Across the Namib in a Mobile Home

Willi, Henry, Ivan & I on route for Sesriem

Willi, Henry, Ivan & I on route for Sesriem

“I had a farm in Africa” – well, not quite; I had a farmhouse, but that’s for another story. No, I had a mobile home. It was a Mercedes, but not one of those state-of-the-art things that run around today; it was built in 1971, and consisted entirely of wood on a Mercedes 306 chassis. It had a strong 3,6 liter,4 cylinder diesel engine, slept 4 adults (or 2 adults and 3 children), a table for five, a full shower and toilet with hot and cold running water, a gas stove with oven, a full-size 3-way fridge, and a gas heater. It was noisy, far from dust-proof, slow, and immense fun.

I believe that in our lifetimes we each need to do something a bit silly – something which other sane people would consider to be unwise. Well, I had always wanted to go to Swakopmund and see the town where the desert meets the sea, and so decided a few years ago that this was where I was going to go.  I had bought the Mercedes some years before and, having replaced most of the wiring and gas-piping, and done some other modernization, had used it fairly extensively to explore the Western Cape of South Africa. This, however, was to be an altogether different mission.

An old friend and I set off, one grey and rainy morning in early September, the bus (as it came to be called) packed to the brim with supplies, crossed the flat plains of the Swartland, drove over the Olifants’ River Mountains, made our way up the Olifants’ River Valley, where the air was heavy with the scent of orange-blossom and the mountains rose to the sky, battled our way across the Knerrsvlakte (the planes of gnashing teeth, and a really horrible wilderness of low scrub and gravel), and finally came to a stop outside the small town of Garies, where the road begins to snake through the Kamies mountains. There is a small spot, beneath four rather windswept gum trees and reasonably far off the main road, where we decided to spend the night. We had traveled only about 200 miles, but that was about as far as the bus would go in a day since its maximum speed was 60 mph and it was rather hard work to drive as the driver had to sit virtually on top of the noisy engine.

Edge of the Desert

Edge of the Desert

We had a rather chilly barbeque of lamb chops, sausages, and roast potatoes, washed down with a bottle of good red wine, and then wrapped ourselves up in bed to sleep for the night. Although September is the first official month of spring in South Africa. it’s usually cold and showery, but the hills were green with new growth and the yellow bushes made for a good splash of color.

The next day we hit the road once more, and this time drove over the Kamies mountains, over the plains on which Springbok (the main town of the area) stands, and went onwards past the old copper mines of Nababiep to Steinkopf, where we turned left for the coast. We crossed the low mountains which mark the beginning of the Richtersveld and then ran, ever onwards and downwards, across lightly undulating plains with ridges of hills running across them until we reached Port Nolloth, some 60 miles from the main road. Port Nolloth is a rather wild-west sort of town where diamond smuggling is rife, since it is close to the diamond fields of the Atlantic, and, like many South African towns, is surrounded by a large squatter camp. I had some friends there who had a guesthouse right on the beach, and this is where we spent the second night of our trip.

Sesriem

Sesriem

The next day saw us retracing our steps to Steinkopf, but on the way up the foothills of the Richtersveld I noticed that the engine was beginning to overheat. I stopped and saw that there was water running in a steady stream beneath the vehicle, so we drove into the only garage in the small town and learned, to our chagrin, that the water-pump had given up the ghost, so a new one had to be ordered from Cape Town. Since it had to be brought up by road and would not reach us until the next day, we had no choice but to return to the hills, where I had seen a reasonable lay-by, and camp for the night. The following day the new pump had been fitted and so, in the early afternoon, we made our way downwards to the place where the road crosses the Orange River. This is the South African border and so we took an hour going through the formalities in the border-post at Noordoewer and then, again, on the Namibian side.

