OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

At­tempt­ing the Dood­sakker in An­gola

Go! Camp & Drive - - Contents - PHO­TOS: Evan Naudé

In front of me the mighty Cunene River flows from the east with a force strong enough to split the beach in two and thrust a rib­bon of sand deep into the ocean. On the op­po­site side of the river mouth lies Namibia, and be­hind me is the whole of the An­golan coast­line. And not far from here an in­fa­mous part of this very coast­line lies in wait for us. It’s a place that has hum­bled many a hard­core off-roader. It’s a place where the ocean’s waves clash with the dunes. It’s a place that even the GPS de­scribes as ex­tremely danger­ous. It’s ter­ri­fy­ing, but it’s also one of the main rea­sons we came to An­gola: to drive the Dood­sakker (Death Acre).

Bor­ders, bush tracks and drag­on­flies

It took us three and a half days to reach the mouth of the Cunene. I met my tour group, all of whom had at least a cou­ple of days’ driv­ing un­der the belt to get here, in Rua­cana, the start­ing point of our jour­ney through the south of An­gola with Live the Jour­ney.We are six ve­hi­cles in to­tal, four from South Africa and two guide ve­hi­cles, with 13 peo­ple. I ride in the lead guide ve­hi­cle with Danie “Jakkals” van Elle­wee, one of Live the Jour­ney’s most se­nior guides with many years of ex­pe­ri­ence driv­ing in Namibia and An­gola. For the next 10 days we are go­ing to ex­plore the south­west­ern cor­ner of An­gola – west­wards along the Cunene to the ocean where we turn north up the coast to the fish­ing town of Namibe and even­tu­ally back to the bor­der with a south-east­ern curve via the city of Lubango.We depart early on a Thurs­day morn­ing and make a quick stop at the Rua­cana wa­ter­fall for a few pic­tures.We don’t stay long since we need

to get through the bor­der and the process has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing te­dious. And in­deed, even though the bor­der is much more or­derly than most African bor­der posts, it still takes us three hours to ob­tain the nec­es­sary stamps in our pass­ports. It’s just past lunchtime when we en­ter An­gola. Jakkals leads us in a north-west­erly di­rec­tion so that the Cunene is al­ways some­where on our left. Al­most im­me­di­ately I see the land­scape is sim­i­lar to that of Kaokoland in north­ern Namibia. Ap­par­ently it doesn’t let it­self be con­tained by the river and still stretches into An­gola for some dis­tance.We even en­counter a few Him­bas that com­plete the pic­ture. For the rest of the af­ter­noon we drive along a bumpy stone-cov­ered track and through sev­eral dry riverbeds.When the day’s shad­ows start to draw long, we pitch camp in one of the riverbeds. In­stantly a mob of flies de­scend upon us, but as the heat fades away an equally enor­mous swarm of drag­on­flies ar­rive to make a swift meal of the flies. From my camp chair I’m a grate­ful spec­ta­tor to na­ture’s way of bal­anc­ing it­self.

