Hello travelers, I’m Jo Frances Penn and in today’s episode, I talk to Angelina Kalahari about Namibia in southwest Africa. We recorded the interview a few months back as I tend to batch my interviews and so it was well before the coronavirus changed our perspective on world travel.
But perhaps in difficult times, it’s good to hear about interesting places and people and travel in our imaginations. Those of us with wanderlust are staying indoors under lockdown right now and I must admit to sitting down with my photo albums the other night, looking at past travels and wondering at how much I have taken for granted.
Angelina is wonderfully enthusiastic about her beloved Namibia, a country that I have dreamed of ever since I heard about the Skeleton Coast, I think from Clive Cussler in the book of the same name. We talk about the landscape and how the deserts and ocean shore shape the country, as well as its history with Germany and how that impacted the people who live there.
Angelina Kalahari is the author of Under A Namibian Sky, as well as other novels and nonfiction books about voice. A former operatic soprano, professional actress, and stage director, Angelina was born in Namibia and now lives in London.
- Language origins in Namibia
- The different ecological regions of the country including the Kalahari desert
- Why the Namib desert sunsets are the best in the world
- The Skeleton Coast where the sand roars
- German influence on culture, language, and architecture as well as the darker times of colonialism
- Food and drink including Namibian beer
- Africa as a ‘possessive mistress’
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Angelina Kalahari is the author of Under A Namibian Sky, as well as other novels and nonfiction books about voice. A former operatic soprano, professional actress, and stage director, Angelina was born in Namibia and now lives in London.
Angelina: Hi. It’s lovely to see you. Thank you for having me, and also talking about Namibia.
Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show.
First up, tell us about your background and also your travel background because you’ve moved around a lot.
Angelina: I have yes. I was born in Namibia on a farm, which is probably the best place in the world to be born. Because it’s wide-open spaces and skies, and warm people and exotic animals.
I was one of those people who I got to play with Bushman children and learn survival skills. So that was good. And then eventually, I went to Cape Town to school at Cape Town University.
And you’re right, I worked as an operatic soprano for most of my life. I did training theater and as an actress and stage director as well. And I did use those skills eventually. But first and foremost, I sang. And I did travel all over the world. I was so lucky, I sang in the most amazing venues you can think of.
I won’t bore you with the details because there are lots and lots of countries I can talk about, but we want to talk about Namibia, don’t we? But I will briefly say that I lived in Hong Kong for eight years and that allowed me to also travel in the Orient and to places I would never, ever have gone hadn’t I lived in Hong Kong.
So that was amazing. So that’s my background. It was mostly work-related, my travel. I love traveling for holidays. But it’s quite difficult when, at that time, working, working, working because I’m sure people realize that when you’re performing, there’s only so much energy you have.
And although I often tried to stay behind, take a few days and stay behind after a show I didn’t get to do all the touristy things as much as I wanted to. I tried, and I did lots of it, and I took loads of photos and have amazing memories, but still, my favorite place to visit is Namibia when I get a chance. I love going to Cape Town. I love Venice with a passion.
Joanna: I’ve done a couple of episodes on Venice actually.
When did you move to London?
Angelina: Oh, many, many years ago, but I didn’t stay here. So I moved here, I think, 1985, that gives you an idea how old I am, but then I didn’t stay here all the time. It was my base, but I moved and lived in other countries and then moved back and moved to other countries and moved back. I think I’ve finished moving now. I’m done.
Joanna: We will circle back to that idea. But let’s start with coming back to Namibia. A lot of people might not know where Namibia is.
Can you explain where it is and some of the main regions and cities so people get orientated?
Angelina: Okay. I have to say Namibia is three times the size of England, of the U.K., just so people know kind of how big it is. But it only has a few million people living there so it is empty. And it is south of Angola, west of Botswana, and north of South Africa. And its western coast is the sea. It’s the Atlantic Ocean.
So it’s very cold. You can’t swim there, but people do. I think they’re nuts. But yes, so that’s kind of where it is.
The capital city is Windhoek and it’s in the middle of the country geographically, and then you have bigger towns. Windhoek is actually the only city in the country. There are no other cities. There are bigger towns, but they are small. And Windhoek itself is a tiny, tiny city, much, much smaller than even Cape Town if you’ve been there.