Some two miles further on we were able to fill up with diesel and top up the water tanks and then continue up the N7 – and I mean UP. The road goes gradually uphill for a very long way. It was warm and sunny and, despite the new pump, the engine continued to overheat from time to time, forcing us to stop and look around at nothing, for there is nothing to see except scrubby bush. Some forty miles from the border we took a left turn onto a smooth, but very dusty, road and headed towards the sunset, which was now horribly close. The road was so sandy that even the slightest tweak on the steering wheel caused us to skid perilously near the ditches at each side, and corners had to be taken with the greatest care. Soon the sun had dipped behind a range of distant mountains and darkness fell, leaving us to rely on the rather poor headlights which were all that the vehicle possessed.

Sesriem

Sesriem

We joined the main road from Keetmanshoop after a while and drove downwards through great slag-heaps of granite hills until we reached Ai-ais – the oasis where I had booked us in for a couple of nights. Ai-ais is the old Nama word for ‘hot-hot’ and so it was no surprise to see a large, circular pool filled with steaming water and several people as we drove through the campsite to find a spot. After driving around for a bit, I found a good place beneath some trees, and so we dusted out the vehicle and prepared for the night. After supper we donned our swimming gear and walked down to the pool, into which we plunged with great glee. The water was indeed comfortably warm and smelt of sulphur and it seemed that this was the general meeting-place for most of the people. We made a number of friends that night, as we lounged, beer in hand, in the water at the edge and it was not until the small hours of the morning that we got back on dry land and made for our beds for the night. We had been in the water so long that we looked like a couple of stewed prunes.

The following day dawned bright and clear, and very warm, and it was with some trepidation that I discovered, on opening the door to climb onto the ground, that I had managed to park in the middle of the only rubbish dump in the place! We upped stumps and moved to another shady spot beneath some acacias, where the pale-winged starlings were so tame that they actually perched on our hands and asked for food. We spend the morning exploring the lower reaches of the Fish River Canyon and saw, with disappointment, that the river was no more than a couple of brackish pools in which some local boys fished for what looked like some kind of catfish. Anyway, it had whiskers and looked utterly inedible, so we gave it a miss, even though it was offered to us at increasingly bargain prices! We spent the afternoon and evening in the now famous steaming pool, and then made for our beds.

Sesriem

Sesriem

The next day, bright and warm as the previous one, as I was preparing to leave there was a knock on the door. Before me stood a young-ish man with a beard and a strong mid-European accent, who smiled, and told me he had heard we were heading for Walvis Bay, so he was asking if he and his girlfriend could hitch a lift with us. At first I was not so keen on the idea, but then I thought that an extra pair of hands could be useful, and they seemed like a nice couple, so I agreed that they could join us, provided that they only had small rucksacks, which they promised was the case. Some half an hour later they arrived, carrying the largest rucksacks I had ever seen. The bag was strung between two aluminum shafts and sat on the walker’s back, but it reached almost to the ground in one direction and to the top of his head the in the other. However, I had said they could come, so we found some space for these bags in the bathroom, and set out.

Namibia coast

Namibia coast

Firstly we went to Hobas, a large campsite at the head of the FishRiver Canyon– the second largest canyon in the world. Naturally, the largest is the Grand Canyon in America(everything’s bigger in Texas!), but this one turned out to be almost as impressive. Great cliffs of red and gold sandstone disappear into the very depths of the earth and at the bottom is just a tiny trickle of water, reflecting the blue of the sky in places, as it winds from rock to rock towards the sea. We watched as a group of hikers made their perilous way down the cliff beneath us on the first leg of their trip. One of the things that most people in South Africa have to do is to hike down the Fish River Canyon, and this tortuous trail has become big business. The site was truly awesome and
the sight breathtaking.

Mid-day saw us once more on the road making for the bridge at Seeheim. We made good speed since, although the road is dirt, it’s good and can be traveled quite fast. We joined the tar at Seeheim and once more seemed to be going ever upward and against the wind, making hardly more than 40 mph. After some gnashing of teeth and endless gear-changes, I turned off once more onto a dirt road. There was what looked like a small village just after the turn-off and so we looked for this, thinking to stop there for lunch, but there were only two huts surrounded by barbed wire, and so this, I presume, was Goageb. We followed the apparently endless road to Bethanien, where we were at least able to fill the diesel and water tanks. Bethanien turned out to be yet another very small town with no real claim to fame and so we soon left it behind.

