Toast Coetzer slogs his way to the highest point in Namibia.
It’s dark. Three vehicles drive out of the parking area of Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis and follow the C35 towards Henties Bay. Uis is tiny but it’s the nearest “town” to base yourself in if you want to climb Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain. The famous White Lady rock painting is on the eastern edge of the massif – you only have to walk one kilometre up a small ravine to see it, but it can be a challenge, especially if you’re unfit and the sun is burning a hole in your neck. I’ve seen this painting more than once, and I’ve always had a thing for Brandberg. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in rock art. I also love climbing a mountain, fostered during my childhood on a mountainous farm.
So, when my friend Erns Grundling suggested I climb Brandberg with him for an episode of his TV series, Elders, I immediately said yes. And here we are, on our way, a month or so later.
After 14 km on the C35, we turn right onto a smaller dirt road that runs towards the old Brandberg West mine. The darkness is leaching away, and the outline of Brandberg is becoming clearer. Königstein, the highest peak, is also the highest point in Namibia. On a satellite map, Brandberg is a big, round mountain, roughly 23 km in diameter from north to south and 27 km from east to west. Königstein is somewhere in the middle of this rocky mass – from space it looks like an onion cut in half and tossed in a pan.
Up ahead, indicators flicker on the Toyotas in front. I slow down and turn my Mahindra right, onto the jeep track that cuts a straight line to the mountain.
In the parking area, I check the GPS: we’re at 766 m above sea level. I make a few quick calculations: Königstein is 2 573 m, subtract 766 m… We have to climb 1 807 m – that’s nearly twice as high as Table Mountain!
Camera, action, climb!
A TV production runs on a tight schedule. They’ve only allotted two days for this episode, during which we’ll (hopefully) climb to the top of the mountain. Most people summit and return over three days, so we’ll have to do it at a much faster pace.
The success of the expedition is in the hands of our experienced guide, John Taniseb. John is short and stocky, with the muscular legs of a scrum half. He works for the National Heritage Council of Namibia (NHC) and is one of only four qualified guides allowed to take tourists onto Brandberg.
We also have a support team to help carry our food and equipment for the next two days: Markus Taniseb (John’s brother), Colin Gawanab and Paulus !Naibab, all from Uis. Paulus Haimbonti will look after our vehicles – necessary, even though we’re parked in the middle of nowhere.
I planned ahead and bought 14 cans of Tafel Lager. They’re in my cooler box full of ice. Paulus will also look after the cooler box while we climb, to make sure it’s in the shade of the Mahindra all day.
We start just after 8 am – John had hoped to leave an hour earlier. Each time the camera guys want to shoot something for the episode, we all have to wait. (Later, I will be quietly thankful for these moments of reprieve.)
The sun peeks over the horizon as we enter Ga-Aseb Ravine. For the first few kilometres, the rocks around us are dark brown, almost black. The high granite cliffs at the top of the ravine catch the sun and glow orange, like flames – that’s how Brandberg got its name.
Ga-Aseb is one of several ravines you can follow to the top of the mountain. According to John, this is the easiest route. We’ve left the river behind now, and we’re clambering over rocks where cairns mark the way.
While we drink water, John points out a rocky nek on the horizon. That’s where we’re going. Königstein is still invisible from here, much deeper into the mountain. We’ll have lunch when we reach that nek, says John.
We climb and climb and climb. Every now and again I stop to take a photo of a quiver tree or a butter tree. Brandberg is like a giant rock garden, with big trees like the endemic Brandberg acacia and shepherd’s tree standing proud of the stone.
As I climb, the landscape unfolds in every direction. My brain adapts to the sheer scale of everything, but my body – so often office, car and homebound – is having a harder time. There are no restrictions on Brandberg; it’s all open-plan.
Our vehicles are so small on the desert floor that I can’t see them any more, except when a windscreen glints in the sun. In the hazy distance – as the crow flies about 92 km south-east – I can make out the domes of Spitzkoppe. About the same distance to the south-west is Cape Cross, where we’ll be able to see the blue Atlantic later, when we peer over the rim of Ga-Aseb.
I start to worry halfway through the morning. My quads are taking a beating – they haven’t climbed so many “stairs” in a long time!
Luckily my backpack isn’t too heavy. It’s recommended that hikers carry five litres of drinking water each. Besides water, I only packed the essentials: one set of clothes, a sleeping bag, food and a toothbrush. (You don’t wash on Brandberg.) It’s April and there’s a cool breeze, sometimes even a cloud in front of the sun. Small mercies.
All these things help me survive the climb until lunchtime. But only just. When I drop my backpack and sink down under a butter tree, it’s 1.30 pm and we’ve only progressed 5 km. But we’re 1 868 m above sea level, which means we’ve gained more than 1,1 km in height!
The steepest section is behind us, says John. Another carrot dangling in front of my nose is that there’s a water source nearby – the only one on our route.
Paradise in the dark
From up here, the granite boulders remind one of Spitzkoppe, but Brandberg is unique: It is higher and it has its own micro climate. It’s like an island, a rare place where birds and klipspringers (leopards, too) sometimes see no humans for weeks on end.
