DRIVE THROUGH DAMARALAND
Have you swum in the Dead Sea of Namibia?
Two pale people lie floating in a splash of green, surrounded by desert. This is what a Damara tern would see if it flew over. The people are me and my girlfriend Sam – we’re about 50 km north of Henties Bay, swimming in a pool called Soutgat, Namibia’s answer to the Dead Sea. I close my eyes against the sun and feel the rays warming my skin.
It has been a dusty drive so far and the water is refreshing. The water is said to have healing properties, but that remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Spending time in the magnificent landscapes of Damaraland is good for the soul.
Sam and I left Swakopmund early this morning to drive a circular route. We plan to see well-known attractions like Twyfelfontein’s rock art and Spitzkoppe, with some adventurous detours to places like the Messum Crater, the Ugab River and Soutgat.
We stopped for coffee at the restaurant at Windpomp 14 campsite, just outside Swakop, then we drove north past the colourful holiday cabins of Wlotzkasbaken and the Zeila shipwreck, to Henties Bay. We dodged hawkers trying to sell us rose quartz and emeralds, and stocked up on groceries because we’d soon be watching shops and civilisation disappear in the rear-view mirror.
The turn-off to Soutgat is about 300 m after the
“Cape Cross 20 km” sign on the C34 – look for a cairn with a white arrow painted on it. The next 20 km section is arid, dusty and hot.
The pool was once a hole dug at the Strathmore South tin mine. Because the water is so salty, you feel as light as a pool noodle when you take a dip. And according to local legend, your aches and pains will melt away.
After we’ve rinsed off, we head back to the C34 and turn north towards Cape Cross Lodge. I struggle to pitch our tent in the wind, and our campfire takes a long time to splutter to life, thanks to the wet firewood I bought at a supermarket earlier. During the night, fog rolls in and clings to the sides of the tent.
In 1485, Portuguese king João II ordered the seafarer and explorer Diego Cão to find a new route to the Far East. On his second attempt, Cão made it all the way to the Namibian coast before he gave up. He put up a stone cross called a padrão to mark the spot where he turned around – that place is still called Cape Cross.
Cape Cross is known for its massive seal colony. Bring a clothes peg for your nose because the 200 000 seals basking in the sun are a smelly bunch: guano, wet fur, rotten kelp… After a few quick photos, we say goodbye to the seals – and the coastline – and turn inland, cutting a straight line to the Messum Crater.
Along the way, huge swathes of earth on both sides of the dirt road are covered in a fluffy orange carpet of lichen. Lichen is not a plant – it’s a composite organism consisting of algae growing among fungi – and it plays an important role here to stabilise the soil on the seemingly endless plains.
We drive on to take photos of an actual plant – the strange and ancient Welwitschia mirabilis, which has only two leaves, the two it grew as a seedling, that just grow and grow for the duration of the plant’s (very long) lifespan.
A satellite image of the Messum Crater looks like a big eye. Rusty mountains surround a bare circle in the landscape, with a few dark koppies in the middle as the iris. At ground level, the eye analogy is difficult to picture because the crater is so enormous – about 25 km from rim to rim.
It’s not a meteorite or an asteroid-impact crater, but rather the remains of a 130-million-year-old volcano.
We stop for lunch on the inside. The hot, howling wind dries out my sandwich before I can even take a bite. There are no leaves to be rustled, just sand and stone to the horizon. Hey, Elon, this would be the perfect training ground for Mars.
We drive on, our route going west from the middle of the crater, past more welwitschias and the dry bed of the Messum River, to the D2303 dirt road. We turn right and fasten our seatbelts for a bumpy 65 km to the Ugab River.
The joy of getting lost
“The rhinos are a few kilometres up the riverbed, but the elephants haven’t been here for a while. It’s too dry,” says the man who signs us in at Ugab River Rhino Camp.
The camp is also the base for the research and conservation teams from the Save the Rhino Trust, which works to protect Namibia’s remaining desert rhinos.
