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An African Pilgrimage

10 August 2016

On a vast continent like Africa, adventure lurks around every corner and under every rock. So, two pensioners flipped over some rocks and kicked up some dust on their epic 5 000km odyssey through three countries in their Jeep Cherokee. They experienced some incredible sunsets, ventured far off the beaten track and even encountered the king of the jungle up-close and personal.

The Jeep had limited space so we kept packing to a minimum. Preparation was crucial for this adventure as we would be departing the cold and windy Cape, which was still in the clutches of winter, for the warmth of Augrabies. The temperature at the falls was searing and we enjoyed the opportunity to relax and take a load off. Our arrival was earlier than anticipated so we settled into our chalet and enjoyed the golden hour, basking in the magnificence of the waterfalls. Eye-catching silhouettes of quiver trees and polished rocks of granite offered some great photo opportunities. We also celebrated the start of our adventure with a sundowner, while indulging in a tasty steak at the local restaurant.

Here I informed my German friend Peter about the diamond legend. According to legend, diamonds that have been washed down the waterfall over millennia got trapped between the gravel in the swirl-hole below the falls. If there was a way to salvage some of them… With a grin, I also mentioned the story of the giant two-metre-long river monsters guarding the diamonds… eish. For me, the lower Orange River has always represented something special – a vein of life in this arid and harsh region. Even after 50 years and many visits, it still captures my imagination, despite the damaging irrigation developments upstream.

Early the next morning we hit the road that took us east towards Upington, where we refuelled the Jeep and stocked up on reserves in final preparation for our first border crossing. Border crossing formalities on the SA side of the Gemsbok/Bokspits post were swiftly conducted but authorities on the Botswana side appeared to have vanished into thin air. Eventually, we located them, relaxing inside fully air-conditioned containers. Border crossing behind us, we reached the weaving road alongside the Molopo River. Overall, the tarred road appeared to be in a good condition, but roaming livestock pose a real problem on this stretch of road as they can wander onto the road.

Our destination for the day was the Phirima Game Ranch, which is about 40km west of Tsabong, slap-bang in the middle of the Kalahari. I  entered the co-ordinates and the lady residing inside the GPS led the way. We arrived at a sandy track, deflated the tyres and our trusted lady friend with the electronic maps stopped sharing her knowledge of the area. Only after a long search for the gate, and with the help of friendly neighbours, did we arrive at our pit stop, approaching from the wrong direction entirely.

Phirima, which is Tswana for ‘the place where the sun sets’, is an unspoiled piece of land in the heart of the Kalahari. It boasts plenty of wildlife and reasonable facilities. The remote camp, with chalets and a boma, is nestled among camelthorn trees stretching along the width of a pan.

The area was bone dry  as there had been a bit of  a drought. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a succulent dinner and washed it down with an ice-cold beer. The sky was highlighted in pastel colours with a spectacular sunset and a nearby barn owl kept a close eye on us. A perfect end to an eventful day.  The next day we topped-up with fuel and bought some additional bottles of water in nearby Tsabong, a seemingly busy place, before continuing our journey north on a gravel road.  About 40km before the gate to the Mabuasehube Game Reserve, the gravel road deteriorated quite unexpectedly with the surface caving in to create a mechanical trap for any unlucky vehicles.

The road had more holes than a sponge and driving just  a bit too enthusiastically could catapult a vehicle from one hole to the next. Arriving at the park in one piece, the officials didn’t appear to be very forthcoming about the conditions inside. In hindsight, asking questions when temperatures are searing in the 40s might not bring out the best in people. Finding our campsite proved to be no problem as the lady with the maps interpreted our GPS co-ordinates just fine. Soon after arrival at the Mpayathutlwa Pan (meaning giraffe’s stomach) a lot was revealed to me… there was no water!

We pitched our Malamoo instant tent and relaxed in our chairs under the protective shade of a large tree. From this vantage point, we had a great view of the Mpaya Pan and spotted a herd of wildebeest in the distance. Further to the left, a number of vultures hovered over what must have been a carcass. “Looks like there was a kill last night,” I said to Peter, handing him the binoculars. “Oh that’s good, then we’ll be safe tonight,” he answered with a smile.

The birdlife around us was astonishing and, with a telephoto lens, I was able to photograph a large variety from my camping chair. As the golden hour painted the horizon of the Kalahari, we started the fire and relaxed in our chairs, beer in hand, staring into the flames. On the menu was delicious Karoo lamb washed down with Durbanville’s finest Sauvignon Blanc – it couldn’t get any better. Little did we know this was just the beginning of an eventful and unforgettable evening.