The Marien­fluss’ big brother

Day two un­folds more or less the same as day one, be­cause even though the dis­tance we travel is lit­tle, we strug­gle to get the nee­dle on the speedome­ter above 40 km/h. At least re­cent rains have turned the veg­e­ta­tion around us into a lush green idyll with blos­som­ing baob­abs and ma­hango plan­ta­tions around the ru­ral set­tle­ments that tower high above our bakkies. It’s pic­turesque and helps to keep a long day in the ve­hi­cle in­ter­est­ing. The next morn­ing we depart from our camp­site in an­other dry riverbed and head for Iona, a small town on the edge of the Iona Na­tional Park. Be­yond the town the land­scape slowly but surely starts to open up into vast plains, also ma­jes­ti­cally ver­dant af­ter the rains. The stones dis­ap­pear from the track which has now turned to sand and af­ter two days of con­stant shak­ing, the softer ride is so bliss­ful that if I close my eyes I can al­most imag­ine we’re driv­ing on tar. We pass a sec­tion where a mul­ti­tude of wel­witchias lie scat­tered on ei­ther side of the road. Jakkals reck­ons they’re be­tween 400 and 500 years old. “To me the wel­witchia is a unique, beau­ti­ful and even a com­i­cal plant,” he says on the ra­dio and I get his point when I con­sider these strange-look­ing plants. At the ghost town of Espin­heira there is a small of­fice where we have to pay our park fees be­fore con­tin­u­ing. Luck­ily it’s a Satur­day and the con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cers are in a good mood (some more jolly than oth­ers) so it’s not long be­fore we’re on the road again, edg­ing ever closer to the Cunene. The next part of the park is re­mark­able. I have never seen a wider grass plain, and when the wind swirls across the plumes it’s as if I can see the earth breathe. Soon we start see­ing vast herds of gems­bok and spring­bok, beau­ti­fully framed against a back­drop of pas­tel colours. This is the Marien­fluss’ big brother, I think, and later Jakkels shows me the ex­act point where the Marien­fluss lies about 60km south of us. “And there it is: the great Cunene,” Jakkals an­nounces on the ra­dio when we turn off the main track. I look up and see a band of dunes across the whole hori­zon. It’s the dune field that sep­a­rates the Skele­ton Coast from the Kaokoveld

When the wind swirls across the plumes it’s as if I can see the earth breathe.”

and from this side it’s par­tic­u­larly in­tim­i­dat­ing. Jakkals knows that side of the river quite well too and en­sures me that we should be thank­ful we’re on this side to­day. “Those dunes aren’t your play mate,” he warns. We pitch camp on the bank of the river, but not too close, be­cause croc­o­diles have been known to crawl out of the wa­ter at night. Nev­er­the­less, it’s a stun­ning camp­site and a place where few peo­ple have had the priv­i­lege to fall asleep to the sound of the Cunene River rush­ing by.

Close call!

The next morn­ing we drive back up to the grass plains and con­tinue west. Be­fore we head for the river mouth we re­port to a group of po­lice­men who spend their days amongst the dreary build­ings of Foz du Cunene. I get that fa­mil­iar feel­ing when you travel to in­hos­pitable places: I’m glad I don’t have to live here.

At 11:30 we ar­rive at the mouth of the Cunene.We take a break and have lunch so we have enough time to take pic­tures and en­joy the fresh ocean breeze. And also be­cause we’re wait­ing for the tide to turn, be­cause through the Dood­sakker your tim­ing co­in­cides per­fectly with low tide. Jakkals ex­plains that we also have to con­sider the height of the swell and with the new­est up­dates he’s re­ceived on his satel­lite phone we might just have a small win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to­day. He keeps a con­stant eye on his watch and when the time is just right, we set off along the beach. I watch Jakkals as we dart up the beach be­tween waves on the left and dunes on the right. He keeps watching the coast­line far ahead of us. “You have to con­cen­trate here, be­cause you can drive your­self into a cor­ner,” he ex­plains. I start see­ing what he means – apart from the nar­row beach, the Dood­sakker also has a num­ber of penin­su­las that curve with long arms into the ocean. If you drive down one of these arms by mis­take you’ll have to drive all the way back again and waste pre­cious time. In be­tween there are also wide, flat stretches of beach, but spring tide turns these into salt flats that hide dan­ger­ously soft sand un­der a hard crust. If you get stuck here a re­cov­ery is nearly im­pos­si­ble and the tide might come in and trap you too. “There are a lot of fac­tors apart from just dunes that make the Dood­sakker so danger­ous,” Jakkals tells me. His words had hardly sunk in when I see a good ex­am­ple of what he’s talk­ing about. At one point Jakkals turns the con­voy around so we can get around a salt pan. Where we turn the sand seems hard, but about half­way through we feel the bakkie start­ing to strug­gle. Jakkals im­me­di­ately shifts to a lower gear and puts his right foot down. “Get out of my track, drive your own! Own track!” he calls on the ra­dio and in the side mir­ror I see the ve­hi­cles be­hind us spread out just in time. “Give it gas all the way to me! All the way, all the way!” Jakkals ad­vises and I just see sludge fly out from un­der the wheels of the guys be­hind us. Two Hiluxes in the group barely make it. It was a very close call. We swal­low the adren­a­line and con­tinue on to our camp­site for the evening.We’re not fin­ished with the Dood­sakker, how­ever, since the last and most danger­ous part still lies ahead.

