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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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