To understand just how juvenile our choice was to enter Namibia via the Octha Ferry at Sendelingsdrif, it is necessary to consider the economics of the matter. According to Google Maps, the most direct route from our home in Hillcrest, Kwazulu Natal to the coastal town of Luderitz, Namibia– which was more or less the first notable stop of our tour – is 1904km. To catch the ferry we had to deviate from this path and added an extra 201km to that figure. And yet while I admit that this distance does not sound like an enormous departure from the optimal route, the real measure of this detour begins to reveal itself when one considers that all the roads through the Richtersveld resemble washboards. For even the most capable offroad vehicles, with the highest suspension and the softest of tyres, forward speeds on Richtersveld roads are often less than those of pedestrians. All told the real costs in terms of time, diesel and boarding fees probably touched four figures, a hefty price tag for a 107m boat ride.
And yet as I stood on the Namibian shoreline, squinting back into South Africa, anxious to see whether or not Lance and Natassja – our travel partners – had been allowed to board the ferry, I couldn’t help but consider how we might have avoided this stress. The truth is that it was the same desire that leads children to want a treehouse and cap-gun that motivated our decision to access Namibia by ferry, and this puerile thinking had been made worse by our lack of preparation. We had been less than thorough during the planning stages of this journey, and it was only at the very last minute that we had become aware that the Sendlingsdrif Ferry can only operate when the level of the Orange River is within a particular window. Too full and the crossing becomes dangerous; too low and the ferry’s motors make contact with the sandy river bed.
It was the latter of these two scenarios that was causing us trouble. The majority of South Africa had been in the grip of a drought, and the level of the Orange River had dropped to the point where the ferry was operating at its minimum service level: one car per trip with no trailers or caravans allowed. Working at this level meant that we could cross, but we had received warnings, the situation was worsening daily, and there was a possibility of the ferry closing down.
Nevertheless, when we arrived at the crossing at mid-morning on the 18th December, everything appeared to be operating as expected, the barge was running, transporting one vehicle at a time. Without urgency, we moved through the border control offices and paid our boarding fees, confident that nothing was standing between the Namib Desert and us. However, as we boarded the boat the captain – who we had overheard complaining bitterly about the abuse he had received from the motorists he had turned away – said: “you’re lucky, you’re the last one”.
Initially, I thought that the skipper was simply having a laugh at my expense, but it quickly became apparent that he was not fooling around. We were indeed going to be the last passengers that he was willing to transport before shutting the operation down.
With the ferry’s ramps being readied for departure and the outboard motors firing to life, I began to flush with the realisation that we would end up in Namibia while our companions would be stranded in South Africa.
In fairness, the consequences of this situation were not as desperate as they seemed at that moment. Lance and Natassja would simply have had to take an additional 200km detour, back over the corrugations, to the nearest bridge located in Oranjemund. However, that trip would take many hours and at that instant, with our ferry crossing dream fading along with rational thought I called out: “no, no, we must go back”.
Now perhaps it was the look of desperation on my face or maybe simply the nuisance of having to undo his disembarking procedures, but the ferryman looked at me with a perplexed look on his face as if to say “what?”. Apparently, ‘leave no man behind’ is not a creed that boatman live by but he quickly realised that I was not joking and that if he didn’t agree to transport our friends across, then he was going to be forced to backup.
Common sense prevailed, and the captain agreed to one more ‘last trip’. The difficulty now was that Lance and Natassja were nowhere to be seen, they were still completing the border formalities, blissfully unaware of just how close they had come to having to wade their vehicle across the Orange River.
Unable to raise either of the two by phone, the pair were now on their own, left to work out for themselves that they needed to bypass the queue of disgruntled tourists – amongst which word of the closing ferry had rapidly spread – and to make their way to the front of the line. Our hands were tied all we could do was stand on the Namibian side and wait to see how things played out…
I am pleased to say that Lance and Natassja managed to avoid the torches and pitchforks of the afflicted crowd and after only a few moments of panic, crossed into Namibia effortlessly.