Tsauchab River Camp sits in a part of Namibia that reminds us of the more remote parts of the West. The land is easy to conjure – imagine that Wyoming and Utah had a love child, with inland southern California somewhere back in its ancestry and a dash of crazy-uncle South Dakota in its personality, and you’ll get the picture. It’s all scrubland and low, treeless mountains. And dry – drier even than southern California. This part of Namibia hasn’t seen a drop of rain since 2014.
Steve picked this place for two nights on our trip because it looked like a good stopover between where we were coming from and where we were going. And it is that. It isn’t necessarily the type of place you’d stop if you weren’t on your way somewhere, except that, with its pristine campsites, total silence, slightly-mad charm, and desert-loving hosts, we’ll definitely seek it out (and recommend it) on its own merits from now on.
The first things that greeted us were a pair of tame springbok. Steve had gone to check us into our campsite but came back to the truck before he even got to the desk.
“You have got to check out the resident springbok,” he laughed. And there they were, two young antelope, lounging in the shade by the thatched roof bar before getting up and walking through the bar to the next patch of shade.
Later, sitting in the office talking to Johan, one of the managers, I asked about them. “Oh yes,” he said. “They live here. We got them when they were very young. Bottle-fed them and everything. But they’re both males, you see. They just want to fight everybody now. And those horns are quite sharp. We need to find a farm for them.”
It was only later that I realized I didn’t think to ask where one “gets” a springbok. I can totally relate to wanting to fight everybody, though.
The second thing that greeted us was bread. Bread is a big deal. I mean a big, huge deal. It’s a big deal because we can’t get good bread in Botswana. Steve has been making all of the bread we eat. It’s also a big deal because after 10 days on the road, fresh bread is its own unique kind of miracle.
This was a loaf of hearty brown German bread brought out from the kitchen by one of the cooks and offered to us by Mari, Johan’s wife and the main manager. We took it happily, politely thanked her like the well-raised adults we are, brought it back to the truck, and immediately hacked into it with Steve’s Leatherman then proceeded to shove huge chunks of it into our faces. It was divine – warm and crusty and dense. We decided on the spot that we would order an extra loaf (ok, three) for the rest of the trip, a request Mari happily obliged for the low, low price of about $2.20 USD. We ate it for lunch with cheese and mustard and made plans of whipping up a honey butter to slather on it for breakfast. I am not ashamed to admit that I spent much of my time in between actually eating the bread fantasizing about the bread. The landscape was the color of the crust. The distant mountains looked like freshly baked loaves. I pictured it toasted, dripping hot butter. I chuckled thinking that I would turn to Steve and he would look like a loaf of bread.
Our campsite, at Naukluft View, was actually about 7km away from the main building. We were stunned when we saw it. Tucked into a valley, we noticed two things right away: it was huge and it was gleamingly, sparklingly clean. We could have parked four trucks into the space and it had a giant fire ring, a full sink with running water, a raised stone pad for stand-alone tents, and a kitchen counter with tile work and a huge braai for cooking. The ablution block was a stone-faced toilet room and a shower room with beautiful old exposed copper piping.
Jan is the camp caretaker and I liked him even before I met him when he stopped by to welcome us and ask us when we would like the fire lit in the donkey to heat the shower water. The cleanliness and order of the campsite reminded me instantly of my grandfathers – the whole placed evidenced the hand of someone who believes in doing things well, and right the first time, and who takes pride in the work he does. We tried to tell him this but he spoke better Afrikaans than English, so I asked Mari and Johan to pass it along. I am sure they did, though I often wonder – especially in Namibia and South Africa – how this kind of genuine compliment is received.
Unlike in Botswana, there seem to be very clear racial differences in the workforce in the surrounding countries.Black Africans work and white people manage. And travel around in trucks. To say it makes me uncomfortable is a laughable understatement. Social contexts notwithstanding, I want to connect with people as people (yeah, I’m still that naïve) and I fear that any compliment (it truly was the nicest campsite we’ve ever been in) gets translated through the system of race and class division. I hate it, actually. Part of my mind is constantly turning it over and sifting through all that I don’t understand and all I am pretty sure I do understand. I was frustrated that the language barrier made me have to try to connect to Jan through someone else. He really did remind me of my grandfathers, and I wish I could have told him myself.
Tsauchab (sow-hob) is a Nama word that means “the river where the ganna bush grows.” The camp has been in existence for ten years and is a repurposed sheep farm. Even five years ago, when Mari and Johan showed up to manage it, there were a hundred sheep on the property. Now it is a fully functioning camp – bar, restaurant, hiking, 4×4 trails, swimming pool, and wild artwork created by the owner out of the remains of his father’s old farm machinery.
It’s a funky place. The vibe is fantastic. Every spare inch of the main camp is adorned with tools or utensils or animal skins or instruments. What could be garish in the hands of hoarders is artistic here. There is something to look at everywhere and, rather than being overwhelming, it is refreshing set against the barren backdrop.
That backdrop, though, is one of the reasons we took such a shine to this place. I love Botswana, but for sheer wild beauty you can’t beat the Namib. Mari and I spent a long time talking about deserts on the morning we left. A retired nurse, she and Johan chose to be here, and you’d have to.
“I love it,” she said. “We both love the desert. I can spend maybe three days in Windhoek [Namibia’s capital and largest city], but not more than that. I can’t be in cities any more.”
I smiled, thinking of how my own misanthropy surfaces every time we hit Salt Lake after being in southern Utah. I told her that Steve and I would be happiest setting up a yurt in the desert and dropping out of the world.
“Yes, yes!” She replied. “People think that it is impossible to live in the desert, but you just have to be very organized. And I see it – I see people from all over the world here. I see what happens to them when they get out here. Germans come a lot. They come here, they go out into the desert, and I see them change. I see them remember that they have souls,” she cried, striking her fist just below her sternum for emphasis.
“I can’t leave this landscape,” she continued. “At night I throw the windows open and fall asleep to the geckos. I love the silence. Sometimes when I drive back in from town [note, this is an extremely relative term here] – once every three months or so – I think how privileged I am to be in this place.”
“And then, I see people who don’t get it. People come out here and ask me ‘what is there to do?’ One group came up and traveled the most scenic road in the country and when I asked them what they saw they said ‘nothing – there’s nothing to see.’” She shook her head.
The kindly, retired woman behind the desk spit passion when she talked about the desert. I could have talked to her all day. It was like meeting a long-lost friend you didn’t know you had, another member of the tribe of desert-lovers.
We were sorry to leave – the old copper faucets, drinks under the stars after a day at Sossusvlei, barking geckos the only sound at night. If we come to this part of Namibia again we know where we’re staying.