Dreamlike vistas in Namibia
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