This evening, sitting outside our rented cabin on a farm in the Erongo Mountains of Namibia, south-west Africa, I see two swallows touring the sky and wonder, fancifully, if I might be seeing them soon again in west Cork.
Irish swallows spend the winter in Botswana, next door to Namibia, and would, about now, be beginning their long trek to the site of their nativity in some Irish barn. Our flight home, which we begin tomorrow, will take 28 hours to Dublin, including stopovers in Botswana and Ethiopia, and six more to our front door.
Theirs will take up to two months, depending on how long they will have to spend at refuelling stops as they go. Born in Ireland, they have made this trek before, and know the distances. This is the thing about Africa — the vast distances.
In Namibia, the roads across the deserts are interminable. We’ve covered similar distances in India, but they were populated, and there was diversity — the villages, the rice fields, women washing clothes in the jheels, the boys playing cricket with sticks and a rag ball.
In Namibia, it is road, and more road, driving on the left of the white line running down the middle on the tarred B roads, all but rubbing shoulders with road-train trucks passing only feet away every 10 or 15 minutes, rocking us in their slipstream, or C grade gravel roads, with potholes and corrugations sending our 4x4 jumping, bucking and banging at a bad patch every few kilometres. Namibia has the highest road fatality rate per capita in the world.
Endless plains and 150km separating towns with no visible habitation between. However, every 20km or 30km or so, stone-built gate pillars and locked gates with a German or Afrikaan name above lead down gravel roads to homesteads perhaps 30km deep in the bush. What isolated lives these farmers lead!
To get to the nearest town they face an hour of gravel-road-hell, and the maybe 70km of narrow ‘highway’. Tough folk.
Some 6% of Namibians are white, second or third generation Germans or Afrikaaners or mixed race. ‘Bastars’, they are called; we met them at the town of Rehoboth, their traditional ’hub’, and a turn of events brought us into close contact with one extended family. They were excellent and caring people; I’ll tell the dramatic story when I have more space.
To see just a fraction of the extraordinary sights of this vast country, one would need a month at least, or the money to take private plane trips (but then would miss the long and lonely roads, the sense of distance, the essence of Namibia.) The population is 2.5 million: the land area is ten times the size of all Ireland.
We clocked up 2,954 km, 1,800 miles, over 14 days, sharing the driving, hanging about or exploring on foot eight days, at the wheel the other six. We drove through dunes as big as cathedrals, and on salt pans where white pyramids glistened under skies of perfect blue.
Sunlight sweeping across the dunes made them even more golden, sharp edges falling away to pits of dark shadow. It seemed amazing that the bare, burning sands could sustain life, sidewinder-type snakes and weird insects that buried themselves during the day. I didn’t see them. I know this only from an Attenborough TV programme.
At the salt pans and on the shores of Walvis Bay, we sat and watched a thousand or more lesser flamingos feed in groups, some only 50m away from us until buses — Sunshine Tours — arrived and disgorged 30 or 40 excited passengers who, brandishing long-lens cameras and flat-faced iPads ran en masse straight at the birds sending them into a royal flamingo flap racing away towards the sea. However, that bus, and others that followed, stayed no more that 10 minutes and the birds returned to continue feeding.
The huge skies above the empty roads stretching to infinity were the most spectacular I have seen, especially in the late afternoon, when clouds gathered in towers of white, gigantic pieces of meteorological art with flat bases as if standing on an invisible floor above the far-off mountains whose peaks would soon be reddened by the burnt-out sun.
Maybe you’d see the same in Montana, Big Sky Country. They were truly awe-inspiring, these skies, as were the plains beneath them across which we crawled at our relentless 120kph, insignificant movement in this vastness, 160km to go to the next rest camp, and the African nights gently gathering around us across the Namib sands.