Climate change? Bring it on! That’s the message I’ve been hearing from Namibia’s farmers. The rain pattern disturbances that have so devastated East Africa over the past few years have proved an unexpected boon to Namibia’s farmers. This desert state, which in parts gets less than 2 mm of rain over a seven-year-period, is suddenly dealing with emergency evacuations from rising floodwaters in villages in the northeast; and unusually heavy rainfall elsewhere. It is the third year running that the country has received bountiful rains, and it is changing the landscape in a noticeable way. Kilometre after kilometre of grey and mustard desertscape is greening. Goats and cows appear plumper. People here are starting to talk about the possibility of crop planting. This, in a country that imports virtually all of its vegetable matter from South Africa.
Namibia is unusual in Africa in that its economy and its workforce are not heavily dependent on agriculture. Most of the country’s wealth comes from its diamonds and other mined elements, including uranium and platinum. The global economic meltdown has reduced the market greed for diamonds, meaning layoffs in mines across the country. Without other means to make a buck, and with no real substance farming possible because of the harsh climate, we see many very poor, hungry-looking people begging like vagrants in Namibia’s smart, German-styled towns. Youth unemployment is at 60%; the figure for women is almost 80%.
Outside of the towns, though, we see few people working or otherwise. Driving for hundreds of kilometres, we might pass two other cars, let alone humans. There are less than 2 million people living in this vast country.
Our journey takes us towards Sossusvlei and the world’s biggest sand dune – an incredible landscape of sand and shadows that epitomises picture-book Namibia. We camp the night in a town called Solitaire. I say a town, but actually it is just a fuel station, a bakery and a lodge on whose land we camp. Here we meet a German and Swiss who are cycling around Namibia. We quiz these brave/crazy guys on their journey: 135 km per day on average; yes, very sore arses; 10 litres of water on 2 paniers, everything else on another 2; no, just ordinary road bikes that continually slip over in the sand… “We are the guardians of chameleons and tortoises,” Max the Swiss says. “We are always stopping to rescue them from the road and putting them at the side.”
We wish them luck and, with the superior power of a petrol engine, travel far ahead of them into the enormous mountains of sand at Sossusveli, where we stand, tiny as ants in one of the world’s most hostile environments. When it rains here, as it did recently, gardens spring from nowhere, attracting animals that you wouldn’t believe the desert could support otherwise, like elephants and antelopes. We stand and pause a while in Dead Vlei, a garden that long ago dried up, leaving trees that have dehydrated into splinters that cast interesting shadows in the harsh light.
The next day, we drive south into the rainbow nation.