A small convoy of readers took on the deserts of Kaokoland in northern Namibia on a Getaway expedition. Jazz Kuschke wrote this report on the back of some biscuit boxes while riding shotgun with guide Chris Schlimper of Navigators Four-Wheel- Drive Adventures
Usually it’s quite easy to answer: you point out a few highlights, recall an anecdote or two. But on a 16-day overland camping trip, so much happens between every tent pitch that the memories flow thick and the experienceblends into an overall feeling, rather than a series of stand-alone recollections. That’s until you have a good look at your photos afterwards and are swept back to specific happenings: ‘Wow, how steep is Van Zyl’s! We drove that?” Van Zyl followed the baboons Old man Van Zyl, bantu commissioner of South West Africa in the 1950s, was either a very brave or very stupid man. But he had to get into the extreme northwest somehow, so he built a road. Van Zvl’s Pass (it’s one for your 4×4 bragging CV) drops about 570 metres over 11 kilometres. Work it out and it doesn’t sound too hectic – an average gradient of 1:18. But unlike most ‘passes’ marked on 4×4 trail maps (which are just one-off descents), Van Zyl’s is legit – small rocky inclines, tight turns that edge along steep gorges as well as a couple of avalanche descents. So on the downhill sections, you really go down. There are two places which require careful marshalling and a bit of road building. The filling of drop-offs and holes by 4×4 drivers is the only maintenance done on the road. *-‘ For their engineering and driving skills, our crew deserved their cold showers and colder Tafel Lagers that night: Arthur Allison (who left Zimbabwe for Europe years ago and now spends about six months a year in South Afica) was amazed at what his Fortuner could do, especially since this trip was the first time he’d ever put it into lowrange. Terrence Mtola from East London guided his black TD5 calmly over the rocks; Vereeniging’s experienced overlander, Andre Greeff, smiled all the way down after having removed the (by then slightly dinged) running boards from his Hilux the previous day. Chris Marshall walked his Land Cruiser «•’ along the correct lines (as though he was driving a tarred road back home in Camps Bay), while his wife, Gila, captured it all on camera. Just before the last bit of white-knuckling, there’s respite in a view site that gives you a 270 degree view of Marienfiuss. It’s a ma nificent valley in that desert-nothingness kind of way. It’s a sight that had me humming the theme song from The Lion King and thinking of that scene when Simba walks onto Pride Rock to reclaim his kingdom.
Signless rough roads
“Are the eggs properly packed and did you tie the wood to the roof?” Chris meant it as a joke, but even the bolts securing our 29-meg radio to the dashboard bumped free. Terrence’s jerry cans got ripped clean off his roof rack, bracket and all, knocked into submission by the hellish corrugations of the ‘gravel plains’ – the piece of baked earth that stretches from the southern end of Marienfiuss toward Hartmann’s Valley in the west and Orupembe in the south. It’s a motherless stretch of about 200 kavs o on a track that long forgot what a grader looks like. When the GPS mapping says ‘severe corrugations’, it’s severe with a capital’S’. It’s rocky, forlorn and barren in an almost irritating way. But then you stop at one of ‘the drums’ (there are three painted 30-gallon drums – red, blue and orange – which act as landmarks out in road-signless nowhere) and get out into the heat haze to realise just what a special place you’re in. It’s a watercolour-painted country of plains and mountains that smells of dust and heat. It’s a land of mirages, dust devils, gemsbok and pronking sprinboks. A place that will drive some to poetry, others to madness.
The nothingness overtook us
“I’m going to name this waypoint ‘nowhere’ on my GPS,” chuckled Terrence as our convoy came to a halt in the remnants of an ancient riverbed, next to a granite koppie in Hartmann’s Valley. There were three trees – the only shade for kilometres – as the nothingness overwhelmed us. Hartmann’s Valley lies between Marienfluss and the dunes of the Skeleton Coast and is plains of eerie openness on an oceanic scale. It frightens to the point of feeling that you could easily wither and turn to sand. Yet there’s an intriguing spirit that has you endlessly gazing into the hazy distance to mountains that seem to float. We just sat on our deck chairs all afternoon and stared. As the sun dipped, Andre and I went looking for photos. We climbed the koppie and it turned into a mountain. That night was black as an eight ball. Perfect for stargazing. Andre schooled us on the visible constellations with an amazing passion for the celestial, helped by a star map CD-Rom (he travels with his laptop especially for this and downloading digital photos). “He ain’t heavy” The second day at Purros, we woke up to find elephant tracks less than 10 metres from camp. They were so fresh, fine veins from a wrinkled sole were still visible in the sand. Silent giant – no one had seen or heard a thing. The jumbo’s spoor lead out of the dunes, through camp and into the riverbed. So that’s the way we headed. The Hoarusib River (really just a sandy bed with the odd pool) is a broad tree and shrubcovered oasis snaking through the southwestern part of Kaokoland. It’s home to a variety of game, some of which use it as part of much larger home ranges, while others are full-time residents. We saw giraffe, springbok, a troop of baboons and the black-backed jackal we had heard the night before. After two hours of sand driving and serious searching, we gave up and turned around to head back to camp. At that moment, an old bull elephant strolled out from the shade of a tree. He looked as though he’d been waiting for us to finally find him. His cracked skin was a dry grey from the dust. He was small for the years he appeared to be carrying, but his feet were huge. Adaptations for desert life?
