When the “Haves” Outnumber the “Have Nots”

Namibia to South Africa Road Trip – Day #11 – Fish River Canyon to Springbok, South Africa

As we drove deeper into South Africa, the sand and gently rolling hills that defined Namibia steadily gave way to steep hills with jagged outcroppings.

We’d entered Namaqualand. Famous for its wildflowers this, apparent wasteland explodes with color during the Winter rains. Too bad we were in the midst of Summer. As we neared Springbok, the heather that covered these hillsides teased us with a hint of green.

No matter. Now that the “roughing it” part of the trip was at an end (i.e., we were done sleeping on a bakkie in a rooftop tent), we’d booked a 5-star guest house in Springbok and planned to enjoy a little luxury.

I suppose 2-stars would have been sufficient – hot water and a bed alone would have been “luxurious” after being perpetually caked in dust, but I wanted all the extras: I wanted a mint on the pillow. (I also wanted to be comfortable in the knowledge that even if I didn’t eat the mint, I didn’t have to worry about a Black-backed Jackal coming in the middle of the night and eating it along with my foot). And I wanted air conditioning!

This place delivered. After marveling at the flush toilet and hot water on-demand for a while, I did enjoy my mint, as well as a complimentary sherry. The property was way up in the hills above Voortrekkerstraat, and from the plunge pool we had a terrific view of the surrounding hills and good portion of Springbok itself.

It was heaven. And unlike other places we’d stayed in Southern Africa, we weren’t prisoners restricted to the walled-in property of the guest house.

Driving through Springbok’s serene suburban streets, I was immediately struck by the lack of security measures typical of most of South Africa. Where were the high walls with barbed wire? Where were the shotgun-toting guards? Where was the electrified fence? Why weren’t there bars on all the windows? How come no one even bothered with those “Armed Response” warning signs? Why does the guest house have a fat, lazy Persian rather than two guard dogs? How come I could walk to town safely?

“Oh, we don’t have those kind of problems here,” the proprietress of our guest house explained.

A walk through town the next morning was a real eye-opener. Doors to banks and shops constantly ingested and dispensed customers. Entire families plied the streets laden with shopping bags. We watched a band set up in front of a store and begin playing reggae. I guess it was part of a store promotion. Children begged and whined for ice cream as reggae sound waves reverberated off the store fronts on both sides of Voortrekkerstraat.

And there was a Super Spar! A wonderful, glorious, mega-sized Super Spar! I think it might have even been bigger than the one in Swakopmund. It was like shopping in an air-conditioned jumbo-jet hangar – quite a difference from our Spar-experience in Luderitz.

Despite all the warnings I’d been given about South Africa (and the conditioning that had been beaten into me by decades of city living), I felt quite relaxed in Springbok. My only question was, why?

The mines had closed in Springbok a few years previous. Tourism for the wildflowers allegedly hadn’t filled the economic gap left by the mine closures, but the social impact of any resultant economic downturn wasn’t readily apparent to me.

“It’s because the old regime is still in charge in Springbok,” one white woman explained to me with a smile.

“Uh-huh.” I tried not to roll my eyes.

From what I saw, the Haves clearly outnumbered the Have-Nots, at least in down town Springbok. The clear majority of the Haves were Coloured.

At the bank, every single teller was Coloured. Only the manager was white. Our waitress was Coloured. Only the manager was white. The cashiers in every store were Coloured. Here, the management seemed to be a mixed of Coloured and white. (In any case, the customers were 75% Coloured.)

Does a city having the vestiges of a middle-class somehow relate to being able to safely walk its streets day or night?

I’ve mentioned the whites and the Coloureds, but haven’t mentioned black South Africans. That’s because I didn’t see many. Apart from a few customers at the restaurant, the only “real” black South Africans I saw were the attendants at the gas stations, and chambermaids at our guest house – just like everywhere else in Southern Africa.

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Top Ten Reasons Border Crossings Really, REALLY Suck

Namibia to South Africa Road Trip – Day #11 – Fish River Canyon to Springbok, South Africa

We weren’t airborne for more than a fraction of a second, but it seemed an eternity. When we landed with a tremendous mechanical bang, I was sure the dashboard was going to break off into our laps. It didn’t. I pulled over and gave our bakkie a once-over. Everything was fine. I assumed the plates we had in the back of the truck were broken. They weren’t.

