Borders around Basel open again – first short bike tour to Germany

On Monday, 15th of June 2020, the country’s borders have opened up again. The “Regio Basiliensis” (region of Basle) is a “Regio” again. Yes, I can speak my Basel dialect across the border of Basel, in the Alsace (France) and in the Markgräflerland (Germany) – we ARE ONE region. Joking, we sometimes dream of “Greater Alemania” unifying those areas, where our Alemannic dialect prevails. To make it clear, we are just joking, and with “immigrants” from the rest of France, I like to switch to French and for “immigrants” from the rest of Germany I go back to my mother tongue, German.

Happy to access to the “Regio Basiliensis” again, I take my bike and drive to Ötlingen (then to Binzen and the Kandertal).

Source: Swiss mobile maps

Ötlingen is on a hill above the Rhine valley and grows wine that their restaurants serve…

… with a great view of the Rhine valley and the Jura as well as the Vosges mountains.

The Regio Basiliensis looks like ONE large agglomeration around Basel, just accidentally divided by country’s frontiers that were closed for three and a half months and now are open again.

Returning to Basel, I cross the Langen Erlen, which belongs to a recreational area along the Wiese, partly in Germany, partly in Switzerland.

Source: Swiss mobile maps.

Along the path marked in red (between Eglisee and the Laguna), there are “dialect” stones displaying expressions used in Basel and across the border in Germany (Markgräflerland); the same expressions are also in use in France (Alsace). Here are some examples.

“Fäägnäscht” is, what we call a person that cannot sit or stand still – he/she is in move all the time. I like this word, I can hear the moving and rustling of the unsettled person: -f-f-f-scht-scht-scht-f-f-f-scht-scht-scht. And I know, some people would call me “Fäägnäscht”.

“Blagööri” is what we say to a person that shows off. He/she thinks, he is the “best” and knows everything. The extended “öö” illustrates, how great he/she thinks, he is – ööööööÖÖÖ.

A “Schluufi” does not have control of his life or his work or he is simply not interested in that. He is “dragging along”. I can hear that clearly from the “sch” and the two “uu”:  sch-sch-uu-uu-sch-sch-uu-uu.

A “Schnääderänte” keeps on talking and talking “schnääder-schnääder-schnääder” and it sounds like “Änte” which are ducks. I can hear the chattering of the ducks: schnääd-schnääd-schnääd, also onomatopoeic.

Also the “Laaferi” talks a lot, and what he says, is meaningless, a bit like “ob-la-di, ob-la-da“, I think, the Beatles used the same onomatopoeic picture.

This is a difficult one. It means, I disdain you totally. I would never say this word to anyone. It is not nice, simply not lady-like. But its background is a good example of the Regio Basiliensis reaching into Germany and France.

Let us dig deeper. This word has an interesting origin in French with a detour to Latin that entered the Alemannic language. Instead of “Schooffxxx” (as on the stone), we also say “Schooffsurri” which, I believe, goes back to “chauve-souris” in French (“bat” in English). Digging deeper into late Latin, “chauve-souris” comes from “cava sorex” that means “chouette souris” or “marvellous mouse”. Hence a “marvellous mouse” (cava sorex) turned into a chauve-souris (“bold” bat”) in French, then into a term of disdain in the Alemannic dialects (Schooffsurri) and into the even uglier expression “Schooffxxx” that you find on this stone. This expression is known in Basel and in the whole Region Basiliensis across the border in Germany and France. But it is rude and I never use it.

The path with the “dialect” stones starts at the Eglisee in Switzerland and ends in Germany near the Badeland Laguna. It shows, how much the Regio Basiliensis, the region of Basle, belongs together: Across the borders we speak the same dialect (almost, we can hear nuances), and now, the borders have opened and we can visit one another again.

Let us take care and protect one another from the virus resurging; I observed that in Germany shops require medical masks, and I put on my mask, when buying fresh bread and cherries in “my” farmer’s shop in Rümmingen near Binzen.

I feel freer and I am happy that now the Regio Basiliensis is within reach again.

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: My dad’s book about Diesel’s car drive in Europe in 1950/51 / 2

In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.

In my former blog, I have started to talk about Eugen Diesel’s book “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” or “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).

The book belonged to my dad and I have read it during the lockdown. In my former blog, I have talked about who Eugen Diesel was and how he drove to Auch in southern France. I now continue with his excursions around Auch and about his tour back to Germany, intertwining that with my own memories.

 

While staying with their friend in Auch, Eugen and his wife go for excursions in the south of France

In Auch, Eugen and his wife stay with their friend, and from here they go for various excursions, one of them being Pau.

In the Renaissance castle, Jeanne d’Albret gave birth to the later king of France, Henri IV (born in 1553).

We know Henri IV for the words “Paris vaut bien un messe”. He may never have spoken them out, though he adopted the catholic religion to take over the crown of France, and, luckily, he was tolerant towards other religions.

Henri IV had children from various loves, and he played with his children. When this ambassadors entered, Henri asked him: “What do you do with your children?”. I believe that Henri IV is one of the most fascinating personalities of the history of France.

In Pau, Eugen visited the castle and he was invited to the local exhibition of furnitures, cars and engines at Pau; some people believed that it was him, Eugen, that had invented the Diesel engine, though it was his father.

In 2017, my friend and I were in Pau. We visited the castle and the medieval city center.

From Pau, Eugen drove up to the Pyrenees, to the Col de Pourtalet (1795m).

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 123)

The roads are narrow, but I do not think, he had to cross many cars coming down, as the border to Spain was closed. The customs officer let Eugen take a few steps in Spain. The sky was inviting blue south of the Pyrenees (Spain), while the north (France) was covered with clouds. Eugen had to return to the clouds, to France.

The Col de Pourtalet is one of the few passes in the Pyrenees that we have not yet used to get from France to Spain. I would love to take it, once the border to Spain opens up again and the situation looks safer after the current pandemic. This is the view of the Pyrenees in the direction of the Col de Pourtalet, taken at Pau.

In Lourdes, Eugen did not dare take photos, because it is a sacred place. But then he noticed an elderly lady take photos using an expensive camera, before laying down to pray. Lourdes is an important pilgrimage site that bases on Mary having appeared to a young girl in 1858. We were in Lourdes in 2017 and visited the grotto and the Rosary Basilica from 1899. When leaving Lourdes, the boot of our car would no longer open. A miracle? No, it turned out that the strip of one of our backpacks got caught in the lock, a problem that was solved all by itself later on a bumpy road. Perhaps not a miracle, but a reminder?

In Moissac, Eugen and his wife watched a lady ring the abbey bells manually. We saw the Abbey Saint Pierre in 2017 and in 2019. It has one of the most beautiful Romanic portals that I know; here, the 24 wise men playing music are looking up to Jesus,…

… and in the the cloister we found this beautiful Petrus.

After having visited Bordeaux, Mimizan and Toulouse, Eugen and his wife left Auch to return to Germany performing a round tour to the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Eugen and his wife leave Auch and return to Germany via the Mediterranean Coast

Eugen drives along the Pyrenees and tries to enter Andorra. But the customs regulations (two large books in a drawer) did not say, how to handle Germans, and hence the couple was not allowed to cross the border to Andorra. Eugen and his wife continued their way in France crossing the Cerdagne, a high plateau shared by France and Spain, with one Spanish exclave called Livía. Eugen could not find the reason for Livía being a Spanish exclave surrounded by French territory. Today, we have the internet, “Dr. Google” and Wikpedia. They tell me that in 1659, Louis XIV did not know that Livía was a town. In the Treaty of the Pyrenees, he had agreed with the Spanish crown that France would integrate all the villages of the northern half of the Cerdagne/Cerdanya in France. Livía, once the capital of the Cerdagne and registered as a town, consequently stayed with Spain. If this is the reason, it could be an indication that, even as a powerful king, you may have to study the local details, before finalizing an agreement.

We were in the Cerdagne in May 2018, and we got caught in heavy snowfall, while on the way to Seu d’Urgell in Catalonia on the Spanish side.

Here we are on the road up to the Cerdagne. On the plateau, 1200-1600m, we will find some 10 to 20cm of fresh snow on the roads. We are in the mountains – “real” mountains – and even in May, the weather can be rough in the Pyrenees. My friend took the photo, while I was driving carefully; my car is a four-wheel drive.

Not far from here is the beautifully shaped sacred mountain of the Catalans, the Canigou (seen from Prades, where the road up to the Cerdagne plateau starts).

After having followed the river Têt down to the Mediterrenean Sea, Eugen stayed overnight at Collioure with the harbour and the lighthouse (“phare” in French)…

… that André Derain painted.

In the beginning of the XXth century Fauve artists around Braques, Matisse and Picasso used to meet here. Eugen enjoyed the atmosphere of this charming village with the castle and with the colorful narrow streets, and so did we in 2016.

Along the beautiful coastline, Eugen and his wife drove south from Collioure to the border between France and Spain, at the Col de Belitres.

The border to Spain was closed for Eugen and his wife, also here. The customs officer talked to Eugen’s wife, while Eugen was allowed to enter Spain, just for a few steps, to admire the landscape and the huge train station squeezed between the mountains and the sea. The small settlement, Portbou, has such a large train station, because the engineers in France and Spain had selected different gauges for their railways, as Eugen, son of an engineer, explained.  The enormous train station was required for the passengers to change trains and for the goods to be reloaded.

In 2018, we were at Portbou, and felt the tragedy of this border: Here, the philosopher Walter Benjamin escaped to Spain in 1940 with a transit visa in his pocket that should allow him to emigrate to the US, but Spain had just cancelled all transit visas. Walter Benjamin was about to be sent back to France. He committed suicide and since 1994, this haunting monument has reminded us of Walter Benjamin’s tragedy.

I found a beautiful blog “The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Catalunya”, by Martin Kalfatovic. He translated the German words facing the sea like this: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the anonymous. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)”. Yes, in the 1940-ies, many of the “renowned” wrote history in a way that I prefer would not have happened and that I hope will never happen again – however, sometimes I am worried about our “renowned” now. Then and now, there existed and exist courageous “anonymous” that deserve to be honored.

After having seen Portbou standing at the closed border, Eugen’s next stop is Carcassone, the fortified town…

… with the charming small streets inside.

We were here in 2016. In a welcoming restaurant, we watched some Asian tourists eat the “Cassoulet”, which is a local hotpot made with sausages. It is heavy stuff for people that work in the fields all day. I was not sure, whether the Asian tourists liked the dish or just found it interesting. I had a delicious lamb dish with fine herbs.

Eugen and his wife stopped in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer at the Mediterranean Coast in the Camargue. Three Saint Maries landed here with her Egyptian servant Sarah. This is the church that commemorates the landing of the sacred boat.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 155)

We visited the church in 2017, under dark blue sky.

The Romani  people venerate Saint Sarah, the Egyptian servant, in the crypt of this church.

In Arles, Eugen and his wife attended a bullfight. He described it in detail with the eyes of a German that did not really enjoy the elegance of the bullfighters and the killing of the bulls. The fight took place in the old Roman arena that we saw in 2017 (but without such action, fortunately, not something I would like to watch).

Still in the Camargue, Eugen and his wife stayed overnight in the small town called Les Baux which is the origin of “Bauxite” (a rock containing aluminium, needed to build cars).

The next day, they saw Nîmes with the arena and the Roman temple (called Maison Carrée). We stayed overnight at Nîmes in 2018 and admired the Roman arena with the statue of the bull fighter.

After having strolled through the city center with its narrow streets, we had a wonderful dinner (onglet steak) just across the arena, at Chez Hubert.

Not far from Nîmes is the Pont du Gard that, in Roman times, provided Nîmes (then called Nemasus) with water.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 181)

In 2011, I was here with Ernst. This was our last sightseeing point on our last journey that we did together – we were on our way home from Morocco. I keep wonderful memories of all the travelling I have done with Ernst during our 18 years and now he travels with me in my heart.

In Avignon, Eugen and his wife visited the Palace of the Popes. With my friend, I was here in autumn 2016, when the cold mistral blew down from the mountains. This is the second courtyard of the Pope Palace built in the 14th century, when six popes resided here (and not in Rome).

Since kindergarten, I had known the Pont d’Avignon, as we had been taught the song “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse… (on the bridge of Avignon, this is where you dance, this is where you dance).” Not yet understanding French, we created our own versions of the text; this was the version of the sister of my friend: “ooni Dasse, ooni Dasse”, which in Swiss German means “without cups, without cups”. The French word “danse” sounded like “Dasse” to her.

Now in my sixties, I saw this famous bridge for the first time, and I was so disappointed! Because it is not a bridge that crosses the river, as bridges ought to do, but it ends in the middle of the river Rhone.  In the attached museum, we learned that it was conceived as a toll point on the Rhone and not really as a bridge for people and carriages.

Eugen and his wife drove “up” the Rhone valley, with stops at Montélimar, the city of nougat, then at Vienne, another Roman city, and finally at Lyon and Bourg.

