Moving continent – and back again – in the middle of a pandemic

On 15th November 2020, I finally made it to Namibia. England was halfway through its second national lockdown, but as I was travelling for work, I was permitted to make my way from the Scottish Borders down to London, and get the negative PCR test result I needed to board a flight and enter Namibia, via Frankfurt. I was amazed at how full the second leg was – not a seat left untaken – many Europeans (especially Germans) holidaying to Namibia as one of the few destinations left which is relatively easy to get to (direct flight) and had comparatively low levels of the virus. With a population of 2.5 million, Namibia has a very low population density (the second lowest after Mongolia) which means not only dark skies but also less covid! At the most recent count (14th June), there have been 65,815 cases and 1008 deaths – although cases have been steeply rising in the most recent weeks. 103,605 vaccines have been administered – myself at the receiving end of one of them (AstraZeneca).

Having observed the situation in the rest of the world during these past seven months, life in Namibia has felt like an alternate universe. I’ve been able to travel the country, go camping, stay in lodges and hostels, hang out with people from all over the world, eat in restaurants, and do all kinds of activities (including my first ever skydive!!). The only thing I couldn’t do is go indoors without a face mask and stay out after curfew. I was also very lucky with all the significantly discounted tourism activities, the industry desperate to survive and offering deals left, right and centre to try and entice the locals to partake in activities they would normally never be able to afford.

Very slowly I tried to learn about the very complex history and politics of the country, but I merely scratched the surface. I experienced entirely new perspectives and cultures – in the UK it’s easy to live in a bubble where everyone thinks and votes the same way as you do. But in Namibia, you are constantly meeting people who are different to you in every way. It was always fun to compare numbers of siblings, almost every Namibian I met has ten brothers and sisters, if not more.

Having moved to and lived in several countries so far, I didn’t expect the move to Namibia to be so challenging, or for it to be such a culture shock. Setting things up was an endless source of bureaucratic frustration, in the most extreme case it took me two months to set up a bank account. And the heat. It was unbearable at first, so much so that I spent most of my time indoors. When I ran out of food, I’d force myself to get up extra early to go to the supermarket, still uncomfortably hot and dry at eight in the morning. On the few days that it was overcast, I discovered a newfound freedom to seize the day and explore. Then the rains came (albeit late) and life became considerably easier – not only was it cooler, but everything turned luscious and green which lifted my sprits. I joined the local saamstap (“walk together” in Afrikaans) on a couple of hikes, which meant getting up at 5am on a Saturday to beat the sun, but it was worth it to share in the remarkable joy of grass and flowers with others.

My first Namibian adventure began with a train – as all adventures should. It was my birthday and I took the overnight train from Windhoek to Walvis Bay, a journey which is supposed to take 12 hours but took 18, compared to only four hours by car. The ticket cost 134 Namibian dollars, equivalent to £6.70. By the time the train departed Windhoek, it was too dark to take in the sights. But given the delay, there was still lots to see the next day, observing how the landscape changed from desert to dunes, and seeing firsthand the conditions in which many Namibians live; small homes made out of corrugated iron.

I spent Christmas next to a lighthouse on a peninsula, eating luxurious food and observing the other tourists. I went for a walk on an overcast day and got horribly sunburned, but I suppose I looked the part with my red nose. I signed up for a kayaking activity, and was astonished to see a couple of penguins on the jetty – surely so far away from home? In the end I was glad to leave the fancy hotel, and instead stay in a hostel in Swakop where I could feel more me. I fell in love with the coastal town – undoubtedly due to the strong European vibes – during the five days that I was there. It also felt wonderful to be able to breathe the first fresh air since I’d arrived, and the architecture and the pub with käsespätzle reminded me of Tyrol (Austria). I met a woman who grew up in the same city as me, who now lives and works as a teacher in Ethiopia. We welcomed the New Year together with a skydive and some fluorescent blue bubbly, and I ended up extending my holidays so that we could hang out some more. We rented a car, picked up a German hitchhiker she’d met before she met me, and together we visited Waterberg, some dinosaur footprints, and Bull’s party. It was searingly hot, but great to get out and see some of the sights and the occasional patches of dark skies betwixt the clouds.

Since then, I’ve been on two other short adventures. I visited Etosha with some people I met through Couchsurfing – we struck gold and saw a lion, resting just a few metres away from the road in the grass! For the second adventure I had the pleasure of visiting the H.E.S.S. telescopes and staying overnight – it’s always humbling to spend time at an observatory. In the morning I got up early to join a trip to go up the Gamsberg mountain (2347 m above sea level), the potential site of the future Africa Millimetre Telescope. Getting there is no easy task and costs a significant amount of money – the track is steep and dangerous and so requires the driving expertise of the farmer who lives next-door and his Land Cruiser. Most of us were sat in the back, without seatbelts nor a roof overhead, and I couldn’t help but imagine the vehicle making one false move and us plummeting to our deaths. But we made it up and down the cliffside with only one flat tire in all.

Unfortunately, things took a significant turn for the worse – life handed me one rotten lemon after another, without much hope of making lemonade. Living alone for the first time in my life was more difficult than I anticipated, and making friends was not easy. Then in March I was burgled. My laptop was stolen – I try to be grateful that nothing worse happened. I started counselling to help deal with the anxiety, which was just in time for a greater ruin; my partner of six years suddenly decided that he didn’t want me in his life anymore. My universe turned upside-down and inside-out. I tried to hang on and persevere, but I eventually had to accept that it was all too much and I wasn’t coping, and that I should go home. I hadn’t even planned on returning to the UK at all this year, so it surprised me how much I was looking forward to returning.

I’ve been in the UK since 9am this morning, and I’ll have to spend the next ten days in hotel quarantine as Namibia is a red-listed country due to neighbouring South Africa. But before leaving Namibia, I was extremely fortunate to have a friend come and visit for 16 days (he lives in Switzerland for which Namibia is not red-listed) and together we rented a car and went adventuring! I got to see several places I hadn’t yet seen, and even better, enjoy them in cooler weather as it’s currently wintertime (which also means a better view of the stars due to no cloud-cover). We did a lot of hiking, encountering endless seas of rocks cast against a vast array of landscapes. Big rocks, small rocks, jagged rocks, smooth rocks, red rocks, volcanic rocks, … We consistently ate too much and did things like quad-biking on the dunes, zip-lining and a skydive. I also found a newfound love of driving on gravel roads.

Looking back work-wise, the last year was an exhausting but rewarding one. After rushing to finish my PhD to start the new job in time, I entered a field that is entirely different to what the past ten years of my studies had trained me to do (i.e. astrophysics). Never in my life did I imagine that I would one day be researching tourism! I spent the better part of the year learning about astrotourism, dark sky tourism, light pollution, indigenous astronomy, cultural relations, …, all under the umbrella of sustainable development and often in Namibian contexts. Meanwhile, the shift to online conferences meant that I could give a ridiculous number of talks, while finding more time for writing. I had a go at applying for a Marie Curie Fellowship, published in Astronomy & Geophysics for the first time (Astronomy for development) and won an essay competition with the British Council (Under one sky: astronomy as a catalyst for cultural relations), as well as several proceedings. My contract ends at the end of August, and then for the first time in six years I’ll be taking some significant time off, a break at last! I have no idea what comes next, and as someone who always has a plan (or several) that’s actually pretty terrifying. Here’s to the unknown.

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