The Lion King – Terrace Bay, The Skeleton Coast, Namibia.

March 23rd, 2014
Return if the king -  Namib Desert, Namibia (from TENDUA website, Desert Lion Conservation Project)

Return of the king – Namib Desert, Namibia (from TENDUA website, Desert Lion Conservation Project)

There’s another white dual cab propped on the wrong side of the road. I wind down the passenger’s window to ask if all’s OK. A khaki-clad man pauses, narrow-eyed and hesitant way out here, water bottle pulled from an open, dust-laden tailgate.

We’re in Namibia – previously German South-West Africa – the Namib Desert straddling the entire 2000km western coast but never more than 200km wide.

“Yah, the oldest desert in the world”. Karl’s a geologist, and nods his hatted head, the only other soul we’ve seen today. “For sure, this is true, there are not too many coming this way.” He’s slammed the fridge shut and tucked the bottle in a bulging side pocket, his sleeveless jacket the type favoured by well-off German tourists here; vest pockets full of pens and battered notebook, the back of those hands red from a searing yellow sun.

He’s interested in only “basalt” – raising those bushy grey eyebrows – “Yah…..and maybe the possibility of diamonds,” having spent a lifetime in Damaraland mountains he “is knowing better than the Black Forest.”

Welwitschia plant - Damaraland, Namib Desert, Namibia

Welwitschia plant – Damaraland, Namib Desert, Namibia

There’s a bemused look on that sunburned face, the geologist shaking his head. “But you… are going where?” Karl grimaces while pondering the thought. “You say…..for 3-nights?” Silence again, him seeing no obvious sense in going “to a ruined diamond mine where there is nothing…..nothing, but the winds, the wet and the cold.”

I look past the geologist, to a flat and looming redness, then back to a worn moonscape skyline, and our distant dust trail that somehow hangs in limbo. The words “wet and cold” some alien notion, all around an engulfing, sweltering silence; the only obvious living thing, an occasional 2000yr old oddity of a prehistoric plant with two lonely leaves invariably shredded by Namib dust devils.

Turn, turn, turn - Skeleton Coast, Namib Desert.

Turn, turn, turn – Skeleton Coast, Namib Desert.

The air conditioning hums, Karl’s dual cab just a speck in the rearview, endless straight ahead, daunting hot and harsh: Spartan but sublime. How much difference could another 80km to the coast possibly make?

Desert flats are sand, and scattered dolomite pebbles polished black by wind-born grit; way ahead a floating mirage, the imaginings of distant shimmering dunes shrouding a somewhere shoreline. The sky’s turned grey: a faded waterless wash, the road morphing to curves that blend and drift; some strange netherland not sand nor sea.

Skeleton Coast sunset - Terrace Bay, Namib Desert

Skeleton Coast sunset – Terrace Bay, Namib Desert

At Terrace Bay we finally stop, wash off dust, don jackets and bathe in cool sunset air while sitting on a raised concrete porch drinking hot mugs of rooibis tea. The sun’s long gone, the sky still grey – the horizon too – the incessant boom on a steep beach, pounded by constant crashing waves.

Morning sees giant concrete pylons emerge from mist, once supporting a giant pipe with water for washing precious stones: what’s left of an Onassis diamond mine; these 10m towers the skyscraper homes to black cormorant clusters, safe from wild Atlantic seas. Beady eyes stare, snake-like necks craning to take in our every move, our boots slipping on wet rocks and black, broken kelp.

Diamond dreams - Terrace Bay, Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Diamond dreams – Terrace Bay, Skeleton Coast, Namibia

It’s not difficult to imagine past hardships here, the failed dreams and lost lives, the bones of forgotten mines and over 100 ships that  litter a desolate coast: beached skeletons the wrecks of stranded wooden whales, casualties of an eerie phantom mist.

I turn my back to the Atlantic, and the cold air of a freezing Humbolt current, gazing east to the dunes, imagining shipwrecked sailors and the certain ordeal of trudging lost through endless dunes to perish in the Namib furnace from where we’ve come.