Bigger towns would be Keetmanshoop, which is in the south. And then you get Swakopmund and Walfish Bay and in the west and Tsumeb in the north and Gobabis in the east. I think Walfish Bay is still the main port area at the moment.
So that’s where it is and those are the biggest towns that you can go to. But like I said, it’s quite spread out and you can travel for miles and miles and hours and hours and not see another person or another car.
Joanna: I’m going to ask you about the language now because Windhoek, which I was pronouncing as it’s spelled, Windhoek, because the V and the W.
What’s the language background? Is it Afrikaans like South Africa?
Angelina: It’s an amalgamation of lots of different languages. As you probably know, it used to be a German colony in the 1800s for a long period of time, so a lot of the words are German.
But there’s also a lot of Bushman words, Nama words. There are about 12 main tribes and there are about 30 languages spoken in the country altogether. There are lots of different little tiny dialects and stuff. Afrikaans is one of them, and English, but yes, it’s mostly German and Afrikaans, I would say, were the official languages for a long, long time.
Joanna: And then you mentioned the vast spaces and that you can go without seeing people. In my head is the desert and you have Under a Namibian Sky as part of the Desert Love series. So clearly, you love the desert.
Tell us about the desert in Namibia.
Angelina: The desert is astonishing. Here’s the thing. Most of the country is desert or semi-desert. So you have the Namib Desert, which is on the West Coast, but it’s almost all of that side is either the Namib Desert and then it goes into the Skeleton Coast. And then on the other side, you have the Kalahari Desert, which is not really a desert in the true sense of being a desert because it has rainfall and it has vegetation. And when it rains, the smell is amazing.
But so to get back to the Namib Desert, that is the oldest, driest desert in the world, and they think it’s between 50 and 80 million years old. You can imagine. It looks dead. It looks like nothing grows there, nothing happens there, but actually, it’s full of life. There’s a lot of life there.
If you are patient, you can see it. There are insects, obviously, and lizards and birds and lots of animals, and if you are patient and you wait, you will see them. So you will see the gemsbok and springbok and kudu and giraffes. And if you’re very lucky, you’ll see elephants. If you’re very, very lucky, you’ll see lions.
The desert is amazing because it is vast. It’s red, the dunes are sort of an orange-red and it always makes me wonder if Mars looks like that. Because there are other parts in Namibia that people call moon landscape. So yeah, but that’s something else.
The desert is sand, most of it is sand. There are rocky paths, but very little, it’s mostly sand. The dunes are enormous. You can climb them. But I don’t know if you’ve ever tried climbing.
Joanna: It’s very hard work climbing a dune.
Angelina: You have to be really fit. It’s much easier coming down because you can slid down, which you can’t do with a normal mountain.
It’s silence. The silence is the thing that hits you the most. It’s profound. It steals your soul. It puts things into perspective. It makes you feel small and big at the same time.
The sunsets in the desert is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, really. And I’ve traveled the world, I can honestly tell you, the sunsets there are amazing, absolutely amazing. And because there’s no light pollution, at night, you see the sways of the Milky Way in a way that you can’t see anywhere else.
And the moon, I know the moon isn’t bigger anywhere else, but it looks enormous. It fills the sky, it feels like you can just touch it, especially when it’s full moon, it’s incredible. So to me, the desert is the place of my soul. I will always return to that. And when things get really tough, I take time out, and I go sit in it. I just sit there.
Joanna: I love deserts too, but I’m not going to just go drive out in the desert and sit there.
Are there companies or places that people can go where they can experience the desert, but in a way that they’re safe as a tourist?
Angelina: There are many lodges around the desert, many. There are specific places, though. People most probably know Sossusvlei, which is another desert near really big dunes and Deadvlei.
Deadvlei, I think people have seen lots of pictures of that, it’s sort of a white soil with dead trees and then these huge orange sand mountains around it. And near there are many lodges and chalets and luxury camping things that you can visit. But there are small towns all along where you can go, they’re far apart, takes hours to get to them, but there are so many of them and they offer different kinds of things.
