The Namib: East to West | Into the great nothing
You might have driven the Lüderitz-Walvis Bay route in the Namib desert, or at least heard of it, but have you always wanted to traverse the desert from east to west? Then come along with Barnie Louw and photographer Dawie Verwey for 5 days and 550 km, east to west.
I know one is not supposed to drink before morning tea, but these are hardly normal circumstances. It’s early morning and I’m sitting on a dune in the Namib Desert, trying to gather my wits, and I need a little fortification. A lot, actually. And looking at the ashen faces of the guys around me, I get the impression they also need one (or two).
We’re peering way up in the sky to where one vehicle after another carefully nudges its nose over the lip of Long Drop. Had we been closer, we would have witnessed the widening of the driver’s eyes, fine beads of tropical sweat appearing on his upper lip, the deathly white of his knuckles. And that’s before he’s even started moving …
After a few beers, you’d probably describe Long Drop to your buddies something along the lines of, “Man, it’s this @#$% huge dune we had to go down .”
But during Sunday afternoon tea with your in-laws, you might describe it like this: “We had to drive down this particularly high dune – I reckon it’s about 30 storeys high. I was very nervous, because one misstep, and you’re done for.”
Long Drop is but one of the dunes in the Namib that separate the boys from the men. There’s also Slingshot and Land Rover’s Graveyard … and many more nameless mammoths.
I’ve read many stories about the Namib – of cars rolling down dunes, of destroyed clutches, of parts having to be flown in and people with burst appendixes having to be flown out.
Small wonder then that when our group of 20 guys in 10 vehicles gathered at Solitaire five days ago, I braced myself mentally for a cameo in an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie.
But it’s not the action you remember afterwards. What lingers is rather the vastness and the vistas of the oldest desert on earth, the dizzying silence, the poignant diamond history, and the freedom and peace of this enormous sandpit, which calms you as a Sunday afternoon in the countryside.
In short, the Namib fills you with awe.
Pg 2: How ’bout a Texan …
How ’bout a Texan plain?
The plan is to set off from Solitaire and follow roughly the same ox-wagon transport route of old to Walvis Bay, up to where it crosses the Kuiseb River.
Then we will cross the sea of dunes on the way to Conception Bay, turn south to one or two abandoned diamond mining settlements before heading north again along the coast, past Sandwich Harbour and on to Walvis Bay.
Five days. 550 km. Not a road, gate, Ultra City, tap or Steers in sight. In fact, not even a tree worth mentioning. Just the desert.
But what distinguishes this east-west expedition through the Namib from the traditional south-north route from Lüderitz to Walvis Bay? South-north is all about sand, dunes and adrenaline, our tour leader Jurgens Schoeman explains. But east to west you experience all the Namib’s moods.
The desert has always struck me as formless and empty, even hostile, but only a few hours out of Solitaire, my warped impression of the desert has already been turned on its head.
Firstly, I never knew a desert could be this green (granted, we visited after unusually abundant rains), and secondly I never realised there is so much life in the desert.
The veld is teeming with vibrant life on the first day. On the way to the Kuiseb Canyon we drive through fields of white desert lilies, past herds of boisterous gemsbok, prancing springbok and prim zebras.
Gobsmacked, we drive through a forest of phantom trees (Moringa ovalifolia), past fairy circles, around pans brimming with water and over verdant grassy plains. The Namas, who named this stretch of sand “The great nothing”, were clearly smoking !Nara pips.
Five hours later we stop for lunch. Distance covered? A full 50 km. The reason? The landscape is so spectacular that everything (and I mean everything) just has to be photographed. Little did I know the whole trip would be like this.
Wherever you look in the Namib there’s a postcard. Here you don’t need a point-and-shoot, you just need a shoot. (And never before have I heard so many guys use the word “beautiful” so often – I later felt I was on a Visi or House & Leisure reader tour.)
Systematically the landscape starts changing from the pre-Namib’s gravel desert to the first small, reddish dunes separated by dune streets.