They crossed the border between France and Germany near Huningue (close to my home city Basel) using the ferry (the three countries bridge will be rebuilt 57 years later, in 2007). The French customs officer, Eugen remembers, was easy going, whereby the German customs officer was tense and eager to fulfill his duty according to the regulations. Eugen and his wife had left France with its somewhat light-footed atmosphere and are now back in “dutiful” Germany. From now on, he wrote about his tours in Germany and to Switzerland. In Switzerland, Eugen reflected about the fact that a German writer, Friedrich von Schiller, became – in a way – the national writer for Switzerland, as he wrote his play “Wilhelm Tell” about the Swiss legendary national hero of the 13th century.

 

Epilog: France… like Eugen I love the French atmosphere and I long for being there again, be it just across the border or be it travelling farther

While not being allowed to cross the border to France due to the pandemic until mid-June, I enjoyed to follow Eugen Diesel and his wife through France to places that I have been to as well. I like to be in France, in the rural towns, in the restaurants that serve soigné meals, soaking in the rich cultural heritage and enjoying the French atmosphere. I wish that France will recover well, having been hit seriously by the pandemic of spring 2020 and having been churned by turmoils recently. I look forward to returning to France.

Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling to the same places.

 

 

 

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: My dad’s book about Diesel’s car drive in Europe in 1950/51 / 1

In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.

This small Kazak carpet is a souvenir of my dad. He bought it, when being in the Caucasus region as a meteorologist in the 1940’s.

I love this small carpet. It is a symbol for the good memories I have of my father that we called “Vati”. He died much too early, on Saturday, 14th of March 1970. This was my last school day, just 50 years before the Corona virus lockdown was announced in Switzerland in 2020. What a breath taking coincidence that I felt intensely.

In addition to the carpet, I have some books of my father, one of them being “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” by Eugen Diesel (Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952; “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).

I have kept this book for the signature of my dad. So far, the book has waited in my bookshelf.

Now, being confined at home, I took it out and read it. This was a fascinating experience for me.

  • At some of the places that Eugen Diesel talks about, I have been as well, but almost 70 years later.
  • Eugen Diesel reflected about what Europe – now resurrecting from the war – would be in 50 years. Some of it is interesting to read now, 70 years later.
  • Closed borders in Europe? In 1950, the borders, having been closed during the war, slowly opened up. Now, in June 2020 we expect the European borders to open, after having been closed for three months due to the pandemic.

Let us see who Eugen Diesel was, let us travel with him to places in France that I have been to later and hence have memories that I like to revive, while being at home.

 

Who was Eugen Diesel?

Eugen Diesel  (1889-1970) was the son of Rudolf Diesel who invented the Diesel engine in 1892. In the early 20th century, the Diesel engine replaced steam engines (such as for trains or ships), while passenger cars used gasoline only. With his father, Eugen travelled through Europe in 1905, in a red NAG car (p. 13, NAG = Nationale Auto Gesellschaft, 20-24 PS).

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 13)

Instead of becoming an engineer, Eugen Diesel decided to become a writer. Eugen learnt French culture from his father Rudolf, who was bilingual French-German, as he had grown up in France until the age of twelve, when, in 1870/71, the war between France and Prussia/Germany forced the family to return to Germany.

 

Trains full of hoarders in 1947 – Eugen Diesel gets stuck in overloaded trains and decides to buy his own car

In 1947, Bayern had no apples and Württemberg had no potatoes… Hoarders from Bayern took the trains to Württemberg to buy apples and hoarders from Württemberg went by train to buy potatoes in Bayern, though hoarding was forbidden. The trains were full and the people carried large baskets that added to the mess. Eugen wanted to get from Stuttgart to Munich – and he got stuck in the overloaded trains.

Hoarding must be in the human genes: We have seen empty toilet paper shelves for weeks during the corona lockdown of spring 2020.

To travel more freely, Eugen acquired his own car in 1950. It was a Mercedes Diesel. Mercedes had just started to build passenger cars that run on Diesel.

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 187)

Eugen had not driven a car four eleven years. Nevertheless, he left the factory at the steering wheel of his new Mercedes. He started to drive through churning and distressed Europe and enjoyed to be mobile again: “A city, 100km away, is now again becoming a neighbour”, he said (p.19). His book “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel” tells about driving 45’000km in Europe, above all in France, in 1950/51.

 

First excursions by car in Germany

With his new car, Eugen Diesel started to explore the area around Munich. Among his destinations was the Romanic St. James church in Urschalling with gothic frescoes (now on my agenda, when travelling to Munich again) or the Bosch Factory in Memmingen and the Daimler-Benz Factory in Sindelfingen (he had inherited the interest for engineering from his father). Then he went beyond Bayern to cities such as Augsburg or Stuttgart. He observed the ruins and how German cities strived to recover. In Mainz he attended the inauguration of the reconstructed bridge crossing the Rhine. President Heuss made a speech without mentioning the engineers, as Eugen, being the son of an engineer, noticed frowning. He visited friends again that he had been separated from for years. (I can understand the enjoyment – now, in June, I started to see more friends again, as the lockdown is opening up).

Inside Germany, Eugen encountered a new border. Signposts are pointing to Magdeburg or Halle, but these cities had become out of reach for him, as bars blocked the roads to the new Russian eastern zone of Germany and the bridges were closed. Eugen stood at the closed border for two hours and gazed on to the other side; he could not see anyone.

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 49)

The walls built later will separate West and East Germany for 40 years, until 1989.

From March to June 2020, 70 years later, borders in Europe are closed again – for the pandemic. The Sundgau in France is out of reach for me now. I was sad, when seeing this bar on one of my bicycle rides.

Eugen Diesel observed that the traffic in the 1950-ies was growing rapidly. Also my dad was of the opinion that there was too much traffic then. He never sat at the steering wheel of a car again after having returned from the prison camps in France in 1949, though he had driven cars since the 1930-ies – his parents had an Adler. However, compared to the traffic today, this highway does not look very crowded to me.

(Pen drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 55)

Eugen reflected that on highways, one accident could cause serious traffic jams, which would ask for more and more roads to connect more and more factories and cope with the rising traffic. Today’s traffic density, the network of roads, the sprawling of cities as well as pollution and climate change exceed Eugen’s fears, I believe.

 

France opens up for Eugen Diesel and his wife – they drive to Auch near Toulouse to visit a friend of theirs

In 1938, Eugen Diesel had connected up with a French scientist and intended to visit him in France, but the war closed the borders. After the war, in 1950, Eugen decided to visit him with his wife, Anna Luise Gräfin von Waldersee. They planned a tour to Auch near Toulouse, where the former scientist now worked for the departmental government. Eugen went through much bureaucratic pain to be able to cross the border to France.

In September 1950, Eugen left Munich with his wife and drove to Altbreisach (still in Germany), where they saw the city in ruins. They crossed the river Rhine and immediately felt that they were in France: The atmosphere was different, somewhat more light-footed than in Germany. Yes, I admit that I also feel the different atmospheres between France and Germany, both bordering my home city Basel.

Eugen continued to Neuf-Brisach, Colmar, Belfort (with Bartholdi’s monumental lion) and Montbéliard (as Mömpelgard it had belonged to Württemberg from 1397-1793, he remembered). In Besançon they had their first lunch break in the restaurant Palais de la Bière (still exists today and looks enticing).

Burgundy was the next station. It was autumn and in Nuit-Saint-Georges north of Beaune, they saw many carts filled with Burgundy grapes.

Well, such carts are now in museums such as in the museum Clos Vougeot that I visited in November 2014.

Autumn in Burgundy can be very misty, as my photo from 2014 shows (taken near Clos Vougeot).

In Beaune, Eugen visited the Hôtel Dieu (Hospices de Beaune). At that time, it was still a hospital, as it had been for 500 years (since 1443). Except, the vaulted gothic room was no longer in use as a hospital in 1950. Eugen was impressed and so was I in 2014. Solemn atmosphere under the vaults…

… with the beds along the wall, covered with red blankets.

However in 2014, the Hôtel Dieu had stopped to be a hospital and had turned everything into a museum. In addition, the traditional wine auctions of November take place here.

Via Autun and Vichy, Eugen Diesel reached Clermont-Ferrand, the city of the Michelin tires (as the son of an engineer notes). I was here in autumn 2017 and Michelin still matters for Clermont-Ferrand. The Michelin tire men, called Bibendum, even decorate the breakfast room of our cosy hotel.

Eugen Diesel visited the old town of Clermont-Ferrand with the gothic cathedral (to the left). Then he drove up to the summit of the volcano Puy de Dome (in the background, 1465m).

I drove up to the top of the Puy de Dome in the 1980’s, but when returning in 2017, I found the road to the top closed. Instead, there is cockwheel train to get to the summit.

A few kilometers south of Clermont-Ferrand, Eugen Diesel and his wife stopped at Brioude and stayed overnight in the Hotel de La Poste. Eugen described, how clean and well renovated the hotel was. The couple enjoyed an excellent meal in the cosy restaurant on the first floor. One waiter served all guests – diligently and carefully. He had fair hair, his name was Erwin Voigt and he was from Pomeriana, formerly part of Germany. It was him that had renovated the Hotel de la Poste at that time; it was owned by an elderly couple.

In 2016, I was in the same hotel, with my friend. It was one of the best and cosiest hotels we have ever been at in France. We had an excellent dinner (in the restaurant on the first floor) and we slept across the street, where the hotel had built modern new rooms, even accessible by wheel chair.

Eugen Diesel did not talk about the beautiful Romanic Baslica Saint-Julien in Brioude… perhaps it had not been renovated then and not mentioned in his Baedecker.

Eugen and his wife continued to Le Puy-en-Velay and were impressed by the needles topped by the church Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe and by the Madonna statue.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 99)

Perhaps the needles are a little inflated in the pen drawing. In 2016, we look back to Puy-en-Velay. The city has grown considerably since 1950.

We stayed in Le Puy-en-Velay for one night to visit the romanic Annunciation Cathedral built with the typical black volcanic stones that characterize the whole city center.

The small streets are inviting. This butcher’s window illustrates, what Eugen might have meant, when talking about the somewhat more light-footed atmosphere in France.

In Albi, Eugen and his wife admired the Cathedral Saint Cecilia with the red brick walls rising towards heaven. He thinks of the Albigenses or Cathars that were eradicated around 1200. We visited Albi in 2016 in the pouring rain…

… and like Eugen, we entered the church, with the one single nave all painted in blue and with the choir separated by a finely carved rood screen (Lettner) made from stone.

Via Toulouse, Eugen and his wife reach Auch, where they stay with their friend.

 

Let us travel with them around Auch and back to Germany in my next blog.

Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philopsophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling in France.

 

 

 

 

Le zoo de Rome – a charming novel intertwining reality and fiction, written by Pascal Janovjak

A year ago, in May 2019, Pascal Janovjak gave me his book “le zoo de Rome” (1) with the following words: “Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

Let me tell you more about this beautiful novel that evoked memories of “my” zoos, that taught me much about the zoo of Rome integrated in the history of the XXth century and that made me enjoy the related fictional story lines.

 

Prologue: “Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories; it might evoke yours as well

“Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories of “my” zoos in Basel (Zolli) and in Karlsruhe (Stadtgarten). You may have such memories as well.

At kindergarten age, in the 1950’s, my grand-ma invited me to the Stadtgarten in Karslruhe, whereby I was very cautious, when being confronted with animals.

Some ten years later, our teacher took us to the Basel Zolli to practice drawing animals; “my” pelicans and “my” penguin are from that time.

As a student, I took photos in the Basel Zolli and developed them in the kitchen-darkroom. The black-and-white polar bear is resting calmly on its paw on a frosty-cold winter day.

No more polar bears in the Basel Zolli today. However, polar bears still live in the Stadtgarten of Karlsruhe, in their “icebergs” built in 2000 (colour photos taken in 2009). A hundred years ago, the Swiss Urs Eggenschwyler created an iceberg in the zoo of Rome; it will play a role in Pascal’s novel.

Now I go to the Basel Zolli with my grandniece and grandnephew. They very much like the flamingos – or flamands in French. The “lagoon” is near the main entrance of the zoo.

Pascal also seems to like flamingos. He has selected this flamingo for the cover of his book.

My “le zoo de Rome” shows signs of use… I have read it three times and I have read it with great pleasure.

 

“Le zoo de Rome” is a puzzle of essays telling intertwined stories: My summary in a nutshell

Pascal tells his novel “le zoo de Rome” as a puzzle of small essays (two to four pages long) rolling out intertwined story lines. The real story of the zoo of Rome starts shortly before 1911 (construction and inauguration), ends in 2013 (two years after the centenary) and interacts with the historical events of one century.

Superimposed to the real history of the zoo, I identified fictional story lines that begin in 1940, focus on 2009/2010 and end in 2013.

