Namibia

Wot no Internet? It didn’t seem worth getting a local sim card for five days in Namibia, so we went without. It was a nice reminder of how life used to be….. In terms of tourism, our main destinations in Namibia were the ghost town of Kolmanskop and the Fish River Canyon.

Overview: 5 days, 1615 km

We visited Namibia in early 2014. When it transpired that we didn’t have enough time to do everything we wanted to do, we decided to omit the far south of the country, reasoning that we easily could tag that onto a future trip to South Africa…… and here we are.

Thursday was a travelling day. In the morning, we drove 173 km from Augrabies Falls National Park to the Namibian Border (the map above is a bit misleading here. We didn’t actually have to go all the way back to Upington as there’s a gravel road that cuts across. Unfortunately, the app I’ve been using to do the maps refuses to acknowledge the existence of said gravel road…..). Here, in addition to the usual passport stamping, we had our fingerprints scanned and photos taken and paid 295 Namibian Dollars in road contribution (about £17: the Namibian Dollar is pegged 1:1 to the Rand and the Rand is legal tender in Namibia, which makes life very easy) before we were allowed on our way.

Then it was another 339 km through flat, pretty uninspiring scenery to our camp site for the night, Quiver Tree Forest Rest Camp just outside Keetmanshoop. They’re cheeky buggers here. Their website says that camping costs N$ 155 per person (N$ 310 for the two of us would be around £17.50). We arrived around 6pm and I was somewhat surprised (putting it politely!) to be charged N$ 510 (£29) for a one night stay….. A little note at the bottom of their web page does say “prices may change without any notice”…..

We hadn’t paid that much anywhere in South Africa. As a comparison, TWO nights at Augrabies Falls National Park came to 505 Rand (and the camp site facilities there were better too). Oh well….. For the first time ever I have felt compelled to write something on Tripadvisor. He doesn’t need to lose much business to be out of pocket overall on his pi**-take (a couple deciding not to go there for one night would do it).

Friday brought another long journey, this time west to Lüderitz. We’d forgotten just how empty Namibia is. You can drive for tens of kilometres without seeing any signs of human habitation.

One result – we saw a camping sign by the side of the road and stopped to enquire. Camp sites are (like everything else) few and far between in Namibia. We’d looked up all of the ones we could find online, but were on the lookout for anywhere else that might be better located to fit in with our journey plans. We’d be needing somewhere for our way back from Lüderitz, and this location was better than anywhere we’d found online.

This place was called Biltongplats. I went in to enquire. Yes, they do camping (it’s 50km from anywhere here, so we did want to make sure that the vague camping sign by the road did refer to this property and was current). I asked the price and was astounded by the reply: 80 Namibian Dollars per person. It’s run by a young couple who were really really nice. They had a little cafe there too, and the cafe toilets were sparkling clean, which is always a good sign. Having sorted out Saturday night’s accommodation, we continued on our way to Lüderitz.

Lüderitz itself didn’t have much to offer the tourist. There seemed to be plenty of tourist accommodation, but not the cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops etc that will keep the tourists in town for a day or two. Mark was very disappointed that his dream of a German bakery came to naught (this had become a bit of an “oasis in the desert” vision as we’d travelled the long road west). The best Lüderitz could offer him was a Spar shop…… Overall, Lüderitz reawakened memories of Swakopmund, the first stop on our 2014 trip to Namibia. Nice enough but nothing to keep us for too long.

There’s only one camp site in Lüderitz, Shark Island, which is situated on a rocky promontary just outside the town. It’s expensive for what it is (N$ 500 a night) but at least they’re upfront about this on their website. What they don’t mention is that Shark Island housed a German concentration camp between 1905 and 1907. Up to 3,000 members of the Nama and Herero tribes died here during the Herero Wars (in which the locals revolted against German rule).

One thing that surprised us was that there’s no camp site reception, just a guy at the entrance gate who let us in and said he’d see us in the morning when the wind had dropped…. It’s seriously windy in Lüderitz! As soon as you mention the place, people start talking about the wind; apparently it gets windy most days from around 10am…… Mind you, it’s not the wind itself that’s the problem. The sharp sand blown around in the wind is the worst part. Here’s a photo of the main road as we came into Lüderitz:

We were the second of three sets of customers for the night. The first had already set up camp right against the sheltered side of the toilet block. We laughed when we saw the third arrivals doing exactly what we’d done – touring all the pitches on the hunt for any available form of shelter from the wind.

