Outdoor enthusiasts love Namibia. The country is powerful, stark, bleak, empty, and dangerous, all compelling reasons for adventurers to go there and walk a little on the risky side. And the bolder you are, the riskier you can get. The important rules here are not man-made, they are natural, and the most important of all is this; respect the desert, for you are nothing. Get lost here and the desert will crush you like a beetle, dry you to a husk and blow you away with the wind, and no-one will know.
Namibia is a visual feast. Every visitor gazes stunned at each landscape as it unfolds, and takes gigabytes of photographs to capture the astonishing beauty and harshness. Taking photographs and capturing the essence of the place are two very different skills, and rarely does even a professional photographer truly get the feeling. Sometimes artists do better; they can focus on and enhance the critical elements while leaving out the less important. Few artists have ever been as skilled at this as Keith Alexander, who died in 1998. For those unlucky enough to have missed his work, here are some examples.
Above all else, Namibia offers spectacular scenery. No chocolate box material here, no green meadows and fat cows, what we see in Namibia is harsh, stark and daunting. And here is the paradox - we see it all around us, but to capture it? A difficult business. Perhaps best left to a skilled artist. That play of light and shadow, of height and distance, which makes up the grandeur of the Namib scene is perhaps too broad for a camera ever to record.
Anyone driving out of Swakop on the main Windhoek road will shortly come across the 'Martin Luther', an ancient black steam traction engine, now protected by a glass box. In 1896 the Germans had to land their goods and passengers at Swakopmund, a dangerous landing and no port at all, before hauling them overland on the long and hot journey to Windhoek. Oxen couldn't cope with the stretch across the Namib, and horses had to carry so much water and fodder for themselves that there was little capacity left for cargo. The answer seemed to be a steam traction engine, but the harsh Namib claimed that too. Perhaps the lack of firewood and water ended that experiment as well. The engine was not named until after its demise, when a local humourist remembered Martin Luther's dying words; "Here I stand, may God help me. I cannot otherwise". Keith Alexander used this story when he painted 'Dead End', a rail locomotive stuck in the desert, going nowhere, standing in a mirage with the rails rusted away.
All fans of the Namib will have heard of Kolmanskop, the biggest ghost town of the Skeleton Coast. Situated a few kilometres out of Luderitz, this was the site of the original diamond rush. The museum has early photos showing businessmen in suits and Homburg hats crawling over the sand on their hands and knees, picking up diamonds! And why not, many collected jam-jars full of diamonds and retired to live the good life. The locals called these days M채rchen, meaning fairy-tales, and so they were. Great wealth could be collected in an afternoon. Very rapidly companies were formed and plants established to recover the diamonds. Today the sand blasts through these abandoned buildings, slowly eroding them and reclaiming the area for nature. The Accountant's House in Kolmanskop is exactly as shown in this painting. Morning visitors to the ghost town may see the spoor of strandwolf on the clean-blown sand amongst the buildings.
Kolmanskop is not the only ghost town in the Namib, and many and lonely are the abandoned buildings erected in the desert in the name of development. Fortunes were easily made, and as easily lost. And for those who think this is a feature of the last century, think again. Living on the edge is a delicate business. One year of drought too many and the dreams can crumble to dust. One of the most evocative places in Namibia is Twyfelfontein. Hesitation Springs. The original settler was right to hesitate, for this is very marginal land and in the end he could not farm it, the desert was too strong, and he had to abandon his farm. Today it is popular with tourists, but they pass by in a day. Pity the poor man who thought he could farm the edge of the desert.
Very close to Kolmanskop passes the road to Luderitz and the railway line. Built by the Germans, the railway has been long abandoned due to the unceasing attacks by the Namib desert. Sand dunes known as barchans, crescent shaped dunes, move steadily over everything in their path, millions of tons of sand blown by the wind, grain by grain, unstoppable. The Namibian government employs two bulldozers full time to keep the road clear of sand, and barely succeeds. When a sandstorm rises in this area Luderitz can be cut off for days, perhaps a week. Foolish or impatient travellers who attempt the passage during a sand storm tell of their vehicles bodies being burnished to bright steel, of headlights and windscreens sandblasted opaque and beyond redemption. Do not toy with the Namib, it cares nothing for the weak.
A new railway line is being built and completion is hoped for 2010. Time will tell if it succeeds. For me, my money is on the Namib desert sands.