  • The first fiction is the life of the architect Chahine Gharbi (born in 1970) and his tender love story with Giovanna Di Stefano. Chahine comes to Rome in December 2009, because a sponsor from Riyad has asked him to evaluate the project of a shopping city to replace the zoo. Chahine orders his room until 16th of January 2010. Mid-January, he has to leave his hotel room, as his sponsor has stopped paying for it. He lives in the iceberg for some time and leaves with unknown destination in May 2010.
    Chahine and Giovanna meet in the zoo. They are both about 40 years old. Their love culminates end-January or beginning-February 2010, when they make love in the zoo.
  • The second fiction is the saga of the family Leonardi that worked as guards from grandfather to grandson Salvatore. Salvatore was born in 1949 (there was rinderpest in the zoo then). Salvatore works with engagement for his animals and imagines the zoo being Noah’s Ark and himself being the captain. Salvatore meets Giovanna and Chahine several times. He is the guard of the last tamandin anteater, until sent to retirement in July 2010 – which leads over to the third fiction.
  • The third fiction is about the last tamandin anteater (a fictional animal) alluding to criminal energy and overtourism. During the war, in 1940, the zoo takes over his first tamandin from another zoo. In November 2009, the veterinarian Moro of the zoo of Rome kills the two tamandins in the London zoo. By doing so, he achieves that the old tamandin anteater of the zoo of Rome, Oscar, is the last representative of this species. For the zoo, so far having attracted only few visitors, the last surviving tamandin changes everything. Visitors flood the zoo. They are channelled to the Grande Volière (aviary), where the animal lives. It is a hype, which Giovanna supports with her marketing actions.
    Meanwhile, the veterinarian of the London zoo, Nadia Monk, finds out that Moro has thrown infected ticks into the cages of her tamandins, which was the cause of their infection and death. Moro is arrested in May 2010.
    During the tamandin hype, Salvatore looks after Oscar day and night. In July 2010, the faithful guard gets the announcement of his retirement, kills the tamandin Oscar and ends up in prison. No one asks why he has shot the tamandin. Small detail: It turns out that Oscar was a female, despite its name.
    At the same time, in July 2010, Giovanna visits the gynaecologist to get the confirmation that she is pregnant. She must have been five to six months pregnant.
  • Fourth, without having a name (I could not find it), Giovanna’s husband supports her calmly during the exciting months at the zoo. During that time, they also make love in late winter/early spring 2010. In 2013, a happy future opens up for Giovanna and her husband: Giovanna has left the zoo and is again successful at her former job in government, and the couple enjoys the life with their son that they had no longer expected.

I enjoyed the rich and dense language of Pascal. The words are concise and placed exactly where they fit. I took notes to keep track of the artfully intertwined story lines presented in small puzzle pieces with hints dispersed all over. Some of the hints I only understood, when reading the novel for the third time, for example:

  • In the first chapter, the architect Chahine Gharbi notices a metallic sphere, when settling in room number 324 in the hotel adjacent to the zoo. A metallic sphere? Reading the novel the third time, I understand: What Chahine sees, is the “Grande Volière”, the “Large Aviary”, built in the 1930’s at Mussolini’s request.
  • Soon after having started work as the head of communications and administration of the zoo, Giovanna visits the animals and notices the tamandin, marked as “in danger of extinction”. Coming back to the office, she finds an angry letter from the zoo of London asking the zoo of Rome to deliver the tamandin immediately. First, I thought, Giovanna has taken over a messy office. When reading the third time, I understand this hint: Moro, the veterinarian of Rome, has recently thrown ticks carrying viruses into the cage of the tamandins in the London zoo. Now he waits for the tamandins to pick up the ticks, catch the infection and die. For that reason, he has no intention to send his tamandin to England, as there is a good chance that Oscar will be the last anteater of its species, which will attract visitors to his zoo of Rome, desperately needed visitors.

 

The novel taught me much about the zoo of Rome… and about “my” Basel Zolli

These are some of the facts that Pascal’s novel told me about the zoo of Rome and other zoos:

  • I was shocked to read that Hagenbeck, the designer of the zoo of Rome (and of the Tierpark of Hamburg), was a trader of wild animals; by designing zoos, I believe, he cleverly created the market for his business. I was also dismayed to read, how many animals did not survive the transfer from wilderness to Rome, when the zoo was to be inaugurated in 1911. I was appalled that just a few years after the inauguration, cost saving efforts deprived the animals from food.
  • Urs Eggenschwyler was an eccentric Swiss who knew how to build artificial cement rocks. In the zoo of Rome, he built various rock landscapes and the iceberg. In the Basel Zolli, he built the rock for the seals. I had never thought about this rock around the pool being artificial, when watching the seals playfully “hunt” their food. The iceberg landscape in Karlsruhe should show the visitors, how the polar bears live in the Arctic. Hagenbeck was the first architect of zoos to have planned landscapes that reflect the habitat of the animals shown. Pascal describes nicely, how Hackenbeck dreamt of the animals living in their habitats, when reviewing the plans for the zoo of Rome.
  • I shivered, when “a crazy man” entered the cage of his lioness called Italia. Pascal resolves the mystery later: It was Mussolini. He ordered to enlarge the zoo, because it was smaller than other zoos of Europe. The architect de Vito was in charge of the construction. I liked to follow, how de Vito proceeded: He watched the animals intensely, he visited other zoos to gather ideas, and then, accidentally, he saw the cylindric gas reservoir of the community of Munich that became the model for the “Grande Volière” or “Large Aviary” allowing the birds to fly in circles, which is natural for them. Furthermore, he built his aviary in a sustainable way – more than 80 years later, the metal shines in the sun (as Chahine noted, when entering his hotel room with the view of the zoo). I would love to see de Vico’s aviary one day.
  • I have mixed feelings about zoos. Might be, the student Guido watching animals is right: Zoos are like Noah’s Ark. In Mongolia, I saw the Przewalski horses. They had become extinct in the wild, but they survived in various zoos. Resettlement was a success. It was beautiful to watch these elegant horses against the horizon of the Mongolian steppes.
  • Another finely observed detail: Chahine and Giovanna struggle with the zoo map. Zoo maps do seem to be a challenge; with the map of the Basel Zolli I always get lost.

 

The zoo is the backstage to caricature observations about people in fictional story lines 

The zoo of Rome is the backstage for creating caricatures about people and their behaviours. The observations, painted using fine brushstrokes, resonate with me. Let me give you some examples.

  • With pleasure, I observed the tender love emerge between Chahine and Giovanna, which culminates, when Chahine helps Giovanna to get rid of her wet cloth, after having been in the pouring rain during the move of the tamandin to the aviary. Wet cloth is hard to take off – I have also experienced that. Then Chahine wants to disappear in Giovanna’s body. Later I understand what he suffers from. While hiding in the iceberg until May, he visits Salvatore Leonardi guarding the tamandin in the Grande Volière and, as they do not speak the same language, he uses gestures to describe, how his seven years old daughter died in the car accident and that he was at the steering wheel. I feel sorry for Chahine devouring the soup that Leonardi offers to him, because probably he is very hungry.
    After their love night, Giovanna looks for Chahine, but cannot find him – she just finds his accessories, including the white plush polar bear that he had bought, perhaps with his daughter in mind; he has left the plush bear on the iceberg.
    I feel sympathy for Chahine’s wife that probably never saw her husband again – she had let him go to Rome saying: “What you need, is a project”, when the request to plan the shopping city came from Riyad. What a sign of love.
  • The calm love between Giovanna and her husband ends happily with their newly born son. Pascal leaves open the detail who might be the father of their son, Chahine or Giovanna’s husband. He gives a small hint: Giovanna’s husband loved their son that resembled Giovanna so much – what a tender loving care.
  • From the very first moment, I have felt bad with the veterinarian of the zoo of Rome, Moro. I hated that he thought, he knew everything better than the director of the zoo and that he disdained Giovanna by telling her that she had ink at her fingers, while she was explaining to him her ideas about the next steps to be taken for the zoo (occasionally, I came across such unfair behaviour at work…). Later, I felt Schadenfreude (malicious joy, a word that only exists in German, I believe), because Moro failed to go unnoticed, when attacking the two tamandins in the London zoo, though he had prepared everything in detail acquiring an English coat and an umbrella as well as paying cash for the bus and metro tickets to Regent’s Park. But at the entrance gate to the zoo, he felt stressed because of the long queue and he got engraved in the mind of the cashier, as he forgot the change in coins and his umbrella, his coat was too warm for the sunny day and he was too stingy to make a donation. I can imagine the man clearly.
    The veterinarian Nadia Monk of the London zoo wanted to know, why her tamandins had died and found viruses from ticks. One tick had a tiny thread of wool around its body, as she noticed in the microscope. She spent eleven nights in the office of the night shift security guard to watch the video surveillance films. The guard was not amused, as he loved to read poems during his night shifts – great caricature. After eleven nights, Nadia Monk identified a man in a coat throwing ticks at her tamandins. The cashier remembered the man. Due to Nadia’s persistence, Moro was arrested (Pascal only says that two policemen knocked at the door leaving the conclusion to the reader).
  • I relished reading about the touristic turmoil around the last tamandin anteater. The tamandin was shy and hid away in its bush. The visitors could hardly ever see it. Nevertheless, hordes of tourists came to the zoo and to the Volière, where it stayed, guarded by Salvatore Leonardi. Leonardi, also hidden, observed that the visitors were not interested in the tamandin, but only in themselves. The hype around the tamandin is a well-pictured allusion to overtourism, I find. It reminds me of what I saw in Petersburg in the Hermitage Museum: Tourists rushed to “Madonna and the Child” by Leonardo da Vinci, stopped, turned round, took a selfie “me and the must see tableau of da Vinci” and went off, without looking back – they were not interested in this magnificent work of art.
  • With sympathy, I followed the saga of the Leonardi family up to their grandson, Salvatore Leonardi that felt engaged for his animals, while he was just a bit talkative. I am sad to see him end up in prison. No one asked Salvatore Leonardi, why he killed the tamandin. I believe he wanted to protect the old animal from having to adapt to a new guard or he just felt sorry for the tamandin being the object of gawping crowds that were not interested in the animal as such. This is another detail that Pascal lets the reader solve himself.

I love history and I love novels that unfold their fictions in a historical setting. One of my favourite novels is “natural history” (historias naturales) by Juan Perucho who selected the Spanish Carlist War of 1840 to intertwine the fiction of “pursuit of the vampire by a young scientist and the scientist’s happy end with his love” (2).  With Pascal’s “le zoo de Rome”, I found a second favourite novel that joins history and fictions.

 

Epilogue: Animals are the basic material of fables and the rose colour of flamingos conveys happiness

Let me come back to what Pascal wrote in the dedication, when giving his book to me:

“Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

In fables, the animals act like humans and convey a moral lesson. In “le zoo de Rome” the animals remain animals (some of them fictional) and are a wonderful backstage for the fictional story lines. Nevertheless, I sense some moral reflections that resonate with me: For instance Mussolini entering the cage of his lioness is underlining his delusion of grandeur. The bear Fritz greeting like a fascist does not know, what it does. The chimpanzee Bungo that the animal welfare activists save from the bar to transfer it to the zoo asylum seems to suffer in its cage (good intention of the activists, but…). The rose flamingos had to move to a pond near the entrance to convey the feeling of happiness to the visitors, but they suffer, because the pebbles on the ground are too large for them to walk on (the new owners of the “Natura Park” look more for appearance than for the welfare of their protégés).

Perhaps it is for the rose colour conveying happiness that Pascal placed the elegant flamingo on the cover. Do you remember the song “la vie en rose” by Edith Piaf (3)? It gave hope to the generation of 1945 to find happiness again, now that the war was over.

I sense that the novel begins and ends with optimism: It begins with the rose colour of the flamingo on the cover to greet the reader which invited me to open the book. In the last chapter, we see the happiness of Giovanna and her husband with their son, which may makes me dream about their future.

Let us look for facets of life that makes us happy, now, that this virus confines our freedom to meet. It was wonderful to use video conferencing for discussing “le zoo of Rome” within the framework of the Solothurner Literaturtage (4).

 

Footnotes

(1) Pascal Janovak, “le zoo de Rome”, Actes Sud 2019

(2) See my blog about Juan Perucho, “historias naturales”, edhasa, Barcelona 2003.

(3) Edith Piaf, “la vie en rose”, YouTube officiel  written in 1945.

(4) Solothurner Literaturtage 2020

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: Namibia

Now in March/April/May 2020, the virus stopped me from being on the road. I am at home. After all, I am 65+…

My home tells me stories – I just have to listen: This is the photo gallery that reminds me of the Victoria Falls, Botswana and Namibia, where I was with Ernst in April/Mai 2008.

I have already told you about our adventures at the Victoria Falls and in Botswana. Let me continue with the last stage of our 2008 Africa adventure, about Namibia.