Some of them are very basic. If you like camping, just camping, that happens. There are luxury camps. There are proper rondavels, which is the round structured buildings that people can stay in. And rondavels are more a native type of building with straw roofs and stuff.
So there are those kinds of things. There are enormous amounts to do as well. People think of the desert as just this, as I said, empty, nothing happens, whatever. It’s not true. In fact, in Deadvlei, it’s been used in a lot of movies, a lot of films, and I think the last one was Mad Max or something.
And although it brought in a lot of money to the country, people freaked out because they were thinking they were destroying the ecosystem of the desert kind of thing.
So all along the desert, and even in the Kalahari Desert, there are little lodges here and there. And the lodge in Under a Namibian Sky, which is the main character of the series actually, is a real lodge situated in the Kalahari Desert.
Joanna: Oh, wow, fantastic.
Joanna: That’s cool. So the other thing you briefly mentioned the Skeleton Coast, and the phrase just brings up in your mind all these crazy things.
Explain why is it called the Skeleton Coast and what is there?
Angelina: The Skeleton Coast is an amazing place, and the reason it’s called the Skeleton Coast is because it’s very turbulent, the seas there, and there’s a lot of fog.
That whole area, it stretches from the north of the country right down to almost near Walfish Bay, it’s a really long stretch of the coast. And it’s usually, not always, but mostly enveloped in this thick fog and with the turbulent seas, I think that’s why a lot of boats used to or ships used to shipwreck on the beach there.
You can still see those shipwrecks from a long, long time ago. Some of them are partially buried under the sand. And they’re old, really old. You can also see whales. When whales have beached, you can still see the bones and everything. So it’s like a really eerie, weird place. And what makes it even weirder is if you run on the sand, it roars, it roars, it’s the only place where it releases air between the sand…
Angelina: …grains, yeah, and it roars. It’s the most bizarre sound you can ever imagine. But as you go more north and into the Skeleton Coast, right to the top of the country.
To me, that’s the last wilderness still in the world because there’s nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing. And it’s weird because the local people used to call that whole area the land that God made in anger because it is such an austere and inhospitable place, and yet people love going there.
It’s also very strange. If you walk inwards a little bit away from the sand from the sea and the beach, you find the weirdest rock formations. Sort of weird, scary, fairy tale castles. They are bizarre. And if you’re there on your own or just with a few people, it’s very spooky. Now some people love all that. Some people run away.
Joanna: I think it sounds great.
Angelina: It’s wonderful. I love it personally. That’s why I love it so much. But it wasn’t always called the Skeleton Coast. There was a gentleman many years ago, he wrote a book called The Skeleton Coast, and that’s why it became very popular, it talked about true events of this shipwreck there.
And, obviously, people tried to rescue the people who survived, and it stuck in people’s minds. And I think the reason it’s stuck is because it’s true, when you go there, it absolutely is the Skeleton Coast, not just because of the skeletons but also these weird rock formations and weird, sort of, I don’t know, it’s really strange to explain how it looks. To me, as I said, very weird, scary, fairy castles.
Joanna: The name Skeleton Coast always brings up, in my head, and I’ll put some in the show notes and pictures of the shipwrecks and things. But I did want to ask you because you mentioned the German colony and since we’re talking about darker events, Namibia was this German colony in the 19th century. And there were some difficult things that happened, as has happened in many countries under colonialism.
How does that German colonial period impact the country today in terms of any places that remain or any attitudes to Europeans?
Angelina: That’s a very good question, actually. It’s interesting because, as I said earlier when we talked briefly about language, German was one of the official languages many years ago. And weirdly, it still kind of is and there are still people who speak German as their home language.
The German influence on the country hasn’t really abated. It’s still there very much so. In Windhoek, you can see it for sure. There’s a lot of German architecture still in the buildings, although the city is growing, it’s becoming more modern. And so as buildings are being built, it’s no longer in that style.
But if you go down to, for example, Swakopmund, which a lot of people go, especially if they want to access the Skeleton Coast because you can fly with a little plane across the Skeleton Coast from there, there’s a lot of German influence there.
There’s a lot of German architecture, a lot of food restaurants, it’s still very, very German and then a lot of people speak German there still, no other language, German. And Lüderitz, which is a little bit further south, is a German town and that has a dark, dark history.