Skeletons in sand - Namib Desert, Namibia

Skeletons in sand – Namib Desert, Namibia

In the restaurant, I dine on tender oryx steak; my girlfriend, on linguini and garlic mussels, while the mechanic fixes our shredded tyre. The maitre’d wears a crisp white shirt and cowboy boots, restaurant walls covered with graffitied comments of adventurers from around the world; the wine a perfumed Stellenbosch Pinotage, the music Marley, Phil Collins and UB-40.

At the workshed, Josh’s impressed at anyone driving all day from the giant Etosha salt pan up north. “And you saw lions?” It’s late, with Josh now under the bonnet of a Mercedes truck as I relate an encounter with 2-lionesses refusing to move from the road in front of our car. He shakes his head.

In the morning we’re leaving, and I’m back at the workshed, having remembered the tank being almost empty. Josh clicks the pump into action and looks up. “You know, there is a lion that visits us here.”

I’m taken aback, not sure what to make of the now talkative Josh and the unexpected disclosure. I look around: the desolation and giant dunes, the great Atlantic sweep. Josh takes my point and smiles.

“A lone male tagged with a radio collar.” Josh leans against our dual cab, balancing the pump in the crook of his arm. “Yes, he sometimes comes by. But we get little warning. It is kept a secret until the rangers, they ring us. He visits local waterholes. You would have certainly passed them when coming here.” Water holes here? I make a mental note.

Terrace Bay, Skeleton Coast, Namib Desert

Terrace Bay, Skeleton Coast, Namib Desert

The Terrace Bay bowser rattles and churns, Josh wide-eyed now. “This lion, he is special, his land stretching north 500km, all the way to Angola. This one, he swims the Kunene River.”

Josh left the capital of Windhoek when still a kid; having high hopes of studying zoology in Johannesburg. There’s a wan smile on that black face. He did time in the mines and drifted to odd jobs and truck repairs.

“I arrive still young, and I hear of these desert lions. At first, like you, I say no way. But yes, he is roaming the beaches, looking for washed-up whales, seals and sometimes…..he will take an oryx.”

I’ve seen oryx up north; the country’s emblematic second largest antelope and a living cave painting; a dangerous option for a lion, being sometimes impaled on those sharp spear-like horns. But it seems there are other dangers for a lion.

The tank is finally full, Josh dropping the nozzle on the rusted bowser bracket but happy to continue the tale. “It is so interesting, this story of the lions.” He suddenly stops, and I assure him I’m listening. There’s a flashing white grin before he goes on. “Before that time, when I arrive in 2002, there had been no lions here for over 10yrs!”

I must look doubtful, but Josh is insistent. “Yes, it is sad, but there had been trouble with the local people. They are so poor, with not so much food; kids and old people, few cows and goats.” Josh nods. “There are problems with lions.”

Even more recently, there’d been one animal – collared like Josh’s lion – killed by a trophy hunter, then another shot shortly after, the fate of that small desert pride sealed with the death of the remaining two: sisters poisoned with strychnine.

Josh looks up into surrounding dunes. “But this lion, he is still with us…..somewhere.”

A lethal meal - Skeleton Coast, Namib Desert

A lethal meal – Skeleton Coast, Namib Desert

Crashing waves drown the whirr of a distant helicopter: a silent north-bound speck high above, heading for a newly-built airstrip; the frontline in the Namibian search for oil and offshore gas. “We are a small nation of only 2-million….so we need this. It is for the future.” Josh’s voice lacks conviction.

I sympathise, my thoughts too with Josh’s lion. We both stare north along a mist-bound coast. “Always alone that one.” There’s a wave of Josh’s hand. “He travels up and down the coast; all this his kingdom.”

Heading south we see the waterholes just off the road; secret reed-bound, oasis oddities and patches of parched grass; Atlantic to the west, endless dunes to the north, south and east. Flamingos stand on shining pink ponds: spindly stilted legs among silent mirrored brethren. Not 20m from where we stand, an oryx drinks, raising painted head to stare, rapier-sharp horns held high, sniffs the air and heads off, slowly turning for one last look from atop a dune, safe in the knowledge that today the king is nowhere to be seen.