Late that afternoon we stopped in Helmeringshausen; this was just one street with a few houses, an hotel, and a petrol station where the petrol had to be pumped by hand. It had about it the deserted look of many of the towns we visited on this trip and, apart from a few granite buildings, turned out to be utterly unremarkable. We hit the road once more and, soon after leaving Helmeringshausen, came across the ideal spot in which to spend the night. There was a good lay-by down a slope from the road; it boasted a couple of thorn trees and an area of hard-packed mud, so we turned in there and decided to stop. It was magic to see the sun setting, a great red orb at the bottom of the sky, as it sunk below the branches of the bare trees, but even better was the strange clicking sound made by a local bird as the sounds of the night began. We put our feet up and had a sundowner, then ate a good steak and shortly went to bed.

Swakopmund house

Swakopmund house

The next day we were on the road again  – this time it proved to be a switch-back as it rose from riverbed to riverbed – and the great ridge of the Swartrand followed us all the way northwards on our right. Soon after our start we came to a cross-road and turned right, drove up the cliff-face, and came into Maltahohe. This simply had to be the ugliest little town I have ever seen; there was nothing to recommend it to anyone. However, on our way back onto the road we found a good lay-by, with a concrete table and seats under a thatched umbrella and with a tremendous view of the great golden plains as they stretched into the dusty distance in the west. We had a late breakfast here and then hit the road again.

This time the road was little more than a track running through the scrub, but it was flat and had a reasonable surface, so we were able to make good speed. Suddenly, and almost without warning, we found ourselves on the edge of a huge precipice, down which the road snaked in hairpin bends, necessitating a descent in first gear. At the bottom the temperature was warmer and the air somehow less clear. The road had become wide and straight, but it was covered with large stones which had to be looked out for unless we wanted to shred a tyre. On our right rose up a great range of mountains – the Zaris Mountains, to be precise – and the road ran ever onwards, beneath them. It was from here that we had our first glimpse of the Namib desert. It was an endless expanse of sand and scrub, running from deep pink to orange, horizon to horizon, until it disappeared in the brownish blue mists of the distance.

I drove carefully along this road for what seemed like quite a long time until we came to a cross-roads. We turned left for Sesriem and were soon at the gates of the campsite. We had not seen another vehicle all day, except in Maltahohe.

I booked us in and we went looking for somewhere to park. The campsite consisted of a few thorn trees set round with low walls and it seemed that each tree had a water tap. We found a likely looking one and went through all the motions of leveling off the camper, getting out the tent, and generally settling down
for the rest of the day.

We were soon joined by a bunch of Aussies and New Zealanders who we had met at Ai-ais, so they made camp under a nearby tree and we went over to say hallo. They told us they were planning a ‘bushfire’ for the evening and invited us to join them. The bushfire turned out to be a peculiar Antipodean custom, whereby a group of people disappear into the bush, light a fire, and sit round it telling stories, singing, and generally getting drunk. I had brought along the remains of a bottle of Tequila which was on board, and so, each drinking out of the lid of the bottle, it was soon passed round and finished. Every so often the fire is put out, the largest log raised on high, and a new fire is started some distance away. This goes on for as long as people remain able to stand upright!

In the small hours of the morning we decided that we had had enough and so left the group and trudged off into the darkness over the hard sand to where we thought we had come from. There were no vehicles to be seen, but after some turning in circles and squinting into the darkness we were able to make out the faint glimmer of the light we had left burning in the bus, and so made for it.

The next morning we moved more into the desert and had breakfast under one of the largest red dunes that I had ever seen, overlooked every so often by a rather curious Gemsbok, which kept peering down at us from the top of the dune. We then walked all along the base of the Sesriem canyon – a place which the local ‘river’ carves out of the sandstone on its way to the sea; but it only flows after rain, and this, in the desert, is something of a
rarity. The water does indeed come to an end at Sossusvlei – famous for its dunes and the occasional drop of water in the pond where the animals sometimes come to drink. At Sossusvlei the river disappears altogether and is never seen again. We could have taken a trip down there in a four-wheel drive, but since these only left at dawn and were also inordinately expensive, we decided to give it a miss.