Behind Lüderitz was the first diamond field, a town that was developed, it’s called Kolmanskop. It’s now a ghost town because people left and they’ve had lots of TV documentaries about it and the sand is sweeping into the houses and stuff. But that was very German type architecture. Lüderitz itself is very German, even today.
And then a little bit further south, there’s another little town called Aus. Now, there’s a lot of German words still in the language, a lot of German names still in the towns, what the towns are called, German words.
But it’s weird because in schools, it’s almost like they’re trying to eradicate that part of history. And yet, such terrible things happened because near Lüderitz was an island called Shark Island. It’s still there, but it’s now a peninsula. And that was where a really bad concentration camp was situated.
Even the guards, the German guards, used to call it the death camp because people just never came out of it if they were sentenced there, and so it’s a very dark place. And if you go there, and a lot of people want to experience all these weird things that happened, of course, and we mustn’t forget it, then sort of, it’s got a very weird atmosphere. You feel it when you there is.
It’s like the rocks talk to you, kind of thing. But here’s the thing about the architecture. I’m just quickly telling you this, it’s Victorian. It’s not modern German. And so is the language, it’s not modern German. So if you speak Namibian German, and you go to Germany, they’ll laugh at you.
Joanna: It’s really old-fashioned.
Angelina: Yes. But here’s the thing, I think because it’s not really being taught as history in schools, people are trying to forget it and a lot of the youth don’t know this history. And so their attitudes towards German…there’s a lot of Germans still living in Namibia and many of them still go on holiday.
I think partly the reason, it’s quite an expensive country, can be an expensive country to visit is because it’s still attached to the Deutschemark. It’s not their economy, it’s more connected to South African, but I think because of the German connection, it’s still there. And funny enough, the only direct flight from Europe to Windhoek is from Frankfurt.
Joanna: Oh, interesting.
Angelina: But the people there, they don’t seem to hold any grudges. They certainly are very open and inviting. It’s a very warm country, not just hot in terms of temperature. And the people are warm, warm and friendly and helpful. And I think it’s because they’re not very many there. And they see someone they go, ‘Oh, hi, you’re another human being.’
Joanna: You mentioned some of the bushpeople. And obviously, there’s the white European Namibians. Because obviously, those concentration camps, I read there were thousands of native people were killed in that period. What’s the percentage of racial mix?
Angelina: Two tribes were nearly completely wiped off the face of the earth, nearly because there are some left, but very few, very few and they have never really, I don’t think, recovered as much.
That’s an interesting question because Namibia thrives on tourism. So you often find a lot more Europeans on holiday there and some crazy guys who bike across the country, crazy, but anyway.
But people who live there, I think the European white population is in the minority, clearly, because as I said, there are so many other tribes, but they don’t necessarily live in the towns or the cities. A lot of them live in Windhoek, yes, but most of them, they’re nomadic, many of them are still nomadic. They live this life where they pack up their things and move on and pack up the things and move on. So, I don’t know if that answers your question.
Joanna: Yes, it’s definitely still a mix.
Angelina: It’s definitely a mix. Yeah.
Joanna: Food and drink are always an important part of travel.
What type of food and what should we be drinking when we’re in Namibia?
Angelina: Oh, beer, Namibian beer, definitely without question.
Joanna: Is that like a lager type beer or an ale?
Angelina: No, it’s lager. It’s a lager type beer but they brew it there, and it’s amazing. I’m not really an alcohol drinker type person, but whenever I go there, beer, it has to be, it’s the most amazing taste. It’s wonderful.
And here’s the thing, we don’t really have pubs like we have in England there. People entertain a lot more at their homes. So parties happen all the time. And people have no concept of distance because the country is so vast. So they think nothing of driving four hours to go to a party, and then four hours home again. That’s nothing, that’s just going to party, right.
The Namibians are meat-eaters. I’m sorry for the vegans and vegetarians out there and all the other, Namibians eat meat and they eat all kinds of things. So snakes, insects, kudu, game, basically. And because the weather is always amazing, usually…although some of the thunderstorms are amazing, they sort of have those many, many pointed thunder and lightening things.
Joanna: Lightning bolts?
