Rain’s a funny thing: the vital source of all life and that comes into sharp focus in an environment such as the almighty Namib in Namibia. The rainfall here is so low that we spent 10 consecutive days outside: no buildings, no tents, not even a mess tent, just the sun and stars above. Rain is so reliably absent from the Namib that you can plan a trail ride with absolutely no contingency for any form of precipitation. It’s the longest period of my life that I have spent beneath the sky.
To bring this rain-fact into focus, we flew in to Windhoek in a thunderstorm! Lightning flashes every whichway, thunder claps and it was cold. We began the Trans Namib desert ride in a thunderstorm! Didn’t really matter because we were staying in the charming River Crossing lodge for night 1. Next morning was grey and threatening but we were driving out to the escarpment and the promise of sun. We stopped on the cusp of the escarpment and gazed out at the scene before us: that’s the thing about the Namib Desert, the scale. The incomprehensible scale: it appears to be a hop-skip-and-a-jump to the horizon, but it’s 50, 60 or 70 miles to the skyline. The topography is dominated by Mount Guab with its table-top summit which is to be our focal point for the next few days. Descended the steep escarpment and entered the flat, stony, dust-dry world of the Namib. But it’s stunningly beautiful; subtle tones of browns and reds merge in to one another and create a palette of extraordinary beauty. Barren beauty. Harsh, hard and uncompromising. Challenging and not a little intimidating. I think everyone on the truck took a silent gulp and questioned their ability, “Will I be up to this?”
There is very little visible human activity down on the Namib plain; redundant fences that run arrow-straight for mile after mile, impeding game, no longer restraining cattle which have long-since acknowledged the fact that square pegs aren’t viable in hot, round holes. And here’s Ababis, as good as the day German brickies built it 150 years ago. Wonderful brickwork and perfectly pointed, and redundant. It was built as a refuge for horses. AHS was a major problem back in the day, and remains so. The virus is transmitted by a midge which can’t survive in the desert dryness, so at times of high AHS outbreaks strings of 500 horses plus used to be driven down to the desert to escape the plague. In the afternoon as a gentle loosener we drove down to the world renowned Sossusvlei sand dunes which in finest Teutonic tradition are numbered from east to west. We were bound for number 45. The biggest and baddest of all the dunes and scrambled up to the top, which felt much harder than the last time I did it in 1997. Time flies and takes stamina with it.
The ride began at 06:00 hrs with everyone up and at ’em early. And that was the hallmark of this group, really well organised and punctual to a fault; I’ve never known a group like it! Walk over to the corral and we were introduced to our horses. I have Mellow Yellow and Andrew said to me as he showed me around his tack, “He’s neither Mellow, nor Yellow, more like Jekyl and Hyde!” Thanks Andrew. He seemed calm and in good reliable nick for his 15 years as a desert safari horse.
Behind us, at the top of the escarpment, the thunderclouds are gathering as the day warms up. There’s an east wind blowing the clouds towards the desert, but we’re assured it’ll come to nothing as the desert warms up and resists the advance of the clouds. Gradually, as the day turn to evening the wind performs a volte-face and the west wind blows from Atlantic inland, over the escarpment taking any promise of desert rain with it. This is the pattern that stays with us throughout the ride: clouds on the horizon inland, never making it to the desert. Later in the ride, as we near the Atlantic, we encounter another marvel, the fogbank that rolls in off the Atlantic. Powered by the cold, cold Arctic Humboldt current that flows northwards along the Namib coast, as it collides with the hot Namib sands a fog bank is created; thick as pea soup and extending to hundreds of feet high this cold, damp blanket rolls inland each evening, soaking everything in dew, sustaining life in the most remarkable niches and retreating back to the ocean by mid-morning. It looks sinister and spooky and they say the residents of Swakopmund down on the coast are affected by it …
Left Ababis bright and early and headed NW which was to be our compass bearing throughout the ride, towards the Tropic of Capricorn and eventually the Atlantic coast. This mountainous country is flat, and that’s both an understatement and an oxymoron! The plains stretch to the mountainous horizons and take half a day to ride across; huge canters that last for 10 or 15 minutes and the three-beat morphs to the two-beat and the wind rushes in your ears; and the steering is light as a feather as you sidestep scrub bushes, rocky outcrops and the ‘landmines’ of the Namib, the burrows of the Cape Ground Squirrel: charming critters to watch, lethal if you put your galloping foot in the wrong spot. Did I mention ‘fast’? This is a fast ride! Absolutely brilliant: fit horses, tuned in to their environment and tough as tin-tacks; big hearted and stamina that a marathon runner would envy.
