Dispatches from the desert

Adventure writer Jenkins returns to Powell to detail 2015 expedition


On assignment in Namibia in 2015, National Geographic adventure writer Mark Jenkins intended to send back a piece about climbing the Brandberg, the country’s highest peak, and documenting the 4,000-year-old rock paintings hidden within the shadows of the granite.

What the Laramie native discovered, however, changed the course of his story.

“I was in southern Africa working in Mozambique, and I had heard about the Brandberg, just through mountaineering circles,” Jenkins said. “So I thought, ‘Geez, I’m already over here, I might as well go over there and try to cover that.’”

Known for its “extraordinarily detailed, fascinating rock paintings,” the Brandberg has an elevation of 8,442 feet; Jenkins’ plan initially was to climb the mountain and explore the artwork.

However, “when I got there, I started realizing the story was bigger than that,” Jenkins explained. “It wasn’t just about rock paintings — it was about water.”

“It’s interesting that many of the paintings are about water, whether it’s carrying water or giraffes and elephants in water,” he said. “I came to realize they’re actually going out of these mountains to find the pools of water.”

At the time of Jenkins’ visit, temperatures were in the neighborhood of 140 degrees; finding water in those surroundings can be difficult. When Jenkins and his traveling companions started out, they were carrying 30 pounds of water; they burned through what they had, but luckily they found a water source.

“We were hot; it was unbelievable,” Jenkins said. “At most we could walk for one hour in the mountains, and then we had to take shelter in the shade and just lay there for an hour.”

After getting what he needed from the Brandberg, Jenkins made his way back to Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek, where, after days in the extraordinary heat, he desired only one thing.

“I just wanted a towering glass of ice water,” he said. “And the woman who served me said, ‘Hey, this is the best water in the world.’ I was like yeah, it’s tremendous.”

Jenkins quickly found out why the woman was laughing: Windhoek is the only capital in the world that fully recycles all its water, from toilet to tap, he said. “But it did taste delicious.”

All of his experiences got Jenkins thinking about Namibia and the Namib Desert that surrounds Brandberg and is the world’s oldest.

“It’s always been super-dry, and the people who first came there 4,000, 5,000, 10,000 years ago were always struggling with water,” he said. “That continues to this day.”

So the story, which began as a search for ancient paintings, became an investigation into why the ancients were up in the mountains in the first place. Water was the answer: Searching for a way to escape the heat, the ancient artists responsible for the wall paintings found pools of water in the caves.

That realization began to drive the narrative of Jenkins’ story, and, eventually, a presentation that he plans to give in Powell on Tuesday evening. As he’s tried to do with previous presentations, Jenkins found a way he could tie his findings into life in Wyoming.

“At some point, we may not be able to meet the downwater needs if California, Arizona and Nevada don’t start recycling their water,” he said. “Currently the plan is to desalinate the water, but as it turns out, desalination uses three times the energy and costs three times as much as treating your sewage water. ... That is the future, and it matters to Wyoming, because if those downstream states don’t start conserving water and recycling water, more water will have to come out of Wyoming. That’s why it matters.”

Having a story to tell

This is the 10th year of the World to Wyoming Tour, sponsored by the University of Wyoming’s Center for Global Studies. The tour visits all seven of the community colleges in the state, as well as making stops in towns like Cody and Jackson Hole. Feedback is always overwhelmingly positive.

“My hope with these presentations is that I’m bringing the world to Wyoming,” said Jenkins, whose wife, Sue Ibarra, hails from Powell. “I’ve had this very lucky life, to be able to travel around the world and write stories. I’ve been to lots of places people in Wyoming may not have the opportunity to see. These shows are a way for me to give back.”

Working on a story like the one that became the backdrop for “A Journey into the Ancient Namib Desert: Rock Paintings, a Vanished People and Water Scarcity,” isn’t always cut and dry; what you have in mind initially always has the potential to go in a completely different direction, yet somehow manage to tie back in to the original concept.

“You go out into the field, and the world surprises you,” Jenkins said. “What you’re expecting is almost never what you get. That’s kind of what happens. ... You learn so much more than you ever could have imagined when you go on assignment, especially for National Geographic. That’s the reason to get out in the world, the reason to get out and travel.”

Jenkins said he hopes the presentation will get the audience thinking about water usage and water conservation, while also recognizing the extraordinary beauty of the rock paintings by a people most would consider “primitive.”

“First is to just kind of marvel at the artistic ability of this ancient people,” he said. “Secondly, to spark a discussion about water scarcity. What’s Wyoming going to look like in five or 10 years? What’s the West going to look like in five or 10 years? That’s what I hope people take away from this discussion.”