To the moon and back… in an afternoon

The Ugab hiking trail
September 3, 2012
Etosha region – Tsintsabis Treesleeper Camp
September 3, 2012
The Ugab hiking trail
September 3, 2012
Etosha region – Tsintsabis Treesleeper Camp
September 3, 2012

by Ron Swilling

3, 2, 1… Lift off! Perhaps too much has changed since that first ‘giant leap for mankind’ and the Voyager space shuttle that hurtled into space carrying a golden audio record with humpback whale songs, a babel of human greetings and directions to Earth. We have transformed into a small world with terra incognita rapidly being explored as we begin to prepare for passenger flights into space.

Desert edelweiss

As we leap from our home planet, focusing elsewhere, rushing headlong into the future, ancient lore and earth wisdom is fast being forgotten. Gerald Kolb, owner of Travel Time, takes passengers on a different kind of time travel, back into earth-time and history, into the moon landscape outside the coastal town of Swakopmund in western Namibia.

Echoes of colour

Millions of years of erosion have carved mountains, gullies and canyons out of gravel plains, and coloured them with a palette of earth shades. Charcoals, browns, beiges, creams and swirls of orange blend into contours and echoes of colour that recede in mountain waves into the distance.

It doesn’t take long to see that the barren land that receives only 20 mm of rain per year isn’t as lifeless as our moon that is being circled with increasing regularity. Here dainty pink Namib edelweiss decorate stone gullies and the purple flowers of an ice plant burst forth amidst water-bubbled leaves that hold moisture and reflect the rays of the sun. A tok-tokkie beetle scuttles across the sand and two springbok watch warily from a rocky hillside.

“The wisdom of the desert,” Gerald says as he points to show how springbok have nibbled on the enticing ice-plant with its encapsulated droplets and moved on, with the instinctive knowledge that if they eat everything today there will be nothing left for tomorrow. The landscape here, eroded by floodwaters and time, is vulnerable only to human disturbance. It moves with the slow pace of eternity, settling down after millions of years of geographic history, the breaking up of Gondwana a distant memory, pausing and contemplating the strange and relatively new human beings who rush around its surface in double time.

Source of water

There was a time when we knew the language of the Earth and could utilise plants for different purposes. Gerald, on his three-and-a-half-hour hour circular desert tour, offers snippets of interesting information about the practical use of plants utilised by indigenous peoples. “It’s something we all relate to, but have left behind,” he says, adding that we can wake up to begin to see with different eyes. Many plants were used by ancient cultures for medicine, food and as a source of water. The plants that have adapted to the harsh environment hold the wisdom of survival, and receiving less water in a lifetime than we perhaps use in our morning shower, show remarkable tenacity.

Lichens transform and change colour as Gerald dribbles precious water onto their rough surfaces. Dependent, like so many of the desert plants, on the fine mist from the cold Atlantic Ocean to provide sustenance like manna from heaven, the hardy yet delicate organisms, a symbiosis of algae and fungi, cling onto rocks and survive the harshness of the Namib Desert. Tamarisks draped with orange-seeded mistletoe glisten like shining diamonds in the early mornings as their salty extrusion attracts the desert moisture.

Gerald points out a spiky hoodia plant on a stony hill, used as an appetite suppressant in the western world but long-known to the San/Bushmen as an aid for times when food was scarce and as a miracle cure for many ailments including high blood pressure. He elaborates on the medicinal and other qualities of plants such as the waxy layered Bushman’s candle, Sarcocaulon spp, also referred to as Bushman’s perfume and widely used throughout the world as myrrh; aloe used for skin problems, burns, cuts and constipation; the dollar bush that holds water in its leaves, dribbling droplets onto the sand if squeezed; and the moisture-holding tsamma melon and !nara fruit. Springbok tracks mark the sand around the prickly !nara bush with its absence of leaves, its thorny stems having taken over the function of photosynthesis and its fruit providing food for animals- and humans alike. The Topnaar people are known for cooking its bitter-tasting flesh and its barbed growth serves as a protective shelter for a multitude of small creatures.

The world of the moon landscape opens up as we travel through and learn its tales and secrets. We drive past dark scattered dolerite rocks and marble veins that run through the rock like a chocolate-cake mixture, entering a welwitschia valley with 200–600-year-old plants spreading their two long shredded leaves in a radiating marvel of plant life.

Human history

All too soon it’s late afternoon and time to journey back from the moon landscape into civilisation, through the Swakop riverbed with dried caked mud and tumbled heaps of branches from the years of good rain that push water into the ephemeral river, only reaching the sea in years of exceptional rainfall. Human history begins to intervene as old palms become visible on farms alongside the dry riverbed, and we pass Goanikontes farm, which supplied fresh vegetables to the fledgling German colony at the turn of the 20th century. We travel the short route through the Namib-Naukluft Park, which was part of the old road to Walvis Bay when it was still a British enclave, and stop to absorb a last view of the moon landscape. A fresh Atlantic breeze blows as we don jerseys, marvelling that the glowing barren land before us holds such a wealth of life. The land levels into gravel plains and we reach the main road leading into town. Two suricates run off into the golden late afternoon light with dust flying up around their feet in circles of glittering powder.

Back from the moon with Travel Time we are rich with information, knowledge and desert scenery, having met remarkable life forms holding unsurpassed wisdom and a unique and fragile beauty, adapted to survive from the sprinkling of mist blown in with the westerly sea wind.

And the patient Earth watches… vehicle tracks, power lines and mining operations… and wonders, wonders. Somewhere beyond, space shuttles catapult into the dark starlit yonder.

This article appeared in the June/July ‘09 edition of Travel News Namibia.


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