In the Land of No Water

By Brian Clewly Johnson
The oryx doesn't have much to fear in the way of predators in Namibia. Brian Clewly Johnson

In the desert, taking showers is a luxury. Especially when you’ve left a famous tourist destination that’s experiencing a three-year drought. That would be Cape Town, where if you shower twice a week for two minutes at a time, you’re being a model citizen.

So we flew to Namibia to be blessed by “liquid gold” for a full five minutes. Outside our tent, a 104-degree sun burned. Inside, a fan gave weak relief. But hey, we go to the desert to chill, not to be chilled.

It takes almost two hours to fly from the dry Cape to Windhoek (“wind corner”), a town that in 1884 became the heart of a protectorate called German South West Africa. I felt the German influence not long before in a seaport called Swakopmund: The town’s Bavarian architecture looks like a film set stranded in the sand; the buildings don’t belong. Try telling that to the legions of tourists who land from Frankfurt via Lufthansa to sample bratwurst and sauerkraut in the local Brauhaus. These boisterous souls are at least 8,000 kilometers south of the German winter — it’s Lebensraum rediscovered — what’s not to like?

So, how far would you go for a good shower and virtually limitless water? Surprisingly, the Damaraland region of Namibia offers that. The entire country has a population of two million, as opposed to Cape Town’s four million. But fewer people doesn’t mean there’s more water to go around.

Namibia has always been a semidesert, and its liquid gold is under the ground, just as a lot of it is in Cape Town. The Namibians, however, have made a better job of accessing it.

Throughout the 1990s, Windhoek built three reservoirs and a plant that allowed wastewater to be reused. The mayor drank the first glass on TV. The city fathers educated communities about how to save water — and enforced codes strictly. New factories for water-intensive industries, like making Coca-Cola, were disallowed. Other widespread controls were enacted through a drought management plan. The result? I didn’t use water carelessly (four weeks in Cape Town will cure you of that), but I certainly didn’t feel that I was in the middle of a crisis.

Namibia’s landscape has often been described as lunar. But compared to pictures of the moon that I’ve seen, it’s not that bleak. Sure, it’s monochromatic — a brown jumble of rocks and sand dunes — yet its scenery has great contrasts, with mountains, deserts, giant sand dunes. All of these landscapes possess a rough, if not beauty, then demolished grandeur. If Namibia were a person, as the admen like to say, I submit it would be an older, craggy male. You can see Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, or Clint Eastwood riding through it.

There are no big predators here. The oryx doesn’t have much to fear, as lions are rare, though not unknown. Springbok leap with their characteristic joy. Rhinos, giraffes, and zebras cluster in certain areas. All of this adds to the peaceable air.

Now I ask you to take in a Big Fact: You were sourced here, in the land of the Khoisan. Many anthropologists believe that the Namib Desert was the birthplace of modern Homo sapiens. A hundred and fifty thousand years ago, a group of indigenous people broke away from the original tribes already living here and headed north. As they spread out, these nomadic hunting and gathering communities became the ancestors of everyone who didn’t continue to live in Africa. They seeded the Northern Hemisphere and, over many millenniums, the rest of the world.

The ones who remained in Africa, in the vast region now known as Namibia, are the ancestors of the modern Khoisan. And for the last 150 millenniums, the Khoisan have been the largest population of biologically modern humans. Yes, that fact is almost indigestible.

As your Land Rover judders across the landscape, you’re aware that you’re driving through prehistory, crossing a dead planet. In a way, you are, because the Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world; it has looked like it does today for at least 55 million years. Lost civilizations seem baked into the ground. Red sand dunes rise like backdrops to a “Mad Max” movie. Roads are what’s left behind after the bigger rocks have been removed. You swivel through them, rolling and jerking in a manner that the locals term “the African massage.”

We found the elephants after a 90-minute drive through a windstorm. Abner, our big, capable guide, knew that these special creatures were found only in Namibia, Kaokoland, and Mali. And that they roamed a particular riverbed, some hundred kilometers from our camp. After 20 minutes of shaking around in flurries of dust — eyes smarting and patience ebbing — Abner whispered, “There!” He’d spotted, blending into the foliage, a father, mother, and son — a nuclear family of pachyderms.

As the late Lawrence Anthony pointed out in his marvelous book “The Elephant Whisperer,” elephants are neither bullies nor cowards; they are simply “majestic.” These royal highnesses certainly were.

We watched the bull pull out a branch of the ubiquitous Acacia robusta. He adjusted it adroitly with his trunk, so that the leaves went first into his mouth. Then followed a meter length of branch to be mashed by the huge teeth deep within. Dad paid us no mind, even when his young son wandered toward our vehicle. The little one, about two meters high, slid his trunk into the Land Rover. We’d been warned not to touch elephants, so my partner sat rigidly as the elephant’s trunk inspected her knee and, finding nothing comestible, stepped away. He then moved to the back of the truck, placed his rear against it, and pushed in a vain effort to move us, presumably from his terrain.

We continued to watch these placid beasts for another half-hour. As we did so — and we talked about it afterward — a meditative calm infused us all. Some of their majesty was spilling over us.

An hour later, we were 100 millenniums back in time in the driest spot in Namibia. It’s an area now called Twyfelfontein. The Afrikaans word roughly means “probably a fountain.” More than 6,000 years ago, a tribe settled there because there was probably a spring. And there was, occasionally. The spring occurred often enough for the tribe to settle and establish a hunter-gatherer community.

Today, Twyfelfontein is a World Heritage Site, and about 50 descendants of that tribe stay at the site during the day. (At night, they hurry home to more modern quarters.) These indigenous people reside in a living museum. So we were not surprised when a bare-breasted woman greeted us at the village entrance and said, “Hello, I am /Eng.” (To which our German companion replied, “I am Christian,” which made me wonder if her ancestor, two centuries ago, had had a similar exchange with a missionary.)

The punctuation / denotes one of the four basic clicks of the Khoisan language. The anthropologist James Suzman writes of the / sound that “the click is made by bringing the tongue softly down from behind the front teeth while sucking in, as a mother might in scolding a child with ‘tsk, tsk.’ ”

Clicking away in her language, and then switching to flawless English, /Eng led us through the village. One of the young men conjured fire from a stick spun in a small pile of hay, as his forefathers had done. Another led us through what passed for an early form of checkers, played with small balls of mud moved rapidly from holes in the earth. We watched the entire group dance and sing, playing music that had originated at a time when, except for wild animals, Europe was a region of dark, uninhabited forests.

After a week in unique Namibia, what was my sense of the place? It’s easy to say that this is “a land that time forgot,” or even “a people that time forgot.” But millenniums ago, the Khoisan learned and adopted a way of life that served them well.

It’s recorded that in 1498, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator, attempted to trade with a group of “tawny-colored people” farther south. But they showed little interest in his goods, nor did he understand their asset-free existence. As the Khoi lived only to have enough, apparently they saw no point in being burdened, like the Europeans, by any excess. The locals embraced affluence without abundance.

Before the time of Christ, the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.”

We still seek the happiness of the Khoisan of Namibia.

Brian Clewly Johnson is the author of “A Cape Town Boy: A Memoir of Growing Up, 1940 to 1959.” He lives in Amagansett.