To the SKELETON COAST.

Hitch-hiking my way to Cape Town, where the head-offices of the fishing companies operating out of Walvis Bay were situated, I got as far as Bellville, where I slept on the floor of the CID office at the police station. The next day I linked up with my friend, Joan Robertson from Rhodesia, studying at the University of Cape Town, who arranged for me to sleep at her boyfriend’s flat in Mowbray.

It turned out that the fishing boats hired their hands locally in Walvis Bay, so my trip to Cape Town had been a waste of time, except for the pleasure of catching up with Joan. A few days later, I rode my thumb north, detouring briefly to see first the copper-mining town of Springbok, nestling in its stark, stony landscape, then Port Nolloth, a little fishing harbour perched on the Skeleton Coast, where the first Namaqualand diamonds were found, so it was nearly a week before I arrived in Windhoek, the capital of what used to be German South-West Africa.

I loved it; so African, so German. After a night at the Kaiserkrone Hotel and a night with a family I met by accident, I headed for the coast, via Okahandja, Karabib and Usakos to Swakopmund, where I booked into the Schutze Hotel for R4-00. Breakfast would be another R3-75. My diary remarks that that made it an expensive stay! I went for a walk along the pier that is the remains of the old German harbour when Swakopmund was a port. The architecture was quaint early 20th Century German colonial. The language was Afrikaans and German. I found a café, where I had supper, The Brucken Café and Private Hotel where bed and breakfast was only R2-00, so I moved there the following day.

It was a bleak little town on the edge of the desert; often misty from the Atlantic’s cold Benguela Current reacting to the hot sands, so damp and corrosive. There were more trees in the graveyard than anywhere else. The landmark was the lighthouse in the middle of town. Besides the road in from Usakos, there was also a railway and station. The line continued to Walvis Bay, just twenty-two miles away to the south, sneaking between the huge sand dunes of the Namib Desert and the cold forbidding sea. Often crews were sent to clear the shifting dines from the rail and the road.

North of the Swakop River were, abruptly, no dunes, but rock and sand and salt-bush. Six miles north of the town were the pans where salt was harvested. In previous years, trucks so damaged the access tracks that repairs were made with salt clays from the pans. It turned out to be a feasible road-building material and the process spread, not only to the village, but substantial lengths of the approach roads, as well. The salt gave the surface a charcoal colour, and it appeared almost as if tarmac had been laid. The one requirement was the roads had to lie within the mist belt to maintain moisture. I walked to the pans on my second day and was awed by the bird-life; especially the pelicans.

Getting a lift through to Walvis Bay, I headed for the docks. No, they were not taking on fishing crew as the trawlers were down to maintenance crews as it was between seasons. Pilchard season would not start for a couple of months, or had just passed; I’m not sure which. Anyway, the crews jealously guarded their places within the Coloured fisherman families, and if one wasn’t free, another stepped into the breach. I tried ‘Metal Box’ company, but no vacancies. I tried the ship Clan McGregor, a cargo vessel, but they had an exclusively Indian crew. It was suggested that I try the shipping master in Customs House, which I did, but he told me the chances were not good. He’d let me know if anything turned up. I headed back to Swakopmund.

Seeing an advert in the Namib Times regarding a barman’s job in Walvis Bay, I was on the road to hitch-hike back there the following day to an interview, when I saw that there was a large construction job, apparently building a bridge over the, now dry, Swakop River. I thought that there was probably just enough time to see if they had any vacancies before I hit the road.

I never did become a barman, and the greater part of the rest of my life was to be in the construction industry. And here, in this strange little town, unbeknownst to anyone, was the future mother of my children…

About peterjearle

Writer of thriller novels. 4 Published: 'Purgatory Road', 'The Barros Pawns', and the Detective Dice Modise Series:'Hunter's Venom' and 'Medicinal Purposed Only', all from Southern Africa.
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