These souvenirs remind me of Namibia: The green neckless with the ear rings (I lost one of the ear rings unfortunately) and the silver studs with elephant hair and the matching pendant.

These were the points we visited: Windhoek – Ohakandja – Otjiwarongo – Waterberg – !Uri’s Lodge – Etosha Park with Halali Camp and Okaukuejo Camp – Twyfelfontein – via Opuwo to the Epupa Falls – via Epembe to the Ruacana Falls – via Palmwag, Omaruru and Ohakandja back to Windhoek

.

 

Picking up our camper from Britz at Windhoek, planning our tour in Okahandja and visiting the crocodile farm

We overnight in the friendly Hotel Steiner (still exists in 2020), stroll through Windhoek (a city with some German touch), pick up our four-wheel drive camper from Britz and do some shopping: We need food and some interfaces to charge our camera, GPS and laptop in the camper.

Then we drive to Okahandja which is 100km north of Windhoek to plan our tour and get settled in our new mobile home. My first camper dinner, Broccoli, steaks and pasta, tastes rather dull, because I only have salt and pepper to flavour it. Ernst comforts me: “Camper meals taste like that, do not worry.” Hm, Ernst is so patient, but I will look for more spices in the next days.

We take a shower in the chilly morning… fortunately the manager of the camping site has heated up the donkey that gives us warm water.

Our next destinations will be the Waterberg and the Etosha Park. The main road going out to the north of Windhoek is straight.

In Otjiwarongo we visit the crocodile farm – it still exists today. It is a place for breeding crocodiles and in addition, it is a tourist attraction with a restaurant attached.

A guide gives us explanations: In this huge pond of about 800’000l, there are seven adult males and about 120 female crocodiles. They live about 80 years. The animals eat until May, and then they do no longer eat for the rest of the year – what an interesting diet schedule.

Each female lays about 40 eggs, hence 4800 eggs in total; 80% of the young crocodiles survive. There is a baby crocodile house, then the young animals are in larger ponds.

Our guide tells us to approach the pond carefully. We try, but as soon as the young crocodiles see us, they rush into the water. They grow for three to four years and then they are ready to be used for leather production.

 

The articial wild life park on the Waterberg

After a delicious ostrich and kudu steak in the Otjibamba Lodge (still exists), we leave the main highway and turn east to get to the Waterberg. It is a flat top mountain. We go for a walk. We have a wonderful view of the plane looking south…

… and come across this beautiful spider hanging in the air above our footpath. Yes, there are also beautiful small animals in Africa!

We then reach the cemetery of the Herero people that died in the battle against the Germans in 1904… this genocide is a blot in German history that makes me feel bad.

Our neighbours at the camping site are uncle Jürgen and his nephew. They give us a screwdriver and Ernst repairs one of our cupboards, mumbling that he had forgotten his Victorinox knife. “Look, I have taken this small knife with me that I had noticed lying around in our house”, I say. Ernst’s face brightens up: “Oh, great, this is my officer knife!” – I am happy that Ernst is happy about this find…

With uncle Jürgen and his nephew, we book a game drive to the plateau of the Waterberg. It is a wildlife reservation area with artificial water holes. The water is pumped up to the plateau. Some of the water holes have shelters to watch the animals without disturbing them. There is a variety of wildlife here such as giraffes, zebras, antelopes, leopards, cheetahs, buffaloes or rhinos. Our guide is called Peter. He drives far on the plateau, but all we see are two oryx antelopes (this is one of them),…

… some giraffes, this one keeps the overview,…

… and later we see two buffaloes from far – they stay in the bushes and do not dare come to the waterhole.

While we drive back in the chilly evening, I reflect about this reservation area. As long as the artificial water holes have water, it may be good for the animals to live here. And as long as tourism keeps on going, the park earns money to finance the pumps that take the water up to the plateau. But what happens, when Namibia has no more money to maintain this artificial park? Those were my reflections in 2008. Now we are in 2020, and tourism has stopped due to the pandemic. Will Namibia be able to care for the animals on this otherwise barren plateau? I hope so, because these animals have nowhere else to go. And I do hope for this place that tourism will revive soon again.

 

The meteorite and the luxurious lodge on the way to the Etosha Park

We drive around the Waterberg on a pebbly road, do some shopping at Grootfontein, where I find marjoram and some broth cubes that will add more flavor to our camper meals.

We look for the meteorite. My “Reise Know” says that the meteorite is 80% iron and hit the earth 80’000 years before our calendar system started; Hence now, in 2020, the meteorite is 82020 years old ;-).

We stop at !Uri’s Safari Lodge near Tsumeb. The lodge looks inviting. We decide to sleep in a bungalow and enjoy some luxury. The “!” of “!Uri” is one of the three glottal stops of the Khoisan language that the Damara people speak here.

The manager shows me his wine cellar under a trapdoor. He has bought it with the lodge, and he asks me about the wines. I see wines from South Africa and tell the manager that he should sell (or drink) the 5 to 10 year old white wines (Sauvignon, Chardonnay) soon, but can keep some of the red Cabernet Sauvignons for 20 years, if needed. For dinner, we reserve a half bottle of Pinotage, a grape crossbreed that only exists in South Africa (Pinot and Cinsault). We have it with Kudu steaks and its cherry like taste is a good match. Then we retreat to our luxury bungalow, lay down in the canopy bed and close the mosquito net curtains.

The terrace is full of Marula fruits. For breakfast we have delicious marmalade made of them – the whole breakfast is excellent and very soigné.

 

The Etosha Park – great for wildlife watching (no, no, not the Etosha House in the Basel Zolli)

Our next destination is the Etosha Park. Jean-Claude calls from Basel and wants to know, where we are. Etosha? He checks the Internet: “Etosha House?” “No”, Ernst laughs, “not the Etosha house in the Zoo of Basel (called Zolli), no, we are in Namibia, in the REAL Etosha Park.” – “Aha, okay…”.

We enter the park from the east and stop at Twee Palms (the water hole of the “two palm trees”; there is just one branch of the second palm tree on the photo). About 15 giraffes are here – how difficult it is for them to drink water! A herd of fine springboks, zebras, gnus, herons… we cannot get enough watching.

We are at the Fisher’s Pan in the east most part of the Etosha park. The pan is dry now. A road leads through the pan. An elephant is walking in front of us. Our car approaches the elephant from behind. It does not like that, turns back and threatens us, pulling up his trunk and waving his large ears. We back up and keep distance. When the elephant reaches firm land, Ernst honks quickly, the elephant trumpets loudly and runs into the bushes – I am surprised, how fast this clumsy looking animal runs.

We look back at the Fisher’s Pan…

… let the ostrich cross the road…

… and see much more wild life (elephants, turtles, zebras, oryx, gnus, lilac breasted rollers, herons, bustards) – this is a populated park.

We have reserved two nights in the center of the park, in the Halali Camp, and settle at slot number 43. After dinner (now more tasty with the spices from Grootfontein), we go to the artificial water hole near our campsite. There is a platform with benches, like in an amphitheatre. Two rhinos are drinking water (Ernst mumbles something about trying out the infrared program of our camera).

Then we hear loud trumpeting. About 15 elephants emerge from the bush. They drink water, play with one another, stalk in the shallow pond and keep distance to another rhino that joins them with its offspring. Even elephants stay aside, when rhinos are around.

The next morning, we try the track in the southern part of the Etosha park which is called “rhino drive”. There are trees and bushes. We find this pretty ground squirrel…

… and these cute suricates,…

… but no rhinos, as the name of the drive would suggest.

We turn north to the Etosha Pan. There are less bushes here and the animals can be seen well such as these giraffes against the horizon,…

… and the lion lady with the zebra kill.

In the afternoon, we return to see, what this lion lady does. The lady is still there, but soon gets up and walks towards the forest, carefully observed by the grazing zebras.

We go back the next morning – no lion lady, and where the zebra kill has been before, there is nothing left – vultures and hyenas have eaten it all.

We continue westwards, take photos of these elegant oryx antelopes and…

… stop at a parking lot that is extremely noisy from all the twittering of the bayas that have woven this huge nest (Webervögel).

They belong to the family of sparrows and are very social.

We reach the ghost forest with these odd looking bottletrees.

The eastern part of the Etosha Park ends soon here. The eastern part is for visitors with cameras. The western part is for visitors with rifles that shoot animals at artificial water holes… scary for me. I now understand that, in earlier times,  the habitat of the animals was much larger than the Etosha park. The animals migrated to the ocean, when looking for food and water, but now they are locked in the Etosha Park. In a way, this park is a large zoo. If I understand it correctly, the Serengeti is a much more sustainable wild life reservation concept, where the animals can migrate as the have always done.

We stop at the Okaukuejo Camp, still in the Etosha Park, and find a place to spend one more night. Also this camp has an artificial waterhole, where we can observe hyenas, zebras, springboks, elephants and the black rhino that slowly, slowly approaches the waterhole, while all other animals get out of the way. The black rhino is the one with the pointed mouth (Spitzmaulnashorn), as opposed to the white rhino (Breitmaulnashorn) with the broad mouth which is called “wyd mond” in Afrikaans. The Anglo-Saxons heard “wyd” and made “white” out of that – white rhino. Consequently, the “other” rhino must be “black” – black rhino, they may have thought. But both rhinos are neither white nor black, they are just grey.

I do like the water hole of the Okaukuejo Camp. We return in the evening and see more rhinos, jackals and a wild cat.

After three wonderful days we leave the Etosha Park, drive to Outjo to reload our gas tank (for cooking) and to do some shopping. We find an excellent butcher, where I buy Biltong (dried meat pieces, a convenient picknick), steaks and the house spice mixture for barbecues and vegetables to add even more flavour to our camper meals.

Then we continue to Twyfelfontein.

 

Barren landscape and rock paintings in and around Twyfelfontein

Damaraland in the west of Namibia is dry and barren…

… with yellow meadows, some green bushes and blue mountains.

We sleep in a community camp that is managed by Damara people. The steak we have bought in Outjo is excellent and the butcher’s house mixture of spices is perfect. Now, my camper dinners do no longer taste dull at all.

We stop at Twyfelfontein, which is a park with rock paintings. Thekla shows them to us. I can see a giraffe, a lion and various antelopes. The tail of the lion is angled and ends as a hand – interesting.

The small gecko looks for the sun, right where the rock paintings are.

Thekla speaks the Damara language. It belongs to the Khoisan languages that use three glottal sounds. She clicks three times, and it always sounds different. We give it a try, but we can do no more than one poor click. To get an idea, look at this San man talking Khoisan.

After having seen Twyfelfontein, we drive to the doline Wondergat, where Ernst sees this beautiful grasshopper.

 

Driving North to the Epupa Falls

Now Ernst looks for some adventures on challenging roads. We drive north, first on good roads and then on pebbly roads…

… some springboks run ahead of us. From time to time, they jump up high. We wait to give them time to get off the road.

We stay overnight in Sesfontein and then head north to Opuwo. We have to cross some hills on rough roads,…

… drive up the Joubert pass (easy, it has been paved going up)…

… and are now on 1300m on a high plateau with Himba villages.

The last kilometers to the Kunene river are challenging with pointed pebbles and river crossings. We advance slowly. At the Kunene river, we settle in the Omarunga Lodge & Campsite (still exists in 2020), with a view of the river. We eat in the restaurant of the Lodge & Site and Ernst invites some students for dinner – he says that he has been invited by some elderly business man, when he was a student a  long time ago and now, he wants to give it back. We have a wonderful evening with the students – they study chemistry.

Across the river Kunene is Angola.

Swimming is forbidden here; there are crocodiles. At the reception, I hear that one of the crocodile has a name, Lucy. Lucy has not been seen for some time now, but there are more crocodiles, beware.

We walk along the Kunene river…

… to the Epupa Falls. The water flows around Baobab trees.

Jacy takes us to the Himba village. Jacy is a Himba that went to school in Opuwo and now guides tourists. We are hesitating. We do not want to “look at” people, we want to LIVE the countries that we visit; 15 years ago in Myanmar, we had rejected visiting tribes. But Jacy was nice and we thought, like this, he earns some money and for the Himba, we had some corn flour as a gift.

Jacy explains to us that the Himba use redwood paste to care for their skin, and that it takes three days to make these artful plaits. The Himba belong to the Herero people and have kept their traditional way of life – so far.

These are the graves of the Himba. They worship their ancestors. It is a holy place. All three of us stay at distance meditating. The more noble a man or a woman were in life, the more bull horns decorate his or her grave, for men showing upwards, for women showing downwards.

We have our last “Kunene dinner” and our last “Kunene breakfast” under the palm trees near the river.

The next morning, we will drive to the Ruacana Falls. Again, there are challenging roads ahead of us.

 

Adventurous drive to the Ruacana Falls and returning to Windhoek

We drive back the same way from the Kunene river to Epembe and then turn left to Swartsbooisdrift.

