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Inside Namibia’s forbidden zone

by Hugh and Midori Paxton

First of two parts

The public will finally be allowed access to one of the world’s last and largest wilderness areas — the Sperregebiet diamond region.

Day one in the deep south of Namibia and the view does not entice. What started as high winds has developed into the mother of all sand storms. Gale-force grit pummels our vehicle, visibility is reduced to only a few meters, and as we advance along the gravel track, ragged tumbleweeds scream past as if fired from a cannon.

After two hours of this bedlam, we finally see it; a besieged security light, a grim-looking building, a gate and, nearby, a ghost town half-buried by shifting dunes. We have found the entrance to the diamond fields of the Sperregebiet (German for the “forbidden area”).

For close to a century, this vast 26,000-sq. km expanse of desert was off-limits to anybody other than the scattered men of the mining companies. Anybody caught trespassing was either arrested or shot. Some say both.

That is about to change. In the next few months, the Sperregebiet is to be declared a national park. Its natural treasures, conserved and isolated by the diamond interests, will be officially “un-forbidden.” And the public will finally be allowed access to one of the world’s last and largest wilderness areas.

That’s why we are here — to meet Chief Warden Trygve (pronounced Trig, in case you were wondering) Cooper and see what natural treasures await. Obviously, if we accidentally find a natural treasure that looks like a diamond, that will be the icing on the cake.

Simply opening the car door in the teeth of the wind is a struggle, and once out of the car, the word that springs to mind is “agony.” The flying sand feels like needles. My hat takes off at high speed for Mombasa. We scrabble to the office, where three heavily armed security guards huddle morosely around a kettle while the roof groans and creaks. It sounds as if it wants to follow my hat and plans to leave soon.

“Where are you going?” one guard asks.

“Oranjemund,” I explain.

Oranjemund, incidentally, is a mining town on the bank of the Orange River that marks the Namibian/South African border. It’s also off-limits to anybody who cannot assemble the mass of documents (permits, police clearance certificates, etc.) demanded by its formidable security machine.

My answer prompts amusement.

“Do you like the color of your car?”

“Blue. Yes. It’s very nice.”

“It won’t be by the time you reach Oranjemund. This sand will strip every speck of paint from its body. My advice is go back.”

A quick peek at the straining roof. A glance at our nice blue car. A stone seems to have cracked the windshield. There is an unbelievable quantity of airborne material. All of it incoming. We take his advice and go back to the only place possible, Luderitz, a Scooby Doo mini-port crowded with bizarre mansions and haunted warehouses. Nice seafood. But a spooky place.

The next day the wind is just a memory. The sky is cloudless, the air still. But we are to discover that the climate here is both fickle and extreme — one day an apocalyptic sand blizzard, the next serenity itself. It can throw hailstones at you the size of golf balls then bless you with a gentle salt-smelling breeze.

Dramatic stuff, the Sperregebiet weather, and its extremes have sculpted a turbulent landscape of weathered mountains, wind-scoured meteor craters, dry river beds, caves, very deep sand, and inimical rock plains. We’ll get to that shortly. First, Oranjemund.

Oranjemund, when we finally reach it, turns out to be small, orderly, tidy and endowed with all manner of amusements designed to lure mining professionals to a posting that is truly the back of beyond. There is a golf course with oryx grazing the greens, a sailing club, a bowling alley, pubs, restaurants, sports fields and attractive public gardens.

When the Sperregebiet national park is proclaimed, Oranjemund hopes (rather desperately) to serve as the gateway for visitors coming up from South Africa across a pontoon bridge.

This just may save the town’s life. The Sperregebiet no longer has sufficient diamonds to maintain commercial operations and the mines are shifting their focus of operations offshore.

Time and again during the last century, mining towns sprang up along the Skeleton Coast only to be abandoned by their inhabitants when the stones ran out — and they were again swallowed by the desert.

Is this the future for Oranjemund? Harold Kisting, town planner, believes not. Not many people are likely to make the long journey just to play golf (even if it’s the only course in the world where oryx stand in as greens keepers). But Kisting points out that the Orange River mouth is a RAMSAR wetlands site of global importance, and one of Africa’s principal bird sanctuaries, and that the town’s excellent infrastructure makes it an ideal place to stock up on safari provisions and wait out the sand storms.

Chris Sivertsen, General Manager of Namdeb Diamond Corporation, is also keen to keep the town alive. He acknowledges the potential of eco-tourism to step in. He also plans to develop diamond tourism. “We’ll convert one of the mines to a museum. People can come and see how the mining process works, and the polishing, and then they can buy their own custom-made stones,” he says.

And why not? say I. Sounds like a fantastic idea!

There is absolutely no question that the mines are awesome and the stories behind them extraordinary. Particularly the crime-related ones. People have tried to steal stones and smuggle them out in the most ingenious ways. One man even force-fed them to trained cormorants. A less innovative individual inserted them into you know where. Not the first time somebody has thought of that ploy, but this guy made the headlines because of his unfortunate name. Mr. Sodom. He was righteously busted. As was the moron who led a daring shotgun raid, swam the Orange river — but oops! — left his identity card at the scene of the crime in his stolen overalls.

After meeting the diamond people, we found Trygve Cooper and left Oranjemund wishing it well. It is a nice place and hospitable and doesn’t deserve to be engulfed by the desert.

“Nice” is not a word that could be applied to the Sperregebiet. As we swiftly found out.

And “nice” probably wouldn’t pop up in your average word association test if started with the word “Trygve.” As we swiftly found out.

Sorry to leave you hanging, but I’m out of space. You’ll have to wait until the next column. It’ll be worth the wait. Trust me.

Part Two runs March 23.