Friday, February 08, 2008

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.



At 10:02 pm, February 08, 2008, Anonymous Teddy said...

Hey, looks like your front yard after the ravages of this summer.
And your cat dashing from insect to insect.Just need an oryx or two

Looks great---glad you are enjoying

At 3:24 pm, February 09, 2008, Blogger Milly Moo said...

I hope Dr Evil keeps his murderous tendencies in check for the rest of your trip.

You have a fantastic way of describing the landscape and the events you find yourself in. I'm still chortling at the 'pine-o-cleen' reference!

At 11:22 pm, February 09, 2008, Blogger Lonie Polony said...

Haha! Love the Dr. Evil GPS.

At 9:38 pm, February 10, 2008, Blogger PetStarr said...

FANTASTIC PHOTOS! Am loving these wrap ups. But don't hold back, I want to know more about the pineapple menu!

At 1:57 pm, February 12, 2008, Blogger Hungry Hungry Hypocrite said...

Getting quite the eye for landscape photography aren't madam 1/2 heart. Nice work

At 3:38 pm, February 12, 2008, Anonymous MikeFitz said...

I love reading your adventures, Red. And the photos!

And speaking of photos, will you still be in Namibia on the morning of Feb 21? Namibia is well placed for a remarkable photo of the total lunar eclipse. In the couple of hours before sunrise will be the opportunity to see a fully-eclipsed moon intersect the horizon. Then, just before it disappears there'll be the first glint of sunlight on the top edge of the moon. Phwoar! (Speak to Bloke, he'll understand.)

At 8:44 pm, February 14, 2008, Blogger shellity said...

Gorgeous stuff.

At 3:12 pm, February 16, 2008, Blogger tonypark said...

curse you.

I want to be back there. It's rained every day in Sydney since we've been back.

At 7:52 pm, February 17, 2008, Blogger redcap said...

ted, and it looks like my backyard too. Water restrictions have not been kind to the little square of lawn we keep to satisfy rolling instincts.

milly, I'm pleased to say that we survived Dr Evil. He did pipe up at an inopportune time when a security guard was leaning in the window, and had us driving in circles around a town for half an hour, but apart from that, he behaved.

lonie, I was going to change the voice, but then it was too amusing.

pet, man, the pineapple. The first night, it was a "mini toast Hawaii" for entree. It was basically a ham, cheese and pineapple toastie. The second night, there was a great-looking eggplant and tomato bake, but when I noted the odd texture of the middle layer, I investigated and found - you guessed it - pineapple. Desert? Pineapple cheesecake. They must have got a bloody good deal on pineapples that week is all I can say. That, or someone gave the chef an 80s cookbook and his other specialty was apricot chicken.

hhh, why thankee sir. I've always had a bit of a taste for the old camera.

mike, glad you enjoyed :) We're home now, so no lunar eclipse for us. I can imagine it would look incredible over the desert, though.

shellity, thanks :)

tony, don't worry, I'm back too now. And I have to go to work tomorrow.

At 8:10 pm, February 17, 2008, Blogger ali g said...

Racing accross the sand in just his shorts and a towel wrapped around his waist, Roger came accross a travelling camel salesman who startled, said to him..' Where are you going effendi... to which Roger replied .."I'm going for a swim".. to which the camel salesman said..."but but the nearsest water is 300klms which Roger said "Yes marvellous beach isn't it".
Great beach shots Red!

At 4:05 pm, February 18, 2008, Blogger River said...

Welcome home. Glad you had a wonderful trip. the phots are beautiful, but that's as close as I want to get to Africa.

At 10:09 am, February 20, 2008, Blogger hazelblackberry said...

I seethe with jealousy. And that's the whole point of travel, non? To make others seeeeeethe. With jealousy.

At 5:28 pm, February 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've saved the photo of the sunset. It's stunning. I'm SO ENVIOUS. But I'll get over it. Sigh. BTW, found a reference to your scribblings on a blog by a person who wants to start a campaign to stop you stopping your blog. ENVIOUS, so ENVIOUS of your scribbling power. Sigh. But I'll get over it, again :) SMK

At 10:53 pm, February 24, 2008, Blogger redcap said...

ali, badum tish :)

river, aw, but it's fun!

hazel, I thought it was to cure itchy feet and expand the horizons etc.?

smk, ah, that was back in the days when I had more than five regular readers ;) I doubt anyone would mind, or even notice, these days if I shut up shop.


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