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Lost in the Namib for four days

Avatar of inke inke - 15. décembre 2017 - Discover Namibia

In 2008 Klaus von der Ropp (right) visited Peter Stark, the man who saved him, in Ventersdorp in South Africa. (private collection Klaus von der Ropp)

Inke Stoldt

“Since that episode in the desert I drink anything – and with gusto.” He jumps up as I carry our drinks to the table, waits until I am seated and pours for us. Dr Klaus Baron von der Ropp is a lawyer by profession and a gentleman of the old school. In October 2012 he came to Namibia to once again meet the people who came to his rescue on 13 December 1975 after a four-day odyssey in the desert. “Even today, after almost 40 years, I am still infinitely glad and grateful that I was found.” 

At 9 o’clock on the morning of 9 December 1975 a mixed group of five people gathers in Swakopmund for a day tour into the Namib. One of them is 37-year-old Klaus von der Ropp. Tour guide Kurt Kleyenstüber is waiting for them with his off-road vehicle and off they go. In the course of the afternoon the tour guide suddenly realises that he has lost his way. Then the car breaks down. Kleyenstüber reckons that it is engine trouble.   

At this stage nobody is aware that Kleyenstüber has completely lost his bearings and that the tour group’s location is more than 140 kilometres southeast of Swakopmund. Kleyenstüber decides to walk to an inselberg in the distance, which he erroneously thinks is Blutkoppe, to ask miners or tourists for help. Since he seems rather unsure of himself, well-built Von der Ropp offers to accompany him for an hour. It is a warm summer evening and he leaves his shirt in the car. He walks with Kleyenstüber for a while but eventually turns back to start a fire for the rest of the group and gets lost himself. 

Like the tour guide he focuses on the mountain again. Trying to retrace his steps he injures his foot. He uses his underpants to make a bandage, which falls off as he keeps wandering through the night. When the sun rises his tongue feels hard in his mouth. The chilly night is followed by an incredibly hot day. By the time he reaches what he thinks is Blutkoppe he is terribly thirsty. But he finds neither the tour guide nor any miners, only an empty can of Fanta. 

As he trudges on under the glaring sun, wearing only his pants and one shoe, he repeatedly hears his father’s voice: “Walk with your back straight, son.” Von der Ropp, then the West German government’s advisor for southern Africa, suddenly comes across German State President Richard von Weizäcker and his spouse in the desert. He greets the First Lady with a kiss on her hand and apologises for not being able to offer her a chair. He helps her to sit down on the sand. 

Von der Ropp still remembers his hallucinations as clearly as the fact that in his wallet he had a ticket for ten visits to a public swimming pool in Cologne. “Thirsty as I was I could have emptied the whole pool. I lost all track of time and became weaker and weaker. But despite being so dreadfully thirsty I kept calling out for help.”  

After 50 hours alone in the desert he is desperate enough to try and squeeze some liquid from a Euphorbia. He gets hold of the poisonous milkbush which burns and gums up his windpipe. He is barely able to breathe. While in this distressing situation a helicopter flies over without spotting him. His courage deserts him and he tries unsuccessfully to cut his wrists with a stone. 

“Naturally I didn’t know that half of Swakopmund abandoned their shops in the midst of the Christmas season and drove into the desert to look for me. I didn’t know that the tour guide, crawling through the desert on his knees, was found and rescued after he had been lost for 40 hours. The other tourists had noticed at some stage that the engine of the off-road vehicle had only overheated, and so they took a chance and drove off until they ran out of petrol. They were found six hours after the tour guide.” 

The rescue teams ask well-known tracker Peter Stark for assistance. The experienced game ranger from Etosha National Park happens to be in Swakopmund for personal reasons. He immediately starts a systematic search with two Nama trackers and dogs, and a helicopter.  

When Von der Ropp is finally found on 13 December at 12h45 he has survived four days in the desert without anything to eat or drink. He had dug a hollow for himself under a shrub, rigged up his pants for shade and rubbed sand all over his body to prevent sunburn. 

When Stark approaches him Von der Ropp wants to embrace him. But Stark won’t let him because of his unbelievably bad smell. “Like a hyena, you had the smell of death on you,” Peter Stark explains to him later. 

Klaus von der Ropp is taken to the St Antonius Hospital in Swakopmund. The diagnosis: severe dehydration, light sunburn and a weight loss of 22 kilograms. The sisters of the Benedictine Order devote themselves to nursing him back to health and he is soon on his feet again. Even now he still expresses his infinite gratitude in annual letters to the nuns and to Peter Stark.

Von der Ropp visited Peter Stark, who was seriously ill at the time, in 2008 in his retirement home in Ventersdorp in South Africa. During his recent Namibian holiday he met some of the sisters who took care of him in the St Antonius Hospital 37 years ago. 

The 74-year-old, who has had to undergo surgery for cancer several times in recent years, ends our conversation by saying: “Since those days in the Namib I no longer feel fear or pain. Perhaps the experience gave me a lot of strength.”

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Elize van Schalkwyk

16. décembre 2017

"...und hast uns're Sonne ins herz dir gebrannt..."

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