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Deep into the dunes


Words and pictures by Richard van Ryneveld.

Deep into the dunes

Saddle Hill: A new take on an old favourite
When a new dune route was cancelled at the last minute, Richard van Ryneveld thought that his chances of coming up with a fresh story were poor. But the desert is full of wonders, and our correspondent returned home sunburnt and smiling.

This trip, organized by Coenie Moll and Coastways tours, was intended to be an exploratory foray into the ‘forbidden area’ south of Saddle Hill; but at the very last instant, official permissions were withdrawn. So we ended up driving the well-trodden Saddle Hill, which was no great hardship, as this must rate as one of the best desert drives in the world and definitely something that should be on your bucket list if you haven’t been lucky enough to do it already.
While wandering around Lüderitz in the days before our departure, I stumbled upon Marion Schelkle’s Lüderitz Safaris and Tours shop in Bismarck Street. What a great find! If you want to know anything about Lüderitz, or Namibia for that matter, Marion Schelkle is the person to speak to. Her business is a bookshop, information bureau and booking office for the ghost towns of Kolmanskop, Elizabeth Bay, Pomona and Bogenfels.

It was there that I spotted and bought a copy of Treasures of the Diamond Coast by Gabi Schneider and Gateway to Adventure by Pat Honeyborne: two great buys that gave me another layer of enjoyment and insight on this trip. Schneider’s book is, without a doubt, the definitive book on the history of diamond mining in this region; and Honeyborne’s book contains the fascinating stories of a policeman who patrolled these dunes and shores of the Namib by camel. He joined the Police Camel Corps in 1926, and was posted to Walvis Bay and Conception Bay in 1927. From the back of his jolting camel, Honeyborne came to know intimately the vast sandy wasteland he patrolled. He developed a keen interest in the flora and fauna that somehow survives here.

His view of the country can be contrasted with that of the intrepid early explorer Charles John Anderson, whose diary entry of March 1895 reads: “When a heavy sea-fog rests on these uncouth and rugged surfaces – and it does so very often – a place fitter to represent the infernal regions could scarcely, in searching the world around, be found. A shudder, amounting almost to fear, came over me when its frightful desolation first suddenly broke upon my view. “Death”,I explained, “would be preferable to banishment to such a country.”

Honeyborne’s book describes another reality, and he starts off on a much lighter note. His account begins with the trip he and his friend Oscar took in 1925, going from Cape Town to South West Africa in an old Model T Ford they’d bought from a scrap yard in Woodstock, Cape Town. We get an idea of how tough it was in those days from this quote: “The petrol and spark controls were two little levers just below the steering wheel. These could be set according to the strain on the engine.

When the going got really steep we would set the controls, jump out, and add muscle power to the straining horsepower…”. Makes me rethink what we consider to be a ‘tough trip”! Luckily, we didn’t have to get out and push, that first day on the way to Saddle Hill. The six vehicles in our party had left rather late from the Coastways office in Lüderitz. I was a bum in a seat, having flown in via Windhoek. It was great sharing the cab with guide and dune-driving maestro, Ramon Druker. Small world – turns out I was at school with Ramon’s father, Luffie, and his two uncles, Arthur and Hulley! I bent poor Ramon’s ear as we headed out for the start of our adventure.

Because of our late departure, we entered the dune belt as the sun sank in the west. The pastel dune sea that was spread out before us is at once infinitely beautiful and frighteningly isolated. As one writer describes it: “A world of irrepressible life and inevitable death.” Perhaps this all sounds a bit theatrical, but this waterless world – with its sand and rocky, fog-ridden shores – has this affect on one. Once experienced, it’s never forgotten.

Our first night in the dunes was spent at a collection of somewhat dilapidated buildings situated between the sea and the dunes, at a place called Saddle Hill. These buildings were once the mechanical workshops of one of the real characters among the early diamond prospectors: Mose Kahan, or ‘unsinkable Mose’, as he was known. Having driven the first day of our trip with our powerful fuel-injected 4x4s through some of the highest dunes in the world, we got some idea of what those early pioneers had to contend with, in order to mine in these remote parts.

Mose Kahan was born in Königsberg, Prussia, and emigrated to SA after WW1. In 1924 he prospected for copper along the Orange River. Unsinkable Mose’s spirit is evident in the 160 kilometres of road he made through the mountains to the railhead at Aus. When the copper price dropped, he began prospecting around the Saddle Hill area via Sylvia Hill. In those early days, Mose nearly drowned trying to get supplies to his claim by using a fishing boat in the freezing Atlantic, so he was forced to rely on a mule train from Lüderitz for his equipment and food – which took 20 days to arrive.

