(Part 2) Last month we featured part 1 of reader Jürgen Höntsch’s 7 000km adventure through Namibia, taking in the sights and sounds of Etosha, the Klein Serengeti and the Epupa Falls. We pick up the story as they head for the infamous Van Zyl’s Pass…
A reader's wild adventure continues
AFTER relaxing and recuperating in the natural beauty and great climate of Epupa, we were ready to tackle Namibia’s infamous Van Zyl’s Pass.
Backtracking to Okangwati, we were looking for Donissa, an Angolan Himba lady who sells fuel. This was well advertised by signboards directing us to the place and we could get half a dozen five-litre cans of diesel for $17 per litre. When my friend said, “This should be enough,” I answered with a smile, “The only time you have too much fuel is when you are on fire.”
Van Zyl’s was a subtle introduction to what lay ahead. There was a spring just outside Okangwati where cattle and goats were grazing on the greenery. The road got progressively rockier and boulder-ridden. The narrow track through the rugged Otjihipa Mountains, consisting of jagged rocks, is not to be treated lightly, and the first real challenge is encountered about 11km before you reach the pass.
Van Zyl’s is the most notorious pass in Namibia – outrageously steep and a pure adrenaline rush – and has earned its reputation as a dangerous challenge. It should be crossed only from east to west, downhill. It is a dramatic descent of about 580m over a distance of 10km. The drive down will demand your full attention and extreme concentration is called for in places. Some tracks were seriously off-camber, only a few inches short of tipping over. It is not one continuous descent, but a series of drops broken by sections of flat ground and even some climbs. It certainly is one of the most dramatic passes I’ve ever travelled and I enjoyed it immensely.
From the lookout point, at our picnic lunch, we had a vista over the endless Marienfluss Plains with the Hartmann’s mountains in the distance appearing bluish grey in the shimmering light.
We reached the second stone pyramid at around 3pm, much earlier than anticipated. A heavy kori bustard laboured into the air to our left while two gemsbok seemed to snort their approval at our completion of the challenging journey but then turned tail and disappeared in the starving vegetation.
We were now in search for the turnoff to Marble Camp via red drum. But the Kaokoveld has a habit of throwing a spanner in the works. We missed that turnoff and the GPS showed us only the long way north... for good reason. I asked Koos Verwey about this shortcut and after some thinking he said “It’s a bit more difficult to drive but you save time if you want to reach Marble Camp in daylight, and the other trail is quite corrugated.”
I set the co-ordinates for Marble Camp but the Garmin can sometimes take you to weird and wonderful places that you did not necessarily plan to visit. When we passed the burnt Landrover, I knew we were on the wrong track but, not having a map, I misjudged the distance and much later, when the endless track showed no sign of branching off, I turned back. We then missed the turnoff again and ended at the stone heap a second time.
Finally we spotted it, badly trampled, and suddenly a thin purple line appeared on the Garmin. The track hadn’t been used for ages and at a
“The vastness of the arid landscape, with its strangelooking succulents, is both beautiful and intimidating”
deep river wash, presumably the Otinjange River, the trail became a confusing number of tracks. I followed one that looked promising but soon after we found ourselves back where we’d started. A second track, pointing in the right direction, remained visible on the Garmin and we followed it.
The further we ventured in a southerly direction, along a dry riverbed between two mountain ranges, the more the tweespoor faded away and with it, the purple line on the GPS. It became clear that we were lost again but the scenery and that feeling of being on an adventure trail in this untouched wilderness was overwhelming and opened the doors for a new source of energy.
I enjoyed driving along that track, possibly made by poachers. After all, if you can’t create some adventure, you’ll neither enjoy it nor remember it. But good sense prevailed and we backtracked all the way.
Obviously we got ‘gently’ lost in the Kaokoveld and added a couple of hours to an already long day. That meant we arrived at the triangle as dusk was closing in. We couldn’t help but admire the red fireball sun setting. It painted the grass plains gold. I stopped and we enjoyed the spectacle, took some photos and tried to repair our lower backs with a cold beer.
My first visit to the Kaokoveld was a long time ago but it left behind great memories. The tweespoor had changed into a wide and badly corrugated sandy highway and Koos was right. The red drum appeared in our headlights and the Garmin indicated clearly where to go from there. The road soon changed into a tough track, which was badly eroded in places with potholes and dongas, and the going slowed us down.
A rusty signboard finally indicated Marble Camp to the left but our GPS instructed straight ahead and so that’s where we headed. Soon we saw lights in the distance, a clinic as we were told later, looking deserted. Finally our Garmin woke up and announced “turn left in 850m.” After a long climb along a rocky trail, it announced “You have reached your destination on your right.” Wow! On our right was a steep slope down with lots of scrub, nothing else. What now?
We continued further up and I started to get a bid worried but then we saw lights in the distance. It was a bakkie, parked in front of the Etambura Camp, a self-catering lodge and the first Himbaowned camp in the country.
