gorgeous crashing waves at the shoreline–South Africa’s bounty is rich and we have enjoyed exploring it all! But our home, our puppy dog, and a nice fire were enticing. It was time to get back to Johannesburg.









 

awe at victoria falls

Oops… this has been sitting in my draft folder since we went to Zimbabwe in April. I guess the end of the school year chaos caught up to me more than I thought it had. Here’s some words about our awe-inspiring trip to Victoria Falls.

It’s not often that I’m without words. I usually have something to say about everything. But our journey to Victoria Town in Zimbabwe has taken my breath away.

The weekend was rather unexpected. Though I’ve wanted to visit Victoria Falls since I first arrived in Africa in 1999, it has always seemed “too far away” or “too expensive.” But when Rob got a complimentary flight (thanks to a complaint about some bad service on a British Airways flight), how could we not take the opportunity to see one of the World’s Natural Wonders?

We arrived in Victoria Town, Zimbabwe, on a warm Saturday afternoon just after a short 90-minute flight from Johannesburg. The arrival hall and excruciatingly long customs line reminded me that Africa has many faces and we were staring down an old decrepit one. Meeting up with our driver, who guided us past traditional dancers in loin clothes made from springbok skins, we (Rob and I) were aware that we were definitely back in Africa again!

 We arrived and enjoyed a few minutes of rest and relaxation at at The Kingdom Resort before piling back in an air-conditioned bus on our way to the jetty for a cruise down the Zambezi river (thanks for the recommendation Bronny!). At our personal table for four, we enjoyed a water safari while throwing back Zambezi beers on the Zambezi river–now that’s a first! Though the beer was crap, the views were magnificent. It was a bird watching paradise with crocs and hippos on or near the banks. But the highlight of this ride was the moment we caught an elephant washing itself in the river. Staring at this majestic creature as it appeared in the distance silhouetted against a setting sun, we knew this was going to be an amazing journey.

The next morning it was time to see what we’d came for–Victoria Falls! A quick 10-minute walk from our hotel, took us on another mini-safari as we walked past hippo and elephant dung, baboons, warthogs, and the wild Zimbabwean drivers.

Victoria Falls was said to be “discovered” in 1855 by the Scottish explorer, David Livingstone (though thousands of Zimbabwean natives would have already been aware of the falls’ existence, I’m sure). Livingstone named the falls in honor of Queen Victoria. The falls relish in the fact that they are twice the height of Niagara Falls. Because of it’s wide sheer drop (and the crashing sounds that erupt from it) the falls’ indigenous name translates to the “cloud that thunders.” It erupts from the peaceful river and spews a cloud of water into the air at such fervor that as it returns to the Earth it has created a mini-rainforest ecosystem.

While enjoying a peaceful walk through the national park, we participated in our own mini safari with baboons, birds, and some sort of Springbok-type animals. After viewing the falls from every vantage point, we decided to walk to the Lookout Cafe to enjoy a drink while looking out at the gorge and weaving waterways that carry the now peaceful water away from the falls. Grubbing on nuts and colorful cocktails (virgin for the wee ones), we reminisced about the experience we had and watched some adventurers wing, fly, and bungee across the gorge. It was then that Rob, our expert in frugality, surprised us with his most shocking idea yet, “Let’s book a helicopter ride over the falls and see them from above.” And so we did.

After lunch, we got picked up and whisked away to The Flight of Angels where we were videotaped listening to security briefings, being weighed-in, and bubbling with excitement before we enjoyed the fly over.

Once the helicopter landed, we were just like the characters in the movies–all bent down, blocking our heads from the powerful blades above. We loaded up on the helicopter and enjoyed the most unbelievably euphoric 8-minutes of our life. The helicopter lead us in a figure-8 pattern so each person could view the falls without obstruction. It was an awe-inspiring excursion.

After the ride, everything seemed a bit of a downer. The afternoon spent in the pool was only made more pleasurable by chats about the amazing birds-eye view we had just enjoyed.

