Dream­like vis­tas in Namibia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - GAVIN BELL

The ghost town in the for­bid­den zone closes at one o’clock. Ven­ture in af­ter dark and it’s likely your only com­pan­ions will be hye­nas and a green spec­tre said to prowl the derelict hos­pi­tal. The old diamond-min­ing camp of Kol­man­skop in the desert wastes of Namibia was once filled with dreams of fame and for­tune; now it is filled with fad­ing mem­o­ries and sand.

The nearby town of Luderitz is not at the end of the world, it just seems like it. Perched on a windswept, rocky hill above a small bay, it lies be­tween the burn­ing sands of the Namib Desert and the freez­ing wa­ters of the south At­lantic in one of the harsh­est and most haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful land­scapes on earth. Twenty-five years ago peo­ple were danc­ing in the streets of Luderitz, cel­e­brat­ing in­de­pen­dence from decades of Ger­man and South African rule. As a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, I re­ported on the joy, hopes and fears of a coun­try that seemed to be wak­ing from a long slum­ber to de­ter­mine its own fate in a chang­ing world.

The end of apartheid in Namibia, un­der UN su­per­vi­sion, was a far more peace­ful tran­si­tion than the vi­o­lent tribal clashes that rocked South Africa. The new ethos is summed up in the rul­ing SWAPO party’s most re­cent elec­tion slo­gan: “Free­dom, sta­bil­ity, pros­per­ity.” So far so good. The once sleepy cap­i­tal, Wind­hoek, and the pop­u­lar coastal re­sort of Swakop­mund are big­ger and busier, but the rest of the coun­try con­tin­ues to live qui­etly in har­mony with the time­less rhythms of an an­cient land. In Namibia peo­ple elect gov­ern­ments that come and go, but na­ture is the eter­nal ruler.

The bush­men hunter-gath­er­ers who once roamed light-footed over its bone-dry gravel plains and shift­ing sands called it ‘‘the land God made in anger”. Per­haps God did so with a wry smile be­cause its hori­zons en­com­pass dream-like vis­tas im­bued with a pro­found still­ness that are en­chant­ing to the eye and balm to the soul. Namibia doesn’t do crowds. In a coun­try more than three times big­ger than Bri­tain, there are barely a cou­ple of mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. The ethos of its tourist in­dus­try is bou­tique rather than brash. There are no big ho­tels out­side Wind­hoek, and as of­ten as not game lodges and guest farms are kilo­me­tres up gravel roads in the mid­dle of nowhere cater­ing to only a hand­ful of guests. The re­sult is pure es­capism in a safe and serene land of friendly peo­ple. And tame spring­bok. A few hours af­ter step­ping off a plane, my wife and I are din­ing al­fresco by can­dle­light, bare feet in the sand, in the com­pany of a baby or­phan an­te­lope with a fond­ness for ginger bis­cuits.

Be­fore din­ner we are in­tro­duced, at a safe dis­tance, to three other adopted or­phans on the Ba­gatelle Kala­hari Game Ranch. The male chee­tahs, spon­sored by a con­ser­va­tion fund, roam in a large, fenced en­clo­sure. “They would not sur­vive in the wild but we try to keep them as wild as we can,” our guide ex­plains. “We do not pet them.”

We are head­ing south into lesser-vis­ited re­gions, in search of the spirit that en­tranced me as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. We find it be­yond Mari­en­tal on the B1 road that runs as straight as an arrow through the heart of Namibia. The semi-arid sa­vanna is re­morse­lessly flat, save for a long, low es­carp­ment to the east, and swept by bib­li­cal il­lu­sions — whirling winds that whip col­umns of red dust into pil­lars of fire. Fluffy, cot­ton­wool clouds hang mo­tion­less in a hot cobalt sky, empty apart from the dark speck of a mar­tial ea­gle.