The heat forces us to spend the afternoon under camel thorn trees in the campsite. I understand why the elephants have moved on. The wind drops later and I light the campfire. By now my supermarket firewood is as dry as dust.
We have an early start the next morning – driving
10 km along a tributary of the Ugab River as it snakes its way north. When we finally leave the riverbed, the landscape is flat and wide. Ankle-high grass rolls out in a yellow carpet below a blue sky, the horizon punctuated by purple mountains.
“Do you know where we are?” Sam asks when I stop to study the map.
She arches an eyebrow.
I’m joking, but also not: The GPS (and my map) might indicate where we are, but I have no idea which jeep track we should be following. There are several of them and they all seem to go in the same direction.
I love the feeling of being almost lost in an unfamiliar place. Namibia is full of opportunities like this, especially when you venture off the main roads.
Soon the GPS confirms that we are actually on the right track: This is the Doro !nawas Conservancy, and Twyfelfontein – a World Heritage Site – is within its borders. We follow the Desolation Valley 4x4 Trail along the dry bed of the Huab River and eventually pop out at the D2612 near Twyfelfontein.
More than 2 500 rock engravings of kudus, lions, people and patterns have been catalogued here. We only have time to see a fraction of them. Afterwards, we also take a turn past the Organ Pipes – rows of dolerite columns stacked together like KitKat fingers.
Madisa Camp is our stop for the night. We camp at the base of a rock outcrop and climb up to watch the sunset. A pink curtain closes over the horizon. Goodnight, Damaraland.
Ellie spa day
I’m up at sunrise and I can already feel that it’s going to be a scorcher. But the GPS shows a shortcut to Brandberg, so we don’t have to rush. Usually you’d take the D2612 to the C35, and then the D2319 to White Lady Lodge at the base of Namibia’s highest mountain, but if you have a 4x4 you can travel south from Madisa on a 30 km sand track. We arrive at White Lady Lodge just before lunch and pick a campsite under a camel thorn tree in the Ugab riverbed.
We hide from the heat and explore the riverbed when it’s a bit cooler in the afternoon. At first it seems like we won’t see any wildlife, but we eventually find a herd of
elephants about 3 km west of the campsite. We watch them splashing in a muddy pool for about half an hour. They go in one by one and use their trunks to cover their bodies in mud.
“A beauty treatment for dry desert skin,” I say, thinking aloud. I wonder if they also go float in Soutgat when their knees act up after years of roaming the desert.
Camp among the boulders
From Brandberg, we make our way to Spitzkoppe – a spectacular inselberg that rises out of nowhere from the desert nothingness. The drive takes about two and a half hours, and we can see Spitzkoppe for most of that time, towering over the flat landscape.
The highest peak, Gross Spitzkoppe, is 1 728 m above sea level – about one and a half times the height of Table Mountain. There are amazing rock formations at ground level, including an impressive rock arch that you’ve seen on the cover of many travel magazines.
There aren’t many other campers, so we have the pick of the place. We end up choosing stand #12 because it has a great view of Gross Spitzkoppe, and we spend the rest of the day exploring the outcrops, looking for rock art at an overhang called Small Bushman’s Paradise, and drinking beer next to the swimming pool.
Later, when the world goes orange, I test Sam’s patience by having her pose for photos under the rock arch from every conceivable angle.
We strike camp and head south the next morning, to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Our last campsite is at a place called Bloedkoppie, about 105 km inland from Swakopmund. It’s a very basic, remote campsite, which suits us fine because we have to head into town again tomorrow.
Late in the afternoon, we climb up another Damaraland koppie and take photos of the cliffs burnt red and pink in the last light. When the sun touches the horizon, we sit down and look on in silence.
Tomorrow we’ll drive the C28 back to Swakopmund, with a detour past the Swakop River, the Moon Landscape, and the biggest welwitschia I’ve ever seen.
But sitting here on Bloedkoppie at sunset feels like the end of our journey. From here, we’re just heading home.
Thanks, Damaraland. Your immensity is healing indeed.