“Road washed away”, our Tracks of Africa on the GPS warns us. This is the “road washed away”. Ernst overcomes the obstacle splashing through the water.

This is our next larger obstacle. Ernst masters it as well, while I get out of the car to take the picture.

Our rear mirror is dirty after all these rough roads with obstacles. We have had our off-road adventures and Ernst is happy about that.

The Ruacanafalls are retained by a barrage. With an altitude of 80m, these waterfalls must have been impressive before. The powerstation of the Ruacana Falls has been completed in 1978 and covers more than 60% of Namibia’s energy consumption, our Lonely Planet says. In 2012, more turbines were added, as Wikipedia says.

We overnight at the camping site near the so-called hippo pool (which is part of the power station system). We settle near the river. Ernst studies all the tracks around our camper to make sure, no dangerous animals or snakes are here. There is one track that he cannot identify (we have a book for that). It turns out, these are the paw prints of the friendly dog of the camping site that joins us wagging the tail.

In the morning, I fall down the ladder of our camper and spill the breakfast yoghurt. The dog tries the yoghurt, does not like it at all and walks away. A huge grasshopper comes and loves the yoghurt, while a prepare a second yoghurt portion.

Then we take an easier route back to Opuwo. In the hot afternoon sun, we have a puncture, hard work – together, we manage to change the wheel. Then we stay overnight in Palmwag. Sitting at our dinner table, we enjoy this beautiful evening ambiance.

On the way back to Windhoek, we stop at the Kristall Kellerei of Mr Kluge in Omaruru. He owns about 4ha of vineyards. He grows Ruby Cabernet (red) and Colombard (white). We buy two small bottles from each. Then we stop at Okahandja for our last camper night in Namibia and have one small bottle of Ruby Cabernet with our barbecue. What a nice farewell dinner.

The other bottles we take home. I keep one bottle of Kluge’s Ruby Cabernet in my cellar. I do not know, whether now, in 2020, it is still drinkable, but it makes a somewhat melancholic souvenir of these four wonderful weeks with Ernst in Africa, 12 years ago.

Now, in 2020, I read in the Internet that the Kristall Winery belongs to Michael Weder who makes a much valued Brandy (Nappa) from the Colombard Grape.

 

Background information about Namibia: Khoisan speaking peoples, Bantu tribes, the German colonialization in the 19th century, protectorate of South Africa in 1920, independent in 1989

Peoples that speak the Khoisan click languages: San bushmen, Nama and Damara (this San man talks Khoisan and this is a step by step lesson about clicking).

  • The SAN (now 3% of the population of Namibia): About 8000 years B.C. pottery appeared – probably the San had settled then – they were hunters and collectors. The SAN or bushmen are small, gracefully built, have a bright (yellowish-brown) skin, high cheekbones and their hair looks like “peppercorns”. The rock paintings in Twyfelfontein may originate from that time, but it is not proven.
  • The Nama (now almost 5% of the population) lived as nomadic cattle breeders. They are a bit taller than the San, and have the same bright skin colour, cheekbones and “peppercorn” hair. Because their click language sounded like stuttering to the Europeans, they called them “Hottentotten”. The origins of the Nama are not clear. Either they descended from the San or they immigrated from East Africa and mixed up with the San. The mightiest Nama tribe, the Orlaam, immigrated from the cap region. They had learnt how to use firearms from the European settlers.
  • The Damara (or Dama, now 7% of the population) have always been a sedentary group that also speaks Khoisan. Other than the Nama and the San, they are black (and proud of that). Their origin is not clear.

 

Tribes that speak Bantu Languages

About 2000-2500 years ago, the first Bantu speaking tribes immigrated. Today, the two main Bantu tribes in Namibia are the Herero (about 7% of the population) and the Ovambo (about 50% of the population).

  • The Herero immigrated to North Namibia and later to East Namibia and Botswana in the 14th or 15th century – their legends say that they are from East Africa. They were cattle breeders and nomads. The Himba that now live in North West Namibia belong to the Herero.
  • The Ovambo (or Vambo) came from East Africa in the 16th/17th century. They were sedentary farmers and cattle breeders. Traditionally their culture was a matriarchy, which changed, when adopting Christianity. They had a king that leased the land to his subordinates for their lifetime. The Ovambo live primarily in the north of Namibia and in southern Angola.

 

European colonialists (whites – now 7% of the population; there is also a coloured population of about 8%, which includes the Basters of Rehoboth)

The Portuguese landed at the coast in 1485, but did not stay. In the 17th century the Dutch started to explore the coast line. In 1844 Germans evangelized the Herero, while the Finns cared about the Ovambo. The English annexed the Walwis Bay in 1878, because they were interested in Guano which are excrements of seabirds used to produce fertilizer and explosive substances. In 1883 Adolf Lüderitz from Germany bought the port Angra Pequena from a Nama chieftain which became then Lüderitzland. Fights between the Nama and the Herero “motivated” the Germans to send troups, first 23 soldats, then more. They built fortifications and promoted commerce and mining. The Germans founded Windhoek in 1890. Namibia became a German protectorate. German farmers settled and the Germans agreed about the borders with the other colonial rulers of the area around 1890. This included the so-called Caprivi Strip, a thin band of land bordering Botswana in the north up to the Zambesi river. The idea was to use the Zambesi river to access German East Africa (today Tanzania) by boat on the Zambesi and via the Indian Ocean. This was, however, impossible; from the Caprivi Strip downstream the Zambesi is not navigable because of the Victoria Falls.

The German farmers settling in Namibia expelled the Herero from the fertile plains. The Herero retreated to the Waterberg and revolted. The Germans lost their freshly established estates and backed up to Windhoek. Reinforced, the Germans hit back. At the battle of the Waterberg in 1904, the Herero were vanquished and those that survived escaped to the desert, where many of them died of thirst. 80% of the Herero perished – this is a genocide. The Germans apologized 100 years later and made a reparation payment.

After World War I the Germans lost their colonies. Namibia became a protectorate of South Africa. Many German farmers stayed in the country and expanded their farms. The native tribes were confined to less fertile “home lands”, a process that was completed in 1963.

Namibia struggled for independence from South Africa,  but South Africa continued to rule over Namibia, despite the UNO resolution 435 from the 1960’s. In 1983, the UNO recognized the SWAPO (South West Africa’s people Organization, dominated by the Ovambo) and, supported by Cuba, the SWAPO fought in Angola and in the north of Namibia. In 1989 Namibia became independent. The first president, Nujoma, was an Ovambo chieftain. He strived for peaceful solutions in his multi-ethnic nation which was symbolized with the flag of Namibia: The osprey stands for vision, two oryx antelopes for courage.

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Namibia#/media/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Namibia.svg

Nujoma ruled for 15 years. He was followed smoothly by Ovambo (or SWAPO) chieftain Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba until 2015. Then, smoothly again, Hage Gottfried Geingob took over (also from the SWAPO and with a long international experience outside Namibia). I do wish all the best to this multi-ethnic country. For the people and for the animals, I hope that tourists will come again after the pandemic.

 

Former blogs about stories that my home tells me: The Schefflera plant that reminds me of having climbed the Kilimanjaro with Ernst and the ebony wood bowls that remind me of the safaris in Tanzania  (2006), “Map of Etosha”, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Honeyguide Publications

Sources: Paula Hardy et alii, “Botswana & Namibia”, Lonely Planet 2007; Daniela Schetar et alii, “Namibia”, Reise Know-How, Markgröningen 2007; Duncan Butchart, “Wildlife of the Okavango, Struik Nature 2000; my own travel report, “Südwestafrika – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia”.

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: Botswana

Now in March/April 2020, the virus stopped me from being on the road. I am at home. After all, I am 65+…

My home tells me stories – I just have to listen: This photo gallery reminds me of April/Mai 2008, when I travelled to the Victoria Falls, to Botswana and to Namibia with Ernst.

I have already talked about our visit to the Victoria Falls.

Let me now continue  with our fly-in safari in the Okavango Delta. This map (taken from google maps) shows “our” lodges: From the Victoria Falls, a car driver takes us to the Chobe Game Lodge. From Chobe we fly to the Savute Lodge and then to the Okavango Camp. By boat we get to the Camp Moremi and finally we fly out to Maun and to Windhoek, where we will pick up our camper to tour through Namibia.

 

Chobe Game Lodge – the pinnacle of Botswana

The Chobe Game Lodge is located directly on the Chobe river. We have a room with a canopy bed – wonderful. “Our” Lonely Planet says that this lodge is the pinnacle of Botswana. The meals are delicous – on our first day, we have a large first course buffet, then Impala Stroganoff and a rich dessert buffet.

From our terrace we see the river. Warthogs visit us in the garden.

We stay in the Chobe Game Lodge for two nights and go for game excursions before breakfast and after afternoon tea, with Lebuku in the safari car and once in the boat with Brigitte. Lebuku knows each animal, each bird, each plant. The early morning game excursions are very, very cold… Fortunately, Lebuku takes warm blankets along, they are needed.

Ernst was happy to see so much wild life that he took most of the photos, and I was happy that he was happy.

This is a herd of elephants in the Chobe river.

This huge elephant comes pretty close. It does not like to see us… Lebuku backs our car up – carefully.

Watch out, this is a crocodile. No swimming here.

Hippos “hide” in the Chobe river. Hippos stay in water during the day and only get out to graze at night, Lebuku tells us, as they would catch a sunburn during the day. Though they are vegetarian, they can be utterly dangerous for us, when meeting them face to face.

The graceful impalas are all over.

Young lions… Lebuku is good at following the tracks that I would have never noticed. He recognizes, how old the tracks are, whether they belong to a young or an old lion, to a male or a female lion, and whether someone else has passed after or before the lions.

Mama lion walks into the bush, carefully watched by four impalas.

It is dangerous all over for the impalas – what might be the intentions of this jackal?

Giraffes – they look like the logo of the zoo at my hometown Basel. They keep eye contact over distance which is easy for them being so tall.

The neat pied kingfisher sits on a branch near the Chobe river.

This red-blue roller sits on a bush (Gabelracke in German).

This is an African fish eagle.

We see many more animals. I admire the dung beetle that rolls an enormous piece of dung through the sand (much larger than itself). We see phytons, squirrels, baboons, water bocks, kudus and a rich variety of birds such as guinea fowls, vultures, plovers, ducks, storks, hornbills or ibis. We see tracks of leopards, but they are hiding well.

Once we stop at a picknick area. “Is it correct, Lebuku, that lions avoid picknick areas?” I ask (jokingly). “Yes, right, look here, these are lion tracks”, Lebuku answers and points to the ground. Hm… In the evenings, we take a drink near the Chobe river, while the sun is setting.

Mankind’s role in this wonderful wildlife world provokes my doubts: The borders of the Chobe National Park have fences, ad beyond the fences live the farmers. We can see farms with cattle across the river. The fences prevent the animals from migrating to the places they went to before. I am not sure, whether the restrictions imposed on the wild animals by us men are a sustainable.

After dinner, we join the manager of the lodge on his terrace. He is a hobby-astronomer and explains the stars and planets to us using a telescope. I can see the Saturn with its rings. We recognize the southern cross and various constellations of stars such as the Orion, Castor and Pollux or the Gemini. The manager tells us that 2000 years ago the Greek could see the southern cross, because the earth is wobbling.

The next morning, the alarm clock wakes us at six. Ernst asks me, whether getting up is a good idea. Oh yes, it is. We have our last safari excursion with Lebuku in his jeep called Thutlwa (=giraffe). After breakfast, we leave for Kasane airport. Marco flies with us to the Savute Camp Site. Marco is from New Zealand and he wants to gather miles. With us is a freshly married couple from the Basque Country (Spain) enjoying their honey moon. Their names are Leida and Javier.

 

Savute Camp Site – the Savute river is dry now

Marco lands his small airplane safely on the pebbled airstrip and Gwist drives us to the Savute Camp Site, where the management awaits us with refreshing wet towels.

We now live in the Bungalow number 5 in the bush. We find two cans inside, one to kill insects and one to blow the horn, when we need help – there is no telephone here. We stay two nights and Gwist takes us out for safari rides early in the morning and after three o’clock tea. Tea and sometimes meals are served on the terrace overlooking an artificial water hole, where we can watch animals, often elephants.

Gwist explains to us that the Savute Camp is located in the southern part of the Chobe National Park. He adds, Savute is a river that due to seismic movements sometimes has water and sometimes not. In spring 2008 the river has been dry since 1982. Therefore now, the Savute area is dry.

This grassland becomes marsh land or even a lake, when the Savute river has water, Gwist tells us.

Later in 2008 the Savute river started to fill with water again and since 2010 it has been full of water and the area must be greener now.

Here are some impressions from our safaris with Gwist. The wrinkled elephant, …

… zebras…

… that like to be close to Gnus,…

… some impalas in the now dry marshland, …

… lion ladies with a baby, …

… lion ladies yawning and drinking water,…

… cute mongooses,…

… a lilac breasted roller,…

… and the hornbill (a colourful raven) on the terrace of our lodge.