After a final ‘cold one’ at the dying campfire, we noticed searchlights in the area where the vultures circled just a few hours ago. “Wildlife photographers or filmmakers,” I suggested. After clearing away our gear, our beds temptingly called to us with a promise of happy dreams. At 10.30pm the Jeep’s alarm went off, creating a bit of a panic situation in the tent. A quick inspection revealed that nothing appeared to be out of place with everything still enveloped in an innocent silence.

On closer inspection, however, we noticed skid marks from a moist snout. So I considered the possibility that a hyena in search of water had triggered the alarm. “Must have scared the living daylights out of it – maybe it’s still running,” I said jokingly. For the purpose of protection, I sprayed some pepper spray onto the Jeep’s tyres since these animals are notorious for their biting force.  Back in our tent, sleep completely dodged me. I took this opportunity to savour the sounds of an African night under the stars. I heard the distinct cry of a jackal in the distance and an owl hooting nearby. To top it off, there was a magnificent growl in the distance – and with that, sleep embraced me.

It was only brief because in the early hours, the king of the Kalahari announced his arrival at campsite MP01 with a bone-chilling roar next to our tent. For a moment I was in a state of shock. My pulse thudded in my ears and only after it settled to a more acceptable level was I able to whisper to a panic-stricken Peter to keep quiet and leave the torch off. Soon, though, there was a commotion at the ablutions. “Somebody for a shower,” I said with mischief. “They must be thirsty,” Peter replied with a dry throat.

Just falling asleep again, that unearthly growl woke us once more. It is blood-curdling but awe-inspiring at the same time. We could have sworn that the king of the Kalahari was trying to browbeat us for a drop of water – since this didn’t sound all that polite.  It continued onwards to the other side of the tent and carried on until just before dawn. Finally, the pride bid us farewell with a last, distant roar and on that morning, we slept a little longer than usual.

Finally emerging from the tent, still dressed in pyjamas, we read the tracks in the sand. There were huge male paw prints, as big as shoe size seven, and a number of smaller ones all over the camp. What a scary but wonderful night it was. At our second camp, at the Mabua Pan, we experienced the same ‘waterless’ situation and had to manage a second showerless day. A hot wind, that generated clouds of dust, made it less than ideal.

Here we met a French couple driving a kitted out Ford Ranger. They were wildlife photographers touring Botswana for a month and were on the way to Moremi via the Central Kalahari. They explained that they visit this area every year to capture Africa in pictures.  In preparation for the long trip the following morning, we decided to conduct a Jeep inspection. It entailed a critical look under the hood, a sus-pension and joint boots check, tyre pressure adjustment and emptying a Jerry can into the tank. The day ended on another high note with a great dinner at sunset and some icy cold Tafel Lager.

It was still early when we embarked on our epic journey that took us all the way back to Mpaya and farther south to the Boso Pan from where we turned west onto the Bosobogolo 4×4 trail. The Boso trail winds through the Kalahari bush over mostly flat terrain. Hills and dunes are reserved for the last section of the track. The sand is deep at places and corrugations are a constant menace. According to Tracks4Africa, it takes you just under seven hours from Boso to Nossob and an additional three hours down to Twee Rivieren (the only place where we could find accommodation).

Wildlife was rare in that starving vegetation, particularly the larger herbivore species. In the bird-viewing department, things didn’t look all that bad.  Driving the trail, though, requires a good deal of concentration and sand-driving experience is helpful. It tickles your sense of adventure to hit an unknown trail and discover new, open spaces. Driving along, all of my senses were working at optimum levels, especially considering the desert landscape was new territory for me.  Reading the trail, listening to the sound of the engine, smelling for leaks or anything burning and watching the various dials and controls were the tasks at hand. Without a satellite phone, we couldn’t afford a disaster.

The beauty and solitude of these open spaces is uplifting and is the main attraction for many looking to find repose from daily life. My love for the Kalahari goes back to 1970 when we crossed the wilderness in my friend’s little pick-up truck, a Toyota Corolla 1200cc, from Buitepos via Ghanzi to Maun on a track that was for 4×4 and high-clearance vehicles only.  It took us three days to cover the 500 kilometres and it was here where I learnt that concentration, momentum and tyre pressure are the controlling factors for sand driving. At that time, we changed drivers every two hours but now it was a different situation altogether: there was only one driver, 74 years of age.

