Driving Dirt Roads, Dunes And Deserts

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Driving Dirt Roads, Dunes And Deserts

Twenty years ago my life was a shambles. I was scared, insecure and I cried every day for almost 2 and a half years. I do believe I could’ve filled buckets with tears. Friends can only take so much. My best friends decided instead of writing me off they’d take me to Namibia. We’d celebrate my 40th birthday there. They figured there’s no better place to find oneself than in the desert. They’re good people. They love me unconditionally and knew what would be good for me. Besides, I was exhausted. So off the nine of us went on an epic three week recuperating camping holiday to one of the most spectacular places on earth. After I managed to survive the worst bout of flu imaginable I stopped crying and starting laughing again, life slowly became good as the tensions and anxieties wound down. In that desolate place I began seeing the woods for the trees.

Since then I’ve been back on numerous occasions and still find Namibia fascinating. As we drive along I have a reoccurring thought about the beauty, the light and the nothingness and it puzzles me to think that what should really be very ugly and unattractive is simply awesome. The deafening silence in that vastness fills my being like no symphony can. At night when the stars come out I can only shake my head in wonder as the silent noise overwhelms me time and time again. Here we could go back in time and see dinosaurs or fast forward and get a glimpse of our destruction.

Summer was winding down and we decided to pack a tent, two chairs, our vintage Engel and our picnic baskets filled with delicious food. We’d zig-zag along the southern parts of the country, all along the Orange River and through a section of the Richtersveld. It was while on this stretch of road that I perfected my “drive-by shooting” style. I couldn’t get enough of the landscape. Over every rise and around every bend the rock and dune formations change, what was once round boulders became sharp triangular formations while on the left bank of the river grasses, reeds and trees flourish, in stark contrast the right side of the river cannot produce or sustain a blade of grass. That life-giving river is so near yet too far out of reach. Brutal.

We spent two days at Felix Unite on the Orange River, it was the perfect choice. Our chalet was very comfortable, the restaurant was a treat when we didn’t picnic on our stoep watching the ebb and flow. The canoes were all laid out neatly on the riverbank awaiting a group of paddlers, reminding me of my 5 day trip with Joe. Eons ago now. We were privileged sleeping on the lawns, star gazing and chatting until we drifted off to sleep.

This landscape has endured every agonising labour pain inflicted on our planet, one can almost feel the visceral contractions as the universe laboured giving birth to our planet. Glaziers, earthquakes, lighting, thunder and an unapologetic sun relentlessly burned and scarred to shape, mould, grind and turn the earth into a myriad different textures, shapes and colours. The sun has yet to lose interest and continues to scorch, punishing every living creature trying so desperately to survive.

Eventually we swung away from the river road and made a quick detour to Sendelingsdrift to see a Pont, how surprised we were to learn that the border post was closed, the Pont will no long ferry people and cars across to South Africa! The only highlight as we passed through the grey, uninspiring mining town Rosh Pinah, so bleak it’s seemingly covered in a perpetual layer of grey dust was the waving gaggle of boys riding their bicycles out of town.

Aus was on our radar and we were eager to set up our camp, take a hike and settle for the night. We spent 4 days at the Klein Aus Vista campsite. We found the campsites to be a little cramped considering the space at the owners’ disposal, none the less beautiful with rocky outcrops surrounding the campsite.

We enjoyed numerous hikes, one along the railway line into town to have coffee and cake at the local Hotel and another all along the railway line doing a round trip of 18km. I must confess we were exhausted and dehydrated. At sunset the wild horses came calling, coming down from the hills to find water and scavenge for scraps.

Sunsets in the desert are majestic, made even more spectacular when there’s dust in the air, the rich jewelled colours fire up the skies as the days wind down and the sand cools. This time there was a constant wind blowing, a reminder seasons were changing, whipping up the sand just enough to irritate, but not enough to bring rain. It’s at night while the canvas snaps, billows and whiplashes that camping loses its allure, as stays and pegs are ripped from the earth thoughts of packing up and moving into a chalet become attractive. Tempers flare as we walk on eggs in our wind tunnel.

