So you’ve got a bad case of wanderlust and an ageing Land Rover campervan in your backyard… what’s a couple to do? Well, you could stay home and armchair travel or you could pack a big toolbox and take off on a 4 500km trip across SA and Namibia, aiming for all the lesser-travelled roads. Nick Yell and Annette Theron chose the latter…
The Kalahari has got to be one of the most perfect wildernesses on Earth. Although a desolate place of extreme temperatures, it spawns some of the toughest survivors on the planet. The wild animals here are simply bigger and fitter; something Darwin would have put down to the filtering process of natural selection. But it’s a landscape with a softer side, too. Red dunes surround grass-covered plains dotted with stately camel thorn trees.
I was reflecting on this after crossing into Namibia from Mata-Mata Rest Camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The game viewing during the three days we spent there had been among the best we had ever enjoyed… the landscape was positively teeming with predators and antelope of all descriptions. But now, our 2 000km predominantly dirt road trip through central and southern Namibia beckoned and we excitedly discussed the highlights in store: staying over with friends on their farm outside Gochas; crossing the interior to Duwisib Castle via the old missionary town of Gibeon; taking in the dunes of Sossusvlei; visiting the rugged mountains in the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park, and then heading south to Klein-Aus, followed by Lüderitz and, finally, Ai-Ais which would include visiting the Fish River canyon on Annette’s 50th birthday.
We just prayed that Rovik (Roving Viking), our 30-year old Landy V8 campervan, would support our ambitious itinerary. We had prepared it as best we could, but had already experienced a mysterious hiccup outside Sutherland on the way to namibia, which later delayed us for two days in Calvinia. The 114km to Jan and Ami de Vries’ farm, Eindpaal, was a breeze on the wide, well-graded C15 gravel road from the border and then later, the C23 towards Gochas. Established in 1911, the buildings at Eindpaal Farm had a number of other uses before being turned into the farmhouse, workshop and general sheds you find there today. For many years, the current workshop area was fronted by a Mobil petrol station with a service centre behind it and a small post office-cum-general dealer next door. And what is a spacious farmhouse today used to be run as a hotel in the old days.
Like most of the other farms along this road, Eindpaal sits just to the west of the occasionally mighty Auob (meaning bitter water) River, a tributary of the Nossob. It’s a river that apparently last flowed strongly in 2006 (and the early 1970s before that) and has cut a steep-sided narrow valley along its course over the millennia. On our way towards Gochas the next day, we discovered a small monument to an apparent German Schutztruppe victory at Haruchas on 4 January 1905 over an army of Nama where 60 locals were killed and only two Germans wounded. While the exact facts of this battle are unclear, it was a reminder of the wars (1883 onwards) waged by the colonial Germans against the indigenous populations who resisted the annexation of their ancestral lands.
We were to discover later at Shark Island campsite that local fighters captured in these battles were interred at a concentration camp there – one of a number of similar sites around the country. Living under appalling conditions, the vast majority of the prisoners were literally worked to death in what authors David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen in their book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, claim was part of a deliberate plan of extermination. After filling up the Landy at Gochas, we struck out over the relatively featureless landscape flanking both sides of the C18 to Gibeon.
Established as a Rhenish Mission in 1863, Gibeon was declared a town in 1894 and soon became home to a German military post. In the mid-1890s, following the 1893-94 war against Hendrik Witbooi, Senior Lieutenant Von Burgsdorff was appointed commander of the Gibeon District. But he was to meet an untimely end only a decade later. On 4 October 1904, he was apparently murdered after riding unarmed into Hendrik Witbooi’s settlement in an attempt to persuade him not to declare war on the Germans. A separate account claims he went to the settlement in a less peaceful mood, however.
Gibeon is also famed in astronomy circles for the ‘Gibeon Shower’, one of the most extensive meteorite showers known to have occurred worldwide. Of the 77 meteorites recovered within a 20 000km2 area around the town, the largest (650kg) can be seen at the South African Museum in Cape Town. Although it was getting close to mid-winter, it was still 31°C inside the Landy. We stopped on a bridge over the broad, yet dry Lewer River before turning east on the D811 towards our overnight stop at Duwisib Castle’s campsite. It was already well after 2pm and with about 165km still to go, we pushed on as fast as the road and Rovik would allow. But the road soon morphed into a rocky twee spoor and we made slow progress, eventually crossing the Schwarzrand Mountain Range at sundown and making the T-junction with the tarred C14 around 7pm.
