Posts Tagged ‘western namibia’

Although you may think that mini-bus taxis, buses and bakkies are the modern means of transport in an ever-expanding Africa, on the dusty roads of the Namibian interior, far from crowded cities and the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, it is also the donkey cart that is one of the quintessential Namibian forms of transport.

A donkey cart on a dusty Namibian gravel road.

A donkey cart on a dusty Namibian gravel road.

The many gravel roads that bisect rural Namibia are arteries in the vast country, ideal for this transport of old that has survived the centuries, providing a vital form of affordable non-motorised transportation for local inhabitants and for carrying essentials such as firewood and water. Donkey carts convey people from village to village, to wells and clinics, and transport children to school. They are a common sight in the communal areas from southern to northern and eastern to western Namibia as they wind their way to their destinations at a pace appropriate for rural Africa. The two-wheeled ‘4x4s’ of the Namibian countryside are often emblazoned with car names like ‘Toyota’, ‘Ford’, ‘Opel’ and even ‘Mercedes Benz’ and are led by teams of up to five donkeys. Humorous inscriptions such as ‘Take me home’, ‘Lady man’, ‘Barjero – It’s a lifestyle’ and ‘The king of the road’ are often also added.

With these donkey carts poor Afrikaner farmers from South Africa trekked northwards over the Gariep (Orange) river in the 1920es in search for a better life.

The donkey descended from the African wild ass and was domesticated about five thousand years ago in Egypt or Mesopotamia. From there, it spread around the world to be used for transport and as a pack and draft animal. Donkeys, like horses, are not indigenous to southern Africa but were imported into South Africa at the time of the first Dutch settlers in the mid-1600s when the Cape of Good Hope became a re-provisioning station for the ships rounding the tip of Africa on their journeys to the East. The hardy Equids were introduced as pack and draft animals and to breed mules (a hybrid bred from a female horse and male donkey), which were more in demand for their superior strength, stronger hooves and surefootedness. The first shipment of mules and donkeys is reported to have arrived at the Cape in 1656. Donkeys were introduced into what is referred to as southern Namibia today in small numbers as settlers began to cross over the Orange/Gariep River from the latter part of the 18th century. Later on, towards the end of the 19th century, German settlers brought in donkeys to breed mules for use in the diamond fields and for military purposes. In the depression years following World War I, there was an influx of Afrikaner farmers travelling north from South Africa in two- or four-wheeled wooden donkey carts, replacing the ox-wagon as a means of transport. In later years as cars gained popularity, the majority of donkey carts were made using remnants of old cars. The carts were made using the ‘bak’ or rear part of the car, rear axles and tyres. From the 1920s until the 1950s donkey carts were the main form of transport on the farms. When the karakul market started to peak in the 1940s, many farmers were able to purchase their first cars. Donkey carts were passed on to the workers and made their way into the communal areas. By the mid-20th century the donkey cart had become a popular form of transport.

Paulus is fetching his employer’s children from school with a donkey cart.

With the continual rise in petrol prices and the high cost of motor vehicles, people are depending more and more on donkey carts for transport. They have become part of the lifestyle and culture of rural Namibia. These valuable carts are the Chevrolets and Subarus of the countryside, often even proudly bearing number plates. The donkeys are also given amusing names. Originally custom-made, donkey carts are now innovative modes of transport constructed with recycled parts from the scrapyard. These include the tyres, and the donkey cart occupants may be required to wait while the donkey cart stops every few kilometres for the owner to jump out and pump the tyres.

A typical donkey cart of the 21st century with humorous inscription.

While the inhabitants of the north-central regions of Namibia have mostly used donkeys to plough their fields or to transport large water containers and the Himbas have used donkeys as pack animals, the Namas and Damaras of southern and western Namibia have wholeheartedly embraced the donkey cart culture.

An intriguing attraction for tourists, the donkey cart is part of the Namibian journey. You know you’re in Namibia when you see your first donkey cart hurtling along the auxiliary roads, disappearing between the long bleached grass into the distance or when you explore the hinterland. Just when you begin to think you are the only person for miles around, a donkey cart will appear on the horizon. These are the times to slow down, not to envelop its occupants in clouds of dust, wave and become acquainted with the colourful people of Namibia. Guaranteed they will be waving and smiling back, and will always have time for small talk.


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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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The two Namibian mountain bikers Frank Snyman and Piet Swiegers both achieved excellent results at the Trans Andes Challenge from 23 to 28 January. Swiegers, the manager of the Klein-Aus Vista lodge business (Gondwana Collection Namibia), crossed the finish line after just 28 hours 51 minutes, coming in 22nd out of 40 participants in his class (men under 45). Frank Snyman (Toshiba Namibia) took an hour longer but with 29 hours 57 minutes nevertheless won 7th place in his class (men over 45). The two bikers were supported by their wives, Sophia and Christine, as well as numerous Gondwana fans on Facebook.

Frank Snyman (Toshiba Namibia) and Piet Swiegers (Gondwana Collection) before the start of the Trans Andes Challenge. Photo: Sophia Swiegers

Frank Snyman (Toshiba Namibia) and Piet Swiegers (Gondwana Collection) before the start of the Trans Andes Challenge. Photo: Sophia Swiegers

The demanding six-leg race through the heart of the Patagonian Andes in Chile was driven on single tracks, off-road vehicle tracks and open terrain. It started in Panguipulli and ended in Pucón. The challenge was not posed by the distance that had to be covered per leg (50 to 82 km) but by the altitude that had to be negotiated: differences in altitude of between 1,780 m and 2,500 m had to be overcome every day. Of course there were plenty of downhill stretches as well, but the mountain bikers had to ‘climb’ 12,250 m in total.

Piet Swiegers (Klein-Aus Vista/Gondwana) and Frank Snyman (Toshiba Namibia) came thoroughly prepared for the event. The grounds of the Klein-Aus Vista Gondwana lodge near Aus in south-western Namibia were ideally suited for training: The mountain bike trails in the Aus Mountains are a mountain biker’s paradise. The first Klein-Aus Vista MTB Challenge was held there on 30 April and 1 May last year; the next one is scheduled for 29 and 30 April this year.

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