A storm had ripped through the area around Fish River Canyon two days previous. The torrential rains had taken a chunk of the road with it downstream, replacing it with soft sand. The only way across the four meter gap was to cross it with sufficient speed, else we’d risk getting stuck in the sand. The alternative was to backtrack 80 miles. That wasn’t gonna happen.

I guess I was little overzealous taking the truck to 45 miles per hour, but teh truck was fine. And jumping the wash meant we were on track to get to the border by lunchtime, and arrive in Springbok, South Africa by early afternoon. We were also good for fuel, (I’d already learned my lessons regarding money, gas, and water.) Things seemed to be going our way for once!

It made me nervous. Clearly, the other shoe was gonna drop when we got to the border crossing.

Whether it’s a couple of grumpy Albanians with AKs or even grumpier U.S. Customs officials with attitudes – I’ve had so many bad experiences at border checkpoints, I drop to the floor in spasms at the thought of going through another one…

Border crossings, airport arrivals, bus and train stations, they’re all disorienting environments, and they’re potentially packed with predators, and incompetent or petty officials that will make your life miserable to line their pockets, compensate for personal inadequacies, or just kill time. I went mentally went through the endless list of things that could go wrong at the border crossing, and distilled it down to my top ten biggest fears of what awaited us:

10. The “Official” Helper – This is either a well-dressed guy, or a real idiot who claims to be “from the tourism board” and he’s there to help you. These “Helpers”are usually easy to spot,;I heard a laughable story of a “Helper” at Jo’burg airport who had a piss-poor laminated ID tied around his neck with a shoelace. But I got suckered once recently in Istanbul airport. The guy wore a jacket and had a fantastically huge laminated ID. Instead of taking me to a taxi stand, he took me to one of the many shuttle bus services that charge just as much as a taxi – if not more.

9. Pickpockets – Self-explanatory really. Bastards.

8. Paperwork not in Order – Everyone’s worst nightmare. Of course, you never really know if you’re paperworks in order, do you? It all depends on the uniformed mofo in front of you. Ultimately, they’re the ones that decide if you have the correct papers or not. Will he or won’t he stamp your passport? Is your car really allowed in their country or not? Play the waiting game and find out. The good news is everything’s negotiable, even if your paperwork really isn’t in order. The bad news: Maybe you have to pay for an additional “entry visa” (see Number 3 below).

7. Gypsy Cab Drivers – the lowest of the low, and a global plague. Whether it’s Kennedy Airport or a bus depot in rural Bulgaria, they will gouge the hell out of you on price, and literally take you for a ride. And, you’ll never get the smell of Eastern European tobacco out of your clothing, or that annoying song with the sitar that was on the radio out of your head – ever again.

6. Hotel Touts – irritating scum that they are, they’ll will harass you, aggravate you, and lie to you in order to get you to follow them to their hotel. When my wife was just another annoying backpacker in Asia, one tout looked her right in the eye and told her the hotel she’d booked had burned down, and his hotel was better. The hotel she’d booked was right behind him. Naturally, the “great hotel” they bring you to is usually on the far side of the island or miles from the city center, wedged in between the slaughterhouse and a safe house for Chinese Triads. And they’ll want a tip for bringing you there.

5. The Search for Luggage – The frantic attempt to reunite yourself with your belongings after a long trip. I don’t care if your flying Coconut Airways or British Airways, it’s a real act of faith giving your luggage away and believing you’ll see it again. (As I wrote earlier, I’d sooner trust my luggage to Coconut Airways than BA anyway.) The search is even more stressful if it’s a bus station and you’re busy fighting off touts, cab drivers, (see above), or the “Bum Rush” (see below).

4. The Luggage Search – a uniformed customs official (usualy really fat, and sometimes in mirror shades) rips open your luggage in hopes of finding a brick of hash, guns, the Beatles’ White Album, or perhaps your underwear. You can only grin and bear it … and be glad the condom of uncut Afghan Horse is tucked safely in your rectum.

3. The special fee for the “Entry Visa” – this is the unexpected fee that gringos and other clueless tourists have to pay that wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook and nobody ever told you about before you left. Usually never more than a few dollars (although it’s $20 in Turkey!), you usually receive a useless scrap of paper as evidence (although in Costa Rica and Turkey I got cool colorful paper stamps put into my passport).