The two friendly guys, who were transporting supplies for a group of tourists arriving the following day, had got lost just like us. It was a warm welcome and we told each other our stories. They took the road via Kaoko Otavi and couldn’t believe we had come all the way from Epupa via Van Zyl’s. It was now almost 10pm with over 15 hours in the saddle with the last hours particularly strenuous.
We got a chalet but, arriving unexpected, there was no hot water. After a good night’s rest, we admired the stunning sunrise over the mountains the following morning. Etambura is situated on top of a hill, near the holy plains of Onjuva. There are five canvas and thatch units, each with a private deck, and we were spoilt with the best quality coffee, but all too soon, had to leave this friendly and memorable place.
Near Orupembe, we discovered one of those mysterious stone men walking along a field strewn with rusty rocks and petrified giant potatoes. These little lone men have sneaked their way into the list of highlights for travellers visiting Kaoko and are indeed masterpieces in their own right.
Our next destination was the Purros Camp situated along the Hoarusib River and the road down the river-driving section would have been a highlight of our tour, but, once again, our GPS sent us down the most horrible corrugated stony road. If you haven’t driven that road, you know nothing about corrugations.
I tried all the tricks in the book, with reduced tyre pressure and at different speeds,
but there were sections where you just have to slow down to a crawl. If your suspension or dampers aren’t in good shape, you’re asking for trouble. And if your “above and beyond” has 20-inch rubber, don’t even think about tackling it. It was the worst corrugations I’ve ever come across and I will never drive that road again.
Purros has become a commercial hub and the Himbas are making a living from the ever-increasing flow of tourists. You can reach Purros today, via Fort Sesfontein, in a SUV (or Avis car) and who knows, you may soon see the first traffic light. If you are short on fuel... no problem, you’ll get petrol and diesel at four different places, all at the same ballooned price of N$20 to the litre.
The campsite is basic but pleasant and reasonably priced and you encounter elephant footprints all over the camp. The only annoyance came from a very noisy donkey at the peep of day.
We rambled down the Hoarusib and entered the picturesque Purros Canyon with its lush green vegetation and remarkable geology. We crossed the river on numerous occasions in crystal clear water and encountered prolific wildlife along the greenery. There were elephant tracks and dung everywhere but no pachyderm showed up. It’s a stunning sight with the picturesque rock faces along the gorge.
Driving out of the verdant riverbed and onto a stony desert road, stretching along the Skeleton Coast Park boundary, was strikingly different. The road changes between gravel and sand, often in bad condition, and is rarely frequented. The vastness of the arid landscape, with its strange-looking succulents, is both beautiful and intimidating. This is lion country and somewhere out there is Flip Stander with his desert lion in this inhospitable but captivating environment.
Along the moonscapes of the
Ganias Plains, before you reach the Amspoort gorge, the road branches into a number of trails and it looks as if every traveller makes their own tracks.
Our next destination was Palmwag and the Garmin made the decision to send us straight ahead and into the Hoanib Riverbed. The river ends here, its seasonal waters oozing away into the sands of the Skeleton Coast, seldom reaching the Atlantic. It is a pleasant drive along the dry and dusty riverbed. There is a high wildlife population and we immediately saw giraffe, springbok and gemsbok and tracks of elephant and zebra.
This is also black rhino country and, in 1982, when we camped in the riverbed, we found the dry remains of a presumably poached rhino, only skin and skeleton without the horns. Poaching of rhino was unheard of in those days. There are big anatrees, leadwood, camelthorn and wild tamarisk shrubs along the river valley and grass and reeds at places.
A Land Cruiser driver waved us down and a guide asked whether we had seen any elephant. I said no, and the tourist couple sitting at the back were noticeably disappointed.
After about a 10-minute drive in the direction from where they came, we saw an enormous elephant bull having his lunch. How could they have missed the jumbo?
Driving up the Ganamub Riverbed, a tributary of the Hoanib and recommended by travellers, was not the best pick and it would probably have been better to follow the Hoanib all the way to Fort Sesfontein. In my 35-year-old memories of Sesfontein, there are the ruins of the old German fort and running water, lots of it, probably from those ‘six fountains’. Today you’ll find a small town with a lodge in the renovated fort with restaurant, a filling station, tyre repair and a police station.
We bade farewell to the Kaokoland and, back on the dusty C43, traversed the barren but equally scenic Damaraland down south towards Palmwag. We stayed one night at the lodge campsite and continued south the following morning to embark on our last adventure.
We passed the Petrified Forest and the Twyfelfontein rock arts that I showed my friend back in 2011. I’m well acquainted with the area but that last visit was a bit of a disappointment. It is now very commercialised.
Once, we had to rescue two young German ladies who got stuck with their VW Beetle in the deep sand of the AbaHuab riverbed.
Unfortunately, though, Twyfelfontein has become just another buzzing tourist destination with noisy tourists and crazy entrance fees.
At the Organ Pipes/Burned Mountain site, the Namibian government had proclaimed another area to make money but they did let us pass through when we explained our destination.