Angelina: Yes, brilliant. But that doesn’t happen very often. Mostly we have barbecues, we call them braai. So everybody has a braai. And you have them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you want to, and basically, it’s meat, it’s all meat-based, which is hilarious to me now because I can’t believe that I used to do that.
They have salad-type things with it, but it’s really, most people just go, ‘Yeah, right, whatever.’
And then the other thing that they usually eat with it, and this is going to sound even more bizarre to people who’ve never been there, it’s something called pap. Now, to us normal people, it’s like porridge and you have it for breakfast. They don’t. So it’s a kind of maize meal thing that you mix with water and you boil it and put some salt in it. They have that with their meat.
Further inland, people have what they call potjiekos, it’s like a little pot and they put everything in, so it’s like a stew, I guess, but pap goes with the stew. And then on the coast, there’s obviously mostly seafood.
Joanna: It’s funny because I went to school in Malawi for a bit.
Angelina: Oh, wow.
Joanna: And I remember potjiekos, and I think the equivalent was called nsima, which was like a maze porridge-y thing.
Angelina: Yes, right.
Joanna: I think these staple vegetable things with stew, they have that in every culture, right? Just a different name.
Joanna: Fantastic. So, I did want to ask, you know, sort of coming back to what you said at the beginning like, ‘I think I’ve stopped traveling.’ So you’re African, Namibian, but you live in London.
Joanna: What is home to you? What do you miss of Africa? Now you’ve made a home in London what are you missing?
Angelina: That’s a very good question and one that I’ve been thinking. People ask me this often, so I do think about it quite a bit. And it’s difficult because actually, I see myself as a citizen of the world.
I’m based in London, yes, and my heart will always belong in Africa. And since you went to school in Malawi, you probably know this.Africa is a possessive mistress. Once she has you in her grip, she will hold you forever.Click To Tweet
You can’t really escape her, she will always pull you back.
But I’ve experienced amazing places around the world and to me, the earth is where I feel I belong. I was talking about Mars earlier on, and I don’t think I’ll ever go there, even if I could. It’s too scary. It’s too far away. I’d rather stay here.
But what do I miss?
The culture, obviously, is very, very different. I’ve been away from it, living in other countries for long enough to know that I’ll probably never be able to understand their sense of humor anymore. Because when we move away from the place that you called home once upon a time and you embrace another culture, you only understand that you’ve moved away and become a stranger when they tell you jokes and you don’t get it any longer.
That happened to me about five years ago, I went there and people were telling jokes and I thought, ‘Okay, they’re all laughing. This is meant to be funny and I can’t understand why.’ That was very sad to me. It freaked me out.
So those are the things I miss. I miss my family, obviously. I am in touch with them all the time, but not physically. They’re not in my physical presence. So I do miss that. I miss the desert. I miss the silence, the open spaces, the clean air, able to just relax and breathe.
It’s a different way of living. It’s slower than here. There’s hardly any stress unless you put some on yourself, which let’s face it, if you’re self-employed you do anyway. But I think that’s it.
And although I don’t like the heat, I miss the sun, the relentless sun, and I miss the wildlife. I miss the sounds. People sometimes ask me, what do I feel is the sound of Africa? And I have to say it is, for me, the fish eagle, the cry of the fish eagle. That, to me, is the sound of Africa.
I recently discovered that it is now the official bird of Namibia. So they must feel the same way as I do. I didn’t know this until about three months ago someone told me. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, well there you are.’
Joanna: Oh, that’s lovely. I was also going to ask about because obviously, you travel home to Namibia or you travel back to Namibia, but you also write about other places for your book.
What does travel mean for you in your writing? And do you travel for inspiration?
Angelina: I used to, yes, I used to. One of the places I wanted to travel to and I got an opportunity to do so was in New Orleans because I’m a complete major fan of Anne Rice and her books.
Joanna: I’ve done a show on New Orleans. [Click here for the episode on New Orleans.]
Angelina: I have to check it out. I love New Orleans with a passion. I’ve always wanted to go and then I got this opportunity to go and I was like oh, I was so excited.