This is the first encounter with dune driving for most of us, and the first time we engage serious 4×4 mode. Somewhat insecure, nervous and very carefully we cross these first sand-appetisers. Little do we know their big brothers (who have been shaving and smoking Texan plain since Grade 8) are still awaiting us …
The Kuiseb Canyon comes as a big suprise. Not only because of the contrast between the red dunes on this side and the black moonscape across the way, but because there is running water in the desert.
We peer down the black crevice that seems to have been torn out of rock. Way down below the Kuiseb River shimmers. Lush green trees grow in the riverbed. If you hold your breath, you can hear the river gurgle.
This is harsh country; inconceivable that anything but gemsbok can survive here. But that’s exactly what two German geologists, Henno Martin and Hermann Korn, did at the start of World War II.
Fearing that they might be interned, they survived in this canyon for two-and-a-half years, like Robinson Crusoes of the desert. (Martin later penned an account of their hardships in the book The Sheltering Desert.)
Away from the canyon, on the way to our first campsite, the dunes increase, and grow bigger. The first guys get stuck, and the first lessons of dune driving are learnt the hard way. “Dammit!” or “Yikes!” gradually starts replacing “beautiful”.
It was a long day, but not everyone sleeps peacefully, because tomorrow it’s us and those dunes with the packet of Texan plain in the shirt pocket …
Pg 3: Breastfeed a …
Breastfeed a crocodile
The Sahara might be bigger, and the Gobi more desolate, but the Namib is the oldest. The mother of all deserts. And this old lady knows how to make you sweat.
The terrain: dunes. Linear dunes, star dunes, transverse dunes, parabolic dunes, dune streets, moving dunes, roaring dunes and slipfaces.
The experience: Up, up, up, over the top, down, down, down, through the dip, over, get stuck, around, give it stick!, through, oops! @#$%, reverse, try another angle, give gas, dammit!, try again, slowly now!, up, up, down, down, halfway up … (repeat 134 times).
The description: “The desert is the great equaliser … this place keeps you on your knees.” (Marius van Zyl, our guide)
When they’re not searching for a way over or around a dune like a fox terrier sniffing out a field mouse, the guides are advising you about the best line up a dune and the best speed and gear ratio.
Gradually our confidence grows. After only a day or so you develop a feel for your vehicle, what it can do, which gears are the best for which kind of dunes. You soon learn that, like ball possession in rugby, momentum is the golden rule of dune driving.
Not that everything always goes your way. One time or another you will get stuck.
We’re halfway to the sea, and according to Jurgens and Marius, we’re now in the heart of this vast desert.
The absence of other tracks in the sand is initially quite ominous; it’s as if you’re the first one driving here. Looking back, your tracks carve up the sand like deep knife wounds, but ahead … ahead there’s no trail showing you which way you’re heading.
At the back of your mind you know tracks in the sand are quickly erased by the wind, but still …
You also know if your vehicle breaks down here, parts have to be flown in, or someone will have to tow you out. Forget about your AA membership; here you’re on your own. And if you were to get ill, well … have you ever flown in a helicopter?
The closer we get to the sea, the thinner the hardy grasses grow in the dune streets, the whiter the dunes become. But just when you decide the desert looks like a large bowl of white chocolate mousse, you have to reconsider.
Like a woman trying on outfits for a sexy dance at sunset, the desert changes her looks hourly: red, pink, apricot, orange, maroon – every colour imaginable.
An expedition through the Namib isn’t an experience, but rather a range of experiences: the early morning sun on the dunes surrounding you with an avalanche of colours; the afternoon’s heat when the sand burns your feet; the excitement, ecstasy and relief of dune driving; the calm when the sun starts crumbling; the sweet sleep under stars as bright as fireworks.
The days in the desert follow roughly the same routine: get up before sunrise, stretch out and smile involuntarily as you look out over the dunes, chat about the stars shining so brightly last night, have coffee and rusks while the sun lifts its head, brush your teeth and wash your face in half-a-cup of water, roll up your sleeping bag, shake the sand out of your shoes, pack up and make sure everything is tied down, take your place in the convoy, check the two-way radios … the guide takes the lead and off you go, deeper into the desert.
