- On the way up one of the world's largest free standing sand dunes, towering over the Namib desert. You really have to be there to appreciate the scope and beauty of this geography.
- Just one of many wrecks strewn along Namibia's skeleton coast. Thankfully, most of these relics are just that - aging and largely a thing of the past. Better ATON's and more prudent operators have eliminated the problem. A drive along the wild and rugged Namibian coastline afforded me the opportunity to see one or two, close up and personal.
- Walfish Bay and its tidy container terminal. Reportedly, China underwrote most of the cost. You couldn't miss it on the way out to watch the whales.
- No trip to any global port would be complete in 2019 without the ubiquitous laid up, rafted OSV's, lined up like pretty maids in a row. Walfish Bay was no different.
A country the size of Texas, with a story to match.
Windhoek, Namibia: In case you were wondering, I was on vacation for a good chunk of September. And, for much of that time, off-the-grid. WAY off the grid. On our fifth trip to the Dark Continent, we checked off a bucket list item that we’d had our eyes on for a long, long time. And, Namibia did not disappoint.
We didn’t run into a lot of Americans there. Many Americans, if quizzed, don’t really know where this wide ranging and diverse nation is located. Fewer still have ever been here. Not surprisingly, Germans comprise the largest numbers of tourists – up to 60% of the country’s visitors. Until WWI, the country was a colony of Germany. Independence wasn’t achieved until 1990 and the country’s only deepwater commerce port wasn’t ceded back by the South Africans until 1994.
At the time of our visit, Namibia was (and still is) in the throes of a horrible drought. A real threat to the wellbeing of the nation’s livestock and agricultural sectors, we were told by more than one guide that if they did not get rain soon, irreversible damage would be done to both. It was indeed dry, it was hot and I used about two gallons of SPF 100+ sunscreen while there. I even took a picture of the only cloud I saw drifting around after two weeks in country.
Namibia 101 for tourists
There is much to do here, and we did most of it during the span of a 3+ week odyssey. The visit to the Kulala area and its famous red sand dunes was a real highlight for me. Here, dunes (comprised of a very different type of sand) tower more than 1,000 feet about the Namib Desert. These dunes change very little from year to year, and the biggest ones are individually named. In ten year’s time, most will look much as they do today; albeit slightly bigger.
We arrived here at daybreak so as to be among the first to enter through the gates of the park, climbed the iconic structures and took it all in for several hours until the first of many buses arrived and began to disgorge hundreds of tourists, most of them Chinese nationals. From high up on the dunes, we watched it unfold. Our guide tapped me on the shoulder and said quietly, “It’s time to go.” And, so, we did.
Separately, we also took daylong excursion to the so-called Skeleton Coast, the infamous area of coastline where dense fog and unbelievably rough surf has, over time, claimed many vessels. Given my maritime roots, I very much wanted to see it, and we gave up a tour of the 1,000-year old cave paintings to do it. If I had to do it all over again, I think I might’ve gone to see the cave paintings instead. I know my wife would agree.
The scope of the nation’s endless, unspoiled and wild coastline, with beaches as wide and far longer than North Carolina’s ENTIRE outer banks, is something to see. We, of course, visited more than a few wrecks along the way. Most of these casualties occurred before 1980 and since then, the advent of better navigational aids, better technology and vessel operators who prudently now stay well out to sea when transiting the area has largely ended the problem.
Apparently, the rough surf is also famous for attracting surfers, who come at a certain time of year to experience something a local guide told us isn’t found anywhere else. Namibia’s most famous (and sought after) wave is a “left hand barrel” which runs for about 1.3 miles along a particular sand bank. Now, I don’t know what any of that means but from my perspective, I don’t know how anyone could even paddle out to catch such a wave.
On the way up the coast, we passed a large installation located a mile or so off the highway. Our guide motioned to it and announced brightly, “That’s our new weather forecasting station. The Chinese built it for us.” Now, at this point, I took a harder look at the facility. Bristling with enough large dishes and various antennae to make even the most jaded NSA or CIA operative blush, it was indeed impressive. I replied (sadly unfiltered), “Somehow, I don’t think that weather is the primary output from that building.” It got quiet for a while in the safari vehicle. I have that effect on folks, sometimes. *sigh*
Walfish Bay, the country’s only deep water port, is a gritty little place, with a well-built and active container terminal. It is also one of West Africa’s only deep water ports and many vessels come here for repairs, bunkers or other miscellaneous husbandry tasks. The port also boasts a large bulk handling facility, and, if you live in the New York corridor (well, okay, unless you live in a certain municipality near Lake Erie that underestimates the amount needed in a given winter), your road salt probably emanates from here.
Oh: and the Chinese built the container handling facility. Predictably (okay, they make the best container cranes on the planet), China-based ZPMC container handling cranes are installed here. I got a bird’s eye view of all of it as we headed out on our whale watching excursion on the catamaran (I bet my wife $5 that it would be Incat Crowther built; but I was wrong). We’d have been better off had I been right.
