10 May 2012

Place of Great Noise

Like most people from the Western World, I have a hard time speaking in clicks. I often try to imagine what it must have been like, as a European colonist in South Africa, learning how to speak using this sound that seems so foreign to us. In Stellenbosch, I love listening to people speaking isiXhosa as they walk by, and sometimes find myself practicing my clicks when I am alone so that I can one day at least attempt to speak some of the languages that populate this amazing land.

However, simplifications have occurred over time to make things easier on people like me. I meet people from throughout Africa, and they often introduce themselves not with their name, but with a surrogate. "Just call me Taku, because Takuedzwa is too hard for you." I try my hardest to prove them wrong now, but the error still exists. Anyone I try to tell that name too may be confused by my mispronunciations and accent. When the Afrikaaners moved into large areas of southern Afrika, the names became simplified as well. One of these places was along the Orange (Gariep) River. The native people of the area called it a name that translates to "place of great noise," and believed it was where a water monster lived. The simplification of their word for it is the name of the park today: Augrabies National Park.

Located along the Orange River not far before it becomes the boundary between South Africa and Namibia, the Orange winds across a rough granitic plateau and drops into the Orange River gorge. The braids of the river form multiple falls in this region, and as I sped down the highway, I was looking forward to seeing the main falls.

The morning, though brief, had already treated me quite well. I got a lifer sitting on the ground next to the car not long after I woke up - a Rosy-faced Lovebird, reminiscent of the Spectacled Parrotlets I had fallen in love with in Colombia two years before. I passed through the scattered Acacias and the fantastic Kokerboem aloes and before we knew it, we arrived within Augrabies National Park. We were not disappointed by what we found.

The main falls of Augrabies. More pictures by others can be found here.

The falls, though not at their highest low rate, were extremely impressive. The brightly colored Augrabies Lizards (photo from Australian Geographic here) crawled across the rocks and fought in the sun, their colors almost hurting our eyes. I held on to my hat to keep it from blowing into the gorge, and stared in wonder as the Orange weaved its way out into the Kalahari.

Orange River Gorge. There were Peregrine Falcons nesting in the left part of the gorge.

After gawking at the sights of the gorge, we hiked out along the river for a while to see what we could find. The braiding river created strange and random marshes, potholes and large sinks filled with boulders that led towards the river. Stephanie, proving her eyes once again, spotted a group of Eland running in the distance, while I found myself in a staring match with a Klipspringer from about two meters away at one point. Though we walked together, we were simultaneously alone. We spaced ourselves out along the trail, and each of us became lost in their own world. My world, naturally, was dominated by birds, and I was not disappointed. A cloud of Alpine Swifts infested the canyon, a lone Booted Eagle sailed overhead, Swallow-tailed Bee-Eaters flycatched from the trees, African Pied-Wagtails walked amongst the Vervet Monkeys in the Picnic Area and I acquired several lifers including Bradfield's Swift and Chat Flycatcher (full list here). As fascinating as the park was, however, we had a long ways to drive.

Pale-winged Starling in Augrabies National Park.

We continued onward, through the desert, and into an area with more hills. The red sands of the Red Larks were calling to me, but I resisted their temptation, knowing that if I began searching that I could not stop and our destination would never arrive. We stopped for petrol in Pofadder and then headed off into the unknown. The road become rough, and even more desolate. Signs of civilization grew scarcer as the rocks and the Kalahari took over. It seemed as though we were completely alone in the world, until I saw the dip in the horizon. Like a saw slowly cutting away at the earth, the scar of the Orange River was visible from kilometers away, and we soon found ourselves at a junction making the easiest decision of our lives.

The sign appeared older than the country we wished to visit. Suidwes-Afrika, the old name for Namibia, was within our grasp. We wound down past the northernmost vineyard we would see and checked out of South Africa. Slowly and excitedly, we crossed the river and found ourselves in a new and somehow familiar land: Namibia. After briefly checking in, we headed out across the veld in an attempt to make it to Ai-Ais for the night.

The road stretched on forever that day. Straightaways dozens of kilometers long accompanied the infinite visibility, and I felt as though the world went on forever. Karoo Korhaans crossed the road in front of us, the occasional sign in English, German or Afrikaans flew by our window, and the sun scorched the earth before us. The rains had come recently, however, so the Kalahari was green. Amazingly so. The further we continued the greener it became, until we began to descend once again into some of the harsher and hotter reaches of the Kalahari. We found ourselves descending into hell itself, it seemed, as the land became devoid of vegetation and the ground raised up around us as if to trap us.

As the sun set, we found ourselves at the bottom of the second deepest canyon in the world.

The road to Ai-Ais at sunset.

To be continued...

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