The rest of the day was spent lolling around at Sesriem and just enjoying the fact that, for one day, I had to drive nowhere and we had to go nowhere. It was sheer bliss to do nothing at all. The air was as dry as you can imagine and the light was incredibly clear and sharp, so that everything seemed to stand out, except for the distance, which shimmered in the heat.

The following day, suitably refreshed, we packed up once more and hit the road – but what a road this turned out to be. It had to be the worst possible surface I had ever driven on. Corrugations ran across the road in such a way that it was impossible to find a speed at which the vehicle didn’t crash and crunch, so we ended up scarcely able to make 20 mph for a good many miles. At the end of this awful stretch – for nothing goes on forever – we drove through some hills and came to what had once been a small hamlet – Solitaire. Today, I believe, that there is once more life here, but when we went everything was in ruins and empty. There was an old hotel, a petrol station and a couple of houses, but they were all deserted and forlorn, with only the desert wind to keep them alive.

At Solitaire we had joined a rather better road and so were able to move a bit faster; we were
soon driving through the Kuiseb Canyon, where we stopped beneath the only cliff to give shade. A luke-warm cup of coffee later saw us climbing up to the top of the Kuiseb Pass, but for some time I had been watching the fuel gauge and it worried me that the needle seemed to be dropping at alarming speed, so we stopped and decided to check. It was with utter horror that I found great gobbets of diesel dropping from the hose which joined the two tanks! The only thing I could find which would tighten the bolts of the hose was a monkey-wrench, so this was quickly put into service and the leak stopped. However, we had lost enough fuel that I worried that we would be able to make it down to Walvis Bay, still some 150 miles distant.

Fortunately the road to Walvis was downhill all the way and the surface was hard and smooth, so by means of switching off the engine and coasting most of the way, we made it into town shortly after lunch. It’s worth noting here that it’s never the things you worry about which happen – always those that you don’t!

In those days, when I made this trip,Walvis Bay was still part of South Africa, although I remember no border post as we entered. We stopped in a large car-park in the center of this ugly little town and proceeded to strip every cushion and curtain from the bus and stood, hitting them all against a nearby wall, in order to get rid of the sand. Opposite us were great crowds of shoppers waiting for buses and taxis to take them home and they were most amused at the spectacle of these strange, white people, bashing everything against a brick wall!

In due time we re-fueled and made for the caravan park out on the edge of a spit of land out in the lagoon. There was nothing of any interest in the town, so we settled down to an afternoon of peace and quiet, culminating in one of the best displays I have ever seen of hundreds of flamingos strutting about in the sunset, pink against the desert haze. The caravan park left a great deal to be desired, I felt. It was empty and lonely and seemed possessed of some kind of evil, so I decided that one night was going to have to be enough there.

The following day we headed out of town on our way up the coast in the direction of Swakopmund, and it was with utter delight that we came across the ideal spot to camp for a few days. This was a large camping and caravan park right on the edge of the sea at a place called Langstrand (Long Beach). The dunes of the desert did indeed come right down to the ocean, which was cut off from them only by means of a snake of tarred road which ran between the two towns. We found a good place to park, just under a hedge, and spent the remains of the morning sorting ourselves and our goods out before venturing forth to Swakopmund.

