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Published: July 30th 2006
After the non-stop thrills of the Northern Adventure with the camping and early-morning starts, it was nice to get a night’s sleep in a real bed without a tent companion - however well Yvonne and I had got on as tent buddies. The evocatively-named Rivendell Guesthouse in Windhoek (though I was disappointed that there was not an elf in sight, let alone an Orlando Bloom look-alike) also provided space and time to re-pack and re-organise my somewhat tired-looking backpack.
So, by the time Sunday dawned, I was raring to go on the Southern Swing (I’m still a bit dubious about the name, but there you go). This time, Yvonne, Veerle, Lisa and I found ourselves with only three additional companions: a Connecticut biology and chemistry teacher, a retired NHS Englishwoman and a Belgian “teacher of teachers”, but with a slightly larger vehicle and the space therefore to spread out in more comfort - just as well, seeing as, on day one alone, we had 500 km to cover.
All in all this week, we were to cover over 2,200 km. Of necessity, therefore, there were some long drives which, although with such often-changing dramatic scenery that I didn’t want
to doze off lest I missed anything, were nevertheless somewhat uneventful. In short, you could sum up this week as almost purely Scenic, whereas the first week had been far more varied with a wide range of sights and activities, including nature, anthropology, archaeology and geology, as well as, of course, the adrenalin rush of skydiving.
There were two notable exceptions to this Scenic-only summary. On our first morning, we discovered that the farm which ran the campsite had a rather unusual collection of pets. First up was a warthog: an elderly, crusty kind of guy, lurking in the dim depths of a vast barn that otherwise seemed to house farm equipment. Although somewhat intimidating in appearance - his tusks were extremely impressive, and his “warts” very warty - he proved to be a complete softy. For the record, should you ever find yourself in the position of having to make friends with a warthog PDQ, they have a very soft patch of skin right behind the ears which - if Crusty Features was anything to go by - they seem to love having scratched. I found a tusk gently nuzzling my leg as Crusty Features settled himself more
comfortably against me, and wondered, idly, how that would sit in an insurance claim if his tusks had been sharper….
Then the farmer, in broken English (my Afrikaans isn’t up to much, but we got the gist), indicated further creatures beyond the farmhouse…. a skitterish antelope that I couldn’t (to my chagrin) identify, a tame cheetah (complete with collar, unfortunately: woefully detracting from the dignity of the cat’s face) which, to my delight, allowed me, briefly, to stroke it, and, in the next field, a family of meerkat who were at least as adorable as they appear on BBC nature programmes. What a start to the day that was!
The second exception to the Scenic-only bit had been on our first day, when we stopped at the Baster village of Hoachanas to learn a little about the Baster people (in summary, descendants of a group of Khoi-European mixed-race settlers who arrived in Namibia from South Africa in the mid-nineteenth century, a people who, in their home country, would have been called Coloured), to hear their wonderful singing and to admire (if that’s the right word) their somewhat - hmm, how to be polite? - unique and lively dancing.
It was - appropriately, considering the impromptu concert took place in a church - a Sunday, and the choir of one man and half a dozen women, aged 12-30, sang a wonderful collection of songs covering a range of African tribal traditions which was interspersed by our guide narrating the people’s history. Unfortunately, the church’s acoustics, which so enhanced the singing, largely killed off the narrative and we only picked up the odd date or two and little other detail.
Outside, the village band was waiting for us, a trio of men and one woman dressed in multicoloured patchwork clothes - I suppose underscoring the people’s ability to re-use anything they had to hand. A bridal ceremony was re-enacted for us, but the object of the ceremony, the role performed by a lady in, shall I say, her more senior years, looked distinctly unimpressed by the whole affair. Much more entertaining was watching the village children dancing along to the music and giggling at our (mandatory) attempts to join in the dancing. I have never been more grateful for my belated conversion to a digital camera: on this occasion, as with numerous others in the past few weeks, I
have been able to show the subjects of my pictures copies of themselves on the little screen almost instantly - and to their vast amusement and delight. On this occasion, Veerle joined me, and the kids were soon falling over themselves to pose and then rush over to see the results. They don’t put this in the digital sales blurb, but it would have won me over years ago.
Moving onto the Scenery. The trip south on the first day had taken us through the hills of central Namibia, the western reaches of the Kalahari Desert and out into the plains south towards the South African border where only the towering majesty of the (extinct) Brukkaros Volcano interrupted the endless vistas. Once again, I was entranced by Africa’s “big sky” horizons.
Our first camp was at the Quiver Tree Forest. Although we arrived after sunset, the outline of these curious non-trees (they are aloes - not that that meant a huge amount to me beforehand, I must confess) was still apparent. The next morning, just before dawn, I got the chance to investigate them at closer quarters. Other-worldly and a little bit spooky was my somewhat un-botanical summary.
They are extremely rare: it just so happens that there are an awful lot of them in southern Namibia - we must have seen them almost every day on this trip. They don’t exactly form a forest at the site near Keetmanshoop: the place-name reflects only their comparative density here.
