The aura of Aus

Issue 4 (May 2009)

Journalist Hamilton Wende has spent months driving through Namibia. He recalls his trips in this regular column.


Certain corners of our earth have a hidden, half-remembered, half-forgotten destiny of their own. Aus and the haunting desert region surrounding it is one of these places. Coming down from the north the road descends through the mountains into an enormous open vista of desert, mountain and sky layered into one another. With the flat-topped acacias in the foreground and the horizon stretching out in front, it is a scene to lift the spirit and remind us to appreciate the solitude of the wilderness.

Arriving from the coast at Luderitz, leaving the mist and the swells of the freezing Atlantic behind, the drive is equally magnificent. The B4 must be one of the loneliest, smoothest highways in the world. It runs along the near-empty ‘Sperrgebiet’ or Diamond Area, which you need a permit to visit.

There is little traffic, and you can relax and let the mind open up to the desert plains with their sparse grassland that roll out before you.  ‘Dikke Willem’, an extinct volcano apparently named after Kaiser Wilhelm, stands dark and sombre in the distance, often semi-obscured by a bank of white cloud in a blue sky that gives the landscape an even greater splendour. It is like driving into a symphony, heading into a fugue of colour and distance.

They are relaying parts of the old railway line that runs next to the highway, but the ancient tracks are still visible on the ground, heading like a ghost train to nowhere. A few abandoned buildings along the tracks are a tantalizing hint of the past.  The sleepers and rusting rails are a skeleton of lost dreams covered with pale desert sand and dry feathery grass.

There was a squall of rain on the B4 the first time I visited Aus. The weather was freezing and a sharp wind blowing hard over the plains. I had to look twice to be sure. But there it was, a horse alone in the wilderness.  Its head was down as it braced itself against the pain of the cold and wet. I had never seen a wild horse before, and the sight of it was eerie, almost atavistic, as the image evoked a time when humans had not yet learned to domesticate animals.

There are about 200 or so feral horses roaming the plains below Aus. There are two main theories about how they got there. The first is that they are the offspring of Baron von Wolf’s breeding herd at Duwisib Castle who went wild after he was killed at the battle of the Somme in WWI.  The other, more likely explanation, comes from the history of WWI in Namibia itself.  The South Africans, allied to Britain, had invaded what was then German South West Africa. The German forces were dug into the rocky hills nearby, while General Botha and his South African troops were encamped around the railway line.  The Germans flew over in their biplanes and, leaning out from the cockpit, dropped crude bombs into the horse corrals. Dozens, even hundreds of horses scattered in terror into the desert. Most died of thirst and starvation, but a hardy few survived and established a wild horse herd.

Klein Aus Vista lodge is one of my favourite places in the world. On that same first trip I got caught in a flash flood near Aus, my car very nearly washed away. I had to run through the dark, bitterly cold night to the single light I could see in the darkness. I was genuinely scared and it took a few whiskies at the bar and hanging my socks up in front of the fire – to the bemusement of the mostly German tourists at the lodge – before I recovered my sense of humour.

It is tucked like a fold into the geography of memory. The old German ramparts from WWI still line the hillsides.  There is a walk you can take – when the weather is good – to ‘Geister Schlucht’ or Ghost Canyon. On the way into the canyon is the rusting carcass of an old 1940s sedan.  Grass grows through the headlights and the sky is blue through its empty windows.  Some say that it was abandoned after the driver and his friends, driving drunk, got stuck in the sand. Others say that it was the getaway car of a murderer who left it behind as he tried to disappear into the secret hills of the Geister Schlucht.

No one will ever know the real story. That is part of the wild beauty and allure of Aus.

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