Hop on the Desert Express

Nancy Richards hops on the Desert Express for a week-long action-packed train ride across Namibia…

Pictures: John-Clive

Two things I’ve never done before is a) visit Namibia and b) a package tour – so this week-long adventure is clean-slate stuff with no expectations. But I do love trains – and who can resist a trip on the Desert Express?

Departure point is Windhoek’s quaint, historic station built by German Railways in 1912 where the TransNamib Railway Museum completes the nostalgia, with all the trappings of train travel from tickets and schedules to cutlery, crockery, clocks, maps and flags.

On boarding the train, the welcoming drink and red carpet across the platform leading us straight into the bar-lounge carriage is a nice touch, . But taking the biscuit in railway reminiscence is bushy-bearded train driver Petrus Johannes Steenkamp who, after 35 years, is embarking on his final voyage. He gives us a wave from the engine.

Main man of the tour though is guide Kobus ‘smile and greet’ Barnard – tending, shepherding, listening, organising and enlightening with a limitless flow of info.

I could get used to package travelling – all you have to do is show up. So the first thing to learn at the opening briefing in the bar is that there is going to be a lot to absorb of domestic, local, national and global interest, which you can take on, or leave.

It starts with the country, its modest population of just 2.3 million people, arid climate (some places have seen no rain since 2013) and the train itself, launched in 1998 by then President Sam Nujoma, suitably fitted and kitted in period style.

On-board meals are in the Welwitschia dining car, and sleeping is in the tight but neat, private, en-suite coupés in indigenously named carriages – ours is Meerkat.

Although much of the actual touring is done by bus that picks us up daily from the stations en route, travelling by train itself is a major highlight – the passing landscape from the windows is like watching a continuous and compelling painted landscape, a hypnotic backdrop to the abundant buffet breakfasts. And at night the shunting, rolling motion rocks us gently to sleep after a sumptuous supper.

But sleeping is not a priority – there’s way too much to see along the way, as Kobus’ daily, printed schedule reveals. Starting with the first stop, Karibib, a tiny railway town north-west of Windhoek, outside of which the Chinese have taken to marble mining.

From here we disembark and take the bus that travels over the bone-dry Omaruru River to the Tikoloshe root-carving factory and on to Kristall Kellerei where, back in 2008, the Weder family ambitiously undertook viticulture.

Unsurprisingly, the Namibia Wine Route is small – just three wineries, of which Kristall is the largest but, due to lack of rain, the leaves are crisp and dry on the vines and cellar stocks pitifully low.

Manager Olga Kausch demonstrates, however, that there is nothing desiccated about the company spirit, and offers sample sips of their schnapps, liqueurs, brandy and gin made from prickly pears and indigenous monkey orange fruit. Not for the last time do we see that, in the face of drought, Namibians innovate.

In Omaruru, known as the ‘artists town’, an alternative to seeing another curio shop (an inevitability on a package tour, I guess) is a visit to the museum in the old Rhenish Mission House – a touching tribute to the region’s colonial conflict, and Herero and Damara history.

Along the way we hear about the exhausted Rossing uranium mine, see Spitzkoppe peak, wonder at the tall termite towers and stop to witness a welwitschia (national flower) spreadeagled in the sand. One minute we’re in a moon landscape where the movie Mad Max: Fury Road was shot, and the vulnerable desert ravaged by a careless crew – and the next we’re in an oasis called Goanikontes, with date palms, olive groves, llamas, goats and pot-bellied pigs.

Land of contrast is an understatement. Of course, dunes are on the itinerary and those willing and with the physical wherewithal get to scramble to the top of the legendary Dune 7 for a personal Lawrence of Arabia moment. To close the day, infinite flocks of blush-pink flamingos in Walvis Bay are a sight.

There are a number of optional off-train extras like quad biking, but not to be missed are the sea and sand, wet and dry excursions. On a ski-boat off Swakopmond, we watch a pelican float alongside us then hop on to the bows, swallowing fish hand-delivered by young skipper Crystal van Rooyen. She whistles up Eddie the seal for a similar meal – before deftly cracking the champagne and shucking oysters for us landlubbers. We scour the bay for dolphins, drop in on a noisy seal party and admire the lucrative, guano-harvesting raft.

Later in the day, desert guru and fierce protector Tommy Collard takes us deep into 4×4 country, into the dunes to excavate scant growth and to show us the Tiny Five – Namaqua chameleon, sidewinder snake, dancing white lady spider, transparent gecko and the tenacious shovel-snouted lizard, which he dangles like living jewellery from a woman’s ear lobe to illustrate the point. “The currency of life,” says Tommy “is water”, of which, as far as the eye can see, there is virtually none.

Rehabilitative lichen beds, salt works, barking seal colonies, commemorative Khoisan and German stone padrão are all part of another day’s tour, together with a shipwreck on the Skeleton Coast, a rerouted river, a dune golf course and kilometre upon kilometre of desalination pipe stretching across the landscape.

In pretty Swakopmund, where the train finally turns back, there’s urban relief at Anton’s Wi-Fi café, quaint and colourful, German-influenced architecture, endless curio shops (in case you haven’t had enough), and the cute museum that kind of sums up the whole bang Namibian shoot from archaeology and bushman ancestry to heroes and heritage of every persuasion.

Like a honey pot there’s also the Brewing Company on the beach front, a plethora of bookshops and the stylish showcase Kristall Galerie where you can see, at 520 million years, the oldest crystal cluster in the world.

Finally there’s a fling into the wild – game-drive vehicles take us straight off the train and into the gasping bush of Okapuka. Families of warthog rush to greet us, conscious of the feed bucket on board – even the rhino come close enough for touching to receive their snack pack. Luckily the crocs at the remains of the dam stay put, apparently sleeping at a respectful distance.

On a more human level, an aspect of package travel is the pack with whom you travel – the fellow passengers who share with you, in this instance, the train camaraderie, the on- and off-board dinners, the bar chat, the bus and the banter – and the anecdotes and antics just add to the spice.

In Training

Following this trip, organisers JB Tours decided the dear old Desert Express was in need of an upgrade, and the same tour is now on the refurbished Shongololo Express. The train takes 70 passengers and will run twice a year, in June and July 2017. For more details and options see www.jbtours.co.za