We set forth for Swakopmund in the early afternoon, crossed the border back into Namibia, and arrived in the town. If you can imagine a quiet, medieval little town somewhere in Bavariaand then transpose it to this desert location, that’s what you would see. It was indeed like a fairy-taleGermanyby the sea. Spires and towers abounded, and many of the buildings had the timber criss-cross front of their ancestors, but all around was the sand and the sea, and a delicate mist hung over everything. There were a few people sunning themselves on the beach, but down here on the coast the weather was quite chilly. We drove past the old railway station – a positive wedding-cake of Victorian embellishment – and past the Residence, where Sam Nujoma took his annual holiday. Of course, the old railway station is now an hotel, and very expensive, but in those days it was deserted and forlorn and hardly a train ever arrived or departed from it. The Residence was an altogether different matter: a Sultan’s palace which hid behind rows of stately palm trees and had guards on the doors. The most remarkable thing about Swakopmund was the sheer number of bottle-stores which lined the streets. It seemed as if every second building was there to sell liquor of some sort or another and names like Himbeergeist, Erdbeergeist, and wines which I had not seen outside ofGermany, were prevalent. They were also dirt cheap. The temptation was enormous and it was all I could do not to rush in and purchase endless bottles of intriguing and fascinating liquids.

We spent several days in Swakopmund, just relaxing, exploring, wandering about, and generally not doing anything noteworthy. It was exhilarating to wake up in the mornings and find the whole world swathed in thick white mist which came rolling in off the Atlantic soon after sunrise; it usually burned off by late morning, but it made the start of the days chilly and pleasant after the intense heat of the desert. However, go inland just a few kilometers and we soon discovered that the heat was definitely still there. One afternoon we decided to go inland to a place called Goanikontes. It was not very far and I had heard some interesting stories about it.

We traveled through the desert and marveled at what is known as ‘the moonscape’, where the sand is worked into small craters and ribs, which disappear as far as the eye can see. In the distance was Spitzkop – a great, black needle of mountain rising from the pink and gold sand beneath in such a way that one would expect to see a Hobbit come creeping along at any minute. Goanikontes turned out to be a strange hole in the desert, where great outcroppings of granite like shale dropped suddenly into a sort of oasis where acacia trees waved in the ever-present wind. There were a couple of stone tables and chairs and a rather rudimentary homestead in which lived an artist. It was a strange place, but somehow worth a visit.

nOur time at Swakopmund soon came to an end and we still had the two Dutch hitch-hikers with us. We had all got on so well that we decided to stay together until they had to catch a train to Otjiwarongo, so to make sure they made it, I offered to take them up to Windhoek, which was not on our original itinerary. We toiled all day through the incredible heat and sand on the endless road up to the capital city and arrived, somewhat tired and frayed at the edges, in the early evening. We were just in time to put them on the train and wave goodbye.

Windhoek was not the sort of place that we were interested in, so we bought some take-away food and munched it in the railway station car-park, then it was back behind the wheel and onto the road, but this time southwards. I drove until the small hours of the morning and then saw a suitable lay-by and turned in for a quick fried egg and tea and then fell into bed. We had reached Kalkrand and had made more than 600 kms in one day – the furthest I ever drove the bus.

Soon after getting on the road again at breakfast time we turned off onto a dirt road which went straight to Maltahohe, which we reached without incident later in the morning. We then started off on a new road which would lead us down through the Naisip valley to Aus. It was a really beautiful day with almost no wind and the colors of the grasses of the high savannah were incredible: green, pale gold, mauve, yellow – almost an entire spectrum of color which waved and clung to long, gradual hillsides which were punctuated occasionally by stunted trees. Troops of black baboons watched us pass, babies on their backs or hanging onto the undercarriage, or they would just sit near the road and watch us. I must warn you that, although these monkeys look cute, they are vicious and can really pack a mean punch, so don’t ever think of getting friendly with one!

My guide-book told me that there had been a large prisoner-of-war camp at Aus in the First World War and that this, together with its cemetery, could still be seen in the desert near the town, so I was keen to see it. I never did because there were no signs and directions in that part of the world are notoriously lacking, so having looked around the town and decided that it was just another rather dusty and ramshackle part of Namibia which we could well miss, we sat down to a cup of coffee and talked about what to do next.

Guide books are written with great care and are full of interesting information for travelers – they also have warnings here and there which are meant to be listened to. Mine told me that no-one, but no-one, ever crosses the desert in the afternoon. The tar road from Keetmanshoop to Luderitz passes close to the town and then descends into the Namib as it goes, straight as a dye, to Luderitz and the coast. The book warned of strong winds and terrible heat and advised that if the journey could not be made before mid-day, it should be avoided until evening. However, it was a fine day with only a light wind blowing and it certainly was not too hot, so we decided to ignore this piece of advice and set off.

