Notes from the bottom left


The desert this year


I've not been into the desert so much this year. In some part this was due to the fact that it was no longer there.

Instead there is an uninterrupted parkland of sliver grass

A gemsbok in the Namib, this year a grassy park

On the edges of the now grassed dunes, fairy circles had appeared of the kind that pock the whole coast from Angola right down through South Africa, their origins officially a mystery but I suspect the air-conditioning work of ancient termites
  We enjoyed the rock pools of the Uob, a normally parched valley which this year had had a Thames-size continuous flow for 53 days. The Uob is a tributary of the Kuiseb which this year broke through to the sea at Walvis bay, carrying with it out into the South Atlantic most of central Namibia’s soil and the Walvis Bay water purification plant. We shared the pools with frogs and terrapins who spent a brief week or two frantically breeding before sinking back into many years sleep underneath the riverbeds before the next chance arises. An odd life but not, I suppose, unpleasant.

Water in the desert - a lot of frantic breeding going on before it dries

Buckingham palace by the Uob

Its a curious feeling, lying under a Landrover having just heard your back snap, wondering how you are going to get yourself vertical again. Vertical I did eventually get but bending down to unscrew tight wheelnuts however was not on. Fortunately we had Sebastian with us. Sebastain was a young German who was here on his honeymoon and so unscrewing was but a minor deviation from his day-to-day activities. The new jack that the Afrikaner had given me as a birthday present worked a treat and Sebastian had the spare on in not time. For him, it was good training as he had to repeat it twice more over the weekend, my new Chinese innertubes came punctures included.

At Solitaire the puncture man removed a 3 inch bolt from my tyre and patched it. Solitaire is in the middle of the desert; it used to be an old trading post visited a few times a week by the farmers and anyone else mad enough to get there. It has always been known for the excellence of its bread and for the skill of the puncture man. It was also the local telephone exchange and the lady in the trading post was the operator diverting the calls to any one of six lines. I remember once visiting there and there was an injured horned adder, a local endangered desert species, being nursed back to health by the 7 year old son of the owner; it was in a glass herbarium on the counter with an advisory note about the possible consequences of you putting your hand in it (gangrene and amputation). But that was 15 years and a world ago. Now it’s mains electricity, cell phones, Solitaire Lodge where the schoolroom used to be, and noisy Italian tourists enjoying Real Africa.

We camped in the dry Tsauchab riverbed, a set of camp sites under immense ancient fig trees. Afrikaners think its neat to build things in hollow trees; up in the north there is a Baobab that doubles as a post-office but here, a hollow fig was converted into a bathroom.



Africa has some of the World's finest long drops - scope I think for a coffee table book sometime. This is the deluxe model with air freshener.


We were on our way to Sossusvlei which used to be a very special oasis in the desert where the Tsauchab sinks below the pristine dunes, a place of silence and solitude and ancient Camelthorns. But now it’s a massive theme park where Italian tourists scream as their hired drivers compete with each other in a 4x4 dune scramble.

Most sacred of all is the Dead Vlei a dune or two’s walk away and which marks an older path of the Tsauchab where centuries, probably millennia, ago large camelthorns grew. Now long dead their skeleta remain there, natural sculptures waiting for the early-morning photographers or for the Italians to sit on them with their lunch packs. This is Namibia’s ancient cathedral, unique and irreplacable, each day crumbling more under the pressure of irreverent tourism. Would they, I wonder, allow Namibians, in return, to sit on the High Alter in Milan, and eat their fish and chips leaning back against the Last Supper.

  Come and see the Dead Vlei soon; it has survived a millennium but it will not be there in a decade.