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Archive for March, 2014

Part 2 – The Off Road Trip

Solitaire was our last encounter with civilization until we entered Walvisbay five days later. Earlier than usual we ticked the checklist: Soft (VERY soft) tires, test radios, extra fuel and water. After a brief breakfast meeting, we fell into convoy. The line of Toyotas followed the guide (ALWAYS in his tracks) and retained their sequence for every specific day. The two Johnnies heeded the back, one with the car under his right arm and steering wheel steadfast in the left while the other Johnny displayed a permanent grin/grimace (pain or pleasure?)

A lot of two-way radio exchange happened during the first part of the trip. It consisted mostly of essential guiding and information, intercepted by sporadic teachings and reprimanding when the bantering interfered. Later, the tiny stresses accompanied by a bit of anxiousness could be detected in the voices. I was convinced mostly in mine because I didn’t know what to expect. The unknown and the surprise factor gnawed at my fragile nerve endings, depleting energy and inducing exhaustion resulting at early nights and earlier mornings.

7. Nambia

Fairy circles and soft rolling hills Naukluft Reserve

It was the beginning of several days of changing faces, breathtaking in its otherworldly appearance – the facets of the Namib; strangely beautiful; weirdly intriguing. From gentle sandy-soft rolling ‘hills’ with fairy circles to unforgiving hard gravel tracks consisting of bladed volcanic rock. From promising clouds over a Saagberg to the Mordor-like kloof of black volcanic folds on the banks of the Kuiseb river.  Crossing wide dune streets and passing by buried towns. Traversing dry riverbeds and slipping down the steep faces of the walking dunes. Playing in giant toktokkie holes and chasing egotistical triumphs up slippery slopes, testing the skills of man combined with the power of machine.

9. Namibia

Slipping down a mild face close to Olifantsbad camp

Only in retrospect can I appreciate the skillful conditioning tactics our guide slipped into the everyday increasing challenges of these dune expeditions. Initially crawling up sandy steps, bumping and sliding down grassy-patched hills where carcasses of burned out cars make for good stories – grass got stuck under the cars and between the radiator and the grill, which combusted in the heat of day aggravated by over use of horse power – quite the fear factor to gain obedience. Later more challenging ups and downs requiring intimate knowledge and interaction with one’s vehicle, until by the end of the trip – total surrender. That place where the thrill of the roaring approach of soft dune to tumble over and down a 130 m slip face, creating a roar of a different kind, became the highlight of the day.

Soon the 4 x 4 driving settled into a rhythm of checking and changing and a different world of communication. ‘Check’ the traction control before starting. ‘Change’ to ‘low range’ before venturing down a slip face. Essentials like reading the dunes and following the tracks became habit.  Two-way radios brought along new vocabulary:

-‘gooi! – gooi! – gooi!’ indicated an anxious motivation for more speed

-‘wag’ or ‘stadig nou’ meant as a warning of slow approach and even danger

‘kan maar kom’ spelt the subtle difference between disaster and exhilarating achievement.

– ‘affie‘ became a form of endearment for a sharp descent.

– Anything longer than ten meters and steeper than 36 degrees is called a ‘slip face ‘.

 The ‘steeriness’ (eerie stillness/still eeriness) of my first ‘slip face’ surpassed the sweatiness of my missed heartbeats the moment I jack-knifed into the downward dog position. That moment when all I could see was blue sky, and all I could feel was the tipping of my car’s nose, over an edge of unknown proportions. Freezing, but freefalling, metaphorically in time and space. Suspended between two worlds – sky and sand. Hanging. Then gliding. Slowly pushing the sand avalanche ahead of me, pushing, guiding, trying to control and listening to the roaring of trillions of air beaten sandgrain drums. An unbearable lightness of being.