Far­ther south, we hit our first gravel road. These are the life­lines that tra­verse the coun­try, con­nect­ing re­mote farms and game lodges, and once one be­comes ac­cus­tomed to them they are a lot of fun. The lone­li­ness of the long-dis­tance trav­eller is ad­dic­tive on long stretches over plains and desert where ve­hi­cles are few and far be­tween, and spot­ted kilo­me­tres away by their dust clouds. It helps to have mu­sic to ride along to. Bob Mar­ley’s jaunty rhythms pass the dis­tance hap­pily, but pri­mal wilder­ness is a per­fect au­di­to­rium for the mag­nif­i­cence of Beethoven’s Fifth.

This par­tic­u­lar road leads us into a parched land­scape of rocks and sparse veg­e­ta­tion stretch­ing to far hori­zons of misty hills, evoca­tive of film sets for One Mil­lion Years

BC and Star Wars. Di­nosaurs and Luke Sky­walker would be equally at home here. The big lo­cal at­trac­tion is a deep gash in the ground. Fish River Canyon is claimed to be the big­gest in the world af­ter Ari­zona’s grand af­fair. The main view­point is on the edge of a precipice over­look­ing a con­vo­luted twist in the river known as Hell’s Bend. It is well named. The tor­tured ter­rain has an in­fer­nal as­pect that would be fa­mil­iar to Dante.

Head­ing west for the At­lantic coast, we en­ter a world of mi­rages. Crest­ing a rise, we are con­fronted by a vast ex­panse of wa­ter that turns out to be a sea of blue-green bush­man grass wav­ing in the wind. The road it­self shim­mers in the heat with il­lu­sions of wa­ter, and wind-driven sand gives the im­pres­sion the tar­mac is on fire. This is the spir­i­tual essence of Namibia, a dream-like land­scape of desert wash­ing around in­sel­berge, rocky moun­tains ris­ing from the plain like is­lands. On the last few kilo­me­tres into Luderitz, there is a re­duced speed limit with signs warn­ing of drift­ing sand, wind and brown hye­nas.

The town bears the name of a to­bacco mer­chant from Bremen who bought most of the coun­try in the 1880s from tribal chiefs for a few hun­dred pounds and 260 ri­fles. He failed to find the gold and cop­per he was look­ing for and drowned when his boat sank in a storm on his fi­nal ex­pe­di­tion. A few years later, a rail­way labourer found a shiny stone that trig­gered a rush to one of the rich­est diamond fields on the planet.

Luderitz still has a pi­o­neer­ing Ger­man feel among build­ings with domes, tow­ers and tur­rets, and win­ter­gar­den sun­rooms. Hard-nosed fish­ing boats built for heavy seas crowd the har­bour, and most evenings pick-up

trucks crowd out­side Bar­rel’s Bar and Res­tau­rant. This is ev­ery­thing a hostelry at the end of the world should be. Warm, friendly and quirky, it is a place for lo­cals and any­one else who passes by to eat, drink and be merry.

The town lies on the edge of the sper­rge­biet (for­bid­den zone), a vast tract of strictly guarded land that so far has pro­duced 100 mil­lion carats of di­a­monds of un­ri­valled 90 per cent gem qual­ity. The hos­pi­tal in the ghost town of Kol­man­skop boasted the first X-ray ma­chine in south­ern Africa, pri­mar­ily for de­tect­ing sparklers con­cealed in the bod­ies of work­ers.

Other ghosts are said to haunt a hik­ers’ cabin in a gully near the town of Aus. They were last seen in hu­man form in 1934 in a Hud­son Ter­ra­plane car, try­ing to es­cape de­tec­tives with a haul of di­a­monds. A short hike from our chalet, we find their bullet-rid­dled car pre­served in the dry desert air. We do not stay for a full moon, when the for­mer oc­cu­pants are said to re­turn, search­ing for their loot.

