Re­dis­cov­er­ing Kaokoveld

(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…

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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