My initiate flawed maneuver got me stranded on my tummy (actually the car’s) and spinning with all fours in the air. Sand plumes and grainy showers everywhere. Solidly stuck on the top of a dune and sliding towards a toktokkie hole on my left side. It took some coaching over the radio, the presence of the Johnnies and an escape along a contour line. Quick and painless was the rescue, but everlasting was the glow of achievement.

 

4. Namibia

Spinning on all fours, safe with ‘man-hands’

Amazing how loo stops evolved too, from squatting behind a vehicle to using the side of the car between two open doors as a comfy resting seat. Cat-like shoves of sand covered the evidence quickly and the scrap of paper joined the packet of other rubbish to be disposed of when convenient. ‘What you take into the desert comes out with you’ – one of the rules of the trip. Adaptation is essential for survival.

This, I learned, was a symbiotic relationship that slowly developed over the course of the trip, unbearable at first and unnoticed at the end. That layer on my head, the crackling between my teeth, an itch in my nose and a grinding between my sleeping bag and foam mattress – the omnipresent sand.

8. Namibia

The Edward Bohlen wreck – 1km from the ocean.

Closer to the ocean the ‘new’ dunes appeared in a more slippery fashion due to the softer sand, but our cautious confident expertise showed in the short span of time we could complete the day. The Bay of Conception and Sandwhich bay were the areas where we crossed the long dunes and wide streets. We walked on ancient petrified desert floors and scratched patterns in jasper red sand with our toes. We peeped through remains of ghost mining towns and crossed rusted railway tracks, we played with figure eights on sweeping holes and strolled around a wrecked ship and then we headed towards civilization – Walvisbay.

We came to learn, we conquered, we played, we lived.

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Part 1 – The Road Trip

So I happened upon an opportunity to fulfill a long treasured desire. This was to go on a 4 x 4 expedition into, and across, the dunes of Namibia. It entailed traveling in convoy, protected in the desert by an experienced tour company with enough ‘man-hands’ to fix all, change anything, fill whatever, help and advise on everything.  The group’s age ranged from pregnant to menopausal and fortunately I was to be one of the drivers.

The preparation for this trip deserves a post on its own, but suffice to say there was a lot of planning and discussing; packing and unpacking; attaching and removing to and from vehicles; checking and double-checking; calling and confirming and finally leaving in convoy; with the surrender to a philosophy of ‘ignorance is bliss’.

The map shows an almost straight line across the width of our country, past Kimberley and Upington to cross the border at Nakop and steadily heading west to the edge of the Fish River Canyon. It is a long and mainly straight road to our first camping spot (the second day driving), at Cañon Roadhouse.

The setting up of our sleeping quarters was to be our ‘vuurdoop’ – amused glances from the rest of the experienced campers encouraged us to make our tent stand proud and stable against nature’s forces. With a glow of achievement and slight huffing, we joined the applauding circle around the fire for our well-earned sundowners. This was the beginning of a process that became a smooth and efficient operation; we were the voluntary bar maids three days into the trip, grinning with deep satisfaction while awaiting most of the others with drinks ready.

1. Namibia

Our first attempt – setting up tent without help

Ice with our drinks and under cover sleeping/changing area were two of the many luxuries we experienced every night during our off-road vacation.  The others, briefly, were a tin cup with steaming coffee (ground and aromatic), two way radio contact (at all times) , a chemical loo (always with a view), a hot shower (connected to the closest vehicle battery), three meals a day (provided and catered for by the adventure organisers), barefoot company (all the time), two inch mattresses on warm sand and night time lullabies from adjacent tents (in different tones and intonations – depending on the depth of sleep).

Every morning the reverse ritual from the night before took place. What was put up, used or opened had to be pulled down, disposed of and closed – and all neatly packed, ready for the road. The goal was now to see and feel the parts of the Namib we would be passing through and to find Solitaire. The name of a place where the final group would assemble; as well as a word that at that point enhanced my sense of feeling lost in space and time. By then the day of the week already escaped me and place names became unpronounceable. All I could be certain of for the remainder of the trip was the moment – that mystical place where all life coaches and gurus want humanity to be.

