Martin Luther – Heavy duty vehicle with staying power

When you pass ‘Martin Luther’ just outside Swakopmund and have heard the story of the road locomotive you will probably chuckle spontaneously. But is the story that is told about the monstrous steam engine in fact correct? Was the whole idea really that crazy?

The discrepancies already start with the name. According to historians the famous words “here I stand, I cannot help it”, which Martin Luther is supposed to have uttered in 1521 after his interrogation by the Imperial Diet in Worms were never spoken. The derisive name for the vehicle, which got stuck 1.5 km outside Swakopmund and was abandoned there, is therefore on shaky ground. The time of naming is also wrong: The joke about ‘Martin Luther’ was already doing the rounds before the steam engine had even driven its first few metres in the Namib…

The steam ox with three wagons. Source: National Archives

The steam ox with three wagons. Source: National Archives

But back to the start. As more and more settlers arrived in the country at the end of the 19th century, the volume of goods increased as well. Ox wagons were the only mode of transportation for heavy loads. However, almost 100 km of desert had to be negotiated on the way from the coast into the interior. There was nothing to feed on for the oxen and they were worn out completely. Many oxen died and the route was lined by their skeletons. The surviving animals needed months to recover from the ordeal. Therefore only three return trips per year could be made from the coast to Windhoek. It was still very early days for automobiles and plans for a railway line remained shelved because of the costs.

In this situation senior lieutenant Edmund Troost had the idea to import a traction engine. His steam ox, as he jokingly called it, was supposed to drive from Swakopmund via Nonidas and Goanikontes to meet the ox wagons at Heigamgab and save them half the trip through the desert. “The route up to almost 2 km out of Swakopmund was (…) hard, of a rocky nature”, Troost stated. He also felt that enough water for the steam engine was available along the route. At his own expense he shipped the vehicle from Germany after obtaining the government’s assurance that public goods would be transported with his vehicle.

However, even the vehicle’s arrival in 1896 started with a glitch: It could only be off-loaded in Walvis Bay and the departure to Swakopmund was delayed by business in Cape Town and unrest among the country’s Nama and Herero population until the contract with the engine driver had expired. As Troost reported later on, the nickname ‘Martin Luther’ had already been coined at that stage. First an American gold hunter, and after him a Boer, tried to drive the vehicle. The deep sand became a gruelling obstacle: The behemoth got stuck every 50 metres and shovelling it clear was a tedious process. Labourers simply stayed away, water had to be obtained up to 30 km away. Three months passed before the steam ox finally huffed into Swakopmund.

Martin Luther Swakopmund, 9 Cent, issued in 1975, artist: Arthur Howard Barrett

But there was no end to the problems. The engine had to be stoked for three hours before the vehicle was able to move. Troost lamented that at times it was operated for only three hours per day because the engine driver insisted on his breakfast and lunch break. In retrospect he also said that the 2-metre tow bar to the wagons proved too short, causing them to swing off heavily to the sides on the uneven surface. A 10-metre tow bar would also have been an advantage when crossing sandy riverbeds because at least the vehicle and the wagons would not have gotten stuck together.

The last blow for the steam ox already came after less than ten transports. Some 1.5 km out of Swakopmund several pipes melted in the boiler because apparently there was not enough water in the steam system. Repairs were not worth the effort since in the meantime governor Theodor Leutwein had received confirmation from Germany that a narrow-gauge railway line was going to be built from Swakopmund into the interior…

Contact for collectors: Philately Services, Private Bag 13336, Windhoek; Tel +264 (0)61 2013097/99,

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Mûgorob – Symbol for Supremacy

The massive sandstone pillar which until 7 December 1988 pointed to the sky like a warning finger in southern Namibia, east of the B 1 national road near Asab, was 12 m high, up to 4.5 m wide and weighed some 450 tons. What made the ‘Finger of God’ (also known as Mukorob) so special, however, was its base. Just 3 m long and 1.5 m wide it was narrower than the mass of rock which it supported! The mighty finger balancing on such a delicate foot, for thousands of years already, seemed like a wonder – a true wonder of nature.

No title (Mûgorob), first decimal definitive issue, published 1961

The ‘Finger of God’ inspired various tales. The Nama legend below explains the name and was told in many different versions:

The Herero people had been at loggerheads with the Nama since time immemorial. One day a large group of Herero and their well-fed cattle came from the grazing areas in central Namibia to the Nama region in the arid south. “Look here, how rich we are, with our nice fat cattle”, they boasted. “And what have you got? Nothing but rocks!” they mocked. The quick-witted Nama, however, replied: “We have this very special rock. You may own as many heads of cattle as you want – we are the lords of the country as long as this rock stands here.” This annoyed the Herero and they decided to topple the rock. They tied many thongs into a long rope, wound it around the rock and hitched up their cattle. But hard as they tried, they were not able to topple the rock. “Mû kho ro!” the Nama shouted – “There you see!”

