The Namib desert could have been an impressionist painting. A canvas full of imaginary shapes and colors expressing the artist’s emotions. After a few days spent in the desert, we cross the threshold and become part of that imaginary world. There we scale red dunes made of tangerine foam and sail on oceans of pale green grass. Bright turquoise tok tokkies scramble around us as our feet vanish in the red cotton on the ground. Herds of oryxes parade past us like a phalanx of Spartans, their long straight horns lined up like lances. And when the sun goes down, the mysterious Artist splashes gold over the clouds in one final stroke before he puts his brushes down for the night.
On our way from Luderitz to the Namib-Naukluft reserve, about 350km away, we have the inevitable tyre puncture on those rough gravel roads. Our regular jack is too short to lift the high clearance Landcruiser on the sandy gravel road. Our high-lift jack breaks as we are in the process of lifting the car and now we are stranded on that deserted road.
It takes over an hour for the first vehicle to drive past and assist us with their jack. And a few minutes later, another vehicle (this is a positively crowded road by Namibian standards!) stops and joins in the rescue operation. With our rescuers, all Germans, displaying an almost genetically programmed technical prowess, we soon change the tyre and are on our way.
We reach the small Sinclair farm in the evening, driving through a freak storm which pours buckets of water on us, turning the roads into mud. At Sinclair, a large cattle and sheep farm which thrives quite illogically in the middle of the desert, we are hosted to a hearty dinner by our host Hannelore, a third generation German-Namibian. The next day we reach our camp in the middle Namib-Naukluft reserve.
The ghost town of Kolmanskop, some 15km inland from Luderitz, appears seemingly out of thin air. Grand old mansions being sucked into the sands of the Namib. The old railway track slowly sinking into the earth. Springboks living in the ruins of the old general store. With Namibia’s hot, dry climate, the ancient buildings stay well preserved. And though the desert has been swallowing them up for the past 50 years, it feels like a biblical cataclysm descended upon Kolmanskop just days ago, devouring it for its sins.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when diamonds were first discovered in the area, Kolmanskop sprouted out of the desert as if by an act of spontaneous creation. In its heyday, it was one of Africa’s wealthiest towns, full of intricate Germanic mansions, a recreation club, a railway station, a church, South West Africa’s best hospital and the first to be equipped with a scanner. The town supposedly had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world.
And then, in the 1950’s, the diamonds started to run out and the town was slowly abandoned and returned to the desert. Today, we can walk the streets and Kolmanskop and from the corner of our eyes, still make out the spectral outline of the grand boulevards of old and, perhaps even, catch a glimpse of the old town’s ghosts, those who never struck a diamond vein and who still linger, hoping that their luck will finally turn.
Though German South West Africa (as Namibia was then known) was a German colony for a mere 30 years, between 1884 and 1915, German influence has strangely lingered. German is still widely spoken throughout the country. Namibia’s small towns with spotlessly clean streets, neat rows of houses and shops and restaurants which all shut down for the weekend on Saturday at 1pm feel like provincial Germany.
At the end of a 300km road which crosses the desolation which is the Namib desert, sleeps Luderitz, wedged between the Atlantic ocean and the desert. A town which briefly boomed during the diamond rush in the early 20th century, it has remained frozen in time for a hundred years. Its quaint streets, colonial German architecture and colorful houses sit in stark contrast with the desert on its doorstep. Out of place and anachronistic, Luderitz endures, beyond logic.
When I went for a run through the town this Saturday evening, it was eerily quiet, as if it had been suddenly abandoned. I did not see a car or a person in the streets.
We travel through endless miles of completely barren land with nothing but rocks and sand and the odd shrub surviving through sheer determination. The sky is so blue that it feels like a hand painted backdrop to the rocky landscape. We hardly encounter signs of human life. After passing a small Nama settlement of rickety huts by the road side just after the border, we drive for hours without seeing so much as another car. The gravel roads full of sharp rocks, sudden dips, slippery sandy patches and rivers crossing them are treacherous.
And yet, Namibia has a primal and addictive beauty. Its pristine land barely touched by man is what the world must have looked like a million years ago. The danger which lurks everywhere makes our senses more keenly aware of all the details of our environment. We carry 160L of petrol and ample water and food supplies with us because breaking down in the middle of nowhere could mean waiting seven days for the next vehicle to come by and rescue us. When we need to ford a river, one of us walks out to gauge the depth of the water, making sure there is no crocodile lurking in a deep pool. And we make it a point to shake our shoes before wearing them in case a scorpion has set up residence in them during the night.
Crossing the Namibia border is a somewhat strange but fairly straightforward experience. After the town of Springbok where we spend a night, we drive for 118km through remote and barely inhabited landscape in South Africa. Then the Fiooldrif border post appears literally out of nowhere. A dusty holding area for trucks on the South African side with a general store and a few idlers hanging out around it. And…really nothing on the Namibian side for several miles until the (very) small town of Nordoewer (about ten houses + a petrol station).
We clear the South African border fairly quickly but spend an hour tackling the Namibian bureaucracy on the other side. As we’re almost finished an undercover customs’ agent parading as a “surveyor for the Namibian tourist authority” asks us a few questions on our purchases in South Africa and is promptly followed by a uniformed customs official who starts to check our boot and ask us questions about the value of various items. We had seriously stocked up on grocery items before leaving South Africa in anticipation of the many miles of desert driving in Namibia – so the inspection could have taken a fair amount of time. I get into a surreal conversation about the price of a four-pack of ice tea with the customs official. About $2, I say. No, it must be at least $6, says he. We finally settle on $4. Satisfied that he was (more or less…) right, he lets us go on our way without further ado.