This is just a small selection of our animal photos – we have seen many more – just gorgeous.

Ernst looks at his GPS and mumbles: “Behind that hill must be the rock paintings.” It is true. Gwist is excited about Ernst’s GPS with the Tracks of Africa that shows all the paths around his lodge. We climb into the rocks and discover the drawings of an elephant, an antelope, a giraffe, two snakes and perhaps a buffalo.

While Ernst can never believe that such paintings are old (my engineer has a very critical and down-to-earth attitude), I do some research with Gwist in the lodge library. The books say that the paintings are between 6000 and 20’000 years old. Difficult to say, how old they really are, but at least, these paintings only show wild life and no cows or horses – hence it could well be that they are old.

Our next target is the Okavango Camp.

 

Okavango Camp – boat and walking safaris with Obed, the San bushman

Our plane lands at the “International Airport of Okavango” (this is, what a sign says), which is an airstrip with some grass. Small and delicate Obed welcomes us. His hair is bundled to a plait. He belongs to the San people. We will spend two nights in the Okavango camp, and we are now an ad hoc group with a Dutch couple, on their honey moon. The meals are delicious in the Okavango camp and I particulary love the Amarula liqueur apéro, made from Marula fruit.

Obed and Emma take us out for a mokoro boat ride. Mokoro boats are made to glide through the shallow side channels of the Okavango river. Now the mokoro boats are made from artificial material, but before they were made from the wood of ebony trees.

We reach the main river with miscanthus grass and water lilies.

Again, we see many birds, such as kingfishers, grey louries, pigmy geese, and fish, such as catfish and barbs. Obed tells us that, to catch fish, the San people spike them using miscanthus. On our way back, we cross the elephant highway – we hear an elephant walk “splash-splash”, and then we see it. We are sitting in these light mokoro boats, pretty vulnerable. The elephant has heard us, stops and moves his ears back and forward. Obed and Emma back up our boats and we wait, until the elephant has passed by. Yes, elephants have the right of way here.

The sun is setting. Obed tells us a story, this is what the people do here, when the sun sets: The hare finds a rope and sets out to tease the elephant and the hippo. To the hippo, the hare says that  it, the hare, is very, very strong, as it will pull one end of the rope and let the the hippo pull the other end of the rope. He then tells the elephant the same story. But then the astute hare gives the hippo and the elephant the opposite ends of the rope. They both think that the hare is at the other end of the rope and they are puzzled, how strong that hare is… nice story!

Then Obed takes us out to a walking safari. By motor boat, we reach a landing stage, leave the boat, and then we are on foot in the middle of the bush. With elephants, buffalos, lions, leopards or antelopes. Obed has grown up surrounded by wild life. He leads us carefully and shows the tracks and the dung of the animals. We meet some elephants, follow the tracks of lions, get almost to close to a herd of buffaloes, see a leopard from very far… it is an interesting, yet almost scary experience.

Returning from our walking safari, we find this brave chamaeleon making huge steps. It keeps on falling between the wooden planks, “gathers” its legs again and continues its way, bravely.

Once we go for a motor boat ride. Obed is at the steering wheel. We glide through papyrus grass, water figs and common reed. Obed sees a crocodile, but it disappears so quickly that none of us can see it. Again we see much wildlife along the water, elephants and birds. These hippos are not all amused, when we arrive. They stand up in the water and attack our boat. Obed backs up and approaches them again, when they have calmed down. Now, we just see their ears, eyes and noses in the water.

Our next destination is the Moremi Game Reserve. The Okavango Camp manager takes us by boat along the Okavango river network to a small island, where we meet Moota who came by boat from the Xugana camp with some more guests. The guests from Xugana want to go to the Okavango Camp, where we came from. Moota drives with us to yet another island, where Mod picks us up and takes us to our destination, the Moremi Game Lodge. Complex logistics in the bush that work out smoothly, and on the way, we see much wildlife, among them these storks.

 

Camp Moremi in the Moremi Game Reserve – our last wildlife experience in Botswana

Ernst, looking at his GPS, mumbles: “Soon, we reach the large lagoon”. Right, we reach open water and the landing stage of the Moremi Camp. We settle in the bungalow number seven…

… where the beds have been prepared carefully.

We are not allowed to walk from the restaurant to our bungalow at night – the hippos might be wandering from the lagoon to their pastures and hippos are very dangerous for us.

Lucky is our safari guide, and, like all other guides, he is very knowledgeable. He has a book under his windshield that allows us to translate the names of the animals and plants or to refer to the Latin names.

Also in the Moremi Game Reserve, we see much wildlife such as this elephant herd,…

… kudus,…

… buffaloes,…

… a female lion with the prey – an impala,…

… a lion yawning,…

… female lions with their offspring,…

… a proud black stork,…

… vivid baboons,…

… and many, many more animals… another marvellous experience.

Our Lonely Planet mentions that a tame hippo, Pavarotti, likes to rest in the garden of the lodge. I can see no tame hippo. I am told that Pavarotti with its crooked tooth was indeed the pet of the lodge. One day, it did not turn up. The lodge team set out to search Pavarotti and found it dead in the lagoon. Some time ago, there was also a tame crocodile, the personnel tells me. Its name was Alison. It picked up a red towel in the laundry and then laid down near the pool. Very peculiar.

After two days, we take the plane to Maun.

From Maun, we continue to Windhoek, where our Namibia adventure starts.

We keep wonderful memories from our fly-in safari in Botswana. Ernst had always wanted to return to Botswana… may be I will do that one day with Ernst in my heart, once we will be able to travel again.

 

Some background information about Botswana: A long tradition and thoughtful presidents give stability, as I understand it

Early settlers in Botswana included the San bushmen. In the years 200 to 500 AD, Bantu speaking Tswana tribes arrived. Still today, they are the main ethnos in Botswana, basing themselves on three Tswana tribes of the 14th century that three sons inherited from their father. A long tradition of 600 years.

In the 19th century, the Tswana tribes were under pressure from outside; under the charismatic king Segkoma I in 1840, they joined forces in a federation. Also the next leaders were charismatic such as Khana I in 1875 who modernized his country, supported the San people and introduced laws to protect fauna and flora.

At the end of the 19th century, the Boers had to migrate north for having been pushed out of southern Africa by the English. The Boers put pressure on Botswana. England accepted Botswana as a protectorate. The English intended to integrate Botswana with Rhodesia, but Khana II resisted. Botswana remained under English protectorate and did not become part of Rhodesia.

In 1966, Khama lead Botswana into independence from England. He was one of the tribe chieftains and was president until 1980. Also the president Festus Mogae (until 2008) was one of the chieftains. “My” Lonely Planet points out that the presidents reigned thoughtfully, without enriching themselves, and Festus Mogae could even be seen doing his own shopping in the local Spar shop. In 2008, the son of Khama followed, and in 2018 Mokgweetsi Masisi became president. All presidents belong to the Botswana Democratic Party that has the absolute majority. Botswana presents a successful mixture of democracy and thoughtful tribe policy, I believe.

When Botswana became independent, it was a country with few natural resources. A year later, in 1967, three diamond mines were detected. The profits allowed to improve the education system and the infrastructure of the country. Export of diamonds is still important today, as more diamond mines were found later. When reviewing my material and the latest information in the Internet, I find a sad piece of information. Because of diamond reserves in the Kalahari, the San people were relocated. They fought for the right to return, which was approved by the appeal court in 2011, but the San can still not return to their land. This is what I found on survivalinternational.de. and also in the NZZ from the 23.11.2018 (Neue Zürcher Zeitung). Very sad. I hope that Botswana finally will reinstall the rights of the San people and continue on the tracks that charismatic and thoughtful leaders, such as Khana and Khama, layed for the country and for the sustainable tourism in the 1960-ies.

 

Sources: Paula Hardy et alii, “Botswana & Namibia”, Lonely Planet 2007; Daniela Schetar et alii, “Namibia”, (update until today: Wikipedia); Reise Know-How, Markgröningen 2007; Duncan Butchart, “Wildlife of the Okavango, Struik Nature 2000; my own travel report, “Südwestafrika – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia”.

 

Former blogs about stories that my home tells me: The Schefflera plant that reminds me of having climbed the Kilimanjaro with Ernst and the ebony wood bowls that remind me of the safaris in Tanzania,

 

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: Victoria Falls

Now in March/April 2020, the virus stopped me from being on the road. I am at home. After all, I am 65+…

My home tells me stories – I just have to listen: In my latest blog I have talked about the the Schefflera plant that reminds me of having climbed the Kilimanjaro with Ernst and the ebony wood bowls that remind me of the safaris in Tanzania.

Let me now talk about the story that this photo gallery in my guest room has to tell: In April/March 2008, Ernst and I visited the Victoria Falls, Botswana and Namibia.

This was a GORGEOUS journey.  I love to look at these photos. Let us start with the prolog and the Victoria Falls.

 

Prolog: Organizing the journey

Mid March 2008, Ernst has reserved flights to Africa: Frankfurt – Windhoek – Victoria Falls, then Maun – Windhoek, and Windhoek – Frankfurt. With a few leaflets from travel offices in his hands, Ernst mumbles: “Now we have the flights, would you be so  kind to fill the gaps?” Oh, yes, I will, wonderful!

I write to three travel offices in Botswana. Immediately, Susan from Phakawe answers. She offers a fly-in safari in Botswana and confirms that the lodges still have rooms available. I book her offer, pay on March 20th, but the money will only appear on her bank account in Botswana shortly before our departure on April 19th. The travel documents make it just in time. Susan cares for us sending various emails: “Take enough warm clothes, the nights are cold.” Or: “Do not take more than 20kgs of luggage, the bush airplanes are small.” Today, I do no longer find this excellent travel agency in the Internet. What a pity! The organization was perfect!

At Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, I book a luxury room (with partial view of the falls) in THE hotel, the Victoria Falls Hotel. We had debated, whether to go to Zimbabwe at all, as elections were going on, but a friend at work told me that usually the touristy area around the Victoria Falls remains quiet. He also recommended the Victoria Falls Hotel (he grew up Rhodesia).

In additon, I reserve a four wheel drive camper from Britz to tour through Namibia. Ernst buys a small Garmin and loads it with Tracks of Africa. He transfers all the tracks to a small laptop that I have acquired to make planning the routes easier and to write my diary. Now we are ready for our adventure.

 

Victoria Falls and the posh Victoria Falls Hotel

After a night flight on 19/20th April to Windhoek, then continuing to Maun and finally to Victoria Falls, we have our late afternoon tea in the posh Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1904. I believe that I am daydreaming sitting under the colonial arcades, but it is true.

This is the view from the terrace to the falls and the railway bridge. As a matter of fact, there is no view of the falls as such. What we see, is just this spray rising and the railway bridge (built by the English in 1905).

The postcard showing the view of the falls from above makes it clear: The Zambesi – 1.7km large – falls into a ditch – about 100m deep. From the ditch, the river converges into a canyon that is crossed by the railway bridge. The Victoria Falls Hotel near the bridge gives the view of the spray, and this is, what they call “the view of the Victoria Falls”. This is somewhat unexpected for me, but nevertheless spectacular.

We have dinner at the Jungle Junction: The buffet with entries (antipasti, salad, soups, fish), main dishes (fish, meat, vegetables) and desserts is delicious.

The location of our hotel is very convenient: It is only a short foot-walk to the falls. After having paid the entry fee, we walk along the rim into the direction of the railway bridge.

It is all over wet from the spray – we put on our rain jackets… the locals are clever, they sell umbrellas at the entry gate (which we did not need, as we had our jackets).

Across the Devil Fall, 72 steps lead down into the ditch…

… where we can look at the falls from below.

The spray makes rainbows. Ernst and I start our (usual) discussion about what can be found at the point, where the rainbow touches the ground – is it a treasure chest (my idea) or a small bucket of gold (this is what Ernst has learnt from his mother) ;-)? The place seems to be so near… but we cannot check our hypotheses – too dangerous here.

After a siesta and some swimming in the hotel pool, we join the lions’ walk. We meet young lions (still dotted) that are raised to later move to a reservation area. We have mixed feelings about this tourist event.

At full moon, we enjoy the rich evening buffet at the Jungle Junction. We retreat to our luxury room with the “partial view of the falls” (the spray is partially hidden by a tree), enjoy the Belgian chocolate “Bettmümpfeli” (goodnight snack found on the pillow) and sleep well, looking forward to our safaris in Botswana and Namibia.

In the early morning, I take this last photo from the Victoria Falls spray sparkling in the rising sun.

After the rich breakfast buffet at the Jungle Junction, we are picked up by Wild Horizon. Our target today: Cross the border to Botswana and get to the Chobe River Front Lodge.

