Ridin' across the desert
At Windhoek’s tiny airport, we picked up a four-wheel drive ute for our trip across the desert. We christened it Livingstone and hit the road for Okapuka, a game ranch just outside town. Bush seemed like a better option than a generic city hotel.
We arrived in time for sundowners and dragged our bags into the thatched chalet. The lodge grounds were sprawling and beautiful, with blue mountains as a backdrop. The tips of the tree branches were crowded with the miniature haystacks built by sparrow weavers.
Walking down to the thatched-roof bar, one of the ranch’s trained suicide wasps zoomed in to give me a whack on the ear. Ever been stung by a wasp? Hurts. Someone brought a spray bottle of yellow stuff and told me to spray on more every time it dried. It smelled strangely like Pine-o-Cleen. I can’t tell you how sexy and cosmopolitan it isn’t to find oneself in a slightly kitsch African-themed bar (complete with a stuffed vulture on a dead tree branch and stuffed hyena in the corner), spraying one’s ear with Pine-o-Cleen.
The ranch did have some more pleasant animals than wasps. Warthogs appeared after sundown to tear up the lawn and the next morning one of the guides took us out to see the rest of the property. A herd of white rhino snuffled the grass just a few metres from us, completely unconcerned by the car, and the guide whistled up a pair of Nile crocodiles from a dam by throwing stones into the water and calling, “Come-come-come!” Giraffe wandered about, browsing the thorny trees and there were springbok everywhere.
We set off again mid-morning for the Namib. The roadside got dryer and dustier as we drove and kopjes and rocky mountains reared up from the flat. We were navigating with the help of a borrowed GPS, which for some reason had the voice of Dr Evil from Austin Powers. Dr Evil managed to hold himself in check until we came to the Spreghtshoote Pass, a narrow part of the road that wound through the mountains. Then he just couldn’t help himself: he tried to kill us. He suddenly shouted, “Turn left!” when a left turn would have taken us over a cliff. When we didn’t take his advice, he got all stroppy and whined, “Turn around when possible. Come on, throw me a fricken bone here!” Nice try, Dr Evil.
As we drove, huge sand dunes appeared in the distance and a wash of sand in a hallucinatory pink. Heat haze shimmered and dust devils blew up among the scraggly trees. We were headed for Solitaire, the gateway to the Namib and Sossusvlei. You couldn’t really call it a town because it appeared to be just a lodge, a service station with a shop and a tiny tourist information office. Wrecked and rusting vintage cars were arranged in the dust around cactus and rocks. The sun glared off the pale sand and the heat was fierce after the chilled car. Everything we owned was covered in a fine film of desert that had filtered into Livingstone’s covered tray. Apparently, if we were German, we would have packed our bags in black plastic.
Our lodge was about 20km away, on an old sheep property. It was a bit like Fawlty Towers – surly staff, a grumpy owner who was somewhere between Basil Fawlty and Bernard Black and a strange obsession with pineapple on the dinner menu – but it was in the middle of the desert and it had incredible views. Buff dust and gravelly stones stretched away as far as you could see, broken up by kopjes of red boulders and pale blue mountains on the horizon. Our room opened directly onto the desert and a family of ground squirrels tore between a network of holes, fluffy tails streaming behind them.
We were the only guests apart from an American couple with their Namibian guide, a German-speaking guy who gave us nasty flashbacks to Carl, our control freak Cape Town guide from last year. The grumpy owner took us out on a sunset drive, telling us to keep an eye out for the cheetah that lived in one of the kopjes and sometimes appeared at dusk.
The next morning, we set out for Sossusvlei, which has some of the tallest sand dunes in the world. We were on the road well before dawn, with only the stars and our high beams for light. The desert is densely black at night, but occasionally an oryx or a ghostly tree would appear by the road. Twice, African wildcats crossed the road in front of us.
We were the first car to reach the gates, which were due to open at sunrise. As we waited, the sky behind us turned peach and dusky purple. The dunes turned out to be spectacular. They stretched for nearly 70km, towering either side of the road, deep red and heavily shadowed in the morning light. Resculpted by the wind every day, they had sharp, shifting ridges that curved like snakes’ spines. The usual pale sand stretched up to the foot of the dunes, scattered with rocks and startled-looking tufts of yellowed grass.
We decided to climb a dune that didn’t look too taxing. Another group was halfway up, so we assumed it was all right. Bloke got all the way to the top, but I decided once again that discretion was the better part of not getting dead and stopped halfway up. It was high enough for a spectacular view of the dune fields.
That's Livingstone at the bottom
For such a dry and harsh environment, there were quite a lot of animals around. Solitary oryx, small herds of springbok and ostriches prowled about, picking at the grass.
At sunset, an electrical storm blew up for the second night in a row. The wind howled off the desert, laden with grit, and orange lightning forked from the thunderheads. I certainly didn’t envy the Americans’ guide that night – there had been a mistake with the booking and he had been given a tent instead of a room. Naturally, the surly staff refused to let him have one of the empty rooms. He appeared at breakfast the next morning looking slightly ruffled, but announced he had survived desert storm.
After breakfast, we hit the road again with Livingstone and Dr Evil, bound for the coast to wash off the desert dust.