Ephemerality

The dry river bed of the Omaruru river, Namibia

Swakopmund, South West Africa, December 1976

Just like the year before my parents had driven the long road from where we lived in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, to Swakopmund, South West Africa (now Namibia) for the summer holidays. This year, it wasn’t only our family, but also that of my mom’s sister, and they had the same setting as ours – father, mother, daughter and son.

Now I don’t know how it is nowadays, but back then you could camp anywhere you could find a spot. On the road towards our holiday location, we always overnight next to the road just before we reached Rehoboth. When we reached Swakopmund, our parents looked for a place to camp. For those who don’t know, most of the Namibian coastline is a desert – the Namib desert.

Camping in the desert comes with its own challenges. One of those challenges was driving through all that sand, and since neither of the families owned a 4×4, we did what so many others did: let out half of the air from the tires, and somehow because the tires were softer, they could drive through the sand. Don’t ask me the mechanics behind this, all I know is that it worked.

Another challenge was finding a proper place to set up camp. I have no idea how my parents had decided to set up the tents in that particular spot, except that the ground was a bit more solid there than in the dunes. Oh there were plenty of dunes around, but this particular spot was quite flat, and solid, and close to the ocean. After camp had been set up, my father and uncle took their fishing gear and headed to the seashore. My mom was a keen fisher too, but she and my aunt stayed by the tents. And of course, us children — two nine-year old girls, and two boys, one eight, one seven — were exploring the place around the tents, running between our fathers and mothers.

I still vividly remember the big fishing rods my parents had. They were heavy and the only way they could be held when fishing in sea was to rest them in a kind of harness (think strap-on style, but replace the hole with a sort of shallow ‘tunnel’). It was on one of my trips back from where my father was waiting for a fish to catch on a hook, that I saw the helicopter in the distance.

Now seeing a helicopter in the desert isn’t that strange, but it grew larger and larger and soon my mom and aunt were standing with us kids and watched that big machine approaching. My father and uncle were still oblivious, as the roar of the sea drowned out the sound of the helicopter. It was only when it hovered above us, and started to descend, blowing up sand and having us shield our eyes, that the men realized something was happening.

Two men in uniforms jumped from the helicopter, and came running towards my mom. We were told to leave the camping spot immediately. They were of the National Nature Conservation, and explained that it had rained heavily in the inland, and water was coming down to the ocean. My mom was stunned. Why would we have to move only because rain water was coming down to the ocean? The men showed my mom the edges of the flat area where our camp was. It turned out the camp site was right in middle of the wide river mouth of an ephemeral river*, and from what I can see on the map now, it must have been the Omaruru river.

We had an hour to break down the camp and move our arses out of there, and those two uniformed men helped my parents to get the tents down as quickly as possible. In less than an hour we were in the car, and my parents drove through the desert and we ended up setting up camp on an official camping site, called Mile 14.


When I saw the prompt ‘big’ for Feve’s Reminiscences Project, no memory came to mind. I started thinking of the places we have lived, thought of Namibia (the best years of my childhood) and then Swakopmund came to mind. And that’s why I remembered how wide (big) that river mouth was. It also reminded me of another ephemeral river close to Rehoboth where my brother and I played in the river, of course while it was dry. There are a lot of ephemeral rivers in Namibia. When I started drafting this post in my head, I wanted the year mentioned at the top, and I sat wondering whether it was 1976 or 1977 that this happened. I checked with my father, and he confirmed it was 1976, and that he still has the photos of back then!

Also… 1976. That’s like… SO long ago!


* An ephemeral river is a river that only flows when there is rain or snow has melted. The rest of the year there is just a dry river bed with no water.

© Rebel’s Notes
Image from Wikipedia

Reminiscences: Musings in Memoir

14 thoughts on “Ephemerality

  1. It’s so awesome that you were able to just drive and camp anywhere. That gives me a true sense of adventure and freedom! And I can’t believe going to a desert. That would be an incredible experience, though as you say, I imagine it does come with its challenges haha. Reading about your experience is like reading a story in a book. And omg thank god that helicopter landed to warn you. That sounds so scary.

    1. My best childhood years were the four years we lived in Namibia. There was always a sense of adventure. And this reminded me that I have another ‘desert’ story to tell, from when I was 14. I actually think the more memories start to return, the more I am going to remember 😉

  2. What an amazing experience! You recreated the scene well. My daughter was in the Peace Corps for two years in Namibia in a northern region working on healthcare and immunizations with Namibian organizations. She lived in a small northern town with a governmental hospital/clinics and out in the surrounding areas.

    1. Oh absolutely fabulous to hear that. The farthest north I have ever been in Namibia is Hentiesbaai on the coast. We have also been to Gobabis, but that’s on the same line as Windhoek, where we live. My father was born more to the north, but we have never been there.

  3. Love the flash back your childhood. Having holidayed and worked in Africa on numerous occasions I can feel the heat, smells and the amazing light Africa has in the mornings and evening. You were lucky not to have been caught in a flash flood for sure!

    1. Yes, a flash flood. I forgot that was the term for those things. Your words about the amazing light of Africa, the heat and the smells… it put a smile on my face. Thank you for that 🙂

  4. I was not familiar with the term ‘ephemeral river’ before reading your post. It’s lucky you had warning and were able to get to safety!

    1. I wasn’t familiar with the term either. It’s when I started searching on the map to find the spot where we had camped, that I found the name of the river, searched further and found the term ‘ephemeral river’. I found myself jumping from one link to the other, reading about other rivers in Namibia too, some of which I played in as a teenager 🙂

    1. While writing this piece, I actually wondered why my parents didn’t stay to watch, but they might not have been allowed by the nature reserve guys.

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