The next adventure on Frikkie’s tour was a journey into the land of the Topnaar who are a branch of the Nama people. They live in western central Namib along the Kuiseb River in the area around Walvis Bay. They are a semi nomadic tribe, part of the Khoisan genetic group. The ‡Aonin Topnaars are one of two Topnaar groups in Namibia. The Aonin live at the mouth of the Kuiseb River, the other group lives in the north. Traditionally they lived by herding goats, but also adapted to the dry coastal desert environment of the Namib. The relatively rich plant life of the Kuiseb River valley provided them with additional sources of food, particularly the !nara melon. So the intent of the tour was to visit this area and perhaps meet some of the Topnaars who lived there. However, when we arrived in mid-morning, they were not home. All of them had gone out in the desert somewhere and all we saw were their simple dwellings. As I reflected on this experience I came up with the title for this post – Traces of Presence. Throughout that morning that’s what we experienced. The Kuiseb River bed itself was one of the traces. It was a dry riverbed. The times it flows with water are the months of January-March. The Kuiseb river forms the northern boundary of the great southern dune field and when it does have water to the point of flooding it prevents the land to the north from being covered in shifting sands. There was only the river bed itself which we saw that November morning. Our guide showed us the well which keeps the Topnaars in this area. The water flows from deep underground upward, the opening is protected with a plastic tube. The bucket with which the water was drawn sat nearby. We learned that the water was pure, being well water. We could have taken a drink with no ill effects.
We walked around the area and took a few photos of the Topnaar’s simple dwellings. I felt a bit like an intruder – what if strangers visited your home when you were out and walked around taking pictures of your house and property? Topnaars live in utter simplicity which reflects a nomadic lifestyle. Everything is makeshift and an odd mixture of wood and desert plants with 21st century plastic objects and cardboard and tin. The older Topnaars receive old age pensions with which they buy some things, but they rely heavily on the !nara melon as a staff of life. They create quite a menu from the prickly little fruit. They dry the seeds, they roast the ripe !nara, and cook a broth with the plant that they call “Topnaar chocolate,” which is a highly nutritious food source full of vitamins and minerals. There were plenty of !nara melon vines growing on little dunes, but of the cooks who make magic from them there was not a trace.
Our guide showed us evidence of humans who lived in this area from a long time ago when the river was full and game abounded. The wind blows clear traces of human artifacts, bits of tools, the red ochre stone which the people rubbed on themselves to protect their skins from the harsh sun and stinging insects. They made beads of ostrich shell and our guide demonstrated each stage – the fragment of shell, how it was pared down by their teeth to a small disc, which was pierced and the bead finished by rounding it – all by hand and mouth. The people buried their dead but the wind continually blows aside the sand and the ground displays human bones some of which look like the buried dead had been curled in fetal position -more traces of long ago life.
On what was clearly once muddy ground or the shallow edges of the river there were many petrified footprints – estimated to be from 4 hundred to thousands of years old. This now arid land was once blooming with life – we identified eland prints, an elephant print, a five toed print, perhaps a leopard or lion – again, traces of ancient life. The featured image for this post is one of the human foot prints mingled with those of the animals. Heather walked in those prints as far as they went, retracing the human journey.
Most of the group was talking when I decided to sit down on a small dune covered with !nara melon vine. I noticed movement among the dry prickly branches of the vine and watched carefully. A saw an enormous beetle making his acrobatic way among the tough tangle of !nara vine branches. Someone alive! and present! I began taking photos of this little guy and he seemed to notice me because he dropped down on the sand and started skittering down to where I was. I was on eye level with my new friend and wondered what kind of beetle he was, so I called over to Frikkie who came over with Heather. Oh, that’s an armored beetle, he said and promptly picked it up and popped it in his mouth. Don’t eat my friend, I cried! Of course he didn’t. The little hard bodied insect probably enjoyed the moisture wondering how did he get in this dark human cave. We all took turns holding him and then put him back down on the dune.
We took time to contemplate the huge dunes to the south. Our little lives, including all the tiny lives like the beetle, seem so ephemeral – we leave barely a trace of our lives revealed to other eyes at the whim of the wind. Namibia is a country in which you are always keenly aware of the power of the earth itself – water, fire, stone, sand, rock.