4X4 NAMIB DUNE TOUR
Sophia van Taak and Sam Reinders answer the desert’s call
A 4x4 desert tour is the best way to experience the desolation of the Namib Desert dunes and the history of the long forgotten diamond towns south of Walvis Bay. Get in, engage low range and let’s go!
Arusted sign in the Sperrgebiet warns us against taking one more step, in English, Afrikaans and German: “Penalty £500 or one year’s imprisonment.” We’re about 30 km north-west of Aus just beyond the Garub waterhole where the wild horses come to drink. Over the next five days, we’ll be exploring the desert in a convoy of 4x4 vehicles. There’s a concession holder in the group so we can drive into the Sperrgebiet (now part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park) without breaking the law. Few people get to see this part of Namibia…
In our convoy of six vehicles, Sam and I are the only women. The tour leader is Arra (Armand) Basson in a Land Cruiser. With the help of his right-hand men Nessie Kakutu and Muis von Wielligh in a Toyota double cab, he’ll get us to Walvis Bay safely.
The rest of the group consists of Giel Muller and Nico Roets from Joburg (in a Ford Ranger), Wim Prinsloo and his son Steve from Aus (in a Ford Everest), OJ Engling and Helmut Grassreiner from Windhoek (in a Toyota Prado) and Harry Kirchner – also a tour guide – and his assistant Pepe Tjisuta (in a Land Cruiser).
Most of the guys know each other from army days or chance meetings on the road. (It often feels like everyone knows everyone in Namibia.) The rest of us get to know each other over the two-way radios, with interjections from Arra sharing his knowledge about the area: “This domed mountain is called Dikke Willem – the Germans put a heliograph station on its slopes… The bright green plants next to the road are called melkbos. They’re poisonous, but rhino and gemsbok can eat them…”
It’s still early and already the empty landscape shivers in the heat. Through the windscreen the rugged lines of the Namib inch ever closer.
That’s one of the reasons people come to the Namib – to give their 4x4s, which spend most of the year climbing sidewalks, some free rein.
Past Koichab Pan, where Lüderitz pumps its drinking water from boreholes, we stop in the shade of a lone thorn tree to make sandwiches for breakfast. Then we lower the tyre pressure, lock the hubs and follow Harry’s Land Cruiser over the first, official dune of the tour. Some of the guys aren’t used to dune driving, but Harry’s directions keep the convoy moving.
“There’s a dip up ahead… Watch out for that slip face on the right… Giel, are you the one behind me? Let me get out of the way, then speed up as you approach…”
But where has Giel gone? He’s reversed to get more of a run-up. “Giel, how far back are you?” Harry asks.
“He’s coming from the Kalahari border,” someone quips.
Here comes Giel. He races up to the dune and his Ford Ranger glides over the crest with ease. “Daarsy, doeksag,” says Arra. We ride the dunes for hours. At first my stomach does somersaults every time, but soon I start to enjoy it – until Arra makes a sudden U-turn and storms up the next dune in reverse! He smiles when he sees how pale I am: “Just checking to see whether you’re still awake,” he says.
The convoy comes to a stop on the summit of a rounded dune. I’ve wanted to see the Namib up close for years – not the tourist dunes at Sossusvlei, the real deal. It’s a mysterious landscape, a primitive place, where drought lasts a million years and sucks everything dry until only the essential things survive.
Nessie gets out and attaches a rope to the tow bar of Giel’s Ranger, which is stuck in the sand. Sam and I have swapped places – she’s driving with Arra now and I’ve joined Muis and Nessie. To the tune of “Ruiter van die windjie”, we tow Giel out. This is not the first rescue mission today and it won’t be the last. We’re heading north-west – towards the sea – and we’re in no hurry. Muis fiddles with the iPod and Tracy Chapman takes over from Bles Bridges.
“The dunes are getting wilder,” I say. Muis snorts. “Just wait – the fun is only starting.”
He’s not lying. When we finally pull over, my knuckles are whiter than my face.
Helmut sits quietly in OJ’s Prado, staring through the windscreen. “I’m praying for a break,” he mutters when I ask him if he’s okay.
That night we camp on a flat plain surrounded by dunes. My head is filled with everything we experienced today: the silhouette of a gemsbok standing sentry; the roar of sand under our tyres; the Peringuey’s adder slithering across the dune… It feels like I’ve crash-landed on a strange planet where different things matter.
Harry and Pepe are busy preparing a springbok potjie. Arra is halfway up a dune with a satphone, calling home. The Windhoek Germans are in a merry mood and before long the flames are dancing to the tune of their folk songs. From Muis’s bakkie, Tracy Chapman tries to compete: “Gimme one reason to stay here, and I’ll turn right back around…”
That will be easy, Tracy.
