food / travel

Riding Namibia's Seductively Slow Desert Express

View from the Desert Express, approaching Karibib, Namibia.
View from the Desert Express, approaching Karibib, Namibia.
Detlef Berg

WINDHOEK — A train trip through Namibia? Several times a year, the Desert Express travels a loop through the most beautiful areas of Namibia, which is more than twice the size of Germany. The trip is far more comfortable than the alternative — a strenuous bus journey along dirt roads.

We start out in Windhoek, which for most tourists is the gateway to Namibia’s attractions. Before the train leaves the station, there’s still some time to look around the city. Travel guide Bianca Preusker recommends the “Ink Palace” (seat of the country’s legislature), Christ Church, and the Equestrian Monument made for the German Emperor Wilhelm II, as well as a stroll on Independence Avenue, formerly Emperor Street. (From 1884 until 1915, Namibia was a German colony.)

Colonial buildings and modern high-rises with gleaming facades line the avenue, where new restaurants, bars and small boutique hotels bring big-city flair to the prevailing small town atmosphere.

A few steps from town center lies the gleaming white railway station where “Poor Old Joe” sits out front. Railway enthusiasts love the narrow-gauge locomotive, one of over 100 imported from Germany that took the Windhoe-to-Swakopmund-and-back route from 1902.

Taking the train at the Windhoek Railway Station — Photo: Fihliwe

Although there are hardly any trains transporting passengers now in Namibia, the Desert Express awaits us this day. It doesn’t look very prepossessing from the outside, so the luxury inside comes as a surprise: 24 air-conditioned sleeping car units, comfortable, decorated with care and equipped with small en suite baths.

The name “Express,” however, is not well-chosen, as the train never exceeds 40 kilometers per hour as it rolls through the desert and semi-desert landscape that unfolds outside the large panorama windows in the dining car, where up to 48 guests are now enjoying their first African dinner.

What the cooks manage to produce in the tiny kitchen is astonishing. This time it’s juicy Kudu (antelope) steak as a main course. South African red wine or a well-chilled Windhoek Lager brewed to German standard are both winning beverages to accompany the meal. Following after-dinner drinks in the bar, it’s off to our cabins where busy hands have transformed the upholstered seats into comfortable beds.

In the early morning, the Desert Express reaches Holoog station, where busses await to transport passengers on dirt roads to one of the country’s wonders of nature — Fish River Canyon, up to 550 meters deep.

The next day train passengers pack a small bag and move on for two nights to the Sossusvlei dune lodge. On the way there, the bus stops at Maltahöhe for brunch. It’s unusual indeed to smell coffee and freshly baked bread in the middle of the desert. And there’s time to enjoy it on the shady terrace of this establishment founded in 1907, one of the country’s oldest hospitality venues.

Welcoming morning drinks and snacks in the lounge car — Photo: Fihliwe

At Sossusvlei, the early morning hours are the best times to be out and about. That’s when the rising sun divides the massive dunes into two halves: one shimmers like gold in the mild sunlight, while the other is in the shadows and appears dark.

“It’s easiest to climb up along the ridges,” guide Preusker says from experience. “Walking through the sand requires a lot of strength, and you find yourself breaking out in a sweat pretty quickly,” she adds. The view out over the bizarrely formed dunes as far as the eye can see makes the effort worthwhile.

Art Nouveau and four-legged sights

The photographers among us are also spoiled for choice the next day. On the bus ride to Swakopmund, there are oryx antelopes and springboks to see, and the city on the Atlantic offers plenty of pastel-colored Art Nouveau buildings dating back to Wilhelm’s day. Names lile Woermannhaus, Alte Brauereistube and the Hansa Hotel are reminiscent of colonial times.

Things are more modern at the chicly designed Restaurant Jetty, where panorama windows look out onto the ocean and glass floors reveal the sea beneath their feet. Diners can also watch as food such as sushi is prepared before them.

In Swakopmund, the Desert Express is ready to be boarded for the trip back to Windhoek. At Usakos the train stops for an excursion up the 1,700 meters of the Spitzkoppe, Namibia’s Matterhorn. These rock formations are not only a favorite destination for climbers, they are also the site of rock paintings thousands of years old.

Back on the train, we get a tasting of biltong, cured meat made of game, beef or ostrich that is a favorite accompaniment to beer and wine.

After passing through the Otavi highlands on a newly built stretch of track, we take another two-day leave of the Desert Express for excursions in the Etosha National Park, spending the nights in safari lodges.



Tourists watching elephants at Etosha National Park — Photo: Sasha Gusov/Zuma

“There! Behind there. Do you see them?” the guide whispers, pointing from the Jeep at two lions under an acacia tree. Animals are not necessarily seen on every trip, so this is an added bonus.

But there’s always something to see at the water holes. Springboks and zebras approach cautiously, and later giraffes and elephants put in an appearance. You can’t get closer to the animals than here. There are animals to be seen on the way back to Windhoek as well, as the tracks also lead through game farms.

The beautiful African dream starts to fade as the first houses in Windhoek appear, signaling our return to civilization.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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