TIRASBERG

Meet Gertrud Gräb­ner, granny of the dunes.

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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.

PIC­TURES TOAST COETZER

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.

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