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Can You Drive a Ford Fiesta Through a Desert?


By Jenifer NimPublished 7 days ago 6 min read
Top Story - May 2024
Photo by Jenifer Nim.

I’m flying down the B1 highway from Windhoek to Keetmanshoop with a map and a boot full of camping gear. I’m excited for the first stop of my Namibian road trip: the Quiver Tree Forest. I spot the sign and turn onto the C17, off the tarmac and onto the gravel. I’ll be there soon; it’s only ten miles or so. I am unprepared for what comes next. The car slides and slips across the road. I am not fully in control anymore. I slow to a crawl. The car judders and shudders, the noise deafening, the vibrations rattling the teeth in my skull. It takes me around an hour to drive the ten miles. I arrive at the campsite relieved to be in one piece, even if it feels like all my bones have been shaken slightly out of place. I will later learn that this is what happens when the gravel road becomes “corrugated”, and that the roads authority goes round once a week to “grade” them. Seems I arrived about 6 days after the grader had last been round.

I check in at the campsite reception and head off to pitch my tent. That’s my next surprise, but that’s another story for another time. After watching the sun set over the Martian landscape of the otherworldly Quiver Tree Forest, I settle down in my tent for the night. I hang the torch from the roof and pore over my roadmap. Yes, the C17 was marked as a gravel road, but I hadn’t expected gravel to be quite so difficult to drive on. Have I made a terrible mistake? Will I actually be able to drive myself around Namibia? Should I have hired a 4x4 instead of a Ford Fiesta? The answer to that last one is probably, definitely, yes.

I study the map, looking at all the sites I had planned to see. Except for a couple of towns and Etosha National Park, everywhere I had intended to visit sits at the end of a long gravel road. If it took me an hour to drive ten miles, it’s going to take a lot longer than anticipated to drive the hundreds of miles of gravel roads on my original route. Not to mention the fact that I’m afraid of damaging the car or puncturing a tyre. I guess it hadn’t really registered before that driving down a gravel road means driving down a road made of millions of small, sharp, spiky stones. Even on Namibia’s main highway, I only passed three or four cars in as many hours. I dread to think how long I would be stuck if I got a flat tyre. I’m slightly disappointed that I won’t be able to see everything I wanted, but I’m not one to dwell on these things. I’d rather be safe than sorry. I fold up the map and curl up in my sleeping bag, falling asleep to the sound of the breeze gently brushing at the canvas.

Dawn breaks, throwing a million bright colours over the Quiver Trees. Birds sing and dassies scamper over the rocks around the camp as I take down the tent and load up the car. One deafening, teeth-rattling, bone-shuddering hour later, I’m back on the sweet, blessed tarmac. Today’s (revised) destination: the coastal town of Luderitz. The road to Luderitz goes through the magnificent Namib, a long streak of grey tarmac slicing through the tangerine desert. Wave after wave of sand in every imaginable shade of orange stretches out to touch the cerulean sky. Abandoned buildings appear and disappear, their space slowly being reclaimed by the desert. Wild horses roam through the sand, staring at the lone car disturbing their peace.

I arrive in Luderitz and feel like I’ve been transported to an entirely different country. The signs are all English, but the names are all German. I drive down Bahnhof Street and Woermann Road. I visit Felsenkirche and Goerke Haus. I pass hotels called Zum Anker and Kratzplatz. And almost all of the buildings in the centre of town have a distinctly Bavarian look. The wind is howling. The dark skies are threatening rain. The grey and stormy sea is crashing upon the shoreline. It’s an interesting town, but I’m not too keen on camping here tonight. I park down at the waterfront and put on the warmest clothes that I brought for a trip to the desert: a denim jacket. I find a restaurant and use the internet to find a place to stay tonight.

After lunch and an afternoon walk around the town, I drive to the charming little guesthouse I found online. I am greeted by a lovely local lady who expresses surprise when she sees I’m alone. “You’re very brave to drive around by yourself,” she tells me. I think naïve is probably the more appropriate word. She shows me around and takes me to my room. We chat for a while. She asks me where I’m from, when I arrived in Namibia, what my plans are for my trip. I tell her I am a bit nervous about the gravel roads, having never driven on anything but tarmac before, and therefore I am a little bit sad to have changed my route to avoid all gravel roads. “Oh, but you’ll miss so many things! Wait until my husband gets back from work. He’ll give you some driving tips.” I thank her and settle in for the evening, not really expecting to hear any more.

Darkness has fallen by the time my host’s husband returns. I am making some dinner in the guest kitchen when he comes to find me. “Let’s have a look at your map,” he says. We spread the map out on the kitchen table and he asks me where I had wanted to visit. I point out the various destinations and he tells me that a 4x4 is not necessary and my car will be absolutely fine on those roads. He shows me a few which should be avoided, gives me driving tips including which speed to travel at for various road conditions, and assures me that I will quickly get used to the feel of the roads. He tells me that I do need to know how to change a tyre though.

We go outside to my hired car. He looks it over, checks the tyre tread and tyre pressure, then shows me how to get the tyre-changing kit out of its position under the floor of the boot. He instructs me on setting up the jack properly underneath the car, and how to take a punctured tyre off and put the spare one on. He checks that I can lift the tyre and the equipment, and helps me get it all back in the right place. He tells me that now I can go wherever I want. I thank him profusely, beaming with gratitude.

I feel excited. I feel confident. I feel powerful. I feel like a real explorer now. I feel capable of handling whatever the desert can throw at me. I feel like when I finally managed to rewire an old fuse in my hundred-year-old flat in London and thought about quitting my job and becoming an electrician. Most of all, I feel so grateful that I met this kind and considerate couple who took time out of their day to help me. I’m just another stranger passing through for a night, yet this lady remembered my concerns and wanted to relieve them. After a long day at work, her husband took the time to help me. In the cold, the wind, and the dark, he taught me how to change a tyre. I wish I could go back and tell them how much this good deed inspired and empowered me in my journey round their incredible country.

Back in my room, I listen to the wind howling and I look at my map to plan tomorrow’s route. I’ll be taking that gravel road down to Fish River Canyon after all.


About the Creator

Jenifer Nim

I’ve got a head full of stories and a hard drive full of photos; I thought it was time to start putting them somewhere.

I haven’t written anything for many, many years. Please be kind! 🙏

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Comments (3)

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  • Abdulhakeem Momoh6 days ago


  • I love how your story starts out about the difficulty of traversing from A to B, but ends up being about the connection of kindness between strangers. The descriptions are so vivid! But you left me hanging- did you reach those other destinations? Were you successful in changing a tire? Who else did you meet on your journey? Chapter 2 please!

  • Hannah Moore7 days ago

    Oh I'd so love to do this journey - but alone! And what a gift of time they gave you. Beautifully written.

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