Postcard from a desert road
(I need you to have one of those PlayStation games in mind, one of the car racing ones over rough terrain at improbable speeds in ill-equipped cars).
According to the CIA (sic), Namibia has 44k km of roads, only 6k km of which are tarmac. We’ve rented a Toyota dullsmobile rather than a 4x4, so that we don’t end up with a false sense of security (I didn’t understand that bit either).
So we find ourselves on the 340km stretch from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei, where the sand dunes and desert animals await us. There is just one place to stop en-route, and we’re not talking Starbucks here, but more of that in a mo’.
The road is super-wide, perhaps that of a 3-lane motorway although the edges are hard to make out. There are no warning signs or road markings, only the occasional post saying something useful such as, “Stay on the road”. Speed is limited to 100kmh, which feels about 60kmh too much for the conditions.
Driving in sandy gravel is similar to driving in snow. You stay in the ruts on your side or risk the car snaking alarmingly from side to side, the back drifting out like in a rally. Corners are taken gingerly. Braking distances are very long.
If there’s a car in front, you can’t see a thing because of the dust thrown up. If a car comes from the opposite direction, you can’t see a thing for a few important seconds either. There are deep Vees, to allow rivers to pass when it’s wet (it last rained here in 2011), where the car’s suspension bottoms out. There are also blind ridges, where you have no idea what’s awaiting the other side: a tourist taking a photograph, an animal crossing, or a corner.
We pass a car wreck that’s flipped over, which seems like a warning. The occasional Ostrich, Oryx and Springbok at the side of the road remind us what the guidebook says about driving in Namibia: “To reduce the risk of flipping your car over, if an animal runs in front of the car, hit it. You will kill the animal and damage the car, but you are more likely to live”. To be honest, these are not comforting words, especially as the guide continues, “don’t use this technique with an elephant”.
Intense concentration is needed, with constant drumming of gravel being thrown against the poor car, the steering column making alarming noises, the steering wheel doing its best to direct us off the road, the tyres failing to grip and the brakes just causing the wheels to lock up rather than slow the car down.
3 hours and 250km later, we stop at Solitaire, the only Waypoint. Pamela prises my hands off the steering wheel and helps me out of the car. My buttocks are sore from being clenched for so long and I’ve got cramp in my fingers. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun driving a car before.
We nearly missed Solitaire, which is not a village but a small cluster of buildings including a world famous bakery (honestly!), a run-down petrol station and a cafe.
There are numerous car wrecks in the entrance road, as you might see on a film set. A famous apple pie, cup of coffee and full petrol tank later, we’re on our way again.