Footprints in the sand: An extract from West with the Light

In this excerpt of his autobiography, the acclaimed nature writer Brian Jackman shares his unique adventures in Namibia.

My outstanding travel assignment of 1990 took me 16,000 miles south to Namibia. David Coulson was the son of a diplomat, who grew up in England but had been living in Nairobi, where he won international acclaim as a photographer and would later become the co-founder and chairman of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA).

Over the years we had worked on several assignments in Kenya and Botswana, but I had never been to Namibia, the country he knew best and which he now planned to show me from end to end in the beaten-up old Toyota Land Cruiser he kept in Windhoek.

There was no road to Purros. Only the ruts of old tyre tracks disappearing into the mountains and deserts of Kaokoland. Purros itself was nothing but a scattering of shacks and mud huts belonging to the Himba, pastoralists who dress in skins and roam the ochre hills with their goats and cattle.

As we lurched down the dried-up bed of the Gomatum River, a tributary of the Hoarusib, the sky turned black and thunder rumbled in the hills. ‘Is it going to rain?’ I asked. David shook his head. ‘Not in the desert,’ he said. But even as he spoke, the first fat spots began to fall. Moments later we were in the thick of a ferocious tropical storm – and it was precisely then that fate decided we should have a puncture.

There was nothing for it but to leap out into the lashing rain and change the wheel. In seconds we were soaked to the skin. When at last the wheel was fixed, I took off my desert boots and poured the water out. What an odd way, I thought, to begin one of the hottest weeks of my life in one of the driest places on earth.

Namibia is the last great wilderness in southern Africa. Imagine a country four times the size of Britain with fewer than 1.2 million people at that time. Much of the land is desert. Some of its rivers do not run for years. In some places no rain has fallen for close on a century, and to explore such inhospitable terrain requires local expertise. That was why we were driving to Purros, to meet Louw and Amy Schoeman who were going to take us to the Skeleton Coast.

The Skeleton Coast National Park is a strip of desert up to 40 kilometres wide, running for some 500 kilometres from the Kunene River on the Angolan border down to the Ugab River near Cape Cross. When the park was proclaimed in 1971, the northern sector was set aside as a wilderness area in which only limited tourism would be allowed.

ship wreck in West with the Light
© Ian D M Robertson

In 1977 it was Louw Schoeman, a lawyer and one-time diamond prospector and tour operator who was awarded the concession to operate fly-in safaris there. ‘Never underestimate the desert,’ he said. ‘It isn’t hostile, but it can be dangerous – even deadly if you don’t know it. But I have been coming here for 30 years and it is just like moving around in my own living room. I love it. In my opinion it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.’

From Purros we followed Schoeman across country, traversing immense gravel plains with no sign of life except for a few springboks and ostriches on the furthest horizons until we came at sunset to his camp on the Khumib River. The river had flowed a month earlier after heavy rains upcountry, but now it was bone dry again.

When I went to bed, I was sure I could smell the sea on the night breeze, although the coast was a good 12 kilometres away, and when I awoke, I could hear the roar of the Atlantic surf. ‘We’re paranoid about vehicle tracks up here,’ said Louw as we set out through the dune fields towards the sea. ‘The desert is easy to scar and slow to heal. I can show you tracks made in 1943 to rescue
survivors from the wreck of the Dunedin Star. They look as if they were made only last week.’

The secret of driving in dune fields, I discovered, is to deflate the tyres until they are like squashy balloons. Then, with the vehicle in four-wheel drive, you put your foot down and float through the soft sand with a sensation akin to skiing in powder snow; and as we sailed up over the final crest there was the glorious sight of green and white Atlantic rollers crashing on an empty shore.

Up and down the coast as far as the eye could see, the sands were littered with the flotsam of centuries: a tangle of ships’ masts, planks and spars, with here and there the bleached skeleton of a great whale, killed by the American whaling fleets a hundred years ago. Kelp gulls watched us at a distance, and ghost crabs danced away through the wind-blown spume, but ours were the only footprints.

Beside the Atlantic I felt oddly at ease. Alone with my thoughts I sat on the beach as a fog bank came rolling in, heavy with the smell of kelp. The damp sea mist clung to my bare legs, but I was not cold. I walked for miles, relieved to be out of the desert heat, listening to the gulls, beachcombing for agate pebbles among the jackal prints and sea-urchin shells.

There was never a day when I was not happy in Africa, but the sound of the surf suddenly triggered a wave of nostalgia for Chesil Beach and the green hills of Dorset, and for once, for a moment, I wished I was back home. Next day we flew over the Skeleton Coast on our way north to Kunene, where Schoeman had another camp, looking across the river into Angola.

We flew low over a colony of Cape fur seals and narrowly missed a flock of Damara terns, which rose from the water in front of us. Had we hit them they would have had the effect of a ground-to-air missile, and I began to understand how he had acquired his nickname: ‘Low-Flying Schoeman’.

© LouieLea

At last, we came to the mouth of the Kunene River and followed it inland across a scene of utter desolation. To the south lay nothing but salt pans, a terrifying emptiness reaching away into the dunes and mountain ranges of Kaokoland. To the north rose the sun-scorched rocks of Angola. ‘Amazing to think that most of this country has never had a human foot on it,’ Schoeman yelled above the engine’s roar. ‘Not even a bushman.’

It seemed impossible that there could be any safe place to land in this burnt and broken country, but eventually a strip appeared on a wide plain and we stepped out into the gasping heat of late afternoon. A vehicle was waiting to take us to Louw’s camp. The recent rains had raised a brief flush of grass from the red sand, but already it was withering in the heat.

To the south a range of nameless hills raised their granite heads. Rock kestrels whistled among the crags and larks flew up as we drove along the stony ridges. By the time we reached camp the sun was setting. Shadows seeped out of the ground like smoke, filling the hollows of the hills above the gorge in which the river hissed and swirled in flood.