Leaving a mark
Boys will be boys. And when you add some engine-powered toys, well, the result is inevitable. That’s one of the reasons people come to the Namib – to give their 4x4s, which spend most of the year climbing sidewalks, some free rein.
But there are some rules: Stay in the tracks left by the convoy – especially in the “streets” between the dunes where the wind won’t cover your tracks, and never drive over a salt pan. It’s open season on the dunes themselves: The wind quickly covers tyre tracks and returns the dunes to their natural state.
I try to relax, but it’s impossible – neither route nor driver is predictable. Like Helmut, I start praying for a break.
When we pull over for a snack, I stare at the ochre dunes decorated with swirls of black ilmenite and magnetite, rusty garnet and silver mica. Did the diamond
miners notice all these beautiful details when they passed through, or was the desert just another obstacle between them and their treasure? Were their eyes only trained to look for shiny specks?
Our destination for the day is near the Haugab and Uri Haugab mountains. We crest one last dune and a huge pan opens up with a granite ridge to the east: Bushman’s Paradise. The 4x4s stick to the path at the base of the ridge until we reach a sheltered area – our campsite for the night.
Late afternoon we drive to the top of the ridge for sundowners. The desert breeze flattens a tuft of grass and its blades leave fine prints in the sand. On the other side of the pan, a puff of sand trails off the crest of a dune.
It’s just after 7 pm on our second day in the desert. That special Namibia feeling has kicked in: the joy of the Great Emptiness.
To the ocean
The dunes are disorientating. I have no clue where we are, but Arra promises that we’ll reach the sea today and shows me the route on his GPS screen.
We see some Cape foxes hiding from the desert wind and the different names for the animals come over the radio: silwervos, Kapfuchs, draaijakkals… “What is a springhaas in English?” someone asks Sam. She already knows the answer: “A bonsai kangaroo!”
The red of the dunes gradually fades until we see the shimmering Atlantic. You won’t find a clump of milkwood trees, a tidal pool or a beach umbrella here: It’s just sand and sea.
I could sit on the dunes forever, but the men are in a hurry – they still want to catch some steenbras or even a kabeljou for dinner.
We slip-slide down to the water below and drive along the beach to Namab Tented Camp, south of Meob Bay, which is used by several tour operators. The resident caretakers, Alex Kootjie and his son Tjokos, are stoking the campfire when we arrive.
The murmur of the waves wakes me the next morning. Five more minutes… Please! It’s nice and cosy in my dark tent, but I can already hear the wind blowing up a storm outside.
There’s a voice at the tent flap – it’s Nessie with some coffee. I could get used to this kind of camping. Namab Camp has other luxuries like beds, hot showers and a lapa with tables where you can talk until late.
Today we’ll explore the die-hard mining towns, but first we’ll go see some fossilised dunes. On the way to the dunes
There’s a voice at the tent flap – it’s Nessie with some coffee. I could get used to this kind of camping.
we take the turn-off to a place called Arra se Gat – two huge dunes with dangerous slopes and a deep gorge between them. Why Arra? There’s no time to ask. Arra himself tears over the rounded crest of the first dune and down the other side. My insides do another somersault. My toes dig into the rubber mat. The speedometer reads 140 km/h. We hit the bottom. Hard. The second dune is so steep I only see a blur of sand. I’m glued to the seat. The engine whines. If we reach the top of the dune at this speed… A flash of blue sky in the windscreen. This is it. Goodbye, world!
I close my eyes as I’m thrown against the door. The seat belt vibrates in my ear as it unspools and catches me just before I hit the windscreen. I wait for the crash but it doesn’t come. Arra made a deft U-turn as we were charging up the dune and now we’re ploughing down towards the bottom again.
When he parks his Cruiser next to the other bakkies, I try to smile but I can’t. Please just take me to the fossilised dunes – I need to experience something that hasn’t moved in centuries. “If you want something done right, ask a German,” says Muis. We’re at Fischersbrunn, a natural spring near Meob Bay. Diamond miners used to fill barrels with water at the spring and transport them to their mining concessions by mule. They also put up irrigation systems and planted vegetable gardens, and fig and peach trees.
In 1913, an 80 km pipeline was laid between the mining towns and water sources at Fischersbrunn and Conception Water near Conception Bay. To complete the project, 350 tonnes of pipe were imported from Germany.
You can see Hollams Bird Island from Meob Bay – there was once a Danish whaling station on this shred of land and the beach is still littered with whale skeletons. Some dilapidated buildings loom in the morning fog: a post office, a police station, a customs office… The isolation must have been hell. “The miners asked for women to be sent to them, but when the first group saw this place, they refused to get off the boat,” says Arra. “So the miners came up with a plan: When the second boat with women arrived, they built fires on the
beach and convinced the captain to only approach land after dark. From afar, Meob looked like a bustling, happy place. The boat left before the women realised what was going on…”
The stretch of land between Meob Bay and Conception Bay was scoured for diamonds about a century ago. We follow an old mining road past cairns marking the mining claims. Parts of the old water pipeline are still visible in places.
