It was midday, in the middle of nowhere specific, Northern Namibia. The temperature had reached the level that makes all living things halt physical activity to preserve energy. This silence bestowed the auditory illusion that heat can be heard. I felt like my skin was going to melt off. And silly me, since I had been going on so many game drives with little opportunity to use the bathroom, I hadn’t been drinking much water to save myself from suffering the urge to go for hours at a time. Not good. I had barely started moving and already felt lightheaded. How do people do this every day without air conditioning? This was Kunene, the most sparsely populated region of a country already low in people. A region whose lack of development has created a landscape that provides some of the most iconic images of the continent.
The indigenous of the region, the Himba, number only a few thousand, and have mastered the art of survival in such a harsh and unforgiving landscape. Their characteristic skin and hair, painted red with ochre, protect them from the sun’s intense rays. Their semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle intrigued me, and when given the opportunity to visit a local village, I took it, despite my body’s desperate plea for shade.
The tour through the Himba village lasted about an hour. We met with a group of women, and our tour guide explained their skin paste, their hair, and some of their social practices. He showed us how to greet and say thank you in their language and we were then given the opportunity to practice with them. I tried really hard to listen because it was interesting, but I was dizzy and lightheaded from the heat. After he was done talking, we were given some time to bargain with the women for some of their handicrafts. We also got to take pictures with them, provided we asked permission and showed them the photo afterward. Thankfully, the last part of our guided tour was shaded, inside a mud hut. Our guide showed us their tools, and a local woman came in and demonstrated how they make their perfume. The women of the Himba tribe don’t bathe, at least not with water. They “bathe” themselves with smoke and ash from burning herbs. She was sweet and friendly, despite not smiling in the picture she took with me.
I dragged my feet back to the truck, trying to remember the symptoms of heatstroke. Brain fuzziness? Is that one of them? I think I drank half a gallon of water as soon as I got back to the truck. However they manage to survive like this every day, I’m going to speculate that it probably starts with drinking enough water. Onward! Our next and final stop for the day was the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Sanctuary in nearby Kamanjab.
The Cheetah Sanctuary provides a safe habitat for tame and semi-wild cheetahs (most of them rescues) for breeding and hunting. The wild cheetah population has been losing prey and habitat, and because of these losses, many wild cheetahs hunt livestock. To protect their livestock, farmers in the area have been known to shoot the cheetahs. There are currently just over 7,000 of these large cats left in the wild that we know of, and at a population that low, there is some serious concern of inbreeding.
During our visit, we had a chance to get close and personal with three cheetahs that were rescued as very young babies. They were raised at the sanctuary by the owners, so were comfortable with people. Even so, large cats are still unpredictable, so we were given strict instructions not to approach a cheetah from the front and not to wear sunglasses. I was pretty excited, though admittedly nervous, about petting them. In some ways, they’re just like a house cat. They purr when happy, have scratchy tongues, and like to play. A perfect example of this playfulness, and unpredictability, was when one of the cheetahs (harmlessly) clamped its teeth around a young woman’s ankle. No one was hurt, and the cheetah let go when admonished, but that moment was a healthy reminder that these were not domesticated felines. After petting time was feeding time. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was disappointed that “feeding time” didn’t mean that we were going to watch a hunt. I guess you can’t really schedule a hunt. Besides, watching cheetahs take down and eat another animal would probably be too much for most people to stomach, myself included.
After playing around with tame cheetahs, we were loaded up into the back of two trucks and carted around the preserve for a game drive. I had already done four game drives in the previous three days, and on one of them I got to see a wild cheetah, so building enthusiasm was difficult. Especially while suffering the effects of dehydration in the desert. In retrospect, these sentiments seem silly. The game drive was great. We saw a lot of cheetahs, including babies. It was a great experience, from start to finish.
Once back at camp, I drank another half gallon of water. I don’t think I had used the bathroom all day. Not a good sign, I needed to be more careful. I was going to be in the desert for at least another week. I had travel insurance but wasn’t keen on needing to use it, especially for something as easy to avoid as heat stroke. To finish on a high note, my geographical isolation made the night sky fantastically clear. Living in developed Southeast Asia, I don’t get to see the stars that often, and going from almost no stars to that level of clarity was a bit of a shock. Before going to bed, I lay on the dry ground, trying to identify southern hemisphere constellations, and enjoyed the beautiful, quiet peace of the desert. That night, I slept more deeply than I had in a long time.