In the bay of tigers

The next morn­ing I wake to a thick fog over the ocean. I find it quite fit­ting since to­day we’re head­ing to the ghost town of São Mart­inho dos Ti­gres on an is­land hid­den in that very fog. By late morn­ing two guys from Flamingo Lodge picks us up in a rub­ber duck and takes us to the is­land, about 10 km from the coast. This 37 km-long is­land was once con­nected to the coast and a thriv­ing town, born out of a fish­meal in­dus­try, was es­tab­lished here. It’s said that up to 1500 peo­ple once lived here.We walk

If you get stuck here a re­cov­ery is nearly im­pos­si­ble and the tide might come in and trap you too.”

among the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­mains of a beau­ti­ful church, a hos­pi­tal, a school, a cinema, and houses on stilts, all the while try­ing to imag­ine what life on the is­land must have been like. A se­vere storm in 1962 broke the penin­sula’s con­nec­tion with the con­ti­nent and de­stroyed a fresh-wa­ter pipe­line. That, and the eco­nomic cli­mate dur­ing the civil war at the time, even­tu­ally led to the town be­ing aban­doned not too long there­after. When the group re­turns to the boat, I hang back for a while so I can ex­pe­ri­ence the ghost town in quiet iso­la­tion. It’s a strange feel­ing to walk the streets all alone and hear only my own foot­steps in the empty rooms. The ghosts of sto­ries that will never be told linger around ev­ery cor­ner. It’s not long be­fore the heat drives us off the is­land.The fur­ther we cruise away from the is­land, the smaller the town be­hind us be­comes. Even­tu­ally it’s just a dim phan­tom again on the hori­zon. Very fit­ting for a ghost town. Later around the camp­fire Jakkals has some bad news: we won’t be able to drive the rest of the Dood­sakker.The guys from Flamingo con­firmed his fears about the swell fur­ther north be­ing too big and the tim­ing with low tide won’t work. It’s a dis­ap­point­ment, but we don’t have a choice. At least we got to do a part of the Dood­sakker and lived to tell the tale. And that’s got to be worth some­thing.

Straight out of the Wild West

On the morn­ing of our sixth day on tour, Jakkals leads us to the only al­ter­na­tive op­tion – apart from turn­ing around – through the Dood­sakker: the higher ground of the dunes. I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily call it an eas­ier op­tion, but with a team like Live the Jour­ney I at least know it’s the safer one. These men can drive the dunes of the Namib Desert with more fi­nesse than I can nav­i­gate the park­ing lot of a Pick n Pay on a Satur­day morn­ing. In fact, the day plays akin to a day in the Namib: soft sand makes it hard to choose a good line and scorch­ing heat in which we have to dig wheels free and where re­cov­er­ies have to be done. Nev­er­the­less, the driv­ers even­tu­ally start get­ting the tech­nique down and by late morn­ing we reach the end of the dune field and are able to drive down the beach again. Now we head north for a town called Tombwa. On the way we meet some South African fish­er­men (who haven’t caught any­thing yet to­day but hooked some big cob two days ago) and we stop at the ship­wrecks of the Con­sor­tium Al­pha and the Vanessa Seafood. In Tombwa it feels odd to drive on tar again af­ter a week of off-road­ing. At the fuel sta­tion we fill up and buy lo­cal beers (equally odd) be­fore Jakkals takes us to our camp­site. “It feels like a scene from a cow­boy movie,” our chef Thi­nus Swanepoel tells me later by the

With the red cliffs, stone pil­lars and for­ma­tions it felt like a scene from a cow­boy movie.”

fire. I look up at the red cliffs, stone pil­lars and for­ma­tions around us and I get what he means. Tonight we camp in a re­gion close to Sham­basana that’s cov­ered in eroded sand­stone canyons. It’s a sur­real and spe­cial place that I won’t soon for­get. And if you’re a photographer like me, the in­cred­i­ble for­ma­tions will mes­merise you in the spec­tac­u­lar light of the set­ting sun.

