Return to the desert

After a morning being guided round Duwisib Castle in minute detail by the very passionate-about-the-castle manager (complete with SWOT analysis presented to us about the model of running a castle in the middle of nowhere) – we were back on the road, to return to the desert.

This time we knew our destination, we had been there before – Sossusvlei in the Namib desert, famous for its red, rolling dunes.

It was my wish to spend my birthday in the dunes, so we arrived the day before – to get an early night, for a very early start.

We woke up in the dark, at 5.30am, in order to make it to the dunes on time. Picking up our special picnic hamper at reception, we drove the 60 kilometres into the desert as the sun came up on my birthday.

Arriving at the big daddy dune, we set off, climbing the dune, taking in the stunning scenery of the red desert dunes, as far as the eye can see. Far below, the petrified ancient trees of the Deadvlei. This is one of my favourite places in the world.

Once at the top, there’s only one way down – to run down the side of the dune – such an exhilarating thing to do. Racing down in leaps and bounds, sinking in the warm sand with each step, we laughed our way down into the Deadvlei … where a cursory shoe-emptying was needed.

A stroll through the Deadvlei back to the car, and we were unpacking my breakfast hamper. Every type of breakfast yoghurt, fruit, meat and cheese cut you could want, along with juices, tea, mini bottles of champagne. Life was good.

Back at our chalet, I unwrapped my presents, and spent the afternoon wallowing in the pool – a flow-rim beauty overlooking the desert and dunes.

Dinner was at a neighbouring lodge restaurant – a game-meat grill, tables set out in the bush. After an exquisite dinner, I was feel full and lazy – and it turned out it wasn’t over.

All of a sudden, the staff of the lodge were converging on me, singing a very pretty Namibian version of a happy birthday song. Within minutes I had a chocolate cake in front of me, and a veritable African choir singing and dancing surrounding me. I suspect my description can’t reproduce the moment, so special.

What can I say, I think I had the perfect day.

The next morning, we returned to the dunes bright and early for another dune climb – and the chance for me to put my awesome new camera – courtesy of mummy – to the test. I can’t wait to show off my pictures!

 

Lady of the manor… for a night

Next morning, it was time to pack up camp and move on – next stop Duwisib Castle, somewhere on the edge of Namib desert dunes.

In what we have already learned to be true Namibian style, we were given directions by the camp caretakers: drive out of the desert, turn left, drive 220 kilometres, there you’ll find a town, drive through it, then drive another 220 kilometres to the next town, turn left. Then drive 110 kilometres into the bush, then turn left at the sign to the castle.

These amusing directions scribbled on a scrap of paper, we set off.

The directions proved correct to the letter, and some 6 hours after setting off we were on the 80 kilometre mud-track towards Duwisib Castle, in a torrential storm, testing our driving once again.

The mud-track gave well to arid hills, which seemed to go on forever. Onwards and onwards into the middle of nowhere. No sign of life anywhere in sight along our journey since the last town, except the occasional warthog.

After what seemed an eternity driving in the hills, the light dimming once again, we spotted the most out-of-place looking red-brick … well, kind of castle I suppose. We had found our stop for the night.

Duwisib Castle was built in 1908, mimicking a medieval style of sorts, by a German Baron as a gift of love to his new American bride. This fact in itself deepened our curiosity – and incredulity – who would build his new bride a house in such a forsakenly remote place?

Pulling up to the castle, it was all locked up, no-one around. Standing around in the carpark, wondering what to do with ourselves in the middle of nowhere, soon a car came racing up the driveway – the caretaker had seen us coming from her cottage down the hill.

Marching straight up to the front door of the castle itself, she produced an enormous set of keys, opened up, and ushered us into the castle foyer.

There were no other guests staying, she informed us. [You don’t say!]. We had the place to ourself for the night. [You what??]

Marching off ahead, she opened up the master bedroom, complete with moquisto-net clad four-poster bed, told us to settle in, she was going to get the cook to make us dinner.

Somewhat bewildered, we settled in and went off to explore the castle.

Full of artwork, antique European furniture, the Baron’s personal armory… well, we really were in a castle.

Suddenly in bustled a lady, in her pyjamas, with a thick white face-mask smeared all over her face. “Don’t worry about my face, I was sleeping!” she announced jovially, and with a huge clattering of pots and pans, she set about making dinner.

Out in the castle courtyard, a table was set for us, and before long we had plates of steak, chicken, and salad in front of us, along with tankards of beer. Utterly bewildered, we dug into our dinners as the light gave way to total darkness.

