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.

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