Hellish path to paradise

Text: GG van Rooyen
Photography: Uli von Kapff

It all started with a television show. It was a travel programme called Going nowhere slowly, and it inspired Uli von Kapff to explore southern Africa.

“The show motivated me to get out of Cape Town – where I had lived for several years – and visit all the interesting places around me. So I purchased a Land Rover Defender and started travelling. I tried to go camping at interesting spots at least twice a month and took two long overland trips each year,” says Uli.

Considering his voracious exploration of the region, it wasn’t long before Uli had been to most of the interesting out-of-the-way spots in the Cape.

“My circle of exploration grew wider and wider,” says Uli.” Seven years after purchasing my first Defender, I struggled to find a spot in the western part of South Africa, eastern region of Botswana or all of Namibia that I hadn’t visited.”

While on one particular trip, however, he saw something that piqued his interest.

“I was on the Namaqua 4×4 Trail when I saw a sign that said ‘road to hell’. I desperately wanted to give it a go, but I didn’t have the time, since the pass is an optional dead-end branch of the trail. Once you reach the bottom you have to take the same route back up, and then rejoin the Namaqua Trail.”

On that trip Uli had to pass it by, but he knew that he would be back.

Roughly a year later, he finally had an opportunity to return to the trail, so he loaded his vehicle and set off.

Uli was driving a 2009 Puma Defender 110 that he had prepared carefully for overland travelling. It boasted two extra diesel tanks, a water tank, dual-battery system, fridge, snorkel, drawer system and specially-designed awning.

“Over the years I have discovered what sort of accessories are necessary when travelling overland, so I have tried to kit out the Defender with items that make life on the road easier. For instance, I’ve designed an awning that can offer me protection from the sun within seconds, but can also be closed off to create a weatherproof tent. I’ve also installed a queen-size bed in the rear of the vehicle, which is probably more comfortable than my bed at home,” says Uli.

Why did Uli need to install a bed in his Defender? Quite simply, because he was never quite sure where he would be at the end of any given day. He never booked accommodation in advance or created detailed itineraries. This is why he always travelled alone. Travelling companions would probably not tolerate this, and moreover, would limit his freedom to explore the interesting roads and destinations he often stumbled across.

He did have one constant companion, though. His dog, Zoloe, accompanied him on all his trips, and would join him on this journey as well.

“My dog goes everywhere with me,” says Uli. “He is a great companion and loves travelling. His favourite spot is in the back of the Defender. I sometimes struggle to get him out of it!”

When Uli finally ventured down the pass, he found it to be surprisingly simple, though there was one nasty hazard. A stretch of the track was blocked by a huge boulder, and the only option was to carefully pack rocks around it.

After adding a few rocks to those that had already been placed around the boulder by earlier travellers, Uli attempted to get over it.

As soon as his rear wheels passed over the loose rocks, the pile started to collapse. The rocks were rolling towards the ledge – and taking his Defender with them!

For a few moments it seemed as if it would follow the rocks down the slope, but thankfully, the Land Rover stayed on the tracks.

“Even though I had made it, I was very worried,” says Uli. “I knew that I would have to get over that boulder again on the way back.”

Although the pass was fairly tricky, he had traversed far tougher tracks in Lesotho and Namibia. Van Zyl’s Pass in Kaokoland, for instance, was more difficult.

The difference between this trail and Van Zyl’s Pass, though, was that Uli would have to travel back up. Overlanders usually drive down Van Zyl’s Pass only. This track would have to be tackled in the opposite direction as well, and Uli knew that the return trip would prove far more challenging.

Despite his harrowing ordeal, he was at the bottom of the pass in about three hours and spent a wonderful night next to the Orange River.

“Apart from this pass, there are no other roads leading to this section of the river, so the solitude and tranquillity down there are wonderful,” says Uli. “It is also beautiful. The river meanders through rocky mountains that are devoid of any vegetation. The only greenery one finds is the trees that line the river, and they attract lots of birds.

“Of course, there are no facilities and it is incredibly hot, humid and dusty, so some people would probably struggle to understand why one would travel down an ugly pass to get there. For me, however, the solitude makes it worthwhile. I saw absolutely no human activity on either side of the river.”

After two peaceful nights in the valley, it was time to travel back up. At first things went well, but Uli soon ran into trouble.

The large boulder again proved a challenge. Uli wasn’t eager to relive the traumatic near-accident he had experienced during his descent, so he spent a lot of time placing rocks around the boulder’s edge. Moving the heavy stones around was back-breaking work and took hours, but he eventually managed to crawl over the boulder.

This wasn’t the most challenging part of the track, though. While travelling into the valley, Uli had driven over a 300m stretch that was covered in small, loose stones. Traversing them downhill had been easy, but now he had to drive up.

“Those stones were like marbles. They were so loose and slippery you could barely walk on them. The Defender simply couldn’t gain any traction,” says Uli. “Finding a path through them took about six hours. I had to build some sort of road with the midday sun beating down on me. It was terrible! I really envied Zoloe, who was relaxing beneath the Land Rover.”

After a full day of lugging stones around, Uli made it to the top of the pass. And he vowed that he would never venture down it again.

So would he recommend it to others?

“I was alone and did not have a winch, which made it far more difficult,” says Uli. “I also had tyres that weren’t ideal, and my 2009 Defender’s traction control was completely new to me. If a person has a 4×4 with good ground clearance and all the necessary recovery equipment, I might recommend the trail to him or her. But still, you would need a dependable travelling partner, loads of time and the patience of a saint. And people should keep in mind that Tracks 4 Africa does not recommend travelling down the pass.”

According to Uli, this is probably the toughest pass in the Northern Cape. Traversing it requires hard work and determination, so tackle it only if you’re up for a massive challenge. And own a powerful winch.