“Right, I’m off to bed”, announced the cook.

And with that, the castle door was locked up, and we found ourselves locked into a castle in the middle of nowhere – a Namibian historical monument – entirely alone.

This was more than we could take, bewilderment gave way to peals of laughter – what a totally absurd situation to be in.

Retrieving additional beers from Beast, we sat in the pitch black courtyard, contemplating our sheer – luck? – before retiring to sleep, lord and lady of the manor. If only for the one night!

 

Camping in the Fish River Canyon

Nestled in to our tent for the night, our camping trip was getting off to a good start, and following our nice meal, wine, and hot showers (!) we drifted off to sleep quickly.

But I woke with a start in the middle of the night, animals were afoot. So afoot, that they were sniffing at our tent. My imagination went wild – are there lions in the desert?

Quaking, I woke snoring Tom up, much to his annoyance. What do we do? Nothing, he snarled, there were always going to be animals camping in the wilderness, go back to sleep. I lay awake listening, imagining, sweating.

And then I was awoken by the searing morning heat, making it unbearable to stay inside the tent. I had survived the night. The sun was up, it was 7.30am, and I needed to get out of the sweltering pit of hell our tent had turned into.

Deciding to put up our nifty Campmasters (camping chairs, purchased for the trip, which I’m very fond of) for a bit of lounging in the shade, I immediately managed to trap my leg in one of the chairs, causing a peach-sized bleeding mound on my thigh.

Hobbling to get the chairs up, together with my matted hair sticking to my sweat-streaming crab-coloured face, I can only imagine what a sight I was to behold.  Seasoned campers we are not yet. No doubt about it, camping is tough business.

First order of the day was to find out how we were going to visit the canyon properly. In the reception, the lady informed us it would cost 80 dollar each plus 10 for the car. We were dismayed and stumped. We couldn’t possibly spend that much money on visiting a viewing point. What else would we do with our 2 days?

Feeling miserable, we lounged around the now-empty camp, generally moping. Suddenly, Tom jumped up. Are we sure she meant US dollars? Isn’t the Namibian currency also called dollars?

We sprinted back to the lady, and rolling her eyes at our sheer idiocy, she confirmed, it was, in fact Namibian dollars she was talking about – 80 of them equating to roughly £4.

We dashed to the car, and were off on the 75 kilometre desert drive to the top of the canyon, and the most beautiful view I have ever seen in my life.

We spent a couple of hours milling around the various viewing points at the top of the canyon, which spread as far as the eye could see (it’s approximately 80 kilometres long).

We were feeling peckish, so thought why not, we unpacked our goodies from Beast’s fridge right at the top of the sheer drop down into the canyon, and had a lunch of crackers, cheese and olives, and an ice cold beer, just looking, in awe.

It was getting too hot, so we set off back for afternoon in the camp – we had plans regarding that sparkling pool we had discovered at the end of the campsite.

Car parked, swimkits on, we ran to the pool. Throwing off my sandals, I jumped down onto the first step into the pool – ankle deep. And felt sheer pain. The water was boiling hot, and was searingly painful on my skin. Screaming, I jumped out – onto the tiles. Also boiling. Hopping up and down, screaming, I got to the grass in shock. The soles of my beetroot red feet were blistering, and there was no cold water anywhere.

The sprinklers! Tom shouted, so over I hobbled to the lone sprinkler in the campsite watering the grass, and shoved my feet under the feeble sprinkle. Warm, but a little comforting.

By 4pm, we decided on a short walk into the canyon – but after 30 minutes it was unbearably hot, so there was nothing else to do but sit in the shade in our Campmasters, sipping cold beer, until the sun set, and the restaurant ladies bustled around with their new menu of the day touting for orders. 3 options again – beef, chicken, and eland.

Along with our second eland steak in two days, we slightly overindulged on the wine.

A tour group of gapyear kids had arrived a few hours earlier, and promptly gone to bed.

Our wine-fuelled minds felt mischievous.  So the 20 minutes before our own bedtime was spent sniffling, snuffling, cracking twigs, twitching tent strings, and generally putting the fear of god into the innocents inside the tents.  Having the joke of our lives.

Maybe that’s what had happened to us the night before.

 

 

Race against the sun!

Following the unpleasantness of the morning, we were keen to set off on the “real bit” of our roadtrip extraordinaire. Next stop, Namibia – the Fish River Canyon, to be specific.

