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On that auspicious day on 20 July 1969, Japie’s mother went into his room in Opuwo, in north-western Namibia, and woke him up. “You will have more than enough time to sleep later on in life,’ she said as they rushed into the lounge to sit around the radio as it spluttered and crackled, eventually hearing Neil Armstrong’s legendary words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped onto the powdery surface of the moon.

This artist’s concept features NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. The mobile robot landed on Mars on 6 August 2012 and investigates Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life. (Source: NASA)

Today, many years later, as part of the NASA team behind the Mars Science Laboratory that landed on Mars on August 6th, Dr Jakob van Zyl remembers the events that influenced his life. He is now friends with Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon on that momentous day, but in 1969, he was awestruck. He hung a signed poster of the three Apollo 11 astronauts on his bedroom wall, dreaming they would one day meet. His other strong memories of his childhood came from his father, Ben van Zyl, the commissioner of the Kaokoveld from 1942-1981 after whom the daunting Van Zyl’s Pass is named. Japie often traveled with his father in the Kaokoveld as a child and he remembers lying out in the open one night looking up at the glittering sky and noticing ‘moving stars’. His father patiently explained to him what a satellite was, fueling his fascination about stars and what lies beyond the Earth.

Japie van Zyl talks to the Gondwana History Team during his vacation in Namibia in July 2012

Four people helped to steer Japie onto his path to NASA and the stars. The first was his future father-in-law, Binga Louw, who offered to pay for his studies in exchange for a vow never to tell his girlfriend about the offer.  “A man with your talents has to be given the opportunity to go places in the world and I will make that happen if you need financial support,” was his simple offer.  The second person was Twakkies du Toit, a former teacher of his from Outjo. When Japie told him that he wanted to study to be an engineer and was going to apply to Telecom for a bursary, Twakkies encouraged him to apply for a bursary from Armscor instead. This he did, going on to study electronics engineering at Stellenbosch University. His mother had put him right in the days when he thought he was going to be a doctor by saying, “Doctors do not build satellites Japie, you must become an engineer to do that.”

The next person to steer him on his path northward was his good friend and boss, Dave Harrison. After Japie’s stint in the navy as part of his military service, the friends were discussing where he could further his studies and Dave encouraged him to write to the top twenty universities. He dissuaded him from the universities in the UK saying, “They will not like your accent in England, rather go to the USA.” Japie decided on doing his Master’s in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), thinking Boston too cold. He soon realised after a slow start that he would have to make more of an effort than he had previously, which he did, continuing his good academic track record. When he was celebrating his success at the campus club, his professor, Prof Elachii, caught him on his way out enquiring if he was going to continue with a PhD. When Japie replied that he didn’t have the funds, the professor offered to pay for him, keeping Japie set on his course for the stars.

The Opuwo boy, who grew up gazing at the heavens went on to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the leading American centre for robotic exploration in the solar system. He first held various positions of increasing responsibility in the synthetic aperture radar programme and today is the associate director of Project Formulation and Strategy. He humbly says that he has ‘the nicest job on earth’, and although the Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ (dubbed by a 12 year school child) only landed on the red planet recently, he is already planning the next planetary voyage.

Young Japie van Zyl at Rockey Point Skeleton Coast

When people question Japie on these celestial journeys that cost billions of dollars while people in the world are starving, Japie replies, acknowledging that it is a valid question, that what they learn helps with solutions for the world’s challenges. One of the favourite questions he is often asked is if he believes in a higher power. To this he replies that in this field we ‘see the elegance of creation’. “This,” he says, “gives you no option but to believe.”

Japie is happy to have experienced both sides of the world, the Kaokoveld in Namibia, a country as large as California with only 2.5 million people, and the USA where he lives with his wife, Kalfie, his childhood sweetheart.

It seems that this local boy may be touching the stars but has his feet firmly placed on terra firma. His advice to others on similar quests to live out their dreams is to have an insatiable curiosity for life, something that he learnt from his father who was always looking for new roads; to surround yourself with excellence – teamwork is essential so it is important to build the best team possible; and to always stay relevant, to keep thinking ahead and moving with the times. The most important, uplifting and inspirational advice from Japie, however, is that ‘the sky is not the limit’ as we have always been told and absolutely anything is possible, even for a boy from Opuwo.

