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The Sand Rivers: 01

The Beginning.

It is with relief that the city of Johannesburg is receding in my rear view mirror as I
head out into the Magaliesburg hills and towards the Pioneers gate that is one of the
many entrances to Botswana.
Passing through customs formalities I turn on to the Sir Seretse Kharma Highway
which is part of what is called the Trans Kalahari Highway; running from the Indian
Ocean at Maputo in Mozambique, to Walvis bay on the South Atlantic coast of
Namibia. For the next 700 kilometres there is a straight tar ribbon that will cross the
Kalahari Desert. There are many more interesting ways to cross this great dry
expanse, but it is still the season of the rains, I will come back to Botswana. For now,
I am anxious to be back to the Namib, there will be clear skies and that warm sun that
always seems to welcome me back. I am driving a four-wheel drive pick-up truck,
which will be henceforth known as a bakkie, the African term for such vehicles. I
am pulling a bush caravan, which although similar in size to a small normal caravan;
it is sturdily built, and will travel wherever the bakkie and myself are capable of
going. This mesmerising stretch of tar is boring but it enables me to consume the
distance at a steady 120 kph.
Kang: It is a pleasure to see the sign that welcomes a weary traveller to Kang. It is the
centre of the Kalahari. Unless a detour is made to the small village that is host to this
place, Kang is but a large filling station, it is the only place for fuel on this route, and
a place to eat. It also has camp sites and some cabin accommodation which tempts
me to stay as I am beginning to tire, but I have a transit visa only and must complete
to next 400 kilometres this day and leave Botswana. So, after a short rest I must head
out for the border post at Mamuno; there are a great many donkeys in this country and
I want to be off the roads before nightfall.
It has been twelve hours since I began and I have covered some 1100 kilometres, the
border formalities are completed with pleasantries and little fuss and this African sky
is becoming dark. There is a rest camp just inside Namibia and Mamuno has changed
its name to Buitepos, It is at the fuel station and there is a shop; I have passed this
way before and not thought much of the guide books descriptions but having no
choice this time, I pay my dues and am pleasantly surprised. Too tired to unhook the
caravan and make proper camp, I make for the showers and take to my bed, The next
twelve hours are to be peaceful and uneventful.

To Windhoek And Beyond

Today, there is 300 more kilometres of the Trans Kalahari Highway that must be
covered to reach Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. It is a small city by most
standards but quite pleasant and relatively safe to walk upon its streets, but is typical
of almost any city of its size anywhere in the world. My road to the interior passes
through it and it is a good place to take on stores; the shopping malls are first class.
One other reason to stay here for a while is that I have two jerry cans of petrol in
racks on the back of the caravan. These contain petrol for my generator, which is to
power my electrical equipment, not least my air conditioning unit, which, when
temperatures in the desert can be as high as 50c, it is a very useful item. Now, my
padlocks appear to have been too small for some of the inhabitants of Johannesburg,
and the generator, along with much sundry equipment has been, shall we say,
redistributed, and is no more. The petrol is of no use now and I shall refill with
diesel, which will give me a safer margin to travel through areas where there is no
fuel. I had planned to buy two more cans for this in any case.
Fuel stations in Africa are not self-service as in Europe; they have petrol attendants or
gas jockeys, usually one for each pump, all of which will vie for your attention
when you pull in as it customary to pay a small tip for the service. Today is
someones lucky day. I have about 30 litres of petrol to dump so I can re use my cans,
it might as well be to someones advantage. The bakkie and caravan is coated with
brown Kalahari dust, and must make way for the white Namibian sand, so in about an
hour, both are gleaming, tank and cans are charged, tyres, oil and water are all
checked, and a smiling young man has enough fuel to take his girlfriend to
Swakopmund in his battered City Golf for the Easter weekend!
It is another day. Until this point, all has been but a task. Many thousands of
kilometres, by ferry, planes, transit hotels and by road. It has taken a week, in all.
Today I turn off the tar, lower the pace, take the gravel roads among the central
mountains of Komas and descend by the very beautiful Gamsberg Pass to the desert
floor. The guest farms and lodges fall away, and by the time I cross the Kuiseb
Canyon there is nobody here but me. For most of the day I head to the west,
sometimes rattling on corrugated gravel, sometimes padding softly on the sand. I
travel the northern banks of the Kuiseb and finally, to an oasis of trees called Homeb.
Homeb is a small settlement, less than a village, of Khoi Khoi people who live in ram
shackle huts alongside a few kraals of goats, together with some very noisy donkeys.
The location is on the river bank, after an impressive decent of a kilometre or two
through the walls of the canyon. As soon as I made camp under some camel thorn, a
dust cloud approached, under which trotted several hundred goats of every colour,
behind which, I expected to find some goatherds, probably children waving sticks, but
there was no one. Then to my amazement, I saw a solitary dog. The dog looked
rather weary, he took no notice of me, it was he that was the goatherd, and he seemed

