SOLITAIRE (Namibia), May 28 — The Namib Desert, the world’s oldest desert at 43 million years, is a dry and barren place. Not where one would expect to find a haven for tasty treats given that food and water are hardly abundant here.
But even the most desolate of places has its secret delicacies. Is it a steak of oryx, Namibia’s national animal (delicious if you like your red meat quite gamey)? Or biltong — the local jerky — made from various antelopes such as kudu and springbok?
Here’s a clue: the most delectable bite for hundreds of dusty miles isn’t something savoury but something sweet.
To find out what this is, you’ll have to brave the hard and bumpy road that’s the desert highway between the two major tourist destinations of Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay; the former for its world-famous red sand dunes and the latter for its enthralling flamingo population.
Situated at the crossing of the C14 from Walvis Bay to Bethanien and the C24 from Rehoboth to Sossusvlei, Solitaire is a small settlement near the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Its location means it’s the perfect pit-stop for many a long journey, especially if you tire of the hard roads and the neverending dust clouds.
As you enter Solitaire, the very tiny town looks like a scene from an old American cowboy movie, a veritable slice of the Wild Wild West. It’s not even the sparseness of its infrastructure — there’s only a general store, a bakery, a tiny lodge and campsite, and the very important petrol station – but the presence of a “graveyard” of automobiles.
From rusty tractors to a vintage Volkswagen Beetle that has surely seen better days, Solitaire appears to be where Namibia’s old vehicles have come to die. Given the number of tourists and travellers busy taking pictures of them as a one-of-a-kind memento, perhaps this isn’t so macabre. Rather, perhaps this is where cars and trucks go to heaven?
Solitaire has a quiet, desperate sort of beauty. The sun beats down mercilessly on the bare heads of people and the bare branches of trees alike. The landscape of disused petrol pumps and abandoned wheels has a quaint, forgotten world charm to it. This, one may wonder to oneself, isn’t a bad place to linger.
Is the town called Solitaire due to its inherent solitude, with little else for miles and miles but barking geckos and shifting sand? Perhaps, but there is also another theory hidden in the town’s very origins.
There was nothing here over half a century ago till Willem Christoffel van Coller bought 33,000 hectares of land from the government in 1948, to try and farm the hardy Karakul sheep.
His wife, Elsie Sophia van Coller was supposed to have named the town Solitaire because she believed the land had diamonds waiting to be discovered. And of course, “solitaire” also describes a single diamond set into piece of jewellery. If indeed this second theory is true, it’s much wishful thinking as no diamonds were ever found.
Despite this dearth of gemstones, the couple built enough — first a two-room cottage, then a farmhouse and a general store (doubling as a regional post office), and finally the first petrol pump — to create a small town seemingly out of nothing at all and in the middle of nowhere.
The petrol station is the heart of life here in Solitaire as it’s the only place to refuel for hundreds of kilometres. If you miss Solitaire, the nearest places to get fuel for your vehicle is at Maltahöhe, 166km away, or at Walvis Bay, an even further 232 kilometres away.
Simply put, Solitaire is the only place for you to stop to fill up your tanks — both your car’s and your belly’s — for the entire distance between the coastal Walvis Bay and the sand-swept dunes of Sossusvlei.
Speaking of filling your belly, the mystery of the desert’s tastiest treat awaits unravelling within the town bakery. Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery was first opened over 20 years ago by Scotsman Percy Cross “Moose” McGregor, who settled in Solitaire for its tranquillity.
McGregor, who passed away in 2014, was an excellent baker and folks would came in droves to enjoy his freshly-baked pastries, from homemade rolls to not-too-rich cheesecakes.
What the bakery is truly famous for, however, is McGregor’s hearty German apple crumble (Apfelstrudel) that Namibians know and love simply as Solitaire’s apple pie.
Everyone, whether en route to Sossusvlei or to Walvis Bay, would make sure to stop here for the apple pie even if there was enough petrol in their tanks.
Made from an old family recipe, McGregor’s apple pie is not too sweet and full of generous chunks of baked apple. Served piping hot with a dollop of cold cream on the side, there’s no sight more welcoming after a long and hard journey across the desert. The aroma alone will make your mouth water.
As you walk off your midday treat or simply stretch your legs after a long drive, do keep an eye out for the wildlife all around you. Occasional herds of antelopes such as impalas may graze nearby. Ground squirrels frolic in their jerky, playful way. Small birds flit from branch to branch. Cacti thrive best of all, fat and succulent despite the desert heat.
When you finally take your leave, don’t forget to wave goodbye at the last “dead” car at the exit. Really, there’s nothing creepy about this motor graveyard at all.
In fact, one hopes this is truly what heaven is like for them, a place to rest and be celebrated by an ever-replenishing cycle of selfie-taking tourists and Instagrammers. That is a form of immortality, too, no?
Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery
Unit D, C14 & C19 Junction, Solitaire, Namibia
Open daily 7am-4pm
Tel: +264 63 293 621