Opting for wilderness and wonder

Scenic Air
February 8, 2017
The Marine Big Five of Walvis Bay
February 9, 2017
Scenic Air
February 8, 2017
The Marine Big Five of Walvis Bay
February 9, 2017

Text and photographs Ron Swilling

There is something about being on gravel – the slower pace required, the remoteness, the sense of being on a journey – that always makes me want to open my window wide… to let the fresh air blow my hair into a wild halo and the dust to anoint everything, and to give me a sense of freedom not experienced on the tar.

S uch was my experience once again when I ventured from the city to travel the Spreetshoogte Pass to Sossusvlei. I opened my window and breathed a sigh of relief. The burnished sand dunes of Sossusvlei were ahead, but first there was the journey to consider and enjoy. Traveling is not only about reaching the destination but also about having fun along the way.

The gravel roads of Namibia stretch like sandy tributaries from the main tarred arteries that bisect the country. Which gravel tributary to choose to reach the dunes is a matter of preference and available time. I chose to explore the slower routes from Windhoek via the mountain passes, opting for wilderness and wonder.

The C26 led me through the hills of the Kupferberg Pass and to the turnoff to Spreetshoogte between the Nauchas farmhouses. This turned out to be more adventure than I had anticipated, as the heavy summer rains had left their mark on the roads and repair teams were busy doing maintenance work. Although it was already mid-winter, I still had to ford a few small rivers before reaching the top of Spreetshoogte, where I was met with breathtaking views and a steep descent ahead.

By the time I reached the bottom, my ears were ringing, but then I experienced complete calm. I switched off the engine and listened to silence with the faint sound of birds in the distance. The wind blew the grass heads in the sun and blue filled the sky. By chance I had entered into a meditative stupor, lulled by beauty and the peace of the land. The animals must have felt the same because I had difficulty trying to manoeuvre my way through a goat roadblock at the next farm. When I reached the C14, nine kilometres before Solitaire, the first car whizzed by, its dust cloud breaking my bubble of landscape reverie.

Solitaire is an obligatory stop along this route, exuding a character that masses of tourists are thankfully unable to quell. It is still the place to pick up padkos (Afrikaans for food for the road) at the general store, fill up with fuel and take a break from the road. The once frontier-like settlement is now adorned with an array of rusting old Chevvies, Fords and a Hudson, and a row of cacti, has grown over the years to include a lodge, a bakery and a tea garden.

The general-dealer store – with the rainfall data for the last year scrawled on a back road on its outer wall, windows pasted with colourful stickers and the old-fashioned interior – is still there. So is the popular (and world-renowned) apple crumble, made famous by the late Moose McGregor, who took charge of the general store in 1992.

From the moment you pass through the Sesriem gate, 83 kilometres from Solitaire, you are invited to the ‘Open Sesame’ experience of driving through the gates to another world. Spread out before you is a channel of unusual and awe-inspiring beauty that should be on every  bucket list for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On your right is the well-known Elim dune, after which a succession of dunes leads the way in sensuous and dappled elegance towards Sossusvlei.

The road crosses the Tsauchab River, usually dry except in times of good summer rainfall, and the green line of trees follows the river course along the base of the dunes, tree skeletons graphically lining the outer reaches.

After a shuttle or 4×4 drive through the soft sand from the Sossusvlei parking area, and a trudge through the sand and up a small sandy slope, the beauty of Dead Vlei comes into view. Skeletons of camelthorn trees weathered by the elements and time are embedded in the white cracked pan, resembling forms with arms outstretched, some even taking on the appearance of couples dancing. Behind the pan, terracotta dunes rise upwards, Big Daddy being the highest and presenting a challenging climb even for the fiercely fit.

A further drive or short walk over the sand takes you to Sossusvlei itself. Dry for much of the year, the vlei fills up in times of heavy rains in the interior. This is the Tsauchab River’s final destination before it runs and disappears into the dunes. Surrounding the vlei, the red desert sand is dotted with camelthorn trees, their crescent-shaped pods adorning the ground, and spiky !nara bushes speckling the sand with green.

The wind had dispelled any thought of climbing Big Daddy dune, so I lay low and savoured the sight of the vlei filled with water. I unpacked my picnic lunch and sat at the pan’s edge, listening to the water lap against the shore and watching blacksmith plovers fly overhead.

This was a bucket-list experience indeed. I eventually had to pull myself up, remembering that I still wanted to visit Sesriem Canyon and realising that I would need to race the sun to reach my overnight destination.

Sesriem Canyon was sculpted over aeons by the Tsauchab River’s tumultuous journey to the sea. It was once a place where a length of six ox-hide thongs (ses rieme in Afrikaans) tied together was used to lower a receptacle into the canyon pools below for retrieving water, a precious resource in the Namib Desert. Today, a path leads down into the canyon, where a few small pools, decorated with birds’ feathers and grass heads, usually remain after the rains.

All too soon, it was time for the journey back to Windhoek. I stopped off at the Tropic of Capricorn and then continued on to Gaub Pass. The rolling hills had an unusual grassy softness to them, courtesy of the summer rains. A thin stream of water still remained in the Gaub River, and branches wrapped around the top of trees were evidence of the recent high-water level. I rested here, taking pleasure in the place.

As I veered off eastwards towards the Gamsberg Pass and Windhoek, the hills became mountains. The small rivers still held water and my vehicle splashed through shallow river crossings. Rosy-faced lovebirds flew into the trees in flashes of iridescent colour. A flock of mousebirds swooped over the road and lazy cows watched me in sluggish curiosity. The engage-in-low-gear sign for trucks appeared just before the ten kilometres of Gamsberg bends.

After the pass, I was back into city time and rushing to return my vehicle before nightfall. The evening traffic was exaggerated and the slow-paced peace of my journey suddenly seemed far away. It was only when I was tucked warmly into bed that night that the majestic purple-blue mountains loomed up and the striking desert dunes appeared again, their images flowing through me with their indescribable beauty.

It is the journeys of our lives that fill us up and feed our souls, and this one in particular reminded me of the magnificence of the natural world. And, as is fitting for the end of all good journeys, I smiled and went to sleep, snug in the warm memories of the past week and with my tank full.


This article was first published in the Flamingo December 2011 issue.

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