2. The “Exit Visa” – see “Entry Visa” above. What’s that? Don’t want to pay? Then you can hang out in the seedy airport/bus terminal/ train station until you to, beyotch!

1. The “Bum Rush” – Hundreds of years before Public Enemy coined the term, small-time hoods used this technique of rushing the dumb-ass traveler who’s just stepped off the train/bus/aircraft/ship into a completely alien environment. At that magic moment you step onto the train platform, or walk through the bus terminal, you are so damn vulnerable. At a border crossing from Guatemala into El Salvador once, I dropped a $5 bill after having to pay an “Entry Visa” (see above) – it was gone before it even hit the ground. The worst incident I ever heard was a friend of mine in Gare du Nord in Paris: a gypsy women threw her baby at him ,forcing him to catch it, then she and her three other children expertly rifled his pockets, snatched the baby back, and were gone before he even knew what had happened.

Seeing this was a remote border crossing, my biggest fears were #1 through #3. Of course, #9 was a legitimate worry as well. Due to my wife’s Passport Problems (her passport was only valid for another 90 days, when the Namibians required six months), I wondered if we wouldn’t have to play a very long waiting game in order to be allowed to leave Namibia. Additionally, the gal at the car rental office said we’d have to pay an additional $400 to enter South Africa with a rental car. So I approached the border post fearing the worst.

The Namibian border official barely looked up from his football magazine as we lined up with the other drivers and dutifully filled out the important looking scraps of paper, signed the clipboard, and received the exit stamp.

The South African side of the border was nearly a mile down the road, and far better organized than most countries. A friendly official greeted us in our language of choice at the border, and gave us a processing documenting with room for three stamps. At station one (immigration), we received our first stamp on the processing document, and an exit stamp in our passport.

No one asked for the $400 for the rental truck.

At station two (customs) we had nothing to declare, so we quickly got another stamp on our processing document.

No one asked for the $400.

Station three was the South African Police Service. We chatted for a good ten minutes after they’d entered my driver’s license information into the computer. We got a friendly “welcome to South Africa” from them and a stern “please drive carefully”.

They didn’t ask for the $400 rental car free either.

We walked back to the truck, and handed our completed process document to the border officer that originally greeted us. She dutifully made notes on her clipboard whilst eyeballing the license plate and the registration sticker.

“Okay, you can go. Have a nice day.” She smiled.

As we slowly cruised through the border station to freedom, my wife turned and ask me, “shouldn’t we have asked to pay?”

“Uhm, not so much.”

I’ll never know if we really had to pay that $400. Maybe the girls at the rental office were wrong. Ultimately, it always comes down to number #8 above.

And remember: Everything’s negotiable

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A Misanthrope’s Perfect Christmas Dinner

Namibia Road Trip Days # 9 – 10: Fish River Canyon

The engine of our truck protested loudly as I used second to negotiate Namibia’s steep drops and inclines. I swear that with every hill we conquered, the needle on the fuel gauge drop a few liters. (I didn’t complain though. At least the road was paved.) We hadn’t seen another car for over an hour, and following our bizarre experience at Gaogeb we were happy to get a little alone time.

Black storm clouds loomed on the horizon. We couldn’t tell if they were coming towards us or not. The asphalt ended near Seeheim, where we took a right turn on a dirt track heading due South. The black clouds were still there, but we could see the storm had already passed through the area. Huge puddles filled the road, and fast-flowing rapids carried detritus into the road or simply carried the road away, leaving ever deepening ditches for us to slam into. At one turn, we watched in amazement as a chunk of road (packed gravel and sand) at least 8-foot square broke off and was carried downstream.

The road actually traversed the railroad tracks at least three times, and wouldn’t you know it, just after our third crossing, we actually saw a train . It was the first one I’d seen after driving for days alongside the rails in Namibia. The train itself was bright red freight train with a few cars. It looked almost miniature given the scale of the landscape around it. (In fact, given the narrow gauge of the tracks, it most likely was smaller than an American locomotive.) I honked and waved, and got a toot and wave in return. Driving in Namibia can be tedious, and since the train could only crawl with so many ostriches, domestic cattle, and antelope crossing the tracks, the conductor’s eyeballs must have been bleeding with boredom.

