It’s not every day that a journey to the moon is in the offing, except in Namibia, where the extraordinary is commonplace. And where, an easy 30 kilometres from Swakopmund, on tar, salt and gravel roads extending from the Dorob National Park to the sprawling Namib-Naukluft National Park, I find myself stumbling onto the moon. Rather, should I say, stumbling onto the astonishing Moon Landscape of the Eronga region, reached on
a road that gives no sign of being a runway into such desolate magnificence.
“In geology, this area of the Eronga region is referred to as badlands,” Bawden Khafula, guide at Charly’s Desert Tours, tells me when I join the afternoon trip, and we set off into remote areas where a 4×4 is needed. “It’s like Death Valley in California, and the Jordanian Desert.” There’s nothing negative about the name badlands, it’s just a geological term referring to a landscape of gullies and ridges, crafted by erosion and coloured in earthy, chocolate shades.
Besides the chemical and mechanical weathering from fog and extreme temperatures, the 500-million-year-old Damara granites, mica schists and dolerite dykes in the Namib have also been shaped by the underground Swakop River that only reaches the sea in years of exceptional rainfall.
Here, in this north-western section of the 50 000km² Namib-Naukluft National Park, which features the ancient Namib Desert and is the fourth-largest nature reserve in the world, time has a different meaning. It has, after all, taken the Swakop River two million years to carve the mountains and plains alongside it into a landscape so rugged and devoid of vegetation it is now referred to as the Moon Landscape, or Moonscape.
On our tour today, the ancient Namib Desert in Eronga is playing mischievously with us. An unexpected rain shower has turned the easy crossing over the dry riverbed into a hair-raising careen over slippery mud. The wind is howling and the day is hotter than hell. But the group is in good spirits and interested in all Grandad Namib has to offer.
Bawden points out the unusual desert flora that survives on moisture from the coastal fog, and we soon come across the green !nara bushes with their spiny, round fruit and strange flowers. “The !nara melon is of great significance not only to the Topnaar people along the Kuiseb River, but to animals like gemsbok and black-backed jackal,” he tells us. “The Topnaar boil it to make a porridge, and sun-dry it to make a fruit leather. The seeds can be eaten as a snack, and pressed into a delicious oil.”
The 1000 year plant
The tenacity of the flora and fauna here ensures their survival against all odds. “The desert looks dead, but it brims with life,” Bawden says. He takes a dollar-bush leaf, with its rounded leaves reminiscent of the shape of a dollar coin, and squeezes it in his hand. Moisture drips out. He pours a few drops of water on one of its star-shaped pods and it contracts.
“It opens when the seeds need to be dispersed by the wind, then you’ll see the pods spinning like wheels along the desert floor. When it gets to a place where it can germinate, it closes up and waits for moisture.”
Other intriguing specimens in Eronga are the tsamma melon (welcome food in the desert), the Aloe asperifolia (good for skin complaints), the ice plant with its beads of moisture, corkwood or kanniedood, Commiphora glaucescens (related to the biblical frankincense and myrrh), lithops (aka ‘living stones’), hoodia that is traditionally chewed by the San to suppress their appetite when on a hunt, and the exquisite Namib edelweiss. All blend into the desert environment, without flaunting their benefits or beauty. When we reach a rock full of lichen, a symbiosis of algae and fungi, the lichen absorb water drops from Bawden’s bottle and transform into a soft green.
As we travel through Pajero Canyon (an ad was once shot here, giving the canyon its nickname) and pass a ridge with a dark dolerite mohawk, we drive into a section that some of us have been waiting for –Welwitschia Valley, where several welwitschia plants are spread like overgrown flowers on the dry sand. Bawden leads us to the two-leafed plants, endemic to the Namib Desert and found in southern Angola and Namibia.
“The welwitschia was first studied and documented by botanist Friedrich Welwitsch,” he tells us. “Hence the scientific name Welwitschia mirabilis.” Indeed, it’s said that Welwitsch fell to his knees in awe when he discovered this majestic desert plant in 1859.