Lunch was at Solitaire which is one of those desert watering holes fresh out of a frontier thriller: a scattering of sand-blasted 1930’s cars marks the extent of the property; there’s a petrol pump, tyre repair shop and a couple of mechanics who look as if they could fix anything given a spanner and an oily reg. And there’s a kitchen that produced a delicious spinach lasagne! Absolutely in the middle of nowhere and we’re served lasagne and apple pie. Bizarre. The horses were hitched outside (obviously!) and were a constant source of interest to other travellers, “How much for an hour’s ride?” I was asked on two separate occasions. Every Namibian tour operator you’ve heard of from pukka and pricey to budget camping stops here for lunch, there is no other choice. Later we met the owner because we camped in his riverbed.
Onwards NW across the flat plain and gradually a new colour is introduced to the palette, muted green. A few days ago a small part of the annual 15 mm of rain that falls in this part of the Namib fell. Nature in all her remarkable resilience reacted immediately and there’s a light covering of grass; ankle tall and seed heads waving gentle in the breeze. Last week there was a herd of 500 Gemsbok which is one of the four oryx species, all of them rare desert specialists. Gemsbok are remarkably big given their scant grazing opportunities, but they thrive in this unforgiving environment. A little later as we left the plain and rode into some broken, hilly country, with a high barren ridge to the east, we saw a dozen very skittish mountain zebra which are one of the rarer zebra species; plains zebra are the “standard issue” as seen on the Serengeti Plain and in the Madagascar movie, there’s the very rare Grevey’s zebra which is also a desert/mountain dweller, but in Ethiopia and the top of Kenya not here, and there’s this fella, Hartmann’s Zebra. We never got close enough to see the colour of their eyes, but our horses pricked their ears and followed their flight.
And so we came to Korieb Farm which was weird: back in its day it must have been the picture of efficiency. Well laid out buildings and tidy animal handling pens, but all is deserted. The story is that the recently-deceased owner, of German extraction, had two sons who are unable to get along. One lives in Germany but wants to farm, the other lives in Cape Town and hates farms. So dad in his wisdom bequeathed the farm to Cape Town boy and his city property in Germany to farm boy! And the sons still can’t speak to each other and find the obvious solution: rich in pathos and a mirror of folly.
Camp tonight is in the bed of the Guab River. The Boy Scout handbook always tells you not to camp in riverbeds because rain in distant mountains can cause a flash flood, but this river hasn’t flowed for four years, so I guess we might survive!
We have no tents on this trip. Everyone puts their stretcher where they please and kips beneath the stars. In the small hours I was woken by the unmistakable yap on a hyena. I hate that sound; I know hyenas are necessary for the working of the natural mechanism, but I harbour an innate loathing of the creatures. It prowled around the periphery of camp and along the west bank of the river, yapping and looking for an off-chance. In the morning everyone was a little bleary-eyed. We were heading for Pascali’s farm, he’s the one who owns Solitaire and now has three farms. He’s clearly a wealthy man, but you wouldn’t know it to talk to him. And he’s wise: he’s using his money to buy Namib farms, remove all the fences and turn the land back to natural use. In effect he’s enlarging the Namib national park which borders his farms and creating concession land for wildlife conservation. Good for him! What a great thing to do. We were chatting last night and this dark horse told me that his team made the first descent of the Blue Nile. And how’s this for a twist of fate? Thirty years ago I was driving a truck from London to Cape Town which required passage through Zaire in the rainy season, which is a full contact sport and a story in its own right. I was six weeks into the Congo Basin when I came across a white man on a mountain bike! You simply can’t ignore something as eye-popping as that, so I stopped. That’s how I met Cam, a Kiwi and simultaneously one of the toughest and most gentle people I’ve ever met. He hitched a lift for about two weeks till we were finally over the Ruwenzori Mountains and free from the Congo mud, so I got to know him a bit. He was a river guide in those days and heading for the Zambezi at Victoria Falls (this is true!). Our paths crossed a fair bit over the following decades and then Cam did the first decent of the White Nile, which is where he met Pascali. I love it when these kinds of circles intercept!