Our stone chalet is typ­i­cal of the qual­ity lodges that have been de­vel­oped in re­cent years. Co-owner Piet Swiegers, grand­son of a diamond de­tec­tive, says, “The coun­try is po­lit­i­cally sta­ble, and it seems the gov­ern­ment wants to keep it that way. Tourism has ex­panded in a big way, and it’s good for all of us.”

If ever you find your­self ex­am­in­ing a nest of so­cia­ble weaver­birds, it is well to know how to avoid be­ing em­braced by a Cape cobra that may be lurk­ing within it. This is one of the use­ful sur­vival skills im­parted by Se­bas­ti­aan (“Seb”) Kaz­imbu on a three-day guided hike with Tok Tokkie Trails in the Namib Nauk­luft Na­tional Park. There are no five-star ho­tels in the desert but there are what Seb calls “thou­sand-star’’ ho­tels — overnight camps be­neath dark skies ablaze with con­stel­la­tions and gal­ax­ies. Over din­ner, he con­fides that life on Earth is bet­ter since Namibia gained in­de­pen­dence. “It’s hard to imag­ine that we had apartheid in our coun­try just 25 years ago. Peo­ple have just joined hands to­gether.”

Our “planet suite’’ is a cou­ple of re­mark­ably com­fort­able sleep­ing bags, a long-drop toi­let and a bucket shower. Room ser­vice is pre-dawn tea and cof­fee served by Seb and his as­sis­tant Frans. One morn­ing I see Frans stand­ing per­fectly mo­tion­less, his African pro­file etched against the crim­son of the ris­ing sun, in a strik­ing im­age as old as hu­man­ity it­self.

Any­one con­tem­plat­ing a hare-brained scheme to send peo­ple on one-way trips to Mars might con­sider vis­it­ing Sos­susvlei in­stead. Its gi­ant red dunes are con­sid­er­ably closer and more ap­peal­ing — a sym­phony of sand and chiaroscuro sculpted by na­ture into the sweep­ing, sur­real im­ages of a Dali paint­ing. The salt and clay pan con­tin­ues the artis­tic theme as an ar­bo­real grave­yard, a bone-dry de­pres­sion dot­ted with the skele­tons of trees that died of thirst 1000 years ago. You can keep Mars.

On our fi­nal leg we head north to a mini-Juras­sic Park of honey-coloured gi­ant boul­ders that is a haven for bird life. At dawn and dusk, the lux­ury tented camp of Erongo Wilder­ness Lodge is a con­cert hall for bird­song, with rock­run­ners and rosy-faced love­birds com­pet­ing to pro­duce the sweet­est melodies. One elu­sive crea­ture makes no sound as it pads to an il­lu­mi­nated wa­ter­hole one evening, to the ex­cite­ment of watch­ers on the res­tau­rant pa­tio. The leop­ard calmly drinks its fill, stands and sniffs the air, and slips silently away. For birds and beasts Erongo is a Gar­den of Eden, and it’s not a bad hang­out for homo sapi­ens ei­ther.

We don’t need to go on game drives. Herds of oryx, spring­bok and ze­bra watch us cu­ri­ously as we drive by, lone jack­als trot off at our ap­proach, warthogs scam­per into the bush, and moorhens stop stupidly in the mid­dle of the road. We don’t en­counter any mosquitoes but en­joy the dreamy lan­guor of sleep­ing be­neath bug-proof net­ting.

Back home in the real world of rush-hour traf­fic, I find my­self long­ing for the soli­tude of Namibia’s lonely gravel roads and for the end­less, silent dream­scapes that they tra­verse. With or with­out the ghosts. • namib­i­a­tourism.com.na • tok­tokki­etrails.com • ba­gatelle-kala­hari-gam­er­anch.com • eron­gow­ilder­ness-namibia.com

Clock­wise from far left, the ghost town of Kol­man­skop; the Hud­son Ter­ra­plane car wreck; oryx in the desert; Erongo Wilder­ness Lodge; the coastal town of Luderitz

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