If you missed the last column, here’s a brief recap. We were about to enter the Namibian Sperrgebiet (lit. “Restricted Area”), a vast southwest African coastal wilderness, off limits for nearly a century due to its dense concentrations of diamonds.
|On the coast of Namibia’s Sperrgebiet the remains of the shipwreck are ignored by a busy seal rookery.|
The diamonds are gone, at least on a commercially attractive scale, and so too are the armed guards with the shoot-on-sight policy. For the first time in years, limited numbers of intrepid tourists are being allowed into this area on guided but self-drive, self-catering safaris.
Expeditions last a minimum of three days. Accommodation is in a remote diamond-mining camp. In driving magazines the trip is listed among the top 10 off-road experiences in Africa.
Among Sperrgebiet attractions are some of the world’s highest sand dunes, a coast line that is littered with seal colonies and spectacular shipwrecks, abandoned diamond mines and bizarre geology.
Officially, we are here to write about the desert plant and animal life that make this area one of the planet’s biodiversity hot spots.
What we really want to do, of course, is find a jolly big diamond. Then retire.
There are eight vehicles in our convoy. There’s no road, no track and not much of a map. Our guide in the lead vehicle is Luffy, a demented maniac. With us so far? Excellent. Let’s get going then.
Ten seconds after leaving the tarmac road the predictable happens: One of the cars gets bogged down in the sand. It revs impotently. It stalls.
“Engage four wheel drive you s****g rock spider!” Luffy explains candidly at the sort of volume Pavarotti could only dream of. “And f****g well let your tires down!”
Pithy delivery, but actually sound advice. Off-road driving on gravel? Increase tire pressure. Driving on sand? Let tires down to half (or more) of their normal pressure. Traction and progress increase dramatically in both cases.
Tires deflated, car dug out, our convoy bowls merrily off into the wilderness. Soon we’re all rather pleased with ourselves. The landscape is stunning; a subtle pastel mix of purple rocks, pink rocks, blue-gray sands, yellow dead grasses, white sands and pure blue skies. There are hills, rock outcrops and plains. A distant oryx, long-horned and stationary, watches us watching it.
Spicing all this is an increasing confidence in our ability to survive. Not to crash. Not to get stuck. Not to have obscenities bellowed at us.
The landscape rushes past; then suddenly there’s a halt. We’ve just crested a rise, and there it is in front of us, a view that would set any SF movie set designer’s heart racing: vast red dunes rising in their hundreds, perhaps thousands. The land God gave to Cain. Wilbur Smith’s “Burning Shore.” The Sperrgebiet!
“Well, we’re obviously not driving into that,” I observe. “It would be suicide.”
“Get a f*****g move on!”
Quivering, we comply. Up dunes, over dunes, down dunes. The angles are at times appalling. Luggage and beer bottles thump off the back of our heads as we slither down inclines that might make ski jumpers faint. The engine howls piteously as we lunge upward. The world sways as we slither back down again.
In the interests of setting two rather inconsequential records (first visitors from Japan to drive into the Sperrgebiet; first Japanese woman — and only the second woman from anywhere — to do so) your Japanese correspondent is exclusively at the wheel. Your British correspondent is exclusively at the vodka and the sedatives.
Burly Afrikaners get stuck. Vehicles crash. Vehicles stall. No one rolls over, but it’s not from want of trying. It takes one wretch hours of charging to clear a single dune ridge.
But know what? We don’t screw up once! The Afrikaners are at first derisive, then irritated, then — we got ’em! — impressed. Luffy is (and this is our most significant triumph), for a brief period of time at least, speechless.
The honest truth, though, is that if you follow Luffy’s advice (“B****y momentum not f*****g power you s***t for brains baboon!”), and don’t lose your nerve or roll into the sea, then conquering the seemingly unconquerable is less difficult than it seems.
A guide who can “read the dunes,” though, is absolutely essential. The dunes change constantly. What is traversable one day is impassable the next.
An ostrich’s eyes (80 grams) weigh more than its brain (30 grams). This may explain why they choose to live in the Sperrgebiet desert. There are plants here — indeed, many of them occur nowhere else — but they couldn’t be described as good eating. By day, many are dry, crumbly and contain as little as one percent water. At night, when the sea fog rolls in, their moisture levels increase to as much as 40 percent. Not much consolation for the ostrich, being diurnal.
Other plants don’t have any leaves at all. Some resemble stones or dry sticks, others do a very passable impression of gannet droppings. It’s hard to see how the ostriches get by.
The presence of brown hyenas and jackals is more understandable: They subsist largely on the carrion that washes up on the pristine shore, on the prolific seabirds and their eggs and on the seals that mass in great stinking, roaring rookeries along the coast.
The oryx has adapted to desert life with aplomb. By day its body temperature rises to 45 degrees, but its fine network of facial blood vessels are cooled when it breathes, thus prevents its brain from overheating. Or indeed, melting.
Diamonds are pure crystallized carbon, in some cases as old as the earth itself. They command immense prices. No, we didn’t find any.
As Luffy would say, “B****r!”
Other than that, a five-star trip.