What we know.
Skeleton Coast. Diamonds. Walvis Bay. Kalahari.
We cross into a country we know sweet Fanny Adam about. Our bible has twenty-eight pages covering a daunting landmass. Armchair travel programmes conjure up visions of wilderness where little skinny men called Bushmen run for days under the blazing sun with their quivering spears to get a meal. White beaches littered with rusting ship hulls and diamonds. Merciless desert, Sidewinder adders, Scorpions, and Beetles, Elephants, Oryx and Zebra, that has developed ingenious methods of conserving moisture and slating their thirst.
The border asphalt peters out and the lush irrigated fields of yesterday give way to the stark beauty of a gasping land percolating under a hot sun. On our left is the Skeleton coast with the loneliest beaches in the world washed by the cold Benguela Current. To our right is the longest never-ending expanse of sand in the world the Kalahari Desert. In front the oldest Desert in the world the Namib one thousand nine hundred km long with an annual rainfall of 2 inches. All in all the perfect blending of rock sand and sea.
Our progress is under surveillance from the top of tar weeping electric poles. Is it an eagle, a buzzard, a kestrel, a falcon, or a hawk? It is time to invest in a bird book. Without coming across one human all day we arrive in Ai-Ais at the southern end of Fish River Canyon. A small hot water thermal oasis set in a desolate rock- strewn landscape of the Huns Mountains. Under the lofty peaks of red rock the combined pale muddy waters of Orange River (South Africa largest with its source in Lasotho) and the seasonal Fish River have cut out a canyon second to the Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona. Well over one hundred mile long, it is wide and deep, with views that have been around for thousands of years.
Pitch no 67 in the camping grounds is fortuitously out of sight of the large ugly gray hotel that makes no effort artistically to compliment the beauty of the area. A swim confirms that here is no way one would spot a snake or anything else in the orange water. The very mention of snakes has the girls under our shower to cool off before dinner. Next day while the girls relax in the sun I make a sortie along the riverbank up into the canyon. Normally the eighty kilometer/ four to five-day hike starts at the other end when the river is dry, and requires one to have a medical cert of fitness and to sign an indemnity form more to do with dying from heat than water. After the tenth of just around the next bend I decide the quickness way back snakes or no snake is in the soup. What took five hours of clambering up takes less than twenty minutes on my back to arrive back to my starting point?
Williwaw begins our climb out of Ai-Ais in the cool of the early morning sun. The Hunsberg Mountains shadows fast disappear as our dust trail lingers in the still air. We surface onto the Huib Hochplato Plateau and follow the canyon wall to Hobas where according to the Bible the most spectacular views of the Canyon are to be had. At high noon in searing heat we look down into the depths of thousands of years of aquatic carving. Its immense antiquity is lost on us. There is an atmosphere of menace imparted by the heat wobble trapped within the canyon and the orange color of the river waters. The view is not African in its true sense. Not a blade of grass or tree for miles. It is the water that is phony with its surroundings. No matter we are moved by the majesty of nature. I appreciating once more that nature is the great equalizer whether it be water, sand, ice or wind.
Leaving the canyon we skirt the largest restricted area called the Sperrgebiet, the Forbidden Zone, or Diamond Area #2 in the world. A large hunk (200-kilometer) of the Namib-Naukluft national park is encircled by razor wire. I remember reading in the Geographical Magazine about some English bloke who traveled through up this area on camel back. I am sure he watched the ground for all that glittered.
Unfortunately for him he was shadowed all the way, just in case he swallowed a star of Africa. Ignoring the lure to go and have a look for ourselves we swallow our first piece of game meat in a restaurant in Keetmanshoop before camping in its municipal campsite also behind razor wire. (Pitch No 68) Fortuitously the razor wire cannot keep the stars out. Never the less our departure is delayed with several visits to the throne of knowledge. After which none of us are any the wiser whether it was Springbok, Steenbok, Gemsbok, Impala, Dikdik, Bushbuck, Duiker, or just plain Antelope that had changes the texture of our spoors.
(Top TIP: Diarrhea in this part of the world is almost impossible to avoid. Bring Lomotil. Drink lots of purified water. Keep a few empty bottles of Sprite or Coke so you don’t have to pay a deposit on the bottles you buy. Bottles are scarce in Africa.)
