EXPLORE THE KHOMAS HOCHLAND
Reach for the stars on the Great Escarpment.
Rain is imminent as I leave Windhoek. I pass through a police control point and the C26 becomes a dirt road, which eventually starts to tilt upward along the Kupferberg Pass. I pull over to take a photo and thunder rumbles in the distance, away to the north-west, where a grey sheet is moving across the landscape.
The rain catches up to me five minutes later. Fat drops splat on the bakkie’s windscreen. Then the sun comes out and the grass next to the road shimmers in golden light. The Khomas Hochland has seen good rains over the last few weeks, and it looks like I’ll get to experience a shower or two as well.
The pass climbs up Namibia’s Great Escarpment, a long wall between the interior and the coast. Almost all of Namibia’s high mountain passes are found along the escarpment, which stretches from the Tirasberg in the south to deep in the Kaokoveld in the north.
The altitude and remote location of the Khomas Hochland makes me think of the Roggeveld Plateau around Sutherland in the Karoo. Just like in Sutherland, there are also farms here with telescopes pointed at the sky.
Over the next few days, I’ll drive a circular route up the Gamsberg Pass, along the C14, past Solitaire and up the Remhoogte Pass, back to Windhoek. Mountain passes, new people, new things to learn – bring it on!
Eyes on the sky
About a kilometre before the C26 joins up with the D1265, there’s a sign with “HESS” in blue letters. You could easily drive past and never know that one of the world’s most important research stations for the exploration of celestial bodies outside our solar system is right here in the veld.
HESS is short for High Energy Stereoscopic System – an array of five telescopes on the farm Göllschau – which observes gamma rays. I have no idea what a gamma ray is, so I turn in.
Manager Toni Hanke welcomes me and sends me to look at the telescopes with Frikkie van Greunen. Frikkie is a technician responsible for the maintenance of the station’s machinery. As we walk around, he points out equipment: photomultipliers, CCD cameras, server memory banks…
I’m amazed by the structures in the veld: Four red frames stand on the four cardinal points, each with a dish consisting of hundreds of mirrors. A big telescope is in the middle. “It weighs about 630 tonnes with a 600 m² mirror surface,” says Frikkie. “The smaller ones are 100 m².”
These aren’t your standard telescopes that you look through and see magnified things like Saturn’s rings or the craters on the moon. “There’s no eyepiece,” says Frikkie. “Each one works more like a satellite dish – a receiver.
The mirrors reflect and focus a special type of light (called Cherenkov radiation which occurs when gamma rays hit the atmosphere) onto a camera sensor where they are converted into electrical signals.”
Those signals become data that is then analysed by more than 260 scientists in 11 different countries!
Our eyes can see white light, but there are many other kinds of invisible light: radio waves, infrared, X-rays and gamma rays. Each has its own wavelength, frequency and energy level. Gamma rays have the highest energy levels because they’re emitted during mega cosmic events, like when stars explode or collide with each other. This is the type of light that HESS can capture.
“We look at different sources of gamma rays – celestial bodies in outer space – not visible with an optical telescope,” Toni explains in the control room later. The HESS computers analyse the rays and create a digital image of the celestial body in question. This allows modern astronomers to study things that Galileo could only dream of.
“Take the Milky Way, for example,” he says. “There are supposedly ‘dark’ places where nothing seems to be happening, but when you start analysing a different kind of light, you realise those places are actually alive with activity.”
The Khomas Hochland is high and dry – one of the best places on earth to practice this kind of astronomy. Who would have thought that behind this humble farm gate was a digital eye that can see black holes, supernova explosions and impossibly distant nebulae?
Going up, going down
I say goodbye to Toni and Frikkie and head west. Soon I’m at the top of the Gamsberg Pass. From the summit, the dirt road dives down into a sea of mountains. At 1 850 m, Gamsberg is one of the highest of the nine passes in the Khomas Hochland.
I spend some time at the viewpoint. A pair of Verreaux’s eagles float in the sky. Below them, a bakkie blinks in and out of view as it follows the curves of the pass. Gamsberg itself (2 347 m) is to my left – it looks a bit like Table Mountain and is one of the highest mountains in Namibia. There are also telescopes up there, Toni told me.
I crawl down the pass at a snail’s pace. I have to concentrate on the sharp bends because my head instinctively turns to look at the scenery. Namibia is a country of vast plains, but there are lots of mountains squeezed into a small area here.
When I reach the foot of the pass, the sun is low and the grass catches the light. It’s so lush when I enter the gate at Rooisand Desert Ranch that I can’t even see the red sand that gives the farm its name.
“It’s a beautiful sight because it’s so rare,” says manager Maja Fug.
Rooisand has its own observatory. I had hoped to see the Milky Way up close, but by the time my campfire has burnt down to embers, the clouds have rolled in and the stars are invisible. Lightning strikes in the distance.
I’m disappointed, but you never complain about rain in Namibia.
The next morning, Maja’s husband German shows me the observatory. On the way there, we pass a scale sculpture of the solar system along a walking trail.
“When you reach the observatory, you’ll have a good grasp of the size of the planets – and the distances between them,” says German.
The observatory is a white dome on a 6 m platform. German presses a button. The dome swivels and opens like an eyelid. Using a remote control, he turns the telescope, a white machine with several lenses, eyepieces and counterweights.
