Meet Boesman Davids, the man who loves nothing.
The C14 gravel road links Solitaire with Walvis Bay, cutting through parts of the Namib-Naukluft Park for 234 km. The last time I drove this road was in December 2003 in my Nissan 1400 bakkie – with no water, air conditioning or radio. I was on my way to Swakop to attend a New Year’s concert featuring Valiant Swart and Karen Zoid. For 234 km I didn’t see another person or vehicle, only a few wild horses, springbok and gemsbok.
Today I’m on the C14 again, but I’ll only be doing a short stretch. It’s June but it’s still hot outside – the desert doesn’t pay much attention to seasons. Toast Coetzer and I are filming our 2016 TV series
Weg Agterpaaie and we have an appointment with Boesman Davids on his farm Charé, 34 km north of Solitaire.
We haven’t met Boesman before. He was brought to our attention by Jermanneke Havemann, one of the magazine’s regular contributors. Jermanneke told us that Boesman knows the desert better than most, he’s always barefoot and he’s married to a Japanese woman. He sounded like a guy we had to meet!
There wasn’t much on the Internet that could tell me more about Boesman, save for a short video that proved he’d been on TV before – on an episode of the British series New Lives in the Wild.
Presenter Ben Fogle stands next to Boesman in the desert. “I see a dune,” says Ben.
“I see life,” says Boesman.
We almost miss the turn-off to Boesman’s farm. The only indication is a small sign that says “Campsite 2 km”, with two hiking boots and two baby booties dangling from it.
The road winds deeper into the empty landscape until we reach a campsite with ablution facilities and Boesman’s house. Except for the quiver tree in the garden, there’s nothing growing here that could be described as “lush”.
A little girl runs over, with 52-year-old Boesman following close behind. He’s barefoot, as promised, and radiates a calmness that money can’t buy. His daughter’s name is Laila and she’s three years old. His wife Yuri also comes out to greet us – in fluent Afrikaans. She carries their four-month-old son Rainy on her hip.
We all get into Boesman’s truck, which has been turned into a game-viewing vehicle, and drive out into the desert, towards a wall of mountains on the western horizon. Herds of springbok and gemsbok graze in the distance.
We pull up to a dune covered in Bushman grass. Laila is in her element: She wants to look for spiders and roll down the sand.
“This mountain range is part of the Great Western Escarpment,” Boesman explains. “It runs from South Africa to the other side of Angola. Sand storms blow in and dry everything out – that’s why it’s a desert. We’re right on the line where the semi-desert meets the desert proper.”
When you farm with dunes, you don’t want rain. “Rain just confuses the desert,” Boesman says. “It hardens the sand making it difficult for toktokkies and lizards to breathe. They need the sand to be soft. Even without rain, a desert ecosystem still depends on plants. A gemsbok can live its whole life without water. It eats plants at night, which gives it the moisture it needs. We get our moisture from the ocean. It’s enough for us.”
Boesman is worried about how few sand storms there have been in recent years: “The storms carry pieces of plant material down from the mountains for small animals to eat. They uproot the grass and make the sand soft again. But we haven’t had a good storm in a while…”
Two decades ago, Boesman lived another life. He was Gideon Davids, an insurance broker from Windhoek who lived in a big house and drove a flashy car (while wearing shoes).
“One day I looked around at all the people in the city and I realised I was lonely,” he says. “I was earning good money, but I was poor. So I decided to leave everything behind.”
The desert was calling. Boesman was born in Keetmanshoop and went to school in Tsumeb. His father taught him about the desert. “He showed me how it worked and taught me to love it,” Boesman says. “The desert is where I find happiness.”
His boss didn’t approve when he retired. Boesman remembers the man’s almost-prophetic words: “He told me, ‘You’re like a Bushman. You’re leaving all this behind to go out into the desert naked.’ Since that day I called myself Boesman.”
Boesman’s first desert home was under a tree in the Sesriem campsite. He started offering tours to Sossusvlei and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the desert and his passion soon made him a popular guide with tourists. His postal address was literally: “Boesman, Sossusvlei, Namibia”. Letters sent to this address still find their way to him.
Working as a tour guide is how he crossed paths with Yuri. “She came to Sossusvlei for two days,” he says. “When she returned to Japan we sent handwritten letters to each other. And then she came back.”
The couple immediately “moved in together” under the tree at Sesriem.
“It’s just the way it was. We had nothing – you don’t really need anything. We had a clothes trunk and a sleeping bag and that was it.”
Yuri hails from Nagano in Japan, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. It’s basically the polar opposite of Solitaire. “Yes, it’s a little different here,” she admits. “And there are fewer people.”
Boesman says that even as a child, he didn’t really like fancy stuff. “I wanted to live a simple life and that’s what the desert offers me. The desert is a friendly place. It embraces everyone. Adults become children in the desert. It’s beautiful if you understand it. I love nothing and that’s why I love the desert.”
Twelve years ago, Boesman and Yuri bought this remote farm. There are dunes on the property, which made it possible for Boesman to offer his tours in his own backyard.
“I didn’t want to put up a big sign or advertise, but I had to show people how to get here. That’s how the sign came about: I hung two shoes from a pole. When Laila was born someone added a pink baby bootie and when Rainy arrived they added another.”
Now it’s time to look for animals on the dune. Boesman points out faint tracks and all the living things so easily overlooked or stepped on. “Spider, spider, where are you? Look there’s lizard spoor!” he says. Laila giggles excitedly; she knows what’s coming next. Boesman grabs a wedge-snouted lizard from the sand. “You just follow the tracks until they stop. If you need to survive in the desert, catch one of these. It’s very nutritious. Fortunately I’ve never been hungry enough…”
Finally Laila gets her way and we roll down the slope. “Come, Daddy!” Laila calls. It’s been a while since I’ve rolled in the sand. Boesman is right: Adults turn into kids in the dunes.
“It’s a privilege to raise our children here,” Boesman says. “They learn so much more than they do behind a computer. Laila has seen a ewe give birth. She can identify the spoor of a spider. In the mornings when we get up we say, ‘Good morning tree, good morning dunes, good morning clouds, good morning shrubs.’ Then we walk around and look for spoor. She lives in a different world. I want to raise them both this way, living close to nature. I want them to also love nothing.”
And how does it feel to return to Windhoek and encounter former colleagues in their shiny shoes? Boesman laughs. “They look at me and think ‘poor guy’ and I look at them and think ‘poor guy’. It’s a rich life when you walk barefoot.”
“You don’t really want to meet people like Boesman and Yuri,” Toast says later. “You don’t want to interfere with how they live. That’s how remarkable their life is. It’s so different from what we’re used to or will ever know. I’m just amazed.”
It’s true. Boesman not only taught me how to survive, but also how to live: “You have to be able to love nothing.” I want to carry those words with me, because when you love nothing, you actually love everything.
SANDPIT ON STEROIDS. Boesman Davids and his family live (and make a living) in the dunes of the Namib Desert.
HAPPY FAMILY. Yuri and Boesman Davids with their children, Rainy and Laila.