Pascali is removing all the fences on his farms, but he’s retained the water-trough, which is now the most glorious plunge-pool you could wish for; everyone dipped into the delicious coolness and was dry once more within moments of emerging. Turned out that water tanks are today’s theme. I can see the afternoon’s ride so clearly in my mind’s eye: plains, wavy grass, long canters, the ascent around the shoulder of a mountain to reveal another almighty plain. Different tones and hues. The mental reminder that if I was right here, alone, I wouldn’t have a clue which way to go and how to survive. Utterly dependant on the guide and his infrastructure. This farm is Boesman’s Farm and a little later as we topped a deep drift we came across the concealed farm. It’s said that the owner, one Mr Boesman, never wears shoes. The pad to his farm follows the contour through the drift and rises over the rim to lead to another huge plain. Lovely canter over the sandy piste and 3 Km later we top a gentle rise to find the picket line already set up, camp established and a warm welcome. At the high point of camp is a circular concrete foundation with a semi-circle of corrugated iron around half the circumference. The fire is set in the middle and the chairs around it. It’s perfect! Turns out this used to be a water tank, but everything is now redundant, except for this robust remnant!
Apparently today is Thursday, day 4 of the ride, though I have no idea of the date or day, I’m not even wearing a watch anymore. The rest of the world has ceased to exist, replaced by horses, drubbing hoof-beats, the environment, the journey.
We paused mid-morning and Andrew pointed out an interesting little feature. Picture an open, shallow valley that has a ‘waist’ half way along where the rock protrudes through the sand. It almost looks like a tumble-down wall that bisects the valley, but it is entirely natural. Built in to this ‘wall’ is a C-shaped little shelter, just big enough for a man to hide in. It is in fact just that, a hiding place. The San Bushmen made these things with ambush in mind: one man would conceal himself, armed with bow and poison-tipped arrow while his mate would make a huge backtracking detour to gain the head of the valley. He would then gently reveal himself causing all the valley game to retreat, funnelling through the valley waist and passing within touching distance of the C-of-concealment. The hunter is presented with a close-range, easy shot and can select his beast. Doesn’t matter where the arrow strikes because the poison is lethal and to this day, there’s no known cure.
The poison story starts with the myrrh bush (as in the Three Wise Men and gold, frankincense and myrrh). There are lots of species of myrrh bushes, but the Namib one is home to a beetle that no doubt has a fancy Latin name, but let’s just call it the ‘Bushman arrow-poison beetle’. I’m not sure how the San actually extract the poison, but I guess the answer is “Carefully”. The poison causes cellular haemorrhage on a massive scale and no matter where it enters the body, it’s lethal. Even if you prick your finger, it’s curtains. The neat thing is that the poison leaves absolutely no residue, so an animal pinged by a San bowman becomes prime steak. The San are probably the best tracks in Africa and used to follow pricked game till they dropped, recover their arrow and the whole clan would come to the carcass rather than vice versa. Happy days!
How on earth did the San discover this poison and no-residue equation?
And then we crossed a main piste road! And a sign announcing the Tropic of Capricorn, and the bizarreness was completed by a coach load of Chinese people descending and clicking away at the sign. Then us. Then us with the sign. Then themselves with us in the background on the other side of the road. An otherworldly encounter.
We followed this road (the main Walvis Bay to Solitaire piste) into the Guab Gorge in the hope of finding the river flowing. But the river was asleep and only muddy ponds remained, which the horses revelled in! Rolling, pawing up the mud, then drinking the cocoa-like brew; they loved it! Robbed of our dip we drooped in the shade and rested for an hour. The midges were a pain so I went to use my time more constructively and lobbed stones into the pools. The first stone was greeted by a frenzy of activity, which startled me: was there a flock of hyenas concealed beneath the surface? No, catfish, really quite decent-sized catfish, and in massive numbers. How do fish this big, and this numerous, survive the months and months of drought? I know the theory that they burrow down into the mud and wait-out the hot times, but can it really be true? Where’s David Attenborough when you need him?
