Carmine Bee-Eater – bright, brilliant, beautifulAugust 12, 2012
A fine dining experience in SwakopmundAugust 12, 2012
Text Peter Bridgeford
The camels had difficulty climbing the steep sides of the dunes. Occasionally a camel fell and had to be unsaddled, and the troopers had to flatten the sand so that it could regain its footing.
Just over a hundred years ago, on 10 August 1909, a reconnaissance patrol of the Schutztruppe, the German colonial troops in Deutsch Südwestafrika, set off from the farm Gorab. Lying west of Maltahöhe on the edge of the escarpment, it was the last occupied farm before entering the Namib sand sea. Lieutenant Walter Trenk was leading the patrol of 59 camels, several troopers and three Bushman guides.
The Namib sand sea is an immense area of 34 000 square kilometres, an expansive terrain of shifting sands and undulating dunes with a few rocky inselbergs surrounded by even more sand. The terrain extends southwards from the Kuiseb River in the central Namib Desert for 400 kilometres to Lüderitz. In this inhospitable landscape there are no roads, towns or permanent inhabitants.
Desert-adapted gemsbok move through the area in search of food, harassed by spotted hyaena in the east and brown hyaena towards the coast. At night the mournful cry of the black-backed jackal is the only sound, besides the incessant wind, that breaks the silence. Trenk ventured into this vast, unknown land, knowing that if something went wrong, there would be no one to assist him.
Using a compass, the sun and the stars to navigate through the featureless dunes, Trenk and his Schutztruppe plodded ever westwards
The patrol crossed the first dunes, today part of NamibRand Nature Reserve. Then they continued west past Chowagas Mountain and entered the dune area. After a hard 12-hour march, they arrived at Hauchab Mountain, surrounded by dunes. Here the camels could drink from a small seep and feed on the prickly grass and ganna bush. Using a compass, the sun and the stars to navigate through the featureless dunes, Trenk and his Schutztruppe plodded ever westwards. They eventually reached the wide dune streets running in a north-westerly direction, and following them, reached Sylvia Hill, a rocky outcrop on the coast. The wind blew all night, but fortunately the men found some wood to make a fire. The camels, however, became increasingly unhappy as temperatures plummeted.
The following morning, to reach the beach, the men forced their camels to slide down the steep dunes on their haunches. After a two-hour march, they arrived at Naribis, where fresh water was oozing out from under the dune. The troopers enlarged the small waterhole, let the camels drink there, and filled their barrels. From now on it was a race against time. They had to march along a narrow beach during low tide and reach Black Rock before high tide caught up with them. The dunes were too steep for the camels to climb. The evening found them on a foam-covered beach, falling over rocks and into rock pools hidden under the metre-high foam. Some camels were so exhausted that they sat down and refused to move. To save themselves, the troopers left the camels behind. During the night, two of the unfortunate animals were swept away by the waves.
Terse comments on the official report do not touch on the hardships faced by Trenk and his troopers
On 16 August, the beach widened and the exhausted patrol reached Reutersbrun, the waterhole dug by diamond prospector Reuter. Further north at Spencer Bay, Trenk met a police patrol that was stationed there. The policemen advised Trenk to go to Meob, the next water and food source, where the camels fed on ganna bush and reeds. Here they sighted a small herd of springbok and saw gemsbok tracks. The patrol rested for a day while the camels grazed. They filled their water containers and cut reeds to feed to the camels. Trenk correctly surmised that the fresh water was from the Tsauchab River, an area he had investigated in February 1909.
Trenk led the patrol northwards along the track leading to Walvis Bay, but then, during the night, due to poor visibility in the thick mist, lost the track. The men carefully avoided sinking into the huge, soggy saltpans along the coast, and at dawn found the track and continued to Tempel’s Lager. Tempel, a trader, sold goods to the diamond prospectors working on the barren flats. About 50 kilometres north of the waterhole at Meob, the patrol turned inland. Now the most difficult part of the journey started. The dunes were high and the camels resisted climbing up the slipfaces. All that worked was unsaddling them, and the troopers laboriously coaxing them up the steep, soft dunes.
They lost another two camels, which collapsed from exhaustion. The troopers had no other choice but to shoot them to put them out of their misery. The patrol struggled on and from a high point saw the Naukluft Mountains and other known landmarks. Suddenly the prickly dune grass appeared and the camels could feed. On 24 August, they reached the plains to the east of the dunes. Trenk relates how they crossed never-ending 80- to 90-metre-high dunes for five days, averaging two and a half kilometres an hour. They spent 10 to 12 hours a day on the march, occasionally riding the camels for short distances. However, these terse comments on the official report do not touch on the hardships faced by Trenk and his troopers. The heat, shortage of water, mouldy bread, recalcitrant camels and soft, clinging sand took their toll. Once they reached the plains, it took a day to reach Ababis, where they recuperated after their 15-day, 500-km ordeal in the Namib sand sea.
One hundred years after Trenk and his troops battled their way through the Namib sand sea, tourists on guided safaris can follow his route. Even with all the modern technology available to tour operators, it is still a journey fraught with difficulty and danger. Maps and a GPS can guide desert adventurers, but the dunes patiently wait for the unwary and over-confident drivers in their modern high-powered vehicles. Contact your travel agent to go on the journey of a lifetime through the Namib sand sea.
This article appeared in the Oct’11 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.