Dune Rider
You don’t have to stick to the roads on a driving tour of Namibia. In a 4WD you can learn to ride the incredible dunes of the Namib Naukluft Desert to rarely visited abandoned diamond mining towns and forgotten shipwrecks. No previous experience is necessary – just a sense of adventure, as Mary Askew found out.


Image "I can’t do it,” I gasped, staring down a seemingly vertical slope.

“Trust me, it will be fine, just don’t put your foot on the brake or you’ll lose control of the back end,” said my grinning guide, Jacques.

This was no ordinary driving lesson – there were no roads for tens of miles around, come to think of it there was nobody else for tens of miles.

From my precarious viewpoint, crowned on the knife edge of a perfectly formed dune, I could only see wave upon wave of deep orange sand. We were in the northern tip of the Namib Naukluft desert and these were some of the tallest dunes in the world.

I held my breath and with just a touch on the accelerator our 4WD started inching forwards down the dune’s slipface, sending everything that wasn’t strapped in hurtling into the foot wells. Then the most surprising thing happened – the dune started to roar, increasing in volume as we picked up speed until it sounded as if a jet was taking off right underneath us. I turned to Jacques who was still grinning insanely. “Isn’t it fantastic,” he mouthed over the strangely melodic noise.

Apparently, not only is the sand of the Namib so old that the iron in it has literally rusted to give it its overwhelming colour, but the particles have a great deal of air trapped between them. When that air is forced out the resulting sound is so low and resonant it feels as if it is going straight through you.

As we crested dune after dune my confidence behind the wheel grew. Jacques was always on hand, either sitting beside me or in a nearby vehicle on a two-way radio. Everyone got stuck at least once, even one of the guides who had driven in the desert hundreds of times. Rescuing each other’s vehicles was part of the fun and also taught us a lot about recovery - tips that came in useful during the rest of our driving holiday in Namibia.

The Namibians are deeply protective of this area of their desert, where diamond mining ceased about 50 years ago and only a handful of people are now allowed in each month. With the right permit and the right guide you can drive through the dunes for a couple of days until you reach some old mining settlements. Everything is just as it was the day the last prospectors left, albeit covered by the ever-encroaching sand. There are still beer mugs on the bar and pans on the stove; there are tools lying on the workers’ huts floors and sieves cast aside on the final day of panning. Of course people have visited before you but, because the wind blows sand over their footprints, you feel as if you are the first person to witness this piece of history. From here on you can’t stop yourself scouring the ground whenever you stop for some gem that was overlooked by those pioneers. We saw no diamonds, but every now and then we drove past patches of powdered maroon garnet and the occasional pile of tiny glass-like discs of mica – a reminder of the riches that lured the workers to make the then treacherous journey from Walvis Bay.

“The desert never fails to surprise you,” said Jacques when we woke on the second morning to find an overnight storm had piled sand high up against the sides of our tent.

“The fog can be so thick in the morning that you can’t see 20 metres in front of you; then a sand storm may arrive, then blazing sunshine in the afternoon followed by a freezing night. I never tire of it.”

At night, under the stars, we were treated to a traditional Namibian braai – a superior version of a barbeque. Cold beers were produced and huge steaks thrown on the grill. Jacques even rigged up a hot shower, using water warmed next to the flames.

The desert here can go 10 years without rain yet incredibly the morning fog provides enough moisture to support a rich variety of wildlife that has adapted over the millennia to the extreme heat and dryness. As we huddled around the fire a hairy-footed gerbil ran between us, eager to pick up our crumbs and even letting itself be stroked in return for bread or rice. Its normal diet is the narra, an emerald-green plant with melon-like fruit and roots that go 40m deep in search of water. There was something almost shocking about seeing such a vibrant looking plant in the middle of the dunes. Close by were piles of shells which, according to Jacques, were signs that the nomadic Topnaar people had stopped here in centuries past to enjoy bounty from the sea. The Topnaar made beer from the sap of the narra fruit or dried the juices in the sand to make sweets which kept for years. They roasted the seeds too, which taste like almonds and are reputed to have antibiotic properties.  

Jacques had kept the Namib Naukluft’s most beautiful secret until last. The dunes were becoming steeper and taller but as we crested one just after dawn on the third day we saw the Atlantic. Great sand walls form where the sea meets the desert. The shape of these walls constantly changes as the sand cascades down to the beach like a vast waterfall.

We turned and started driving back along the coast, picking our way between the walls of sand and the sea where seals and cormorants played. Before long we found the rusty remains of an impressive shipwreck. Inside were the bones of seal pups which had been caught and eaten by the brown hyenas that hide within the sandy bowels of the vessel.

The Eduard Bohlen was washed up in 1909 and now, as the desert has encroached on the sea, rests on the sand about a kilometre from the water’s edge. Its captain had beached three ships in the water here and, thus disgraced, fled to South Africa where he became a prominent politician – there’s even a suburb, Parow, named after him in Cape Town.

Not all victims of this desert are so fortunate. As we headed back to civilisation, navigating our way along the coast past Conception Bay, we found the bleached and dismembered skeleton of a forgotten miner. Jacques thought he had probably died as he tried to escape the mines, or when the boat he was arriving in overturned in the crashing waves. His remains were a reminder, if it was needed, that without the right precautions the desert is a beautiful, but unforgiving place.

To book a trip in this area of the Namib Naukluft contact Uri Adventures (www.uriadventures.com) The cost of the trip includes guides, communication radios, recovery equipment and food. There is also a donation to the Topnaar people whose ancestral land you cross.

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