One day during the tour that Heather and I took with Frikkie in 2015, he took us to two sites which feature water creatures. First we traveled to Cape Cross, a coastal site 115 km north of Swakopmund. The morning began with a light mist which cleared up into a beautifully clear, sunny, windy day. Cape Cross is of historical interest and natural interest due to the large colonies of fur seals which congregate on the shore during their breeding season.
Frikkie and Laura Ann stand in the wind next to a replica of the original colonizer’s cross planted on this spot by the Portuguese explorer, Diego Cao in 1486. As I look at this photo, taken by Heather, I think that Frikkie and I look like we are shimmering in the misty sea air, ephemeral, transient. I find myself grateful for whatever knowledge I have of the past and I want to devote a few moments here to recognizing the human achievement of the explorers whose souls seem to shimmer in the mist all around us.
Again, the date was 1486, even before Columbus arrived at the north American continent in 1492 . The Portuguese were a seafaring people and hoped to find a route around Africa to the east to enter the lucrative spice trade and were eager to spread the Christian religion. The above image (from Wikipedia), is a replica of the caravel, a wooden sailing ship which held about 20 sailors, captain and crew. Such was the vessel that Diego Cao captained navigating the uncharted waters of the west African coast in the mid 1400’s A.D.
Their navigation tools were the astrolabe, pictured above (thank you Wikipedia), and the quadrant. Both instruments were used to measure the altitude of the sun at noon and/or the Pole Star at midnight. Thus, all these early explorers knew was whether they were going north, south, east, or west.
This is a map of Africa published in 1542 which I found on the internet. At the time of Diego Cao’s explorations, at least 56 years before this map was created, Europeans had gotten no further than Cape Santa Catarina which is not marked on this map; however, it was located at about the spot where the human figure is drawn. The Cape of Good Hope, pictured with an elephant in the tip, was first rounded by the Europeans in 1488. For these early explorers sailing down the west coast of Africa is analogous to modern humans embarking on a space flight to Mars. In fact, the early explorers had less information about where they were going than what we currently have about what it would take to make a star voyage to Mars. Notice how foreshortened the extent of the west coast is in this early map – most of what is not here comprises the Skeleton Coast, so called because it is so rocky and treacherous that to this day, ships flounder and are wrecked on the coast of Namibia.
Frikkie sent me this photo of a ship wreck which occurred sometime in recent years off Henties Bay.
This is the modern day gate into Namibia’s Skeleton Coast reserve. The beaches along the way are festooned with ship wrecks going all the way back to the wooden ships of the early explorers. Photo by Tillie.
Diego Cao made three voyages down the west coast of Africa, until at last, in 1486, he arrived on the coast of what was to become the modern state of Namibia and planted a cross which is how Cape Cross got its name. The fate of Diego Cao is a mystery. He evidently did not make it back to Portugal with his crew from this voyage. There is speculation that he may have traveled inland – maybe as far as the Messum Crater – and then he vanished from recorded history -ephemeral, transient, shimmering.
Quite close to the Cape Cross historical marker is the lookout walk and viewing site for the Cape Cross fur seal colony. These seals are one of three species of fur seals in Southern Africa. Fur seals are present all year in the Cape Cross area with a population between 80,000 to 100,000. The male seals, called bulls, do not usually stay with the colony except during breeding season. We were present while the females were giving birth and raising their babies and the bulls were fully present.
Heather took this photo of Frikkie and myself studying the seal colony. The more you watch the more you realize that this is not a mob of unorganized seals. Each bull has a harem and they all know each other. They are carrying on an organized life style of interconnected families within one large colony.
Fur seals are also called eared seals. This lovely lady’s ears are clearly visible in my photo.
The males, such as this guy, will reach a weight of 360kg during breeding season. The females reach about 75kg. In the video below you can see two newborn seals- looking like a black blobs. One of them is visible in the middle of the screen and the other a little higher who is then obscured by the mother seal who rolls in front of it. In the upper right hand corner a big bull comes up to proclaim he is the proud papa. We watched the sea gulls eat the placentas of the newborns.
Now we enter the FLIP SIDE. Flip side refers, of course, to seal flippers, but also to us as our adventure in the afternoon took us to an abandoned mine shaft near Henties Bay. The owner probably abandoned the mine, bankrupt – a history of failed enterprises that has repeated itself in the Namib Desert and Skeleton Coast since the times of the early settlers. Now the shaft is a salt water swimming pool. It was an opportunity for Heather and I to frolic in the water like the seals we’d spent the morning with.
There is so much salt in this clean water that it is impossible to drown. Your body remains afloat as you paddle yourself around on your back. It is difficult to actually swim, e.g., to try a breast stroke. Best to just relax in this liquid gold.
From up above, Frikkie takes a photo of his two human seals. and we wave our flippers in response.
Our closing image is this young seal sitting at the edge of the waves waiting for his mother to return from fishing. Let us hope for him – that his mother returns and that he gets his dinner and that they both live long seal lives in their colony home at Cape Cross. Later that evening, we were very grateful for the fish dinner we shared with Frikkie and Tillie in beautiful seaside Henties Bay. And soon we are asleep and dreaming under African skies, transient, ephemeral, mist-shimmer.