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January 1905. The steamship Professor Woermann lies in the roads off Swakopmund. Leaning against the rail young Schutztruppe soldiers, bound for Lüderitzbucht, are staring at the aspiring harbour town.

From 1905 anchorage in Swakopmund was shifted from the harbour a little to the south, where a wooden jetty had been built. In 1912 construction of an iron jetty started right next to the wooden one.

From 1905 anchorage in Swakopmund was shifted from the harbour a little to the south, where a wooden jetty had been built. In 1912 construction of an iron jetty started right next to the wooden one.

One of them is Albert Plietz: “The first glimpse of the mainland was a very desolate one. There was nothing to meet the eye but the yellow sand of dunes. At that moment probably most of us wondered what we had let ourselves into. It was really saddening to see the look on the comrades’ faces. The sun was hot as hell. Hopefully the south is better, because everybody was glad that they did not have to disembark here, in Swakopmund.” This even though Swakopmund is boasting 40 houses at the time, making it a rather sizeable place compared to conditions elsewhere in the German colony.

Swakopmund was created out of necessity because the German colony urgently needed a harbour. The bay 30 km to the south, Walvis Bay, was already in British possession when South West Africa was declared a protectorate of Imperial Germany. In 1892 the Reichskommissar (commissioner) of the German colony, Curt von François, started to search the central part of the coastline for a site suitable for a harbour.

“After the way he sounded off in August 1889 it was to be expected that the Cape’s official in Walvis Bay would do anything to prevent troops and munitions from passing through in transit. He was less interested in preventing the passage of provisions for the troops since most of the provisions were shipped from Cape Town. It was advantageous for Walvis Bay that the settlers spent their disembarkation fees etc. on British territory, had to find their first accommodation and buy their first necessities there. More than ever it therefore seemed vital to me to build landing facilities in Swakopmund in the near future.” (von François 1899, p. 157)

On 4 August 1892 the crew of the gunboat Hyäne discovered a spot where the coast could be accessed – later the pier (Mole) was built there – and marked it with two beacons. This date is celebrated as the day when Swakopmund was founded. Another reason for building a harbour in this particular spot was the availability of potable water in the Swakop River mouth nearby. Von François set up a military station slightly to the north, which consisted of accommodation facilities and a storage shed put together with corrugated iron.

The surf boat and eleven Kru sailors, requested by von Francois for the landing operations in Swakopmund, arrived in January 1893. In August that year the first steamship, the Marie Woermann, called at Swakopmund with 120 Schutztruppe soldiers and 40 settlers onboard.

The lighthouse and the district office (Bezirksamt) in 1905 overlooking the pier (Mole) and harbour cranes for unloading shipments.

The lighthouse and the district office (Bezirksamt) in 1905 overlooking the pier (Mole) and harbour cranes for unloading shipments.

The Walvis Bay trading company Mertens & Sichel opened a branch in Swakopmund in 1893. The following year 19 inhabitants were recorded for the settlement. One of them, Kurd Schwabe, who was appointed station commander of Swakopmund in the end of 1893, described life between the desert and the sea in a letter to his family back home.

“My abode consists of two parlours (if you want to call them that), a larger one and a hole where I have set up my bed. (…) Windows – none, but the wind makes up for that and whistles through a thousand gaps. Every now and then I take the time to plug the cracks with tow, assisted by Schneidewind. In the absence of floorboards the floor is the fine sand of the higher lying area, teeming with millions of sand fleas. Boxes and crates serve as furniture, some of them for sitting on, others for storage. (…) Barely 20 paces from my palace towards the sea a cave has been dug into the sandy precipice of the higher level and boxed up with boards. The roof across huge whale bones, which you find scattered everywhere in the sand, consists of corrugated iron, pieces of sailcloth and scraps of roofing paper covered with a layer of sand. This is not the dwelling of jackals, oh no, but that of a father and son by the name of Unglaube. They have set up their field smithy in front of their mansion. Both are industrious and skilful, making good money with wagon repairs and similar.”(Schwabe 1904, p. 115f)

In early 1895 the Damara & Namaqua trading company arrived on the scene, built three accommodation facilities and set up its business. Soon afterwards the first zoning map was designed for Swakopmund, a postal agency was opened and a scheduled postal cart connection to Windhoek was established. Now the little settlement started to grow; in 1897 it had 113 registered inhabitants.