I was getting antsy when I saw lightning in the side-view mirror. I wanted to get to our campsite by the Fish River Canyon and set up camp quickly before the heavens opened up again. It was tempting to really floor it on the straightaway, but that was an invitation for disaster. You had no visibility on the steep hills; hit a ditch or a kudu that “just appeared out of nowhere” at 60 miles per hour, and it would not end well.

Two more hairpin turns and we were on the home stretch heading West towards the Fish River Canyon. The camp was less than 20 kilometers away. And the lighting was gone, replaced by a spectacular double-rainbow:

 

Namibian Double-Rainbow

 

Things were looking up.

The Hobas Campsite was just inside the gate of Fish River Canyon park. The grounds were well kept and quite charming, but the bathrooms barely functioned and the plunge pool looked more like a swamp.An unexpected bonus was that there couldn’t have been a dozen other people on the campground.

 

The storm clouds were gone by nightfall, and the southern sky lit up at night with a brilliance I’d never seen before. Mars was a bright orange ball, part of a string of three planets across the sky. Orion’s stars were as brilliant as xenon bulbs. Clouds of stars were visible in the night sky.You could walk at night without a flashlight, as the moon and the planets illuminated everything.

Christmas dinner the next night was a bit non-traditional. We had only some sketchy frozen chicken parts I’d found in a broken down freezer at the Spar in Luderitz and some carrots and pumpkin. I spiced up the chicken with half a jar of peri-peri powder, some minced garlic, a bottle of vinaigrette, and half a block of cow feta had left over. The chicken did not look good, so I literally caked it in peri-peri , salt, and minced garlic, drowned it in vinagrette, and shoved the feta inside the skin.

Thank God for the little refrigerator in our truck. We drank a chilled a bottle of white wine from the little metal cups that came with the truck.

The chicken was brilliant. Maybe our expectations were low because it was chicken from a Luderitz Spar on a braai, but it was delicious. The pumpkin and carrots, however, totally sucked. We drowned them in butter and sugar, but they tasted like nothing more than lumps flavored with butter and sugar. I couldn’t understand why they sucked so bad. The fridge had broken down twice underway. The controls were no good (I accidentally froze everything solid) and the wiring for the fridge was loose (I had to rewire it twice underway). Maybe that was what killed the veggies. In any case, the chicken was great, the wine was great, the coffee was the best.

 

 

We had to pull on fleece tops when the wind dropped the temperature to the low 70’s. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest Internet connection, from the nearest ATM, from the nearest traffic jam. No traffic. No shopping pressure. Christmas television specials. No last-minute shopping. No driving through snow to and from the relatives. No drunken office Christmas party. No shoveling snow. No idiots crashing into me because they don’t know how to drive in the snow. And more than 12 hours of sunlight on Christmas. The wind blew out our candles around 10:00 pm. Had we been at home, we’d have left the dishes for the morning, but jackals, hyenas, leopards, etc. dictated we scrub it clean and button the truck up tight before getting into the tent.

 

 

We were in bed by 10:15 and awoke the next morning at around 5:45 am with the sun. We took our time getting ready that morning. I scratched in my notebook for hours while we nursed coffee. It would be another scorcher. At least 90 degrees. We wished a Merry Christmas to the few others that had camped out over the holiday. We all grinned knowingly in our shorts and t-shirts.

 

The perfect way to spend Christmas when you’re sick of Winter and sick of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wild Wild West

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Gaogeb

Three hours on the road from Luderitz was more than enough time to burn through two thirds of our fuel. Having learned to plan ahead, I’d studied the map and calculated we’d need to stop in the town of Gaogeb to refuel. It would be our last chance to refuel before heading into the wilderness of the Fish River Canyon.

Incomplete letters on a water tower were the only indication that we were indeed in Gaogeb. This surreal backwater was like something out of a Coen Brothers or David Lynch film. The only living things we saw on the dirt road passing as main street were five scruffy ostriches milling about behind a chain-link fence. When we arrived at the town’s only gas station, the attendant was lying on the ground in the shade flat on his back. It took him a good two minutes to struggle to his feet. He stumbled over and reluctantly began to pump our gas. At first I thought it was just heat-induced sleepiness, but I then I realized he was simply dead drunk.