Stomachs rumbling we are once more immersed into the empty wilderness of Namibia. (Literally meaning nothing)
Passing the finger of God we follow the Fish River north to Hardap Dam our turning point to Walvis Bay. Turning due west at Mariental we arrive at the gates of the dam attached game reserve. The Gamekeeper relieves us of 79 Namibian dollars confirming that the wide-open spaces don’t come for naught. “Yes their are animals to be seen.” “There are four black rhino last spotted on there release back in 1990.”
We pitch No 69 in our designated spot. The camping center has a few purpose-built lodgings that pay their surroundings no effort to harmonize. A small island covered in white confirms a popular site for the dam lake Pelicans. Once more with the odd feather friend we have the place to our selves. It is obvious that the rhino are fabrication of the mind’s eye so morning see us packing up early and leave long before the rising sun.
The Naukluft Park is truly a topographical dry land of stone and sand carved by water and wind covers over 49,000 square kilometers. It presents a totally different experience from traveling in the bush. Not a patch of cultivation in any direction where the fragrances of a flowering plant can travel of miles> where lizards stand on two legs in order to allow the suspended legs to cool after contact with the hot desert sands. Very few have trod here.
We stop at Sesriem to visit its small canyon named after the small Kuiseb River. This one turns out to be more like an earthquake crack. Only a mile long and six feet wide its hundred foot high walls give us much welcome shade for a few hours.
We arrive at Sossusvlei camping site after a day’s dusty drive to beat all vacuum hovers with Doubting Thomas moments to beat the ban.
Pitch No 70 is somewhat questionable, not due to the fact that there is no official camping site in the Sossusvlei, but more to do with the waxing lyrics of our Bible, “You will never see anything quite like this.” With no reservation we are banished to a spot out in the blazing sun. What we see from our unshaded swirling dust windswept campsite, is the start of another ugly tourist building – a very large tree situated on the other side of the barrier blocking the road. Unknown to us sixty kilometers further down this road waits what only can be described as a landscape that takes our breath away. The Namib-Naukluft Park grew to its present size over a period of ninety years. Today it is almost the size of Belgium and Wales. A Permit is required to enter which is obtainable in Sesriem. (Top TIP: Firewood and water are expensive at Sesriem so bring your own, and deflate you tires before setting off.)
It’s three a.m. when Williwaw comes to life. Under the Milky Way we trundle down the dirt track leaving an apricot bank of drifting dust. Darkness throws itself at our bouncing headlights and spots while the sand muffles our sound. By the time we come to the end of the track, dawn is hinting in the wing mirrors. There is a sense of deep peace as if everything is preparing itself for the day’s heat.
What unfolds before us is a landscape shrieking with the beauty of contrast. Our European culture has ill prepared us for this. The air starts to quiver with the first rays of the sunlight. All the shadows begin to shrink. Trapped in clear turquoise water of the lake is the biggest sand dune in the world.
(Top TIP: Early morning or late evening is the best for photography.)
From under a large acacia tree, which is in full foliage, we watch our shadows recede like the incoming tide across the cracked surface of the saltpan. The curving symmetrical edges of the dunes cut sharp clear lines in the blue sky and the water mirrors. Our footsteps crunch and crackle on the baked surface of the receding waters of the saltpan. The long curved scalpel dune 45 Photo Opportunity has a bewitching draw. Standing at 300 meters it is said to be the tallest in the world. I might not make it to the top of Everest in my lifetime but I am going to be king of the castle.
At the first sidewinder bend I say adieu to the girls. Two hours later after one-step backward for every two forward I sit on the top. The panorama views of the mountains in the distance, purple in color, kissed by red sand at their base and iced up their gullies with gold and white sand is rewarding beyond words. The ‘Piece de Resistance’ is however a solitary Oryx (Gemsbok) standing in the valley below me. The Gemsbok bye the way has a built-in radiator. It is moments like this one finds oneself reflecting on life. We humans are taught to think that we can be master of our destiny. Scientists may well in the future remodel man. However I fear that the destruction of their natural world, and its ecosystems never mind wars, and the urge to reproduce will wreak havoc.
Looking back down the leading edge my footsteps trace the slog up. The quickest way down is the slip side. It is steep and the slightest foot pressure sends small avalanche of sand on its way to the mosaic of white tiles of the dry pan below. With each giant step the sand flows in front of my boots. I hit the deck in three minutes flat. Not a trace of the Oryx or my descent is visible. Petrified trees decorate one section of the pan. Deformed twisted trunks and branches witness to there stop start once existence.
Rejoining the girls the voices of the first humanoids to arrive down the track breaks the porcelain of our natural surroundings. Their voices in the distance remind me of the virtual world — the new inhospitable surroundings in which our children will roam without any maps. On arriving back to our campsite all efforts to get the park ranger to use his initiative to allocate us a new site away from a thumping generator and into the shade of one of the many unoccupied sites fails. The decision is made we will move on in the morning.