In 1897 construction work started on the narrow-gauge railway line to Windhoek. Each kilometre of railway that edged forward through the Namib towards east shrunk the distance which had to be covered by ox wagon. Railway traffic from Windhoek to Swakopmund started on 19 June 1902, boosting the economy. The long waiting periods for transport opportunities inland had become a thing of the past.

Soon afterwards the pier (Mole) in Swakopmund was completed. It had taken three-and-a-half year to build. Inauguration festivities took place on 12 February 1903. Steamers finally moored in the harbour now. Together with the pier the lighthouse was put into operation. Initially 11 m tall, its intermittent light was visible 14 sea miles out at sea. The German colony was proud of its artificial harbour and the railway line into the interior. And Swakopmund’s inhabitants were very pleased that they scored a water pipe when the harbour was built.

Swakopmund’s first lighthouse around 1900. In the following ten years it was raised twice.

Swakopmund’s first lighthouse around 1900. In the following ten years it was raised twice.

After the turn of the century colonial-style houses were built of stone. Previously the street scene had been characterised by prefabricated wooden structures. In 1901 the railway station was completed; the building is part of the Hotel and Entertainment Center now. Other historic buildings include Ludwig Schröder House, built for the Woermann Shipping Line in 1903, and Woermann House with its striking tower and two gables. Completed in 1905 as headquarters of the Damara and Namaqua Trading Company this building was originally known as Damara House.

Elisabeth Brock, who arrived from Germany in December 1903 with her husband, described Swakopmund with approving words: “Early on Monday, the 28th all passengers were taken ashore with the large lighter. (…) Swakopmund looks quite impressive even from a distance, and on arrival I also found it to be a very pleasant place. There are several charming buildings – the railway station, the lighthouse and the telegraph office are particularly noteworthy. A beautiful large store is being built for the Damara Company. It looks similar to the shipping line’s premises in Hamburg (…). Of course you are still wading through sand a lot but there are already quite a few cemented sidewalks and proper steps to the higher lying streets, even some facilities and gardens.” (Brock, s. 16)

Since the pier silted up more and more, to an extent where after just two years steamers were rarely able to sail into the harbour, a newly-built wooden jetty was taken into use in 1905. It soon became clear that this structure would not be able to defy the forces of nature for very long. In 1912 construction work started on an iron jetty right next to the wooden one. The new jetty was to have a total length of 640 m, but when it was 262 m long the First World War put a sudden end to construction work. Imperial Germany lost its colony in south-western Africa. Naturally, the subsequent South African administration used the deep-sea port of Walvis Bay. Swakopmund lost its importance as a harbour town and turned into what it still is today: the most popular holiday resort in Namibia.

The Gondwana History series is a selection of memorable glimpses of Namibia’s history. Collections of the stories are also published as several small volumes in English, German and Afrikaans. Gondwana History III is available since early June at the offices of the Gondwana Collection in Klein Windhoek (42 Nelson-Mandela-Avenue), all the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops.

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Defying the elements, Felsenkirche (the Church on the Rock) has been overlooking the small harbour town of Lüderitz for exactly 100 years.

The German evangelical church in Lüderitzbucht. Source: 25 Jahre deutsche evangelische Kirche Lüderitzbucht, p. 20 (DELK/ELKIN archive, photo: J.C. Hubrich)

The church is an architectural gem, built onto the granite of Diamantberg (Diamond Hill). Whether the patrons wanted to express that the Christian church is based on the belief in Jesus Christ as firm as a rock is subject to guessing. Probably Saint Peter the Apostle also acted as godfather when Felsenkirche was given its name, because Peter is derived from the Greek word ‘petros’ which means rock or stone.

When Felsenkirche was consecrated on 4 August 1912, Lüderitz was a thriving little town of some 1,100 white inhabitants, most of them German. Diamonds had been discovered four years earlier during construction work on the narrow gauge railway line to Keetmanshoop. Since then Lüderitz had rapidly developed from a modest settlement with a few barracks into a rather prosperous town with a flourishing commercial harbour. Diamond mining increasingly turned into an industry, fortune hunters flooded into the country and Kolmanskuppe was built close to Lüderitz as a result of the diamond rush.