There were other people milling about the gas station, and I realized they were all drunk too. People staggered about aimlessly, cradling the equivalent of 40 ounce bottles. One drunk, his overalls half-undone, simply pointed at our truck and stared. His mouth hung open and he was unable to speak.

The way to the bathroom was blocked by two bodies.

Once I was certain he was filling the tank with 95, and not diesel (or kerosene) I went into the convenience story hoping to find a red bull and a snack. Instead of a well-lit mini mart, the shop was one long counter behind cast-iron bars. The bars were in turn topped with spikes and electrified wire. Behind the bars, a jumpy white guy worked the register. My senses overloaded with warning signs. More drunks kept stumbling into the store behind me. The cashier was a flurry of activity as he jumped between the register, the counter, and the refrigerator. He didn’t blink as he sold one super-sized bottle of Tafel lager after another to the native piss heads.

I thought about it. The nearest cop shop was hours away in Aus. This guy was on his own completely. Did he have a shotgun under the counter, or what?

The clerk finally blinked in my direction expectantly. I drew a blank. What did I want? What was I there for? Two other customers clicked at each other drunkenly in their own language.

I got back to the car with a bottle of lukewarm cola.

The guy in overalls was still staring. Pointing.

“That guy hasn’t moved for at least five minutes,” my wife marveled as I locked my door.

“Yeah.”

“At least five minutes.”

“Yeah.” I started the engine.

“Can we leave, please?”

“Oh yeah.”

I floored it towards the Fish River Canyon, and didn’t look back.

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On the Trail of the Kaiser’s Soldiers in Africa

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Ludertiz to Aus to Seeheim

On the road to Sesriem I’d picked up a locally printed book (“Mein Lieber Andreas! Treue Seele!”) that contained diary entries, recollections, and photos donated by German soldiers who’d been stationed in German Southwest Africa from the early 1900s until 1919 .

It held an interesting collection of details of daily life, which collectively gave a very rich picture of Namibia 100 years ago. The diary of one officer, a certain Unterzahlmeister Andreas Ohlsen, recounted his 1907 deployment route from Luderitz to the inland town of Keetmanshoop.

Schutztruppe Pad

above: A German map of the Ludertiz – Keetmanshoop route circa 1912

We followed his exact route nearly 101 years to the day.

Our Pad

above: The same route today. Note the Restricted Diamond Area (“Sperrgebiet”) to the south. The Namib Naukluft is to the north.

Naturally, this book contained quite a few memory holes. The diary entries were mostly fond recollections of soldierly bonding rather than details of their genocidal campaigns against the Hottentot and the Herero. I don’t think this was for political reasons. None of the horrors of war were present in their recollections. The losses of comrades-in-arms were glossed over. Their time in the POW camp in Aus sounded more like boarding school hijinks than 36+ months of purgatory in the desert. (I had to appreciate the story of how they secretly distilled schnapps – so-called “Kraal-Schnapps” – under the noses of the British guards.)

This wistful nostalgia was also colored with tragedy of another kind, as some of the Schutztruppe veterans writing in the book in 1943-44 were living in Koenigsberg. No doubt they were killed by the Red Army or had to evacuate only a few short months after fondly recollecting balmy African nights ’round the campfire singing dirty limericks.

Reading the experiences of these tough old soldiers humbled me a bit as I prepared for the day’s drive. I had over 200 miles of driving in front of me, and only two-thirds of it was on paved roads. I wasn’t looking forward to it, to be sure, but I felt guilty about wanting to complain.

Up until 1915, German soldiers arrived in Luderitz normally via steamship from Hamburg. After the damp climate of North Germany, I suppose the desolation of the Skeleton Coast and surrounding moon rock of Luderitz must have been a shock. In Luderitz they received their orders.

Once the Schutztruppen received their movement orders, the first leg of their trip inland would be via passenger steam train to Aus. The railroad track still runs parallel to the present-day B4 highway, but passenger train service stopped years ago. The final few miles of track to Luderitz were gone, but we could see where the tracks should have been; the embankment was still there, and it looked as if new ties had been lain. Perhaps the freight service would be resumed soon? In the meantime, a gaggle of five ostriches stood guard by the precious raw material left to lie unattended in the desert sun.
Our bakkie wasn’t terribly aerodynamic, so I expected we weren’t much faster than a steam train a century ago. In 1907 though, the rail ended in Aus and they had to switch to horseback. From Aus, we would leave the Schutztruppe in the dust.

