Weeks before we set off for Namibia, I booked us places on the Living Desert Adventures tour which had rave reviews on Tripadvisor. Peter, who runs the Cornerstone said it was the “best thing to do in Swakopmund” which was good to hear, and this morning at eight sharp we were picked up by a dynamic Namibian guy called Chris.
Chris Nel turned out to be an interesting chap who trained originally as an electrical engineer, before discovering that what he really wanted to do was spend time in the desert, and show people what an extraordinary eco-system it is. First though he had to find a way to protect the desert around Swakopmund from the many ATV and 4×4 riders who were driving all over it, killing the plants and animals and filling it with rubbish. He campaigned to protect the desert and made a lot of enemies along the way, with death threats on a regular basis from people who thought it was their God-given right to tear the place up. He says he got the UN involved and eventually it told the Namibian government it had to protect this rare and precious area from those who were destroying it. The Dorob National Park was created four years ago and Chris takes people through it in a fascinating and lively way.
He began by telling us that the Dorob hasn’t had rain for more than four years. What it does have though is foggy mornings, four days out of five, year round. That fog, combined with seeds which blow in from the East (“Muesli” he called it), means plants grow at the bottom of the dunes. Insects eat the plants, lizards, chameleons and geckos eat the insects, snakes eat them, jackals and falcons eat the snakes and, well you get the idea.
Chris is extraordinarily good at finding these things. He carefully dug out a Dancing White Lady spider from its underground nest and informed us there was one under our feet every three meters or so.
It was a ghostly little thing and while they can get much bigger Chris said they always have babies with them and they would die if someone dug them up. So he only goes for the small ones, which he then helps dig back down into the sand.
He found a beautiful little web-footed gecko in the same way – following its tracks and carefully excavating its hole.
It perched on Tom’s hand quite happily until Chris re-introduced it to its tunnel under the sand. Tom and I both held another find, the legless lizard or skink which Chris somehow tracked over a dune and plucked out of the sand. It was like a tiny eel with shimmering, sand-repelling skin.
He tracked a chameleon to a bush and offered it a grub on a nearby twig which the chameleon picked up with its sticky tongue in no time. They are like little dinosaurs with their grumpy mouths and fat little tummies.
He found Namibia’s most poisonous scorpion under a rock and quite calmly picked it up and let it walk over his hand – they only sting when threatened apparently, but can kill if the sting isn’t treated in time. It was a fearsome looking brute. Avoid the ones with the small pincers as they have the most venom… I’m inclined to avoid all of them actually.
Chris’s most amazing spot though was a tiny sidewinder snake. He noticed its track, like a little stepladder going up a dune and saw the faintest impression which suggested that it had come back down and buried itself in the damp sand under a succulent plant. He blew on the area where he thought the snake was and took a close up digital photo of it which he passed around. There, peering out from under the sand was a single beady snake eye watching for prey.
Chris blew a little more sand off and there it was, a tiny little viper rigid in the sand.
He told us a lot about the composition of the desert too, the reddish glow on some dunes comes from ruby-coloured garnet granules. Others have black magnetite which he gathered by dragging a magnet through the sand.
It stood on end like a dense, black buzz cut.
We ended the trip racing up a couple of big dunes for the view across the desert. The sun was beginning to burn off the fog by then but a keen wind kept us all in fleeces.
It was a fascinating morning and Chris is a passionate and funny guide. He’s had such success with the tour that others are now copying it and follow him around to find out what else he is showing his tourists, which he clearly finds infuriating. Then again, he did say he was fully booked every day until November…
Tom had been determined to swim in the sea this afternoon but it was really chilly and we managed to persuade him that getting into the frigid water might put him off swimming for life. He settled for beans on toast in a brilliant little cafe in the center of town which had a number of odes in praise of bacon on chalkboards around the wall. A couple of examples: “There are those that like bacon, and those that are wrong”. And:
“Roses are red,
Bacon is too,
Poems are hard….”
Finally to the museum by the old lighthouse which was one of those eclectic collections which has everything from someone’s model car collection to a stuffed pangolin. There was some good detail about the various Namibian tribes with lots of early photos and wooden instruments to play. I was left with a sense that we have really only scratched the surface of what Namibia’s indigenous population were all about. Outside was another hyperbolic war memorial to Germany’s glorious war dead, killed during their extermination of the native people… I really don’t know how the black population puts up with it.
We went for supper at the Swakopmund Brauhaus which had been recommended to us, and which was rather as we feared it might be: big and meaty with a strangely dead ambiance and indifferent service which bordered on the contemptuous. P and were silently composing our Tripadvisor reviews…
To be honest though, we’ve been spoilt by the terrific food and service we’ve had everywhere else. Tomorrow we leave civilization for the Namib Naukluft desert.