Much further down the Skeleton Coast, and accessible to very few, lies the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen. Adventurers who take the 4x4 trail from Luderitz to Walvis Bay drive past it, but no-one else gets there. The ship ran aground in 1909 and since then the relentless sand has blown past her and through her, until now she is a hollow shell filled with sand, and the coast has grown past her until she is now about a kilometre from the water. As a symbol of the harshness of the Skeleton Coast there is nothing finer. Keith Alexander lived long after the ship was alive, so he used his imagination to picture her as she might have been. The wreck is deep in the forbidden diamond area, the Sperrgebiet. Sadly, for all his involvement with the ship Keith Alexander never saw her, even from the air.
Off the coast of Luderitz lie the guano islands. For millions of years seabirds nested there, and still do. Over the millennia bird droppings grew metres thick on the rocks, until in the late 1800's Europeans discovered they were a rich source of phosphate, used in fertilizer and explosives. Extraction was free, just dump some poor labourers on the island and return a few months later to load up the sacks they had filled. There can be few places in the world so bleak as a guano island off the Skeleton Coast. Lawrence Greene wrote evocatively of these desolate islands in his book 'At Daybreak for the Isles' written in 1950. They were desperate places to scratch out a wage, abandoned with few provisions and little water. Workers were reduced to eating seagull eggs and penguins. Modern visitors to Luderitz can take a boat ride out to see the nearby islands, which have been stripped of guano. Keith Alexander was stunned by this hostile environment, and painted some striking paintings of these voluntary Alcatraz prisons.
Keith Alexander delighted in using his imagination on real scenes. What would it look like when the desert was done with it? In Luderitz stands the Felsenkirche, a healthy building atop a rocky crag overlooking the little town. The name of the church translates to 'The Church on the Rocks'. Its pride and joy is the stained glass window, a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm in 1912. Keith Alexander gave the church the Kolmanskop treatment, and created a vision of great majesty.
The iconic animal of Namibia of course is the gemsbok. As the senior resident of the desert it has no equal, comfortable in heat that would kill any of us, at home in the harshest conditions. We puny humans can only look on and wonder. Sure, we can shoot it, but can we match its survival ability in the desert? No chance. And it is a majestic, neat, tidy and elegant animal. The gemsbok hugely impressed Keith Alexander, and he painted it many times in different settings. Always there was the sense that the gemsbok belonged, where the works of man did not.
Keith Alexander was enchanted by the heavy German architecture that abounds in Namibia, especially in Swakopmund and Luderitz. With steeply pitched roofs to cast off the snow, these solid buildings often look incongruous in their desert setting. The Germans came intending to stay, and they constructed their buildings for permanence. Many still stand, although the imperial dream that built them is long gone. In Swakopmund the observant visitor can still see Atlas shouldering the world on top of Hohenzollern House, built in 1906
Few can get there these days because the road is officially restricted to permit holders, but south of Walvis Bay the main road inland offers a turn-off to Gobabeb, home to the Namib Desert Research Station. Those National Geographic features on sand-dune beetles and geckoes and little side-winders? They come from here. There is no obvious reason for the restriction, as the desert here looks no different to anywhere else, except for one large and curious feature. Gobabeb sits beside the dry Kuiseb riverbed. To the south tower the massive moving sand dunes of the sandy Namib, ever-swirling and shifting with the hot winds. The dunes stop at the dry river bed, all of them. North of the river bed, stony desert floor, barely a grain of sand in sight. No sand dune crosses the river, and yet there is no barrier. What causes this total separation is a mystery. Keith Alexander illustrated this fascinating phenomenon with his painting 'The Frontier'. Do not take the painting as accurate however, there are no trees and no water at Gobabeb, but the concept is valid.
It is curious that for all the visual feast that Namibia offers to photographers, it takes an artist to capture and distill the essence of the land. That shouldn't stop us adventurers from trying, but it sure does raise the bar.
Keith Alexander died young in 1998, and the world was robbed of a great talent. We can regret what never came to be, but we must celebrate and remember what he left us. As an illustrator of the Namib he is without peer. Every tyro explorer with a 4x4, a GPS and a Lonely Planet guide needs to acknowledge that a great man went before us, and did indeed capture the essence of what we all seek from the Namib. The silence, the solitude, the desolation. The English have a poem that goes 'You are closer to God in a garden, than anywhere else on Earth". Whoever wrote that sentimental ditty obviously never lay on stony ground under the cold Namib night sky, gazing at the glittering stars. God seems very close then, even to atheists.
Author: Chris Taylor