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Namibia’s no man’s land

by Hugh and Midori Paxton

A trek through the vast Sperrgebiet wilderness that will soon be opened to tourism reveals an abundance of flora and fauna, mountains, meteorite craters, pristine beaches, isles with names like Roast Beef Island — and swarms of killer bees.

Second of two parts

Trygve* Cooper, chief warden of the Sperrgebiet, Namibia’s 26,000 sq.-km diamond fields, has wilderness in his blood. For more than 35 years he’s been protecting it, loving it, and extolling its importance, and never has he been as happy as he is now, organizing the imminent proclamation of the Sperrgebiet as Namibia’s latest national park.

This vast, desolate landscape just north of the Orange River, which marks the South Africa/Namibia border, has been off limits to the public for more than a century and is like nothing else on Earth.

This also goes for its inhabitants, especially Cooper. A gnarled, superpower of a conservationist, he physically resembles something that wouldn’t look out of place in “The Lord of the Rings” (probably working for the bad guy, Sauron). All but single-handedly, he is currently blazing trails, making maps, ensuring that the diamond workings are rehabilitated and preparing for THE BIG DAY.

The Sperrgebiet is a largely rainless land, and the bizarre-looking plants that grow here are mainly nurtured by the chilly sea fog that billows many kilometers inland on most nights.

Occasional precipitation in spring (when it’s autumn for you chaps in the Northern Hemisphere) triggers a brief but dazzling eruption of flowers that cloak the normally grim terrain in a coat of mind-boggling colors. Flower watching tourism in South Africa’s arid Namaqualand region draws visitors from around the world. Understandably.

But when the rains fall here, the Sperrgebiet will beat that show hands down.

Trust me. Or rather, trust Cooper. When we visited, most of the plants were back on the fog diet and the petals were all but gone, though a few still survived to weave their magic.

That fog!

I’ll never forget my first night of it. We’d driven most of the day over rough track threading through shifting sand dunes and colossal troll-like rock outcrops, passing the occasional oryx with head bent against the unrelenting wind, and had finally arrived at a somewhat ramshackle building perched on a hill by the Skeleton Coast. Built as a South African fisheries research station, it was abandoned after Namibia achieved independence from its colonial masters in Pretoria, and it was then reinhabited on a part-time basis by scientists studying brown hyenas. And by Cooper.

We’d finished that old camping staple curry and rice (don’t leave Japan without it) and were starting in on another old camping staple, 10-year-old Cape brandy (if visiting Namibia, skip Narita duty free, the grog here’s a lot cheaper and better), and then the fog slunk in.

Fog factoid one: It would take 7 billion fog particles to fill a teaspoon.

Fog factoid two: It takes less than 2 1/2 liters of water to generate 1 cu. km of fog.

That night somebody had dispensed with the liter bottles and opted for a very large caldron. It was thick, going on impenetrable! A real pea-souper, as Victorian Londoners would say. And it brought with it the magical salt seasoning of the Atlantic Ocean that could be heard pounding the shore.

Everything around our research station vanished. We were in a world of ghosts, with only ourselves and our fire for company — not another living soul within at least 100 km, maybe more. The fog closed us in, and the fire glowed and spat and probably rekindled some caveman genetic memories.

It was a night for stories of Skeleton Coast ship wrecks, of which there are many, doomed West African stowaways chucked over board by the captains of Chinese ships (it happens a lot), diamond smuggling and other Cooper-ish yarns. It was tinged with magic. And that is what the Sperrgebiet National Park will be all about. Magical times. Moments never to forget.

As a travel writer, I’ve been around the world far more times than Phineas Fogg. I know I am a lucky bastard. And people who are stuck in cramped city flats with dreary jobs, long working hours and children who have nowhere to see a shipwreck swamped in cormorants often remind me of the fact.

That is why it is time to down tools, ladies and gentlemen, and book a ticket to Namibia!

“Life owes us adventures, and we owe our lives adventure. Wilderness gives us that,” Cooper concluded as we terminated the brandy-fueled closing philosophical stage of the discussion and left the fire for our fog-soggy blankets and (wonky) beds.

After leaving our hyena research station, we visited a number of very unusual beaches and islands. These were occupied by raucous and malodorous colonies of Cape fur seals and were stalked at low tide by jackals and brown hyenas looking for unwary blubber. In one location, the hyenas had established lairs in caves above a mountain of sand (with excellent sea-front views) and their footprints as they descended and then returned formed an extraordinary pattern.

The islands all had rather frivolous names, testament either to the British sense of humor or a yearning for something home-cooked: Plum Pudding Island, False Plum Pudding Island and so on. I didn’t get to see Roast Beef Island, but there is one somewhere. All are close to the mainland and host seal and bird colonies.

When it isn’t being a beach, the shoreline becomes sea cliffs replete with gargantuan weathered stone formations — the show stopper being the Bogenfels rock arch.

There are also wooden ghost towns and rusting diamond mining gear abandoned years ago and reclaimed by sand and lizards. Namibia has more than 170 reptile species, one of the highest national coldblooded body counts in the world. A lot of them live here.

It is a wild and wonderful coast.

Oh, yes, and it’s got lots of whales. Including the Southern Right whale, which swims so close to shore you could almost lob a pebble into its blow hole. Not that you’d want to, I hope!

We then turned toward the interior, and by that time the roads had stopped. In all honesty, they’d never really started. Mountains, huge meteorite craters, salt pans, plains of cracked mud, dust devils, an antipoaching station infested with several hundred thousand killer bees (my testicles won’t forget being stung in a hurry!), an oryx graveyard — every kilometer threw something new our way.

But that’s the Sperrgebiet for you. Magic every minute.

* Pronounced “Trig,” in case you were wondering. This writer will inform you of when Cooper has cut through the final strands of red tape and the park is opened.