TOP TIP: There is a saying that the early bird gets the worm. This applies very much in Africa. Apart from the obvious advantage of beating sun up early morning gives sharpness to hearing sounds, avoids the shimmers, and energy levels are high.
Dawn brings a total contrast in our surroundings. Vast gravel plains, distant mountains, scrub, and our first Welwitschia a dinosaur of botany named after Friedrich Welwitch an Austrian Botanist. Darwin described it as “ the platypus of the plant kingdom.”
Why? Your speculation is as good as ours. Apparently they are unique to Namibia with some of them a thousand to two thousand years old. As far as we are concerned they sure picked one hell of a hostile place to grow their wind torn long green leathery leaves. Leaves been the operative word as they have only two leaves.
Fifty odd clicks from Walvis Bay disaster. Williwaw is belching smoke from under her bonnet. First reaction is panic. We all bail out. Opening the bonnet horrors of horrors a small flame. Completely forgetting our fire extinguishers I jump up on Williwaw wing whip out my John Thomas and piss. Success the human sprinkler does the job. It looks like a long walk in the morning for we have not seen another human all day. Our map shows we are stranded at Vogefender Bergs (Birds feathers mountains.) We are just resigning ourselves to our situation when along the dirt track comes a car with a French journalist. Three hours later behind a V8 Ford I am towed into the only Land Rover Agency on the west coast of Africa.
It’s the weekend in Walvis Bay. Nothing moves till Monday. We find a room and curse our luck and Nana Kodie back in Ghana. If he had brought us here on one of his fishing shrimp boats none of this would have happened. All seemed extremely logical at the time. By Monday we have found out that we a prisoners of Walvis. There are no buses, no taxies, no camels, no boats, and no trains. Auto Fliess Land Rovers agent tells us that Williwaws starting motor is fried. They can only source three such starting motors in the whole of South Africa. At 5780 N$ almost a thousand quid sterling never mind that it will take over a week to arrive some radical action is required. I ring Brooklyn Engineering in the UK where I acquired Williwaw. DHL and 3000 N$ solves the rip off price but not our enforced stay.
Our depressing holiday lodging overlooking a Total petrol station brings on a bout of homesickness. It’s not surprising, as Walvis Bay according to some of its locals is a place where one cries twice during your life. Once when you’re a born and again when you leave the dump. The smell of fish processing factories and a perpetual moaning wind that shapes the ever-changing, moving dunes called Soo-oop-wa make the prospects of a prolong stops in Walvis Bay less than attractive. Hazel in the local Chinese’s saves us. She sees the SOS on our foreheads and suggests that we should move to her friend’s house out on the lagoon.
Installed in some luxury things chirp up. Walvis is a mind-numbing hole. Once called Santa Maria da Conceicao (Conception Bay) or Bahia das Bahleas (Bay of whales) in Portuguese it is Namibias only deep-water harbor.
It has one restaurant out on an old wharf owned by one of the many who wants to escape – Danny. On learning that I am a yachtsman he brings us to a yard where he has purchased a partially finished steel hull for 30000 rand.
Some other poor Wally or Walvis went broke rolling his owe steel in an attempt to escape. The hull lies alongside a steel lifeboat, steel motor cruisers all in different stage of rust warping. The vision of Danny welding his way out of Walvis Bay is farcical, but rather than crush his dream I draw a picture of him one day sailing out into the blue yonder. (To join the rest of the rust buckets parked on Namibia’s insurance claims coast.)
We borrow a car from Lorna our new young wealthy Spanish landlady to visit Swakopmund. Namibia’s main get away from it all resort. A short drive to the north we pass large wooden raft platforms of the coast that adds to Walvis Bay aromas when the wind is in the right direction a touch of guano. Swakopmund turns out to be haven compared to Walvis. Small and compact its Germanic cleanliness, and buildings, are surrounded by nature’s timeless work of art sand dunes.
On our return to Walvis my yachting know-how has attracted new attention. Over dinner on Danny’s wharf I am invited to look over an old classic racing yacht of the sixties owned by a South African doctor. This time I find up on blocks totally exposed to the blazing sun a yacht of beautiful lines. Rumoured to have won the Sidney-Hobart in the sixties she is now a sorry sight. Her chances of seeing the open sea are as much as the doctor has in burying the horrors of his time in Angola. After two hours of indulging the doc’s life story I accept an invitation to the yacht club for a brier, and a few beers.