“They can live for more than a thousand years and the seed can remain dormant for a very lengthy period, waiting for ideal conditions. This relic from the Jurassic Period is a gymnosperm – a cone-bearing seed plant. And they outlive every person who studies them,” he laughs.
The fountains in the desert
We leave the Eronga Moon Landscape as the sun dips in the sky, passing the 1907 checkpoint that demarcated the boundary of the former British enclave of Walvis Bay and the German colony. This is the spot where the desert turns green, nourished by the underground water of the Swakop River, with tamarisk, ana and camel-thorn trees marking the watercourse.
It’s also home to Goanikontes, one of the early farms in the area, now called Goanikontes Oasis Rest Camp. I make my way there the next day to meet the Baard family who took over the rest camp in 2018. Sitting under the palm trees on the lawn outside the old farmhouse, Dirkie Baard relates some of the history. He is passionate about the place and incorporating the history of the farm into the rest camp, keeping the original building and adding a small museum inside the old house.
“There were seven fountains here,” he says. “In the early days it was the fountains that attracted Herero and Nama travellers, who would stop to water their animals. This was the last place near the coast where you could get fresh water.”
Some say that the name ‘Goanikontes’ is derived from the Nama words #goande//huidas, meaning the place where overcoats were removed, referring to the time when ox wagons ventured upcountry from the Kuiseb River. When they reached Goanikontes and the temperature rose, they were quick to shed their heavy coats.
Travelling by ox wagon
Dirkie fills me in on the families who made their home here over the years. “In 1849, the first permanent family to settle at Goanikontes was the Dixons. This was a cattle post, where Peter Dixon and his partner Thomas Morris bought cattle from the Herero for export to St Helena island. They had a trading company in Walvis Bay.” He adds that there are fascinating stories popping up everywhere, and the Baards are uncovering them as they spend time at the farm, renovating and enlarging.
“The Hrabovsky family farmed here from 1911 and the farm remained in the family until 1979. They were big-time farmers, and built water canals for irrigation, growing all the fresh produce for Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.”
As the story goes, Aladar Hrabovsky was on his way by ship from Hungary to German East Africa when the ship stopped over in Swakopmund and, after a night of partying, he decided not to embark the following morning. His wife soon joined him, and became known for baking the finest Viennese cakes, and bringing a touch of Austria to the Swakop valley.
“Goanikontes was a hub for everyone at the coast. It played a large role in the development of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund,” Dirkie explains. “The riverbed was the main road inland. Travelling at night in the riverbed was dangerous because of the large herds of buffalo that could easily destroy your ox wagon.” Later on, the Baaiweg (or Bay Route) on the plateau was used, providing passage through the desert.
The red fog
Goanikontes was a popular grazing and watering site between Walvis Bay and Windhoek until the railroad was built in 1912. After the Hrabovsky family sold the farm, it was passed down a string of owners, who built the bungalows and opened the restaurant and created an oasis that attracts locals and tourists for Sunday braais, lunches, and coffee and cake.
Dirkie whistles for his dog and gives me a short tour of the campsite, bungalows and chalets, and the petting zoo that houses an assortment of animals ranging from ponies, miniature goats, ‘kitchen cleaners’ (pigs), alpacas and emus to quails, finches and lovebirds.
When I leave, Dirkie expresses his love for the desert and the Moon Landscape. “I drive this road twice a day at different times,” he says. “Every hour it looks different because of the shadows and the colour of the rock formations. Sometimes the fog is pushing and hangs above it all, or else the valley is full of dust that gives it a red glow.”
It’s been a full lunar experience and the drive to the Moon Landscape and Goanikontes remains one of my favourite day trips from Swakopmund. As I reach the plateau, I look at the Moon Landscape spread below and feel I have journeyed to another place, another time. To the moon and back, in a day. I like that.
Charly’s Desert Tours +264 (0)64 404 341 www.charlysdeserttours.com
Goanikontes Oasis +264 (0)64 405 976/979 www.goanikontes-oasis.com
Note: Self-drivers must obtain a permit for the Namib-Naukluft Park from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Swakopmund.