At night, we walked through downtown Victoria Falls City on a quest for items that would suffice for a casual in-room dinner. We ended up at a local supermarket as the only Mzungus (white people) inside. People stopped to stare at us as we gawked at the prices and quality of the food. When we paid for a few sodas and crackers with our unbelievably overused US dollars, we were given the third degree about our time and experience in Zimbabwe. We walked out of the store reflecting on how lovely the Zimbabweans were–so reminiscent of our time in Kenya.

This is not a trip soon forgotten.

travelling tales

After 18 months of living in South Africa we hadn’t travelled around much. Though we’ve explored the city’s great restaurants, bars, and shops, we’d never explored the highlights outside of the city–safari, wineries, coastal regions, etc.

So… when Bomma said she was coming to visit us, we decided to get the heck out of town and explore the gorgeous Cape.
As school got out for the holiday, we raced to drop the dog off at the kennel, and zoomed to the airport. Arriving at 5 Camp Street late at night didn’t give us a true picture of all the beauty that lay beyond. In the shadows of Table Mountain, we enjoyed Cape Town, a city quite reminiscent of San Francisco. Small winding streets weave in to one another as we explored the glorious ocean, tourist highlights, delicious restaurants, and amazing wine (my favorite being No. 8). We enjoyed it all! From the penguins at Boulder Beach to the Cape of Good Hope, from the brightly colored houses of the Muslim Quarter to the ocean views at the V&A Waterfront–it was all amazing! We’ve got a list of “must-sees” for next time (to the top of Table Mountain, swimming with sharks, and whale watching).

In December, our dear friends, the Carpenters, came to South Africa to visit us. We had a great time catching up over delicious meals (they live in Moscow and can sometimes struggle to have exciting cuisine) and fabulous wine! The highlight of our time together was our trip to Djuma Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. A 6-hour drive from Johannesburg, Djuma is an oasis with its own watering hole. Vastly different than Kenyan safaris, Djuma’s landscape is hot and thick. Spotting wildlife can be tricky, but we didn’t seem to have too many challenges.  We saw 3 of the big 5 in one beautiful photo (elephant, buffalo, and rhino) and came upon a pride of lions at night on our first game drive.

On our first morning game drive, we spent time following a female leopard in hopes that she would lead us to her baby (nobody had yet seen the baby she was pregnant with just weeks before). Though we didn’t meet her baby, we got pretty up close and personal with her (see the video below).

Though the lions, zebra, elephants, and dung beetles were all amazing in their own right, our collective highlight had to be the 100+ vultures eating a dead buffalo. Having never seen the way vultures interact with one another made this experience so truly brilliant. But animals aside, our time celebrating Christmas with the Carpenters made us feel not so alone. It may not have been a “white” Christmas–but it was pretty damn amazing!

the good, the bad, and the soaking wet

As I sit here on the last days of my October holiday, I have time (mixed with the desire to procrastinate on report card writing) to sit back and take stock of the amazing adventures we’ve had in the last few months. I do this while my senses are at their peak: my tongue is teased by the delicious mixture of grapes from the Southern Cape while I drink one of South Africa’s brilliant wines; my nose and eyes are burning with the smoke of our braai (the SA word for BBQ) as Rob prepares the charcoal for our regular weekend cook-out; and my ears are reaching for the distant sound of thunder as the summer storms (with their amazing light shows) are only about an hour from descending and deluging our humble abode.

 

We are lucky! We may be overwhelmed by the new move and the chaos of it all, but we know we are lucky.

Here is some of the chaos we are finding particularly challenging:

