Friday, 17 April 2015

The Amazing Race 26, Episode 7

Cap Ferrat (France) - Nice (France) - Windhoek (Namibia) - Erindi (Namibia) - Spitzkoppe (Namibia) - Swakopmund (Namibia) - Dorob National Park (Namibia) - Goanikontes (Namibia)

Namibia, as host Phil Keoghan pointed out near the start of this week's episode of The Amazing Race 26, is the least densely populated (by people, that is) country in Africa. That makes it one of the best places for "big game" viewing safaris. Humans compete with other animals for land, food, and water, which is one of the reasons that reserving large tracts of land for wild animals and tourists isn't always popular with local people. Few African countries have both large and/or dense human populations and dense populations of other animals. In general, one can tell whether visitors are interested in cultural tourism or wildlife tourism by which African country or countries they have chosen as their destinations.

There's a corollary, of course, to the fact that the best wildlife viewing is in places with few people: uncrowded places with few people tend to be slow and expensive to reach. This should go without saying, but it's surprising how often people are surprised to find that a place they've read about as "off the beaten path" really is exactly that.

There are so few flights to Namibia that the producers of The Amazing Race made reservations in advance for all of the cast members (and the accompanying film crews). That's something they have rarely done, and only in cases where people without reservations might have to wait days to find space on a flight.

If you're planning to fly to Namibia, especially if your schedule is constrained by the dates of a pre-booked safari or other activities, make reservations well in advance. The same goes for most other countries in Africa, including more populous ones. Airline routes and flight frequencies follow the money and the trade routes, and the value of trade with and within Africa, other than in oil and minerals, is small. There's less airline passenger capacity per capita to, from, and within Africa than in any other inhabited continent.

Southern Africa is as far away from the USA as any other part of a continental landmass. Only some Indian Ocean islands are closer to the antipode of anywhere in the USA. Getting to southern Africa, don't expect direct flights, frequent service, quick and convenient connections, or cheap tickets. The racers were booked on the only direct flight route to Namibia from Europe, but most travellers to Namibia have to make connections through South Africa. Botswana, Namibia's almost equally sparsely populated neighbor country, has no long-haul flights at all.

The TV producers had booked connecting flights for the racers originating from the airport in Nice (airport code NCE). In this case, that made sense. But it's worth noting that while Nice is the best-known airport serving the French Riviera, it's far from the largest city or only airport on the French Mediterranean coast. Marseille is a much larger city than Nice, and it's only about three hours by train or two hours by car (barring traffic) from Nice to Marseille. There are no direct flights between the Marseille airport (MRS) and southern Africa, but there are direct flights as well as trans-Mediterranean ferries between Marseille and several cities in North Africa. It's hard to predict in which cases prices, schedules, or availability will be better to or from Marseille or Nice, so it's generally worth comparing both options.

I happen to like Marseille, and would recommend that you take the chance to explore at least a little if you are passing through. That isn't necessary, though, if you just want to use Marseille as gateway to the region. Marseille is a major rail hub and TGV (high-speed train) terminus with direct TGV service to cities as far away as Brussels, and much better rail service in almost every direction than Nice. There's a mainline rail station at MRS airport, so you may not need to go to the downtown Marseille station (Gare St. Charles) or change trains at all. And there's frequent shuttle bus service as well as direct rail connections from the Gare St. Charles to MRS.

A complication for tourists arriving by air in Namibia is that most international flights arrive in the capital and largest town, Windhoek. (The only exceptions are a handful of direct flights between South African cities and the formerly South African-controlled enclave of Walvis Bay, Namibia.) Most tourists, however, are trying to get away from the city to wildlife reserves in less populated parts of the country. Domestic flights, including both scheduled domestic flights on Air Namibia and the small private planes (like the ones the racers took) that serve private game reserves, use a completely separate airport, ERS, which is 43 km (27 miles) from the international airport, WDH. That makes Windhoek the smallest city in the world, so far as I can tell, with separate domestic and international airports.