In Aus circa 1907, German soldiers would be kitted out with food, water, weapons, and horses for the long trek to Keetmanshoop. They would form into a column, with mule-pulled wagons in the middle. At that time, hostilities with the local Herero and Hottentot weren’t quite at an end, so armed escorts were a must for any convoys carrying precious supplies further inland.

It was slow going on horseback. Water breaks were essential in that brutal heat. Additionally, the tracks they traveled on were not much more than ruts. Breakdowns were frequent, and wagons carried reserve wheels for this contingency. If an axle or more wheels broke, the wagon was offloaded and left behind as firewood for the next convoy.

The route followed a series of watering holes that had been converted into proper water stations with camp sites and hitching posts. It was critical to reach the next Wasserstelle before their existing ration ran out. I suppose the urgency of reaching the next station kept them focused.

In the account of Unterzahlemeister Ohlsen’s journey, it took a mule train over two weeks to reach Keetmanshoop. That’s over two weeks of riding in extreme heat. That’s two weeks of sleeping on hard ground. Two weeks eating by campfires, nights standing watch, and keeping weapons cleaned and maintained.

We covered that same distance in a truck in less than three hours.

And I still complained about my sore ass from the springs in my cushioned seat.

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And Wild Horses…

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Kolmanskop to Garub

Wild Horses of the Namib ahead

Caution: Wild Horses Ahead

There’s only one road inland from Luderitz: the treacherous and tedious strip of asphalt called the B4. Along this lifeline are two fascinating pit stops.

Kolmanskop Ghost Town

The diamond rush in Namibia began in 1908. According to our tour guide at the Ghost Town of Kolmanskop, over two tons of diamonds were extracted from the desert sand in less than a decade. Diamonds were so abundant, that wildcat prospectors could lie on their bellies and simply dig around the sand. In order to ensure the government got their cut during the mass extraction of mineral wealth, the town of Kolmanskop (Kolmanskuppe) sprouted up out of the dust and rock a few miles inland from Luderitz. This camp-cum-miniature city shipped in everything – including fresh water from Cape Town and coal from Germany. Once the diamond rush ended, the townsfolk disappeared, leaving behind a ghost town that can be visited today.

Kolmanskop

The desert climate has preserved a surreal, century-old snapshot. Summoning up the endurance to hike over the encroaching sand dunes, we walked through the abandoned homes, doctor’s offices, and commissary. Many rooms and fittings still had vestiges of their original paint job. Wires dangled from electrical fixtures. Doors still rattled on creaking hinges as the wind punched through the empty window panes.

A few neighboring buildings are still used by the government for workers going in and out o the Restricted Area (“Sperrgebiet”) . I assume they’ve purchased a more modern x-ray machine for cavity searches than whatever they used back in 1908…

The Wild Horses of the Namib

About 60 miles further west on the B4 is the Garub watering hole. There’s only a small sign off the B4, and we had to follow yet another winding dirt track rigged with sharp rocks and sharprt drops. Hard to believe it, but when we came over the next rise, there they were: The wild horses of the Namib desert.

The origin of the wild horses is still debated, although they’ve definitely been there for a century now. Most believe they’re simply the descendants of horses that escaped from ranches. Other believe they were released by the German Army during World War I to avoid handing them over to the invading Commonwealth soldiery.

Whatever their origin, they now eke out an existence in an incredibly harsh desert climate. I use the incredibly annoying word “eke”, because the horses did not look like they were living large. In fact, they looked downright unhealthy; they were incredibly skinny, with ribs and hip bones jutted through patchy, dirt-clotted coats. According to the board nailed up to the wall of the observation platform, the horses suffered an astonishing 60% mortality rate amongst foals due to the scarcity of food and water, the abundance of predators, and – increasingly – vehicle collisions.

Garub is an excellent place to spot the horses, as it’s the only permanent water source in the desert. The horses depend on it, and so did the ostriches, apparently. I had to admire their ability to survive in such a life-taking environment. And despite the searing heat there was a certain romantic feeling watching these horses ambling free, with any memory of subservience to man at least five generations in the past.