When the Duwisib Castle sign appeared after an hour of wrestling with Rovik’s wheel as the tyres grappled with camouflaged mounds of sand, we were excited at the prospect of chilling with a cold beer around a fire. But that was before we turned into the campsite and a loud grating sound came from the Landy’s left front wheel… and the headlights failed, too. This was certainly not the sort of entrance we wanted to make at Duwisib campsite, especially after an enervating day on dirt tracks. After much muttering and cursing, the two of us managed to shepherd our ailing Rovik into our designated campsite by torchlight, pop the roof and settle down to enjoy a well-deserved drink and tinned curry camp chow.
The next morning a neigh-bouring camper, called Ludolph, came to offer some advice on fixing the grating sound emanating from Rovik’s front wheel. Under his direction we soon discovered there were a number of small stones stuck between the brake pads and the disc, and with the help of a small screwdriver, I prised these out and the wheel turned freely again. But we were unable to fix the main light switch and had to rely on holding the bright beam lever up to get the lights to work. Duwisib Castle is definitely worth a visit, even if you’re not camping there. Although colonial history is often muted by African countries these days, the preservation and careful curation of this historical treasure proved to us that the Namibian government is not on a mission to bury facts about its colonial past.
Especially notable when the man who commissioned the building of the castle, Hans-Heinrich von Wolf, was a captain with the German Schutztruppe during the 1904-1907 colonial wars waged there. Yet the story of Hans-Heinrich and his American-born millionairess, Jayta, fits squarely into the Out of Africa genre. Following a battlefield blunder against a superior Nama force where he lost his field guns to the enemy, the disgraced Von Wolf was allowed to resign his commission and returned to Germany in 1906. There he met and married his saviour, Jayta Humphries, step-daughter of the American consul in Dresden. A follower of psychologist Sigmund Freud, she believed the best way to cure her husband’s depression after losing his army career was to return to the place which caused his distress. It was also she who suggested they “build a castle and live in grand style so that they (his detractors) will be proud to accept our hospitality”.
No expense was spared building this “strange monument to a devoted woman’s inspiration”. And although author Lawrence Green in his book Lords of the last frontier classifies Von Wolf as a drunkard, spendthrift and eccentric aristocrat, he also speaks of Von Wolf’s fairness in business dealings, his successful horse stud and was particularly impressed with the last chapter of his relatively short life — when he stowed away on a Dutch liner and returned to Germany to fight for his country in World War I. Shortly after re-enlisting, Von Wolf was killed during the Battle of the Somme. I had factored in the short drive (167km) to Sesriem Campsite as respite for the long day we’d had in the Landy the previous day. We were now entering the Namib Desert proper and were just starting to enjoy the desolate expanses when Rovik juddered to a halt. Now, I’m no mechanic, but after a quick look under the chassis, even I was able to diagnose the fuel pump wasn’t working.
Clearly the pump was either broken or its power connection had been severed on the badly corrugated C27 dirt track. I checked the terminals on the unit itself and traced the wiring as far as I could, but could not find the fault. In the meantime, a couple had stopped to see if they could assist us; but unfortunately their mechanical ability was even less than ours. In the end, though, they kindly towed us the remaining 87km to Sesriem. For the second night in a row we arrived at our campsite with car trouble. The difference this time was that we definitely needed a mechanic, and even if we could find one to help us, we expected lengthy delays getting parts. But we went to sleep that night vaguely optimistic that the mechanic whom a ranger had promised to fetch for us the next morning, would materialise.
The snorts of gemsbok wandering about our campsite woke us early the next morning. A fine haze hung over the dunes on the western horizon and I wondered whether we were ever going to get to Sossusvlei in our embattled transport. Then I saw a small Nama man heading our way. His name was Hendrik Rooi and he was the mechanic we had been promised. During our introductions, it turned out his grandfather’s mother, a Witbooi, was related to the famous Nama chief, Hendrik Witbooi, the fearless warrior who gave the German Schutztruppe a hell of a run for their money.
During the course of the morning we disassembled the entire dashboard, most of the engine’s electrical junctions and the wiring harnesses. Thankfully, we’d established that the pump itself was working, but could not find the break in the power supply. Desperate to wrap things up, we connected a power cable from a disused switch near the battery directly to the fuel pump. And, even though we had to switch the fuel pump on manually, at least the carburettors could now get fuel. To our collective chagrin, though, the sparkplugs were not firing either; or in Hendrik speak: “ons kort net die vuur”. Somehow, either on the bumpy and incredibly dusty tow into Sesriem or through all our fiddling, the starting electrics were now also kaput. But after another two hours of prodding and disassembly, the old V8 miraculously roared into life.