At the foundation assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran congregation on 10 May 1909 the 42 parishioners confirmed their membership in writing. In the months which followed there were heated discussions about the costs of building a church for themselves until the opponents finally gave in to the advocates of the construction project. The church was to become the colonial congregation’s refuge in Lüderitz. On 19 November 1911 the first stone was laid with a ceremony and a prayer service: “(…) We are building this house of worship to bear witness that we have not forgotten what our prosperity and our fortune is based on; that we are aware of our responsibility to provide a haven for the sons and daughters of the German home country where heart and soul look for tranquillity and are able to find peace in God (…).” (Rust, p. 15)

The church was designed and built by German architect Albert Bause. Shortly before laying of the first stone he was instructed to save costs by reducing the overall height of the church and keeping the interior somewhat smaller. Despite the saving efforts Felsenkirche turned out as a formidable building with seating for 140 worshippers. This church has a natural air of exaltedness about it because you always look up at it from below, no matter from which side you approach.

The architectural style is neo-gothic with Victorian elements which Albert Bause probably became familiar with while living in Cape Town before moving to German South West Africa. Total construction costs amounted to 46,000 Goldmark.

A large part of the costs was covered by donations, mostly from Germany, which Pastor Alexander Metzner gratefully acknowledged in his consecration service 100 years ago. By then, within just two years, his congregation had increased to 800 members. “Associations and private individuals have generously provided for us. […] How richly the interior of our house of God is furnished; […] each single piece of the furnishings represents experienced brotherly and sisterly love, from the precious gifts of German princes and benevolent friends of considerable means to the donations which accumulated from small amounts.” (Sörries, p. 38)

Some of these gifts can still be admired in the windswept church today: the large stained-glass window at the altar, portraying ‘Jesus calming the storm’, was donated by Emperor William II. His spouse, Empress Augusta Victoria – colloquially nicknamed Church-gusta – because of her dedication to working for the church – sent a valuable, richly ornamented altar bible with a personal inscription to the faraway colony in southern Africa.    The stained-glass triptych Luther window was donated by Prince Joachim Albrecht of Mecklenburg. At the time he was president of the German Colonial Society which in turn had donated the site for the church.

The generous donors not only provided material support with their gifts but also spiritual support for the colonialists’ difficult mission. Living conditions in the thriving harbour town wedged between the desert and the ocean were tough. Either the sun beat down relentlessly or a storm was howling, flies were a pest and so were sand fleas. In a letter which Pastor Metzner wrote in connection with construction work on the parsonage in 1910 he mentioned that conditions were “the most awkward imaginable,” especially for children. “No water, no milk and subsequently a high rate of child mortality. And given the exorbitant prices a family with many children simply would not be able to make it here (…).” (Kauffenstein, p. 79)

Even though the congregation still had to pinch and scrape, congregational life began to flourish. Soon enough it all came to a sudden end, however, when the First World War broke out in 1914 and German South West Africa was invaded by South African troops. The German colonial troops were outnumbered by far and capitulated in July 1915. Administration of the former German colony was taken over by the Union of South Africa.

The pastor and the congregation were deported, most of them lost all their belongings. Part of Felsenkirche was ransacked. On his return in 1919 the pastor pressed charges for church robbery which came to nothing, however. That year the congregational council took stock and concluded that “as a result of repatriations the congregation suffered considerable losses in membership numbers. Numerous churchgoing public servants as well as many families and bachelors left the country either by force or on their own account. Rampant influenza has inflicted more losses on the congregation.” (Kauffenstein 1983, p. 82)

From 1920 diamond mining shifted further south and Lüderitz increasingly lost its significance as a commercial centre. The town had a modest fishing industry and several boat builders’ yards. There were also a few small carpet weaving mills which used the wool of Karakul sheep, then termed the ‘black gold’ of Namibia’s south. Despite these changes Felsenkirche maintained its exalted position as the landmark of Lüderitz. It witnessed the resistance that the pastor and the church council put up against the instructions received from the National Socialists in Germany, and how the congregation helped internees during the Second World War. Felsenkirche was declared a National Monument on 21 September 1978.

These days the German Evangelical-Lutheran congregation in Lüderitz has some 50 members and is part of the congregation in Swakopmund. A church service is held once a month. The centenary will be celebrated on 19 August.

Felsenkirche is open to visitors once a day for an hour before sunset (16h30-17h30 in winter, 17h30-18h30 in summer). Late in the afternoon the atmosphere is at its best when the setting sun is flooding through the precious stained-glass windows and illuminates the church with glorious light.