A quick Google maps search estimated the drive at little over 4 hours, so we set off towards the border feeling at ease about a relatively short drive for the day.

As we approached the border the scenery became more and more rugged, the heat more and more intense – we were definitely nearing desert and canyon land. The petrol dial on Beast was also sinking depressingly fast (despite his two tank 150 litre capacity!).

The border crossing was incredibly easy, leaving nothing more than to drive into Namibia in the wild hope of finding a petrol station…

…which we came across quite easily, and bemused the petrol attendant with Beast eating literally all of the petrol available, the pump running dry.

At this stage, I will admit to the biggest faux-pas, and as a result the biggest lesson learnt of this trip so far. We didn’t actually have a physical map, which proved problematic as our mobile signal ebbed, then disappeared, and Google maps became defunct, as we proceeded into the desert.

Still not having realised our error, we ploughed a good two hours into the desert in search of our camp – the Ai Ais hot springs campsite. Driving through the most stunning desert scenery, we still had no idea we were driving in exactly the opposite direction we should have been.

Eventually, something started to feel not quite right. Google maps had said less hours than this, but as far as the eye could see there was definitely no sign of life.  We turned back on ourselves, and went to the last village we saw.

A friendly security guard told us we had been definitely going in the right direction, we had turned back just a little too soon.

So back we went, shooting through the desert, then into the Fish River Canyon, the second biggest canyon in the world, second only to the Grand Canyon itself.

The gate to the canyon left handily open and unmanned, and not another soul around, we drove around desperately looking for a campsite.

Sheer red cliff walls towered either side of us, it was only after an hour of searching that we realised our problem – we were in the canyon itself, the river had dried out, we were driving on the dried up river bed.

[Shiiiiiiiiiit!]

OK, we realised, it’s time to backtrack. Drive back to the petrol station, get ourselves out of the desert, and back on the radar.

Feeling hot and frustrated, we arrived back at the petrol station we had left hours before, and asked the attendants whether they knew the way to the campsite. Of course they did, drive in the opposite direction to which we had just tried.

Nothing else for it, we set off into the other side of the desert, hoping against hope that this set of directions would do us well. And feeling increasingly uneasy about the ebbing sun – camp admission closed at sunset, we had been told, as it is too dangerous to drive into the canyon in dark.

The race against the sun was on. Driving down sand tracks deeper and deeper into the canyon, I felt myself a part of the Dakar rally.

The panic was rising in both of us, what if we were left stranded in the middle of the desert for the night?

And then the sun dipped away. And it was dark.

With no other option, I drove slowly, meticulously, through the winding canyon passes in the dark – beams on, eyes straining – in the hope the camp would let us in.

After what seemed an eternity, we saw lights, and the camp gate came into view.

A chirpy security guard, although surprised, welcomed us most profusely, and told us to go right ahead and pitch camp wherever we wanted.

Utterly relieved, we found the only other people staying in the camp – a Dutch couple, and asked them where to pitch our tent given the total blackness we were in.

In a feat of remarkable able-seeming, our tent was up within 5 minutes without the slightest glitch, and we were sipping on cold beers served up from Beast’s onboard fridge by 8.30pm. What a total turn in luck.

Now relaxed, we began to explore, and found what turned out to be a small bar/restaurant belonging to the camp. The ladies manning it assured us not to fret, they stayed open until 9pm, and presented a menu containing 3 options – beef steak, chicken, or eland steak. Their bar was stocked with beer AND wine.

So, there it was. A day lost in the desert without a map. An evening of sheer terror rally driving into a desert canyon. And an evening savouring eland steak, sipping on red wine, in the depths of the second biggest canyon in the world.

 

About race in South Africa … or day 1 of our trip.

I steer clear of writing on race issues in general, all the more so in South Africa – because I in general feel there are people much more qualified to comment on what is a very fiercely argued – and experienced – topic; and to be honest, I find it difficult to articulate my thoughts on what is such a complex subject.

The prelude to this post, is that the day before we left South Africa on our one month camping tour of Namibia and Botswana – which I promise my coming blog posts will largely focus on – I read this incredibly thought-provoking personal account of what the writer refers to as “casual racism”. It really got me thinking.

For anyone that doesn’t know me, I’ll add in here: I’m a fully white European. But I have an uncanny talent for tanning very well, very quick.

So far in my life, I’ve enjoyed my tanning for just that – the sun comes out, I get a smashing tan which my [white] girlfriends – and boyfriends – are generally jealous of.

