“If war comes, we’ll go to the desert”
With the outbreak of World War II, the wheels of war were turning in Europe. Soon the frenzy would catch up to the colonies. In Windhoek, Namibia two German geologists were seeing more and more Germans being put in internment camps. Determined to not be locked away Henno Martin and Hermann Korn, with their dog, Otto, fled into the harsh Namib desert.
For two years they lived brutal lives as bushmen, killing game for their food, seeking drinking water, and conducting geologic research and studying animal behavior in Kuisib Canyon.
A graphic autobiographical account of their time in the desert is told in the book “If War Comes, We’ll Go to the Desert” by Henno Martin, and in the English translation “Sheltering Desert”.
Henno Martin weaves fantastically detailed descriptions of their lives, including brutally honest hardships and the gory violence of living off the land, killing for your food. In one chapter Martin describes how he crippled and decapitated the leader of a baboon troop that was continually fouled their drinking water source. The water source wasn’t fouled again after. The book is incredibly violent at times, and is contrasted with philosophical chapters featuring lengthy discussions with Hermann about topics such as evolution, the human condition, and the behavior of the creatures around them.
One morning before sunrise I was sitting up as usual when I heard the crunching of gravel followed by a loud smacking of wet chops. A horribly ugly hyena was at the pool. After drinking it licked its forepaws and then trotted off along the game track which led down the river bed. I was following it with my eyes when I noticed a leopard coming along the same track but from the other direction. The two animals came closer and neither gave any indication that it had spotted the other. The leopard’s fur was ruffled and it slunk forward like a big cat towards the hyena, whose high shoulders and great head with its enormous jaws made it the taller. The two animals were quite close to each other but still neither of them made any attempt to give way.
When they were not more than five paces apart they both stopped and looked at each other for the first time, standing motionless for several seconds, apparently weighing each other up. Then the leopard gave a low growl, and at that the hyena turned sideways, backed off the game path and sat down on its haunches like a dog. The leopard then stalked past silently like a great lady after a short and triumphant exchange with a rival, going not towards the water, but up the northern side of the slope. The hyena sat there and watched its rival depart, and when the leopard was about two hundred metres away the hyena gave vent to its wounded feelings in a long drawn-out cackle. The leopard didn’t even bother to look round. The incident was grotesque, a caricature of human behaviour, and it struck me that the »all too human« behaviour of men was in reality »all too animal«.
The 1958 English translation is available in the public domain from Internet-Archive. Get a pdf here
. The photos did not scan well. There is also a newer edition available from TwoBooks
, a German publishing company. This is the copy I own. I think whoever was doing the translation was also drinking as there are numerous typos here and there. This edition does however have amazing photographs. You can also find used copies of previous editions on Amazon and eBay.
This is a must-read for any geologist. Henno’s eye for detail and ability to share that detail is inspiring. I’d love to peak at his field notes.
See another description of this incredible story, along with some great photos of Kuisib Canyon HERE