Up, down, up …
Lunch is a quick sandwich of cold meat, even with veggies like tomatoes and lettuce. Up, down, up …
Late afternoon you stop at the campsite among the dunes. Everyone finds a spot to pitch their tents or roll out their sleeping bags (usually behind vehicles or wind screens where the wind won’t bother you, and far from the guys who snore), camping chairs are brought out and then you lean back contentedly and drink in the scenery with your frosty.
The more active ones scale the dunes with their cameras, looking for more pictures to brag about at home. Others simply sit on a high dune, lost in thought.
Later on, when the communal fire provides the only light and heat in a 300-km radius, everyone migrates there to eat, chat or just sit and muse. Then the guys recount the various tight spots of the day, kindly tease one another, and argue over the best stars and method with which to establish true north.
Yes, here in the desert you become so peaceful you could breastfeed a crocodile.
Pg 4: An XR6 on bricks
An XR6 on bricks
At the end of day three when we stop on a milky-white dune from where you look out over Conception Bay, I almost feel like a sailor seeing land for the first time after months at sea, just the other way round.
I’m not sure whether the diamond prospectors and fortune seekers of old who tried to scratch out a living from these coastal gravel plains would have shared my sentiments.
The history of the diamond rush in the Namib is well documented, but standing here on the windswept desert coast, taking in the god-forsakenness around you, those words on paper come alive.
Walk around among the remains of Holsatia and Charlottenfelder, two former diamond settlements where the wind is blowing hell for leather to obliterate history, and you can imagine hearing the lonely and desperate voices of yore. Or is it just the wind?
It’s difficult to fathom why the siren call of shiny little stones could have been strong enough to draw thousands of people to this merciless gravel plain.
Water was a constant problem, women were barred from the diamond fields, you lived in a prefab hut where the sand blew in through every gap and your only transport, mules and horses, attracted millions of flies.
No wonder the guys went on a bender so much – as the weathered old bottles on the windswept rubbish tips proove.
The Texan-smoking dunes of the past two days have uncles too – an uncle with a handlebar moustache whose XR6 was permanently propped up on bricks under a pepper tree in his back yard … until he did time for dealing in stolen parts. You know, the uncle who was released on parole three years later with a “I loves Mom” tattoo on his upper arm.
And its these titans we have to tackle in the next day or two. But we didn’t know that this morning when we left our campsite close to Charlottenfelder after spending the night there.
We now turn north to spend the last two days travelling mostly along the coast to Walvis Bay. From here we follow the same route as the Lüderitz-Walvis Bay tour, so if you’ve done this route before, you can stop reading now.
The first stop after Charlottenfelder is probably the most photographed ship in Namibia.
Strictly speaking, the Eduard Bohlen isn’t a ship any more, because since stranding at Conception Bay on September 5, 1909 while offloading mining supplies, the elements have seriously taken their toll. Tread lightly when you board “the ship that sailed on land” (nowadays she lies almost a kilometre from the sea).
Unfortunately we don’t find a trace of the pair of brown hyenas living in the ship, and we press on further north, heading for Sandwich Harbour.
On the penultimate leg of our journey we pass Langewand (a small stretch of beach with the sea to the left and giant dunes to the right), skirt the Sandwich Bay saltpans, and head inland among the dunes, where we’ll pitch camp in the desert a last time.
It’s our last night in the desert, but just as we start relaxing and making plans to call our wives from Walvis Bay, we realise they left the best for last – the uncles with the handlebar moustaches.
Some of these dunes on the way to Walvis Bay are so legendary they’ve been named: Long Drop, Land Rover’s Graveyard. The “Dammit!” and “Jeepers!” are soon replaced by “@#$% hell!” or just plain “@#$%!” and some of my companions’ eyes widen like the first time they devoured a Scope.
Later on, when we see signs of civilisation again for the first time in five days (washed-up plastic bottles and other tracks), the disappointment is like a bad taste in the mouth. As we hit the salt road south of Walvis Bay, I was sure I tasted castor oil.
A week or so later my wife asked me what I would remember about this tour. Well, there are thousands of little things, but an executive summary would look like this:
- The desert is alive, beautiful and dangerous;
- It’s a place where men become children again
(and the playground is big);
- It’s a matchless adventure among the world’s tallest dunes;
- The extent of what awaits you is hard to describe;
- It will change something about your humanity;
- Even if you only do one 4×4 adventure in your life, make sure this is the one.