In the Nama-Khoekhoegowab language the name of the rock is in fact ‘Mûgorob’, not Mukorob, which is one of the frequent small inaccuracies when original Nama names are used. The translation into ‘God’s Finger’, however, is not only inaccurate but downright wrong. According to Khoekhoegowab expert Wilfried Haacke the accurate translation of Mûgorob is ‘(somebody) saw’.

The Mûgorob before the collapse. Photo: Mark van Aardt

Apparently there was a saying in more recent times according to which Mûgorob was also seen as a symbol for supremacy – in this case ‘white supremacy’. The saying went that if Mûgorob collapsed, so would the system of Apartheid. It is not clear, however, whether this was perhaps invented only after Mûgorob had tumbled (on 7 December 1988) or even only after independence in 1990.

Whatever the case may be – the Herero and anti-apartheid activists are an unlikely cause for the collapse of Mûgorob. As was explained in the previous sequel of ‘Stamps & Stories’, geologists Roy Miller and Karl Heinz Hoffmann as well as geophysicist Louis Fernandez concluded in an essay published in 1990 that the causes were rain, pressure exerted by the rock formation’s own weight and – as the trigger – possibly the devastating earthquake in Armenia, the shock waves of which were also registered by seismological stations in Namibia.

Mûgorob continues to fascinate people. It was proclaimed a National monument in 1955 and the status was not revoked after the collapse. According to monument expert Andreas Vogt the justification for the monument status may have taken on a new meaning instead: the debris of Mûgorob illustrates that geological formations certainly do not exist forever but are subjected to the geological process of erosion – slow and imperceptible as it may seem.

One of the Mûgorob's descendants in Henties Bay. Photo: Sven-Eric Kanzler

There were also plans to reconstruct Mûgorob there and then in actual size – as a sculpture made from fibreglass. The idea was hatched by Oskar ‘Hampie’ Plichta who was the mayor of Keetmanshoop at the time. His vision never materialized but it did not remain without impact. Small Mûgorob sculptures have since appeared in several places in Namibia, one of them in Suiderhof, a suburb of Windhoek, and in the Prosperita industrial area. Another one has been spotted in Henties Bay.

Thus the big impressive Mûgorob got several small descendents after his demise. Hampie Plichta, who died in 2001, certainly would have been pleased…

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Wanted: Small Mûgorobs!

Gondwana would like to establish the number and locations of small descendents of the Mûgorob. One example is the Mûgorob sculpture spotted in Henties Bay (right picture) – but there are more of them in Namibia, maybe even beyond Namibian borders.

If you know of a small Mûgorob, take a picture, upload the photo on the  Gondwana’s Facebook page, state the exact location – and stand a chance to win a Christmas packet of books (Wild Horses in the Namib DesertGondwana History I and IIExpelled from a beloved country)!

Closing date for posts: Friday, 23 December 2011, 15h00 (Namibian time). All posts comprising PHOTO and exact LOCATION will qualify for participation in a draw. The winner will be notified via Facebook.


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Exploring Damaraland on foot

Just in time for the first anniversary of Damara Mopane Lodge work on two hiking trails was completed in early November.

The Mountain Top Route (4 km) requires some climbing, over a total altitude of 118 metres, to reach a hilltop in the vicinity of the lodge. For the scramble over sharp rocks you can borrow protective gloves from reception. This is a challenging tour and the reward for your mountaineering effort is the gorgeous view of the surrounding Damaraland scenery. The trail is lined by some interesting trees, including the large-leaved Sterculia, the Moringa and Maerula.

Swimming pool and bar area at Damara Mopane Lodge

By contrast, the Valley Walking Trail is a leisurely 4-km-walk through diverse vegetation such as Mopane forest, grassy plains and thickets of Trumpet Thorn. There are many different birds to observe: Monteiro’s Hornbill, cardinal wood peckers, babblers, robins, Guinea fowl and weavers, to name but a few. Lively little sunbirds are particularly active in spring and summer. Ecologically speaking they are Africa’s counterpart to the Kolibri (hummingbird) in the Americas. Sunbirds are not quite as agile, however, and they cannot hover in midair for quite as long.

Bungalows and gardens at Damara Mopane Lodge

Bungalows and gardens at Damara Mopane Lodge

On both routes look out for lizards, geckos, chameleons and agamas taking a sunbath. With a little luck a warthog or Damara dik-dik may cross your way. Snakes are also part of the Damaraland fauna. Usually they give way before the hiker has even noticed them. If nevertheless you happen to have a surprise encounter with a snake – keep your distance and slowly retrace your steps.

Both routes are clearly marked. For the environment’s sake you are not allowed to leave the trail or remove any plants. After your hike the large pool of Damara Mopane Lodge beckons for a refreshing dip and a thirst quencher is ready at the bar.