  • our HUGE school, which is going through an array of development transitions, is so big we don’t know who to talk to about what. That, and the changes it’s going through, makes the answer to nearly every question, “Well, it used to be…”
  • new colleagues, new rules, new curriculum, new students, new parents, and a TON of new names!
  • buying a new-to-us car
  • commuting 20-30 minutes to work (when, for the last 5 years, we’ve usually just been a short walk away!)
  • waiting [sometimes not so patiently] over 8 weeks to get internet, satellite, and working phone service
  • organizing essential tasks (like making dinner, doing homework, and organizing lunches) around our crazy schedules that has the four of us leaving the house by 6:00 am and getting home around 5:30 pm–we have had it really effortless for quite some time!
  • sharing the road with ridiculous taxis (which you may remember as matatus from the Kenya days) who abide by no road rules and stop in front of you without warning
  • trying to find a semblance of patience when the robots (or traffic lights) are out and the already terrible traffic jam becomes a near stand-still 4-way stop
  • the awareness that this is NOT Kenya and so our idea of, “The settling in process will be easier…” had to be laid aside
  • making new friends (a comment from the kids)
  • and the list can go on and on and on…
But all that noted, we are also quite amazed by the great things that bring us joy:
  • our school is physically lovely. Additionally, they have a brilliant vision and mission to give back to the country of South Africa, specifically to our local community of Diepsloot . They do this in a variety of ways, but I am most proud to work at a school that offers scholarships to 5-7 local township kids in 7th grade and pays their tuition (as well as room and board) through to their high school graduation!
  • how quickly our dog gained back weight and confidence once arriving here in our new home (though if her crazy wacky ways return, we have also made friends with a dog trainer!)
  • making new friends
  • having a pool at our house
  • the kids have their own rooms (though the current décor has left a lot to be desired)
  • the lightening storms are brilliant
  • variety! After spending 3 years in Indonesia we are amazed at the variety you can find here. Everything you can imagine is available (at a price). From breads, wines, and cheeses to game meats, pool equipment, and animal skins–most things can be purchased just minutes from our house (and even from the convenience of our own car!)
  • and the list can go on and on and on…
All those great things, though, cannot undo the number of unforeseen (and noteworthy) challenges we’ve faced. Getting internet, satellite, and a car proved far more complicated than we had anticipated. The satellite saga was so funny, I shared it with my students as way of modelling how to write a story in which the problem gets worse before it gets better. And internet. Ugh! Though we have it now, we’re still waiting for a refund from a company who said they could offer the service but couldn’t once they came to the house. But now that we have internet at home it has lessened some of the work strain and helped us reconnect with all of you loved ones!
But nothing was quite as challenging as the Friday we came home from school to a nanny who left early, the furniture company delivering our new bookshelves, a son with a high-fever, and a busted stop-valve in our master bathroom. Having never dealt with this in any of the homes we’ve lived in before, I must say, Rob and I did surprisingly well. After figuring out how to turn off our water main, we then we used the ever-popular “stomp-and-collect” method of soaking up water (think about Lucy and Ethell when they are stomping grapes and it should give you a visual of our cleaning method) and then twisting out towels in the bathtub. It was quite a feat (especially trying to get water out of the carpet), but also something we laughed about instantly (with a glass of wine in our hands!).
Over our holiday break we also made a pledge to do (virtually) no work. In lieu of work we lazed about, read books, made Halloween costumes and went on a short trip to Pilanesberg National Park. One of only 3 alkaline volcanoes in the world, Pilanesberg was formed over 2,000 million years ago when a huge volcano (even taller than Mt. Kilimanjaro) began erupting. The amazing geological aftermath is pretty staggering for those interested in geology. For those of us more interested in animals, visiting Pilanesberg is fascinating because its concentric rings and hills have created a number of different vegetation which, in turn, provides safe haven for a variety of animals. On our first-ever self-drive safari we were able to see giraffe, kudu, duiker, impala, springbok and klipspringer antelopes, zebra, wildebeest, warthog, baboon, a herd of elephants with two babies, two cheetah with a kill, and the elusive jackal. To top it all off, we camped–like real camping! After 13 years of marriage, we have never really camped. Yeah, we’ve done the tented camp thing on safari in Kenya, but with heated water bottles at the foot of the bed and running water that’s more like the the Shangri-La of camping. In Pilanesberg, it was real camping–tents, sleeping bags, annoying toads that belched all night, and RAIN! We (as well as our sanity, our marriage, and our children’s lives) survived. And we’re already planning the next camping adventure.
 Now, with just hours before bed and the start of another crazy week at AISJ, I will sign-off. I promise my next blog will be sooner and it should include some nice reminiscing details about adventures of our time with grandma and grandpa!

brilliant Borneo

We are very lucky. We know that.