The trail treks through an imposing landscape with scattered welwitschia plants across the plains, criss-crossing ancient game tracks in that stony semi-desert environment along the Doros Crater. It is a desolate countryside, tinted in all shades of brown with sparse vegetation and wildlife. We saw oryx, distant Hartmann’s zebras and ostrich blending into the countryside.
An hour later, we tackled the challenging Divorce Pass with its piercing shale, intimidatingly steep and rocky sections and narrow turns. In general, the 4×4 track leading up to the pass is very bad with sharp rocks that can shred your tyres. It’s slow going and tremendously isolated, but worthwhile for anyone in search of adventure.
Although spectacular and satisfying to complete, it is loose and narrow in places, with a steep decline into the Ugab Riverbed. It demands concentration and a responsible approach and should only be tackled by experienced off-roaders.
Legend has it that the rocky, bumpy nature of the pass often leaves wives (and girlfriends) rather shaken and ready to negotiate divorce procedures. Maybe it’s best to let them walk?
The mighty Ugab is the most southerly ephemeral river that flows only a few days each year but even during much of the dry season you’ll find pools of water in places. The subterranean waters are shallow enough to fill ditches that sustain a wildlife population including the
desert elephant and the largest population of free-roaming black rhino in the world. It is one of the last true wilderness areas.
We tracked the western Ugab region in 2011 and saw many elephant but never any rhino. Here you’ll find the highly poisonous and invasive wild tobacco plant along the river, an evergreen shrub that is, in places, a large part of the visible vegetation among indigenous trees and shrubs.
The almost 10km trip from the pass to the Rhino Camp is in deep river sand but is a panoramic drive. There are plenty of elephant footprints and, under a giant acacia tree, where we enjoyed a bite with a cold one, we spotted fresh leopard tracks in the sand and saw what looked like a rhino toilet.
The Rhino Camp is a remarkable place in the middle of nowhere. The facilities are basic with campsites sheltered from the cold westerly wind and you have to be aware of elephant and lion. We were the only visitors.
Our last night in the wilderness called for a celebration and I’d safeguarded a very special bottle of Shiraz that we enjoyed with our rustic dinner. During the early hours of that night I woke up, getting cold in my sleeping bag, and listened to the mysterious sounds from the riverside. The ellies passed our camp so close that we could hear their guts rumbling.
The nearly 70km trail along the Ugab Canyon down to the coast was impassable, we were told by the camp manager, and so our adventure ended at the Rhino Camp. The sun was hidden by thick mist on that chilly morning when we crossed the Namib. On the salt road, the C34 where you drive like on tar, we made a quick detour to the Ugab River mouth and the main gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park.
On this section, we experienced our second puncture and that tyre was a write-off. As if this wasn’t enough, 30 minutes later we had another puncture. Luckily, this time I could plug the tyre.
Drawing conclusions and a sad ending
A large part of Namibia’s economy is based upon tourism and you can’t escape the feeling that, as a tourist, you are getting exploited at many places. Value for money and good service isn’t the order of the day anymore, so it seems, and friendliness and willingness to help you’ll find only on rare occasions. This is in sharp contrast to old customs in that land between two deserts but there are still the exceptions.
We had travelled over 1 500km off-road on gravel, rock, jagged shale, deep sand and clay powder and over the most horrific corrugations. We cruised along the Otjitheka 4WD trail, along the Ombonde riverbed, through the Khowarib Schlucht and all the way up to the amazing Epupa Falls on the Angolan border.
We conquered Van Zyl’s, crossed the Kaokoveld with its magic rivers and magnificent natural beauty, travelled through Damaraland where we tackled the infamous Divorce Pass and visited the Rhino Camp in the Ugab. And the two oldtimers, with a combined age of 153 years, enjoyed every minute of it. We may have got lost once or twice but we never got stuck.
And my trail-rated 15-yearold diesel Jeep performed exceptionally, she never missed a beat. All fun ended abruptly, alas, at the Swakopmund Service Station, where I lost my beloved Jeep in a car wash! (See winning letter in Leisure Wheels February addition #166).
My friend’s expensive multifocal spectacles were snatched off his nose, by a rehabilitated baboon at the Kleinbegin Lodge near Karasburg, and were a write-off. But a pleasant surprise was waiting for us at the end of our trip in the West Coast Nature Reserve... the spectacular spring flower show.
“The 4x4 track leading up to the pass is very bad with sharp rocks that can shred your tyres. It’s slow going and tremendously isolated, but worthwhile for anyone in search of adventure”
Opposite page: Some friendly Ovahimbas along the Epupa/Okangwait Road. Right, top: The spectacular spring flower show at the end the journey, in the West Coast Park, back in SA. Right: The adventurers were lucky enough to spot an elephant bull on lunch...
Above: Sunset in Kaokoveld. Africa doesn’t get much more serene and peaceful than this. Opposite page: A photographic break in the barren landscape near Divorce Pass, in Damaraland.
Main: Golden Aristida grass in front of the Otjihipa Mountains in the Marienfluss Valley, Kaokoveld.