If you are a traveller, an adventurer, searching for the true stuff, the Namib desert (in the southern African country with virtually the same name, Namibia) should top your bucket list. This is the story of my trip with Live the Journey through the oldest desert on earth.
The Namib is a seriously sensitive eco-system. Therefore the Namibians are protecting it with an iron fist. So, you guessed it, you cannot Mad Max through it on your own, but Live the Journey operates regular trips with a proper concession grant from Nature Conservation and the Namibian government. You drive your own (or hired) 4×4 but in convoy led by seasoned guides and only where you cannot cause damage. Where the east wind wipes your tracks behind you. At night you camp wild. In a silence that touches your soul.
But no, there is a bigger story behind the story. And that is the story of what this desert does to you; the story of a specific couple. Let’s call them Ray and Sue. It all started some time ago when Sue was diagnosed with cancer. The day the news broke, she knew she had a choice. To die from a deadly disease, or to live with a deadly disease. She chose life. Because she loves life. While she had some of it left, she was going to live it. This attitude and luck and fortune all helped her to conquer her cancer. The doctors declared that she was in remission. Knowing she was given a second chanced, they decided not to waste a single day. That’s when they heard about this trip through the Namib.
Now, Ray is a great guy. Seriously awesome, but absolutely not the Camel man. Nine to five he’s an IT-boffin. But he loves Sue and if she wants to do the desert, he will take her through the dunes. Although he has never done the 4×4 thing. They’ve never camped. But they have a second chance. They are living this thing called life. Now.
We’re playing Solitaire
On own steam and own time, everyone booked on the trip needed to get to the the little village aptly named Solitaire. Well, to the guest farm campsite just out of town. So there the takers were all checking each other out. Checking the 4×4’s out. Who’s going to get stuck and who not? It’s a bit like that moment as a kid before a rugby match when you were thinking, “Gee these guys are huge …”
About right then a 4×4 with a Caprivi Rental sticker on the door comes in at a kind of pace saying “I am not really here.” Getting out, the warm east wind blew through Sue’s beautiful hair. A month or so back, she was wearing beanies. She was laughing out loud, greeting the rainbow while lightning was dancing above the Naukluft mountains. Rain in the Namib. The ultimate symbol of new life.
As Ray flipped open their rooftent for the first time in his life (with Sue bravely trying to reach out and help) the real rain kicked in. That’s when another thing kicked in. Camaraderie. Wordlessly the old hands walked out from under the awning into the rain and helped Ray and Sue to get their humble abode pitched. Back under the awning, formal greetings were made. Dry towels were offered. Wet and cold beers. So too potential friendships.
More or less at that stage the food team called out that dinner was ready. As the guys gathered, Jurgens Schoeman, the leader of the pack, asked a great old-timer, Louis Swart – a retired chaplain – to say grace. I’ve never met him, but at that stage I’ve already kind of liked him. I mean, any man taking on the Namib solo in his 4×4, must be kind of cool. His blessings for the food and the challenge ahead stayed with me. It had a lot of Sue’s story in it. It was spiritual, a message from the universe.
The first dune
“Jacques, I’m stuck!” Ray said over the radio and, as every vehicle were issued with a radio, we all heard him. This was the first dune and we still had to get through 700 kilometres more of them.
“I hear you Ray,” Jacques Delport, the head guide said in his dry, drooling voice. “But your not stuck. There are only two things getting stuck; a bad driver and a dog. You’re only standing still and to get going again, put Caprivi into low gear and reverse. That’s ‘4L’ on the small gear stick and ‘R’ on the big one.
“Ok, let out the clutch and the brake. Push back, More … more … and more. All the way to the top of the dune behind you. Good. Now, put Caprivi in second and give it gas. That’s it. Go, go go! Now third …”
“I’m out!” Ray screamed.
“I know,” Jacques drooled, “I’m standing right next to you.” From there onwards Ray and Sue conquered each new dune a little better. A little easier. From 0x0 to 4×4.
The first night we descended the famous Kuiseb Canyon to the river, which normally is a dried out sandy stretch, but was boiling with white water at that stage. It was raining hard in the desert.
Now it’s time for a commercial break: The sweeper of the convoy (of 12 vehicles) is Len Kootjie and according to me he has the most important job. He had to ensure no one got left behind or lost in the treacherous Namib. Len is the son of Captain Seth Kootjie, the chief of the Topnaars, the people residing around the Kuiseb. This is their land and we were only there because they said it’s ok. Captain Seth’s village was on the opposite shore of the river. We could see it from where we made camp.
The next morning before coffee Len took his Land Cruiser and casually parted the torrid Kuiseb’s water like Moses did the Red Sea to come back with his dad Captain Seth Kootjie. It was great to meet the man allowing us to have an unforgettable adventure. A gift … I felt like it would be the right thing to present something to him.
“I would like to present you with a small token of appreciation, Captain,” I said.
“Coffee,” he answered. “Len tells me you guys have great coffee,” he said with a chuckle. With the mug I added a spare poach of my pipe tobacco. He slipped that in his cloak and smiled. A small token of appreciation I thought at that moment. Three days later in the middle of endless dunes, miles from nowhere, I realised how big a gesture it was. Fortunately I’ve kicked the habit not too long after that.