This afternoon “calcrete” made his introduction: calcrete is a sedimentary rock that has a high lime content and varies in colour from grey-white, through magnolia to reddish-brown, and suggests that one-day’s time this entire area was a seabed. Calcrete is as hard as drop-forged stele formed in a furnace and when sprinkled liberally with small, angular rocks and stones forms an horrendous surface to ride across. Poor hooves, I felt for them, and I do wonder why the horses were left barefoot behind? I know than more than half the weight of horse and rider is borne by the fore-feet, but surely this surface warrants all-round shoeing? The herd remains outside when not on safari duty and they’re kept barefoot; they also have extremely hard feet genetically. None-the-less, for the ten day ride I would have thought shoes are worth it, particularly as after the 10 day safari the shoes are removed and re-used anyway. Rant over.
The calcrete endured for the afternoon, interspersed with occasional sandy stretches permitting a quicker pace. Camp tonight was at the Oasis, which it isn’t! The calcrete crust rises here and there to form ridges and camp tonight is at one such ridge. The crust folds over to form a cave which has been imaginatively adapted to make a charming little camping grotto and verandah. You really couldn’t make it up! This hospitable and cozy little site really is an oasis of a refuge in the middle of a calcrete jungle. No other habitation or water source within miles and Andrew tells me this is a retreat for a weekend farmer from Walvis Bay. Stunning vistas, delightful outdoor shower and loo with a superb view. And this is an appropriate point to mention camp food: Phoebe, our Ozzie camp master and magician cook, is an inspiration: she drives the 28 tonne draw-drag unit (and I know how deviously difficult it is to reverse a double axle trailer) she sets up the tension on the picket line and then produces hot meals which are timed to perfection and are consistently the best safari food I’ve ever had. The whole team are low-profile, efficient and genuinely warm people. You judge a guy by the team he leads and this is a very, very good team.
Today was my most keenly anticipated day because today we ride into the Kuiseb Gorge. I’ve always wanted to breathe the air here since reading the ‘Sheltering Desert’. How could two men remain hidden for two years? Until I’d seen the Kuiseb I didn’t see how this was possible, but now I understand; it’s so remote and uninviting that if you knew what you were about, you could easily conceal yourself here. We entered the Namib National Park a short distance south of the Kuiseb by an unpublished access point. Rode across Badlands, criss-crossed by meandering game trails, serenaded by lovely larks – just like Dartmoor in the Spring, but a little bit drier and warmer. Zig-zagged across plains to top rises, and zig-zag onwards. Then a massive, dark, foreboding fissure reveals itself running perpendicular to our line of travel and showing no obvious point of access, let alone a crossing point. This is the Kuiseb Gorge about 5 miles west of Carp Kloofe (if you’ve read the book). We dismounted and led the horses down, down, down into the breathless furnace on the gorge floor. Mature Camel-thorn trees grow down here, surrounded by shimmering mica particles and flood detritus evident that the river does have other moods. These pools provide a crucial watering hole for the horses who suck-up litres at a gulp while the muddy carp complain that their home is being violated. Back off the girths a notch or two and remove the bridle. Nelson shows me a really neat way to turn the bridle into a backpack so that I can walk without encumbering my hands. And the ascent looks un-doable from below, but Andrew points out the route which has 3 switchbacks and gradually you think yes, I could trek that, but can a horse?
“Always expect the unexpected” has been my mantra for Africa for 30 years, and it proves itself right time and again. We had a plan to scale the gorge with led horses interspersed with free-running horses and people at salient points to turn heads to face the right direction. We had some dramas, but suffice to say everyone emerged at the top safe and sound with bragging rights intact and stories to tell. It was quite a pull and sucking in lung fulls of hot air was demanding. I must admit I cheated and caught hold of the tail of the horse in front of me and supplemented my horsepower.
And so to a distant coppice of Wait-a-Bit bushes and Camelthorn Acacias known as Aru Flei; this is where the guys in Sheltering Desert hid their truck for two years, which makes me thing how dim the authorities must have been in 1943. This is the only coppice in the entire panorama: the most obvious place to hide a truck! There was even a plane involved with the search and surely lorry-spoor would stick out like the proverbial dog’s whatsits.
