Africa is the ultimate spot for watching the night sky; take the 22 shooting stars that fell in front of me in quick succession
The new Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV might be the first purpose-built Rolls-Royce to take off-road. But this didn’t stop Victoria Macmillan Bell from driving one of its predecessors through the Namib Desert
I’ve pulled over onto the side of the sandy highway – I use the term ‘highway’ loosely – that is the C34, a road built mainly of salt. It’s midday and I haven’t passed another car for hours. The heat is relentless and I’m in a vacuum of barren wilderness as far as the eye can see.
This is the Skeleton Coast and I’ve got a puncture.
The irony that over the last 2,000 or so kilometres, I haven’t been bothered by a single issue that would require roadside assistance or to make use of one of many auto garages along the way, is not lost on me.
No, fate waits until I’m deep into one of the world’s most inhospitable areas before the gods decide I’m to be offered up like a sacrificial lamb.
To make the situation even more interesting, I’m after a tyre for a Rolls-Royce Phantom, not your every day sight among the shifting dunes of north-western Namibia.
The Skeleton Coast National Park begins just to the north of the old mining town of Swakopmund and stretches all the way up to its border with Angola in the north covering a land area of some 16,800km.
I’m driving the southern end of this vast park, which is split, into two sections. Once you have reached the Ugab River Gate, you can go no further for the northern section is accessible only by air safari. No vehicles are permitted beyond this point which tells you everything you need to know.
Just two hours earlier I had been at the entrance gates of the park with skull and crossbones heralding what lay ahead and now here I am waiting for the back up vehicle, some distance behind carrying spares to appear.
Back on the road it’s easy to see how quickly things could go very wrong for you out there. There’s an eerie, thick fog washing in from the South Atlantic to my left and that meets with the gauze-like curtains of sand that constantly hang in the air over the vast plains. It’s completely disconcerting. There is nothing to define where the land meets the sky, just millions upon millions of sand crystals sparkling through the dense sea fog. Incidentally, the thick fog is formed from a collision of cold, damp air coming from the Atlantic meeting the warm, dusty air of the desert.
But why on earth am I in a Rolls-Royce I hear you ask and in one of the most incongruous parts of the world for such a stately machine. Well, that’s just it. I wanted to remove it from its almost pre-destined route between London residence, private members club and country estate and give it full rein in the desert, there are plenty of them in the Middle East after all. Seldom is there an opportunity to actually enjoy driving now, taps open, for the sheer thrill of it.
Granted it’s a fast machine but how stable is it on roads made predominantly of salt? This I was about to find out.
Having been driving dead straight for well over an hour and at speed, out of nowhere a 90 degree corner came into play, but I was upon it before I’d had time to even think about the endless possible outcomes.
I felt it load up wondering when the balance was going to shift and then it came. Even on this sandy surface, the Phantom hunkered down and sucked hard, all that weight, 2,560kgs of it, distributed to the centrifugal points. Power down from the 6.75 litre V12 engine, back on the straight again and not a whisper of trouble.
One of the possible outcomes would have been that I would have ended up like so many of these shipwrecks that lie all around, even an oil platform, rotting away to bare bones. Just recently, in March of this year, a Japanese fishing vessel got into difficulty and ran aground just south of the Ugab river. Fortunately all 24 foreign crew members were rescued.
It was the many whale and seal bones that washed up from the whaling industry that gave the Skeleton Coast its name but now the name is more associated with what’s left of over one thousand ships that met their end here due to the thick sea fog and the rocks that lurk offshore.
With the shifting sands, some of these ship carcasses have been carried quite far inland over the years, bizarre to see so far from the huge waves of the south Atlantic.
Not wishing to become part of that statistic, I wafted on to the Cape Cross Seal colony with its pungent aroma. The seals look deliriously happy sunbathing after another krill salad and don’t express the slightest whiff of surprise as the Phantom hones into view. Very disconcerting. At the very least I expected some clapping.
But so malodorous is their bouquet I decide to enjoy watching them from the hermetically-sealed confines of my Phantom’s luxuriously appointed cabin. Best seat in the house bar none.
Some time later, I’m joined by another seal watcher in their car except that they’re far more interested in my car than the seals. They’re looking in through the tinted glass I think expecting martians to be at the wheel – is this a fake Rolls they’re asking themselves. Even so, what is it doing here?
It’s time to stop stealing my friends’ thunder and let the seals provide some fishy theatre. It gets very dark very quickly in the desert.
As the sun began to drop into the sands, I wonder how anything survives out here in a place that gets no more than 25mm of rain per year. But if you’re lucky you might catch the odd oryx, Cape fox and spotted hyena between the sand and rock.
Before long I’m plunged back into the inkpot of African night. The road went on, dead straight – just trying to remember where that rather surprising kink was and the stars glowed brighter and brighter with the moon slipping into the desert before me.
With considerably less light pollution down here than in the northern hemisphere, Africa is the ultimate spot for watching the night sky; take the 22 shooting stars that fell in front of me in quick succession.
To take it in properly, I pulled over and stepped out into the endless, lightless, nothingness, an infinite black blanket above my head, full of glitter not unlike the Phantom’s fibre optic roof lighting. My only company out here now is a barking gecko. A perfect soundtrack to the night.