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Commonwealth War Graves in Namibia

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Aus

Aus graves

I’m a big military history fanatic, so I leapt at the chance when I saw a sign indicating a Commonwealth Military Cemetery outside Aus, Namibia. Even my wife’s usual objections were quickly overcome, as it turned out to be an unusual monument to a catastrophic historical event.

What made this Commonwealth Grave site unusual was that:

1.) Few of the dead were killed in action.

2.) The cemetery contains both German and Allied dead together.

Unlike the United States, which either transports its war dead home, or – in special situations – lays its Fallen to rest in land donated by Allied nations (e.g., in France or the Netherlands), the British Empire always interred it’s dead where they fell. Since the they were very busy ensuring the sun never set on the British Empire, they fought in some very remote locations. This little cemetery near the mining town of Aus, Namibia certainly falls in that category.

The sign indicating the cemetery was on the paved B4 “highway”, but it lead us over the usual winding track made of jagged rocks, loose boulders, and dust. Our truck slid sideways as we negotiated our way up an arroyo that angled 45 degrees.

“Are we going the right way?” My wife fretted.

“Sure we are,” I pooh-poohed her. Actually, I had no clue if I was correct. As we fought our way up out of the arroyo, I couldn’t even see where the road continued, or even if the road continued.

Sure enough though, we came over the top and we spotted a small cemetery amongst twisted fencing and scraggly trees…

Aus Grave 2

A professor of mine in college once quipped that World War I was nothing more than a re-shuffling of the international pecking order. Apart from providing an opportunity to decimate a generation of young men, the Great War also allowed the Triple Entente (i.e., Great Britain) to relieve the Central Powers (i.e., Germany) of any valuable colonies they might have possessed. When hostilities broke out in 1914, Commonwealth troops poured into Namibia from South Africa. They were met by the Kaiser’s men. The Schutztruppen.

The Kaiser had only posted a token force in German Southwest Africa. After a few skirmishes, the Schutztruppen surrendered en masse to the South African troops in 1915. They spent nearly four years in captivity in a camp hastily erected outside Aus.

During their time as POWs, the German soldiers were industrious; they manufactured bricks – originally to build better accommodation for themselves, but later for profit (they sold the bricks to the South Africans!), they put on plays, and they even distilled schnapps. I read one first-hand account of the German’s schnapps still being discovered by a teetotaling guard who confiscated the equipment. The men didn’t wait too long before resuming production, albeit more discreetly.

Upon the cessation of hostilities, German Southwest Africa was handed over to Great Britain (who already controlled surrounding South Africa, Bechuanaland, and the two Rhodesias), and German soldiers were forcibly “repatriated” back to Germany in 1919. But, the Germans did leave around 60 men behind. They still rest here in this Commonwealth Cemetery.

Death came to Aus in 1918, but not at the end of bayonet. The Spanish flu didn’t discern between nations, and I counted roughly 60 German graves and 60 South African graves. I found a number of markers showing that the men died within days of each other in October, 1918. Friend and foe weren’t buried together out of some fraternal gesture; I doubt the authorities had much time for “proper” segregation of the dead, not with so many bodies waiting above ground in the ruinous heat.

The POW camp itself is now gone, replaced by a farm and small dwellings. I found only a few crumbling walls and nothing else. It stood on another hill facing the cemetery. The cemetery itself could have been considered “unsightly” alongside a “proper” cemetery; there was no grass, and no flowers. But there was a sense of order in there not known to the surrounding countryside, if only because someone had swept the dust prior to our arrival. A few iron crosses were crumbling, but more than a few of the Commonwealth graves had fresh flowers on them, possibly laid by descendants living in South Africa.

Seeing those flowers helped stave off the overwhelming sense of futility and loss I usually experience in a military cemetery. These men didn’t die defending their country. They fought on land that wasn’t even theirs. These men didn’t fall in battle. They died of disease. No movie or novel has been written about this sideshow to a greater conflict that was ultimately a “reshuffling of the international pecking order”, and only a preview of the horrors to come.

There had no glory save what their surviving family and concerned citizens choose to bestow upon them.

Aus graves #3

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