It wasn’t before I first arrived in South Africa that I found out that what I thought was an awesome tan, is a “skin tone”, which often, makes me “coloured”. This is information that South Africans – white, black, coloured, strangers and friends, and everyone in between – feel compelled to tell me regularly.

My boyfriend, a blonde, blue-eyed white man, gets high-fived [by other white men] for “getting the coloured girl”. Friends often comment on my “skin tone”; strangers feel the need to [ask] tell me within the first 30 minutes of getting acquainted “So, you’re coloured…?”; and coloured people, well, they assume I’m one of them.

It’s odd. And it has also never bothered me personally, what difference does it make to me if people want to make a tan into something it’s not? I’ve experienced it more as a quirk of a heavily historically loaded culture.

Until day one of our trip. When for the first time ever, my “skin tone” put me in the most horrible situation I’ve ever been in.

We arrived in Hondeklip Bay – a fishing village in the Northern Cape of South Africa – just before sunset. We were welcomed at the camp we were staying at by a very friendly white lady, and her slightly less friendly white husband.

In English she asked us to wait, while she finished serving some other customers – all white people, staring unabashedly at the newbies.

Tom went out to smoke, and immediately the room started speaking to me in Afrikaans. (This happens often). I sometimes understand a few words, enough to nod, or smile in response. Tom came back, the room switches to English.

The evening passed in much the same vein. Our hosts cooked us up a lovely dinner, putting plates and drinks before Tom in English, then turning to me in an overly kind fashion and speaking Afrikaans. Much to our amusement, as I don’t actually speak the language, and even my constant responding in English didn’t seem to alert our hosts to the fact I had no idea what they’re saying.

At one point, we asked what the population of the village was. 52 whites, the lady told Tom, then turning to me, “and approximately 300 coloureds”, she said, smiling way too broadly. [Oh for goodness’ sake, woman.]

Next morning, we decided on a walk to the beach. Our hosts’ two very big dogs followed us out, and decided to accompany us on our stroll. We weren’t happy, but there was no getting them to go back.

Having turned a corner, we came face to face with a black man strolling down the road. Without any provocation, the dogs attacked. He was not scared of dogs and managed to put them in their place. I was terrified for him.

We carried on walking.

All of a sudden, two coloured ladies were walking towards us, one carrying a baby – 2, 3 years old?

One of the dogs sprinted towards them, and in a split second had bitten the baby in her mother’s arms.

We stood completely helpless in disbelief. Not even knowing the dogs’ names, completely unable to control them.

The two ladies turned to me in equal disbelief, what had I let my dogs do? At this point, Tom wasn’t even there to them, they wanted an explanation from me, they were talking to me in Afrikaans.

All I could manage was to desperately ask whether the baby was OK (the dog hadn’t drawn blood), and to wildly apologise that the dogs weren’t mine. They thought about it a while, and I could only restate over and over – the dogs are “wild”, they’re not mine, I’m so sorry. They let it go, with an “OK sissy, it’s OK”, and walked off.

Fuelled with rage, we stomped back towards the camp, swearing down that we would immediately demand an explanation and action from the hosts on their dog which attacks based on “skin tone”,  and attacks babies, at that.

I had never, ever felt so accused as by those women. My blood boiled at having been put in that position.

But as we got back to the camp, out ran our host lady, all in a bustle over us almost missing her special breakfast. Happily and house-proudly wittering on, trying to make us so comfortable (still making extra effort to speak to me only in Afrikaans). My anger dissipated. I was not going to say anything to this woman about her dogs, I was not going to make her feel awful. Which she genuinely would.

Because as much as her preconceptions are completely ingrained in her and her behaviour, I don’t believe this woman’s “casual racism” towards someone with a tan was malicious.  She opened her home so completely to me, and desperately wanted me to feel at home. Despite my awkward “skin tone”.

Which is why I never did make a point of saying “Oh for heavens sake woman, I’m as white as you are. Stop being so nice to the coloured person [black sheep] in the room”. It’s why I didn’t say “Your dogs [maybe you too?] are fucking racist”.

It made me think back to the article I read the day before, and made me realise that how victims of casual racism experience it, is so very much more complex than anything I’ve really thought about before. That it carries with it such a burden of decisions, and is a constant balancing act of emotions.

That’s just from a white person that occasionally gets mistaken. I’ll never understand the real depths. Which is also why this will probably be my only ever writing on race.