You actually enter another time when you walk here. The mountain originated about 130 million years ago, when the supercontinent Gondwana broke up. Africa and South America tore apart and what is now the Atlantic Ocean started to form. Huge domes of magma solidified underground, which were uncovered by erosion over millennia. A long, long time ago, Brandberg was about 5 000 m higher.
We take another breather at Lonely Pools, filling our bottles from big potholes full of rainwater. There’s usually enough to supply drinking water for hikers all through the winter. You might want to add a purifying tablet, but I drink it as is – it’s fresh and delicious, as long as you ignore the tadpoles.
Bushmen and Damara people could live on the mountain for long periods thanks to water sources like this one. There were also enough plants and wildlife to survive on.
John gets us back on our feet and points to an escarpment above, known as Orabes Plateau. In 1963, the manager of the tin mine in Uis landed his light aircraft up there – successfully. During his next attempt in 1964, the aircraft was wrecked when he tried to take off again and he had to leave it there. He survived the accident.
We (or maybe just me?) struggle up the endless rocky slope. We squeeze past boulders, the rugged surface eating away at the skin on my fingers. We sometimes stop and look west, towards the Goboboseb Mountains and the Messum Crater. Each step takes us higher still. I think of the 14 cans of beer in the cooler box under the Mahindra.
Before sunset we reach the best rock paintings on the route, a panel called Snake Rock. Harald Pager was an Austrian who came to South Africa after World War II. He and his wife Shirley-Ann documented rock art, first in the Drakensberg and later on Brandberg. From 1975 until his death in 1985, he obsessively recorded the rock art here with photos and sketches. During this time, he found 45 000 paintings on 879 different panels.
Basil Calitz at Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis owns a set of Pager’s books. Later, I read Pager’s description of Snake Rock: “The location of the place is so impressive, that one is tempted to speak of ‘great architecture’ and on approaching the site a European observer may think of a cathedral or some similar grandiose building.”
He was spot-on. Exhaustion may play a role, but when I climb the last few steps to the Snake Rock overhang, I feel emotional. The setting sun shines like a hot spotlight on the rocks, where human and animal figures come to life. There’s an inexplicably long snake on one side of the overhang, inspiring the name of the panel.
We have to get moving to reach our campsite. John has to use all his diplomacy to prevent a mutiny. Everyone is tired; we just want to eat and go to bed. “Are we there yet?” is the eternal question. As darkness falls, I hear John’s answer: Only 45 minutes to go…”
We’re now on level terrain. The shallow, sandy valleys allow us to walk rather than climb. Our headlamps come out, followed by the stars, and a moon so bright it casts shadows on the ground.
There’s enough light to make out the horizon, and
John points to where Königstein rises. Being able to see the goal you’re working towards is an instant mood-booster!
At 8 pm, we finally arrive at the stone slab where we’ll set up camp. The three porters – Markus, Colin and Paulus – have lit a fire. Once we each have half a T-bone steak and some couscous on our plate, we can laugh about the tough day we’ve all just endured.
Nobody lingers around the fire. We drink Rehidrat, put plasters on our toes and settle in to sleep. The cold wakes me sometime during the early morning hours – my sleeping bag is too thin and I have to dig out my rain jacket and put it on for warmth. The Milky Way smiles above. I’m sleeping on Brandberg – what a privilege!
Up, up, then down
We reach Königstein after an hour the next morning – it’s a 1,5 km hike from camp. We take photos, shake hands and give each other hugs. Vast plains stretch to the horizon, where everything blurs and your eyes can’t see any further. Damaraland in three directions; the Namib to the south; the mine heap at Uis standing out in white… Somewhere below is the parking area for the White Lady rock painting, and the course of the Ugab River. John lends me his binoculars so I can look at the wreck of the aircraft on Orabes Plateau.
The Elders episode ends here, with Erns and I looking out over the world. That’s what you’ll see on TV. But our vehicles are parked 14 km away, and this time my knees will take most of the strain.
Going down is easier but my muscles are still sore from yesterday – I feel like I’ve been flattened by a roadroller. I take it slow. A broken ankle on the home stretch will break the expedition’s spirit. (I doubt the current manager of the Uis mine will send an aircraft to pick me up…)
I focus on those 14 cans of beer. Are they still cold? Did Paulus remember to keep the cooler box in the shade?
We follow the same route, pausing at Lonely Pools again for water and lunch. I opt for a short lunch break and ask John if I can continue on my own while the others rest. He gives the okay, since the route is easy to follow. I walk on my own in this wonderful wilderness for half an hour. I notice more: a big mouse of some kind, a giant plated lizard that scurries off, just before my hand lands on the rock where it was sunning itself.
The others soon catch up. I feel like a breakaway cyclist overtaken by a relentless peloton.
Now it’s time for the steep section. I’m extra careful, inching along painfully slowly. Markus, Colin and Paulus stay with me while the rest of the team forges ahead.
About 50 m from the vehicles, Erns brings me a can of Tafel. It’s cold! I plan to drink many more beers in my life, but this is one I’ll never forget.
The sun has set. The surrounding desert landscape softens. Above us – and in us – Brandberg rises in all its magnificence.