Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shark Island in Luderitz

When I ask my friends what the Afrikaans word for "soon" is, they have no answer. The closest they can come up with the concept of "soon" is the Afrikaans word for "now", or sometimes "now now". Namibia has a different concept of time. "Now" does not mean what North Americans perceive as now.

This truth came out when I set off for a weekend trip alone to Luderitz. My plan was to take the cheapest way there, which was by combie van. Unfortuantely, these vans do not leave until there are enough people going to the same destination, so sometimes you end up waiting and waiting. I waited six hours, to be exact. It was a real test of patience and ability to lie on a metal bench and do nothing for six hours. I watched two stray cats hunt a grasshopper. I watched people wander in and out of the Rhino Park Beauty spot. I watched a man beat on a young boy trying to hawk some wares. I watched a security guard dance to pass the time.

My patience was finally rewarded by the universe with a slightly less-decrepit-than-usual combie van which actually had headrests, for which I was grateful because it meant I could sleep without leaning on my neighbours. This was good because I was wedged between the tall gruff driver and a large coloured man from Walvis Bay.

"So, you are from China?" he asked me.

"No," I answered. Sometimes I think I should get a shirt.

The roads to the south of Namibia are flat fields of tall green and yellow grass, reminding me a bit of driving past cornfields back home in Ontario. There are less mountains here. It was a long drive, about ten hours, and we didn't pull into Luderitz until midnight, even though I had arrived at the combi vans at 8AM. It was too dark to see much of Luderitz at all. All I could see were the trees by the side of the road, looking like ghosts.

When I woke up, it was a beautiful morning with clear skies and church bells were ringing like in a French song. The streets of Luderitz were completely empty and quiet except for church sermons. There seem to be a lot of churches in Luderitz.

Luderitz is an old German harbour town on the coast. It's an odd location for a town, sandwiched between the cold Atlantic ocean and the massive desert. You basically drive past the dunes for what feels like forever until the road suddenly spits you out into this quaint little town of bright coloured houses and the ocean. It's a lot farther away from Windhoek, so unlike Swakopmund, it doesn't have a huge tourism industry. In fact, with its main industries being fisheries and diamonds, you could almost swear they don't want tourists, especially since the town is surrounded by the intriguingly frightening Sperrgebiet National Park, which despite being a national park, is extremely forbidden to everyone, lest anyone try to sneak in and smuggle out diamonds. Those DO NOT ENTER OR ELSE OUR BORED GUARDS WILL SHOOT YOU just aren't that tourist friendly.

Luderitz is a better reflection of the kind of tourists that Namibia tends to attract: richer, older folks, often German, with their own cars. The destinations in Namibia tend to be far apart, there isn't much of a public transportation, and the terrain is rough and sometimes dangerous. It's not like Cape Town: you don't see a lot of teenagers, and you don't see a lot of backpackers. I discovered this when I realized I was the only person in a 8-bed dorm in the town's only backpackers hostel. Also, you need a car to get to any of the "tourist" destinations in Luderitz.

I don't mind this at all, because it also tends to mean that every where you go, it tends to be quiet and uncrowded, making you feel as though you are experiencing something that was meant just for you. I like trying the off-the-beaten-track stuff, so I set out on foot, breathing in the refreshing smell of sea salt in the air. My goal was to try to hitch a ride to Kolmanskop, the ghost town that lay about eleven kilometres inland from Luderitz. I hung around the safari shop, hoping to find other ghost town thrill seekers. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to be heading there that day, and I was not feeling up to an eleven kilometre hike in the height of the heat in the desert, so I had to abandon that plan for the day.

I asked the lady at the safari shop where there was a beach near here, and she told me there was a small one at Shark Island.

I took the long way there and took some pictures of the town along the way.

the famous brightly coloured painted houses of luderitz. I liked this practice of using vibrant colours. It reminded me a little of Jelly Bean Row in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

this gambling hall was pink.

the famous goerke haus, rising from the rocks

the jetty

luderitz: land of barren desert, palm trees, mountains, and the ocean

a church on the rocks, pretty much in the middle of nowhere

Shark Island was accessible by foot, although apparently people don't do that very often, because the guard at the gate was surprised to see me show up on my own. He asked me for my lunch. I offered him some crackers. He let me in.

