On the road with Faraway Sandy Trails Stonetrees, a White Lady & many cups of coffee

Ron Swilling

I picked up some unusual travelling literature on a recent trip through Namibia, a book called ‘Faraway Sandy Trails’ written by Lily Marion Newton more than sixty years ago.

It gave me the opportunity to compare routes and find amusing and interesting anecdotes about the country and the days of travel before organised tourism and tar roads.

This time I focused on the chapter about two attractions in north-western Namibia, the Petrified Forest and the well-known White Lady rock painting. Today both are on the tourist map and there are well-signposted gravel roads, but in Lily’s day it was rough terrain and they depended on the knowledge of farmers along the way to find the route. Each stop at a farm meant accepting the generous hospitality of the farmers and drinking yet another cup of coffee. Lily wrote: ‘Everywhere we went in our journeying around South West Africa we were almost overwhelmed by the hospitality of the inhabitants and particularly those far out in the bundu.’

They began their journey in Outjo, where Lily’s husband Charles had official business, and made their way to the police post at Fransfontein. The sergeant and his wife insisted that they come in for coffee. Eventually they managed to get on their way – after politely declining sandwiches and roast mutton – with a police guide to show them the right track to take at the crossroads.

After several enquiries, they followed the sandy tracks through Damaraland, reaching the farm adjoining the Forest. And after a cup of coffee, the farmer took them to see the ‘Stone Trees which lay in a flat valley almost encompassed by high hills’. Lily was surprised to see that the forest comprised myriads of fossilised wood fragments strewn across the earth and mentioned this to the others. They laughed at her and asked: “What did you think you’d see, the trees still all standing up?”

The farmer reassured her that there were larger specimens that would give her an idea of the original size of the trees and led them to a fossilised tree trunk a hundred-and-forty-seven-feet long that was lying on the ground, partially covered by soil. Lily thought how magnificent the forest must have been when the trees flourished two hundred million years ago, a time frame we cannot even fathom.

I did the same on my visit, always in awe of the ancient geological wonders and the time it took for them to form, our Earth span a mere blink of an eye in comparison. I had learned over the years of visiting the site that the ancient trees are thought to be extinct conifers that became uprooted and floated down ancient rivers or on floodwaters millions of years ago from further north, possibly central Africa, losing their branches and roots along the long watery journey. Deposited in a silica-rich environment with no oxygen to initiate decay, the silica eventually penetrated the wood, replacing the cells, the wood thus becoming petrified or fossilised. The Petrified Forest was declared a national monument in 1950 and is a national heritage site.

When Lily and her party returned to the farmhouse and had another cup of coffee, they enquired about directions to the Brandberg. Before they knew it arrangements had been made to travel southwards with the farmer and his brother from the adjacent farm. The only catch was that they had to leave that very night as the brothers had to be back at the farm the next day. Following the farmers through the night on the challenging roads proved to be a nightmare experience. Choked with dust and with their nerves frazzled they stopped for a boerewors braai and later to set up camp for the night. They woke early in the morning and huddled around the campfire to keep warm. It was then that the farmer called out: “Look at the Brandberg!”

They all turned to look. Lily was enthralled. ‘We had been told that the Brandberg was so named because of its appearance when the early morning sun strikes across its vast rocky face. And there it was, proving to us, as the sun’s clear rays swept down its mighty slopes, the Fire Mountain is a true descriptive name.’

Shepherds pointed out the way to the ‘White Lady’ painting and the group followed the wide canyon-like gorge into the range. The day warmed up and the searing heat took its toll. Lily battled to keep up with the others, clambering over the rocks past clumps of coarse grass, river reeds and ‘strange thin-branched trees’ (Brandberg Acacias) as they made their way through the Tsisab Gorge. When she could go no further and was about to give up, they came across Maack’s Cave, named after Reinhardt Maack – the topographer who surveyed the upper slopes in 1918 – and in it, the painting of the White Lady.

She described the rendering. ‘The detail in the ornaments and apparel of the “Lady” is very unusual – I loved her Juliet cap – and her little nose is delightfully shaped; her pursuer, now known as the “Skeleton Man”, puzzled us by his appearance, as did some of the animals with two human legs and one of the men with an animal head, which must be that described as the “Crocodile Man”.’

After another challenging hike back to the car, they said goodbye to the farmers and continued on their way to Uis, Karibib and back home to Windhoek. The next month they attended a talk at the South West Africa Scientific Society on the rock paintings where the White Lady was erroneously, as we have now learned, described as being connected to the story of the Cretan goddess, Diana, or Isis as she was known in Egypt.

Times have certainly changed since Lily and Charles’s first trip to the Brandberg. A turnoff from the C35 north of Uis leads towards the imposing ‘Burning Mountain’ (or ‘Dâureb’ in Damara-Nama) and the Dâureb mountain guides offer visitors a two-hour walk to view the White Lady rock painting. The name ‘White Lady’ was coined in 1955 by Abbé Henri Breuil, who thought it was a young Mediterranean girl. The painting is now understood to represent a healer or medicine man holding a bow and arrow in one hand and a cup or wand in the other. The half-animal half-human paintings are said to have spiritual significance, conveying the merging of worlds as the medicine man entered into trance and the spiritual world to bring healing and request rain and abundant game for his people.

Namibia has many secrets and wonders, and I was enjoying revisiting them all with Faraway Sandy Trails, appreciating how much easier it is to travel nowadays – although perhaps missing all the friendly cups of coffee and countryside hospitality.

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