Lions, Diamonds and Jail, OH MY!

Sometimes asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission.  When Uwe and me decided to travel together we each made our hit lists and almost everything aligned including Hartman’s Valley and Skeleton Coast.  This is about as remote and desolate as Namibia gets.

We were eager to take on the challenge, ideally with a convoy.  Uwe knew another couple that would be keen to take on navigating this harsh terrain, so we waited for them to catch up, but as I have learned car maintenance can really slow you down.  In the end we decided to go on our own.  

You can drive Skeleton Coast from the southern side up to Torres Bay to the National Park, but as we were planning on driving to Hartman’s Valley it just seemed reasonable to travel down the coast, right?  Well, not quite.  Information was scarce, permits are difficult and the office was based in Windhoek, quite out of the way.  When we reach the Park, we’ll pay for the permit there, we are honest people.

We meticulously planned to travel in this remote region for 2 weeks.  Diesel calculations, water & food rationing, playlists for days, bought a chain block, loaded the Sat phone with 30 minutes of airtime and off we went alone to some of Namibia’s most difficult areas.

The List

The first few days were easy enough.  One afternoon we came across a palm tree filled desert oasis, bathed in the river with the goats and suspended the slack line between the trees.  Several young boys from the nearest village came by to play and lingered while we prepared dinner until they too were fed.  The slack line was the first moment I felt the electrifying energy between Uwe and I as he took my hand to walk along the line.

The next night our evening fire evolved into a dance party fueled by boxed wine and followed by an invitation into my tent.  The following morning I powered down some electrolytes and was completely smitten.  The electricity was palpable and we were alone in the desert.  In the harsh landscape of the Northern Namibian desert where nothing grows sprouted our relationship from travel companions to ….

Love stuff aside, to stay fit, stretch out and break up the drive, Uwe would run.  I would drive the arduous track 5 or 10 km ahead and wait for him to catch up to the car.  When reaching the track to turn off to Hartman’s Valley I was alone in the car driving and saw two white men pacing back and forth talking on their satellite phone.  I pulled up alongside them in the decked out Land Rover Defender, last survivor style, leaned out the window and asked if they needed help.  A solitary petite, white American girl outfitted for anything in a loaded down truck asking if they needed help?  They were dumbstruck and didn’t quite know how to handle the situation.  As they declined I drove on and didn’t acknowledge the fact that Uwe would be chasing the car in a few minutes on this scorching summer day in January.

Uwe catching up to the car

We reached Hartmen’s Valley and spent several days exploring and hiking up and around the dunes and then headed towards Skeleton Coast with the GPS to guide us.  There are no roads, just dunes. Days of dunes.  We would follow what looked like heavy military tracks, they would vanish and we sometimes would pick them back up again.  Unsure of what lies ahead we would gun it across long plains and hold our breath hoping the dunes didn’t drop off on the other side.  On more than one occasion we spent several hours digging ourselves out of soft sand scouring the earth for sizable rocks to get in front of, or behind the tires.

At the end of that exhausting day, we finally made it onto a flat rocky area and declared this would be camp.  In the morning when the sand is firm, we will hold our breath and hope for the best as we would try to gain enough velocity to make it over a particularly daunting dune. 

The wind was furious that night, fire was impossible and making it out of the car for a loo was labored.  We hunkered down in the back of the Land Rover and deliberated who would be on the receiving end of our Satellite call when shit hit the fan and we needed to be saved.  It was agreed on that my mother would be the lucky winner of sorting us out and reaching the important parties to rescue us.

We made it over the dune and finally reached the Atlantic, running and diving naked into the freezing water.  We had our tea and coffee and continued further down the coast (Skeleton Coast) we started smelling a pungent odor. 

The beach was swarming with seals.   Kilometres of seals. We stopped the car and walked towards them with a thick layer of crunching seal bones under our feet.  A beach of breeding, refuge and demise for this large colony.

Seal Colony on Skeleton Coast, Namibia

As this habitat was not the place for us to sleep, we carried on our path.  We found a small cove with far fewer seals to finally bathe and rinse our dusty laundry.  We found it curious that there were cigarette butts and a trace of coal and assumed this would be a good bush camp as someone else clearly thought so. 

While we are cutting veg for dinner a man in his van pulls up to us.  As surprised as we were to see him and he to see us, he introduced himself as Phillip, the lion conservationist and asked if we were the people he was scheduled to meet.  Huh? Nope, not us. We just got down here from the North and we are heading South along the coast.  So then came the question, “Who are you? What are you doing here? Do you have a permit?”

“Well, No we will get one on the way out.”

“What?!  No.  You must leave.  You must get out of here right now.  Go back the way you came, there is a military convoy coming, I’m supposed to be meeting them here now, now. If they catch you, you both are going to prison.  This region is restricted for the diamonds and the lions and you have to go.”  And then he drove 500 meters away from us. 

Fuck, what do we do?  Debating our options for about 10 minutes these are what we came up with: 

We can’t outrun the military.  We don’t want to hide from the military.  We don’t want to go to jail.  We could possibly apologize.  We don’t have enough diesel or water to go back the way we came.  We can’t make that drive backwards. 

We threw everything into the car and drove over to where Phillip, the Lion conservationist, was parked chain-smoking cigarettes.  We determined all options are shit and I calmly asked Phillip, what is the quickest way out of here.  His face lit up and he said, “Okay, this is right question.  Go about 20 km up the way you came and there is a riverbed.  You turn right and keep going.”  We thanked Phillip for the sound advice, gunned it back in the dark, found the riverbed, scrutinized the GPS until we were out of sight, out of mind and were able to rest easy. 

Uwe later told me this was the moment he knew I was a great partner.  The moment I came up with the right question to ask at the right time to keep us out of trouble. Since then it’s been one adventure after the next together.

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