There was a tiny swimming pool among the rocks (the river itself was full of crocodiles) and what bliss it was to cool off and then sit with a cold beer and watch the lightning flickering in the Angolan mountains. ‘You don’t come here to see animals,’ said Schoeman. ‘You come for the remoteness, the ruggedness. Mass tourism has no place here, but a few people will pay for the privilege of coming to such a wild area.’

We left Kunene after breakfast to fly back to the Khumib. Once more that savage landscape unfolded beneath our wings, the sands a smouldering Martian red, the soda pans blinding, the mountains flayed by wind and sun. I was glad to have seen the Kunene, but relieved to escape from its brooding hostility.

At the Khumib we made our farewells to the Schoemans and set off south down the Skeleton Coast. After an hour or so we came to the mouth of the Hoarusib. There had been more storms inland and the river was running. We waded across to see if it was too deep to drive. The water was flowing strongly and rising as we watched, swirling downstream in sudden surges that spread out across the sand. It was now or never. Slowly we nosed into the flood and drove across it obliquely with the water lapping at the doors.

Down on the shore, bathed in the golden Atlantic light, springboks were feeding. It seemed incongruous to find them beside the sea, but sometimes, said Coulson, desert-dwelling elephants followed the sand rivers down to the coast, leaving their giant footprints on the beach. And from time to time a desert lion would come wandering out of Damaraland to scavenge for seal carcasses in the surf.

Our destination was Mowe Bay, where the national park rangers were based. With its bleached driftwood shacks and small gardens heaped with fishing nets, whalebones, elephant skulls and other flotsam, the bleak little settlement resembled the setting for a Steinbeck novel. Yet despite its remoteness it seemed to attract a succession of the most remarkable and gifted people.

One of the shacks was the home of Des and Jen Bartlett, who had lived and worked in the Namibian parks for 14 years. Over a breakfast of tea and kippers they explained how they had been using microlight aircraft to shoot the first film of desert-dwelling elephants migrating through the dunes.

© Fotografie-Kuhlmann

Later, after a brief sojourn in Swakopmund we set off again, this time into the true Namib – ‘the place where there is nothing’– a sun-struck wilderness of gravel plains above which mirages of distant mountain tops appeared as rocky islands in a trembling sea of blue. High rolling dunes marched south with us down to the western horizon, like the Sussex Downs painted red, until we camped at a place called Homeb.

In late afternoon we crossed the riverbed and climbed up out of the valley to watch the sun descend behind the dunes. We came to a stony plateau where sandblasted pebbles of clear white and yellow crystal glittered in the sand like fallen stars. (I still have one beside my desk as I write. When I found it, I wondered if it might be a diamond. Alas, it is only quartz, but a precious memento all the same.)

Nothing grew here save a few sparse grey tufts of grass that creaked and hissed in the wind – yet scatterings of old, dry spoor showed that gemsboks and zebras had passed this way. Back in camp, night came swiftly. A full moon rose, and in the clear air every detail of its cratered surface was visible through my binoculars.

We barbecued the steaks we had bought in Swakopmund and ate them with potatoes and onions wrapped in foil and baked in the embers, washed down with beers from the cool box. Afterwards, stretched out in my sleeping bag, I lay on my back and looked up at the brightest stars in Africa. From faraway downriver came the sepulchral hoot of an owl and the faint cries of jackals keening in the dunes; then nothing more.

Above Homeb the course of the river cuts through a range of cindery hills into the desolate Huasib canyonlands. This is where two Germans, Hermann Korn and Henno Martin, with their dog Otto, hid for nearly three years to avoid internment by the South Africans during the Second World War. Henno told their story in a book, The Sheltering Desert, in which he graphically described their solitary lives, shooting game and searching for water in the bottom of the canyons.

the Namib desert in West with the Light
Dead Vlei in the Southern part of the Namib © Felix Lipov

Distance lends these far-reaching, barren lands the surreal perspective of a painting by Salvador Dali, with the unearthly shark’s-fin shapes of mountain ranges thrusting over the horizon. Here, in the pitiless heat of the Namib, the earth’s rocks are being tested to destruction, blowtorched by the sun, sandblasted by the searing winds and broken down into fissured gullies and ravines in which the eye cries out for a green tree or a pool of water.

All my life I have loved wilderness and wild places, but the Namib’s unrelenting hostility defeated me. In its furnace heat I found my spirit wilting like a dying flower. Only in the last golden hour before sunset, and again in the first cool hour of dawn, did the desert relent, allowing deep shadows to soften its harsh contours, transforming it into a silent world of unearthly beauty.

Before returning to England at the end of the safari, a pilot friend of David Coulson volunteered to take us for one last look at the Skeleton Coast. We flew low, following its lonely shores south past Sandwich Bay, where colonies of Cape fur seals lay in dense brown packs, staring at the jackals that preyed on the sick and the dead.

Sandwich Bay in West with the Light
Sandwich Bay © WJRVisuals

Further south again we flew over the wreck of the Eagle, a 19th century barque with her ribs and spars sticking out of the sand. We made a low pass along the beach, the green waves breaking beneath our wheels, then rose until I could see the endless emptiness of the coast reaching all the way to where the Orange River lay over the horizon.

By the time we turned for home the flowing summits of the dunes had already begun to glow in the evening light. From the air the Namib and its giant dunes appeared as lifeless as the moon; but then came a sight to lift the heart, as out of the shadows a group of gemsboks came galloping, their horns held high like lances, hoofs kicking up puffs of sand as they pounded up the smooth incline and cantered away into the setting sun.


More information

For more of Brian Jackman’s adventures, take a look at his autobiography:

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