Autumn in the Karoo is a time of yellow poplar leaves and blue skies. Farmsteads are defined by the small poplar and willow plantations and these are separated by vast areas of grey Karoo veld. Streams fed by the summer rains are still flowing, but it is getting drier and colder, with frosty mornings preceding bright sunny days.
As a young unmarried geologist, I spent time in Namibia, searching for diamonds in the coastal alluvial deposits between the mouth of the Orange River and Walvis Bay. This is probably one of the most spectacular desert environments around and is a highly inhospitable region in which to work. The south winds which characterise the area for most of the year have created magnificent dune fields which are object of many explorers and photographers. Getting through them, however, is another matter entirely, and if modern day travelers find them hard to negotiate, imagine what it was like 54 years ago!
This was the task that faced me in 1966 when I was asked to set up a field camp at Meob Bay, some 230 kilometres north of the small town of Luderitz as the crow flies. I had been working at another isolated spot, Saddle Hill, and was already in awe of the dunes which we had to traverse in our Land Rovers (with their narrow tyres) to get in supplies. Fortunately, we also had the use of a De Havilland Beaver aircraft – a real workhorse, if ever there was one, able to land on a sixpence and a very capable load carrier.
It was agreed that we would ease our task by taking a Caterpillar bulldozer towing two trailers of equipment. We needed this to set up our operations and the bulldozer would help us through the dunes, but first we had to pick a route. We used the Beaver to do an aerial reconnaissance and chose what seemed to be the best “road”. We would also take two Mercedes Unimog trucks, perhaps the most versatile offroad vehicles of the day.
Our crew comprised the American director of our Joint Venture, a fitter, a field officer, a ‘dozer driver, six labourers and myself. As we left Luderitz, initially along the road to Aus, before turning off to the north and the Koichab Pan, we had little idea of what awaited us and imagined that we would be in Meob within a day or so.
The reason for traversing inland to Koichab was to place ourselves south east of our destination, so that we could use the ‘dune streets’ to reach Sylvia Hill rather that having to cross the dune ridges all the time. As we reached the Koichab Pan, our first hiccup occurred. The bulldozer packed up! Ziggy, our fitter drove back to Luderitz and was able to get the parts needed and repair the problem, but we lost a couple of days in the process. Our American director decided that it was not going to be joyride and went back to Windhoek! At least we had one less person to feed!
We struggled on to the Uri-Auchab mountains, a wind scoured area devoid of dunes. It was wonderful to have something other than soft sand underfoot and we could get out of second gear! Our joy was short-lived, however, because the bulldozer once again gave in ( I should point out that it was a very old ‘dozer that the mine at Oranjemund had given us) and this time it looked terminal. It transpired that we could not repair it and, after much debate, we decided to abandon it and proceed with just the two Unimogs.
As a farewell party, we drained all of its fuel, poured it over the sad ruin and set it alight! The bonfire was spectacular, but obviously, there were only a few of us to witness the scene! We decided to ferry the contents of the trailers across the dunes to Sylvia Hill, using the aforementioned dune streets. This meant setting up camps long the way and making multiple to and fro trips with the trucks. It was hard work, but worse lay ahead!
Our reconnaissance had indicated that once we reached Sylvia Hill, it would just be a matter of getting down onto the beach at low tide for the final run into Meob. This entailed dragging and rolling everything down the 90 metre drop to the beach, something that had to be well timed so as to make use of the low tide, when there is a beach. At high tide the sea crashes against the dune base and this makes it impossible to drive there. Also, once the vehicles were down the dune, there was no going back!
We got everything down, working at huge pace, and created a stockpile against the base of the dune. Then, with all our essentials on board, we drove north on the hard packed beach sand anticipating our arrival at Meob within a couple of hours!
Unknown problems lay ahead. When we had surveyed the area there was a smooth beach all the way from Sylvia Hill north, but when we arrived at Black Rock, heavy seas had moved the sand and there was a jumble of boulders in our way! We knew the tide was coming in so we managed to get the vehicles up onto the rocks, but forward progress was impossible. We had to shovel sand down off the dune to try to create a roadway of sorts and this was a time consuming job as we only had low tide at which to work; then the tide would come in and wash away all our previous work!. On one occasion the sea was so rough that we had to climb the dune and watch our vehicles disappear under the foam that built up on the coast! We progressed at a rate of around 100 metres per day!
Eventually we made it away from this really difficult stretch of coast, but not before we had run out of food and water. Luckily we had radio contact with Luderitz and managed to get the Beaver to do some food drops for us – no beer unfortunately – but enough to survive on. We also caught fish which are really plentiful along this coast.
Our arrival at the old Meob Camp was a welcome relief. It had been exactly 31 days since our departure from Luderitz! We were exhausted! Of course the supplies that we had left at the beach at Sylvia Hill would have to be retrieved, but that would have to wait, remembering, of course, that much would have been lost to the sea!
In the end I spent eight months at Meob. It was about as remote a destination as one could choose. No other living humans for miles around and only a salt pan on which to land the Beaver, but it was a wonderful experience and we had more fun there than we could ever have anticipated. We built up the camp by scavenging old huts found along the coast and made ourselves pretty comfortable. Our camp was regularly visited by Brown Hyenas, Jackals and Gemsbok. The fishing was fantastic, and we had many planes visiting with people pretending to have engine trouble, so that they could do some fishing.
When I left in May 1967, it was to get married, so I did not return, however, Renee and I did get back there some 20 years later on a fishing trip. It was a very nostalgic journey for me, but so easy compared with the first visit!