The Lure of the Lonely

by Melinda Burrell

A drive through the mountainous countryside of northwest Namibia offers a couple insight into the history and traditions of the region.

It was to be our most remote trip yet.  We would even need to buy a jerry can for extra fuel. That realization made us feel like true Namibians. 

Two years after taking a foreign service posting in Namibia, my husband and I had already traversed much of the large, empty country: gray, stricken, lunar landscapes near the Atlantic coast; rearing red dunes in the southwestern Namib desert; dry, dusty plains in northern Ovamboland. We always drove ourselves in our diesel 4×4 and recommended visitors do the same.

I had become accustomed to feeling inadequate. Each trip produced views of such vastness I felt I could not encompass all the beauty. But I always wanted more.

While we had trekked much of the country, we had not yet seen the far northwest. Eagerly, we mapped out our route. It would require two days of driving from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It contained a feature much noted in guidebooks – Rooidrum – which intrigued us.

It was May, the start of the southern hemisphere’s winter and Namibia’s dry season. The trip would be mostly over gravel roads, through scrub valleys, and include hours-long stretches with no sight of other humans. We provisioned accordingly: two spare tires, several 10-gallon water containers, a satellite phone, and generous picnic supplies – including not a few bottles of our favorite South African wines. And of course, our extra jerry can of diesel.

Our overnight destination was in Damaraland. Namibia was a brutalized German colony in the late 19th century, and after World War I, it became part of South Africa. Namibia, therefore, was subject to the racist South African laws which divided the country into tribal “homelands” and controlled the movements of Black people. Though Namibia won its independence in 1990, the homeland nomenclature stuck. I thought about the violence and pain in Namibia’s past, its strong start as a democratic nation, and wondered how its stark topography was part of its complicated history.

We started again early the next morning. As we crested a hill into the Khowarib Valley, mountains stretched chocolate and coffee into the distance. Silver grasses glistened on the plain, thick as seal fur. As always, I craned my neck, trying to take in the immensity.

Such majesty had made us Namibia nerds. We traveled with well-worn copies of The Fascination of Geology, Mammals of Namibia, and even The Grasses of Namibia. We were thrilled to learn we were traversing the ancient heart of the Gondwana supercontinent. Here, our delightfully translated German guidebook said that a molten upsurge caused “grave geological consequences” by splitting Gondwana into Africa and South America. Geologists have matched lava from this Khowarib plain with lava in southern Brazil, just as dark and twisted as you would expect. Grave consequences, indeed.

Continuing northwest from this plain, we crossed a flat valley between mocha-colored mountains. Four ostriches loped away, off the gravel road. Twenty turkey-sized chicks scurried after, heads poking above the tawny grass. Two giraffes peered at us from the shade of an acacia tree. I never tired of these casual, roadside encounters with animals.

The landscape along a road trip to Rooidrum, Namibia

Hours later, we passed through the town of Sesfontein – low, dusty, white buildings along a main street with a few shops and the ubiquitous shack-like bars called shebeens. Eleven in the morning, several Herero women were gathered at the largest shebeen. They wore full traditional Herero women’s outfits, a fusion of German missionary wives’ clothing of the 1900s with a nod to the Herero cattle raising lifestyle: floor-length, A-line dresses with long sleeves and petticoated skirts, matched with hats simulating cow horns.

After Sesfontein, another two hundred miles lay before us of rocky desert, sandy desert, and bare stone hills. Incomprehensible vastness, incomprehensibly compelling.

Just before nightfall, we reached the town of Orupembe. Though it merited a dot on the map, Orupembe featured only two buildings – a police station attached to the “cooldrink” store. Near the store were three women in braids, skirts, and little else, lounging on the hillside after a day of work, overlooking a sprinkle of huts and kraals. We had made it to Himbaland.

Few in numbers, the Himba retain a traditional lifestyle. Some say the name Himba means “the ones left behind,” describing the choice the tribe made when the related Herero moved to central Namibia. Himba are nomadic pastoralists and move with their herds of cows and goats. With each move, they set up temporary domed huts formed of saplings lashed together and covered in mud. Their okuruwo, or holy fire, is always alight to maintain contact with their ancestors.

We slowly bumped through a settlement of huts scattered under acacia trees. A dozen young men in Western attire played fast-paced soccer in the dust. A handful of little boys with traditional hair topknots and skin skirts giggled its way to two small mud huts.

At last we reached our destination, a lodge with three small rock chalets on knolls above a thickly-treed valley. We tried to guess which bluff on the horizon might be Rooidrum. “That one?” Tom pointed to a mountain crest. All of our Namibian hikes had produced spectacular views. This would be the best yet.

We rose early. Getting to Rooidrum would pass the limits of our gas tank. We took out the jerry can, brainstormed, then massacred a plastic water bottle to serve as a funnel. We poured the viscous, green diesel into our tank. We felt the adventure.

Ten minutes later, we were perched on top of a narrow, sharp descent of slate moguls and axle-breaking pits. “The map says this will take us 75 minutes. To travel 18 miles!” I peered down the chute, pondering the effect of quartz shards on car doors.

“Well, this is what we came for.” Tom started creeping over the edge.

“Wait! There’s a rock in front of the tire. Let me get it.” We’d amassed 11 flat tires on Namibian roads already, and I did not wish to jack up the car on this incline.

So went the next while. I clambered in and out of the car, clearing rocks and guiding Tom’s placement of tires. One hundred and ten minutes later, we were through – thoroughly rattled but also seasoned. Skilled 4×4 driving is a Namibian point of pride. “Time to take on the climb to Rooidrum!” I gloated to Tom.

Now we were deep in Himbaland. And surprised. Here amidst dry, rocky hills, we were seeing more people than we had in 48 hours: women herding cattle through the scrub, a couple laden with empty containers, bound for an unknown water source. Not one seemed to notice our large white 4×4.

An elderly man appeared on the side of the track. Carrying a staff and knife, he wore a skin skirt and a wide, stiff, skin collar. He hailed us and mimed a desire for water or food. Smiling, we handed him a pear and a canteen of water. “Dankie,” he said with a reciprocal smile. As he moved off, I wondered what he thought of the mountains and valleys around us. Did he find them inspiring? Or just the way things are? 

We, too, resumed our journey. “We must be getting close to Rooidrum. But I don’t see what it can be.” I looked from the map to our now flat surroundings and back again. I frowned. Tom drove on.

Our track widened slightly. A second sandy road was intersecting from the west. The turnoff was marked with a battered oil drum painted red.

“Rooidrum!” Tom laughed. Gesturing to the surrounding flatness, he added, “So much for our hike to a luncheon view!”

 “Why do I feel like we should have figured that out?” I pointed to the second road. “Since we don’t get a hike, shall we at least switch directions? Go west?”

Tom swung the car off the main track, and we took in our new orientation. Yellow grasses danced in the breeze. Mountains ringed us. I widened my eyes as I tried to take all this in. Just like the imagined Rooidrum, Namibia still evaded me.

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