Shortly after that we broke camp and departed into the desert, one dune street after the other. To the untrained eye, everything looked the same. Looked dead. But the guides made this canvas come alive. We found life. From a Namib Desert Sidewinder snake, barking gecko’s, chameleons, a lizard and silver-backed jackals. Plus a myriad of flyers and crawlers. But also a lot of evidence of destruction; the dunes are spotted with white bleached skeletons.
That night we pitched camp in the deep dunes. As the day got a bit cooler, the kids started dune boarding, while some grown-ups took on the challenge of boule. I went for a walk and suddenly found Sue at the crest of a dune, looking over the endlessness of sand and the sun setting in the west. She talked spontaneously.
“This desert is not for sissies. But then, neither is cancer. I want to inhale this whole desert. Inhale until there is no more space for anything. Until each cancer cell has been suffocated. I’ve never felt so close to life as now.” The words of Louis’ prayer repeated itself in my head.
I turned around and walked away, seeing she needed a moment. Heck, I needed a moment. Behind me I heard the playing kids, the reassuring sounds of a camp and campers and cooking. But every shuffle down that dune turned the volume down. Suddenly it was a quiet as the grave. As the inside of the grave. I looked around me; space forever with no sound. It made me claustrophobic. Weird.
The divide between life and death
I walked down to the bottom and looked up at the huge dune in front of me attempting to reach heaven. It lied stretched out from north to south with the setting sun cutting it in two. Gold in the west and black in the east. Light, dark; yin, yang …
I started contemplating everything we’ve been seeing and witnessing, realising Sue was right. The desert is not meant for the weak. If it gets you alone or off guard, it’s all over. It won’t let itself be tamed if you look at the mining towns (diamonds) of Holsatia, Charlottenfelder and Grillenberger between Conception and Meob Bay. It makes you think of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row with the warm east wind sending the sand in to eat the buildings like a cancer.
The same with the Eduard Bowlen, a freighter that ran aground in 1909. For some or other geological or climatic reason the shore of the Atlantic Ocean at this point slowly withdrew over the years, leaving the rusty carcass stranded high and dry 800 metres from the water. Mercilessly this bulk of a once agile seafarer is slowly but surely being eaten up by the desert.
Somewhere along our route we found a complete skeleton of an ox wagon. Parked in the middle of nothing, miles from nowhere. How it got there and why it ceased to go on from there, only the Namib knows. This desert is 1 930 kilometres long and 160 kilometres at its widest. At its best it is not light music. For many it has been a requiem.
In Nama (the name of the local first inhabitants) the name Namib literally means “the place where there is nothing”. Since Portuguese sea fairer and explorer Bartolomeu Dias saw the “Sand of the Hell” as he referred to it when he saw it for the first time in 1488, westerners have been trying to tame the Namib. But the Namib won’t be tamed. The Namib is not evil, but it is what it is. The world’s oldest desert. And that is not a sandpit to play in. Respect.
That doesn’t mean it is lifeless – as long as you know what you’re doing – I yet again realised seeing a dune bug (Onymacris unguicularis) zooting past me towards the western side of the next dune. This was where he’ll hang for the night. You see, the nightly mist bring moisture in from the Atlantic Ocean’s side. So Mr Buggie faces the wind and literally stands on his head. The moisture from the swirling mist condensates on his body and drips down into his mouth. With a good, thick mist, he drinks 40 percent of his body weight. I don’t know who taught him that, but proof yet again, there is not only death in the desert.
The last dune
“OK, Ray, all yours,” Jacques droned over the radio. In front of Ray it was 65 meters down into the Roller Coaster. A dune putting you in a different category. The final test. As cool as a gecko in the shade, Ray selected first gear in high range and hopped onto the ridge of the dune. Only four days ago he would’ve hung his 4×4, meaning its belly would be the only thing on the sand with all four tyres airborne. And Len would’ve had to tow him back.
He summed it up, switched over to low range and selected second.
“I’m cool, Jacques.”
“You know what to do. Give him gas, Ray. Wax it!”
And Ray waxed. Full bore into the abyss. Over to third gear, 60, 70, 80 kilometres per hour. Bottomed out, up the hill. When he felt a slight loss of power, he veered slightly off course. Fresh sand. Grip. He gave gas and waxed. All the way to the top. With a ceremonious swirl he swooped in, stopping perfectly in line with the other dune steeds parked in a row, facing the late afternoon sun. Grinning he jumped out and walked to the front of the vehicle. Chuffed I guess is how he felt. He looked back over the dunes. Over where he came from. He came a long way in six days.
Sue walked around their vehicle and hugged him. Every dune could here her laugh. She also came a long, long way. Full stop.
“Well done Captain Caprivi.”
Yes, these two, the desert and the opportunity to travel where few people travel taught me a lot. About life. About death. About attitude. Your life could be a desert. Or a paradise. Life happens today. Tomorrow may never come. The time is now. Hearing Sue’s bubbly laugh, watching her new hair blowing in the wind, I recalled Louis’ prayer. It is a poem by famous Belgian priest, poet and painter Father Frans Claerhout:
Lord, you have endless time
help me to live
before I die
If you want to embrace life in the desert, contact us. Now.