Revisiting some of southern Africa’s most remote wilderness areas was long overdue for Jürgen Höntsch, so he planned a solo journey to Namibia’s “Canyon Land”, via the Richtersveld
Text and photography: Jürgen Höntsch
Starting my trip into the wilderness at The Growcery was an excellent idea. The camp is beautifully situated on the banks of the Orange (Gariep) River, about 22km west of Vioolsdrif. It offers, besides the wet and wild river tours, great 4×4 trails.
The camp has 10 sites on grass, close to the water with a great view of the river. There are also chic shacks and en suite double rooms for the “softer” folk.
I had acquired a brand new Malamoo “instant” tent for better connection with Mother Nature and slept very well on my air mattress.
After a hearty breakfast, breaking camp and deflating the Jeep’s tyres, I was ready to tackle the western part (or second leg) of the Namaqua 4×4 Trail.
This was new territory for me. Driving along in a harsh and hot mountain desert wilderness really sharpens the senses. No cell phone signal, no barking dogs and no radio, TV and politics for at least a week. Priceless! Admiring the landscape, reading the trail, listening to the sound of the engine and watching over the GPS and tyre pressure monitor were the tasks at hand.
The Richtersveld is hauntingly beautiful. Seared by blistering sun, it is – to me — the uncontested champion of SA’s wilderness areas. It now forms part of the greater Ai Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, which is divided by a vein of life, the Gariep River, in an almost surreal contrast to its surroundings.
Summer temperatures can reach the mid 50s and rain is as scarce as diamonds. Life sustaining moisture comes in the form of early morning fog that rolls in from the cold Atlantic. It is called malmokkies by the locals and sustains a remarkable range of small reptiles, birds, mammals and plant life, some species found nowhere else. Dramatic and beautiful, this is not a pampered paradise but rather an arid wilderness retreat for the nature lover. My love for it goes back to my first visit in 1965.
Along the Akkedis Pass, gnarled quiver trees, tall aloes and quaint halfmens cacti keep vigil over this inscrutable landscape. I stopped more than once to absorb the beauty and solitude, and take pictures.
The best camping spots at De Hoop were taken. It looked overcrowded, so I decided to continue south, towards Richtersberg, through thick river sand and with the temperature at 36˚C. Louisa, the De Hoop receptionist, had warned me to avoid this section, but there was always deep sand in that area and what was wrong with a bit of sand driving? The tracks, however, differed from those I remembered and for some peace of mind I engaged the front airlockers whenever it seemed necessary. The trusty Jeep had no problems and my new set of A/Ts performed really well in the sand.
At the Richtersberg camp, I was rewarded by being the only camper and the visit turned out to be the highlight of my trip. I pitched my tent on a section of grass overlooking the river and the rugged mountains on the Namibian side. After a not-so-cold shower, I settled in my camping chair with a cold one. A few Vervet monkeys played in the riverine thicket and two goliath herons watched from an island nearby.
When the sun vanished behind the mountains, I enjoyed a tasty rump steak with a chilled bottle of Durbanville’s finest sauvignon blanc. In the fading daylight, the night spectacle started with hundreds of fireflies, in streaks of green light, dancing up and down and along the river.
During my numerous travels (on four continents), I have met many remarkable people, and this trip turned out to be no exception. At the Kokerboomkloof camp, I met Braam from Nelspruit and his charming wife. They were there for six days in a 76 series Cruiser.
Kokerboomkloof was said to boast a number of spectacular rock formations. When I asked Braam about them, he smiled and said that fellow travellers, as well as park officials, weren’t exactly forthcoming on the matter, and it had taken him three days to find them. He showed me the places and I took great pictures of these marvels, including a pair of little klipspringer nearby. Thanks again, Braam!
Roaming through the park, I compared today’s situation with 10 years ago. It seemed to me that the ablution facilities provided at the various camps had had a positive effect on the environment. This was particularly noticeable at De Hoop, where visitors previously ignored the “bush code”, resulting in a disgusting situation and a health hazard, with plenty of flies.
A concern, however, was the making of new tracks, sometimes four running side by side, at places where road maintenance was neglected and corrugations had become a great nuisance.
I also observed that quiver trees were dying at an alarming rate, and couldn’t help wondering whether the halfmens was disappearing… just like the rhino.
Another disturbing thing was the great number of goats foraging in the park, particularly in the Richtersberg area, as well as dogs.
The pontoon at Sendelingsdrift took us over the Gariep and into Namibia. Border crossing formalities were swiftly settled and soon I was heading north, on tar.
An old wish was due to become reality. I was going to see the Fish River Canyon from “the other side”, as I planned to drive around the canyon.
After refuelling at Rosh Pinah, I called in at Daisy Truck & Auto to tighten my “cosmetic” Maxe runner boards. The corrugations had taken their toll and to diminish the rattles, I had squeezed empty plastic water bottles between the rails and the chassis. Johan would not accept payment and with a big smile handed back the plastic bottles. Well, he tried!