Next up was the Giants’ Playground, so called because the piles of rocks here look as if a couple of oversized toddlers haven’t cleared up their building blocks. Climbing on the rocks isn’t advisable: although they have been created by the forces of erosion and appear to be rigid, the rocks can be unstable. While it was great to be able to amble through, it was an eerie place: almost as if the giant children were due back any moment and wouldn’t take kindly to midget folks messing with their toys.
But the pièce de resistance that day was Fish River Canyon. Opinions vary as to whether this is the second largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon), or the second largest in Africa (after one in Ethiopia), but we readily concluded that, whatever the statistics (how do you measure a canyon’s size anyway?), it’s a
stunning place. We walked from one lookout point to the next, a leisurely amble which gave our new guide and his assistant, Patric and Tiaan, time to set out lunch - and what a superb lunch place it was. I would love to have the chance to do the hike through the Canyon, but this is supposed to be pretty tough going, over sand and slippery rocks, and takes about five days to do. In addition, you have to carry everything in with you. Apparently the beer in the pub at the end of the track is the best in the world… or at any event, so it appears to the weary and parched customers. Perhaps then it would be more accurate to say that I would love to think that I could do this hike!
We camped that night on the edge of the Orange River. Curious to be able to look across a narrow stretch of water at another country, South Africa: suddenly so accessible-looking. Not a sensation to which a UK resident is accustomed. I was amused that the lady running the bar appeared to be a little uncertain which country she was actually living in.
When asked what time the bar closed that evening (and what a luxury to have a bar near the campsite - we took full advantage of it: well, it would have been rude not to do so with double G&Ts for the equivalent of about £1.70!), she said, “10 pm... South African time”. Ours not to reason why. Anyway, we had a lovely walk through the vineyards before dinner (note the curious sign we came across below!) and the sunset over the river was truly stunning, probably the best of the trip.
The next day we drove along the Orange River and then north towards Aus whose main claim to fame is that it is about halfway along the main east-west road linking Keetmanshoop and Luderitz, the latter being our destination the next day. (If this doesn’t sound like much of a claim to fame, it isn’t, in all honesty.) In the meantime, our camp at Klein-Aus Vista was gorgeous - tucked away into the hills - but it had two major faults: the first night at least lived up to the warnings we’d already been given about how cold it would be there, and our particular campsite must
have been a good 500m from the ablution block. Actually, from my point of view, there was a third fault: the shower was cold - not a pleasant experience first thing in the morning (or, more accurately, pre-first thing in the morning) when it’s only a few degrees Centigrade above zero outside. But those things apart, we could relax a little the next morning: for the first time in ten days, we were not packing up to move on that day - we had the luxury of two nights in the same place.
Luderitz is a curious place. Of all the three major ports in Namibia, it really is crushed between the desert and the sea. I found it a strangely colourless, lifeless place, probably not helped by the fact that we were there in the low season, and certainly not helped by the fog that greeted our arrival. First on our agenda that day was a trip out in the “Sedina”, a two-master propelled simply by engine that day as the winds were not in our favour. Although it was a bitterly cold trip, it was fabulous to see the beautifully tricolour-marked heavy side dolphins jumping in the
bow waves on our way to Halifax Island, and, as ever, enchanting to watch the penguins at our destination - this time, jackass penguins. But I must say, the hot chocolate circulated by the first mate on our way back was very nearly the highlight of the trip!
Next on that morning’s packed agenda was Kolmanskop, the now-deserted former diamond-mining town which is gradually being taken over by the desert: it is Namibia’s ghost town. Not surprisingly, it was a depressing place: the dust coloured walls melding with the dust-coloured sand that was trying to bury it. Yet it seemed as if its residents had lived life well: there were pictures of dances and bands, there was a sophisticated cool room to preserve meat and also to provide each house with a daily ration of ice to put in the forerunners of today’s refrigerators - each far more advanced than any system in the northern hemisphere at that time - and the town shop seemed to stock as much variety as today’s supermarkets. But it was a relief to leave.
The next day we moved on, and, to my mind, our next destination was going to be the
highlight of the week - and it didn’t let me down. If the grey sand of Luderitz and Kolmanskop had been depressing, the russet colours of the sand at Sesriem and Sossusvlei were invigorating. This for me was what Namibia was really about: the endless seas of rippling sand dunes of the central Namib Desert, a desert that is reputed to be the oldest in the world. Staying at the Sesriem campsite would give us a head start on other tourists heading to Sossusvlei in the morning but our first challenge was to climb at least the first shoulder or so of the sprawling Elin Dune to watch the sunset. I would love to go back to this area in a “normal year” to see what it is usually like: this summer’s rains were far heavier than usual and their effect could still be seen in terms of the flora spreading over the dunes from the valley floor. Furthermore, as we would see in the morning, the water had reached Sossusvlei itself and the pan was still full, giving photographers the opportunity to capture on film impressive reflections of the red dunes, blue sky and green foliage.