Annette and I set off for Sossusvlei early the next day. When we got to the 4×2 parking lot and saw the heavy sands of the 4×4 track that winds its rutted way for the last 5km to the vlei, we looked at each other and said: “What the hell, let’s give it a go!” With Rovik’s recent penchant for mechanical failure, perhaps this wasn’t the wisest choice, especially when most of the vehicles we saw entering this obstacle course were shod with wide, off-road tyres, and not marie-biscuit truck tyres. After deflating the tyres to 1.6 bar at the rear and 1.3 in front, we set off. The little experience I’ve had in thick sand has taught me to keep the Landy in 4×4 high, stay in second gear and keep the revs up. It worked an absolute charm and Rovik ploughed his way through the sand with relative ease. By the time we got to the parking lot on the other side, we were so elated we did a praise-singing prance around the Landy.
We experienced some of the best landscape vistas on the trip that followed to the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park. And, once we were off the C19 and onto the D854 it got even better; particularly an amphitheatre of fascinating layer cake-like mountains that presented themselves across a broad and rugged plain not long after we turned onto this road. After stopping for a cup of tea to appreciate the view, I thought to myself that things just couldn’t be better. The scenery was spectacular, the dirt track was in reasonable shape and we hadn’t seen another car for an hour. I was just adding to my smug reflections about how well behaved Rovik was when the Landy started to jerk.
It was a similar phenomenon to the commentator’s curse in cricket: where praise has just been heaped on a batsman, only for him to then go out next ball. But I wasn’t that perturbed by the jerking as this had happened once before in SA as a result of ‘bad petrol’ (water contamination) and I’d ‘solved’ the problem with fuel cleaner. After trying this remedy again with limited success, I put the intermittent fault down to dirt in the fuel or too little lead replacement additive in the unleaded fuel we had to use in Namibia. Thankfully, we made it to our campsite in the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park without too much angst and decided to put the problem out of our minds over the next few days. We were determined to relax, which our private and shaded campsite, next to a sibilant stream and jagged mountain range, looked well capable of facilitating. I wasted no time in setting up my hammock and within minutes was enjoying an ice-cold Tafel Lager, swaying gently above the fecund undergrowth with no worry in the world.
A short highlights clip of the next few bliss-filled days would reveal: experiencing a short section of the beautiful Waterkloof Hiking Trail; making a mouth-watering springbok shin potjie in our new Dutch oven; being visited nightly by
a seemingly tame genet who was clearly after braai scraps; a sighting of black eagles on an afternoon stroll, and meditating in our camp chairs under the trees to the sounds of the stream and birdsong. The 185km trip from the park into Helmeringhausen was fairly uneventful. Thirsty and hungry, we stopped in at the local hotel and campsite and enjoyed a couple of ice-cold Windhoeks and a traditional bratwurst, sauerkraut and mash meal. It was tempting to languish in the pretty beer garden and make better friends with the tame springbok, but we still had 130km to go to Klein-Aus and pushed on after filling Rovik with petrol. I’d been hoping the fuel added in Helmeringhausen would dilute any contamination from the suspected ‘bad petrol’ we got in Sesriem. In hindsight, we now know the reverse was true. Our problems stemmed from a rusty main tank which got that way due to standing close to empty for much of its life. So when the main tank was filled, the resultant rust grit washed into the petrol and clogged the fuel line. But, of course, I didn’t know this then.
The campsite at Klein-Aus Vista is set in a spectacular, boulder-topped mountain valley and reminded us of Springbok in the Northern Cape. Having got there quite late, we decided not to make a fire and conjured up a quick camp chow from our assortment of tins, broke out the scotch for a nightcap and enjoyed an early night. The 110km drive from Klein-Aus Vista to Lüderitz is full of surreal moments and otherworldly experiences. Arriving among the anachronistic German architecture which dominates the town of Lüderitz does little to bring one down to earth either. A good antidote to this sort of disorientation, though, is a levelling plate of comfort food, which we eventually found in a plate of fish and chips at Ritzi’s. After parking Rovik in our chosen campsite on Shark Island, we sat down to enjoy our meal and a glass of bubbly in this notoriously windy campsite.
Over the two relaxing days we spent there, we were fortunate to have clear skies and relatively mild winds. And the serene sea view from our bedroom window, which backed onto the western shore, is one etched deeply in our memories. Before leaving Lüderitz I decided we should get the Landy checked out by one of the local mechanics. Even though it had been running reasonably well since Klein-Aus, it was still battling to start and I wanted to have an in-line fuse installed between the switch from the battery and the fuel pump. Stephan Roberts, a South African expat at Udo’s garage, proved a dab hand and he reset our points and had the in-line fuse installed in no time. We had nearly 450km to drive to Ai-Ais campsite that day.
