Meet Gertrud Gräbner, granny of the dunes.
Gunsbewys Guest Farm is about 80 km north of Aus on what is known as the most scenic gravel road in Namibia – the D707.
Like most of southern Namibia, this region is sparsely populated. It also doesn’t see many tourists as it’s not near one of the main tourist routes. It’s a place where you can truly appreciate open space and isolation.
East of the D707, the Tirasberg rises over the scrubland. To the west you can see the first dunes of the Namib Desert. The deep red soil adds an otherworldly quality, as if you might bump into the Mars Rover…
My colleague Toast Coetzer spent time at Gunsbewys about four years ago and told me about the owner of the farm, Gertrud Gräbner – an elderly German woman who lives alone on the edge of the desert with only two workers to help her. She sounded like someone I had to meet so I joined Toast on his next visit.
It’s the crack of dawn and Gertrud’s ancient Hilux is already idling outside my room. Toast and I are going with her to look for animals in the dunes – or at least the tracks they left behind.
Early morning is the best time to visit the dunes, even if you’re freezing on the back of a bakkie. Gunsbewys is 10 000 hectares in size, which is relatively small when compared to the other farms in the area. Gertrud and her husband KarlErich bought the farm in 1994. He was a well-known German biologist, documentary filmmaker and producer for the German TV channel ZDF. He passed away in 2000 and Gertrud has been holding the fort alone for more than 16 years.
“I am 84 now and I am astonished that I still exist,” she says with a heavy German accent. “Gunsbewys is the right name for the farm. My late husband always said that it was a gift to be able to live here. It’s amazing how much life there is in these dunes.”
Gertrud uses a hiking pole to climb a steep dune – the first proper dune of the Namib that you encounter from this direction. The fresh tracks of a gemsbok run parallel to ours.
She kneels down to show us the spoor left by nocturnal creatures – beetles, mice, lizards and birds – and explains the habits and movements of a dung beetle in a voice full of wonder. She picks up the scat of an African wildcat – it looks like the cat dined on a golden mole.
Her enthusiasm is infectious. She unlocks a world I’ve always overlooked. Usually I drive through a desert and everything seems lifeless and desolate. But with Gertrud as my guide, I discover an entire universe among the dunes.
It’s still early, but the sun is now high in the sky. We rest on top of a dune and drink some coffee that Gertrud brought along in her backpack. “I want to open people’s eyes so they can learn what nature does in one of the driest places in the world,” she says.
Back at the farmhouse, Gertrud tells us more about her childhood. She was born in Germany in 1932, just before Hitler came to power. “I was raised in a very bad time,” she says. “I was part of a family of ten children and we had very little to eat.”
She was in school when WWII broke out. She remembers the darkness that settled over her home town at night. Everyone had to turn off their lights because there were bombers overhead. “A nice teacher took us to a park to show us the stars,” she says. “The sky was wonderful in that darkness.”
Gertrud trained to become a teacher and she travelled a lot as a young woman, mostly alone. During one such trip – to Ethiopia – she met her husband. Karl-Erich had lived in Lüderitz in the 1950s where he worked as a teacher. He later befriended a family who lived in the Tirasberg. In the 1960s, after having moved back to Germany, he returned to Namibia and shot a black-andwhite documentary film about the Tirasberg dunes, using a 16 mm camera. This was the start of his TV career.
Gertrud says her husband’s passion and work encouraged her to live closer to nature. “In the evenings we talked about nature,” she says. “Never about the neighbours!”
Despite Karl-Erich’s infatuation
with Namibia, Gertrud only went there for the first time after she retired. Shortly thereafter, they bought Gunsbewys. During the first few years they basically lived in the Hilux. “We transported the whole farm with this bakkie. It has more than 440 000 kilometres on the clock and it still works.”
In the beginning Gertrud and Karl-Erich collected all kinds of animal droppings, plants and other materials and created an exhibition in a room next to the farmhouse. The display cases and information on the walls are still there – telling visitors more about the vegetation, wildlife, desert landscape and geology of the area.
Gertrud is also very environmentally conscious. The house doesn’t have electricity or a generator. The only power is generated by solar panels and she does all her cooking with gas. She plants her own vegetables and uses borehole water for irrigation.
She shows me a poem in German by her husband, the words painted onto a wall in the house. “I found the poem in one of his diaries after he died. He spent a lot of time walking alone in the dunes and wrote the poem one evening at sunset. It’s about the freedom you experience here and how small you feel. You don’t think you’re something special. You are just in nature and you have to admire what is around you.”
Gertrud has lived alone at Gunsbewys for 17 years. “I’ve always got on well with myself,” she says. “I’ve never been lonely.”
She regularly visits her son in Germany, but she’d like to stay on the farm for as long as possible. “As long as I can still change a tyre and drive the Hilux, I want to stay here,” she says.
People often ask her how she manages to survive. “I’m used to living with nearly nothing. The main thing is to live, and I like living in Namibia where you have to cooperate with nature.”
As a child she could only see the stars because of a war; now the Milky Way shines brighter than ever above her house, almost every night.
Toast and I say goodbye and follow the farm road back to the D707. I watch Gertrud at the gate in the rear-view mirror. She’s at peace with herself and her thoughts, she’s still curious about the world and she understands her place in the universe. What an inspiring woman.
ON DISPLAY. Gertrud’s collection of local vegetation.
LIVING ON THE EDGE. Climb the first dune of the Namib Desert on the farm Gunsbewys and this will be your view: the farmstead and the Tirasberg in the distance.