Ramon, our well-informed young guide, continued the story as we sat around the big central fireplace, draped with all the paraphernalia from countless previous Saddle Hill trips. “Mose’s fortunes dipped and rose. When the diamond price increased in 1945, he floated a new company. With some bucks in his pocket, he rushed off to Pretoria and bought three 5-ton ‘stompneus’ 4×4 trucks and some Centurion and Sherman tanks. With turrets removed, the tanks pulled cable-operated scrapers to shift the overburden covering the diamond bearing gravel.”

Happily, we didn’t have too much ‘burden’, or heavy lifting, on this trip. Ramon, with his crew of Rehabeam Niilonga, better known as Gabs, and his sidekick Simsoni Pandouleni, known to all and sundry as Good Boy, quietly and efficiently took care of our every need. This included piping-hot water for showers at Saddle Hill and out in the dunes. Man-oh-man, Coastway Tours has two absolute gems in these two marvellous Ovambo men. Delicious breakfasts, lunches and suppers were the order of the day.

There was plenty of dune driving to be done on this trip. Under the guidance of Ramon Druker and Coenie Moll, our team coped admirably. Group dynamics are an interesting thing – the members of our party, who’d met only a few days before, got on like a house on fire. There were Klaas and Carine van Eyssen in their Prado Diesel: Klaas is the green-keeper at Langebaan Country Estate, while his lovely wife Carine runs the Zest Spa at the same venue. Driving a Toyota LX Cygnus V8 were Andy and Janette Wright, from Cape Town.

Andy was a fount of information about the old rusting mining equipment we found scattered around in the desert; he builds diamond-mining equipment that goes all over Africa! Janette is an artist. As usual, Toyota was well represented with Dave and Connie Coetzee from Stellenbosch in their well-turned-out Raider. Dave, a mechanical engineer, designs and makes prop-shaft balancing machines. Just to make sure that the sands of the Namib could be covered with irrigation, we had Lodie Willemse, an irrigation specialist from Wellington, and his companion Jean Frick, in their Ford Ranger. Representing the jongspan was IT specialist John Wessels, and his mate, quantity surveyor Gerrit Pienaar, in their Mitsubishi Pajero. As both have young kids at home, this was a ‘boys only’ break for them.

Well, the boys and girls got up to all the normal shenanigans on our first full day in the dunes. First, there was a drive out into the dune sea as early as possible, for photographs. This area is a photographer’s paradise, but be careful about changing lenses or even taking photographs if the wind is blowing, which it often does. Before leaving on the trip, I read that photographers on the Dakar use a big piece of chamois leather to throw over the camera.

I bought a piece and it really served me well. I used the chamois when photographing the sand-boarding and can boast a series, shot at 11 frames / second, which captured poor Connie emulating an ostrich and burying her head in the sand! After all the excitement, when we had the chance to chill or take a slow cruise along the beach, I used the time to lie on my bed and read my books.

I’d also brought along Michael Britten’s ‘Discover Namibia’, in which he explains what makes the Namib unique among deserts. Firstly, it doesn’t have the constant heat normally associated with true deserts. The prevailing south-westerly breeze coming off the cold Benguela keeps the boiling sun at bay most of the year round, except when you get the ‘suicidal’ east wind blowing in from the boiling-hot Kalahari. It’s this cold prevailing wind blowing off the sea that causes the fog which provides moisture for this seemingly waterless landscape. This moisture brings a great deal of life to the sand, most of which is easy to overlook.

Take the lichens, for instance. Some attach themselves to rocks and stones but the Omphalodium convolutum gathers its moisture from the early morning fog and blows about freely. Slightly bigger in scale is the !Nara melon, endemic to the Namib, which has often meant the difference between life and death to travellers in this desert.

The fauna of the desert is equally fascinating. This sea of sand plays host to numerous unusual creatures, many of which live below its surface. There’s the white-backed tenebrionid Onymacris beetle, the only white beetle known to science and endemic to this region – its colour is thought to offer a form of thermo-cooling. Then there’s the longest-legged beetle in the world – the sand-runner Stenocara phalangium. There are many more characters to meet if you give yourself the time.