time being, we contented ourselves with learning how to climb sand dunes. My experience in scrambling over dunes in the West Highlands as a child (a practice that is now discouraged in an attempt to preserve the landscape) did not assist much, it must be said. In contrast to that in my home country, the sand in the Sesriem area, at least by the end of the day, is bone dry and, if you are the first one on that particular part of the dune that day, you have to work hard to create a “staircase” up the side of the dune and/or a path along the top edge of the dune. (I was reminded of the precarious balancing act involved in walking round the crater of the volcano on Bali, but somehow walking along the razor-sharp edge of a dune when you can beat the edge down into your own narrow path seemed easier, even if the path created was not actually any wider than that already made in the shale around the volcano.) Luckily my efforts in the gym came to the fore (…and here was I thinking that they’d been ruined by the large quantities of excellent
the water in the foreground is a rare feature
food that I’d been shovelling away for the past couple of weeks!) and, if not exactly gazelle-like in my struggle up the dunes, at least I got there without undue pain and suffering, either then or the next day.
Our final full day was devoted to the desert. We started early, joining the only queue of traffic I had seen since leaving Johannesburg earlier in the month: this time, the queue to get from the campsite into the Sossusvlei area. Our purpose? To climb the undoubtedly photogenic Dune 45 to watch the sunset. Us and about 50 other people. Given the narrowness of the edge along which one walks when the first ascent has been conquered, a degree of near desert-rage was brewing in some folks at various points. There was the serious photographer with his tripod straddling the edge meaning that anyone trying to pass him faced a serious scramble along the steeply sloping face of the dune to “undertake” him before being able to get back up to the top edge and continue. Then there was the self-same serious photographer huffing and puffing that the virgin sand in his potential picture was now looking somewhat trampled. Then
Deadvlei from the air
the dead trees section is barely visible in the distant third/quarter of the vlei
there were the folks who had successfully passed aforementioned serious photographer on the way out now wanting to pass him on the way back. We gave up at that point, opting, instead, for a gentle lope straight down the slope and a hike back around the dune’s edge to the reward of a glass of South African fizz and the hot breakfast that Patric and Tiaan had been working up in our absence.
And it was only 7.30 am by this stage. After breakfast, we drove the remaining 20 km to the 2WD car park and then began our hike over and through the dunes to Deadvlei, a distance of, perhaps, 6 km. It was a gorgeous morning and we were gradually able to peel off some of the additional layers that we’d piled on for the scramble up Dune 45. En route, Patric pointed out a variety of things, from beetle tracks to a relation of the melon (edible but so bitter I wouldn’t serve it to my worst enemy), and the boys showed us the real way to go down a dune - running! I got as far as a gentle canter towards the bottom of the
slope, not really trusting myself not to twist an ankle although the sand was pretty forgiving. Deadvlei - so-called because the vlei (or pan) has now been cut off from the river by the sand and is now surrounded on all sides by dunes thereby never getting water, however record-breaking the summer rains - was impressive. Any visitor to Namibia will have seen the standard Deadvlei photograph: dead tree on chalk-white pan with a background of russet dunes and blue sky. But what I hadn’t appreciated was its sheer size. The boys and I elected to try and climb the local monster dune, “Big Daddy”, but to do so we first had to cross Deadvlei. Distance and perspective do odd things in the flat vastness of the desert, and we discovered that the “standard” bit of Deadvlei - with all the dead trees - was actually only about a third of its length, and that it is therefore not round, but oval, facts that became all too apparent when we flew over the area later in the day. As a result, we reached Patric’s time-limit for our side excursion when we had only reached the equivalent of Big Daddy’s knee-cap.
No matter: we had a joyous galumph down the dune and walked back across the vlei to meet up with the others. By this stage I was, for the first time since leaving the UK, feeling well-exercised. But we couldn’t leave out Sossusvlei itself, so we took a 4WD shuttle to Sossusvlei and spent half an hour or so meandering by the edge of the temporary lake. After a belated lunch back at the campsite, we headed off for a late afternoon flight over the area we had variously driven, climbed and hiked that morning: a fabulous way to round off the day and, nearly, the week.
But there were a couple of sights to take in on our way back to Windhoek. Sesriem is not just a jumping-off point for Sossusvlei, it has its own claim to fame - Sesriem Canyon. This is a far cry from Fish River Canyon and, when it was pointed out to us from the air the day before, had seemed distinctly unimpressive, but that was misleading. This Canyon is a dramatic schism in the ground, so narrow and unexpected that you could easily imagine almost falling into it if walking across the
area at night. Its name comes from the six lengths of rope that were needed to draw water out of the gorge from the top: it is about 30 m deep and about a kilometre in length. Although I haven’t been, I was reminded of Petra - Sesriem Canyon looks a bit like a blond version, if I can put it that way. At 7.30 am it was a peaceful, dark place and I was sorry not to have walked its length before we had to get back on the road.
Finally, Patric took us back to Windhoek through the scenic Gamsberg Pass. Here the road struggles through crowds of hills, the hills themselves seemingly thrown together with the rock layers that comprise them jutting out of the ground at 45 degrees. Once through the Pass, we pulled off the road for a final lunch stop. Then it was on to Windhoek and some sad farewells as we all headed off in different directions, some for home, some on further travels, and yours truly for a week’s R&R near Cape Town.
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