The Gondwana History series is a selection of memorable glimpses of Namibia’s history. Collections of the stories are also published as several small volumes in English, German and Afrikaans. The latest one, Gondwana History III, is available since early June at the offices of the Gondwana Collection in Klein Windhoek (42 Nelson-Mandela-Avenue), all the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops.

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With over 2000 columns and more than forty books written, Doc Immelman is a prolific and successful Namibian author.

At the age of 84 years Doc Immelman is writing up his memoirs. (photo: Gondwana Collection)

His subject matter and titles are steeped in the land that he loves and Afrikaans-speakers countrywide have grown up with Doc’s books lining their school library shelves. With names like ‘Ruacana tot Rosh Pinah’, ‘Wind oor die Khomas Hochland’ and ‘Die wit hings van die Namib’, his writing is quintessentially Namibian. Boys and girls have been inspired by his books that accompanied them through high school years like good friends, capturing the mood of the time, and spurring them on their paths in later life. And Doc, at age 84, surrounded in his office by his collection of books, an old map of ‘Südwest Afrika’, elephant tusks, a buffalo skull and old hunting photographs, is still writing. Establishing major turning points in his life is not easily accomplished, as Doc, the true storyteller that he is, begins to tell story after story, so much so that eventually he realizes that if he continues, we’ll be there for supper and although a pot of ‘gemsbok sop’ (oryx soup) is simmering on the stove, there might not be enough to go around.

Peppering his account with humorous anecdotes, keeping everyone entertained with his quick wit, Doc recounts parts of his life. His story began in the Cape, where he was born as Daniel Ferdinand Immelman, only to be nicknamed Doc by colleagues later on. He attended Maitland High School and chose German as a subject, enraging his school principal for choosing the language of the enemy during wartime, and unknowingly preparing for his life in Namibia. His writing ability was realised when he was thirteen years old and a teacher encouraged him to write a poem for an Afrikaans weekly newspaper. This he did and posted it away, amazed at the end of the month to receive a letter with a post order for 7 shillings and 7 pennies. Doc didn’t realise he would be paid for the work!

After completing his schooling with a first class matric, receiving top marks in History and German, he worked as a telegraph operator in Cape Town where he specialised in Morse code. After a bout of pneumonia, he was advised by his doctor to move to drier climes and he moved to Beaufort West in the Karoo where he continued to work at the post office. A few years later, in 1950, he requested a transfer to South West Africa as a telegraph-operating clerk and radio operator in the South West African Administration, Post and Telecommunication – following his dream to travel  – and easily found a replacement, swapping positions with a colleague who couldn’t speak German and was eager to return to the Cape. In 1953, Doc moved to the Tsintsabis area for a year, hunting game for a farmer, where he learnt the language of the Hai//om people. It was his experience and knowledge gleaned there that formed the basis and material of many stories and books Doc would write in his lifetime and increased his love for the natural world.

Doc’s position at the post office in Windhoek was reserved for him and he returned the following year. It was here that he met his future wife, Rya. The couple were later married, had two daughters and like many Namibians, enjoyed numerous family holidays at Henties Bay.

Doc Immelman in younger years with his hunting rifle on a farm. (photo: collection Doc Immelman)

In 1954, Doc’s first short story ‘Ses Dooie Bees langs die Grensdraad’ (Six dead cattle next to the boundary fence) was printed in Huisgenoot magazine, beginning Doc’s career as a fiction writer. His first book, a compilation of short stories entitled ‘Verhale uit Suidwes’ (Tales from South West) was published in 1959. Although his writing career has spanned more than half a century, Doc continued to work at the post office for more than forty years until he retired in 1988. His weekly column appeared in the Republikein newspaper until 1993.

With an intense love for languages, Doc asks us, switching from language to language with lightning speed, if we can speak the various lingos and eventually gives up, disappointed that we are not conversant in the many languages he has learnt to master in his life. With a forest of pens and pencils in front of him, Doc is presently busy writing up his memoirs of a life and work that encapsulates South West.

His work was best described by Andre P Brink: “Through the years Doc Immelman built a reputation as a story teller, stories especially about South West Africa. Stories where passion and contrast are summonsed against a brute and raw contrast. Hunting stories and funny stories, mournful stories and woman stories, snake stories and scary stories, tales of love, hate, jealousy, fraud, resourcefulness, sacrifice and violence, whenever with underlying tension and mostly with a healthy and controlled sense of humour. In the domain of leisure fiction, outstanding!”

