Moving from South Africa to Namibia earlier in November, we traveled alone through the southern expanses of the 1,200-mile-long Namib Desert, the oldest desert on the planet. Every guide book repeats descriptors such as vast, scorching, silent, harsh, brutal, stunning… I’ve been trying to write about southern Namibia without the over-used hyperbole, but whew! It’s hard, and even with our limited photographic skills, I think you’ll soon understand why.
Enter my literary crutch, Henno Martin. In his book, The Sheltering Desert, the Namib Desert is one of four characters in a story of insane survival; 2 humans and a dog are the others. Despite being written in 1957, every business in Namibia which might encounter a tourist – from museum gift shops to petrol stations selling t-shirts and camping supplies – still carries at least 3 copies.
In 1939, two young German geologists lived and worked in Namibia. When World War II broke out, and with Germans in Namibia being rounded up and sent to internment camps, “my friend Hermann Korn and I had already decided that this was not our war. … We wanted no hand or part in the mass suicide of civilised peoples…. One evening, sitting on the stone steps of our house, we … remembered what we had once said in half joke: ‘If war comes, we’ll spend it in the desert.'” They evaded capture for 2.5 years, living in a landscape where few animals can survive, let alone humans. Mr. Martin has a pretty good way with words when describing the Namib…
Every day hot winds swept over the parched land. The water level in our hole had now sunk below the gravel and we had to dig deeper and deeper to get at it. … About a meter down we found a small spotted frog in its dry-period hibernation. It woke up but had the good sense to stay where it was. (p.288)
The starry nights were magnificent after the burning hot days and we often spent the warm evenings sitting at the stone table in front of our living-room and our thoughts had plenty of time to roam at leisure under the slowly-revolving stars. (p. 166)
As the new grass on the south plateau had shrivelled up, the visiting game had disappeared and the remaining animals grazed as well as they could on the year-old stubble. By this time we knew the game tracks so well that we could easily follow them through the maze of gorges and ridges even on moonless nights. But we hadn’t much luck and we were always hungry. (p. 176)
Our delight at obtaining a gemsbok so easily didn’t last long. The meat of the shriveled muscle was a dirty yellow color and it smelt musty. Even Otto sniffed at it and turned up his nose in disdain. We had wasted a bullet and we now had the trouble of getting rid of the wretched carcass. (p.288)
I think we both shouted involuntarily when we first spotted it. A frothy brown mass of water boiled and gushed between the rocks, overbrimming the narrow channel and pouring itself over the wider bed with a hissing roar. We ran down to see it at close quarters. It was already gurgling under the ledge where we had just been standing. It seemed to fall back for a moment and then it rose again with foamflecked back to pour on, a roller of water perhaps 2m high, churning around tree trunks, branches, great boulders and other debris and then overwhelming the pool. (p. 211)
The next morning we clambered to the top of the mountain which offered a fantastic panoramic view. To the north lay the light, featureless plains over which we had come, running right up to the mountains and then breaking off suddenly into dark gorges. To the south stretched a gramadoela world, a rocky maze of black canyons, jagged ridges and gleaming ribs of slate. And beyond that were the rolling red dunes, wave after wave, poised like a petrified sea of blood. (p. 338)
We now entered into a strange and eerie world. There were sharply defined mountains of red sand with knife-edged and deep, soft hollows. The sand ran away in streams under our feet, vibrating like the low note of a bass-viol until finally the whole dune would be humming and singing. Laboriously we made our way through the loose sand, welcoming the tightly packed windward sides of the mounds and sinking knee-deep on the lee sides. (p. 340)
Having clambered to the top of the next ridge we could hardly believe our eyes: the valley below us was full of grazing springbok. There were perhaps three to four thousand of them…. We stared at the graceful filigree of delicate feet, the thousandfold rhythm of arched backs, the lovely necks lowered to the ground as they cropped, the bronze-like horns and the warm fleeces. (p. 207)
Living and dead matter were so obviously at variance here, and the living matter so obviously triumphant in its adaptability over the dead elements and their rigid laws that the barren wilderness seemed to us more essentially alive than green trees rustling in the wind. (p.131)