Here we are introduced to Colin and his second wife Kathy. Colin works in one of Walvis Bay fish processing plants. His first wife was one of the founding members of save the desert elephants. Unfortunately she died from kidney failure. It turns out that Colin in his time has trudged for ten years all over Namibia as a prospector for De Beers. He knows the Kaokoland in the north of Namibia like the back of this hand. His eyes sparkle with a deep love for what he describes as one of the worlds last true wilderness. His descriptions of its topographical features, its animals, its birds, its vegetation, and its people are intoxicating.
When he invites me to go crayfish diving with a promise of a fish dinner to best all fish dinners I jump at the invitation.
An early start sees us in the middle of nowhere some thirty miles up the coast from Swakopmund. The sky is cloudless. Gold colored dunes are separated from the sea by twenty feet of flat black rock. I have forgotten my dip in South Africa when my head never mind my balls ached from the cold Benguella current.
The sight of Colin donning a wet suite top brings it all rushing back with a venomous clarity. Also, I have never dived in kelp, which does not help my confidence. Colin, handing me a wet suit top assures me that there is nothing to it. All we have to do is dive down and stuff a few of the blighters in our net bags. Splash. I stand watching his air bubbles. Will I or won’t I test the waters before taking the plunge. It can’t be all that bad. He still has not surfaced. In I go without dipping the toe. Jesus, Mary and fuck me. I gasp for breath. Just my luck he pops up beside me before I can leap out. He dives again. I wait for my heart beat to take on some form of normality. My first attempt to submerge leaves my backside on the surface. He resurfaces. I feel that my mercury has hit rock bottom. He gone again. I make another attempt this time getting down as far as the kelp. Man this is for the birds. I throw the towel in – Colin spends twenty more minutes in the water. He must have antifreeze for blood.
Dinner at his home that evening is as promised. Crayfish, kingfish, octopus, seduces our taste buds. Several hours of marking our map with the best campsites and water holes beckon us to explore one of Africa’s remaining remote regions about 42,000sq km (17 to 20 deg S to 15 deg E) excluding the Skeleton coast. Bordered to the north by Angola, to the east by Owamboland and Etosha National Park. Damaraland to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Colin describes clear pools with terrapins, crocodiles as big a battle ships in the Kunene River. Open golden grassveld areas with fairy circles (circular patches on the soil with no vegetation cover), dry mopean savanna near Sesfontein our point of entry. Natural bathtubs, on the very edge of Epupa Falls.
Vegetation east of the fall that is almost tropical. Python fig with trunks as big as a man’s leg. Ana trees, Palm trees, Hairy Shepard’s tree, animals from the more famous unique desert-dwelling elephants almost on the point of extinsion to Hatmann’s (mountain) Zebra.
He also tells us not to camp in or on riverbeds. They are animal highways in the dry season. Some travel over 80 kilometers to watering holes and don’t take kindly to a blocking tent or whatever. Not to enter a Himba village without asking first. There are burial sites and holy places. Never to walk between the holy fire and their main hut or the holy fire and the cattle pen. The fire is sacred to the Himba who are a semi-nomadic peoples of around 26 tribes each with it own headman. For nearly half a century the Kaokoland has guarded the Himba from outside interference but according to Colin we will be one of the last to see these peoples and what left of their culture. Angola used them as trackers against South Africa in return for cheap booze. Now they are reduced to begging from tourists, exploited by coffee table photograph books what was once a beautiful and simple people are now a sorry sight.
We return in the late hours of the morning to Lorna. Her Stafforshire hounds and her two African gray parrots have the run of the place. The parrots are busy eating the furniture and the joists when not guarding the pantry door. Her Spanish boyfriend Salivdor is crashed out on the sofa oblivious to all. In the morning we are somewhat late surfacing but we are in time to see that Salivdor like most of the place has being pecked clean. The good news is that Williwaw is ready and that we have decided to venture into the Kaokoland for a few weeks.
I visit Colin who arranges a permit. Usually it is a requirement on visit the Kaokoland that one must travel in pairs in case there is a problem. Colin is sure we will not have a problem if we go it alone. I pick up Williwaw. Bump into Salivdor who is brainless as a wet squib but wealthy. He asks me to give him a hand. He has a Volkswagen combi, which needs a tow to get it started. Twenty minutes later the combi it standing in a pool of oil. Salivdor while being towed in reverse has slammed her into first gear. It is time to hit the road.