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Vingerklip – A Sculpture of the Ugab River

From close by it resembles a climbing wall for free climbers: Vingerklip is 35 metres high, about 15 metres wide and dotted with protruding stones. In 1973 the rock stack in the valley of the seasonal Ugab River, some 40 km east of Khorixas, was indeed conquered in free climbing manner by Udo Kleyenstuber, who ascended on its east side. The hooks which can still be seen were left by American mountaineer Tom Choate who is credited with the first ascent of Vingerklip in 1970.

For geologists, on the other hand, the erosional rock formation is like a book in which they can read stories that happened millions of years ago and shaped this landscape. They are captivating stories about sea levels dropping and rising, wet and dry phases of the climate, torrential rivers, chalky soil and rivulets that cause rocks to split. Even laypersons will notice that Vingerklip consists of different layers – layers of large stones alternate with layers of fine sand. They testify to the fact that at times the Ugab flowed rapidly enough to drag rocks with it, while at others it was so sluggish that sand was deposited in its bed.

Vingerklip/Outjo, issued in 1986, artist: Johan van Niekerk

Vingerklip/Outjo, issued in 1986, artist: Johan van Niekerk

Knowing this much it already becomes clear that it was the Ugab River that sculpted Vingerklip. These days a seasonal river which comes down in flood only after sufficient rainfalls, the Ugab rises in the western foothills of the Otavi Mountains, then passes south of Outjo and north of Brandberg Mountain to reach the Atlantic Ocean about 180 km north of Swakopmund.

Some 120 million years ago, as the southern supercontinent of Gondwana breaks up and South America drifts away, the southern African plate rises and so does its gradient to the sea level. Thus the erosional force of the rivers increases further. Southwest of Outjo the Ugab cuts its course deeper and deeper into the rock. Then, towards the end of the ice age 20 to 10 million years ago, the sea level rises again and a wetter climate prevails. The Ugab River fills the valley, which it created earlier, with rocks and sand. Layer is deposited upon layer, up to a height of 100 m.

The Vingerklip in the Ugab Valley, some 40 km east of Khorixas. Photo: Gondwana Collection

Two million years ago, during the ice age in the northern hemisphere, the sea level drops again and the Ugab once more cuts deep into its course which it previously filled with rocks and sediments. Parts of the wide riverbed fall dry. As the water evaporates, minerals precipitate – most of all lime because the Ugab and its tributaries drain the soil west of the Otavi Mountains and around Outjo which contains carbonate. The precipitated lime works like cement and binds rocks and sand into a conglomerate which is as hard as concrete. The deeper the river cuts into its original bed the narrower it becomes, forming several terraces over time.

The ‘cement’ in the conglomerate, i.e. the lime, is dissolved again by rain. This results in rivulets and streams which gradually cut into the terraces as if they were a cake. Erosion continues to gnaw on the edges of these pieces of cake, causing them to shrink and the gaps between them to widen as time passes. Vingerklip is the remainder of one such piece of cake, albeit not the only one: from its base another two, larger terrace islands can be seen in the Ugab Valley.

Furthermore, three different terraces can be distinguished. There is the ‘old’ main terrace, the plateau of which now rises some 160 m above the current riverbed, while the surface of a younger terrace lies about 100 m and that of the youngest one some 30 m above the Ugab.

Since this area does not experience much rain, chances are that Vingerklip will remain for years to come. It sits on a sound wide base with a circumference of 44 metres – in contrast to the Finger of God in southern Namibia, which collapsed in December 1988.

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The peculiar Tower of Tiras

The designer’s and builder’s name is Siegfried Schnebel. “This is a windmill which I designed and built myself”, he explains in an interview in his house near Brakwater north of Windhoek. “There is an unusually strong supply of water there, just 30 m below the surface. I wanted to utilize it for irrigating orchards and fodder plants.”