Things got very odd the next morning when we left….The chap at the gate said “you can give me 450” – but then proceeded to write out a receipt for N$ 500 (in his official book, complete with duplicate copies). We couldn’t quite work out what was going on there. Ah, the many mysteries of overseas travel…..

The reason we’d driven all the way west to Lüderitz was to visit a place called Kolmanskop which has been on my “must visit” list for many years now. On first impressions, it didn’t seem as photogenic as it does on TV (but then where does?):

In the late 1890s, a few diamonds were claimed to have been found on islands along the coast of South West Africa. August Stauch, a railway inspector responsible for keeping the railway to Lüderitz free of sand, asked his employees to keep their eyes open. In 1908, one of his employees, a chap called Zacharias Lewala, found a diamond next to the railway embankment at a place called Kolmanskop, which was the first railway siding after leaving Lüderitz. Stauch very cleverly started staking claims before telling anyone about the diamond:

Once Stauch’s discovery became known, a diamond rush predictably ensued. In 1909, Stauch and a colleague found a valley gleaming with diamonds and named it Märchental (fairy tale valley). This turned out to be the richest deposit of diamonds ever known. Stauch was soon a very rich man indeed (though he later lost the lot in the Great Depression and died penniless). Lewala was given a job as the driver of Stauch’s horse carriage.

Initially, diamonds could just be picked up from the surface. In the first twenty months, one million carats of diamonds were collected in this way. Workers were employed in twelve hour shifts to crawl across the desert in lines picking them up. At night, the diamonds would apparently glint in the moonlight….. Later, sieving started, and later still modern open-cast mining methods were employed.

Settlements sprang up in the desert, of which Kolmanskop was the largest, started in 1909. By 1919 it was an established town. Around 300 German adults lived here together with 40-odd children. They lived in some luxury. By 1911, all of the houses at Kolmanskop had electricity and a telephone. Here’s Mark outside the general store, which could order in pretty much anything you wanted from Germany:

There was also a butcher, a baker, and an ice maker who delivered half a block of ice to each house every morning for use in the refrigerator, free of charge.

The small train in the photo ran around the town, so the ladies could nip to the shops then be taken back to their front door with their purchases. Honestly, you can walk from one end of the town to the other in less ten minutes…..

People come to Kolmanskop to take arty-farty photos of houses half filled with sand. I decided to stick to my usual shots of Mark wandering around:

The most photographed house in Kolmanskop, and also apparently the most dangerous, is the teacher’s house, on the left in the photo below. This one is pretty much being held up by the sand (and is one of very few houses you’re not allowed to go into):

The house to the right was the architect’s house, and further along the row you come to the accountant’s house and the superintendant’s house:

The head honcho’s house does look good from the front and has received some superficial refurbishment (an estate agent’s “works requiring completion”):

As a nod to health & safety in the accountant’s house, they’d fastened in place the end of a plank you walk across upstairs:

There were smaller houses for married couples and barracks-style accommodation for the single men, complete with art work:

A central building, completed in the 1920s, provided a bowling alley (apparently very important to the Germans!), restaurant (which provided over 300 meals a day, so folk weren’t doing a whole lot of cooking in their own homes), smoking bar, champagne bar for the ladies etc.

So, life at Kolmanskop was pretty good if you were German, but not so good if you were one of the poor grunts doing all the work. A few hundred metres away from the town was the compound where around 800 Namibian workers lived. They worked here on contract for two years, during which time they were not allowed to leave the complex, such was the fear of diamond theft. At the end of their contract, they were put in quarantine for a week and fed laxatives! The toilets had special meshes in them to collect any diamonds….. After two years were up, that was it; you couldn’t sign up for another two years as it was felt that by that time you knew the system too well so would have a better chance of successfully stealing diamonds…..

We noticed that the hospital at Kolmanskop seemed huge.

Apparently this is because it served as a satellite hospital for the area. One interesting fact about the hospital was that it had the first x-ray machine in Southern Africa. This wasn’t predominantly for patient care though – it could be used to detect swallowed or otherwise hidden diamonds (in clothing or luggage, or people even went so far as to cut incisions into themselves to hide diamonds inside, leaving the wounds to heal up before the end of their contract and thinking they’d be able to dig them out after they left Kolmanskop).

