An ocean dwelling surfer thrust into the Namib desert with a film crew on assignment, finding coffee in the most unlikely places and learning to deal without it.
Words By John McCarthy
The water was cold and there was a slight current pulling me downstream towards the sea, but my body reveled in the exercise and I still managed to beat the ferry on the crossing.
I’d driven the trusty Land Cruiser production vehicle onto the ferry at Fielsdrif and then for a spot of morning exercise decided to swim across the Orange River into Namibia. Invigorated and refreshed I arrived in Namibia with one thing on my mind. Coffee.
As is customary when I find myself in a different county I have three fundamental priorities. I won’t get into the details of the other two now, but high on that list is getting my caffeine fix.
My travelling companions were what I loosely refer to as coffee peasants. Stefan, PJ and Harry were more than satisfied to start the day with a cup of Frisco or the like and they couldn’t understand my quest to find real coffee.
When working closely and travelling extensively with other people you quickly pick up on their habits and rituals. To start the day, Stefan would always roll a cigarette while PJ brewed up whatever intolerable brew it was he carried with him. Instant coffee, two sugars and ‘melk’, along with nicotine, surely the power behind the South African film industry? Sipping his sweet milky Frisco and blowing plumes of blue smoke straight up at the heavens, the intense thirty-year old camera operator would pace restlessly around the Land Cruiser. PJ followed his every move. Six months into quitting, the fifty-something producer/director lusted hard for the nicotine that Stefan was pulling deep into his lungs. Young Harry, the sound guy, had yet to develop any significant addictions and jovially greeted each day happy to go with the flow in a way only a twenty-year old on his first real adventure can do.
My escape from South Africa was well made. Like a flock of Gollum’s from Lord of The Rings, the inhabitants of Port Nolloth all seem to be infected with an obsession with the little sparkling stones, all the while pretending that they aren’t hungry for diamonds. For such a small town the number of dealers, smugglers, divers and cops is ridiculous. They literally trip over each other in the local supermarket. A lot of people might have got rich on diamonds in Port Nolloth, but I doubt anyone ever found real caffeine satisfaction there, it is a bloody coffee wilderness.
While the vast beauty and emptiness of the Namibian Richtersveldt kept me entertained, it wasn’t exactly bo-chic coffee shop central. By the time I arrived in Luderitz I was Jonesing hard. Unlike young Harry, the sound guy, I’ve had plenty of time to develop a basket load of addictions and caffeine sits right up there amongst the best and worse of them. The depravation was fuelling a storm in my head and I was starting to think mean, nasty and unprintable thoughts.
The ancient German architecture and old streets seem to grow out of the black rock in the Bay that Bartholomew Diaz discovered hundreds of years ago. He named it Angra Pequena or ‘Little Bay’ after taking refuge from a winter gale there. As we drove down the main street in the little town, unbelievably right there on the corner was a coffee shop named ‘Diaz’.
Serendipity, co-incidence, call it what you will, but after what seems like a lifetime working from coffee shops I’ve developed a sixth sense for venues that serve good coffee and I had a very good feeling about Diaz Coffee Shop, tagline: Coffees with Attitude.
It turns out I wasn’t wrong. The friendly and very creative baristas were a breath of fresh air. The coffee was full bodied and delicious, the milk not too hot or too cold and the latte art incredible. Stefan paced restlessly outside pulling hard on his rolo. PJ scowled at the price of the coffee and watched Stefan as he inhaled and exhaled with exaggerated indifference. Harry couldn’t hide his astonishment at the art on his drink or the smooth velvety texture of the way it slid down his throat. There was a certain satisfaction in watching Harry lose his coffee virginity properly for the first time. When we re-emerged into the Namibian sunlight fifteen minutes later, the world was a much better place.
Luderitz was our jump off point for the desert, which was the whole purpose of us filming in Namibia. The Soft Namib is said to be the oldest desert in the world. We obtained special permission and a guide to take us into the most remote areas of the Spiergebeite or ‘forbidden area’. No roads, no sign of mankind, the travel and driving was heavy going. The two Land Cruisers earned their keep in those dunes. The 4.2-liter diesel and the 4.5-liter petrol engine, which was a beast of a machine, worked together to gain us access, but also retain our lifeline to the outside. PJ was relentless, as hard as we drove the machines; he drove us to get the shot. We were up in the dark, worked all day and collapsed in a stupor after a simple meal in the dark. The water we had was brackish and consequently anything we cooked (home brew coffee included) tasted bad. Most of the time we were too tired to care. The nighttime temperatures in the desert plummeted and I slept fully clothed hunkered down in my sleeping bag with my boots on! The work was hard but the pictures were astonishing and for the first time on the trip PJ actually smiled. Adrift on a sea of monstrous dunes we explored and filmed the secrets of the desert. The grit of that sand sank into the fabric of our clothes our beards and our skin. I became used to the sensation of it grinding between my teeth. In the afternoons when the wind blew there was no escaping it. The harder the conditions, the more beautiful the pictures and the happier PJ became. His scowling observation of Stefan was replaced by an irrepressible grin, besides Stefan didn’t have time to smoke because anywhere you pointed a camera was a shot. If he wasn’t shooting he was trying to clean or get the sand out of the cameras. The weight fell off us. Harry’s cherubic rosy-faced cheeks were blackened by the sun, wind and sand of the Namibian desert, while all the time PJ became happier and more cheerful. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. All too soon it seemed we were headed back towards civilization. Getting back to civilization involved an entire day of driving through the dunes alone, then a further 800km on dirt roads the next day where we saw only three cars the whole day.
It was with mixed feelings that I arrived in Swakopmund. The desert had certainly woven its spell on me, but the prospect of a hot shower, followed by cold beer, good coffee and some surfing also sounded pretty good. Swakop is a cultural and sensual oasis in the wilderness; it is also the adventure capital of Namibia. With the day off from the hectic filming schedule I sauntered into town looking for coffee and then surf, in that order.
As luck would have it I wouldn’t have to stroll far before I stumbled across Slowtown Coffee Roasters. What a score! Dennis De Wet is the owner manager and he is a surfer. He happily dialed me into the local surf options. His primary business is supplying other Namibian Coffee shops from his recently relocated roastery. His own coffee shop is young, energetic and friendly, just like it’s owner. It is a hangout for locals and tourists alike and the coffee was delicious. I ordered a take-away cappuccino but the vibe was so cool and Dennis so informative and friendly I ended up drinking it in the store, while shooting the breeze. Why does coffee always taste better out of paper take away cups? After my sojourn in the desert it was heavenly to indulge my epicurean tastes again. Grabbing a bag of beans on the way out, I left Dennis’ store flying high on the good stuff, which in his case comes from South America.
I’m prone to falling in love in coffee shops and Slowtown was no exception. In my brief visit there I realized I’d fallen in love with one of the baristas, several of the patrons and quite a bit of the Namibian landscape in general. It’s amazing stuff, coffee and the desert does funny things to a man…
48 hours in Swakopmund: A local’s guide
By Dennis de Wet of Slowtown Coffee Roasters