Voetspore’s Johan Badenhorst has a bit of a thing for Namibia. More specifically, for Damaraland in Namibia. So when he and the missus recently decided to take a break, that’s exactly where they headed.
Namibia is a prime destination for South Africans. It is especially the 4×4 enthusiast who crosses the Orange River and finds a playground at our north-western border. High on the list is the Namib and Kaokoland. But I’ve always been of the opinion that Damaraland is by far the most attractive. A recent visit to the vast open land confirmed it. Damaraland lies north of the Swakopmund/Windhoek road, east of the Atlantic Ocean, south of Sesfontein and west of Outjo. It is a huge, wild, rugged open space where the geographical evolution of the terrain is clear to see in the uncovered and dramatic rocks of the area.
Surprisingly, Damaraland hosts a fair bit of game. The black rhino of the area are elusive. You can count yourself extremely lucky if you see one of these prehistoric beasts as they shy away from people. Only their tracks and droppings bear evidence of their existence. The desert elephant are savannah elephant who adapted to the harsh conditions, and they are easier to spot. They move in the dry riverbeds, looking for food and water. These elephant travel up to 70 kilometres per day in search of something to eat and drink. The giraffe, ostrich, oryx, zebra and springbuck are not common, yet spotting some of each of these animals on a four to five day safari is to be expected.
Many of Damaraland’s main features can be visited in an ordinary sedan vehicle. Just outside Khorixas, the capital of Damaraland, is the Petrified Forest. These 200-million-year- old trees were swept to this area in floods, covered in mud and in the recent geological past, uncovered by erosion. The rock engravings at Twyfelfontein are some of the best to be seen on the African continent. The Brandberg and Spitzkoppe are popular with tourists. But it is when you get off the beaten track when Damaraland shows its true beauty. My wife and I travelled up the Ugab River from the entrance to the Skeleton Coast Park. We were unlucky not to come across the famous desert lions. They were in the area as the tracks were fresh. But like the rhinos, they are elusive. Years of poaching and illegal killings have made them shy and clever.
Our first camp was at Rhino Base Camp. This is from where legendary conservationists like Blythe Loutit and Mike Hearn operated in their quest to save the black rhino of Damaraland. Sadly both passed away in 2005, but the camp, and especially the work they did, stands as a monument to their endeavours. Rhino Camp is an excellent introduction to the dramatic rock formations of Damaraland. We travelled to the secret fountains of Gai-as. Small rock piles bear reference to the fact that the bushmen used this as a hunting area. There are few fountains in Damaraland and when the game approached the fountains of Gai-as to drink, they were easy targets for the hunters. At the fountain there are two other, more recent structures. These were shelters, used by the South West Africa police who patrolled the area on camelback in the early years of the previous century.
From Gai-as, we travelled to the Valley of Desolation. This is big sky country, an area difficult to capture on camera that leaves you overwhelmed. It’s also an area where you know that if you pick up mechanical problems with your vehicle, you’ll have to pray that someone comes looking for you. I arranged with experienced guide Simon Wearne that if I did not report back every second day from areas where there is cellphone reception (like at Twyfelfontein), he would come looking for us. We also stuck to a pre-arranged route. You can die of hunger and thirst in Damaraland as the barren, inhospitable land sees very few travellers. Our next stop was at Fonteine Farm. This is where a small Riemvasmaak community settled. The water from the fountain is palatable and the camping facilities basic: there are no amenities. Just the way we like it. From Fonteine we travelled deeper into the interior in the dry riverbed of the Huab. We saw elephant, oryx, giraffe and ostrich. The journey is pleasant, yet challenging at times.
Our turnaround point came at the Huab Camp. There are a number of excellent lodges such as Damaraland Camp, Huab Camp, Twyfelfontein Lodge and White Lady Lodge. My wife and I prefer to camp in the bush. Travellers should be aware that there are dangerous animals that may enter your camp at night and you should be prepared for a lack of toilet and shower facilities. If you’re happy with this, Damaraland offers an excellent opportunity. After refuelling at Khorixas (by now we had travelled more than 500 kilometres since leaving Swakopmund), we set up camp at Aba Huab. This community campsite is basic, yet it offers flush toilets and hot water showers. The next challenge was Divorce Pass. This pass takes you from the plains east of the Ugab into the riverbed. It is challenging, to say the least. This is where one mistake can cost you dearly. The sidewalls of your BFGoodrich tyres are tested to the limit.
So, too, are your driving skills. This pass is not referred to as Divorce Pass for no reason. Many a marriage has been put to the test with the wife questioning her husband’s driving ability and perhaps lack of judgement in choosing this route (I managed to escape any of this criticism). After Divorce Pass, the wide open plains, west of the Brandberg, are equally impressive. So is the Brandberg itself. This is Namibia’s prime rock-climbing destination. Yet, during our visit, there was no one to be seen.
You feel privileged to have such beautiful and dramatic landscapes all to yourself. A word of caution: do not attempt Damaraland’s tracks into the Valley of Desolation or Divorce Pass by yourself, except if you have a satellite phone or contingency plans like we did. Rather go in a group of two or more vehicles. Alternatively, come on a Voetspore Safari. In 2018, we plan a number of trips in this barren land. This is one place too beautiful not to share.