In the heat we experienced at Purros, we couldn’t help wondering how it could be possible for any person to live and survive under that scorching sun. Yet locals live in tin shacks on the flats, swept by strong winds and dust clouds almost all the time. Late that night, we measured a temperature in the high 30s and not even a cold shower could break the heat.
Andre and Sarah
“It was Kant who noted that we are often disappointed in going to a place because we really want to go to a time fondly remem bered. This anomaly struck me in Hartmann’s Valley after days on the way to Kaokoland; the road to Ruacana is tarred, Epupa is accessible in a 4×2 bakkie, power lines are being strung to villages far from any town. Even the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass is barely more difficult than Baviaanskloof. But then Namibia gripped us with its beauty as we travelled from coastal desert to the emerald oasis at Purros to dune-grass seas covered with springbok, gemsbok, giraffe and zebra, and on through fantastical rock and sand formations that have been man’s home for millennia. Try as we may to destroy it, nature’s majesty will prevail.”
- Chris Marshall, Cape Town
There were mixed feelings of relief and stoke. Some of us had already started cooking up excuses for the inevitable questions back home: “So, you’ve just been to Kaokoland; see any ellies?”
On to the next nowhere
Freethinking US author EB White wrote, “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.” After overlanding through northern Namibia with such a diverse bunch of travellers – people who appreciate being away from tarred roads, cell reception and car alarms and watching them (and feeling myself) change and grow as places that three weeks before were names on a map become places of memories, I reckon: “Nowhere is somewhere else, and you get there in a 4×4.”
Who to contact
This Kaokoland Desert
Elephants and Himba self-drive tour for Getaway
readers was run by
Navigators Four-Wheel- Drive Adventures.
Tel 021 -689-1825,
or web www.navigators4wd.co.za.
Navigators specialises in small-group tours to some of the more remote wilderness and wildlife areas in Southern Africa (max six vehices). They also offer off-road training camps, plus a range of shorter local tours to help you gear up for longer wilderness adventures and routes. Tours are available on an al -inclusive and fully catered basis, either in your own or in a hired 4×4 vehicle. Guests can also travel with Navigators in one of their vehicles. They do customised itineraries as well, so contact them with your requirements.
About the trip
The tour starts and ends in Windhoek and takes 12 days to complete but allow an extra day or two either side for travelling there and back.
The basic itinerary looks like this:
Day one: From Windhoek to Kamanjab area.
Day two: Kamanjab to Opuwo (via the Khowarib Schlucht (valley).
Day three: Opuwo to Epupa Falls on the Kunene River.
Day four: Rest day at Epupa Falls (with the opportunity to join an optional guided visit to a traditional Himba vil age).
Day five: Epupa Falls to Otjitanda.
Day six: Otjitanda over Van Zyl’s Pass and through Marienfluss Valley to Otjinhungwe on the Kunene River.
Day seven: Otjinhungwe to Hartmann’s Valley area (camping here is strictly by permission only).
Day eight: Hartmann’s Valley to Purros,
Day nine: A rest day at Purros (great for game drives in the Hoarusib River).
Day 10: Purros to Ongongo Falls.
Day 11: Ongongo Falls to the Twyfelfontein
area (where you can visit the petroglyphs, Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes)
Day 12: Twyfefontein area to Windhoek where the tour ends.
Total km covered: 5480km from Cape Town and back.
Namibia’s official currency is the Namibian dollar (R1=N$1), but the rand is also generally accepted. Credit and fuel cards can be used in most urban areas, but you’ll need cash for provisions and fuel up north. In general, fuel costs about the same as in SA, or is slightly more expensive.
What to take
The camp sites range from shady, grass-covered spots with electricity points and warm showers, to sand with not a tree in sight. Two nights are spent in ‘bush camps’ without any facilities. A total of eight days is spent without any access to shops and fuel supplies, so participants must be completely self-sufficient for the duration of the tour, including fuel (for at least a 1 000-kilometre range), water (for drinking and washing), food, tents, bedding and general camping equipment. A sturdy 4×4 vehicle is required, with transfer gearbox and preferably a lockable rear differential. Off-road trailers and caravans are not permitted. Participants should have their own recovery equipment, basic vehicle spares and two spare wheels. The route occasionally passes through villages where basic supplies, drinks and fuel are usually available.
The far northern regions of Kaokoland, especially around the Kunene River, is a malaria-risk area. Consult your local travel clinic on the appropriate prophylactics and take preventive measures like covering up in the evening and using anti-bug sprays.