Of course, for many people, the trip to Saddle Hills is about driving the highest dunes in the world in your 4×4; and with guides like Ramon Druker and Coenie Moll of Cederberg 4×4, one learns to do just that in a safe and controlled manner. Because of the change in our original plans, Ramon and Coenie had organized something totally different from the normal Saddle Hills trip. Instead of being based at the Saddle Hill camp, we camped out in the dunes for two nights – an experience I will never forget!

On the way out to our first dune camp, we first headed north to Spencer Bay. On the sea side, Ramon pointed out Clara Hill, named after Mose Kahan’s wife, Clara. It had a distinctive black rock band running through its length. This area between the high dune belt and the sea consisted of rocky quartz outcrops and a lot more vegetation than one would expect to see in this harsh environment.

Dotted across the landscape are stone cairns marking the prospecting claims of old. Ramon stopped to show us a heavy rusting steel drum covered in wood, called a ‘rolling vat’; these were used by the early diamond miners as water containers. Attached to oxen and thrown overboard, the barrels washed up on the beach and were dragged by the poor beasts to the workers’ temporary shacks on the coast.

One wonders how many of the poor oxen survived their swim to shore. Entering a large, dry, river bed, we stopped to examine a whole row of wood-framed trommel sieves, their screen mesh rusted beyond recognition. From these lonely remnants we moved down to Spencer Bay. We drove down a long sand spit with a shallow pan on our right. A flock of flamingos moved across to the other side of the pan when I tried to get closer. Straight ahead of us, across Spencer Bay, was Mercury Island.

This rocky island lies just under a kilometre offshore; it’s 750 x 270 metres and is heavily covered in guano. It’s also honeycombed by caves; in fact, its name comes from the way the island shakes as a result of the pounding sea pouring through the caves. In decades past, Mercury was an important asset to the guano industry; today, together with Ichaboe Island some 65 kilometres south, it’s one of the two very important seabird breeding sites along the Namibian Coast. The island is home to 16 000 penguins, 1 200 gannets and 5 000 cormorants.

After parking on the southern curve of Spencer Bay, Ramon led us up a high rocky path from which one looks down on the wreck of the Otavi, a guano boat that went aground many years ago. The Otavi is surrounded by a large seal colony. Apparently, preventing the seals from decimating the penguin colony on Mercury Island is the job of the ornithologists of the island! From Spencer Bay we headed north to a high viewpoint on a dune called Top of the World. Looking down from our eagle’s perch, we could see occasional bits of black stuff spread over the sand for a couple of kilometres.

“That,” says Ramon, “was quite an explosion!” He goes on to explain that we were looking down at the United Trader, an embargo-busting ship carrying a shipment of high explosives from Israel to Simonstown in the 70s. With no chance of salvaging the cargo, the military decided to detonate the shipment!

The explosion registered 4.2 on the Richter Magnitude Scale and was heard as far away as Swakopmund and Lüderitz. The debris was spread over a radius of five kilometres! The crew watched the explosion from a peninsula some 20 km away. Interestingly, all the anchor chain was still intact although the rest of the ship was blown to smithereens.

Thinking about those massive steel chains flying around in the air like a giant cat o’ nine tails, we made our way back to our first night’s camp in the dunes. As per usual, Gabs and Good Boy had everything (including a proper bush loo) set up for our arrival. These guys are absolutely brilliant – even if the wind is tanking, they have a gazebo set up with sand-screens. No sand in your grub on a Cederberg trip in the desert. It was the desert camping that made this trip.

To watch the play of light soften on the ribs and facets of the dune as the sun drops, is an experience never to be forgotten. The desert has a way of humbling one – out here in its vastness, one realises how small we are in the greater scheme of things. I noticed how the members of our group seemed to park further away from each other in our giant sand amphitheatre. I also saw a quietness descend on the team. Couples walked out into the dunes on their own. The pull of the desert was getting to us all.

We still had the journey to Mose Kahan’s sand-buried settlement of Saddle Hill South ahead of us, where the relentless blast of sand has left cement brick walls looking like Victorian lace. It is a vehicle scrap yard where the corrosive work of the salty air of the cold Atlantic has done its work – rusted sculptures left in the desert sand. It was a long drive back to Lüderitz, but our 2-way radios remained strangely silent. One cannot enter the sands, crags and dunes of the Namib without their leaving an indelible mark on your heart. Our silence confirmed this.