By Ron Swilling
While driving from Windhoek to Swakopmund, the chances are that just after Usakos you’ll notice a strange-looking group of granite mountains towering over the landscape.
This is the Spitzkoppe and they look as if they should be in a Lord of the Rings sequence or in some other different place and time, rather than there, a thirty-kilometre drive from the main road, before the bush turns to desert.
For me they throb with the excitement and magic of a secret mountain kingdom. Maybe a mighty magician is involved after all – or perhaps it is just the eagerness of a camper and outdoor enthusiast to find a place to pitch a tent, sit under the night canopy or watch her great mountain friends turn golden in the late afternoon as if ignited by the fire from the centre of the earth, or touched by the stars.
The sparkling semi-precious stones sold at the Ûiba-Ôas Crystal Market at the turn-off onto the Henties Bay road bespeak enchantment, and the long gravel road makes a suitable pathway to the mountain kingdom, dragon’s lair, Shangri La – or as we mere mortals call it, the Spitzkoppe massif.
What we refer to as the Spitzkoppe today, consists of granitic magma bodies that formed within the Earth’s crust hundreds of millions of years ago, and have been exposed over time by erosion. The friendly-looking inselbergs make a fine getaway for nature lovers, experienced rock climbers and birders. It is one of the prime places to spot Namibian endemics, of which there are several in the surroundings, including the Herero chat.
Leaving behind Tolkien, magicians and spiritual enclaves, my journey this time around was full of other magic, but of the earthy, natural kind. The gods (they’re still around) were telling earthlings – well, at least the Namibian variety – who was boss, and lightning flashed and thunder rumbled throughout the country.
Dry rivers ran again, the veld turned green, and the mountains around Windhoek transformed into emerald. The omajova – termite-hill mushrooms – erupted from their mounds, and were being sold alongside the road, held out and resembling huge white flowers. Any tourist would have found it hard to believe, if travelling in central Namibia, that this was a desert country. But, as you neared the coast, the green disappeared and the rains stopped. That is, right until my planned camping trip to Spitzkoppe.
We climbed up the ancient rock face feeling like unfit geckoes, grasping the hand-chain, passing a pungent dassie midden every now and then
The summer rain had finally stretched its cloudy wings and reached the coast, with even the coastal town of Swakopmund and the Namib Desert experiencing showers. This was an opportune and auspicious time to visit the mountain enclave. The 1 728-metre Spitzkoppe peak presided over our approach from its lofty heights as our car splashed through the puddles that had formed earlier that morning.
Often referred to as the Matterhorn of Africa for its resemblance to the famous Swiss mountain, scaling its heights has become a well-known climb, as are the less challenging Sugarloaf and Pondok mountains – the latter so-named after the rounded Damara dwellings. We had more gentle amblings in mind and made our way to the steep incline leading to scent of the rain hung in the air, mixing with the day’s heat. White-browed sparrow weavers’ nests adorned the trees in their loose disorderly fashion and swallows swooped in celebration.
We climbed up the ancient rock feeling like unfit geckoes, grasping the hand chain, passing a pungent dassie midden every now and then. When we reached the top, the bakkie looked small and abandoned down below and the grassy plains stretched endlessly around us. Large boulders balanced precariously on the slopes and small ponds dotted the area known as Bushman’s Paradise, a small oasis that once attracted hunter-gatherers. The faint remnants of their art remain on the walls of the rocky overhang as memories of a younger world.
After some exploring and having absorbed the vista and clean rain-washed air, we were reminded as the sun began to dip in the west that it was time to find a home for the night. This time I didn’t opt for an agile animal manouvre, but grasped the heavy chain and did an ungainly human descent. We found a perfect campsite with a long-drop toilet and a circle of stones for a fireplace overlooking the impressive inselberg, and quickly set up camp in the last light of the day. The sun appeared briefly for the mountain king to shine his gold, and then disappeared for the night.
Our last stop on our way out to return to civilisation was a short climb to a pool held gently between the boulders, which had filled invitingly the previous morning
Occasionally, lightning lit up the sky in dramatic bursts. A sizzling fire, camaraderie and Orion’s appearance in the night sky promised a peaceful evening. But a party of frogs from an adjacent pool was also celebrating the summer shower with a cacophony of sound, seemingly attempting to drown out all conversation, more likely to attract potential mates from the surroundings.
A morning stroll to the natural rock arch or bridge cleared my head of frog lullabies and camping friends’ overnight mattress troubles as I ducked under the eroded granitic arch and photographed the refreshed landscape. Pools reflected the sky and the sun burst out in flashes through the clouds.
After enjoying hot coffee, our last stop on our way out to return to civilisation was a short climb to an inviting pool held gently between the boulders, having filled the previous morning. A dip to partake in this brief celebration of water – a summer delight where nature sprites, mountain gods and magicians assembled amongst birdsong, geological masterpieces and peace – was mandatory.
All too soon we left the yellow-billed kites to swoop through the sky and were back on the tarmac speeding past the blonde grass, soon to be supplanted by fresh, bright-green shoots.
This story was originally published in the Flamingo September 2012 print magazine edition.