Zebras, Sociable Weavers and Oryx in the desert of Namibia
We cross the Orange River, high in flood, passing out of South Africa and into Namibia, a country we know little of. The landscape grows increasingly arid, with the only green swathes provided by the irrigated grape vines along the river. Straw and corrugated workers huts cluster uneasily on the stony ground under the fierce sun. The hills turn barren and rocky, with few trees to provide shade. Sparse tufts of coarse grey vegetation grow along the gravel roads.
We drive into Gondwana Cañon Park, a private nature reserve formed in 1996 to conserve the semi-desert near Fish River Canyon, our destination. The reserve has grown in size to 100,000 hectare, resulting in substantial recovery of the former flora and fauna. It is there that I spot my first African wildlife in its natural environment, Hartmann’s mountain zebras, identified by guide Eddie over the radio.
“Quick, grab the camera,” I whisper in my excitement. They stand grouped together, their black and beige stripes acting as a camouflage against the surrounding grey rocks. They bend their heads and sharp eyes towards us in curiosity, but once they realise our land rovers are no threat, they lose interest and turn away, exposing their photogenic rounded rumps to us.
Fish River Canyon is about 10 kilometres from our evening camp site at Hobas. We stand on the viewing platform, overlooking the vast curve in the river and the immensity of the bare rock landscape. The towering granite faces and deep ravines, fashioned by countess years of water erosion, comprise the second largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon), the largest in Africa and the second most visited tourist attraction in Namibia (after Etosha National Park). The river, in the full flow of late summer, shimmers silver in the early evening sun, winding a deep path through the gorge. We learn that the whole canyon measures 160 kilometres long, 27 wide and over half a kilometre deep.
We watch the sun go down on the horizon behind the canyon, the rays of light stretching across the harshly beautiful landscape. Judy has thought to bring glasses, drinks, cheese and biscuits, and we linger in the growing dark, enjoying our nibbles against the majesty of nature.
Another evening we drive out into the desert to visit the rusted body of an old car, riddled with bullet holes from a dramatic western style shoot-out between a group of diamond thieves and the law. On the way we stop to inspect a whopping sociable weaver nest, hanging like a misshapen bale of hay in a desert thorn tree. Sociable weavers are as common as sparrows in this part of the world. As we look, a Cape cobra snake expertly winds itself up onto a branch, intent on invading the nest. They are known to readily climb trees and bushes, showing agility in robbing birds’ nests such as the sociable weaver. The snake disappears and we are left wondering as to the fate of the miniature occupants of their palatial nest. But that is certainly one snake to avoid, with its venomous poison.
The night sky in the desert is stunning, worth spending time just gazing into the heavens and enjoying the spectacle. Without the competing light of towns and cities, the stars glisten richly against the black velvet sky. It is great to stare at the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and the pot with its handle and realise that it is the same sky that we see on holiday at Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
Sleeping at night is another matter. At first I wonder if we are to get a decent night of rest. It isn’t the camp stretchers or our confining New Zealand sleeping bags which I haven’t used for many a year. It is the livestock and the human element. The first night the roosters in the trees above the nearby bathroom door start crowing to welcome in the dawn from 3.00am onward.
The second night, the overlanders don’t even bother to go to bed, it seems. Worn out, I fall asleep in spite of their noise, and but wake at 1.00am.
“They can’t be still at it,” I mumble into the pillow, trying to drown out their conversation and laughter. I drift off, only to be wakened again by the clatter their saucepans with breakfast preparation about 5.00am. Oh, to be young again and need no sleep. However I suspect they doze through most days of driving, all the way to the Victoria Falls.
In the African context, an overlander is not a train journey or a pair of shoes. It refers to someone who travels in an overland truck between London and South Africa, though today, trips are often limited to southern and central Africa. Once upon a time, they were all young but nowadays they come from all ages, with fewer numbers and perhaps less emphasis on the partying lifestyle. I suspect they may be our constant companions, but we don’t see that much of the trucks and their occupants. We certainly saw no other group like ourselves, privileged to be self-driving in a small group.
As we travel, our pattern is to make our lunch in the morning after breakfast, and to stop somewhere on the side of the road in the middle of the day. We find a shady tree if possible, getting our chairs from the vehicles and relaxing over our food and coffee for half an hour. In Namibia, we are likely to enjoy our lunch in the peace and solitude of our own company. Once we are in Zambia, a group of children materialize from nowhere within about two minutes and stand around, watching our every movement.
If Eddie and Jan know of a pleasant café on our route, we stop and purchase goodies, like scrummy apple strudel, from Namibia’s German heritage. The Canon Roadhouse, with its collection of fascinating old vehicles, and the Seeheim Hotel, built like an English manor house but surrounded by desert landscape, are examples of stopping places.
There in captivity, we see an oryx, also called a gemsbok. The large antelope, with pale grey fur and contrasting dark markings on its face and legs, prefers near-desert conditions and can survive without water for long periods. Like the springbok, numbers of oryx are relatively large, meaning it is not endangered, though in World War 2 days, when the ‘The Sheltering Desert’ was set, there were many more oryx wandering the Namib Desert. When I read Henno Martin’s book, I understood how lethal the long straight horns of the oryx were; for Otto, the dog, was wounded several times from his encounters with them, and was lucky to escape alive.
On our way back from Luderitz, a day later, we call in at the Garub Wild Horses reserve where a number of oryx mingle in with the wild horses, sharing their watering hole. Animals wandering freely in the wild are still a novelty to us and we spend time watching their antics through our binoculars. A trust has been formed to look after the welfare of the Namibian desert horses. Their origin is unclear, though one theory is that they have descended from German military horses from the early 20th century.
Another German relic from the same period is the ghost town of Kolmanskop near Luderitz. A young guide escorts us around the former diamond mining town, some buildings partially restored, others left in their dilapidated state. Rooms half filled with sand from the frequent storms give a neglected and eerie atmosphere to the remains of the town. In the social hall our guide sits down at the piano and sings a piece from a well-known opera and in the freezer room he explains the ice making process, done with factory-like precision. Those Europeans made sure they had all the conveniences of civilized living, even in the desert. We are fortunate to enjoy a calm sunny morning, but can well imagine the gritty sand in your mouth as the wind whips in from the sea.
Down on the coast, with its attractive harbour, Luderitz, by way of contrast, is a modern town; but its German heritage is still evident. There is the old custom house and other fine pre-World War 1 houses, like the former homes of mine and shipping line managers. The church, Felsenkirche, one of the oldest evangelical Lutheran churches in Namibia, has a prominent position on a hill above the town. The German Emperor Wilhelm II himself donated its stained glass windows.
On the deserted road back to our camp site at Aus, Graham and Martin stop to rescue a motorist with a flat tyre and a car full of dogs. She is driving, what to us seemed a vast distance, from her rural desert home to the vet in Luderitz to seek attention for her dogs. Her journey emphasizes the loneliness of the desert, the long distances between settlements, and the accepted inconveniences for the love of a chosen lifestyle.