Swakopmund to Maltahöhe, Namibia – Big Brother’s African Brother

Swakopmund to Maltahöhe, Namibia

Tom narrowly averts catastrophe by putting his rally driving expertise into practise on the world’s best maintained gravel roads. I knew all those hours on the Playstation would pay off one day.
October 2002

Before leaving Swakopmund, I had a lifetime ambition to fulfil: hot air ballooning. At an ungodly hour, we squeezed into the back of a pickup truck and covered ourselves with a blanket to protect us from the cold.

Hot air balloon

Hot air balloon


Off-road on the gravel, the wind speed and direction were assessed to determine the exact spot where the balloon would be inflated. Ballooning is quite an exact science; the conditions need to be perfect. Air was blown into the balloon by a huge fan until the burners were required. The balloon skin was remarkably thin, reminding me of the material that my lightweight waterproof is made from.

Ordered to jump into the basket, we ascended in silence to a height of 1000 metres in a mere minute. Balloons rise quickly to amazing altitudes, which is one reason why they are favoured by skydivers. Drifting over the arid landscape in complete silence, we watched the shadow of the balloon below us. I never guessed that the balloon reached a speed of 15kmph; it always felt as though we were hardly moving. Our navigator was constantly monitoring the altitude, wind speed and direction, occasionally firing up the burners. After forty minutes, we gently touched down for a perfect landing. We leapt out of the basket and held it down with all our weight. It took the rest of the passengers and the four workers to keep the basket upright on the ground while the balloon was deflated.

To celebrate a happy landing, we were served breakfast in the middle of the desert. It was rather a surreal experience. Sitting on camping stools, we quaffed champagne and helped ourselves to bread and jam. I finally got to try Rooibos, a herbal tea popular in Namibia and South Africa and will definitely be packing a few boxes of teabags to take home.

Our hosts were a lovely couple who had fled Zimbabwe many years ago to settle in Namibia. They adored Swakopmund apart from the Nazis. I have no idea whether this story is true, but our hosts told us that many Nazis escaped to Namibia after the end of the Second World War. Before Namibian independence from the Union, the Germans openly celebrated Hitler’s birthday. Now, their organisation has gone underground so they celebrate in secret.

It was time to bid ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ to Swakopmund and hit the road to Sesriem. One of Namibia’s most publicised and much lauded highlights is the Namib-Naukluft Park. Encompassing an area of over 23,000sqkm of desert and semi-desert, it is one of the largest national parks in the world. Such an area sounds as if it would be devoid of life but I found plants, lizards, birds and insects struggling to survive in the harsh climate. For the first time, I saw the famed ‘fog basking beetle’. This insect derives moisture by condensing fog onto its body.

The only fly in the ointment so to speak, apart from the heat, was actually getting to Sesriem. The C14 is a gravel road that extends from Walvis Bay to Maltahöhe, covering a distance of approximately 500km. In theory, the road is suitable for 2WD, after all Namibia boasts the world’s best maintained gravel roads. In practice, driving on gravel involves great concentration and nerves of steel from the passenger.

Initially, the road was in excellent shape and Tom was able to maintain a steady 120kph. We startled the occasional ostrich and springbok as we drove further inland. However, the road surface deteriorated and became corrugated in stretches, causing the steering wheel to vibrate in an alarming manner and my body to judder violently. The car climbed through stark rock passes, caught out by sudden dips, producing a roller coaster effect that unsettled my stomach. By this time, I was fervently wishing that the car would remain in one piece as another stone thudded against the undercarriage.

A winding section of road with a drop of a couple of feet on either side proved to be a rocky pass too far. Tom took a hairpin bend at 80kph, spinning out of control on the loose gravel. Now I know how it feels to be inside Colin McRae’s rally car – hair raising. I screamed as the back of the car skidded, the right rear wheel momentarily slid off the edge of the track. Fearing we would plunge onto the boulders below, Tom averted catastrophe by desperate braking and frantic turning of the steering wheel. My heart pounded as we came to an abrupt stop in a cloud of dust, adrenaline coursing through my veins. I knew that at some point those countless hours spent rally driving on the Playstation would pay off.

If a list of the top ten campsites from hell were compiled, Sesriem would feature somewhere in the top five. Desolate, dusty, sauna-like temperatures and rock solid ground combined to make this an inhospitable place to pitch a tent. Sesriem translates as ‘six thongs’, but before I conjure up ideas of semi-naked women contorting their bodies round poles and dancing on tables, its actual meaning is the number of joined leather ox wagon thongs required to draw water from the gorge.

We paid N$80 to enter Sesriem Canyon and Soussusvlei, heading for Dune 45, the highest dune in the world. Most tourists swarm around this area at sunrise and sunset when it is slightly cooler. By setting off during early afternoon, we had the desert to ourselves. Sesriem and its surrounding area is real overland truck country; I spotted at least fourteen trucks in one day, so expected the campsite to be jam-packed.

Amazingly, the 2WD road from Sesriem to Soussusvlei is tarred; the bad news is that the area covered by potholes exceeds the area covered by tar. Dune 45 rises a majestic 150 metres above the desert plain, glowing a beautiful orange red and begging to be climbed. It is an easy hike up, affording breathtaking views from the peak. Occasionally, the wind would whip up, sending a stinging sea of sand across the dune’s contours, our footprints disappearing in a matter of seconds. It is easy to understand why the shifting winds make the desert a dynamic place, sculpting different shapes across the landscape.

We had no intention of camping at Sesriem so we needed to reach the Gästfarm Daweb at Maltahöhe before dark, a random choice from a Namibian accommodation guide. The lack of distance markers made the gravel road seem endless. Every time we reached a junction, we thought we must be there soon. Tom stoically negotiated the gravel for hours, his hands shaking from the vibrations of the steering wheel. As light was fading, we located the farm and I hoped never to set eyes on another gravel road.

It was time to leave sparsely populated Namibia and return to South Africa. On our way to the border, I made a last ditch effort to listen to Namibian radio. This only confirmed my opinion of how dire it was. The broadcaster, who had a charisma bypass, was narrating a series of short stories. Insomniacs should take note that Namibian radio could be a solution to sleeplessness. In a clipped monotone, we heard how the hero of the story, Rusty, a veterinarian armed with a tranquilliser dart gun, was contemplating the difficult task of tracking three escaped king cheetah. The drama went up a notch when Rusty was exposed as a tortured soul, haunted by losing his one and only true love on a bus journey in Africa. I was relieved when the border control appeared on the horizon and the radio station was lost in a sea of static.

 

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