When the weather conditions are favourable, he hosts stargazing sessions for the public. He says amateur astronomers who are serious about their hobby sometimes spend weeks here to take photos with cameras you connect to the telescope.
“You never see them during the day,” he says. “They’re all asleep. They get up in the late afternoon, eat and connect their laptops, cables and cameras. Then they take photos all night.”
Opposite page, clockwise from top left: Maja and German Fug and their dog Piggy are ready to welcome you at Rooisand Desert Ranch. Frikkie van Greunen is a maintenance technician at HESS. From the top of the Gamsberg Pass, the view is dominated by row upon row of mountain peaks. A stargazing evening at the observatory at Rooisand is a great way to learn more about the Milky Way.
The call of the desert
My next destination is Namib’s Valley of a Thousand Hills, about 20 km along the C26. What inspired the name? The lodge is perched on the farm’s highest hill, like an eagle’s nest, with a 360-degree view of the rolling Namib Desert below. The view from the campsite is just as scenic, especially at sunset when the whole world goes pink.
I stop at a few more viewpoints along the guest farm’s access road the next morning, then I continue west along the C26. At the T-junction with the C14, I turn left towards Gaub Pass.
The road goes into a fold in the plains and passes some sandstone cliffs to a low-water bridge over the Gaub River. I pull over next to the bridge and have a sandwich in the shade. If you see a patch of shade in Namibia, use it, because you never know when you’ll find shade again.
Coming back down the escarpment towards the sea, the mountains seem to retreat, as if they’re afraid that the hot desert sand might burn their feet.
I find a sign covered in stickers and graffiti – the words “Tropic of Capricorn” are barely discernible. I cross this landmark line without much fanfare.
Several people have recommended I meet up with a man called Boesman while I’m here. I must look for a pair of takkies dangling from a pole. Ten minutes later, I spot the shoes and turn off the road.
“I always dreamt of being a conservationist, but my dad said no – he thought they were lonely people and didn’t earn enough money,” says Boesman, aka Gideon Davids. “That didn’t sound too bad to me!”
After school, Gideon sold insurance in Windhoek. “I realised I would go mad in the city,” he says. “So I hitchhiked to Sossusvlei and walked through the dunes to the coast over three days. From the coast, I walked to Walvis Bay. I called my boss and said I’m done; I’m going to the desert. I was going to live as the Bushmen had lived.”
That’s exactly what he did. Along the way he met his wife Yuri and they offered hiking tours in Sossusvlei from 1995 to 2010. Then they moved to this farm – Cha-re – where they host desert tours.
In the late afternoon, Boesman takes me to a viewpoint in his Land Cruiser. “The Great Escarpment is a big reason why we have a desert here,” he says, pointing to the mountains in the distance. “In winter, strong easterly winds blow down and destroy everything in their path. And in summer, the wind blows in from the sea and keeps the clouds on the plateau, so it doesn’t rain here.”
We drive around some more and Boesman tells me about an ancient desert under the sand, about how vultures build a new nest every three years (to avoid ticks, which have a two-year life cycle), and how you can use the sand to determine which direction the ocean is. The Namib is certainly more interesting than the insurance industry!
“You can’t really farm here,” he says. “There’s only one borehole on 13 000 hectares. This is pure desert. But I knew that when I bought the place. This is where I belong.”
It’s dark when I prepare my dinner. I wash the dishes and take a cup of coffee to sit outside in the night. I’m surrounded by the kind of quiet you only find in the desert.
Much later, I hear a herd of zebra arrive to drink at the waterhole near the farmhouse. The clip-clop of their hoofs sounds so close, it’s as if they’re in the tent with me.
A sense of belonging
I fill up with diesel in Solitaire and buy a chicken pie. Then I go back up the Great Escarpment via the Remhoogte Pass. Wispy clouds hover at the top. Around tea time, I see a sign next to a farmhouse that says “koffie” and “best views”. I pull over.
“We had 303 mm of rain the other day,” says Donovan Brown. It’s green up here, and dry as a bone down below.
“It certainly didn’t look like this during the drought!” says Donovan’s wife Lorette, who arrives with coffee and koeksisters. During the drought, the Browns moved all the livestock on this farm, Remhoogte, to other farms in the north.
“I’m buying small livestock again,” says Donovan. “The first two goats have already arrived.”
In the meantime, this coffee shop – which has been here for years – brings in some extra cash.
“There’s water everywhere,” says Lorette. “We go into the veld and swim in the puddles. It’s so much fun.” After a pause, she says: “You live your life here, you don’t just exist.”
Lorette grew up in Tsumeb and Donovan is from Bloemfontein, although he’s been in Namibia for nearly 20 years. “We lived here, then moved around a bit, and eventually ended up on the mountain again about four years ago,” Lorette says. “You always end up where you should be, there’s no other way.”
Her words stay with me when I’m puffing dust on the D1261 later. Every person belongs somewhere – it’s up to you to figure out where that somewhere is. Some peer into the Milky Way’s dark corners, others walk into the desert alone, others come back to the same place they started.
That’s why we should travel: to see new lands in the hopes of finding our place.
Opposite page, clockwise from top left: Test your off-road skills on the 4x4 trail at Namib’s Valley of a Thousand Hills. Gideon Davids, better known as Boesman, has been leading tours in the Namib desert for more than a decade. A young male kudu poses in a riverbed next to the D1985 road. From the Lone Tree viewpoint at Namib’s Valley of a Thousand Hills, you have a sweeping view of the desert plains.