Something like a desert

It is a terrible stereotype to say that Namibia is a desert. Namibia is a huge country (almost twice the size of Kenya according to my guide-book), with something like 29 different climatic/environmental zones. Two of these are desert – Namib and Khalahari – but even these are not anything like uniform. I knew all this long before I took off from OR Tambo on the last Thursday in November. And yet, I found myself, as we came in to land in Windhoek, surprised that the veld below me looked green and pleasant and rather like the Northern Cape. Stereotypes are hard to break.

Instead of dunes and  barren sand, all around the airport, stretching for the 40-odd km to the town was green scrub-land. Green grass spread thinly across red earth and new-green bedecked thorn trees filled the fields, thanks to recent good rains. I sat in the back of the taxi and took in this unexpected landscape, stretching away in rolling hills, rocky mountains rising, medium-height, at intervals.

It wasn’t until days later, when I took the train through to Swakopmund, that I finally came across  movie-picture-expectation dry, desert. In fact, it rained on my first day in Windhoek. Not drizzly-rain but proper, quick thunderstorm rain. This would be the pattern of weather for most of my stay – gorgeous, scorching heat during the day building up to a thunderstorm in the afternoon.

The desert, when I finally did come across it, was spectacular. The train rom Windhoek to Swakopmund (StarLine Train) was an overnight train. The distance between the two towns is only around 4hrs by bus, so an overnight train is particularly slow. The train also stops fairly regularly. It is, to be honest, primarily a good train, with a single – or in this case two – passenger carriages attached. The second carriage on our train was a little sleeper carriage for the exclusive use of a school group, who I was so thankful not to have to share a journey with.

The train left Windhoek at around 8pm on Friday night, so by the time the morning light began to turn the grey to subtle pink, the train was passing through sandy desert. I sat at my train window and watched a peach-pink-purple world so different to anything I’d ever seen. The sand was white, touched pink in the dawn. Rocks rose out of it occasionally, and distance markers half-buried in the moving mass of land. The sky was shrouded and the mist added an eerie touch to the morning. Across the sand, spread out at intervals, sometimes a few feet, sometimes several metres, were occasional scraggly bush-like plants. I would learn later, at the Swakopmund museum, that these plants were able to survive there because their wide system of roots absorbed all the available water, forcing them to grow at distances from each other.

At 7am, we arrived in Swakopmund. The town seemed to appear out of nowhere – out of the desert. For the past while, there had been the occasional house or building. One place had palm trees at intervals around the edge, like something out of an American movie. Now, with little warning, bar the shanty-town/location that drifted past at the edge of town, the train arrived.

Swakop is at the coast. Given how hot and sweaty it had been, some instinct of mine made me expect warmth and sunshine at the coast. But this is not that kind of cost. In the early morning it was chilly with the sea-mist that is the only real source of water for this desert-area.

The following morning, I took the chance to wander out of Swakop in the other direction – along the Walvis Bay road to the South. It is here that the red dunes for which Namibia is so famous rise for miles and miles. Many people try sand-boarding here. I had been seriously considering it, but it hadn’t worked out in the end. Instead, I took a morning walk and drank in the grandeur at a distance. It is difficult to describe in words what has been captured in so many images. It is different to the pictures. This early morning walk took me through chilly mist. Instead of the sun blazing down as so many people would expect of the desert, sea-mist cooled the air. To the right, the waves of the Atlantic rolled in, cold and rough. Sea-dune plants grown along the edges of the coast, particularly at this point, where the Swakop River flows into the sea. On the other side, stretching dune upon dune upon dune, rising like small mountains, red hills of sand stand against the misty sky. These dunes had no plants, no life on them – or none that could be seen. The red desert dunes in the very distance were touched by the occasionally shafts of sun, painting them deeper, dryer orange and creating exquisite contrasts with the closer dunes and the sea-sand and waves to the left.

It was an overwhelming landscape. I’d like to go back. I’d like to visit the desert, to test myself against the slopes, but it is not a comfortable space. That afternoon, aboard the bus back to Windhoek, I watched the scenery change as we drove, from baron dry desert, through sparse grass-cover, small bushes, proper grassland and finally to the bushveld of the Windhoek valley. I love open spaces and the freedom that comes from having less lush scenery – I found the green of Korea a little oppressive at times – but the return from the dry desert to the gentler bushveld of Windhoek was a fascinating reminder that I do love the green, or at least the green of recent-rains in dry areas and the promise of spring and antelope and thunderstorms. The desert is spectacular and I’m glad I took the chance to go and see it, but it turns out that the semi-desert suits me better in the end.