OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Attempting the Doodsakker in Angola
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.
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.
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.