To live our crazy, whirlwind-of-a-lifestyle, though, we give up a lot–the joys and challenges of living near family and friends, the familiarity of “home”, the safety and ease of completing paperwork and having appointments in our “home” languages, and missing nearly every special event. In exchange for all of those comforts we have experiences that can sometimes seem unreal–someone to do the laundry and dust the house, amazing educational opportunities for our wee ones, crazy cultural adventures (like going to a restaurant, being presented with an beautiful menu, spending time selecting a meal only to learn that despite the copious menu options, only 1 food item is available), and amazing adventures.

So…after accepting new jobs at the Bangkok Job Fair and signing on the dotted line with the American International School of Johannesburg, Rob and I began one of our recurring discussions. It can best be entitled, “What We Will Miss: A Look Back at Our Amazing Home.” Glowing with joy from our recent job procurement, Rob and I sat at a local restaurant near the Shangri-La and started “the discussion”. What will we regret not doing when we leave Southeast Asia? What quest will we have remorse about if we did not do it?

During “the discussion” we were able to check great things off our list: We vacationed at the beach in Lombok and Bali, embraced a different culture (and animals) while in Thailand, and visited our “international family” in Australia and Japan. What must we do?

And then, the answer came to us like a bolt from above–we must visit Indonesia’s last remaining rainforest. Yup, this is the same rainforest that Anouk studied in kindergarten (the education which has resulted in 3 years of us not buying beef). This is the same rainforest that Xavier became so enthralled with in grade 3 when he learned about the decimation of the orangutan population because of deforestation (thanks to all of our teak wood furniture needs) and the world’s love of fried everything which has dramatically reduced the palm tree population which makes palm oil (a.k.a. vegetable oil). For these three reasons, our Brilliant Borneo trip was born.

A short 50 minutes from Surabaya is the province of Kalimantan (also known as Borneo). It is the worlds 3rd largest island, shared by three different countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. We lingered on the Indonesian side by visiting Tanjung Puting National Park. After a night in the tiny city of Pangkalan Bun we were picked up by our guide, Iim. Within minutes we boarded our klotok (an Indonesian houseboat) with Iim, a captain, cook, and steward. Our klotok was basic and perfect. The upper deck was ours–set up with a dining table and deck chairs plus two mattresses and pillows (for those necessary afternoon naps). At night, the deck was converted to our sleeping quarters by adding additional mattresses and mosquito nets.

Our journey along the Sekonyer river was a spiritual one. It felt as if we were traveling back in time. Between the neon green colors and the sounds of squawking monkeys and chirping birds I can never explain how vivid and alive the world was around us. And the sounds got even wilder as the sun set on the horizon and the moon took its place. The intensity of cicadas, monkey calls, crickets, and things we cannot explain were hard to block out once bedtime arrived.

And though I could ramble on about this experience for pages… I leave the rest of the story to Xavier and Anouk who were affected, quite deeply, by this amazing experience.

written by Xavier:

Suddenly, a gibbon with gold fur swung from tree to tree. It robbed the orangutan’s bananas while a wild [bearded] pig charged out of the bushes towards the orangutan baby. Running away from the wild pig, the baby tripped over tree roots, did a somersault, landed on its feet, and kept running to its mother. The mother was startled and climbed up into a tree with her baby. Then, she took a tree branch and tried to whack the pig with it. The pig just went under the orangutan and continued eating the banana peels totally unaffected by the branch.

written by Anouk:

I woke up in the morning on day 2 with the lovely sunrise beyond me. It was amazing! The birds were squawking, the monkeys were howling, and the cicadas finally stopped “eeeeeing.” But all of the animals were strangely hidden. All the monkeys: gibbons, orangutans, macaques, proboscis, lagurs, and other animals were hidden deep in the dark, wet forest. Later that morning, we were amazed to see a small brown squirrel climbing up a tall narrow tree.


There are eighty-five days left until we end this chapter in our lives. I wonder what adventures are in store.