rather good at his job. For all the beauty here, there is a drawback, that the shade must
be shared with the goats, and the mess they make, but nonetheless, it is one place to
which I will return.
I must now explain about the Kuiseb River. It carries the water to supply the coastal
town of Walvis Bay. But it is, or appears to be, a river only of sand; the waters, as in
most of Namibias rivers, except the Orange, which is the border with South Africa,
and perhaps 2000 kilometres to the north, the Kunene, which forms the border with
Angola, flow beneath the surface, unseen by all except the roots of the trees that
occasionally line the banks of the river. The Kuiseb is one river of distinction; it runs
from the high ground in the centre of the country, roughly bisecting the North of
Namibia from the South. On the northern side for quite some way the terrain is flat
gravel plain, but on the southern side, all the way to the Orange River, are the massive
red sand dunes of the sand sea. Because, from time to time during flash floods, this
river does flow with surface water and it cuts the ever-northward encroachment of the
The next camp on my list, the closest to the ocean, is Vogelfederberg. It is granite
inselberg, a sort of grey version or Ayers Rock in Australia, although much smaller.
Having driven around the perimeter, about a kilometre, I dont find much to my
liking. It would be interesting to explore; there are pools of water and life of the
reptile kind, it would be nice for a day out, a picnic, perhaps. But there is certain
eeriness about the place, I do not feel comfortable to stay here overnight and press on,
albeit late in the day, for the coast, Walvis Bay, and the fog!

Where The Dunes Meet The Ocean

Two of Namibias most important towns lie close together here on the coast, separated
by 35 kilometres of coastal road.
The first that I encounter is Walvis Bay. It is the port for the country, in fact the only
deep water port from Cape Town in the south, to Angola in the north. It is the home
for the fishing fleet of Namibia, which are boats of considerable size. Lately it has
become a port of call for the luxury cruise ships, in fact the QE2 is berthing here
tomorrow morning and the desert will be crowded with designer sun hats. Of the two
towns, Walvis Bay is more industrial and except for a great many flamingos in the
lagoon, it offers little for the tourist. Here, the sand dunes have started to build their
mountains once more and gain in stature until the Swakop River performs a protective
barrier in a similar way to that of the Kuiseb. The road to Swakopmund is pinned
between sand and sea and is often covered with wind blown sand that is kept clear by
the never-ending task of men and mechanical diggers. The railway used to run this
course too, but the battle has long been lost and it has been moved some miles inland
to escape the relentless march of the sand. The other notable feature here is the fog;
yes, there is fog in Africa. The fog forms every morning by the heat of the land and
the cold sea; cold because of an ocean current sweeping up from Antarctica. If you

dip your toe here, you will think you are in Scotland. This fog is very important to the
flora and fauna of the desert, many of which have evolved to make use of the precious
morning moisture. It is mandatory to drive with headlights on at all times in this area,
but the fog will usually lift by mid morning; in any case, one can always escape my
moving away from the coast by 20 kilometres or so.
Swakopmund, although sharing this unusual climate is the place for the tourist; it has
good shops and restaurants, attractive architecture of Bavarian design and is
Namibias main holiday town by the sea. The roads are surfaced here with salt, as
other materials are expensive to import. This is made from seawater pumped in to
large shallow lagoons and allowed to evaporate. It is not too dissimilar from tar when
dry, but impossible to mark; when wet, it is more like an ice rink, and it is unwise to
purchase any vehicle that has lived here too long.
Before I leave, I must re-visit the Landscape of the moon. Just outside of
Swakopmund, the Swakop River carves a canyon out of the desert rock; one is not
supposed to drive there, but merely gaze upon it from a tourist viewpoint. I leave
camp early before the hat bedecked hoards descend upon it, as I know they must,
move one of the white painted stones that block the trail and quietly disappear into the
depths of the canyon. This is a wonderful place to be; there is no wind, no sound,
there is the occasional Welwitsia Mirabilis, unique to Namibia, it is a desert dwelling
plant that can live for 2000 years. Apart from the presence of oxygen, one could
indeed be on the surface of the moon. I might have driven the riverbed, that always
brings me pleasure, but the surface water flowed not many days ago but gave up the
struggle and fell back into the sand just 15 kilometres from the sea; there might be
quicksand, there will be another time. Five years ago, the first time I saw these
massive dunes, the first time I saw my own footprints on the crest of one, just outside
the town. It would have been almost the last before the river and temporary oblivion.
It is not on any map but this morning I am to stumble on the place again. There are
many rough tracks that lead from the back road between these towns and the one I
follow fans into many; suddenly there are mountains of sand on three sides. To drive
as far as I can appears to close them completely around me. This is the place. It has
moved a little perhaps and my footprints have gone, but I will lay them down again.
For all the fog, the cold sea and the rusty vehicles, it is still a very pleasant and
popular place to be and it would seem that the entire population of Windhoek
descends on the town at holiday times to escape the heat of the interior. This is a
something known to me as it is Easter in a few days and there is not a bed or campsite
to be found. Perhaps the young man from Windhoek will sleep on the beach, but for
me, it will be time to move north, and into the searing heat of the desert once more.