Day 276: Going Back In Time

Thur. 16th May 2013

One of the Himba chief's wives outside his hutWe need to make up for lost time today as we failed to fit the Petrified Forest into the yesterday afternoon. This means that we have an early start once again. The Petrified Forest is, however, only a short drive away and so we do get the benefit of it being relatively cool once we get there. Once again, we are in violation of my favourite ‘6P rule’ (Perfect Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance – the 7P  version is censored under Parental Guidance rules!) and we don’t really have much of a scooby as to what the Petrified Forest is all about.

It looks for all the world like a tree trunkFortunately, Michael, the guide on site, was both helpful and informative. After pointing out the big sign saying that it is forbidden to remove any samples from the site, he picked up a rock and handed it around for us to inspect. It looked like wood, felt like stone and weighed as much as both wood and stone combined. It was fascinating – a lump of rock with the rings and grain of wood. Even the bark was clearly visible.

Looking for all the world like firewoodMichael then went on to explain the history of this place and how the wood came to be petrified. Around 280m years ago, before Gondwanaland had separated out into Africa and the other continents, there was a conifer forest growing here. The area was then flooded and covered with mud and silt. The fallen trees were buried deep and subject to high pressures from the weight of the mud above. Instead of forming coal or diamonds, the trees did not rot (Michael insisted that this was due to the medium pressure and the absence of of oxygen) but instead the minerals were absorbed (forced) into the cells of the tree with silica thus preserving the structures of the wood.

The circular walk to view the trees was much easier, shorter and cooler than yesterday’s frazzling in the noon-day sun. We need to give Nomad feedback about the tightness of the schedule and the inappropriateness of midday walks in this heat. As we walked, we could see that the ground was littered with fragments from the forest. The real attraction though were the fallen tree trunks. Nearly complete tree trunkClearly, these were big tall conifers – very different from the spindly acacias that are the biggest trees in the area today. The trunks have been exposed by erosion – another sign that they are now harder than the surrounding soil and rocks.

We get to see around half a dozen petrified tree trunks. The largest is visible for 40m with a further 30m still buried below ground – a 70m tree is tall by any standards. All of the trunks are just like the three trolls in the hobbit – turned to stone. The regular growth rings are clearly visible (a very regular, warm climate) and we can also see the knot holes where the branches once were.

Welwitischia plantOn our way round, Michael, points out to us the Welwitschia (pronounced Velvitkia) plants. This is the national plant of Namibia, indigenous to this region, and like the rest of the country, quite unusual. The plant has just two broad, flat, tough as leather leaves that emerge from the ground and which form a circle around the plant itself. The shape of the leaves channels any rain water into the plant. The root is thick and fibrous burrows down deep to find water. Each plant is either male or female and they have a very long lifetime with over 1,000 years being confirmed and up 2,000 years suspected.

Schools have the same rules everywhereThe Welwitschia just capped a tour that was much more interesting than I was expecting from the title and the brief tour notes. It is thanks mostly to the guide for making it so. As ever, when someone talks with passion about their topic, then that enthusiasm rubs off on the audience. And so it was with us. Afterwards, it was just a short drive to the town of Kamanjab where we are staying tonight. We were even able to have a break before our second activity of the day – a trip to see a Himba tribal village.

Welcoming committee on their wayThe Himba are one of the original tribes from this area. They are descendants of the Herero tribe (that Janet briefly met yesterday) but broke away from them. Whereas the Herero adopted an imitation of western dress when the German colonists arrived, the Himba stuck with the traditional (lack of) attire. They are noted for the women painting their bodies with a paste made from butter oil and ochre that turns them a burnt red colour.

Kids are the same everywhereThe village we are going to is an orphanage and so there is a high proportion of children who have been abandoned by their parents. It is run for tourists but it still provided an interesting insight into their lives. Needless to say, we wouldn’t want to swap our way of life for theirs. As we walk into the village, we are quickly surrounded by some of the younger children who come out to meet us. Like kids everywhere, they want to hold our hands and then use us as a human swing or bungee jump.

Typical hutsThe village is a circle of stick huts that have been plastered with a mix of termite earth and cattle dung (is that still wattle?). Of course the chief has the largest hut and the only one with a chimney for a fire. One of his jobs is to keep watch over the ‘holy fire’ which is outside during the day but brought in at night. In the centre of the ring of huts is a pen for the cattle which are farmed for their milk (and meat only on special occasions).

Himba women in traditional atire and paintWe learned that it is only the women that paint their bodies and their hair (they start after their first period). This helps to keep them clean and as adults they never wash in water. As children, the girls have long hair and the boys shaved heads – otherwise, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference! The coming of age ceremony for the boys (and girls too, I think) includes having their four front teeth knocked out (by the chief). This apparently is done both for cosmetic reasons (??) and to help them articulate the language(???). Their diet is predominantly a maize porridge (made with sour milk) and they only eat meat once or twice a week. All in all, no thanks!

Janet deciding not to opt for the Himba lifestyleGiven that the village is run as an orphanage, we didn’t mind stopping in the craft market to overpay for a plastic, hand engraved bracelet for Janet and a photo with one of the girls. More interesting for us was having a peep inside the shack that is the village school. It is tiny and there isn’t much space but as can be seen from the sign in the classroom [Ed. See earlier in the post], some things are pretty much the same as back home!


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