There are lot of attractions for overlanders and 4×4 fans in the north of Namibia. Johan Badenhorst discusses a guided trip that offers a little bit of everything.
My first introduction to Kaokoland was when Pieter Pieterse (writer, traveller, cook, TV personality and raconteur) took me to this barren land when we produced Van die Kaap tot die Kunene, Pieter’s third and final TV series. We entered Kaokoland at Sesfontein, and from there, went north to Opuwo, Okangwati and Epupa.
A few years later, I accompanied Jan Joubert on his first Dorslandtrek 4×4 expedition and made use of the opportunity to do a 50/50 documentary on the possibility of a hydro-electrical scheme at the Epupa waterfall.
Getting to the Kunene Delta has been, and still is, very difficult. This is a restricted area, fiercely guarded by Namibia’s Nature Conservation. Driving along the coast is not challenging. Getting permission is, though, but another 50/50 programme offered the opportunity. Hannes Holtzhausen of Sea Fisheries was doing research on the copper sharks of the Namib coastline. Four of these had to be tagged with satellite transmitters, so a small television crew joined him and 10 fishermen on a journey to the Kunene mouth to tag and release these beautiful sharks.
With the first Voetspore journey in 2000, we planned to start our journey of the coast of KwaZulu-Natal and travel across Southern Africa. The cyclone Demoina dramatically changed our plans. We had to do the journey in reverse. So, as part of In die Voetspore van die Grotes, the first Voetspore television series, we went to Kaokoland. From Cape Cross we drove north to the Ugab Gate. Just before Torra Bay, we turned inland, drove up Dopsteekhoogte and Bergsig, through the veterinary gate at Palmwag to Sesfontein. This time, unlike Pieter’s tour so many years ago, we did not go north. We went to Purros, Orupembe, up Van Zyl’s Pass and via Okangkwati and Opuwo onwards to Etosha, Khaudum, Botswana, Zimbabwe and eventually Mozambique.
My love affair with Kaokoland started 25 years ago, and over the years, it has just got stronger. That’s why it was, once again, a privilege to drive this special part of Namibia recently with a group of friends.
Our journey started at the Kunene River Lodge on the banks of this fast-running, warm, crocodile-infested river. There were 20 of us, plus guide Simon Wearne and his assistants. One of the guests was Calvyn Hamman of Toyota South Africa. This was the second year that he joined us on a trip. It was also the second year that this was an all-Toyota trip. Not that Calvyn prescribed anything, it is just the way it happened. Yet, the senior vice president of marketing for Toyota SA must have felt that he had done something right over the past seven years or so.
We left Kunene River Lodge on the newly built road to Epupa. What a disappointment! This used to be one of the most adventurous routes in Kaokoland. It was last maintained by the South African Defence Force during the Bush War of the 1980s. It took the best part of two days to travel from Swartbooisdrif to Epupa. Now, with the newly built road, it took a couple of hours. Were they taking away all our fun?
The next day we realised the answer to this question was a definite ‘no’. That is when we, after spending a night at the beautiful community camp, just east of Van Zyl’s Pass, tackled the legendary route down into the Marienfluss.
This is a spectacular route. It is a proper 4×4 challenge. The pass was built by Ben van Zyl who used to be commissioner for Kaokoland. He used game trails to mark the route and started building the pass in 1965. It took 20 labourers about four months to complete and was built by hand using spades, crowbars and picks. (Source: T4A Padkos).
The pass is about 12km long. It is slow going and takes a few hours to complete. At its most difficult section, just before the end, it is advisable to have someone standing in front of the vehicle, showing the driver where he should place the wheels of his 4×4. It is low-range, all the way to the bottom. You should also allow the engine compression to brake the vehicle and keep you in control.
Van Zyl’s pass can only be driven from east to west. Going up the pass is extremely difficult, and there are very few places where vehicles can pass each other. It is therefore a matter of courtesy, not do drive up Van Zyl’s. (We did so during the first Voetspore expedition, but that was just pure ignorance, and the consequences of the cyclone Demoina)
Once you are down the pass, you enter the Marienfluss. A year or so ago, after a number of years of drought, the Marienfluss looked like a desert. After good rains in recent months, it looked absolutely fantastic with its grass plains. The mysterious fairy circles are also much more pronounced. These strange circles starts in the Northern Cape and can be seen in the Namib Desert, all the way into Angola. No scientific explanation has yet been found to explain these circles.
We drove across the Marienfluss into the Hartman Valley. From there it was north, all the way to the Kunene, where we set up camp after a good swim in the river, constantly keeping a lookout for the river’s massive crocodiles.
The next day presented yet another challenge: dune driving. All of us in the convoy knew the dunes of the southern Namib. The Lüderitz/Walvis Bay route, Faces of the Namib and the more recent Shipwreck Forbidden Land Route gave us excellent exposure to dune driving, but now we were driving against the grain. It is much trickier. Simon, as the guide, often had to explore first before calling the convoy through.
The last day we drove in the dry riverbeds of the Khumib, Hoarasib and Hoanib. The reward of this route is the occasional spotting of the desert elephant. Other wildlife includes giraffe, springbuck and oryx. Seeing wildlife in this barren land is always amazing.
The last evening, was spent at the beautifully renovated Ongongo Campsite with its soothing hot spring just south of Sesfontein.
This is not a new route, but it is a new combination, and therefore offers variety. The awesome Epupa Falls, the track through Kaokoland, occasionally meeting the Himba people, the challenge of Van Zyl’s pass, the beauty of the Marienfluss and Hartman Valley, the difficulty of the dunes, heading for the coast and spotting the desert elephant in the dry riverbeds: this must be one of the best week-long safaris imaginable in Namibia.
Next year, Simon will do the journey a number of times. If you want to join in, send him an email at [email protected]. It is an unforgettable trip.