Our first few hours driving in Namibia are a complete culture shock. Namibia is empty, literally. As if some giant black hole had sucked all the (human) life out of it. With an area of 824,000sqkm and a population of just 2 million, it is one of the world’s least densely populated countries, mostly covered by two of the world’s great deserts, the Kalahari and the Namib, the world’s oldest desert.
Something remarkable happened today, on our way to Springbok, a small farming town 550km north of Cape Town where we planned to stop for the night on our way to Namibia. As we put some miles between us and Cape Town on our long drive north along the N7, the vehicles on the road were getting scarcer, the size of the farms along the road larger and the landscape more desolate.
Soon, we were alone on that long straight road which rolled up and down the Northern Cape’s many hills like a giant, endless roller coaster, headed for the even more desolate emptiness of Namibia.
And then, just as we reached the top of another hill, we saw the most incredible sight. Coming from the opposite direction, on the N7, a long column of purple elephants were slowly making their way up the hill, neatly lined up and keeping to their lane. I slammed the brakes and we stood still in the car, windows wound up, doors locked, watching in disbelief as the huge creatures walked slowly and silently past our car. There must have been a hundred or more of the beasts, and it took them a few minutes to march past the car. After the last elephant finally lumbered past, we all looked back and watched that long purple line slither down the hill like some giant supernatural serpent, never straying from the left lane of the N7.
By the time the serpent had become a small purple dot on the horizon, I started the car and we resumed our journey.
Stranger things have happened in Africa, and after a few minutes, we had forgotten all about the column of purple elephants and started to look for a place to spend the night in Springbok.
Tomorrow, we go to Namibia where purple elephants roam the Namib desert in great numbers and, it is said, have significant influence on several southern African governments as well as global warming and the Crimean crisis. But that story will be for another time.
Prince Albert is a typical small village in the Karoo, the vast semi-arid wilderness which covers one third of South Africa. First settled in 1762 by Dutch “voortrekkers”, it is a small green oasis in an isolated valley surrounded by a harsh semi-desertic landscape and accessed by a hair raising mountain road, the Swartberg Pass.
The neat rows of white Cape Dutch and Victorian houses with their well tended gardens and pretty flower beds could not contrast more with the barren landscape all around it. Today, Prince Albert remains much the same as it was in 1825, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert von Saxe-Coburg visited South Africa and the town was renamed after him: a small service town for the tough Afrikaner farmers who carry on their 250 year old battle to tame the unwelcoming land around them. And a South African small town utopia for a few eccentrics who have settled here to escape mainstream life in a big African or European city – as witnessed by the excellent cheese fondue we ate at a restaurant recently opened by two Swiss fugitives. Or by the avant-garde art galleries.
Prince Albert has the otherworldly feel of a community which sits on the edge of sanity, not quite sure where it belongs.
About 10km out of Franschhoek, in the heart of a large wine estate, l’Ormelins, lies Africa’s best kept secret: with an almost anonymous entrance, almost deserted, Johann Rupert’s priceless collection of classic cars is exhibited in four large Dutch-style buildings among the vineyards, surrounded by mountains which look so crisps and clear in the deep blue sky that they could be mistaken for a giant movie stage.
Much as Mr Rupert’s ownership of companies such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Shanghai Tang, Dunhill and many others can hardly be construed as adding much to the sum total of human welfare, the fact that he allocates (at least some of…) his dividends to the purchase and exhibition of beautiful classic cars clearly justifies the existence of the Richemont conglomerate.
From early (late 19th century) cars to more recent F1 cars, the Rupert collection is the most impressive, best curated classic car collection I have seen. The cars are in immaculate but used (and usable) condition, some of them with oil still dripping from their engines. 1920s and 30s Bugattis vie with “WO” Bentleys (4.5L), Silver Ghost Rolls Royces and a 540K Mercedes.
1950s and 60s Aston Martins, Jaguars (C and D-type, XK120) are nonchalantly lined up in a huge hangar. Even a humble Big Healy 100/4 and an MG TD have found their way in the collection.
Short of attending Goodwood, L’Ormelins (now called the Franschhoek Motor Museum) is easily Medina to Goodwood’s Mecca.
With its dramatic mountains as backdrop, winding country lanes and quaint Dutch villages, the Western Cape province’s “wine country” has not changed much since the first Dutch and Huguenot settlers discovered it in the mid 1600’s.
Stellenbosch, the second oldest European city in South Africa was founded in 1679. While it is a major town today, its wide avenues lined by patrician Dutch and Victorian mansions give it a strange museum-like quality, making it feel grand and beautiful but quite lifeless. A town-sized mausoleum.
Franschhoek (the “French corner” in Afrikaans), was founded by French Huguenots fleeing persecution from the French catholic state and offered a free passage to the Cape by the Dutch East India company (V.O.C.). The first Huguenot families to settle in Franschhoek brought their wine making skills with them and planted the first vineyards. Today Franschhoek is a pretty village at the heart of the wine country and, as befits a village founded by French refugees, the food and wine “capital” of South Africa.
Our spirit of adventure having been somewhat dented by our travails in the less developed parts of Africa, we decide to spend an Epicurean week in Franschhoek doing nothing more exciting than wandering aimlessly from wine estate to wine estate, spending the better part of the day sitting on a terrace enjoying the views, the food and the wine.