What most people don't know about Shark Island is that it used to be a concentration camp. One of the world's first concentration camps, in fact, where the Germans exterminated thousands of Nama and Herero people in horrific conditions during the Namibian war, 1904 to 1908. Many historians believe that the techniques practiced here developed into the massive concentration camps during the Holocaust. Now Shark Island is a resort.

I've been to Auschwitz. I did the tours and saw the bunkers. There is nothing of the sort at Shark Island. There is no sign explaining the significance of the site, nothing to hint of its gory past. There actually isn't much at all at Shark Island, actually, and it would be a bit of a stretch to call it a resort. It's mostly barren land, all rock, with a sort of desolate feeling, surrounded by crashing ocean waves. I was struck by how small the area is, and wondered how they could kill thousands of people here. It was one of the reasons why I had decided not to camp here.

I found the beach and sat down to eat my lunch, a carton of Oshikandela and a meat pie from the OK Grocers (which was OK). Back when this place was a concentration camp, the Germans would take the bodies of the victims that had died, and decapitate them, sending the skulls to Germany for scientific research to "prove" the physical superiority of the Aryan race. Then they would dump the bodies on the beach for the sharks to feed on when the tide came in. Shark Island. And now I was having a picnic on the beach.

I was approached by a young barefoot Namibian schoolgirl whose family was having a braai nearby (yes, on Shark Island, former concentration camp, now Sunday afternoon family barbecue spot). She introduced herself as Shannon.

shannon and her brother, playing on the beach

"Why are you sitting on the rock and not in the sand?" she asked me.

"Because I'm afraid of finding bodies on the beach," I replied.


I realized that she hadn't eaten her lunch yet, so I decided not to explain. "I'm afraid of ghosts," I replied, which seemed to make a lot more sense to Shannon for some reason.

"Why aren't you swimming?" she asked.

"Because I'm afraid of sharks," I answered. Which I thought was a perfectly sensible answer.

She and her little brother kept me company as we watched the tide lap around the rocks, enjoying the view of the ocean and the beach, which seemed to be covered in more oyster shells than sand. Her brother told me the story of how once it snowed in the nearby town of Aus, and everybody went out in hordes to Aus to see the snow. Shannon pointed out the seals swimming in the water. They told us that they planned to study hard so they could one day visit Canada.

The waves were so rhythmic and soothing that I found myself falling asleep. When I woke up, Shannon and her brother had returned to their family to eat and they were replaced by a young German man sitting next to me, trying to talk to me with his limited English. I eventually figured out that he wasn't a hallucination or a ghost coming back to haunt the concentration camp, mainly beacuse I feel like ghosts wouldn't be hanging around in their underwear. I followed him back to his campsite on the other side of Shark Island, where his friends were all also in their underwear, because it was laundry day.

They were four young Europeans travelling through Namibia the way that tourists travel through Namibia, with a giant truck and an incredibly-equipped camping kit that could survive a Siberian winter. The girl, Alina, greeted me and explained that they had been travelling for days together and they were glad for a chance to talk to someone new. They invited me to stay for dinner and drinks. I thought, why not? It hadn't been my intention to have a social party on the site of a former concentration camp - with Germans - but on the other hand, I didn't have any dinner plans.

As they began cutting up vegetables and tending to the braai fire to cook the meat, they told me about themselves. One was an archeologist, another a high school teacher, and the other a guitarist in a Swiss garage rock band. The fourth guy, Lars, never said a word the entire time, so I didn't know what he did, but he did a splendid job of cooking.

While the boys cooked, Alina and I climbed up the rocks and watched as dolphins played in the water near the island. The sun was beginning to set. It was a pretty surreal moment, with the dolphins, the sunset, the delicious smell of braai cooking, the newfound friends, all on a spot that had seen some of the worst suffering man has inflicted on others. But maybe that's a different way of Namibia healing itself, transofrming a place of horror into a place of peace and having a nice time with friends.