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Voetspore Diary: Forbidden Land

5 December 2016

The discovery of diamonds in 1908 in what is now known as Namibia caused the German authorities to proclaim some areas Sperrgebiet – forbidden to the general public. Clearly, they didn’t want the riches falling into anyone else’s hands. Now some of these areas, void of any human contact for nearly 100 years, are accessible – if you have the right permits, tools and experience.

In south-west Namibia, overland travellers have for many years been greeted with a simple no entry sign: Sperrgebiet. It is like a command, issued by a German Wehrmacht General. You will not even consider ignoring the sign. It is verboten! In the recent past, many 4×4 enthusiasts visited part of what was previously known as the Sperrgebiet in expeditions arranged by Coastway Tours, Uri Adventures and Desert Magic. But there is one section where nobody was allowed – the area north of Lüderitz up to Hottentots Bay. For 108 years, no member of the public was allowed to venture into this area. It was the Forbidden Land.

The Sperrgebiet was proclaimed in September 1908 after the discovery of diamonds in German South West Africa. The first diamonds were discovered near Kolmanskop, just outside the little harbour town of Lüderitz. But the German authorities did not know how deep inland the diamonds were to be found, and a Sperrgebiet, a Forbidden Land, was proclaimed from Oranjemund in the south, past Lüderitz in the north, and roughly 100 kilometres inland. There is Sperrgebiet No 1 and Sperrgebiet No 2. The second one, stretching north of Lüderitz, was renamed the Namib-Naukluft Park in the early 21st century. The diamonds that were flushed down the Orange River were carried north with the Benguela current. The heavy diamonds remained near Oranjemund but because the smaller diamonds were carried by the currents and deposited on the seabed and coastline, these diamonds were not associated with the desert, but with the ocean.

The German authorities, and the South African administration later on, did at first, not realise that the diamonds were only to be found in the first five to 10 kilometres from the coast. That is why they declared the whole of the Namib Desert Sperrgebiet. From a nature conservation point of view, the Sperrgebiet, both No 1 and No 2, turned out to be excellent for the preservation of the ecologically sensitive Namib Desert. Along the coast, no stone was left untouched in search of diamonds. But towards the interior, where there are no diamonds, one finds pristine wilderness area.

Once Diamond Area No 2 was handed over to the wildlife authorities, they continued to manage it with conservation of the area as the main concern. Visitor numbers are limited. Those who are allowed access are closely monitored. Everything that is taken in is taken out as well. This includes toilet waste. Those who have been privileged to be on a Faces of the Namib, Lüderitz to Walvis Bay or a journey to Saddle Hill will testify to this. But there is a Holy Grail to desert trips in the Namib: a visit to Sperrgebiet No 1.

A visit to the Forbidden Land. Volker Jahnke is a veteran of guiding in the Namib. At first he was involved in Coastway Tours. Later he created Desert Magic. Through Desert Magic, Volker managed to get access to the Diamond Area. Question is – why bother? There is so much one can experience in the rest of the Namib. What will a visit to Sperrgebiet offer that is different?  In September this year, I had the privilege to travel with Volker and eight other 4×4 vehicles through this area. Getting permission for this trip was a little more involved than with any of the others. It is a diamond area. Police clearance for all who enter is needed. At the Kolmanskop Gate we were checked in.

Our IDs were checked and we even had to undergo a breathalyser test. Then we crossed the tar road, unlocked the gate and entered the diamond area. Five kilometres later we were stopped by officials who once again thoroughly checked our IDs and made sure we met all the requirements. It was clear: this is not an area that one can visit without getting all the permissions. Then the fun began. Volker warned us beforehand – drivers with no previous knowledge or experience of dune driving would struggle. And so it was. Different to all the other Namib trips, this one was challenging from the outset. As difficult as the terrain was, equally beautiful was the landscape. Volker called this the Shipwreck Forbidden Land Route. It is a route that keeps as close to the coastline, with its numerous shipwrecks, as possible.

Many of the shipwrecks were never accessible to the public in the past, as they were in the diamond area. The FrotAmerica is a 200-metre long freighter that was grounded on the beach just south of Hottentots Bay. There is also the wreck of a ship that was used for the cultivation of oysters. Other wrecks are those of the Otavi, a steamer with a cargo of guano that ran aground in 1945. Later we also visited the wrecks of the Eduard Bohlen and Shawnee. These two wrecks are also visited by those who do the Lüderitz Walvis Bay route and the Faces of the Namib. But it is the beginning of this route, the first couple of days that makes it exceptional and special. The group I was travelling with was made up of guys from the Winelands in the Cape and a few individuals from Namibia. We also had a special guest: Calvyn Hamman, senior vice president of Toyota South Africa. This was not a Toyota expedition mind you, yet every single vehicle that pitched was a Toyota. Calvyn was indeed a very proud man.

It was my first experience with a V8 diesel Cruiser. I was driving my 76 Series. One always has concerns about driving a diesel in the desert. Veterans like Volker will tell you; petrol engines are made for the desert. When the soft sand grabs you, immediate response is needed. That is only to be found in a petrol vehicle. Machines like the FJ Cruiser – which it seems was built specifically with the Namib in mind. That is, until the arrival of the V8 diesel.

Seldom in the past have I been so impressed with a vehicle. True, the fuel economy is not something to write home about, but driving the 76 Series V8 diesel through the Forbidden Land is only a pleasure. Any trip in the Namib, the oldest desert in the world, is exceptional and a privilege. But to go where no one was allowed for more than 100 years was even more special.