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Calling on Kittelsen – Skomvær Lighthouse, Lofoten, Norway.

February 16th, 2014
`The Sea Troll' by Theodor Kittelsen (circa 1887)

`The Sea Troll’ by Theodor Kittelsen (circa 1887)

4m waves batter our ferry on the fiercest piece of water in the world. We’re 100km west of the Norwegian mainland and this is the Maelstrom, first mentioned by the Greeks 3000 years ago and immortalized in the iconic writings of Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne.

But it’s the artist and poet Theodor Severin Kittelsen who’s the icon here, his sketches of trolls and wildlife legendary; and I wonder what could drive a man said to be lyrical, macabre, anthropomorphic, soulful and poetic. Only one day earlier a Lofoten blacksmith suggested “personal demons”.

“You’ve heard of him?” Marius seemed surprised. “With not so much printed in the English language, I am thinking he does not receive the international attention.” Marius is thinking out loud, peering intently at a newly formed cormorant glowing red between smithy’s calipers. “This man, he could capture the mind and the moods….. the conditions of Norwegian society and nature.”

`The Plague is Coming' by Theodor Kittelsen (circa 1894)

`The Plague is Coming’ by Theodor Kittelsen (circa 1894)

I’m reminded of a sketch lying flat in the grey pressed-metal cabinet of an Oslo museum: an ancient crone with bent back shuffling from house to house. This is Kittelsen’s The Black Death. She journeys a winding fjordside path, by cliff and rock; a black, hooded cloak hiding all but those wide eyes, cold and grey. In one hand she carries an upright rake that some may escape, but her broom will catch all.

Kittelsen is born in southern Norway, 1857; 11-yo when his father dies, leaving him to work as an errand-boy.

His artistic gift recognised at 17, he studies in Oslo and later Munich, helped by a generous benefactor. That support ends in 1879, Kittelsen leaving to eke out a living as a draughtsman for German magazines and newspapers. In 1882 he’s granted a Paris scholarship, but seems lost and longing for the simple life. “It is becoming clearer, and clearer to me what I have to do,” he writes, “and I have had more ideas – but I must, I must get home.” He returns to Norway in 1887.

The following 2-yrs find Kittelsen in Lofoten, with his sister and brother-in-law south of here at Skomvær Lighthouse. He discovers nature, his greatest comfort, adding text to his emotive collection of drawings.

Our ferry rolls as we pass the coastal ghost town of Hell – somewhere outside – Autumnal clouds heavy with rain,billowing seas grey, buckets of white crash against a ferry window barely a metre from my girlfriend’s shoulder. The bow rises and drops. There’s a shuddering thump and I worry how the cars below will cope, consoling myself with the Norwegians being old hands on perilous seas.

Old Lutheran Vicarage - Vaeroy, Lofoten

Old Lutheran Vicarage – Vaeroy, Lofoten

Our ferry pushes on towards the smaller island of Værøy, surely a concoction of a Norwegian Dr Moreau. Gigantic, jagged peaks sprout from smudged ocean gloom, their sides almost vertical, piercing clouds, melded leaden sky.

From Sørland wharf, we drive north to a group of buildings dwarfed by the towering 450m Nordlandsnupen backdrop; this place the original hub of Værøy, the one-time Lutheran vicarage, now a glorious guesthouse.

“Kittelsen?” Hege asks with raised eyebrows. “Yah, but of course. He was here!” She points to the building opposite our own refurbished-chicken-house lodgings, and hunts down a bulky volume from cluttered shelves of books and an odd mix of  island birds; some taxidermist’s discarded  pride and joy.

Hege returns with the blue bound, gold-embossed gem, Fra Lofoten, Kittelsen’s signature bold and sweeping. “A confident man?” asks Hege, “I am not so sure.” She nods her head and again raises her eyebrows. “He was an artist, after all.”