We passed through breathtaking landscapes, moonscapes, skyscapes, and rock scapes. We breathed the fresh smell of sand and we simmered in the sun. We beheld the quivering trees and we caught glimpses of clicks in local conversations. Alien; warm; weird; wonderful; wastelands – awesome. We stopped at the Fish River Canyon – literally in our tracks as the flatness suddenly disappeared into a wrinkled chasm of eroded geological layers beyond description of depth and width. Cliché or not, “Breathtaking” was the only applicable word.

2. Namibia

The Fish River Canyon

With regular stops for coffee and lunch, the road and time disappeared along with sights of quiver trees and feral horses and before long we were at our next overnight stop, Luderitz. Sharks Island welcomed us with a sea breeze that challenged our newly acquired camping skills. There was no doubt about retiring to bed early as we all felt the weariness of the day’s excitement as well as the anticipation of the following day. There was no connection to the outside world, no Google Maps detail, no blue dot tracking – we were in an area called ‘Die Spergebiet’ – restricted area.

Kolmanskop is a ghost town just outside Luderitz. Diamonds created and destroyed it. The desert has been trying to bury it, but the authorities realised the tourist potential and exploited it. A heavily accented guide jovially informed us about the processes surrounding the settlement – fresh water to the town, the development and maintenance of the village, the demise of the short-lived heyday glittering community.

5. Namibia

Kolmanskop – Diamond Ghost Town

Enriched with touristy knowledge and new history, we left the tarred roads and continued on well-maintained dirt roads towards the elusive Solitaire, whisking past the feral horses,  (a sanctuary with a viewpoint was built in a desolate part about 50km from Luderitz, for the post-war wild horses that roam the area. A popular stop for photographers and horselovers) winding through colour-changing dunes, crossing greener than ever valleys and watching unexpected clouds gather on the horison.

10. Namibia

Feral Horses – roaming freely in a sanctuary

A quick detour took us to a mid-war castle at Duwisib built by Hansheinrich von Wolf –– who bred horses during his five years living there. Crackerjack and Benito were the stallions that made him famous. My crackerjack found me shortly after this visit – a slight wobble on an otherwise smooth road indicated its arrival. On inspection, the left rear tire was shredded and the ‘man-hands’ appeared on white horses as fast as the two-way radios could deliver the SOS ripple. And the exchange was even faster – safe and all set to get to Sesriem before the descending night swallowed us.

Comfortably safe around the campfire everything became easier, lighter and unimportant. The only pressing issue before the following day’s outing to Sossusvlei and the final stretch to Solitaire, was the bits of laundry to be done while ablutions were adequate.

3. Namibia

Laundry lines work anywhere

The pre-dawn exodus to the dunes was worth it. Sandy curves in changing colours as the day progressed in a beautiful ballet. Finding a virgin dune at the end of the path and filing up on the knife-edge to the top, silhouettes of the kids resembling a line of ants on the verge of a slippery sand precipice was stunning/amazing/fascinating. I sacrificed the summit for the self-appointed job to capture the conquerors’ descent on camera – it was a wild and noisy scramble straight down the ‘slip face’.

We left the slightly commercial enchantment of the Sossuvlei dunes after a leftover breakfast and just in time as tourists were starting to flood the area. My empty fuel tank inspired a slow and easy, but early return which was conducive to finding the much discussed ‘fairy circles’. Perfectly round shapes of all sizes where nothing grows in grassy areas around the desert. Theories and speculations abound about those sandy circles. The softer tires and sand driving sapped my fuel tank quicker than planned and the last ten kilometers must have been on fumes. After refilling, a quick stop at the Sesriem Canyon before the last stretch of mapped roads.