There is farm Neiseb which Siegfried Schnebel took over from his father, Wilhelm, in 1985. The fact that Neiseb has a lavish supply of water was already known during colonial times. “Wells for ox-wagon transports were sunk in this area in those days. The lower one of the two cisterns on my tower was part of the former drinking trough for the oxen. It is made of 5 mm steel plates.” While his father owned the farm, 60 cubic metres of water could easily be pumped per hour without any noticeable effect on the water table. It seemed obvious that this abundance of water should be put to good use. Wilhelm Schnebel had already planted 400 citrus trees, 50 sultana vines, 700 prickly pears (ideal fodder) and a little lucerne. “Date palms also thrived like weeds”, Siegfried Schnebel recalls.

Gigantic windmill on a massive tower

“The problem is that you need a powerful engine for pumping the water to the surface, and it wouldn’t have been worth it to install smaller windmills at several smaller boreholes.” The largest windmills on the market, however, weren’t sturdy enough to hold out against the high winds in the area, he says. “So I came up with a construction of my own, specially designed for the requirements of my farm.”

A large wheel was necessary for the high output of the pump. “But the larger the wheel the bigger the problems in very windy conditions”, Siegfried Schnebel explains. A standard wheel with metal blades was not an option. Too rigid, says Schnebel. “All is well as long as there is just a light wind. But in order to cope with high winds one needs to be able to adjust the angle of the blades to the direction of the wind, to reduce the pressure on the tower.” What is more, metal blades would have made the large wheel too heavy. “Therefore I used steel tubes for the wheel’s rim and axle only; the spokes are made from light wire rope and canvas is attached to the rope. This reduced the wheel’s weight to about 100 kg only, despite its diameter of 9.5 metres”, Schnebel points out with a hint of pride in his voice.

Resourceful handyman: Siegfried Schnebel

To make the sails equally suitable for strong and light wind they were arranged in two circles. In the inner circle their angle to the wind direction is 10 degrees, in the outer circle it is 45 degrees. Siegfried Schnebel explains: “Due to the higher leverage of the sails in the inner circle they push the wheel when the wind is blowing strongly, while the outer circle keeps it moving when the wind is light.” The blades of customary windmills are set at a 10 degree angle, Schnebel says, and turn out of the wind when it becomes too strong. The unusually long axle of his construction also serves a purpose: joined to the rim at the top with wire rope, it maintains stability and prevents the sail-covered wheel from turning inside out like an umbrella in heavy gusts of wind.

As for the rest of the construction, stability is the most important criterion as well. “The foundation is 10 m square and 2 m deep, made of carefully packed stones and diagonal iron struts which support the vertical steel pillars”, says Schnebel. “After all, the whole tower has a total weight of some 50 tons when both cisterns are full.” According to his estimate the total height of his windmill is a little less than 25 m: “The wheel’s axle is about 20 m above ground.”

Axle and rim are linked by a mesh of wire rope

Costs were also an important consideration when building the windmill. “Since the farm didn’t yield much I tried to get hold of construction material as cheaply as possible”, Schnebel recalls. “I got most of it from my brother’s scrapyard; Fritz ran a locksmith’s workshop in Lüderitz and later in Windhoek.” Building and constructing, by the way, was done without drawings or model calculations. “I simply experimented a bit, trial and error”, Schnebel says. But the experimenting wasn’t altogether by chance. Schnebel studied mathematics at the University of Stellenbosch and completed a Master of Science degree. He taught mathematics, physics and chemistry at the German School in Lüderitz for years.

In 1997 the work was almost complete. Only the irrigation system had to be installed. But at that point Siegfried Schnebel felt compelled to sell the farm. “It just didn’t yield enough”, he says. And so the giant windmill was never really in operation. He once got it going for the camera crew of NBC television. The documentary was aired in 2001.

Today the tower, citrus trees and prickly pears are all that remains of the plantation which was once envisaged at the foot of the Tiras Mountains on the fringe of the Namib. And a small café, closed down again since then, on the neighbouring farm on the opposite side of the road, overlooking the striking structure. Many a traveller stops and reaches for his camera. Small wonder. In the grassy plain the colossal contraption, welded together from pieces of scrap metal, looks like the futuristic work of an off-beat artist. Who knows, it might still turn into a tourist attraction one day – as the Peculiar Tower of Tiras.

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Twyfelfontein: The Fountain of Doubt

Long before the Twyfelfontein engravings became a popular tourist destination and received recognition as a world heritage site, the land was visited sporadically by Damara people watering their animals at the trickling spring (or ‘fontein’ as it’s called in Afrikaans). It was named Twyfelfontein (‘doubtful spring’) by the farmer, David Levin, who settled on the arid land in the late 1940s with the hope that the spring’s water could sustain them.