In the 1920s, much larger diamonds were discovered further south at the so-called “marine terraces” on the northern side of the Orange River, where the town of Oranjemund (“Orangemouth”) soon sprang up. Towns like Kolmanskop, Pomona, Bogenfels and Elizabethbucht lost their importance and were gradually abandoned. Kolmanskop was only completely shut down in the 1950s when the hospital was closed.

Lüderitz’s other main attraction is Diaz Point, where the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Diaz landed and erected a cross in 1488 (not the same cross that’s on the site now, of course). There’s also a lighthouse dating back to 1915.

Diaz Point is a good 20 km drive from town. There are no information boards and, although it didn’t bother us, other visitors were disappointed that the cafe was firmly closed. It’s one of those places that isn’t really worth the journey but you go anyway just because you’re here and it’s mentioned in the guide book…..

We did see some flamingoes on the way back:

By now the wind was getting up again. It’s quite an ongoing job keeping the road clear:

We had a really nice overnight stay back at Biltongplats. We were the only campers there and Mark was ecstatic to learn that the hot water to the shower block is provided by a “donkey” (which turned out to be basically a wood burner). The owner lit it when we arrived, but Mark was very keen to take over the task of relighting it if necessary in the morning. It’s a man thing….. Naturally, we bought a good supply of biltong before we left. What a fab. place!

It was now Sunday which brought…. more travelling! Our destination today was the Fish River Canyon. Lots more empty scenery, though we did see a bit of wildlife on the way (a lone jackal pup):

The Fish River Canyon may be the second largest canyon in the world, depending how you measure these things:

It’s definitely wiggly! The Fish River itself seemed to have been reduced to a series of puddles in the bottom of the canyon.

Overnight at Ai-Ais (pronouned as in “aye” not “eh?”):

Monday arrived – here we go again. More amazing scenery:

Our route took us across the Fish River / Puddles downstream from the canyon:

This is where the Fish River would, under other circumstances, flow into the westward-bound Orange River. Thankfully, the Orange River was still doing its thing:

This was good as we needed to cross the Orange River further downstream at a place called Sendelingsdrift. Our original route back to South Africa had been amended as soon as Mark saw a photo of Sendelingsdrift – a good thing as it turned out as our revised route gave us a lovely drive through the National Park along the northern bank of the Orange River.

The river IS the border here. We did the Namibian formalities on the northern side (first immigration, then police), which involved a very comical police search of the NAVI-SOK. This was not a “pull the vehicle to bits” search, more a “have a look around and see what looks interesting” search. The Namibian policeman was very nice but had clearly had a very sheltered life. He was looking for diamonds and drugs. Anything that looked like a bag or pouch was investigated (note to self – if I ever need to smuggle diamonds out of Namibia, put them in the cutlery drawer, or, as Mark pointed out, just keep them in your pocket).

Here’s a small selection of items whose purpose he had no clue whatsoever about and which had to be explained:

He did get quite excited at one point when he found some British Pounds among my possessions (he’s quite possibly the only person to have been excited by the dismal Pound in the last 2 or 3 years….). He soon deflated when I pointed out that my £100 was worth under 2000 Namibian dollars – hardly the proceeds of a life of diamond smuggling….

Our Namibian border fun over, we proceeded to the crossing itself. Now, there’s nothing in our rental agreement (yes, I checked) about not putting the vehicle on a “restored pont”:

In the photo above, Mark is signing a catch-all indemnity form. I had to sign one too. The completed forms then travel with you across the river. Hmmmm…..

More fun on the South African side. The immigration guy just couldn’t seem to do his job right, resulting in our passports being sent back to him not once but twice by the very organised young police lady we had to go to after immigration. The first time, he’d stamped us out of not into the country. The second time, she wanted him to properly cancel his incorrect exit stamps so it didn’t look like we’d entered then immediately exited. A girl after my own heart…. Mind you, I did feel sorry for the immigration guy, hampered as he was by a colleague in the back office who fancied himself as Pavarotti and was singing away at full volume. I did ask the young police lady if he sang every day. “Yes”, she said, “but I cannot say anything”, rolling her eyes in a manner that said it all….

Phew! Back in South Africa, we settled into the National Park campsite by the crossing (244 Rand a night, since you ask). Mark commented forlornly that this had been our last border crossing before we fly home. Yes, the time really is ticking down now…..

2 comments

  1. You must have absolute faith in NAVI-SOKs reliability. What would have happened if you had broken down in the wilds of Namibia miles from anywhere?

    Liked by 1 person

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