Old Vicarage Borgstua  lodgings - Vaeroy, Lofoten

Old Vicarage Borgstua lodgings and church – Vaeroy, Lofoten

That night the wind howls and rattles windows: the same wind Kittelsen knew when sketching and writing here, confiding in the Lutheran priest and compiling Fra Lofoten; leading the acclaimed Norwegian artist Christian Krohg to surmise, “Lofoten is what suddenly has made Kittelsen into the poet and great artist that he is…his vision is universal, unpretentious and explicit.”

In the morning I linger outside Kittelsen’s room next door to ours, soaking up Arctic sun in the lee of those charcoal-shadowed cliffs. Værøy crows whirr, and croaks rise from secret stone ledges; others catching cold updrafts to disappear from view.

Next stop Skomvaer - Rost, Lofoten

Next stop Skomvaer – Rost, Lofoten

The next day we’re on the island of Røstlandet – ‘Røst’ to locals – the pitter-patter of soft rain on an open awning window. At breakfast the morning outside is grey and as flat as Røst, ‘flat as a pancake’ on tourist brochures, with 640 human inhabitants surrounded by 300 islets and 2.5 million nesting birds on season.

Finn has lived here all his life, takes tourists out to the bird islands, in what was once the island doctor’s boat. He peers up at a featureless sky. “Mmm, maybe not today,” he says as he sniffs the air, “it will be better.” Intended to put our minds at ease, Finn tells the story of the local church destroyed in an 1835 hurricane; the spire and attached bells blown clear off and dumped on the ground. He’ll take us tomorrow, weather permitting, to Kittelsen’s Skomvær.

Trenyken bird islands - Lofoten

Trenyken bird islands – Lofoten

In the morning we pass the triple-peaked Trenyken, Finn pondering Kittelsen’s trolls; and an Italian archaeologist finding a cave with 3000-year-old cave paintings: mysterious red-ochre figures, giant trolls with odd-shaped heads.

Finally there’s Skomvær Island, the last stop till Iceland; not as flat as Røst, the 1887 lighthouse sitting on low green pastures, behind us the sculptured stacks of Kittelsen’s bird islands.

Returning to the mainland in 1889, Kittelsen marries; a self-portrait has him bearded, head turned slightly, pale eyes pensive with an intense inner glow that follows me around the room. The brow is slightly furrowed, the hair short and brownish-fair under an artist’s deep hessian skullcap; the dark, crumpled, jacket open to reveal a linen shirt and collar.

Island solace - Skomvaer Lighthouse

Island solace – Skomvaer Lighthouse

Life was difficult for Kittelsen, his wife and nine children. As time passed the artist’s health failed, the family forced to sell the home and leave for Oslo in 1910.

Kittelsen died at age 57, his friend Christian Skredsvig lamenting “..there will never be anyone to succeed him. Even the trolls have disappeared for always. At any rate, I have never seen them since.”

The mainland ferry approaches, the Arctic wind loaded with the smell of salt and wooden racks of salted cod. I dally by the terminal, peering through jetty cracks to the heaving black below, before gazing out to sea. Three silent cormorants sit on a nearby skerry, wet wings extended out to dry, long snakelike necks and hooked beaks held high. These must surely be THE three cormorants of Røst, an ancient tale of bird brothers in a magical land south of Skomvær, and sketched by Kittelsen; a land where drowned sailors live forever, visiting their families in the form of cormorants.

`Nykerne' by Theodor Kittelsen (circa 1887)

`Nykerne’ by Theodor Kittelsen (circa 1887)

The horizon is blurred, bird islands laden with ethereal swirls. Sheer granite slabs fall to a wine dark sea. Weird rocky knolls are giant trolls, all warts and wild whiskers. Mysterious hunched figures brood in tumbled cloaks, hiding spell books and pondering the ways of timeless oceans. Ragged mountain crags are cyclopean shapes, heads with crooked faces and big noses. Clouded silhouettes are sirens, the wind their toxin song – Kittelsen’s visions as mystical as anything Homer imagined.

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