 

Some geological background information about the Victoria Falls

Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger(2010) explain the geology behind the Victoria Falls. In a nutshell, this is, what I understood: There is a volcanic basalt layer here, about 300m thick, that cracked, when ancient Gondwanaland broke up. A series of giant cracks emerged – north-south and east-west. It is a grid of cracks. The cracks were filled with (softer) sediments. Later central Zimbabwe was lifted up and a large lake appeared. At that time, the Zambesi river flew into the Limpopo river system that has its source in nowadays Botswana. More tectonic movements lead the Zambesi river to change its flow to directly reach the Indian Ocean. The Zambesi now crossed the basalt area with the grid of cracks and created the first Victoria Falls at the end. By eroding the sediments, the falls wandered upstream forming five falls over time. The existing fall is the fifth fall, the authors say. After this fifth fall, the Zambesi zigzags through the system of gorges that it has carved into the grid of cracks. Thank you for this explanation.

 

Sources: Paula Hardy et alii, “Botswana & Namibia”, Lonely Planet 2007; Daniela Schetar et alii, “Namibia”, Reise Know-How, Markgröningen 2007; Duncan Butchart, “Wildlife of the Okavango, Struik Nature 2000; my own travel report, “Südwestafrika – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia”.

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: Safari in Tanzania

Now in March/April 2020, the virus stopped me from being on the road. I am at home. After all, I am 65+…

My home tells me stories – I just have to listen: In my latest blog I have talked about the the Schefflera plant that reminds me of having climbed the Kilimanjaro with Ernst.

Let me continue with the Kilimanjaro tour of February 2006 that was topped off with two safaris. These bowls remind me of them. They are made from ebony wood. I often use them, when serving apéro snacks to guests. And I love to have guests – I hope that will be possible sometimes soon again.

Let me tell you about the first two Africa safaris I have experienced in my life.

 

After the ascent to the Kilimanjaro we recover visiting the Ngorongoro Crater and the Tarangire Park

These are the destinations we visited in Tanzania in February 2006: After having climbed the Kilimanjaro, we visit the Ngorongoro Crater and the Tarangire Park.

Source: Google Maps

 

Ngorongoro Crater – we sit in the cage (the safari car) and are surrounded by so many animals

The Ngorongoro Crater is a collapsed volcano in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The crater or caldera is at 1700m, 400-600m deep and 17×20 km large.

We stay at the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge at the rim of the crater and look north to the Lake Makat and to the Olmoti mountains, if I get that right from the guidebook we have bought.

The handsome and tall Maasai (about 50’000) share the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with the animals. The crater as such is reserved for the animals.

We enter the crater in our safari car. Our driver is called Jahaia.

When I notice the first zebras, I am so happy – my first wildlife experience! I want to take a photo… but Jahaia – he does everything for his guests – shakes his head: “I am not going to stop for a few zebras.” Hm, yes, he is right, we see many more zebras in the crater. We wonder, whether they are “white with black stripes” or “black with white stripes”. Jahaia solves the question: “Look, their noses are black, therefore zebras are black and have white stripes.” Okay, right, the noses are black, this is a way of looking at it.

Very soon we reach a wildlife traffic jam (we are at the Lerai Forest now): About six safari cars have stopped and the binoculars of the tourists are directed towards some dead wood under the trees. I hear that a rhino is resting in the dead wood. “Yes, there it is, I can see it!” voices say around me. Hm, I cannot see any rhino. But then a vivid monkey jumps into the dead wood and disturbs the “siesta” of the rhino. It stands up and leaves the dead wood. Angrily it drops a few large pieces of brown dung, paws them away and moves on majestically.

Our driver is happy to have shown this rhino to us… we will not see another rhino on our two safaris. At the time, about 15 black rhinos  (Spitzmaulnashörner) still live in the crater (in 1965 there were about 100 of them). The rhinos are being protected carefully and my guidebook warns: “do not disturb rhinos… You can be fined… for doing so” (p. 37). Well – I asume, the cheeky monkey will not be fined and we are happy that it has disturbed “our” rhino.

We continue our tour and see gnus that graze not far away from two lions resting in the shade.

One female lion is desperately looking for shade and finds it under the car of our friends.

The buffalo looks frightening with these huge horns.

The warthogs love the mud – they have a special charm.

The marabou stork belongs to the family of storks (as the English name indicates). It looks peculiar to us with its short legs, the compact body, the huge pink sac and the bold head. It is a scavenger that lives from dead animals.

Wildlife is abundant in the crater; Elephants, hippos (at the hippo pool), various kinds of antelopes and gazelles, a gepard and a variety of birds such as eagles, vultures, flamingos, ducks, geese, storks, ibis, egrets, herons, kites (“Milane” in German), just no giraffes (too steep for them to get down to the crater). I have the feeling, I am in a zoo, whereby WE are in the cage and the animals walk around freely; they may look at us, strange creatures that humans are in those strange cages that safari cars are…

While taking a good-bye photo of the Ngorongoro crater, I am told by the more experienced Africa travellers that I should not expect to always see that many animals in Africa.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is part of an ecosystem of crater highlands at the border of the Serengeti National Park which reminds me of Bernhard and Michael Grzimek and their film “Die Serengeti darf nicht sterben” (Serengeti shall not die, 1959). The Grzimeks and their films were very present, when I was a child. Yes, I agree, the Serengeti shall not die. The Ngorongoro Crater is has been an overwhelming experience (see my post scriptum about the Grzimeks and their successors).

 

Tarangire National Park

The Tarangire National Park stretches along the river Tarangire. We live in luxurious tents with a sleeping room, a bath room and an outside sitting area bordering the river. Our tent has just a small problem: The zippers of the “doors” to the bathroom and to the sitting area do not glide well – they always get stuck. Ernst, my engineer, gives his best to open and close them (he is so kind to take over this task, because it needs a lot of patience which is not exactly one of my strengths). On the last day, even Ernst can no longer open the zipper and we crawl out of the tent. Nevertheless it is wonderful to fall asleep in the tent with all the noise of the jungle around us and to wake up with all that noise in the morning. From the sitting area in front of our tent we can watch elephants and giraffes drink water in the river.

Though the animals are not as close to one another as in the Ngorongoro Crater, we see a lot of them: Lions,…

… elephants, …

… more elephants, …

… giraffes – this one keeps the overview -, …

… more giraffes, …

… and another giraffe waving its tail, …

… baboon monkeys, …

… and impala.

In addition Jahaia can show us a leopard sitting high up on the branch of a tree. And again we enjoy the rich bird life.

Near a large baobab we get out of the car. The baobab reminds me of Saint Exupéry: Le Petit Prince said that, on his small Asteroide 612, he would root out each of the Baobab germ buds carefully, as a large baobab tree would make his asteroide explode.

When leaving the Tarangire Park, we stop at a souvenir shop. This is where I buy the bowls for the snacks that I have included to start this blog about our safaris.

 

Chale Island – just relaxing 

We round off our tour to Africa by relaxing on Chale island in Nairobi. Looking up Chale Island in the internet, I find that it must have been refurbished since our staying there in 2006.

In 2006, the hotel offers tents and in addition two penthouses. After the experience with the zippers in the tent of the Tarangire Park, Ernst wants to stay in the penthouse. Okay for me, as he wants that so clearly. And we find a place like a fairy tale: A large living room, a large sleeping room with a canopy bed, a huge balcony and even a second floor with more beds. On the canopy bed there are three cushions, two normal ones and in the middle a pink cushion shaped like a heart. Wonderful. When going to sleep, we remove the heart shaped cushion in the middle, it is in the way…

For two days, our program now comprises activities such as eating, resting, reading, swimming, taking a mud-bath, drinking tea with our friends on the balcony of our penthouse – solving the problem of the 36 legs of dancing elephants and ostriches – how many elephants and how many ostriches? Solution: 6 elephants and 6 ostriches.

We walk along the coast line, where we can see that this island is a cliff that rose from the sea.

On Monday, 27th of February 2006 we return home. On our flight, we can see the Kilimanjaro from above. When we arrive in Zurich, we find Switzerland covered with snow – it is winter and it is cold at home.

Thank you, Hans-Ueli und Lise, for having invited us to join you and your family in Africa.

 

Post Scriptum: The pandemic may endanger financing the preservation of the Serengeti and other wildlife refugees in Africa

When thinking about father and son Grzimek and googling their film, I find “die Serengeti darf nicht sterben – die Erben“. It is about the Swiss Markus Borner that continued the project of the Grzimeks for the Zoogesellschaft Frankfurt, assisted by his son Felix. Markus Borner saw Grzimek at the television, when he was a child (as I did). Markus Borner then worked for the Serengeti for more than 30 years and retired in 2017. I am impressed by the film of the Borners, in particular, when they follow the migrating gnu herds in their plane. The Serengeti is an ecosystem, where one and a half million (!) Gnus migrate, as they follow water and food – and the predators follow them. Now climate change endangers this ecosystem. As the rain tracks are shifting, the animals looking for water are colliding with civilization – however, the Borners found ways to vaccinate the population and their animals against rabies that are a danger for the wild animals.

On top of the climate changes, the tourists do no longer come due to the virus and, I believe that endangers the financing of the indispensable infrastructure for the Serengeti and other wildlife refugees (just think of prohibiting poaching!)… I do hope, we will overcome this virus such that tourists return to the Serengeti. It is not only about us people and the economy… it is about much more that is in danger – it is our planet with the last ecologic reserves such as he Serengeti! We have to preserve the Serengeti and the wild life refugees of Africa for the next generations, following the Grzimeks and the Borners – both father and son.

Sources: Jeanette Hanby and David Bygott, “Ngorongoro Conservation Area”, A Kibuyu guidebook, Regal Press 2004; Mary Fitzpatrick, “Tanzania”, Lonely Planet 2002.

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: The Schefflera and the Kilimanjaro

Now in March/April 2020, the virus stopped me from being on the road. I am at home. After all, I am 65+ and I feel, this is required for solidarity.

My home tells me stories – I just have to listen: The furniture in my office is of my great grandfather – a teacher at the grammar school and the university of Basel. The dining table reminds me of my father’s mother – I called her “Omi”. All over are the paintings of my mother’s father – he was an artist and he made some beautiful portraits of his wife, my second grand-mother. There are woodcuts of my mother (being the daughter of an artist) and some souvenirs that she brought home from her journeys. The photo gallery in my guest room and the huge Schefflera plant allow me to travel to Africa with Ernst, my husband. And much more. My home is full of stories and I will now pick up some of them.

 

The Schefflera and the plush monkey in my living room tell about our ascent to the Kilimanjaro

Let me start with the story that this Schefflera…

… with the small plush monkey has to tell us.

On March 6th 2006, the Schefflera (Fingeraralie) was my birthday gift for Ernst, my husband. The monkey was one of the plush animals that I had played with as a child. I gave the Schefflera with the plush monkey o Ernst as a souvenir of the ascent to the Kilimanjaro that we had just completed, in February 2006. We had seen Schefflera plants there and we had also observed mantled guereza monkeys (Mantelaffe) wearing a white “coat” and a white tail tuft; they are vivid animals jumping from branch to branch and difficult to capture.

My (much used) brown plush monkey is a very, very rough approximation of the guereza monkeys, and Ernst liked my idea.

Now that Ernst has become a star watching over me, the Schefflera in my living room still reminds me of our Kilimanjaro adventures in Tanzania.

 

How the idea of the Kilimanjaro came up

Ernst’s best friend had already climbed the Kilimanjaro 30 years ago, when he was almost 30 years old. Now soon about to complete 60 years, he wanted to go back, and he invited his family and close friends to join him. Ernst asked me, what I would think of climbing the Kilimanjaro. I was all for it! This mountain had been a dream of mine, since having listened to the song of Jean-Claude Pascal, “les neiges du Kilimanjaro” (I was a teenager then).

 

Yes, we made it to the Uhuru peak of the Kilimanjaro – on the so-called Coca-Cola trail

We made it to the top, the Uhuru peak, at 5895m. The whole group, about 15. Here I am with Ernst. It was around 8:30 in the morning, and it was cold.

 

Walking up “pole, pole” is the secret for reaching the top across the vegetation zones

We have booked our tour with Aktivferien AG that hires local guides, porters and cooks to take us up. The local guides permanently warn us to advance “pole, pole” which means “slowly, slowly” in Kisuaheli. We were the slowest of all the groups, already, when leaving Marangu at 1800m.

We walk through the tropical rain forest first…

… and then reach the giant heather about half an hour before arriving at the Mandara hut. The  heather is covered by bearded lichen.

The heather plants are huge and I feel like Hänschen in the empire of the Blueberry Man – a book that I loved as a child (“Hänschen im Blaubeerenland”).

It is 900ms up from Marangu to the Manadara hut on 2700m (called after Mandara, a local chieftain in the late 19th century, known for being a tough warrior and for taking gifts from the early explorers of that time).

On the second day, we walk in the moorland above the tree level. Outstanding are Lobelia (deckenii) and Senecio (kilimanjari or giant groundsel). This is the Senecio plant.

