Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Sheltering Desert - A Story Of Survival

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the then South West Africa (now Namibia) was under South African administration, the former German colony having been declared a League Of Nations mandate territory after the First World War.

South Africa, being a British ally, started arresting and detaining many local Germans in internment camps.

Two German geologists working in the country at the time decided that:

"We wanted no hand or part in the mass suicide of civilized peoples"


"... we were determined to maintain our personal neutrality and to defend our independence to the best of our ability ... If war comes, we'll spend it in the desert".

'The Sheltering Desert' is the amazing story of how the author, Henno Martin, his friend Hermann Korn and their dog, Otto, survived for two and a half years in the harsh desert landscape of Namibia's Kuiseb canyon.

I've just finished re-reading this story.

It appeals to me because often when I'm in the desert, my fantasy-mind works overtime and I evaluate places, imagining how I could survive in that environment if I were to find myself a fugitive or, if civil society were to break down, à la 2012, ... but there's a vast difference between fantasy and the real deal, as the book's author notes:

"We had always known that life was a hard and bitter struggle and that those who survived did so only at the expense of others. But until we went into the wilderness to live, that knowledge was abstract, theoretical, a reasoned conclusion; and sentiments of a sheltered childhood told us that is was really all quite different and much nicer.

Now the truth was hammered into us pitilessly. We had to kill in order to live - and our supply of ammunition was limited, so that more than once we dared not waste the bullet to give a wounded animal the coup de grace"

Although life was harsh, the two men had much time for reflection and philosophical musings regarding evolution and Man's present state of being:

"We had slid so readily into the life of primitive hunters that we came to the conclusion that underneath the veneer modern man still had a 'Stone-age Soul', which was difficult to reconcile with the civilized life he was leading. Could this contradiction be resolved? In view of man's steadily increasing powers of destruction it was a vital question."

Living as hunter-gatherers, the author talks about the (then) lifestyle of the San people:

"Bushmen had no possessions that a child could break, and all educational rules arose out of danger or necessity, ... as a result children never felt themselves at odds with their environment, which naturally included the world of the adults. In consequence they developed no vices or destructive urges. You never heard a child being scolded and you never saw a child spanked ...

... we found nothing surprising in the fact that this simple but logical form of living had survived for hundreds of thousands of years down to our own day. But what had forced development to go beyond this hard but blissful life?"

When I'm in the desert I often wonder about the strange sense of 'power' or 'freedom' I feel. Martin asks and answers basically the same question:

"The magic of the desert is hard to define. Why does the sight of a landscape of empty sand, rocks, slab and rubble stir the spirits more than a view of lush green fields and woods? Why does the lifeless play of light, colour and distance have such an invigorating, fascinating and elating effect?

Perhaps because no limitations are imposed by other forms of life; perhaps because the mind of the beholder is presented with a fata morgana of unlimited freedom."

After more than two years in the desert, the two men speculate about the future of humankind and come to this conclusion regarding our survival:

"... only the preservation of all our attributes, including our weaknesses, can carry us safely through into the uncertain future.

But how can this be done? Certainly not by force which does not preserve but destroys. There is only one thing which preserves all things, including the weak, and that is love.

The truth which we had felt vaguely all along had become a reasoned certainty: man could command the future only by love."

The book was originally published in German as 'Wenn es Krieg gibt, gehen wir in die Wüste' and the English translation may be ordered and purchased online ... or, better still, maybe it's available through your local library.

The images I've posted are of the general area where they lived out their adventure - I snapped them a few months ago on a road trip ...



  1. Survival is an amazing thing. This sounds like an excellent book. Having crossed the Sahara with my parents when I was quite young I am aware of the dangers. Water being the one item that survival is impossible without. Have a good day. Diane

  2. I'm an avid reader & snap up anything I can about Africa, so will definitely keep a look out for this book when I'm in South Africa later this year. It sounds fascinating - I had never even heard/known about this piece of African history before. (Love the fact that you posted your own photo's taken in the areas where they survived/lived, too ....)

  3. @ Diane - wow, thanks for the link Diane ... I've bookmarked it for later reading ... sounds like you had a pretty adventure-filled childhood ...

    @ Lynda - yeah, it is a fascinating story - Graham Greene has also written a book of short stories, many of which are stories about the early days of adventurers in Namibia ...

  4. Thank you for introducing me to this book. It was even more interesting to see your own photos of the place interspersed with interesting tidbits and extracts from the book. I will be looking for it in my library.

  5. Unfortunately this book isn't available through here or through my library. Apparently it is only available in Africa, unless perhaps someone has brought a copy back to NA and I can find it somewhere or I do a book swap through

  6. I would like so much to read this book.
    I wonder if there is an italian translation...

  7. @ Joyful ... awww sorry to hear that it's not available in your country, perhaps your local library could order it for you?

    @ Andrea ... yes, it is a fascinating story - as far as I know it's only available in English and German - a movie has also been made of the adventure but I've not seen it ...

  8. A fascinating post on a fascinating story with great photos.The book might turn up on ebay?

  9. Thanks Peggy - I'm afraid I don't know much about ebay or how it works ...

  10. thanks for the detailed review of this story which I had never heard of before. Americans tend to forget that the war effected more than Europe and the Pacific area.
    I have been in the wilderness but not for very long and survival was not tested. The desert is beautiful.
    Did these Germans not want to be part of the whole Nazi movement?

  11. Thanks lisleman - from what I can gather from other sources, their professor or mentor had sent them to South West Africa so that they could avoid being caught up in the Nazi movement in Germany ...

    ... the reason that many German nationals were detained here is that there was indeed some support for the Nazis amongst the German community ...

    ... when the two men returned to 'civilization' after one fell ill they discovered that the South Africans did not suspect them of being Nazi sympathizers had had no intention of detaining them - in fact they were given employment with the administration as geologists ...

  12. Sounds like a fascinating read .. must look it up! Love the 3rd and last images the most!!!
    Gena D @ Thinking aloud

  13. Hi Graham,

    Thx so much for sharing this post about such a fascinating book & for the vivid illustration by virtue of your images. We've spent a lot of time in Central Kalahari, also an exceptionally enigmatic place. It'll be awesome to read about another stretch of desert, with a possible view to visiting :-)

    Best regards from Jo'burg,


  14. Hey Naomi - thanks for your visit and comment, I'm glad you liked this post ...

    ... yes, the Namib desert is an amazing place, especially the less-visited area south of Luderitz ... you should definitely plan a visit here - a photographer's paradise ...

    ... If you do come this way please feel free to contact me for advice or assistance