We made good progress and along the way to the Matopi camps, we came across the skeleton of what looked like a charred Toyota Prado. On the halfway mark we met a German couple, coming from the opposite direction in a Hilux. They had visited Mabua six years ago and were looking forward to experiencing it again. At the ‘dangerous dune’, announced by the lady in my GPS, a bakkie got stuck in a deep sandy section with two others in the process of recovering it. In the some-what confusing surroundings, I noticed three tracks crossing the overgrown dune and maybe they had taken the wrong one…

I engaged the Jeep’s ARB air lockers, on the move, and with the right momentum, the Jeep laboured up along a very chewed-up track jumping from one hole to the next. Damaged by the unsuccessful attempts of novice off-roaders, the way down was even worse. With two stops along the trail, we arrived at the Nossob camp earlier than expected, with plenty of diesel in reserve. At no time did I find it necessary to engage low-range with this capable 4×4.

Grazing wasn’t much better along the Nossob riverbed but boreholes generated water and there was abundant, varied wildlife under shady trees along the road, some with little ones. From here we took it easy and enjoyed Africa’s animal kingdom and scenery and were rewarded with great sightings such as two lazy lion prides and a female cheetah with her four cubs. Our arrival was well timed for the Twee Rivieren Immigration on that hot Saturday after-noon and soon thereafter we enjoyed that long overdue shower in our chalet.

Unfortunately, we had to vacate the chalet early the following morning and were on our way up the Auob riverbed towards Mata Mata. We were blessed with more predator sightings such as lion, spotted hyena and a jackal. The dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob, with their underground water, are the lifelines in this harsh environment. Migratory herds of large herbivores move seasonally within the park and it looked like there were plenty of Botswana’s migrants around. For me, personally, the scenery was as much an attraction to this park as the wildlife.

The officials at the Mata Mata border control were friendly but not very efficient. Getting into Namibia took too long. The drive on Namibia’s gravel roads, the C15 and C17, through the Namibian Kalahari and over many dunes was a pleasant one. We passed Koés and headed for the Mesosaurus Guest Farm situated 38km north-east of Keetmanshoop.  Accommodation was in self-catering, thatched chalets with en-suite bathrooms and a communal kitchen. We stayed for two nights and the following day we admired the breathtaking scenery of the Quiver Tree Dolerite Park, which includes the Mesosaurus Fossil Site with its well-preserved fossilised remains of the prehistoric lizards.

We also visited the well-maintained graves of two German soldiers, Schutztruppe, who lost their lives during a Nama ambush in 1904. We enjoyed the big moon over a grassy steppe and even experienced a few drops of rain during a sunset, which bathed the sky in beautiful colours. On Tuesday morning, we hit the gravel again but to our regret, it ended at Keetmanshoop. Here we refuelled, pumped up the Jeep’s tyres, did some shopping and then headed north along the B1.

Near Mariental, we turned west onto the C19 towards Maltahöhe where the tar ends. We refuelled again, and as a customer waited behind me I left the filling station and drove onto the main road for tyre deflation. Here we experienced the unfortunate realities of travelling through poverty-stricken Africa. As we were deflating the tyres, two dodgy characters approached. One started conversing with me but then grabbed my tyre gauge, demanding 10 dollars. At the same time, Peter shouted at the other person who tried to grab my GPS through the open window. Soon we were on our way, however.

The character of the landscape was pretty monotonous but it changed dramatically when we neared Tsaris Pass. The green foliage and the characterful mountains were definitely easy on the eyes. Hammerstein Lodge, our stop for the next two nights, is situated between the Nubib and Tsaris mountains and is about 60km from the Sesriem gate. The massive granite boulders near the lodge, with one even looking like a giant hammer, provided the inspiration for the name of the lodge which offers a variety of accommodation, including camping, self-catering bungalows and even bed and breakfast options. There’s a great bar, buffet restaurant and a pool with beer garden. Attractions are the tame springboks and a 17-year-old leopard.

The following morning we revisited the spectacular Sossusvlei, one of Namibia’s worst kept secrets. We walked up to Deadvlei, which provides excellent photo opportunities. This was no different at the Sesriem Canyon. Unfortunately, though, Sossusvlei has become just another buzzing tourist destination with overlanding trucks and buses full of noisy tourists and crazy entry fees.