6. Namibia

Sossusvlei

It was a short distance to Solitaire, the last place where we could replenish the extra water and fuel tanks for the cross-desert expedition. It proved to be an epic exercise with seven cars in queue and a blasting midday sun. This was also the place where the renowned apple pie baker past away recently. Apparently this sparked a national tragedy – we wondered if the secret recipe was passed on? As a test to the latter, we bought several. And around the campfire that night, it was unanimously agreed that the recipe had indeed survived, honestly.

Solitaire guest farm was the meeting point with the tour guide and his assistants. It was the place where we upgraded to a room (us menopausals) for a taste of luxury before disappearing off the grid. Our tour leaders welcomed us with instructions and papers to sign. Rules and advice. Do’s and Don’ts. But most of all a dry enthusiasm and love for their country that was contagious.

The BIG rule (rule 1-5 and again rule 10) : STAY IN THE TRACKS!

 

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It has been (still is) a wonderful exercise in patience. Oh, and in ‘letting go’ what you can’t change…

I’m talking about my passport renewal efforts.

Home Affairs is a magical place. They open and close EXACTLY at the allotted times. They carefully let the elderly and cripple jump the queues (wonderful and widely accepted) and they allow the overflowing 1st Floor (births registration) to rest and nest on the staircase above and below the above mentioned floor. The latter experience is accompanied by much coo-ing at all the pink and yellow clad bundles, adding to the delayed ascent to the THIRD FLOOR. Which is where the passport department operates from.

A sigh of relief as there were only a few lost souls and me there. This was Monday – after much clanging of teacups and joyful voices and noises from somewhere beyond the counter, an apparition in bright pink and wild hair sauntered over and lazily announced, ‘we are ovvvvline’. An all-inclusive wave indicated, (I think) that we were dismissed. I embraced my saviour-of-the-masses instinct and stepped forward. “Can you please give us an indication of when we can expect an online event again?”

“Phone this number before you come “, pointing and turning as the last word of the sentence came floating over her shoulder and through the wild hair as she returned to her interrupted tea break. I tried to explain to the echoing walls of the passage that I DID. That the phone just rang and rang and rang…

I then did phone again and again and again. Yesterday. And I did arrive at break of dawn – today, to repeat all of the above – except, now I was the first and only one on the third floor, to be met by a sad looking lady? The system crashed and if I waited for an hour or so …? I did. Waited for an hour and added the ‘or so’ for good measure. Partly despair and partly the need for non-stifled air, I decided to while ‘or so’ away in the mall. Only to rush back when ‘onlineness’ was confirmed, via the treasured phone number. This time I found a crowd on the third floor where everything was online as promised, but slow…very slow.

Waited for an hour or so – I’m good at this now – but then had to rush back for appointments. I found a deep meaning in productivity on my way home and a soul searching question about the idealism of tomorrow’s ‘or so’ or ‘not to or so’. Time restraints and deadlines smothered the luxury of philosophy  – I have to go back tomorrow.

The tomorrow was fine with online, there was no ‘or so’ and all systems were on the go. I was alone with my Warden. A heavy sigh escaped from the core of my patient being. Elated I followed the procedure and instructions. “Look in the camera”. Click, click and one more click. “Right thumb here”. Keyboard fingerprinting, type, type and type. “Ok, your left one here”. As I let go and surrender to all that cannot be controlled, the computer screen flickered, stalled, hanged and then died?!! I had no spirit left to even ask the question but I didn’t have to. “Aaaaaghh NO MAN! We are ovvvline again!”.

Deep desperation gave me wisdom and much needed calm – gently touching my upset Warden’s arm. “Sometimes these stupid machines just need to be rebooted. Switch everything off, wait a few seconds and let’s restart it again. You will see, it will work”. I forced the fakest smile and oozed the phoniest confidence whilst crossing fingers behind my back. We switched off. We waited for a few seconds, or so. We rebooted. We waited some more…

I’m going back tomorrow. It is two weeks later and my passport is ready, or so.

Travel tense is my most perfect tense, preferably in the present.

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