Back to the in­te­rior

The har­bour is bustling when we ar­rive in Namibe the next morn­ing. I’m pleas­antly sur­prised by the typ­i­cal coastal vil­lage at­mos­phere of the place. The peo­ple are friendly and it’s a great place to stock up on pro­vi­sions. At a very well-stocked Sho­prite you can buy any­thing from cray­fish to gen­er­a­tors.We buy medicine at a good phar­macy. And later we visit a lo­cal mar­ket where it seems you can lit­er­ally find al­most any­thing. It’s a re­ally won­der­ful and at times chaotic ex­pe­ri­ence to browse around the stalls, al­most like be­ing in an open-air mall. With enough sup­plies for the rest of the tour, we bid farewell to Namibe and head for Flamingo Lodge, about 70 km south. We spend the next two nights here, enough time to re­lax prop­erly and the ideal place for those who like to fish to put a line in the wa­ter. From Flamingo we drive back to Namibe and then turn east to­wards Lubango. On the way there we drive up the fa­mous Serra da Leba moun­tain pass with its se­ries of hair­pin turns. In the city the con­trast in at­mos­phere com­pared to Namibe is vivid – here it’s a bee­hive of ac­tiv­ity. Luck­ily for us a rain shower helps to al­le­vi­ate traf­fic, but on the other hand it ham­pers our visit to the Christo Rei, a mas­sive statue of Christ that looks out over the city. At the Tun­davala view­point over the Serra da Leba es­carp­ment too we can’t see any­thing. In­stead we de­cide to go to our camp­site at Tun­davala Wild Camp­ing.

Adieu, An­gola

The next day we drive straight to the bor­der. It’s a long day in the bakkie once again and I flick though my pho­to­graphs of the tour.The va­ri­ety of en­vi­ron­ments we ex­pe­ri­enced in such a short time in An­gola was the best part of the trip.The coun­try is clearly still find­ing its feet af­ter decades of war, but for now it looks like there’s a sub­tle so­ci­etal bal­ance that pre­vails in the ap­par­ent chaos. And yes Mis­ter Dood­sakker, we didn’t con­quer you in the end. But you also didn’t to­tally de­feat us. In my book I chalk it up as a draw, and since I don’t know if I’ll ever have the priv­i­lege to see you again, a draw is good enough for me.

For now it looks like there’s a sub­tle so­ci­etal bal­ance that pre­vails in the ap­par­ent chaos.”

INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN (be­low). The re­cent rains have left the grass plains of the Iona Na­tional Park beau­ti­fully green and lush.

THROUGH THE WA­TER (right). Al­though most of the rivers in the area north of the Cunene were dry, there were a few with wa­ter, which kept things in­ter­est­ing.

JUST LIKE IN NAMIBIA. The south-west­erly cor­ner of An­gola’s flora is very sim­i­lar to that of the Kaokoveld in north­ern Namibia.

THE 4X4 LIFE. This tour in­cluded a bit of ev­ery­thing, from camp­ing in dry rivers (be­low) and re­lax­ing be­neath the stars (mid­dle) to chang­ing flat tyres in scorch­ing heat (bot­tom).

THROUGH THE DEATH ACRE (above). Al­though the group was ham­pered by mas­sive ground-swell in the end and could not com­plete the Dood­sakker, they did ex­pe­ri­ence a large enough chunk of it to get a sense of how quickly na­ture can get the bet­ter of you here.

IN COW­BOY COUN­TRY (above and right). Near Sham­basana, if you know where to go, there’s a col­lec­tion of sand­stone crevasses and canyons with in­ter­est­ing for­ma­tions. It’s a unique and un­for­get­table place to camp.

WA­TER IN ABUN­DANCE (above). The Rua­cana wa­ter­falls were beau­ti­ful af­ter re­cent rains in the north of Namibia.

WIND­ING ROAD (be­low). The Serra da Leba pass is one of An­gola’s most iconic roads and def­i­nitely wor­thy of a selfie.

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