Towering sand dunes and desert landscapes
The road north, graveled but mostly well maintained, takes us through a series of wide valleys ringed with rugged mountains. It reminds me of the Maniototo in NZ’s Central Otago, with its arid landscape and sparse vegetation cover. The early morning scenery is fantastic – clear and unspoiled, the eye able to travel to the furthest mountainous horizon against the cloudless blue sky. No other vehicle disturbs our peace by sending clouds of dust into the still air. The road forms a straight dark line across the plain, accompanied by a single row of telegraph poles, where occasionally the sociable weavers have built their nests using old insulators. We see a solitary oryx, then a small herd of springbok, but the vast desert is mainly empty; desert landscape on a grand scale.
But ahead there are signs of human habitation - a lone petrol station and a café. We stop for coffee and Martin talks to a local farmer. His farm is 150,000 hectares in size, with a stocking rate of 40 hectares per cow!
“We are not here for the money,” he assures Martin, “it’s the lifestyle we are after.” Martin regrets that there isn’t time for a longer chat. We begin to meet other vehicles on the road, like a yellow overland truck with ‘London to Cape Town’ splashed on its side. Trucks, large Scania-type rigs with huge hoppers, make their presence felt.
Then a kamikaze South African Toyota Land Cruiser with a trailer behind and a back seat full of children tears past, trying to outdo the springboks. We furiously wind up our windows but it isn’t fast enough to prevent clouds of dust pouring in. Later Eddie makes a sardonic comment about his countrymen and their disregard for the rules of common sense and safety. At the camping ground, he hears of a group of 27 who drove all night from their home near Pretoria to reach their holiday destination in Namibia. He considers night travel, with the possibility of hitting a wandering wild animal, to be very unsafe and he is not amused. Perhaps it is some of the same crowd that passed us in the clouds of dust. In the evening, the large group takes over the bar and Jan has difficulty buying a drink. He also is not amused.
Though it’s all desert, there is variation: a vast plain scattered with tufts of coarse grass across the red and brown earth, grazed by a smattering of cattle and oryx; a smaller valley where the grass grows more lush, the green and white seed heads waving in the breeze, the result of recent rains; rocky red mountains studded with huge boulders and the occasional scrubby trees; another broad plain, this time a brighter green and grazed by goats and cows; a shallow valley heavily dotted with acacia trees, their long lethal thorns a deterrent to any human passer-by.
Infrequent windmills indicate water below the ground and the presence of farming activities. A narrow gauge rail line appears beyond the power line, with here and there a sign board indicating a former railway station, but there are no buildings or habitations.
“Who has lived out here to catch a train or send their products to market by rail?” I wonder. We drive through another conservation park, the NamibRand Private Nature Reserve, one of the largest private nature reserves in the southern hemisphere. Its aim is to develop a sanctuary free of fences, so that the wildlife can once again roam their habitat unhindered. The presence of numerous wild zebra indicates the success of the programme.
It is a long day, 365 kilometres. Once the coolness of the early morning has passed, it is hot and dusty. Our destination is Sesriem Camp Site, just inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park. We are allotted a camping kraal, a circular area ringed by a stone wall in which we can sleep and eat; the stone wall recalls past days when protection from wild animals was necessary.
Judy and I do not need much encouragement when the men offer to put up the tents while we go for a swim in the Sesriem camp pool. Yes, the camps may be rudimentary, but some are civilized enough to have swimming pools, most welcome in the desert heat. Our swim is just a little respite before another journey of 65 kilometres out to the spectacular dunes of the Sossusvlei.
From the Sesriem gate, we take the sealed road, unusual in the desert of Namibia, through the national park and to Sossusvlei proper. Both the road and the salt pan are surrounded by some of the highest dunes in the world, as tall as 325 metres. Sossusvlei roughly means dead-end marsh, ‘vlei’ being Afrikaans for marsh, and ‘sossus’ Nama for dead end. After good rains, which fall on rare occasions, the pan fills with water and become part of the ephemeral Tsauchab River. Another source of moisture comes from the morning fogs that drift in from the Atlantic Ocean, allowing some plant and animal life to exist.
At the end of the sealed road, we continue onto the heavy sand tracks, our 4 wheel drive land rovers allowing us access to the last six kilometres. Much of the white salt and clay pan is covered with sand and there is no evidence of any river. Martin and Graham relish the opportunity to demonstrate to Jan and Eddie their driving expertise in the sand, for the guides have cautioned them to drive slowly and carefully. Martin puts his foot down, speeds up and passes Graham, who snatches at the challenge and overtakes to be in the lead again. The guys are in their element and pleased when it is the heavier guide vehicle that gets stuck in the sand.
The towering sand dunes are impressive. They look as if they are stable and always in the one position, but the customary wind (not blowing on our visit) ensures the landscape is constantly changing. The dunes owe their red-pink-orange colouring to the high percentage of iron in the sand and the consequent oxidation process; the older the dunes, the more intense the reddish color.
While most of us relax at a recreational table with drinks and snacks, Martin climbs a nearby dune and watches some sand boarders trying to gather up courage to whizz down a steep slope. The setting sun deepens the burnt orange and golden red hues of the dunes and I take out my camera yet again. Eddie warns that we must be out of the national park before dark and we reluctantly pack up and return to the vehicles. We pass Dune 45 again, so called because it lies 45 kilometres beyond Sesriem. ‘The most photographed dune in the world’, its accessibility and iconic shape make it attractive for climbers.
Sesriem has an intriguing name, derived from the area’s history of wagons, cattle and ranching. It means six riem, with a riem being the length of a cow hide. It reflects the number of joined leather ox-wagon thongs needed to draw water from the bottom of the nearby gorge.
The following day is another early start and a long drive of 350 kilometres. But it is a pleasure to be up with the birds, for the rewards are great – the cool air is clean and fresh and the early morning sun is soft on the landscape. By midafternoon we will be hot and weary. At Solitaire we subscribe to large slabs of apple crumble, rejoicing in this aspect of the German influence. A sign tells us we are crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and we stop for the obligatory photo opportunity.
We pass through two gorges, the Gaub Pass and the Kuiseb canyon. In both there is water flowing in the river bed because of the latest rains. Eddie tells us that it is unusual and that he has seen water there only two or three times over the many years that he has travelled that way. Closer to the coast at Walvis Bay, the landscape becomes desert in earnest, just bare sand and no vegetation. Along the Atlantic, the weather is cooler and the sky cloudy. Our destination is Swakopmund, a town more German than those of Germany. We are to spend three nights there, with no tents to erect and a real bed to sleep in.