A bicycle ride through Namibia’s sheltering desert



Planning a cycle ride in Namibia, I came across the story of two German pacifists who hid in the desert for more than two years during World War II to avoid being interned in South African-controlled South West Africa.

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One of them, Henno Martin, wrote an account of their adventure, first published in German as Wenn es Krieg, Gehen Wir in die Wüste and in English as The Sheltering Desert.

Intrepid: Henno Martin and Hermann Korn left fascist Germany for then South West Africa in 1935, but had to flee internment. (Supplied) 

I managed to get a copy and was enthralled, not only because this is a classic tale of survival, but by the beauty of Martin’s prose and his capturing of the rich diversity of life the desert somehow supports.

This seemed to me an excellent example of immersion writing, generally traced back to writers such as David Henry Thoreau, who in Walden (1854) wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.”

An example of an immersion writer from South Africa is Henry Nxumalo who, for instance, got himself employed as a labourer on a Bethal potato farm to expose the beatings and sometimes deaths of these workers. Another of his classics was under the headline Mr Drum goes to gaol, which he wrote after he got himself arrested and was sent to Johannesburg Central Prison. He described the conditions and what he saw and experienced.

READ MORE: Ghosts of SA prison tell what apartheid really meant

There is also Sol Plaatje, who took a bicycle trip from Kimberley to document first-hand the inhumanity of the Natives Land Act of 1913, while his Mafeking Diary, a record of life under siege with incoming ordnance during the South African (Boer) War, is chilling but not without humour too.

Thoreau lived near supplies but in the desert Martin and Hermann Korn, who were escaping the South African authorities, had few weapons with them and a limited supply of bullets. They had, essentially, to revert to the ways of hunter-gatherers to survive one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable.

Martin included a hand-drawn map of their key hideouts in his book. Where were these? Could they be visited to get a first-hand sense of the places so evocatively described in the book?

Otto also survived in the desert, including being gored by a bull when he assisted in Martin and Korn’s hunt for meat. (Supplied)

A Tracks4Africa map of Namibia put together by 4×4 enthusiasts, showed where Martin, Korn and their dog Otto, a prominent character in the story, had holed out. This is the Kuiseb River Canyon, more or less on the route a friend, Lynn Morris and I planned to cycle, in a big loop on back roads from Windhoek and taking in Walvis Bay, Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast.

The writer and his companion, Lynn Morris, sought shelter from the midday sun during their ride in Namibia. (Supplied) 

Martin begins his story with their incarceration after two and a half years of hiding in the desert. “We had tried to escape from a world convulsed by war, and up to a point we had succeeded. We made ourselves independent of human society, disappearing into the desert, living the life of primitive hunters, governed only by the harsh laws of the wilderness and our own limitations.”

Korn and Martin, who had left Germany in 1935 to escape fascism, packed their vehicles, left false information about where they were going and headed north, even though their true destination was southwest to the Kuiseb, where they reckoned they had the best chance of finding water. They could have used the pad (“as they call any sort of passable track”) to drive directly to the Kuiseb, but this passed isolated farms and people might report their presence to the authorities.

Henno Martin and Hermann Korn found shelter from World War II in the desert. They used overhangs and built rough structures near the Kuiseb canyon. (Namibian Geological society)

This pad is today a decent dirt road with two passes, the Kupferberg and the Us-Hoogte. There are still not many farms and water sources such as dams are infrequent at best. One even had razor wire around its top.

As we made our way up the Kufterberg, a Dutch cyclist on his way back from the Fish River Canyon stopped to compare notes. He said he carried up to seven litres of water, and found that when he had asked locals for water, they had offered no more than a glassful. I came to understand over the next days that this is not a sign of meanness, but rather how little spare water they have.

We were kitted out with a tent and camping equipment. At day’s end while we were looking for a place to camp, a farmer pulled up and offered the river bed on his farm. This turned out to be the Kuiseb, one of Namibia’s ephemeral rivers. Wouter and Susannah Taljaard work in Windhoek during the week and visit their farm, Eisgaubib on the weekends. Few farmers here are full-time, the boreholes are deep and what meagre rainfall there is at best unpredictable.

READ: In the saddle as a runner-hunter

Not far downstream from where we were, though, Martin, Korn and Otto were able to sustain life, including from carp found in a small pool in an otherwise dry canyon.

They followed the tracks of an animal that has lived here from time immemorial, the zebra. “In a small pool in which water was very low we saw a dead fish floating. Closer examination showed it to be a carp — right in the desert! We waded into a knee deep pool and felt around in the mud. Suddenly Hermann gave a shout: ‘Here’s one!’ He managed to grab and hold the carp.”