When he first enquired about the piece of land in north-western Namibia, south of the Aba-Huab River, he was told that no farmer could survive there, it was desert. The Land Board clerk explained that it was his duty to ensure that people did not settle at places where they couldn’t make a living. David argued that although the piece of land with the spring was small, the entire Namib Desert around it lay uninhabited.

Its Damara name was Uiais (spring) and it draw him like a moth to a flame. The year was 1946 and David was passing through Windhoek with his pregnant wife Ella, his two children and his father-in-law, Dirk de Beer. They had travelled from Nuichas in southern Namibia and were en-route to Dirk’s new home in Dobbelsberg. The Levins joined the trek north with their animals, hoping to make their home in the Kaokoveld. The South West Administration had been issuing grass licenses in the Kaokoveld since 1942 but David didn’t have the means to apply at the time, and by the time he did, there were only remnants left that could not be allocated until the land was surveyed. He was upset but ensured that before they departed he received permission to visit the spring to ascertain if there was the possibility of farming there.

The eye of the spring underneath a rock. (source: Michiel Levin)

It was two months before David and Dirk managed to extricate themselves from the demands of Dobbelsberg and travel the 300 km. They investigated the small spring that seemed to be blocked by rock, debated its source and the possibilities of increasing its flow, and camped out in the mopane bush, listening to the sounds of the Kaokoveld – the jackals and the barking geckoes. On their return they visited the farms along the route, organising watering points and overnight stops for the long trek out.

At the beginning of 1947, the Levin family made the journey north-west. They waited at the farm Blaauwpoort while David and his worker went ahead to the spring to prepare for the arrival of the animals. They dug under rocks to increase its flow and excavated a furrow to clay hollows for watering the animals. The family then made their way with their meagre possessions to their new home of bleached grass edged by huge red table-top mountains. They had 230 sheep and goats, six chickens, two horses, four donkeys, a horse cart, a donkey wagon, a square tent and some household items.

The battle for water began. It took careful planning to ensure that animals and humans would survive.  Each animal could only drink every second day, grazing in between. The watering process consumed everyone’s lives. When neighbours visited, Ella would inform them that David was at the spring and every time Andries Blaauw from Blaauwpoort arrived, he would find David on his knees digging. When Andries asked after David’s health, he would inevitably receive the reply that he was well but that he doubted the spring would make it to October when the first rains would arrive. Andries soon referred to him as David Twyfelfontein, David ‘Doubtful Spring’. By the time David had to register a name for the land (he had finally convinced the Land Board to grant him a grass license), the name had stuck.

Ella and David Levin with their children Christina, Susan and Michiel in 1951 (source: Michiel Levin)

For the first few years, all household water had to be carried from the spring, and later from the well to the house, until David was able to connect metal piping. When the family arrived at Twyfelfontein, goods were in short supply after the war and the road to the nearest town of Omaruru was impassable in a horse cart. At difficult times the family learnt how to dig up ant nests and harvest their grass seed stocks. Ella made her own soap from animal fat, baked bread in a clay oven and cooked on an open fire. She continually suffered from health problems.

The Levins main source of income was from karakul pelts sold to farmers’ co-operatives that would later sell them at auctions. Goats were occasionally sold and animal bones and skins were often directly exchanged for flour, sugar, maizemeal and household necessities. When David bought a truck at the end of 1947 and struck water on the farm in 1948, he was slowly able to increase his flock.  The stifling tent was replaced by a reed hut and eventually a house as he made clay bricks and extended the house, room by room. The farm was surveyed in 1952, and in the same year Ella gave birth to twins.

The late 1950s brought years of drought and the family had to take to the road trekking to surrounding areas to graze the animals, moving on when the land was depleted. The Levins’ days at Twyfelfontein came to an end in the 1960s. Ella passed away in 1962 at the tender age of 42. The Odendaal Commission investigated creating a homeland for the Damara people in the Kaokoveld and David and the farmers in the area were required to sell their land. He objected initially but finally relented when it seemed that the fates had conspired against him. He moved to Outjo in 1965 and later on to Piketberg in South Africa. Throughout the rest of his days, however, he yearned for his country, his people and his farm south of the Aba-Huab River – Twyfelfontein.

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