Before I left, I actually emailed her, I found a website and I emailed her. I thought, oh, she’s probably not going to even see this. But I emailed her and I said, ‘Thank you so much for being courageous enough to get Lestat out there,’ because I love her character Lestat and I know that she tried really hard to get it out there, and she succeeded.
And to my amazement and very excitement, she responded. We had this conversation for probably about half an hour of emails going back and forth. And then I blew it all. My last e-mail I went, ‘I’m such a fangirl.’ And she stopped. Okay, that was too far.
Joanna: A step too far. That’s fantastic.
Angelina: Oh, dear.
Joanna: Talking of books, apart from, obviously, we’ve got your own book, Under a Namibian Sky.
Give us a couple of other books that are about Namibia or set in Namibia or Africa that you would recommend.
Angelina: Sure. I’ll just quickly say yes, Under a Namibian Sky is set in Namibia. And then there’s like a little novella that’s a follow-up on that one because my readers asked for it. And that’s not set in Namibia, it’s set in Italy. But I am writing the next one right now, it’s called Heat in the Desert.
We talked earlier on about Shark Island a little bit. I’ll just say this, I’m not writing about Shark Island in this book, but the main character has to navigate his life as a result of what his forefathers did in Shark Island. So it’s sort of kind of like that. But anyway, so I’m just writing that.
I’ve got several books here that I love reading and rereading. They’re a bit older, but I think you can still get ahold of them and most of them I think are only available in hardback. So there’s one, it’s called The Healing Land: A Kalahari Journey, and it’s by Rupert Isaacson.
It’s the story of the Bushmen and how they’re navigating their ancient traditions in our modern world. It’s a brilliant book.
And one of my favorites, and people probably know this book really well, is A Walk With A White Bushman, by Laurens Van der Post. It is inspiring, it’s profound, and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’ve not read it.
And then this book, probably everybody knows, but it’s one of my favorites, it’s The Long Walk to Freedom. It’s Nelson Mandela’s riveting memoir. And it was interesting because while I lived in Hong Kong, I met one of his daughters there. And I’ll never forget this night, we spent the entire night until the sun came up talking about his life, this book, and her experience of him as a father. That was an incredible conversation, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
And then, here’s the book that I’m not sure you can still get this, I have a copy but I don’t know if people can still get this, it’s called The Skeleton Coast by John Henry Marsh. And like I said, it’s a true adventure about a ship that ran aground on the Skeleton Coast. And it’s because of that book that we now call it the Skeleton Coast.
[I’ll add Skeleton Coast by Clive Cussler if you enjoy action-adventure thrillers.]
And then there’s another older but an amazing book by Michael Britan and it’s called Discover Namibia. And the reason I recommend this, and I think you can still get this but again, I think it’s only in a hardback, it has the most beautiful pictures in it and it shows you how unchanging Namibia really is.
It’s an ancient land, and this book takes you almost as a tourist through the entire country. Of course, it doesn’t have all the modern things in it. There’s no eco, sporty type things in it. But there are also part of Namibia where you can’t get mobile phone reception.
Joanna: There’s still parts of England like that.
Angelina: True. I think this book is wonderful because it’s beautifully written, but the pictures, it’s stunning. And he describes it so well, and you do feel like you are traveling without moving when you read that it’s beautiful.
Joanna: Fantastic, well, those are great, and I’m definitely going to check some of these out.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Angelina: Thank you. My website is angelinakalahari.com.
People ask me about my name. I’ll just quickly tell you, Kalahari, people go ‘Oh.’ Well, it was because I was very homesick while I was singing, traveling all over the world and I got really homesick. So I changed my name by deed poll because I was born in the Kalahari Desert, and I thought, well, if I have it as my name, then I’ll feel a bit more together.
It helped, I have to say, so it’s been my name for a long, long time. So angelinakalahari.com is my website and I’m Angelina Kalahari everywhere except on Twitter, which I think it was too long, the name was too long. So it’s @angelinakalhari at Twitter. And my books, well, the romance series you can find on Amazon. And yes, there are other romance books on Amazon as well. But the nonfiction books are wide. So anywhere you want to, you can find them.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time, Angelina. That was great.
Angelina: Thank you so much for allowing me to chat about my beloved Namibia. Thank you so much, Joanna.