Day 7: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

The “Scourge of the Kaiserbird” begins with the arrival by ship in 1906 of the young Ernst Luchtenstein, his little sister Charlotte, and their mother Therese at Lüderitzbucht, later renamed simply Lüderitz.

Their father and Therese’s husband, Joseph was waiting for them. He had been in the country for three years when they came. He was a transport rider meaning he used ox wagons to transport goods from the bay of Lüderitzbucht to Keetmanshoop in the interior, 325 kilometers away. German Southwest Africa was a young colony then having been appropriated by Adolph Lüderitz in a dubious transaction in 1883, a mere 23 years earlier.

Joseph Luchtenstein, like all transport riders in that area, faced a serious challenge. He had to move his family across 125 kilometers of Namib desert without a ready supply of water. In fact Lüderitzbucht had no water of its own. All its water had to be imported from the Cape, by ship. The German colonists built desalination plants but these often were out of service. The thirsty oxen, horses, mules and humans had to share the limited water supply imported from the Cape, or produced by the dodgy desalination plants.

The heavily laden ox wagons then also had to overcome the thick sand, the ferocious east winds in their faces, the scorching heat by day and the freezing cold at night. On top of it all Germany was in the midst of a war against the indigenous Nama people with Nama commandos ever ready to pounce on transport columns.

It often took an ox wagon weeks to cross the Namib desert and to arrive at Aus, a “mere” 125 kilometers from Lüderitz. It was common practice for the oxen to pull the wagons a few kilometers into the desert, then to be outspanned and driven back to Lüderitz to drink some more of that expensive water and then to be driven back to the wagons in the desert for more of the same. When they had crossed the halfway mark between Lüderitz and Aus the animals would be driven forwards towards Aus, then called Kleinfontein, to drink at the big waterhole at Klein Kubub.

The ordeal was a challenge which only the toughest of men and animals would survive. For a long time I struggled to get my mind around the problem. When you view this inhospitable landscape you find it difficult to believe that anybody could succeed in doing it. It cost me a lot of research and many rewrites before I managed to understand how they did it. It was only then when I could present a credible story.

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An antique map showing some of the transport routes between Lüderitz and Aus. This map helped me to understand how the transport riders managed to survive this ordeal of trekking across the Namib Desert.

One of the things which helped me to understand was when I discovered an antique map of the ox wagon routes showing the presence of some fountains and collections of water in the desert. The treks between Lüderitz and Keetmanshoop mostly didn’t take a direct route over the Tschaukaib plain where the current tar road and the old railway tracks are. Instead they mostly veered south to make use of the little water at Ukamas, sometimes spelt Ukama, and Kaukasib. Without these sources the treks would have been all but impossible.

In one of the stories I related it took one trek six weeks to trek from Lüderitz to Aus. This was based on documented evidence. It proves how hardy these men were.

Once the ox wagons reached Aus, the rest was easy. There were plenty of fountains and grazing between Aus and Keetmanshoop.

It is another of my personal dreams to visit Ukamas and the Kaukasib one day in the future. At the moment it is impossible because they fall inside the prohibited Sperrgebiet.

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” will be available from all leading bookstores in Namibia, through Namibian Book Market, and in South Africa from Upper Case, formerly Graffiti, in Menlyn Maine. Copies can also be ordered from bestellings@kaiserbird.com

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