Namibia: an epic journey through the desert
In Windhoek, the Namibian capital, we rented a Toyota double-cab pickup truck with big wheels and two spare tyres. The plan was to drive an approximate equilateral triangle, southwest to the dune landscapes of Sossusvlei, north to the Atlantic coast town of Swakopmund and east to Windhoek – around 750 miles, mostly on gravel roads , in five days, with plenty of exploring time built-in.
It takes some time to adjust to driving in the desert on gravel. The roads are flat and straight, flying like arrows towards distant horizons. An oncoming vehicle announces itself as a small puff of dust at the vanishing point of vision. Then, as the minutes go by, he grows, like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, until something strange happens.
When I first saw it, I thought the approaching vehicle had exploded and was engulfed in flames. “Oh my God, it’s on fire,” I yelled, imagining myself trying to drag bodies out of hell. Then I realized it was just the headlights (you have to keep the headlights on, to be seen through the dust), enlarged and distorted in the heat-distorted air.
On the furthest stretch, when we crossed the line of latitude 23.5 degrees south of the equator, otherwise known as the Tropic of Capricorn, encountering another car barely happened once an hour. And when it happened, I had to fight the urge to wave as I passed, like an astronaut might wave to another astronaut on Mars.
At this point, I was beginning to adapt to the desert. Deserts are not without their peculiarities, but the eyes and the mind must do work to overcome this prejudice. The Namib Desert, much of which is protected by its designation as the Namib-Naukluft National Park, is washed in pale, changing colors – yellow grasses, orange sand, pink mountains – all changing to mauves and grays at as the shadows lengthen.
At Sossusvlei, the desert transforms into one of the most memorable natural landscapes in the world, the topological equivalent of the Taj Mahal or the Statue of Liberty. Down-like apricot-colored dunes and italic S-shaped trail markers rise from cracked clay pools. Camel acacias stand like woolly gibbets. Surely, we thought, little could survive here? Next, we spotted a heraldic bird of prey perched atop a dune – a singing pale goshawk, whose stern beauty is somehow enhanced by knowing its name. At this point we were with Edward, a guide from the desert lodge where we were staying near Sossusvlei. He stooped to snatch a beetle that scuttled from the sand, and it was as if he had removed the back of a watch to examine the mechanism beneath.
Because the desert, in addition to being immense, is tiny. In Edward’s cupped hand was a beetle, whizzing like Chris Hoy around a velodrome. This wingless insect is a miracle of adaptation, drinking water from sea mists and changing its black shell from dull to shiny to dull again, alternately repelling and retaining heat in response to fluctuating desert temperatures.
Water is a rare and precious commodity. A succulent plant, known as “ostrich lettuce”, has tiny pods that are water sacs. “Here,” Edward said, and we popped them like bubble wrap, beading our fingers with moisture.
That evening, Edward offered a thoughtful critique of the developed world. We had stopped for a beer as the sun was setting, discoloring the landscape. Barking geckos vocalized – an electronic tik-tik-tik in surround sound.
“I went to Europe once,” he said. “Paris.” He shook his head. He had been amazed to see white people sweeping the streets, picking up trash. But what he couldn’t understand, or quite forgive, was that people didn’t talk to each other on the subway. “Even when they’re sitting next to each other!”
For here, in an environment that could hardly be more hostile to human life, humans stand together. The next day we traveled the long way to Swakopmund, crossing the latitude of Capricorn and reaching an area so desolate and inhospitable – a barren landscape with no apparent end – that I dreaded collapsing.
At one point we ran into some Germans we had met at Sossusvlei. They had been driving off-road and their van had gotten stuck in a sand drift. A passing Samaritan helped dig them up. What if no Samaritans pass?
In the late 19th century, the first German settlers of what became “German South West Africa” traveled in Ochsenwagen, ox wagons, pulled by up to 20 beasts. To cope with sand and gravel, the wagon wheels were wide, the oxen’ feet shod with irons.
At the Swakopmund Museum, an old-fashioned affair with handwritten labels and stuffed animals, there’s a diorama of an ox-drawn train, and pride of place is given to a real wagon, an early form of camping car. These Hamburg and Heidelberg pioneers were tough guys, but they must have felt just like us when they first saw the ocean after crossing the desert.
It was like coming home. After five hours of hard driving, the gravel road turned to asphalt. A sheet of blue ocean hummed in the sea fog, with the ghostly silhouettes of container ships hanging in it. Here, the desert and the sea meet, with nothing in between – on the sandbanks, jackals comfortably make a living preying on seals.
We turned right – north – and followed the coast to Swakopmund. Swakop, as it is called, is comfort food after desert grits, a fantasy built to soothe troubled German spirits after the harshness of endless sand and rock.
Along the waterfront, the palm trees are backlit by the setting sun. The sprinklers play on the lawns. In town, street signage is in German, often in Gothic script, buildings are multicolored, half-timbered, deliberate echoes of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. He must have felt like he was coming home.
That evening we ate at Erich’s, an old-fashioned restaurant where the waiters wear bow ties and the menu includes Oryx Baden-Baden and apfelstrudel. The fish specialty was an impeccably fresh white fish called silver kob, served with potatoes and homemade tartar sauce. And a mug of lager.
The next morning, before taking the home stretch back to Windhoek, I went to the cemetery – always a good place to take the pulse of a community. Just at the edge of the desert, beyond the manicured German graves shaded by palm trees, I found a memorial to the people whose land this was – before the Europeans arrived, drove them out and commit many barbaric and murderous acts.
This episode of Namibian history is passed over in silence at the Swakopmund museum, but the inscription, here on the edge of the cemetery, is quite eloquent: “In memory of the thousands of OvaHerero/OvaMbanderu who perished in mysterious circumstances in the kingdom [sic] of their German colonial masters in the concentration camps… from 1904 to 1908.”
Beyond the memorial, bodies lie scattered in unmarked graves. Beyond the bodies, the Namib Desert begins.
- Nigel Richardson’s trip was organized by the Ultimate travel company (020 3051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk). An eight-night trip costs from £2,450 pp, including British Airways flights, 4×4 hire, bed and breakfast accommodation in Windhoek and Swakopmund, three nights at Kulala Desert Lodge near Sossusvlei and a few meals.
- Erich’s Restaurant (00264 (0)64 405141 – reservation essential) is located at 21 Daniel Tjongarero St, Swakopmund. The other outstanding place to eat in the town is The Tug (00264 (0)64 402356 – also best to book), in an old tugboat on the seafront.
Advice for drivers in Namibia
A pickup, preferably a 4×4, is advised for the gravel roads.
Respect the speed limits: 120 km/h on paved road, 80 km/h on gravel.
Keep the headlights on on gravel roads.
When passing, stay on the right (opposite) side of the road for a good half mile so the plume of dust from your vehicle does not obscure the vision of the overtaken driver.
Take two spare tires.
Slow down in dips in the road.
Allow several hours of extra time for your trip.
Do not drive at dawn, dusk or at night when animals are most active and will cross roads.
Pack plenty of water and snacks.
Watch your fuel and refuel when you can.
Keep emergency numbers with you.
The Bush Telegraph: A Namibian road trip
Richard and Sarah Madden experience one of the world’s greatest adventures as they hit the road in Namibia, passing through extraordinary landscapes, big cats and ghost towns.