The tar road to Rosh Pinah took us past a prisoner of war camp that housed 1 552 German soldiers captured by Union of South Africa’s forces. Needing to provide better shelter for themselves from the hostile climate than their issued tents would allow, the prisoners built small houses from sun-baked bricks and flattened food tins to provide ‘tiled’ roofs for their shelters. Running alongside the Gariep River, through the barren spires and ridges of the mountain ranges on either side of the valley, was an unexpected pleasure and one of the highlights of our trip. But by the time we got to Ai-Ais campsite it was dark and it took us more than half an hour to find a tolerably located campsite among the hordes of holidaymakers who had headed here when the school holidays started three days earlier.
As campers who prefer seclusion and quietness, the heaving masses were our worst nightmare. Adding to my concerns was the fact that Annette was having a milestone birthday the next day. After a stiff scotch and a simple supper we decided to go walk-about and see if we could find something more private. Luckily we did and by 10pm we were set up in the first spot after the gate; one where campers weren’t all cheek by jowl. But after experiencing the outdated and filthy ablution blocks, as well as the poor state of the camp’s supply shop, we decided to head out to the Fish River Canyon for Annette’s birthday picnic and find an alternative campsite that night. And following the excruciatingly jarring trip on the badly corrugated C10 and C37 dirt tracks, even if we’d been happy at Ai-Ais campsite, we would not have wanted to make the return journey.
As it was, just after we got through the Fish River Canyon viewing site’s gates, I noticed Rovik was haemorrhaging oil. On closer inspection I saw the oil filter was loose and there was no oil showing on the dipstick. After tightening the oil filter and putting in the two pints of oil I had, there was still no oil mark on the dipstick. Luckily, fellow traveller, Louis Louw, sponsored us two more pints and even though I resembled a mechanic who hadn’t showered for a week, we were then able to head out for Annette’s birthday picnic.
The delicious picnic with a view – the kind manager at Hobas campsite (who managed to squeeze us into this pleasant facility) and the birthday braai complete with fireside cigar all contributed to make Annette’s birthday, and our last day in Namibia, the best of the trip. Worrying about the Landy making it to the border post the following day could wait until tomorrow.
Distance travelled in Namibia: 1 911km Road conditions: 80% gravel, good condition except for: transit over Schwarzrand; the badly corrugated C27 to Sesriem and even worse corrugations from Ai-Ais to Fish River Canyon. Petrol stops en route: Gochas; Gibeon; Sesriem; Helmeringhausen; Lüderitz and Rosh Pinah.
Vehicle requirements: SUV, bakkie or 4×4. Best time of year to go: Mid-April to mid-June or mid-July to end September Route highlights: The transit through the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park; taking the road less travelled to Gibeon and the rocky twee-spoor over the Nananib Plateau; camping over and visiting the romantic Duwisib Castle; eventually making it to Dune 45 and Sossusvlei; the campsite and trails at Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park; the campsite setting and views from Klein-Aus Vista; relaxing while absorbing the seascapes at Shark Island; the transit from Rosh Pinah through the Transfrontier Richtersveld National Park and the picnic on the edge of Southern Africa’s own ‘Grand Canyon’ – Fish River Canyon.
Accommodation and campsites:
Reasonable park rates for good, shaded campsites with electricity and braai facilities. The ablution block is modern and clean and there is a swimming pool nearby.
Book through SANParks: Tel: 012 428 9111
Auob Country Lodge (6km outside Gochas):
While we didn’t stay here, after trawling the web, this looks a good option if you want to break your journey to Duwisib Castle. Stoney’s Country Hotel in Gochas also looks reasonable and offers campsites as well.
Tel: +264 61 374 750
Best surprise of the trip: large, private and shaded campsites with concrete tables, braais, rubbish bins and basins with running water, all set in park-like savannah. The ablution blocks were adequate and scrupulously clean.
Tel: +264 61 285 7200
Very busy and ablution blocks dated; but campsites themselves are spacious and shaded with electricity.
Tel: +264 61 285 7200
Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park:
Best campsite setting of the trip with designer ablution blocks.
Tel: +264 61 285 7200
Beautiful setting with good hiking trails and small but clean ablution block.
Tel: +264 61 230 066
Shark Island (Lüderitz):
Often windy, but superb seascapes are worth inconvenience, ablution blocks are old boarding-school types but reasonably clean.
Tel: +264 61 285 7200
Dirty ablution blocks and dated infrastructure. Recommend Hobas campsite instead.
Tel: +264 61 285 7200