“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller
I had just landed in Namibia after flying half way around the world to meet Austin Stevens for the first time. Would we get along in person after twelve months of email correspondence?
I walked across the remainder of the runway to the Walvis Bay airport building. It more closely resembled a small warehouse than an airport. It had only one pair of doors, consisted of only two storeys, and the people and vehicles one would usually expect to see bustling around an airport were entirely absent. I found myself at the back of the line of travellers who were waiting to have their passports stamped at passport control. I hurriedly filled out one of the entry forms that were lying scattered on a small desk nearby and then glanced around. There was a high wall to my right with a sliding door that had been opened to allow visitors to pass through after they had collected their luggage. Suddenly, my father’s initial concerns seemed extremely well founded. What if Austin isn’t here to pick me up? What will I do alone in a third world country? My heart was racing and I realised I was clutching my passport so tightly, my knuckles were white. Enough! I told myself. He’ll be here.
The Namibian immigration officer checked my Australian passport and allocated me a three month stay in Namibia despite my declaration of intended stay stating ‘two weeks.’ I thanked him and proceeded to the small baggage carousel to collect my suitcase. I had waited until every other suitcase had been taken and still mine had not appeared. My first thought was that my luggage had been lost, but then an airport employee climbed through the carousel and placed the last remaining suitcase there for collection. Thankfully, it was mine. I lifted it down onto the floor and turned to exit the airport. When I looked up, I saw Austin standing waiting for me. My breath caught in my throat as I was reminded that this was one good-looking man! He was dressed in a white long-sleeved collared shirt and his classic fitted Stirling pants, his hair neatly combed and his skin glowing with a perfect tan bestowed by the African sunshine. He was smiling at me with such an open, engaged expression that I smiled in return, raised my hand and waved, and walked towards him.
‘Hi!’ I said.
‘Hi,’ Austin replied, and putting his hand on my shoulder, he kissed my cheek, took my suitcase from me and led me out of the airport, asking about my flight and explaining that the hot weather was the result of East Wind conditions, the wind that sweeps across the desert to the west coast of Namibia. Austin’s movements and gestures had the kind of graceful quality that results from both physical fitness and self-assurance. The combination was intoxicating!
I climbed into Austin’s white four-wheel-drive Mazda, which was resourcefully outfitted for desert travel, and I smiled as Austin put on his trademark sunglasses and started the engine. It was all I could do to refrain from pinching myself. How did I get here? I quietly marvelled at the wonder of my present situation and the odd turn my life had taken. Then as we pulled out of the little airport car park and onto the road for the drive to Austin’s home in Swakopmund, my jaw dropped. As far as I could see, we were surrounded by giant desert sand dunes. The sunlight made the dunes appear bright golden yellow as they towered over us on either side. The wind sang as it blew more and more sand across the road in front of us. The dunes were always changing shape due to the wind conditions, and the constantly moving sand made them seem like living sentinels in the ancient desert. The sky was a clear and flawless blue and I was instantly enraptured with this incredible place.
If there had been any awkwardness between Austin and I at all, it completely dissolved during the half hour drive from Walvis Bay to Swakopmund. We talked to each other incessantly, Austin pointing out the various features of the desert landscape and I sharing my first impressions. Soon we came to a long stretch of beach on our left, with a magnificent shipwreck near the shore. The ship had been there for some time and the salt water was slowly taking a toll on the wreck, parts of which were streaked with rust. The waves crashed onto the sand ahead of the old ship and sent a misty spray into the air. Austin explained to me that this was the Skeleton Coast, where the cold Atlantic Ocean met the Namib Desert sand dunes immediately to our right.
‘The cold air from the sea creates a mist when it meets the hot wind from the desert, and the resulting fog is used as a water source by lots of little animals living in the dunes,’ Austin informed me.
‘What sort of animals?’ I asked.
‘Palmato spade-footed geckos, Peringuey’s side winding adders, dune beetles… they all benefit from it. Moisture from the mist condenses on their bodies and they drink it. We haven’t had rain in Namibia for two years. The rains just never came,’ Austin said.
This brought us to a discussion of the effects that global warming and climate change have on wildlife, which was cut short as Austin pulled into an ocean front area covered in bright pink flamingos. Hundreds of the graceful birds were feeding in the shallows and Austin handed me a pair of binoculars with which to better view their behaviour.
‘They’re beautiful!’ I exclaimed. ‘Do they live here year round?’
‘No, they migrate here,’ Austin answered. ‘Soon they will leave again.’
‘Where do they go?’ I asked.
‘North to Etosha National Park and Botswana,’ Austin said.
Austin and I passed the binoculars back and forth to each other every minute or so. The flamingos crowded the shore and stood ankle deep in the water. Continuously dipping their wide, curved beaks into the shallows, they filtered tiny organisms out of the water and then raised their heads to swallow them. Now and then, a few of the birds would spread their wings and take to the air, revealing a wide magenta stripe on the underside of their wings that was much darker than the rest of their bodies.
After watching the flamingos for a while, we continued the drive into the town of Swakopmund. Located four-hundred kilometres west of Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, Swakopmund is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert. I was enchanted by the German colonial architecture and small-town feel of the place, which was founded in 1892 as the main harbour for the Imperial German colony, while the harbour at nearby Walvis Bay had belonged to the British. The facades of Swakopmund’s buildings were so beautiful that I mistook the local prison for a hotel! Austin drove me around the town, showing me some of the places I had been reading about in his emails over the past six months. Indigenous African people outnumbered those of European descent in immense proportions and I was stunned to see Herero women strolling down the street in the colonial dress of another century.