Easter-eve and the calcrete persists; unforgiving and abrasive. Where we can we dodge into dry riverbeds where the sand is present and we can kick on through the gears. Came across another crust in the calcrete ridge which conceals three small caves: there’re clear signs of human activity, but who knows who or when, or why? A lappet faced vulture follows us high above; we saw its nest earlier which looks like a massive dump of random twigs woven into the branches; what a strange ecological niche to occupy. And low and behold we come across clear human activity; you can tell from the abandoned heaps of sand-blasted, rusty tin cans, discarded bottles and dumped rubbish. This was a tin mine, long since given up but they couldn’t be bothered to clear up their mess. A little further on we see more modern signs of human activity, “Do Not” signs announcing the new mine, this time a uranium mine operated by the Chinese. There’s a sinister shadow over the continent that manifests itself with Chinese mines, Chinese dams, Chinese roads and the Chinese mantra of “No workie, no eatie. And there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. The Chinese presence is all-pervasive in Africa and it worries me; they are mining within a national park for crying out loud!
A final canter along a dry riverbed brings us to the wonderfully named Gnanab Camp; there’s a name for all Scrabble players.
Easter Day and this is our Big Day of 60 Km. We reached “Hotsas” mid-morning which is an artesian well, supplemented by a wind-pump. Water is constantly present here and the open pool is surrounded by camera traps that have apparently caught cheetah, leopard and a variety of nocturnal critters. The same cameras probably have a selection of shots of our lady riders who thought they were being discrete! And so to Marble Mountain which I’m assured is just about the end of the calcrete plains. Sandy days from here on in! I think what makes this ride so tough is not the temperature (mid 30° C most days) nor the wind which can blow quite enthusiastically from time to time, it’s what bounces back at you from the iron-hard surface. The absence of moisture in the air you breathe and the dust and the lack of green are also part of the equation. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but this is a tough environment. A tough ride. A version of Africa that I haven’t experienced before; during my life I’ve crossed the Sahara five times from north to south, by various routes, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like the Namib: stunningly beautiful, but demanding great respect and deference.
The ride to Rowan’s Camp is another long day (50 Km) but coming on top of yesterday’s 60 Km feels tougher. Ahead of us is another gorge, the River Swakop Gorge, but this time the access is a toddle: the sandy piste leads straight in and this is a trail that any self-respecting 4X4 could manage. The river flowed recently and the bed is covered in alluvium which is now baked dry and cracked to form quadrangles the size of a dinner plate. The sound of the hooves hitting the plates is like porcelain smashing! There’s lots of green here and we can hear birdlife such as the Go-Away bird; a pair of klipspringers pose in perfect profile high above us. The Boers used to shoot klipspringers and use their fur to stuff saddles – apparently it has a natural resilience and springs back into shape and resists Boer-butts distorting it. Maybe they should be re-named “Saddle-boks”. Officially we’re out of the Namib-Naukluft National Park now and into the Dorob National Park which is 100,000 Km² and only became a park in 2010, Namibia’s newest. And would you believe it? A little further on we came to a pool and there are Avocets wading in the shallows! The last time I saw one of them was on the Exe estuary in February! Amazing that the same bird inhabits two such different habitats. The common denominator is fresh water, rain. Plenty in Devon but I am surprised there’s enough in the Dorob.
Rowan built Rowan’s Camp, in case you couldn’t guess! He’s a helicopter pilot and has flown all over the world, including relief flights for some of the Tsunami disasters, the Pakistan earthquake and a collection of other world-headline events. The camp is glorious! Unlimited hot showers are universally welcomed; the simple things in life! Long hot soaks, scrubbed clean, sweet smelling and relax to the bar for our penultimate night.
The final push to the Atlantic shoreline led through Tamarisk groves. Now this is a strange plant: like just about everything in the Namib, it’s adapted to occupy a very specific niche, in this case, salty land. The plant takes up salty water and secretes the salt through its foliage, retaining the fresh water. As you brush by the low trees you are swathed in moisture which rapidly evaporates leaving pure white salt residues on knees, chaps, gloves and shirtsleeves. And so beneath the brand new bridge carrying the Swakopmund to Walvis Bay traffic and passed a herd of tourist-ride camels sharing a pool with some pink-tinged pelicans. And there’s the Atlantic, the same sea that caresses the Devon coast, but in different mood. Out to sea is the fogbank eclipsing the view, sinister and a little bit menacing. Swing north along the beach and there’s the finish line! The horses were by and large reluctant to go into the sea, they are after all desert specialists; but they did all get their feet wet. Standing in the retreating wave I felt my horse lean with the ebb and for a moment there, I was concerned we were going to take a tumble.