They cooked the fish on a flat stone (something we were to do later on our trip, but beef, not carp), using twigs of the tamarisk bush, which sweats out salt for flavouring. They speculated the carp had been swept down through broken dams from upland farms during the rainy season of 1934. But the dried-out Kuiseb bed showed that it had not flowed for a year, and that was disturbing. “Still — fish in the desert; it was a wonderful discovery!” Martin wrote.

I discussed this story with Wouter Taljaard, whose day job is as a banker. He told me carp are still to be found in pools in the river — hard to believe because the Kuiseb was so dry where we crossed it and it did not seem credible there could be pools, never mind carp.

The fugitives found an overhanging cliff “hollowed out into a half circle round a patch of flat ground. Such places had been favoured as homes by men of the Stone Age.” They named their new home Carp Cliff and hid their lorry in another gorge. They disconnected the battery and, using a wind generator to charge it, were able to get news of the war on their radio.

“A long-established zebra track led down into the canyon. The nearest farm was over 50 kilometres away and there was only one difficult and very inaccessible entrance to our gramadoela hideaway. We could hardly find a better place.”

This farm, called Niedersachsen and owned by Herr Werner Siedentopf, was along the dirt road from where we were. The terrain until then had been harsh scrub, but now became more desert-like. Three gemsbok, their sloping horns towering above their heads, were caught between us and a fence, and ran ahead of us for some distance. Then one lowered its horns level with the ground and, in one action, lifted the fence and was through. Two others, a mother and calf, found a dry river bed where the fence was off the ground and ran from us.

Sitting in the kitchen with the Taljaards the night before, we heard that fences were no match for the wildlife. The oryx lifted the fences, kudu jump over them while zebras run straight at them as though they are not there. But in one case, as we cycled in temperatures in the high thirties, a zebra carcass spoke of a fence that had stopped the beast.

The Niedersachsen guest farm website says it offers accommodation and tours to Second House, Martin and Korn’s hideaway after Carp Cliff. But when we arrived, the recent graduate who had grown up in the area and was now managing the farm told us that it had not operated for a few years. He was restoring buildings and had only one unit for guests but a friend was using it. We could camp but there was no water to shower and a visit to the site, a two-hour drive in a 4×4, would be possible but only in a few day’s time. He also did not want us to cycle to the site even though we were fully equipped to do so. This was most unhelpful and disappointing, of course.

The original farmhouse, a humble rectangular rock structure, was visited by Martin and Korn after Otto was seriously wounded by a gemsbok.

They took it in turns to carry the wounded dog in a rucksack, tramping all through the night, “the whole time Otto sat as still as a mouse, now and again licking my ear or the back of my neck as a sick child might stroke its mother’s hand”, Martin wrote.

Siedentopf gave Otto a sulphate tablet and treated the wound with gun oil. The fugitives enjoying plates of food, eggs, grapes and wine over the next four days while the dog made a quick recovery.

We filled up our water bottles from fresh water brought in from a neighbouring farm, Niedersachsen not having its own drinkable water, and rode on down the road fortuitously meeting Colin Britz, a geologist, professional hunter and sometimes resident, who knew the story of Martin and Korn and took us to inspect one of their shelters.

We turned off the pad and took a track through parched but dramatic terrain with gnarly alien-like trees, and then bumped up a dry, rocky river bed.

The river bed widened a little and there, against a rocky outcrop with a tree on top, was a wall they had built of flat rocks to create a windbreak and support the roof. On top of the outcrop was a smaller structure, perhaps to use as a lookout.

Britz told us that when he had first seen the shelter 30 years ago it was in better condition and more or less as Martin and Korn left it. Now some of the rock wall has fallen, as have the branches that supported the roof. But, given that it was last occupied nearly 80 years ago, the structure is in surprisingly good shape.

Britz took us to a shelter the pair had used in the vicinity of their third shelter, Baboon’s Hole, where they lived for 11 months, longer than the first two “homes”. But they may have had more than one hideout in this area, and Britz thought the walled structure was in temporary use by the fugitives rather than permanent.

Britz told me there are feral cattle in the area. Early in their desert sojourn, the fugitives, hungry and on strict rations, saw an unusual black spot in the still, shadowless grey early-morning light. “My heart gave a bound: there in the river bed below stood a great steer. It was

undoubtedly the bull whose spoor had so astonished us on the very first day.”

Now began a protracted and gross attempt to kill the creature. “The bull raised its massive head, looked at me balefully and then charged. I released Otto, raised my shotgun and let the bull have a charge straight in the face at twenty paces.” Martin dodged the beast — just — clamouring up the side of the canyon and pulling himself up the ledge.