* Drive Out travelled with The Journey (021 912 4090; firstname.lastname@example.org;
www.thejourney.co.za) and paid its own way.
Pg 5: How we drove
How we drove
Day 1 Solitaire to the Kuiseb Canyon (±160km)
Day 2 Kuiseb Canyon to somewhere in the sea of dunes (±90km)
Day 3 To conception Bay and the diamond villages (±120km)
Day 4 The diamond villages to Sandwich Harbour (±120km)
Day 5 Sandwich Harbour to Walvis Bay (±60km)
Dune driving 101
Catch a few dune driving tips that will make the other guys on tour think you’re an old pro.
I’m watching you …
Wait until you can see the vehicle behind you before driving on. You are the eyes and ears of the guy behind you, because he can’t see what’s going on on the other side of the dune. Also watch the vehicle in front of you.
Deflate your tyres to at least 1 bar – depending on how heavily your vehicle is laden. If you still struggle, deflate more.
Pick a gear to maintain momentum and speed, rather than slow power. First gear, low range for example, won’t work for speed and momentum. Rather pick first or second gear high-range, or third and fourth gear, low range.
This one doesn’t work.
Gear selection varies from vehicle to vehicle. Experiment on the smaller dunes to find the right gear.
Take it easy.
Always expect a serious slip face on the other side. Don’t overdo it; rather do it over.
Don’t stop on an incline – try to stop on a level stretch or a slight downhill. That makes it easier for you to pull away again. Don’t pull away with too much power – the wheels might start spinning.
Rock ’n roll.
Drive forwards and backwards in the car’s track a few times if you struggle to pull away. This compacts the sand, making it easier to pull away. If you get stuck, use low-range and “rock” forwards and backwards without spinning the wheels.
Keep your vehicle square down the slope of a dune, otherwise you can tip over. If the rear starts drifting, counter steer and give a little gas. Use engine compression to brake when descending a dune. If you start sliding sideways, accelerate slightly to straighten the line.
Do the dune hop.
It takes a fine balance of momentum and power to crest a sharp dune peak. Too much and you fly; too little and you don’t get to the top.
Get your front wheels over the dune so your back wheels “hook” onto the dune.
Pg 6: Quick facts
What you have to know
What type of vehicle should I use?
It has to have the following:
- Not too many electronics;
- Good ground clearance;
- A low-range gearbox;
- Good approach, departure and breakover angles
Petrol or diesel?
Petrol vehicles generally do better on the dunes than diesel.
Do I have to be a sand driving pro?
Experience isn’t crucial.
And if something happens to me?
The tour price includes medical evacuation in case of a vehicle accident, but you need travel and medical evacuation insurance for other medical emergencies.
And if my car breaks down?
The recovery and repair of your vehicle is for your own account.
What is supplied?
All meals, communal camping gear (braai gear, tables, washing-up facilities, showers) and two-way radios.
What must I take?
Camping wise you have to be self-sufficient.
How much water is enough?
At least 5 litres drinking water per person per day, plus water for washing and washing up.
And for my vehicle?
Have your vehicle serviced properly and only tackle the desert in a vehicle that is mechanically 100%. Pack a shovel, tyre pressure gauge, compressor, a complete set of pipes and drive belts, brake fluid, gearbox oil, engine oil, fuses, fanbelt, extra spare wheel (all tyres should preferably be tubeless), extra key.
Your vehicle must have recovery points at the front and the back, a proper kinetic strap and bow shackles. A hi-lift jack is optional.
How much fuel is enough?
Enough to drive 550 km. Due to the thick sand your average fuel consumption will be about 3 km/litre (petrol vehicles) and 4 km/litre (diesel vehicles).
Remember to fill your vehicle’s jerry cans in Solitaire – it’s your last chance.
All your gear and baggage should be properly secured. Pack heavy items as low as possible and don’t overload your roof rack.
What will it cost?
R5 500 per person for a trip of 5½ days (a day longer than our trip). The next trips are from 11 – 17 October; 29 December 2008 – 4 January 2009 (New Year in the Namib) and 21 – 27 March 2009. Visit www.thejourney.co.za for more particulars.