We reach the Horombo hut at 3650m altitude. This complex of huts was called “Petershütte” before, and yes, a distant ancestor of mine, Dr. Carl Peters, has founded the colony of Ostafrika/East Africa which is about Tansania today. I have mixed feelings about my ancestor, because I cannot not agree with his ruthless attitude towards the indigenous population.

We stay in the Horombo-Peters hut for two nights. To adapt to the altitude, we walk to the saddle separating the Kibo mountain from his “partner”, in the east, the Mawenzi, which is a volcano that is no longer active. Its name means “the dark mountain” in Kisuaheli.

We look at the path leading from the Kibo hut to the crater rim (Gillman’s point) which we will climb up in two days from now.

The way from the Horombo hut at 3650m to the Kibo hut at 4750m takes us through barren terrain and the water supply ends on the way. No water above this point. Our porters tank water here.

Our night in the Kibo hut is very short. We get up at eleven pm and at midnight, we start to walk up along the winded path to the crater rim, “pole, pole” – zig-zag, zig-zag, zig-zag – endlessly. At the beginning, we are overtaken by others, but then the other groups sit down more and more and we overtake them, pole – pole. The local guides take care of each of us, even carrying some of our rucksacks. They do a great job motivating us to continue. At 5200m we reach the Meyer’s cave, named after Hans Meyer who was the first to reach the top of the Kilimanjaro in 1889; he called the highest point after Emperor William II of Germany (it is now called Uhuru peak, uhuru=freedom). Hans Meyer picked a stone from the very top, brought it home to Germany and gave half of it to his emperor William II. The emperor integrated this stone in the decoration of Das Neue Palais in the Sansouci castle and park complex in Potsdam – here it is.

At about six o’clock, we have reached the crater rim, signposted “Gillman’s Point” (5685m). Less than 1000m ascent in six hours, this is my record in “slowness”. That WAS “pole, pole”. It is very cold. I use my red rain cape as a “tent” insulating me from the cold temperatures and warming me up. Then I hand the cape on. After a rest, we tackle the last 200m along the rim to the Uhuru peak, the highest point of the Kilimanjaro or Kibo.

At the top, we share the birthday cake – after all this ascent to the Kilimanjaro was the birthday wish of Ernst’s friend. It is around 8:30. About half an hour later, we start our descent. The idea is to get back to  “more human” altitudes as fast as possible. The couloir that we had zig-zagged up before is full of ash and we can glide down on it like on snow. From the Kibo hut, we continue our way down to the Horombo hut, where we stay overnight. The next day, we take an early start at six in the morning to walk down to Marangu, where we are invited to church in the early afternoon. Ernst sighed: “Nie han i so frie uffschtah miesse für z’Predigt z’go” – “Never have I had to get up so early to go to church.”

Marangu – Mandara hut – Horombo hut – Kibo hut – Uhuru peak – this was our route up to the Kilimanjaro, and because this seems to be the most comfortable route (with all the huts on the way), it is called Coca Cola trail. But – the altitude is nevertheless a challenge, and from the Kibo hut, we were the only group that made it to the top. The last ascent to the Uhuru peak IS demanding, also on this trail.

 

At the church – the safari service and the banquet

After having gotten up so early this morning to run down from the Horombo hut to Marangu, we make it in time to the church.

The church bell rings for us. The priest talks about the Israelites returning from Egypt to their homeland, just as we have safely returned from our tour (or safari) to the Kilimanjaro. After the service, we are invited to a delicious banquet with the highlight being a roasted goat. The Lutheran faith of the community shows that the Germans have evangelized Tanzania – the first missionary was Johannes Rebmann in the middle of the 19th century.

 

Good-bye guides, porters and cooks and good-bye Kilimanjaro, you are large mountain giving life, but also being a potential danger 

After our descent, we say good-bye to the guides, the porters and the cooks that have cared for us. Together, we sing the Kilimanjaro song:

” Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro,
Kilimanjaro -mlima mrefu sana
Na Mawenzi, na Mawenzi, na Mawenzi,
na Mawenzi – mlima mrefu sana
Ewe nyoka – ewe nyoka, ewe nyoka,
ewe nyoka – mbona wanizungukaa
Wanizungukaa, wanizungukaa, wanizungukaa;
wanizungukaa – wataka kunila nyama”

The words say:

“Kilimanjaro…  is a very high mountain,
and Mawenzi… is a very high mountain.
You snake…, why do you surround me.
You want to eat my flesh”.

The people living around the Kilimanjaro are aware of the fact that this volcano is resting and could explode one day destroying all the life around it that now benefits from the fertile volcanic ground and the mountain as an obstacle in the landscape generating rain. It is very probable that a lava plug is lurking under the convexely shaped mountain.

On the next day, we drive to the Ngorongoro Crater. We look back to the Kilimanjaro with its white coat or “blanc manteau”, as Jean-Claude Pascal sung in the 1960-s.

Now our wild-life safari adventure starts; we will see animals such as zebras, gnus, elefants, giraffes, lions, antilopes, warthogs, marabus and even a rhinoceros.

 

Sources: P. Werner Lange, “Kilimandscharo – der weisse Berg Afrikas”, AS Verlag Zürich 2005; Henry Stedman, “Kilimanjaro – a trekking guide to Africa’s highest mountain”, Trailblazer Publications 2003.

Discovering Uzbekistan – blue cupolas and dreams of 1001 nights in Samarkand

In September/October 2019, I was in Uzbekistan. Our tour ended with the city of Samarkand, where the blue cupolas seem to have come from the tales of 1001 nights. As a matter of fact, some of the tales of 1001 nights, it is said, originated in Samarkand (first told in Persian, later translated into Arab).

The city centre has been shaped by Timur who made Samarkand the capital of his large empire and by his successors, above all Ulugh Bek.

Source: “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag 2019, my own photos

 

Samarkand is the capital of Timur around 1400

Timur (1336-1405) made Samarkand the capital of the large empire that he had conquered (see my history blog). His statue stands at the border between the old city centre and the Russian new city that emerged at the end of the 19th century. Busy traffic surrounds Timur, while he sits majestically on his throne.

Not far from here, Timur is buried in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum with the graceful blue fluted cupola (around 1400). It is a double layered cupola (note: Petersburg has a copy of this cupola! – see the post scriptum).

Inside, the bottom of the walls is covered with onyx slabs, the dome is decorated with gilden papier-mache and the niches are filled with stalactite pendentives. Blue banners with inscriptions all over.

Timur is buried in the crypt; the black coffin is his cenotaph. Around him are members of his family and some close companions.

 

Bibi Khanym has her own mosque.; she was Timur’s main wife and a descendent of Genghis Khan

Timur was proud of his main wife, Bibi Khanym, because she was a descendent of Genghis Khan, which allowed him to base the authority of his throne on Mongolian descendance. He convinced the Imams to dedicate the Bibi Khanym mosque to his wife (that was not easy, as mosques are usually dedicated only to men).

The Bibi Khanym mosque is reflected in the window of one of the shops in the pedestrian alley that connects the Registan (see below) with the Bibi Khanym ensemble. The fluted cupola resembles the cupola of the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum.

Around 1400, the Bibi Khanym Mosque was a large scale project of Timur’s. The mosque should be larger than any other Friday Mosque in his empire. Sitting in his sedan, he cheered his workers to hurry up. In 1404 the mosque was completed.

First signs of decay appeared soon, and 200 years later, the Bibi Khanym Mosque was in ruins.

It was reconstructed in the 19th century, after the Russians had conquered Central Asia.

The charming blue cupolas of the Bibi Khanym Mosque made me dream, when sitting on the terrace of the nearby restaurant. Just magnificent.

This is the portal of the mosque in day light…

… with more details – incredible harmony.

The plants are unusual in Islamic architecture.

Behind the Bibi Khanym Mosque is a charming bazar.

My friends buy this jacket (Susani embroidery) for me. It is a thank you for me having guided them through Moscow. Thank you!

 

The Registan, the most elegant square I have ever come across

The Registan ensemble of madrasas is just breath taking… wauuu! This is the most elegant square I have ever seen. The perfect symmetry is called “Kosh principle”. It is interesting to note that the three madrasas have not been built at the same time; there is a difference of 200 years.

To the left is the oldest madrasa, built by Ulugh Bek, the grand-son of Timur. It is from the early 15th century. Ulugh Bek was a scientist, and he was of the opinion that schools are important for his empire.

To the right, the Shirdor Madrasa, has been added in the early 17th century. It shows two tigers chasing does – on their backs are something like suns and heads. This is a rare example of animals and people represented in Islamic architecture.

Last, the Tilya Kari Madrasa was added in the mid 17th century. Both the Shirdor and the Tlya Kari Madrasa are more colourful than the older Ulugh Bek madrasa, as the techniques of producing glazed tiles had improved. The leaders of the local empire of the 17th century were called Janids, and I believe that their vision of this gorgeous symmetric arrangement of buildings was simply ingenious.

The Tilya Kari Madrasa had to be used as the Friday mosque of Samarkand, as after 200 years, the former main mosque, the Bibi Khanym Mosque, was in ruins. This is the golden cupola of the mosque in the Tilya Kari Madrasa.

Also the Shirdor Madrasa has a beautiful cupola.

 

Ulugh Bek, more a successful scientist than a successful ruler

Ulugh Bek was a grand-son of Timur. His empire was much smaller than Timur’s empire and he was more a scientist than a ruler, an excellent scientist.

He assembled the best scientists of the time and they studied the night sky in the observatory, remains of which have been discovered by a Russian archaeologist in the beginning of the 20th century: The sextant was cut into the rock. Its orientation is strictly north-south.

The attached museum shows a model of the former observatory building with the sextant inside.

The sextant allowed Ulugh Bek and his team to determine the exact position of many stars and his unprecedented astronomical map was used by seamen for many centuries, since the 17th century also by Europeans. Ulugh Bek in addition determined the length of the year to be 365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes and 8 seconds, which is about 20 minutes too long (actually: 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds).

The sextant is in this black “tube” and a museum has been added that informs about the achievements of Ulugh Bek and how his scientific work has been received in the world.

 

Shor-i-Sinda – where noblemen around the Timurids have been buried

Shor-i-Sinda is a necropolis or a “city” of mausoleums. It is an amazing maze of blue glazed tiles woven into raw bricks and adorned with muqarna niches as well as with elegant cupolas. Legend tells that a cousin of Muhammad continues to live in a cave under the necropolis; he was decapitated, when praying and retreated to the cave while continuing to pray. Shor-i-Sinda means “the king who lives” (Dumont, p. 213).

The entrance gate has been built under Ulugh Bek, in the early 15th century.

From here, stairs lead up to the centre with the mausoleums.

The mausoleums form a shady small “street”, a charm in blue.

Now I am at the end looking back at the shady small street…

… with the so-called octogonal mausoleum.

Let us look at some details. This cupola is in the Shirnin-Beka Mausoleum.

This is the Muqarna niche decoration of the Shodi Mulk Mausoleum.

This is the entrance to the Kutlug Oko Mausoleum.

And this is the cupola of the mosque at the back of the ensemble of mausoleums.

All just too beautiful!

 

Good-bye Samarkand

In the evening I return to the city centre and the Registan, once all alone and later again with some of my friends.

On the terrace of the Bibi Khanym hotel, we had a good glass of wine from Samarkand, just across the blue cupolas of the Bibi Khanym mosque.

The young personnel of the restaurant was optimistic and full of ideas about how to improve their restaurant; together with them I thought about how to improve the English and French menu list that they had translated from Russian to English and French using google translate. The results were interesting and the guests from France and England were happy to get additional explanations, before choosing their dish. I enjoyed the hospitality of this place and I laughed with the personnel and with the other tourists.

Yes, Samarkand IS worth the trip to Central Asia. I am happy to have fulfilled this dream of mine – maybe I will return one day to enjoy the blue cupolas once more and to explore more of the Afrosiab (where ancient Marakanda was located) as well as the Russian new city and the wine culture. May there soon be opportunities again to travel and to enjoy travelling!

 

Post-Scriptum: Samarkand in Petersburg?

Samarkand is also present in Petersburg! The fluted cupola of this mosque, built from 1909 to 1920, has been designed after the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand. Always, when in Petersburg, I visit the mosque (see my blog of 2017).

The architect Wassiljew has designed this mosque and the workshop of P.K. Vaulin has produced all the tiles and the cupola using the Central Asian technique that is called “Majolika” in Russia (DU, Heft Nr. 12, 1998, p. 56). NOW I understand, why the Russians built this mosque reminding them of Samarkand; Samarkand was part of the Russian empire and the Russians invested a lot to renovate Samarkand.

It is coincidence that the grand daughter of P. K. Vaulin, Anna Vaulina, was my Russian teacher at Basel – for more than 30 years (until 2008). Samarkand is completing the circle.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018, Sanjeev Mehan, “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019 and various wiki entries.