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Living desert

January 23, 2010

Namibia is most sparsely populated country in the world (after Mongolia), which is perhaps unsurprising since it consists almost entirely of the world’s largest desert, the Namib, after which the country was named. But, on crossing the border from Botswana, where we drove past the Okovango’s ‘pan-handle’ encountering few people, we find the roads in Namibia are bustling with human life. Strings of small, neat villages of mud huts line the road, displaying quirky sculptures made from scrap metal and wood. We pass three- and four-donkey-power carts laden with families and goods. Women and children queue to use water pumps. Cows and goats pause to stop and stare on their slow, poorly chosen journeys across our road. It’s almost like being back in Africa!

Our route into the country is along the Caprivi Strip, a thin corridor of land that was given to the country’s German colonial administrators (in addition to some tiny, strategic North Sea island called Heligoland) by the British in exchange for Zanzibar, and allowed the Germans access (between Angola, Zambia and Botswana) to the Zambezi River. This is one of the world’s youngest countries, gaining independence as recently as 1990. German is still very much in evidence – many people speak it, the signs bear German names and most tourists are from Germany. Afrikaans, the language of the country’s most recent colonialists, is also widely spoken, as is English, so it’s a rare treat to overhear people speaking in any of the ‘clicking’ local tongues. I give a few words a go and have kids screaming with laughter because they deliberately choose ‘naughty’ words for me to practice. For example, the word for ‘stone’ is almost exactly the same (to me, identical-sounding) as the word for ‘vagina’.

We drive across the beautiful desert scrub of Etosha national park, spotting a cheetah prowling for its lunch, oryx, giraffe, zebra and more. As with all national parks, I wish I could spend a week there drinking in the sights and sounds, but time marches us on. We overnight near to the entrance gate at a campsite that has its own floodlit watering hole. It’s rainy season here, so the animals have plenty of other venues to choose from and all we spy are some nervous looking deer and a couple of friendly jackels sniffing for scraps. At night, though, the air reverberates with the terrifying sounds of the African bush. At 4am, Nick and I look at each other, wide-eyed in our sleeping bags, both awoken by the bone-chilling sound of lions roaring. We get up and investigate, walking through the black night to the watering hole. There, perfectly reflected in the inky pool, is a male lion, lapping in loud slow tongue slaps, like a cat at a dish of milk.

After a while, he stands, cat-stretches and roars his powerful thunder and then walks out of sight. We stay, waiting for his return. Enormous moon moths flutter against the floodlights, crashing to the ground to be gobbled by jackels (that have somehow made it to our side of the safety fence…).

A several-hundred-kilometre-drive west brings us to the Skeleton Coast and our first sighting of the Atlantic Ocean in more than a year. We pass a fossil forest of pine trees that were transported down here from Central Africa in floods more than 100,000 years ago. The trees are literally petrified – turned to rock so perfectly, it’s as if a fairytale wicked witch flicked her magic wand across a living pine forest. The only conifer that lives here now is the utterly bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis, a dwarf ‘tree’ with just two leaves that can live for several thousand years, producing small pine cones.

The Skeleton Coast, so named because of the whale bones and shipwrecks found there, has seen its fair share of human deaths. Those poor souls landing on its murderous shores mostly perished through lack of water. But oases do exist and the fog that hangs over the sand dunes and gravel plains is the breathe of live for everything that clings to existance here. Sandlopers (bushmen who lived here) have almost entirely vanished, mainly wiped out by diseases introduced by Westerners. Plenty of life is here, though. Lichens colonise the most inhospitable-looking rocks and sands, providing a host for other plants and animals. Desert elephants that can go for up to four days without water roam these dunes, with lions, cheetahs, antelope, ostriches and plenty of reptiles.

It’s a bleak, desolate place, known by the bushman as ‘The land god made in anger’ and the Portuguese as ‘The gates of hell’, but plenty have tried to make their fortunes here. After a chilly night camping amid the wind-whipped sand at Torra Bay, we head south passing disused diamond and agate mines, attempts at oil drilling that were long ago abandoned and shipwrecks. We see the occasional springbok but little else. We see no ostriches, perhaps in part because they were rendered nearly extinct by early prospectors who noticed the birds’ raven-like habit of gobbling up shiny gems, and shot them for their bellyfulls of diamonds.

The desert is far from dead, though, we discover when we accompany the amazing Tommy Collard on a journey through the dunes outside Swakopmund. This enthusiastic, twinkly eyed, bulging calf-muscled guy in his 50s knows the sandscape from spider to oryx and he takes us on one of the best guided journeys of our lives. He races up the impossibly slippery sand dunes as though riding a moving escalator, bounding from one animal track to another to scoop up an iridescent gecko or a beetle with a fused carapace that stands on its head to drink condensed fog droplets from its back.

We find sidewinder snakes with eyes on the top of their heads and a cartwheeling spider that lives beneath a small trapdoor in a complicated web. Chameleons crunch beetles in front of us and a dancing, sand-diving lizard with two bladders (one for water, one for urine) allows us to examine him. From studying this lizard, researchers discovered that animals can munch dead dry plants and internally combust them to produce metabolytes like sugar plus enough water molecules to enable it to survive. But nobody understands how the lizard is able to withdraw water from its bloodstream without the thickened blood clotting. Yet it can.

The desert here is spectacular. Yellow quartz mixing with black magnetite (Fe3O4) that throws a lost seaman’s compass off wack, pink rubylyte and minerals of every other hue. The dunes are constantly moving – large dunes here travel a couple of metres a year; small ones can travel more than a kilometre in a year. This desert originated in central South Africa, travelling here via the Orange River to the ocean where it is bown onto the Namib’s coast in a continual process that is gradually covering the country in sand. Most amazingly, though, Tommy drives us over the sand to a point where the acoustics is so perfect that we can hear the haunting whale song of the dunes calling out around us. It’s an awesome sound, and he jumps out of the LandRover to scoop and pour armfuls of sand from the dune, producing a subtle, quieter version of the magnificent sand mountains’ song.

Swakopmund is a strange German resort town that feels completely unAfrican, a notion that’s enhanced by the relative lack of black people around. We’re very much back in whites own/blacks serve territory, although people here are educated and there is a large, evident middle class peopled by blacks and whites. The Germanness of the town means the streets are very orderly and clean, tapwater is drinkable, recycling points are available for the first time in our African trip, and the beer is good – or so Nick tells me (I’m on the South African wine!). The town makes much of its income from its reputation as an ‘activities destination’. Thus, everything from skydiving to quadbiking is on offer. We try sandboarding. It’s great fun and easier than snowboarding because the sand is lovely and soft (arse-padding not required).

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