Mad Max would feel right at home on the Namib road that runs south from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei. Ron Swilling discovers why.
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A whiff of adventure hangs in the air. My pulse quickens. The ancient Namib Desert surrounds me in an expanse of earthy colours, giving me a resolute nod, a firm handshake and a hefty (and dusty) pat on the back. I’m up for it. There is no choice but to slow down, lower my window and let the desert introduce itself kilometre by kilometre. And, of course, pray that my old bakkie lives up to the occasion.
Seemingly a route of uncharted territory, one that once would have been marked with ‘Here be dragons’ on old maps, perhaps old skulls bleached by intense heat and wind, the road is relatively well-travelled. But, as I’ve learnt through experience, there’s no need to become blasé.
When I’m alone on the vast barren plains, with sand radiating out to the horizon in every direction, and not a vehicle in sight, I am intensely grateful for my ten litres of water, supply of food, bedroll and an extra spare tyre.
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The journey begins calmly in coastal Swakopmund, the old German town that I’m convinced was dropped from the heavens to land between an inhospitable desert and an icy sea. That’s how it seems to me, but history tends to disagree, and claims that, in the late 1800s, a small contingent of stalwarts rowed ashore from their ship, to make their home on the barren coast of the fledgling German colony. They built houses in the style of their homeland, a jetty to unload goods in the thundering waves, and a railway into the interior.
Today, Swakopmund has an unusual air, with traces of both Europe and Africa. An activity centre and tourist hub, it has curio and coffee shops, and restaurants lining the wide streets, where the weary traveller can breathe in the cool sea air, and rest from the rigours of the road.
Refreshed, it’s time to hit the road again. There’s no turning back now, the famed dunes of Sossusvlei are calling loudly. It’s about a 30-kilometre drive south to Walvis Bay, a jaw-dropping piece of road between sand dunes and the sea, which always gets my ten-star rating. It’s also the last bit of tar and traffic before the gravel road leading towards the Namib-Naukluft Park and endless plains of nothingness.
Driving into Walvis, I heed the good advice once casually offered by long-time resident Neels Dreyer, who initiated the small and rustic Walvis Bay waterfront when his boat cruises needed a place to dock, and his passengers wanted a mug of hot coffee and a Brötchen (bread roll) after their cruise.
He wisely counselled that ‘must-dos’ in the harbour town include a drive along the dune belt (that can also be traversed inland) and viewing the thousands of flamingos that colour the Walvis Bay lagoon pink in the dry season.
So, I trundle in a comforting diesel rhythm along the esplanade and the road to Paaltjies and the salt works, watching the antics of abundant birdlife before driving to the waterfront for coffee and charm. It’s a quick visit this time around and I have to leave the laid-back watering hole Sarah se Gat (named after a local fishing spot and a legendary fisherwoman) for a more leisurely visit some other time.
When it’s time to say cheers to the desert towns and civilisation, and turn off the Walvis main drag onto the C14, my heart does a jig. I tip my hat as I pass Dune 7, the highest in Namibia. The tar ends and the road becomes a wide channel in the sand. Eventually, even the radio splutters into silence. The desert swallows me up. You gain perspective very quickly out here, when your importance in the grand scheme of things dwindles to humble survival.
After driving through gravel plains that pulse with end-of-days vibes, two short passes – the Kuiseb and the Gaub – break the flatness with chasms that drop to the riverbed. Here, the ephemeral rivers rush down in flood after good summer rainfall in their catchment areas, carrying along trunks of massive trees like matchsticks. Visitors that arrive in their wake, like me, are left wondering about the pile of wood resting peacefully in the dry riverbed.
The passes provide fine opportunity to stretch the legs, breathe deeply, explore, take photos and imagine the river strutting its stuff. I am suitably impressed. The Kuiseb Canyon is also where geologist Henno Martin, author of The Sheltering Desert (a good desert read), hung out with his friend Hermann Korn to avoid internment during World War II.
After Gaub, I screech to a halt at the Tropic of Capricorn sign – a landmark on the long road – just in time to see fellow travellers clambering up it for photo opportunities. I join the happy snappers at this sign marking 23° South, the southernmost point on the sun’s annual pilgrimage. It’s decorated with colourful stickers and names scrawled by many a passer-by.
The guys disappear in a cloud of dust and I continue in desert reverie until the popular and busy frontier stopover, Solitaire. Although it has blossomed madly over the years from its humble beginnings, Solitaire still holds ample appeal.
It has a bevy of old motor vehicles in various stages of decay, an old-fashioned grocery store, a fuel station (with, importantly, a tyre-repair shop), a blackboard on the outer wall listing the annual rainfall, a restaurant and a bakery where huge doorstop slices of Moose McGregor’s famous apple pie
Moose made his claim to fame when he moved into Solitaire and started making fresh bread and apple pie. Sadly, he passed away a few years back, but the pie lives on.
Now the landscape transforms as the vehicle eats up the last 80 kilometres to Sesriem, the gateway to one of Namibia’s top attractions – Sossusvlei – where purple-hued mountains vie with the grand dunes and dry pan for celebrity status.
Nearing Sesriem, dust billows from the sudden road traffic around the popular site, making visibility difficult. I switch on my headlights and reduce speed. The dust forms a layer of frosting on my skin and my hair, which stiffens into a wild halo. I don’t care. I have reached Desert Utopia, where someone from a loftier plane must have had a blast sculpting the sensuous rows of gigantic dunes. The road through them is mesmerising.
It is just a foretaste. Deadvlei is a step further into the magical and unfamiliar realm. The dead trees waltz around the cracked arena of the pan, frozen in time. I leave Big Daddy Dune that stands sentry above the pan and the forever-dancing trees, continuing to nearby Sossusvlei, which is best seen from a height.
Big Mama Dune calls me for the climb and I trudge up her slope. The wind whistles, trying to cover my tracks the moment they are made. Finally, I am in a world of handsome orange dunes high above the pan, the final resting place of the Tsauchab River, which is thwarted from its journey to the sea by the towering dunes.
Here it curls into a snug ball and goes to sleep, filling the pan sometimes for a few months – a rare time of birdsong and water ripples in the desert – before it slowly sinks into the sand. Hyena and jackal tracks remain etched into the hardened mud, reminding visitors of more abundant periods, as does the row of camelthorn trees drinking the underground water along the river course.
The desert invites imagination, introspection and reflection. Sitting on the grand copper dune on top of the world, I ponder life, the universe and everything (thanks to Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy for that great line). I ruminate on the importance of water in the desert, the
seasonal cycle of the river and the otherworldly beauty of the place.
It’s as if this sandy corner of the Namib Desert received a heaped spoonful of beauty way back in time. Its profound presence makes it not just a highlight of a roadtrip, or something to tick off on some been-there-done-that bucket list, but a place that makes a deeper impression. A place where beauty accumulates, enriching us as human beings and urging us to be guardians of the planet.
With all this desert energy, I run down the dune shrieking like a carefree child. It’s time to meet my mates, erect my tent, get supper on the campfire and sit back under a heaven of stars. The brightest in the universe.