Day 10: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

One of the central places in my novel, “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird” is Aus, a tiny town on the edge of the Namib Desert, nestled against the rough Aus mountains, on the side of the road and railway connecting Lüderitz at the coast with Keetmanshoop in the interior.

Aus is very small, by any standards, but it has a rich history. The best is that much of the history is still visible and tangible. In addition the town sports several very comfortable and even luxurious accommodation establishments for the tourists that come to enjoy the unique environment.

In my story I tell how the brave men of the ox wagon transport routes used Aus as their springboard and resting station when they plied their trades in the difficult days of the late 19th and early 20th century. In those days these men and their ox wagons and animals were the only means of transportation for all the goods that the German soldiers and the farmers of the south of the country needed. Keetmanshoop is 325 kilometers from Lüderitz, a distance that would take any ox wagon at least two weeks, even under the most favourable conditions.

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An antique map showing some of the ox wagon routes leading to and from Aus.

The thing is that the piece of real estate between Lüderitz and Aus, measuring 125 kilometers, offered some of the most unfavourable land for man and beast anywhere in the world, especially on the inbound journey. The entire area is desert, the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world. Aus lies some 4500 feet above the sea, which means that the poor oxen faced an uphill battle, all of the time, in a very literal sense. Also, there is no grazing or water on the way, except for a few small brackish fountains which was dry most of the time. Mostly the wagons were relatively empty on their outbound journeys to the coast, but once on their way back in the direction of Aus and Keetmanshoop the wagons were laden to their maximum capacity. Add to that the searing hot, loose sand and the worst of all, the stinging east wind which raged into the men and oxen’s faces and one had the perfect ingredients for disaster.

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The wild horses of Aus, a favourite with tourists.

Aus was the calm before and after the storms of the journeys through the Namib. The routes between Aus and Keetmanshoop were comparatively easy to traverse with abundant grazing, flat, hard surfaces and several fountains and rivers. The transport riders were acutely aware of this. They used Aus to rest up and allow their animals to graze and drink well before tackling the harsh desert. Conversely, on their way back, they strained with all their might to reach Aus. Aus was the aim, the goal. It literally meant the difference between life and death. They knew that if they reached Aus they would make it.

In German Aus means “out”. One would assume that in this context the town was named because it meant that it was “out of the desert”, but not so. Aus means “Place of Snakes” in Khoekhoegowab (Namadamara) the language of the original inhabitants of the South of Namibia, the Nama people. Presumably it once was home to many snakes, or perhaps still is.

My favourite place of rest in Aus is Klein-Aus Vista, the establishment run by Piet and Christine Swiegers. They offer luxurious hotel rooms with all amenities, a perfect camping terrain as well as two unique separate units, the Geisterschlucht and Eagle’s Nest, tucked deep into the mountains providing total isolation and some of the most spectacular sunset views anywhere in the world. When one looks west one can almost see all the way to Lüderitz, causing me to write in a special moment of inspiration: “When the four ox wagons rounded the foothills of the Aus Mountains, the outstretched expanse of the Namib Desert lay laughing before them, almost like a lady of the night in all her nakedness. It was as though the desert was enticing them, knowing she would soon have them in her power.”

In town is the Bahnhof Hotel which I gave a special place in my book. It is also my favourite lunchtime eating place. The food is always German and fresh and the beer is teeth hurtingly cold. Bahnhof is German for station. In 1906 a railway between Lüderitz and Keetmanshoop was built in record time. Unfortunately it involved the use of forced labour and resulted in the deaths on hundreds if not thousands of Nama prisoners. The “Bahnhof” of Aus played a role in all of this.

Aus is also home to the site of a very famous and special concentration camp of the First World war, some special entrenchments of the same war, the famous wild horses of Garub and the site of the very first aerial bombardment in the history of warfare -the Tschaukaib Plain.

The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” is 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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