The grand old gentleman of Ombika Gate
Hu Berry steps back in time to remember the incredible character and Namibian legend ‘Uncle’ Roy Sterley.

 

The oppressive heat of Etosha’s southern entrance reflects off the dazzling white, dusty road leading from the nearest town Outjo. It’s been a 120-kilometre, two-hour trip over powder-fine chalky limestone and the tourists arriving at Ombika Gate climb wearily out of their vehicles. However, their weariness is soon forgotten as an elderly man approaches, immaculately attired in uniform complete with beret, Sam Brown belt and revolver. He greets them in perfect Afrikaans, German and English, his faded blue eyes showing a friendly, yet steely quality. His hair is silver, the moustache trimmed and the goatee beard pointed. Meet Uncle Roy Sterley, previously trader, cattle herder on horseback, rancher and finally Keeper of Ombika Gate.


Before attending to the procedures of permits required for Etosha, there is first a little ceremony that leaves the ladies wide-eyed at the chivalry displayed. Each one receives a carnation grown by Uncle Roy and his charming wife, Aunt Dolly, in their splendid garden, which surrounds the spacious house flanking the entrance. It was said that no lady entered Ombika in the 1960s without a buttonhole from Uncle Roy. Then, formalities attended to, and depending on the mood of the tourists, a display of co-ordination and marksmanship that leaves the men amazed and the ladies further impressed. First, placing a rifle facing backwards over his shoulder and aiming by looking into a tiny mirror, the shot cracks and a bottle top placed 10 metres away hurtles into the air. Turning to his trusty sling shot, he sends an empty tin cart-wheeling into the air and then hits it repeatedly when it comes to rest. The Grande Finale comes when Uncle Roy balances a tin on his foot and holds a razor-sharp throwing knife in his hand. He hurls the knife above his head, kicks the tin skywards and at the same time goes for the draw with his revolver. His actions are a blur – as the knife and tin ascend, the revolver appears from its sheath and barks, sending a bullet through the tin, and a split-second later the knife is caught by its hilt as it tumbles downwards.


If you were fortunate enough to camp at Ombika, which was allowed back then, you could be sure that at some point Uncle Roy would appear at your fire, off-duty and charming as ever. The evening would be spent regaling you with his tales of early days in South West Africa. Beginning in 1927, when he arrived from South Africa, he opened a trading post in Kamanjab, then ‘at the end of the Earth’ on the border of the vast Kaokoveld. Business was not good and he took on the work of a cattle herder on horseback, complete with revolver and rifle, thereby earning himself the name of the ‘Cowboy of Outjo’. On more than one occasion he was obliged to scare off lions and hyaenas with rifle fire when they stalked the herds during night camps. The years of the Great Depression in the 1930s found him swinging a pick-and-shovel as a road worker. It is rumoured that his prowess with his fists (which resembled two blocks of concrete) was developed during the often boisterous times spent in town with his mates. From road builder to rancher, and Uncle Roy settled into a relatively sedentary but taxing lifestyle as a farmer. All was quiet till 1961 when an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease spread across the sub continent. The responsibility for manning the veterinary cordon’s gate that Veterinary Services had hastily erected along the southern border of Etosha fell on Uncle Roy’s broad shoulders. When the situation returned to normal, he was requested by the Department of Nature Conservation and Tourism to remain on at Ombika, as Gate Keeper. This is where his talent for diplomacy showed itself and within a short time he became known as ‘the Ambassador of Ombika’.


Uncle Roy’s  in-depth knowledge of firearms meant there was no better person to examine and seal the firearms of visitors to Etosha when they entered the Park, and they were invariably treated to a display of his marksmanship. His experiences at Ombika were not always positive, however. Once a tourist’s vehicle went out of control and failed to stop in time at the gate, injuring him seriously and resulting in 16 days in hospital. He returned and insisted on taking up his duties immediately, hobbling to the gate with the help of a kierie or walking stick. On another occasion Aunt Dolly was on gate duty when a tourist said he had a firearm to be sealed. As he took it from his vehicle and unloaded it, a shot was accidentally discharged. Aunt Dolly looked at him disbelievingly and said quietly, “I think you’ve shot me.” Fortunately, the weapon was a small calibre revolver and the bullet first passed through wooden planking of the gate’s door, which absorbed most of its energy. It nevertheless lodged itself firmly in Aunt Dolly’s leg, causing a flesh wound. The distraught tourist had to be treated for shock, while Aunt Dolly retained her serenity. The bullet hole still exists today in Ombika’s wooden door. On a lighter note,  Aunty Dolly also worked at Okaukuejo’s Post Office, involving a return trip of 20 miles. Several times she was late due to elephant herds resolutely blocking her path.


The story of the Sterleys of Ombika followed them to their retirement at Henties Bay. Here they named their house appropriately ‘Ombika’.  Sadly, both have now passed on, but those who knew them will always remember Uncle Roy and Aunt Dolly fondly. They were the salt of the Earth.

 

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