The racers were flown in single-engine Cessnas to the dirt landing strip at Erindi, one of the ranches that has been converted from agricultural to a private "game" reserve and stocked with the zebras, elephants, giraffes, and other animals that tourists want to see. From then on, the racers had to drive themselves to and between their clues and challenges.

If you are going to rent a self-car in a place like this, after 24 hours or more in transit, do yourself a favor and get a good night's sleep before you start out. It's easy to underestimate the distances and difficulty of driving in a different country.

Namibia is only a small part of Africa, but Africa is a big continent. Being sparsely populated means that traffic is very light, but also means that few roads, even between the largest towns, are paved. It can be a long way between places with water, food, or fuel. Driving on dirt and gravel is much more tiring than on paved highways.

I've driven rental cars in South Africa, despite the hazards of sharing the road with poorly maintained, overcrowded, and recklessly driven vehicles. Conditions in South Africa are very different from those in Namibia or any neighboring countries, however. Highways in South Africa are generally paved, and it's rarely too far to a populated place where services would be available, at least in an emergency.

The racers had trouble positioning their SUVs properly within the width of narrow, unpaved, lightly traveled Namibian roads. Steve and Aly, who were eliminated when they finished last in this leg of the race, were arguing about whether or not they were too close to the left edge of the road just before they punctured a tire on something alongside the graded dirt strip.

Positioning within a lane, or within the width of the road or track without a center line or lame markings, is one of the more difficult aspects of driving on the "wrong" (less familiar) side of the road. Both the driver and the passenger are used to having most of the width of the vehicle extend to the opposite side. It takes time and effort to develop a new sense of how far the vehicle extends to each side, and when it is actually centered in the lane despite the fact that you are viewing the road from an off-center seating position on the opposite side from what you are used to.

This is more difficult on a road with light traffic, where you aren't in a stream of other properly behaving vehicles with which you can align yours. It's most difficult when it's combined with the challenge of driving on what is essentially a one-lane (or one and a half lane) road, where the norm is to drive in the center of the road. When you've been driving down the middle of the track for an hour without seeing another vehicle, it's hard to remember that you need to pull over to the left when an oncoming vehicle approaches.

At one point the racers were sent to a German-language bookstore in Swakopmund, a small town (although one of the larger ones in Namibia) which is mostly known, for better or worse, as the bastion of Namibia's German colonial cultural heritage.

The racers' task was to find the directions to their next stop, which had been published -- in German, of course -- as an advertisement in the local German-language newspaper.

None of the members of the remaining teams of racers spoke German. So once they found the right ad, they had to find someone to translate it for them.

Several of the teams ran right past a Black man who was standing right outside the entrance to the bookstore reading a copy of that very newspaper. These racers went across the street, and asked the white desk clerk of a hotel to translate the ad, which she did. I can only guess that these racers assumed that a Black man must not be German. That was a mistake, even if not intentionally racist.

There are Black people in Germany, albeit not as large a percentage as in the USA, including both immigrants and native-born Germans of African, African-American, and other African diasporic ancestry. More importantly for travellers, many of the languages most useful for world travel are more widely spoken as second or third languages than by native speakers. This isn't true only of English. The majority of speakers of French today, for example, are Africans who speak French as a second or third language.

In most places where German is the most common native language, many people speak English. German is widely spoken as a second or third language, and useful for travellers, in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey, where there are few native speakers of German.

You could get around most of Africa in English, French, Arabic, or Swahili. But there are also African former colonies of Germany, Portugal, and Italy where the respective former colonial languages continue to be spoken by significant numbers of people. There are hardly any Italians in Eritrea (although I did meet some), and hardly any other Eritreans who speak Italian as their first language. But I've been told by Italian friends that they found -- to their surprise and pleasure -- that it was possible to get around Eritrea in Italian.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 17 April 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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