There’s little left of the “town” of Holsatia, except a few human skeletons unearthed by the wind. It’s a similar story in Charlottenfelder, although you can still see the A-frame huts where the Herero and Ovambo miners rested after a day of sifting through sand in the blinding heat. In the blown-out storehouse in Grillenberger, you’ll find a jumble of books, bottles and nails. Two ox wagons stand to the side, their iron wheel rims rusted through, wooden spokes faded and cracked.
This was where prospectors calculated daily wages, where wheelbarrows were oiled and where the news arrived in November 1914 that a war had broken out in Europe and all able-bodied men had to report to Swakopmund.
The abandoned buildings remained unchanged until 1920, when Great Namaqua Diamonds bought the mining rights to the area. In 1924, this company merged with Colmanskop Diamonds. They brought in machinery and the towns, especially Charlottenfelder, boomed again. A bakery opened in Meob Bay; ox wagons were replaced with trucks; Conception Bay got a post office and Grillenberger a sickbay.
Then the New York Stock Exchange crashed in 1930 and took the diamond industry with it. By February of the following year, not a single prospector worked in the area any more. They’d dropped everything and left.
A piece of you stays stranded
I can’t find my shoes. I haven’t seen them for five days. But even if I found them under the seat of a bakkie, it would feel wrong to put them on. Just as it feels wrong to return to civilisation today.
The road from Namab Camp via Sandwich Harbour to Walvis Bay
feels much too short. We see one last monument to the diamond era – the wreck of Eduard Bohlen II.
We drive next to the sea, past a seal colony, to our last adventure at Lange Wand, where waves break against steep dunes 150 m high. There is no beach. This is where we have to drive – between the dunes and the deep blue sea.
Any respectable Namib tour leader will tell you to only tackle the 15 km Lange Wand at low tide when you can see where you’re going and when the sand is compact enough for the vehicles to get traction. High tide today is at 3 pm. It’s 2.45 pm. Luckily all the others stayed at Namab Camp – it’s only me, Sam, Nessie, and the experienced guides, Arra and Muis. And they reckon we can make it.
With his left wheels in the salt water and his right wheels on the dunes, Arra speeds along. Waves break against my door but I try not to look. I roll up my window. In front of us, Muis’s bakkie rocks each time a wave strikes. I can see Sam clinging to the window frame.
Arra has one eye on the “road” ahead, and one on the waves. He counts a series of big waves, brakes a little then accelerates as soon as the last one retreats. A sleepy seal waddles out of the way…
Another shipwreck! The Shawnee ran aground in 1976 and it has been ravaged by the waves. But the bridge is still in one piece. As we roar past, curious jackals peek out at us.
We make it through the Lange Wand. Strangely enough, I would turn around and do it all again in a heartbeat if it meant I could sit on a deserted dune one last time. I want to lie down in the roofless sickbay in Grillenberger and imagine what it felt like to wait three months for a doctor to see you. I want to kneel next to the skulls of long-dead oxen buried in the sand and wonder how many loads they carried.
And I want to run my hand down the rough side of an abandoned sieve. Maybe a diamond got left behind…
HOME FOR THE NIGHT. Bushman’s Paradise may not look like your usual Eden, but this pan in Namibia has its own appeal. (Opposite page.)
THE DUNE MASTER. From behind the wheel of his trusty green Land Cruiser, Ou Neef, guide Armand Basson will take you on an unforgettable Namib dune tour.
TOE TO TOE. The lapa at the Namab Tented Camp is clearly a place where many a late-night kuier has played out.
TIME TRAVEL. On its way from Swakopmund to Cape Town in 1909, the Eduard Bohlen II ran aground due to thick mist. Luckily everyone on board survived. After failed attempts to get her afloat again, she served as living quarters for workers from a nearby mine. Now, more than a century later, the wreck (below) lies a couple of hundred metres from the sea. The only signs of life are blackbacked jackals who use it as their den. In the deserted mining towns you still find items from a bygone era – like old medicine bottles and weights that were probably used to weigh the diamonds (opposite page).
SHO’T RIGHT! It’s fun to drive over dunes, especially when the sand roars under your tyres.
FISH FOR YOUR SUPPER. The guys caught steenbras on mussel in the shallower water, and kabeljou behind the breakers.
MR SMUG. Initially you wonder how predators like black-backed jackal can survive here. But you soon see their prey: sea birds and seal carcasses dragged to their desert lairs.