The long and dusty C14 gravel road took us south along the Schwarzrand and Nananib Plateau to Helmeringhausen. Here we decided to skip the Fish River Canyon (too many tourists) and changed onto the C13 via Aus to Rosh Pinah instead. After a quick lunch and refuel in the mining town we continued south and when we approached the Orange River Valley, the scenery changed dramatically.

The gravel road D212 is a scenic route that cuts through the rugged mountains of the Ai-Ais and Richtersveld Transfrontier Park but follows the river closely. The park in this desert region, where temperatures can exceed 50˚C, is divided by the Orange River (Gariep), in an almost surreal contrast to its surroundings. Some strange-looking plants, high up the mountains and along the river, lend an aura of mystery and magic to the area. Our destination for the following two nights was the Norotshama River Resort, situated in the Aussenkehr Nature Park that borders the Ai Ais and Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. It’s a very relaxing atmosphere with great 4×4 trails through stunning landscapes.

Norotshama also serves great tasting beer in an open-air beer garden with a stunning view over the Richtersveld. Backtracking the same route isn’t something I do often but I didn’t mind driving the D212 gravel road along the river a second time. It’s a rewarding drive through the hot, rugged mountain wilderness. Rarely frequented by tourists, it boasts wonderful geology and great scenery. The pontoon ferry at Sendelingsdrift took us across the river and back onto home soil. The further west we travelled, the more rapidly the temperature dropped. Arriving at Alexander Bay, the temperature plummeted to 19˚C and a cold, westerly wind welcomed us.

The R382 down south is tarred until about 14 km past Port Nolloth where we turned onto gravel once more in the direction of Kleinzee. The former De Beers private tar road between Kleinzee and Koingnaas is now open for public use but further on south there’s only gravel and sand, which makes for some glorious driving.  In Hondeklip Bay, I booked a self-catering guesthouse for two nights as well as the Shipwreck 4×4 Trail. The stormy weather was not perfect for a braai, so we decided to indulge in some sumptuous seafood that Saturday evening. To our disappointment, however, both seafood restaurants were closed.

The loss of a platter of seafood couldn’t damper our spirits, though, so we decided to tackle the Shipwreck 4×4 Trail the next day. Here we learnt that the trail hugs this hostile and treacherous part of the Atlantic coast. The challenge of the trail lies in sand driving, which required some clever negotiating around corners and across the rocky outcrops. Namaqua National Park was on our agenda the following day, where we entered at the north gate and headed for the Spoeg Rivier Caves. The park is world- renowned for its spring flowers and we were pleasantly surprised to still see some flowers, even though it was November.

The caves are of archaeo-logical importance and are worth a visit. The area consists of sand tracks that can catch out even the most pukka off-roaders. My all-terrain tyres once again demonstrated their exceptional capabilities in sandy conditions. The key, as always, is the correct tyre pressure.Gifberg is an ideal getaway place to experience everything that nature has to offer. The approach to the Gifberg Pass is dramatic with a challenging gravel pass which rewards with outstanding views. We stayed at the Gifberg Holiday Farm for the night and were in urgent need of some exercise. As a result, we hiked along one of the scenic trails with waterfalls, pools and caves with rock art. It was just what the doctor ordered.

The following morning we concluded the loop over the plateau and down the Ouberg Pass to Vanrhynsdorp. After a quick stop in Clanwilliam, we headed east over the Pakhuis Pass and then back on a gravel road through the Biedouwvallei to Wupperthal. Wupperthal is a picturesque place with a Moravian mission station, which was started in 1834, although its origins are actually Rhenish (Rheinische Mission). One of the Rheinland missionaries was Johann Gottlieb Leipoldt (grandfather of renowned writer C Louis Leipoldt). It is a place rich in culture, history and hospitality. The steep, narrow road out of the valley is reinforced with concrete but generally in bad condition with deep furrows.

After a quick detour to the Eselbank Waterfall, we continued south on a 4×2 trail along the picturesque panorama of the Cederberg Mountains to the Cederberg Oasis. After visiting the famous Stadsaal Caves, we enjoyed a cold one in the relaxed atmosphere of the Oasis and decided to stay away from the rat race for one more night and to draw the curtain on an unforgettable, wonderful journey.

Jeep Cherokee
Vehicle 2002 Jeep Cherokee CRD Ltd 2.5l, customised
Average fuel consumption 10.3l/100km
Tyres 24/75 R16 Kumho Road Venture all-terrains

Text & photographs: Jürgen Höntsch