We were already breaking rule number one of driving in Africa: don’t drive at night.
We’d taken a wrong turning and had had a flat tyre, so were behind schedule. But we needed to get to Solitaire. According to our petrol station map, it was the only place for a few hundred miles with fuel and a place to stay.
At last we started to see lights in the distance – that must be Solitaire. Distances in the desert are deceptive though, and what we thought would be a few minutes drive ended up being still half an hour away. As we got closer, our hearts sank as this was clearly not a big place and we desperately hoped there really would be fuel and a place to stay.
Solitaire was a ‘one pump, one building’ dusty town in the middle of the desert. On the veranda, we were greeted by Moose, a gruff, pot-bellied, ginger-bearded man wearing a kilt and a beret with a pom pom. He showed us to a round hut at the back with a corrugated tin roof. Inside were two metal framed beds, mismatched in height. At least we had a place to stay tonight. He kindly rustled us up a stew and rice meal with some apple pie for dessert.
It rained at night. We were in the middle of the desert and it was raining. And we heard every drop on that tin roof.
The next morning Moose asks if we want to take a shower as he needs to ‘fire up the donkey’. Puzzled by this impending act of animal cruelty, we decline, saying we need to hit the road. Not before a hearty breakfast though, as well as filling up with fuel and a photo of the cactus plants growing in an old bath tub.
That was twelve years ago…. and many people have since spoken to us or written about their equally surreal experiences of arriving in this tiny place in the middle of nowhere.
On our current trip, we have a 4×4 rather than the Ford Fiesta of our earlier one, and we also have a large reserve tank of fuel. Solitaire is on our route though from Walvis Bay to the dunes at Sossusvlei, and it would be a shame not to stop by.
Solitaire is unrecognisable from 12 years ago. Once a tiny dot on the map, it now has a lodge, a campsite, a general store, and a proper fuel station. Importantly though, it also has Moose’s Desert Bakery, which has become a popular pit-stop for tour busses and independent travellers alike, all making a pilgrimage to try Moose’s now famous apple strudel, about which many paragraphs have been written in articles and guide books. The apple strudel is still delicious, though I can sense the baker’s frustration as people by-pass the other delights that look equally fabulous and show off his broader baking skills.
From the corner of his eye, Ven glimpses Moose. A bit worried that his fame may mean that he doesn’t talk to tourists any more, I hesitantly introduce myself and explain that we had been here many years ago. Thankfully Moose has a big smile for us and is more than happy to chat. The property hadn’t been making money so his family sold the farm to the lodge developers. They opened a bakery as part of the deal, selling Moose’s apple strudel to the masses. Moose is frustrated though that giving the lodge the recipe that he slowly made legendary amongst travellers hasn’t been more lucrative for him personally. He admits he’s not a businessman, and had no way of knowing how Solitaire would develop and how his strudel’s fame would spread! He’s effectively just an employee there now, though there’s clearly a trickle of people who make a pilgrimage to see him and not just to eat apple pie.
We were sad that Solitaire has lost that ‘town in the middle of nowhere’ feel, but really happy to chat to Moose. He clearly enjoys cooking and we had a lovely conversation about Indian spices. I promised to email him my tandoori chicken recipe, though I suspect that I won’t get the top secret strudel recipe in return.
We now also know that if he offers to ‘fire up the donkey’, we should accept, as we’ll get hot water for our shower, heated up by putting a few logs in the burner.