Firstly, the warnings seemed unfounded. The road dropped steadily downhill for 30 miles and the views of the desert stretching away beneath us and on either side were breath-taking. We even hoped to see the herds of wild horses which were reputed to inhabit this area, but either they were invisible or they had gone on holiday. Once the road bottomed out in the desert, I began to realize that the book wasn’t far wrong. The heat was intense and the wind so strong that it was all I could do to keep the bus on the road, never mind upright. We struggled along like this for an hour, but then I had to admit defeat and we pulled into the meager shade of some thorn trees at the side of the road. My arms were aching with the effort of keeping the vehicle in a straight line and the road had a vicious habit of disappearing every so often under great sweeps of blowing sand; I was unable to drive in a steady top gear, and so had to keep dropping down to third and then changing up again, only to have to drop once more a few moments later.

We opened all the ventilators to try to benefit from the wind and were immediately set upon by swarms of vicious horse-flies, which settled and really bit hard on our clammy skins. We were also dying of thirst and the temperature outside was in the upper 40s, so all we could do was get out the insecticide and spray like mad, close all the ventilators and lie on the beds, beer in hand, and sweat away the afternoon. It was an object lesson which I shall never forget.

At sunset the wind dropped to an acceptable breeze and the heat soon dropped with it, so we were able to continue our journey into Luderitz, in which town we arrived in the early evening. We found a reasonable place to camp in the local caravan park, out on Schauen Insel, and settled down to ridding the bus of all the sand, eating supper, and getting to bed. Like most of the coast, Luderitz is enveloped in fog in the mornings, so when we awoke everything was white and the only sound was the nearby foghorn as it wailed its regular bleat at the weather. It was good to feel cold for once!

To a lesser degree, Luderitz is like Swakopmund. It is a quaint German town built across some rocks at the edge of the Atlantic; it has a railway station – out of use for passengers – a main street full of bottle stores, and a few residential streets. Overlooking the town is the church, built high on a rock, and the Residentz – a rather Neuschwandstein-ish German house of many floors, in which Sam Nujoma occasionally stays. Does he ever do anything worthwhile? One wonders!!

We spent two days wandering about, going to Kolmanskop (a separate article in this magazine), driving down to Angra Pequena and admiring the Portuguese padrao erected there by Diaz when he rounded the Cape, and generally watching the grey swells of the Atlanticas they dashed themselves against this rocky shore. We might have decided that enough was enough, but the weather had different ideas. As we prepared for our trip back across the desert, the wind rose to gale-force and we had to batten down the hatches for several days. Great gusts threatened to unseat us from our rocky peninsula and all around was blowing spume and near zero visibility.

Eventually time had to take its relentless course and we had no choice but to leave in order to get out of Namibia while our permits allowed us to stay. So, one evening of bright moonlight, we crossed the Namib for the last time and camped outside the police station at Aus. We had only one stop left to make, and that was one to which I had looked forward with some excitement: Schloss Duwisib. History tells us that an officer at the turn of the century had decided to marry an heiress and build her a castle in the savannahs somewhere near Helmeringshausen. He married and built the castle and they started to rear horses at Duwisib, but he died on a trip back to Germanyearly in the 20th century and she, wanting to escape from his memory and the loneliness of the place, took ship for America and never came back.

After taking many wrong turns and wasting an entire morning looking for a road which apparently didn’t exist, we found the castle. It stood, four-square to the winds, surrounded by tall grasses and stunted acacia trees, and was being prepared for a new lease of life as an hotel. It was of no great interest, but its history was fascinating and it turned out to be a rather sad place, still with an air of neglect and decay. The horses, left to themselves, had broken out and sired the beginnings of the wild herds that can sometimes be seen around Aus. We spent one night there and then headed back to the endless tar road which brought us back to the border, and South Africa.

It was a long and tiring trip, and one which I shall never forget.

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