When we finally reached Austin’s home, I recognised it instantly from the photos he had sent me months before. He lived in a one-bedroom cottage underneath a magnificent house owned by close friends – a situation that suited the lifestyle of an adventure traveller perfectly. The ocean on the other side of town was visible from the sand road in front, and behind the house the Namib Desert began. The most striking feature of the house was the thatch roof, which utilised layers of dried grass bunched tightly together to form a roof covering for the house. I had never seen anything like it before. There was a garden in front of Austin’s rooms containing a desert barrel cactus and natural rock displays, on which a preserved rock monitor lizard was perched. Austin parked the Mazda in the garage and ushered me to the front door.
Austin’s place was a naturalist’s dream. The walls were covered in beautifully framed pictures of African animals, but most particularly African snakes, monitor lizards and geckos, that Austin had taken and that graced the covers of such magazines as Air Namibia’s Flamingo, as well as Terre Sauvage and Conserva. Other framed photographs included Austin on location with a king cobra and anaconda, as well as some exquisite desert chameleon shots. Austin’s furniture was almost entirely wooden and the shelves were lined with anything and everything pertaining to wildlife and Africa. Hand carved rhino curios, wild pigs, mongoose, giraffes, elephants and komodo dragons made from both wood and stone peered down from varying heights and a crocodile skull grinned from its place on the lower shelf. Above it was a fully inflated and beautifully preserved puffer fish and the skull of a wild pig, a fossilised Carcharodon megalodon shark tooth that was larger than my hand, and a piece of very old legal ivory from Zimbabwe engraved with a herd of elephants. The far lounge room wall was lined with African tribal weaponry, from machetes in masterfully carved wooden sheaths, spears and knives to a wooden container filled with Bushman’s darts that were each tipped with the poison of Euphorbia roots. Heaven help anyone attempting to break into this place! Austin also had a collection of desert rocks and crystals, and souvenirs from Egypt, Australia, Borneo, Cambodia and India lined every available space. A yellow-bellied sea snake and a puff adder specimen preserved in clear cases adorned other rooms. Austin’s home was exactly the sort of place I dreamed of as a museum-mad child. One of my favourite places was the Australian Museum in Sydney for its dinosaur and modern animal displays, and Austin’s collection made me feel instantly at home.
We sat on the lounge chair and Austin handed me a copy of his recently published new book, ‘The Last Snakeman.’ This semi autobiography and photographic collection was an achievement to be proud of. It contained details of Austin’s early life, from his time in the South African Defence Force and working in snake parks to his eventual move into wildlife filmmaking and the later development of his own series for Animal Planet. There were also chapters addressing snake bite poisoning and conservation of wildlife. The photographs in the book were an awe-inspiring tribute to Africa and the adventurous life Austin leads. Austin had signed the book for me, as promised many months ago on email. The inside cover read:
Thank you for your courage and your trust in me.
Welcome to Namibia.
Austin J Stevens
Once I had found a suitable place for my things and Austin and I had talked some more, we decided to go to the Tiger Reef bar for a drink. Tiger Reef was situated quite literally in the sand on the beach looking out over the cold and tempestuous Atlantic Ocean. Austin and I sat down and we each drank vodka with orange juice. We watched the setting sun glow red and become molten light on the horizon before it disappeared into the waves. We reminisced about how we had both come together and then we ordered the next round.
Austin and I stayed at Tiger Reef as darkness enveloped the coast. One of the Tiger Reef employees lit a fire and we each took a chair beside it. With the alcohol taking the edge off our nerves, our conversation never stopped and we couldn’t take our eyes off each other. It was not long before we both realised just how much we had learned about each other over the past year of long distance correspondence. After hours of discussion, we reached out and held each other’s hands.
‘You’re too far away,’ Austin said softly. The light from the fire illuminated the shades of green in his eyes, and I felt a surge of appreciation, understanding and attraction for this man who had welcomed me into his home and his life.
‘Move over then,’ I replied with a smile, and promptly shifted myself into Austin’s chair. He put his arm around me and the conversation continued unabated until I gently placed my hand on his face. Our first kiss was electric and the wordless consideration of a relationship expanded into a feeling of limitless possibility.
I don’t know how long we stayed at Tiger Reef. Time meant very little. Austin and I said everything we had longed to say over the many months we had been limited by email. Words flew back and forth between us, giving shape and form to our thoughts as we discovered them, moment by moment. Tourists joined us by the fire and now and then, they drew us into their conversations. The night wore on and as the moon rose high over the ocean, we decided to leave. As we stood to go, we noticed a man working furiously in his sketchbook, glancing at us frequently before his pen raced across the page again. Austin went to the man and spoke with him briefly, returning to me with two pieces of paper in his hands.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s us!’ Austin said, handing me the pages. The man had sketched us twice with a black felt-tipped pen. The first artwork showed Austin and I as we had begun the evening, sitting as close as our separate chairs would allow, gazing at each other and in the full grip of conversation. The second sketch was unfinished, but clearly depicted our move into the same chair, our arms around each other and my head resting on Austin’s shoulder as we stared into the fire. When we explained to the artist how special these sketches were, as they were a record of our first evening together, he gave us the drawings. I treasure them to this day.
It turned out that making it back to the Mazda in the sandy beach ‘car park’ was not as easy as I anticipated. Not because of our slightly inebriated state, but due to high tide! The ocean had completely submerged the area in which we had parked the Mazda. Some considerate person had attempted to construct a stepping stone pathway out of milk crates, but with these almost underwater, Austin and I arrived at the Mazda with our shoes full of sea water and our laughter ringing out across the now deserted beach.
To be continued in Chapter 3, when Austin takes me on my first trip to search for reptiles in the sand dunes of the Namib Desert. You’ll be amazed by what we find!