The more cinematically astute among you will recognise that as a line from “2001 A Space Odyssey”, though the line that gets the glory is “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Well we’re not sorry and we CAN do it and in fact we did – and to find out what, read on…
Before delving into the world of 2001 we had to leave Swakopmund, which was a great stopover in a really terrific B&B. Peter, who runs it, was so friendly and helpful and we all shook hands when we left. The morning was cold and misty to the point that I had to use the windscreen wipers from time to time, there was so much water in the air. And as we now know, its what makes the desert here special. We followed the coast south to Walvis Bay, named after the whales which used to bring whalers in from around the world.
It is now the main port for Namibia and as we got closer we could see tankers, container boats and tugs moored up in the mist. Its a sprawling sort of place with row upon row of tiny houses in pastel colours.
We made a sharp left turn away from the coast and back into the desert, passing several small lagoons, each with a blurry pink line of flamingos.
After a few kilometers we turned off the tarmacked main road and onto a desert track towards the Namib Naukluft National Park. I had to get a permit to drive on this track from the Namibia parks agency, NWR, in Swakopmund. The office was in a slightly ramshackle building, its yellowing walls lined with maps and the horns of various animals. A slightly officious lady in thick glasses had me fill out a form which she stamped several times before relieving me of about £6 which gave us permission to drive through the desert. I was half hoping someone would check it but we barely saw another soul on the whole drive.
The start of the desert track ran by a number of shack-communities; houses of corrugated tin and plastic. From a Namibian novel I have just finished set in Walvis Bay I think they were Topnaar settlements. The Topnaar as far as I can tell are the gypsies of Namibia, pushed out to the edges of the established community and doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that to survive. Apart from a woman in a purple pantsuit walking across her sandy yard we saw almost no-one. As we passed through the entrance to the park we could see giant orange dunes rearing up to our right. They would sweep even further inland but for the river which holds them in check and which we were driving parallel with.
Eventually we came to a desert research station which looked like a 1950s moonbase, and at that point we forked left onto a slightly smaller track across the Namib.
It is one of the oldest deserts in the world and very flat. It is smooth and gravelly on the top, with little tufts of blue-gey grass. We saw several Oryx grazing on it and in the rainy season it is apparently covered with animals. The road is simply a route taken by a grader at some point, mostly straight and fairly smooth. Here and there big round rocky outcrops emerged from the sand. We were heading for one called Mirabib which is where they shot the ape scenes in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
In the context of the vastness of the desert, Mirabib actually looked fairly modestly sized when we first saw it. A rounded rust-red lump looming from the pale sand. But as we got closer it became more impressive – its sheer walls rugged and forbidding. There are a handful of primitive campsites nestled into the rock and there was no-one else there so we had our pick.
Tom immediately set about trying to find a way to climb to the very top and went an alarming way up the rock face before we called him down for lunch. Afterwards though we all set off to see how far we could get. It feels like such an ancient place – you could see why the filmmakers wanted to be there. There are caves and channels and little ravines all over the places.
We climbed up to a small plateau which glittered with quartz and mica. There was a sudden commotion coming from somewhere – a sound like frogs or ducks all shouting at once, and then just as suddenly, stopping. We only heard them once more and never did work out what they were.
We couldn’t get to the top either – the rock walls were just too steep, but we found endless little places to poke about in before climbing back down to our site.
There was a cold wind blowing and I got a fire going quickly. I was soon joined by a scrub hare with long ears and a black tail.
It had no fear of me whatsoever and sat on a rock about six feet away to watch what I was doing. It stayed around us until it was too dark to see. We sat around the fire to have supper before heading up to Tom’s tent to watch the “2001” of our time; “Interstellar”. It felt appropriate and when P and I climbed out of Tom’s tent to get into our own, the sky was indeed full to bursting with stars and the moon was so bright that it lit up the rock behind us with a ghostly grey light. It felt like being on another planet.