There was much to see. I brought my binoculars. Dozens of anchored bulkers, the now ubiquitous breasted and laid up OSV’s, and generally, we got a great tour of the industrial area on the way out to the whales. Occasionally, I whispered to my wife, “Snap a couple photos of that. And, the Boxship cranes. Oh, get the OSV’s! No – THOSE OSV’s.” She happily obliged, given the chance to take the new 500mm lens out for a spin.
Finally, the whale guide wanders over (too late to prevent the B52-sized pelican from crapping on me and for whatever reason, the seal which they thought was cute and let crawl up over the transom) clearly worried, and asks, “Is everything okay?” I reply, sure, “We love boats.”
If you’ve never done the whale watch thing – or perhaps you have and saw nothing – this was a great experience. They’re huge, they get up close and personal, and we got our money’s worth.
Inland from the Coast, we also visited Fish River Canyon – the world’s second largest – behind only (you guessed it) the Grand Canyon. Here we did the usual tourist stuff, and because we are avid hikers, we descended into the canyon with a guide for a two-night stay in two different camps. As it turned out, we bit off a bit more than we could chew, having misjudged the difficulty of the trek. To be fair, the night before, the guide had tried to warn us, but we laughed and told him we’d be just fine. Not quite.
The next day while hanging off the rope on the nearly vertical descent that began the day’s hike in scorching 98 F heat, I was having serious second thoughts. But, hey, once I got the bleeding stopped on my blistered toes seven hours later in camp, and had consumed a couple of Chardonnay pain killers, I even managed to crack a smile. The original plan was for us to hike out on the second morning after two days of walking in the gorge. Before we went to bed on the second night, I took the guide aside and told him to radio for the Land Cruiser. At 61 years old, sometimes you just gotta know when enough is enough. This was one of those times.
Namibia and Africa – and China, too …
This is a wonderful country, a place where the tourism industry isn’t yet fully mature but for what they might lack in infrastructure (as much as 60 percent of the highways are not paved), they make up for in enthusiasm. These were some of the nicest people we’ve ever met – anywhere.
All of that said; my wife and I have been to Africa five times. This isn’t our first rodeo. The typical American tourist isn’t easy to please and they want to see the “big five” wild animals on that trip. But, when you travel in Africa, you have to be ready for the inevitable ‘bobble.’ If you can’t roll with the punches then you probably shouldn’t go. Hence; we would never send the first time Africa visitor to Namibia. Kenya is the ticket. Do it while you can still experience (to a certain extent) what we saw, way back in the fall of 1991. And, then, don’t miss Namibia. That would also be a mistake.
As it turns out, the Chinese are not only here as tourists: they are here to stay. They have purchased more than one large raw material mine from an Australian commodities firm and they reportedly also already control the country’s ample supply of Uranium. And, many other things. The tour guide on board our whale watching boat admitted to me gravely, “We [the Namibian government] will never be able to pay them back, and they know it. The uranium is why they are really here, though.”
During the course of our 21-day trip, we learned a lot about the geopolitical realities of Namibia. This isn’t a rich country, but it is blessed with a cornucopia of raw materials, spread out over a land mass the size of Texas. They also don’t have the means to get much of that natural wealth to market. The Chinese are here for a reason, and it isn’t because they think the dunes are pretty. We spoke to more than one Namibian that expressed reservations as to what was happening. But, Namibia isn’t the only place in Africa that China is spending money – and lots of it.
In Kenya, for example, the Chinese have spent $1.5 billion on a Chinese rail line linking the capital Nairobi to the Rift Valley town of Naivasha. According to a Reuters report, “the extension links to the $3.2 billion line between the port of Mombasa and Nairobi that opened in 2017, also suffering from underutilization of its cargo services. Both sections were Chinese-funded and Chinese-built.”
Just to the east, Uganda is in the process of revamping its own century-old rail network which they had hoped would also be underwritten by $2.2 billion in Chinese funding, something that has apparently yet to happen. During its heyday as a colonial power, Britain built the meter-gauge, 800 mile system nearly 100 years ago, primarily for the purpose of moving copper and other commodities. Uganda has also been negotiating with China for more than five years, hoping for funds to construct its own railway.
Separately, Uganda discovered billions of barrels of crude oil more than a decade ago, but has yet to find a way to start production. According to another Reuters report, China's CNOOC co-owns the fields with other firms. The Ugandan government expects production to possibly start by 2022 at the earliest, but until it does, the central African country can’t afford the credit.
Sometimes it takes a vacation and a trip to an unusual place overseas to get a better perspective of what’s happening in the world, and why. The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China is just one manifestation of what comprises the ambitions of China today. What’s happening in Africa is another.
I didn’t start this blog with the intention of talking at length about China, but I also didn’t take a 41-hour, four airplane segment journey halfway across the globe expecting to see the concerted penetration of an otherwise obscure, but alluring country by an ambitious world power. On both counts, maybe I should have. Most people don’t know where Namibia falls on the global map. Very soon, it is clear that they will. – MLPro
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Joseph Keefe is a 1980 (Deck) graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Logistics Professional and MarineNews magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.