“The bull stood below and glowered up at me. Otto was hanging onto its tail. Hermann ran up, stood with straddled legs, took aim and shot the bull behind the ear. He collapsed as through struck by lightning.”

But was the creature dead? Martin threw a rock at his head, the beast sprang back to its feet and tried to crush Otto, who now had it by the nose. Korn went close and shot the bull in the forehead. It jerked its head and tossed Otto off like a ball.

Korn then shot it behind the ear. It lay motionless for a while but then got up again, defiantly. The pair went back to their camp to get sleeping bags, rope, a frying pan, containers, salt, flour, an axe, to be able to finish it off, butcher and preserve the meat. They reckoned they would have to sleep nearby to protect their trophy from hyenas. But it was still not dead and shots from close range did not kill it.

“By this time Hermann and I were quite shaken. It was a shocking business and our inability to end it made us feel ashamed.”

Martin lassoed the bull around a tree and Korn shot it behind an ear. “The great head fell again and whilst the bull was unconscious I sprang forward and slit his throat with the sharp kitchen knife we had brought with us. We sighed in relief —at last we had finished the wretched butchery.”

But such depravity is not typical of their tale. While they had to learn the ways and techniques of hunter-gatherers, their weaponry being of relatively limited effect, they also came to understand the broad ecology of the desert and how it supports vast herds of game.

“The magic of the desert is hard to define,” Martin wrote. “Why does the sight of a landscape of empty sand, rocks, slab and rubble stir the spirits more than a view of lush and green fields and woods? Why does the lifeless play of light, colour, and distance have such an invigorating, fascinating and elating effect?

He describes tramping monotonously through a lifeless landscape, towards midday coming in sight of a stretch of small ugly dunes and before long there was fresh grass at their feet. “Then came one of the fascinating sights we had always expected from those blue horizons. Suddenly we stood on the lip of a wide pit and looked down on the vlei, several hundreds of metres long, its broad surface rippling in the breeze. And all around herds of grazing zebra as far as the eye could see. We sat down trying to count the animals in one sector of the great hollow, there must have been about 3 000 in all!”

To survive they had to understand the animals and plants that flourished in this harsh environment. “And we looked at the wilderness and the world with new eyes. New questions were written in the skies, and the spirit of the intellectual adventure filled the barren mountains and the gloomy gorges … We were able to identify ourselves with the animals and the plants that snatched beauty and joy from the barren desert. We were no longer alone.”

The area is dusty and, while not completely barren, would appear to support hardly any life. But Britz put me right on this. Many animals occur here, including giraffe, rhino, cheetah, zebra, gemsbok. Herds can be several thousand strong; the nature conservation authorities, for instance, recently issued a permit for 1 000 surplus zebra to be taken off the adjoining Namib-Naukluft Park.

Rain is limited and unpredictable and in some years there is none, but the animals have learned to move where it has fallen. Britz reckons there are as many animals in the area now as there were when Martin and Korn hid here. The trick is not to have fences or to not maintain them. The odd landowner does continue to fence off their property at the risk of, should it not rain, disastrous consequences for the trapped animals.

We cycled just short of 700km over nine days, getting something of an appreciation of how hostile the desert can be. One headwind was just too hard to ride into, so we took a lift on a lorry and holed up under a small tarp while we waited for the wind to ease and then change direction. One day we left at 5am to beat the heat and on another we took refuge in the shade of a dense tree for three hours around midday.

But if this sounds like hardship, there was also plenty of eating and drinking in Namibia’s desert towns, which cater more than well for the tourist.

In time the protein-rich diet of the pacifists led Korn to become severely malnourished. Martin drove him to Windhoek and dropped him off so he could check into a hospital. Korn was persuaded to give up Martin’s location lest his isolation became his undoing. They spent a couple of days in prison and were found guilty of minor offences such as hunting without a permit and not having a dog licence.

Neither was interned and after the war they were usefully employed to advise on where to drill bore holes, their desert experience serving them well for this job. Korn died in 1946 in a bizarre accident near Windhoek while driving a car on a railway line. The track went over a culvert, the car plunged into it and he was killed.

Martin took up positions as a geology professor in Namibia, South Africa and then Germany and died in 1998 aged 87.

Otto, perhaps hankering after the desert life, “lived on for a few years after our return to civilisation, but as he got older he became increasingly deaf — particularly when he didn’t want to hear. One day he disappeared altogether and I never found out what happened to him.”

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Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.

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