June 23, 2006

Seals and cross

Namibia is a vast country of enormous distances, best covered on road. Jan, my travelling buddy, and I spent ten days on the generally excellent highways, zooming along at upwards of 200 kmph. Our little rented VW took us from the northeastern corner to deep in the south, visiting much of what lay in between, drinking in the strange yet spectacular scenery.

Good roads, but one afternoon in the northeastern corner -- the so-called Caprivi Strip that juts peculiarly between Botswana and Angola -- we found ourselves on not just the worst road in Namibia, but likely the worst road in the world. For miles, it resembled a seriously corrugated sheet of asbestos. Rough, rough, rough. Try as we could, we couldn't sustain anything better than ten kmph for more than a couple of minutes.

Heading for the town of Katima Mulillo in the eastern tip of the Strip, we corrugated along for hours. Our bones and teeth rattled in their foundations as the Vee-dub made sounds like it was about to disintegrate under us. I even tried driving on the sandy verge, but gave that up when we nearly ran over a startled man dozing next to his cow. We finally admitted defeat when we saw another car tackling the road differently: hurtling past at 200 kmph. A good strategy, I suppose: the bumps must smooth out into nothingness. Only, we just could not drum up the courage to rev up to that speed. Tails between our shimmying legs, we turned around and headed out of the Strip at a sedate, if frustrated and still fiercely vibrato, ten kmph.

Katima Mulillo remains on my must-see list. What's it like?

We did reach the seal colony at Cape Cross, on the windswept coast. As we parked, I was conscious of a mildly unpleasant smell and a cacophony of barks. Just beyond a low wall, thousands upon thousands of sleek, fat seals lay on the beach. As I stood on the wall, the nearest animals were just below me, a handshake away. Barking in gentle alarm, they scrambled a little further when they saw me pop up, but didn't seem particularly wary otherwise.

An astonishing sight, the horde of seals; but why is this spot called Cape Cross? Ah, now that's a fascinating story. In 1485, Diego Cao, a Portuguese sailor, came ashore here. The Portuguese had a tradition of erecting wood or limestone crosses wherever they landed, useful most of all as landmarks for passing ships. Cao's cross here was a signpost for his successors on those virgin sea lanes that hugged the African coast, telling them that the Portuguese had safely reached at least this far south.

Cao was just the latest in a series of Portuguese adventurers who had been pushing south, beyond several points on Africa's western coast that had each seemed like points of no return: Cape Bojador, the present-day Liberian coast, Guinea, Angola. And now Cape Cross. They were searching for the point where the African coast would turn decisively east. For what such a turn would almost surely mean: the sea route to the East. To India.

In 1497, another adventurer sailed past Cao's cross, struggled around Africa's southern tip and and set his sails to ride the winds north and east. In Malindi in present-day Kenya, he found an Arab pilot to guide him across the Indian ocean. To India. On May 20, 1498, after 12,000 miles and 316 days at sea, Vasco da Gama touched land near Calicut.

Here where the smelly seals bark, where a salty sea-captain from Lisbon once stood, looking up at his cross: the connection to India. Feel it, smell it, soak it in.


km said...


And now I can't stop singing "Summer Breeze".

Anonymous said...

Dilip, Thanks for this :)

Mridula said...

Fantastic Dilip.

In the context of the travel contest going on, man, I wish I could write anything even 1/million (I hope my math makes sense and I am not saying entirely opposite of what I mean to say) as decent as this.

Dilip D'Souza said...

guys, thanks. Namibia was a strange and wonderful place. Mridula, good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hey Dilip: Thanks very much for your kind words. I agree with Mridula, when it comes to travel writing, you walk away with the prize. I am surprised I even got shortlisted for this contest.

Your non-descriptive style of travel writing has a story, a level of connecting with your reader, exploration of the unknown and all this makes your writing such a pleasure to read.

Yes, I will wait for you to bow at Shoppers Stop :)