Not a drop of rain has fallen on this forsaken earth for two years and the signs are visible. Emaciated, skeletal, Oryx, those regal antelope who so proudly represent Namibia are dying, some suffering an agonizing death as they try to cross fences and roads for better grazing and water. Even the proud Namibian Wild Horses are thin and on occasion we spotted them in our campsite where they scavenge at dusk. This is a hard, implacable desert, where survival isn’t taken for granted. All living things are just pawns in nature’s scheme of things and the effects of global warming becomes a reality when one witnesses total devastation, when the only respite is a smattering of dew on the few remaining leaves or twigs in the morning.

Our next destination was Namtib Biosphere. What should’ve been a fairly easy drive turned into a mission. There we were going at a good clip when all of a sudden things went awry. Not only did we have a puncture, we had a shredded back tyre and a punctured spare tyre. The well maintained roads are in an excellent condition, but on a hot day the razor sharp stones cut through a hot tyre like a knife through butter. Fortunately help was at hand as our companions the trusty Tozer’s went off to our lodgings 70km away told the owner of our misfortune, he, without any delay organised two new tyres to be ordered from Windhoek, to be delivered in Aus within a day or two. Although we were assured that our old Cruiser would be quite ok on the side of the road I had my misgivings.  I was wrong of course.

While we waited for our help to return we tried to get ourselves out of the midday sun and into some shade, not easy, the thermometer was hitting a high 38֩C. Time passed quickly as we had many visitors with offers to help, assist and one chap was willing to “lend” us a tyre until we got sorted out!

In the most unusual places one often meets the most interesting people and so it happened that we met an amazing couple on their bicycles. They’d left their home in Belgium 14 months ago, saying goodbye to their children and 6 grandchildren to cycle all the way down to Cape Town. What an inspiring couple; fit, healthy and enthusiastically tackling this mammoth adventure like pioneers of old. They were willing to help us too! Unfortunately we’ve not been able to keep up with their progress as their Blog is written in French and Gigi didn’t give us their details. If you should come across them, do give our regards, they must be well on their way to Madagascar by now.

It was only with hindsight that we realised how devasting the drought would be so our stay at Namtib Biosphere was a little disappointing as we had visions of herds of antelope roaming the plains in front of our campsite. Sadly much of the herd has been sold and the remaining few were scarce, those that we did see were thin and struggling to survive.

We thoroughly enjoyed our hikes in the kopjes as we learned much about the fauna and flora using the well documented guide our hosts provided. The paths are clearly marked and hikers have a few options with varying distances to choose from.

Next stop was Sesriem for 2 nights, sharing a campsite with acquaintances was probably more fun for us than for them, but they were graceful and hospitable and we enjoyed getting to know their very well behaved toddler who took all the discomforts of bush life in his wobbly stride putting to rest old wives’ tales of children needing their routines, beds, bottles and blankies.

At first light we made our way to the dunes, saw the sun rise over the tops and had the opportunity to walk up the Grande Dame of dunes relatively unhindered by the masses of tourists who, like pilgrims flock there daily. Once again we met the nicest group of people on the summit. While we caught our breaths and enjoyed the awesome views across the desert landscape they did somersaults and took selfies. Those were the days my friends when one can pick a crowd in a bar, get into a hire car and without missing a beat head off to see some Gorillas in Ruanda taking in the dunes en-route.

The rest of our road trip took us to Weltevrede for a night, we spent a night at the Solitaire guest farm, enjoyed the Roadhouse with its eclectic collection of cars and memorabilia, the flotsam and jetsam of a bygone age.

Another puncture was on the cards, fortunately this time help was at hand when a kindly lodge manager stopped to help. I was dying for a slice of German Apple tart which I enjoyed while Butch bought our third new tyre in Helmeringhausen.

We made it to our guesthouse in time to watch the sunset, have a delicious Spaghetti Bolognaise for supper at the very quaint, off the radar Seeheim Hotel.
Our noses had turned and we were ready to head home. Our last night was spent relaxing in the hot water baths at Ais-Ais.

Once again Namibia didn’t disappoint. The weather was perfect, the road trip a huge success, our last minute bookings were all good, but the highlight for me, besides the magnificent landscapes must be the people we met in the most unusual places. The Westfalen’s immediately come to mind. A young couple with four children, who left home in Germany a year ago to drive their monsterous green truck from Cairo to Cape Town. Their website http://www.6westfalen.de/  tells of their adventures.  

For us it was time to head home, to get ready for our next adventure and for our beloved friends to return to their home in the UK.  Autumn was in the air, seasons about to change,  we couldn’t have asked for more.