I headed east to the Namuskluft 4×4 base camp, at the end of a scenic valley in the harsh mountain desert, bordering the transfrontier park. It is well laid out with stands on a bit of lawn under shady trees. There are braai facilities, clean ablutions, Wendy houses, a pool and conference facilities. The camp offers self-drive and guided 4×4 trails, as well as hiking trails.
After setting up camp, I headed along the Bushman’s Grave 4×4 trail into the mountains. The trail was not a great challenge. Game in the region includes gemsbok, kudu and mountain zebra, as well as smaller buck such as klipspringer and steenbok, but they remained invisible in the afternoon heat. Not finding the bushman’s grave either, I returned to camp.
The following day, at the cattle post Witputs, 46km north of Rosh Pinah, I left the tar again and turned east onto the D463. The gravel road is in good condition and the geology is fascinating, but watch your travelling speed and look out for hidden obstacles. There was water in the Konkiep River and the vegetation attracts wildlife.
After about two-and-a-half hours of driving on gravel, with many photo stops and farm gate negotiations, I turned right into the Canyon National Park, and 30 minutes later I arrived at the Fish River Lodge. This is the only place on the “other side” from which you can see the canyon. It was a dream come true.
The lodge, perched on the western rim of the canyon, is an up-market retreat in the middle of nowhere, with a view like no other. It lies within a privately owned reserve of 450km2 and offers plenty of game viewing and bird spotting, and photo opportunities to match. From here you can explore the canyon and its surrounds. It is a special place in a dramatic location. Although I was not a lodge resident, I was handed a welcome cocktail and shown around by the friendly staff anyway!
Located along the rim, less than 10m from the canyon’s edge, there are 20 chalets, each with its own terrace and outdoor shower, as well as roof-top windows for viewing the stars.
The restaurant, with 10 chalets on each side, has a pool and there are indoor and outdoor bars and dining facilities from where the spectacular sunsets can be enjoyed. I would have loved to experience the sun setting and painting the canyon, but that had to wait for another time.
Back on the D463, the Jeep rolled on north, eating up the kilometres in the dusty desert wilderness. The Drielingkop or Inachakuppe, a landmark in that area, is visible from a great distance. Soon after it, I turned right against the GPS lady’s order, and after some re-calculating, she finally agreed that I had made the correct decision.
After a mere 28km on tar, I crossed the Fish River near Seeheim and then turned south and hit the gravel once again. The C12 was in much better condition than on my last trip in 2011.
After a long day, I finally arrived at the Canyon Roadhouse, where the self-catering accommodation was fully booked. A room at 1145 Namibian dollars a night was beyond my budget so I decided to carry on camping. I set up camp at site No 11, right at the end, which turned out to be a good choice. Besides the missing grass, there was power, an enormous shade tree, braai facilities and a well-designed ablution block with clean toilets and a hot shower — all to myself. And, as I found out later, there was plenty of wildlife in the neighbourhood.
The restaurant and bar have acquired a sort of cult status among visitors. The good old days of the automobile are celebrated in their theme – brilliant!
When I planned the trip, one of my ambitions was to drive down into the canyon. I knew it could be done, and Canyon Adventures said on their website they could arrange it, but I received no reply to my e-mails. Unfortunately, I found that they were doing only mule trips at present, but would soon be back in business with the 4×4 trail. My bad luck!
The Fish River Canyon is one of Namibia’s most impressive natural wonders. Contrary to popular belief, I recently read that it wasn’t “carved out by the power of the water over 1500-million years” but rather was formed by plate movement and cracks in the earth’s crust related to the break-up of Gondwanaland about 550 million years ago. It became the natural route of the river cutting its way along the floor. This also accounts for the sulphurous springs.
The canyon radiates a captivating solitude and silence and exerts a magnetic force drawing you back again and again. It has relatively modest colours and contours. It seems flat and soft at noon, when the sun is directly overhead. The colours deepen and intensify at other times of the day. The shapes within the canyon, viewed at different times, seem to be moving. At midday they appear to withdraw to the sides, flattening themselves against the multi-layered walls as though they fear the sun.
It is an awesome place and should be approached with caution. I’ve visited the canyon many times and have hiked down to the river in summer and in winter. We have pitched our tent next to the abyss and admired the sunset, stars and sunrise, back in the days when that was still allowed. But things have changed in the new Namibia, and the days of quiet and solitude at the canyon are long gone.
On my arrival at the famous Hell’s Bend, the main lookout point where an information centre has been built, busloads of tourists spoiled the ambience. After a few quick pictures, I took the road south, along the canyon’s edge.
After Sulphur Spring is the start of the hiking trail — the only place where you are still allowed to walk down in “organised groups”. Silence returned and I enjoyed the rest of the 20km trip along the rim.
The road deteriorated into a 4×4 trail leading down two terraces, where I engaged low range. After many photo stops I reached the end of the road, and here I opened a cold one to celebrate my reunion with the canyon.
My thoughts went way back to my first visit when the only attraction of Ai-Ais was a little pond, accommodating the thermal spring, surrounded by palm trees and thorny bush. A few visits later, over the Easter weekend in 1970, we were the first visitors to the new camp. It wasn’t officially open yet, but they allowed us to stay in one of the new chalets, sleeping on brand new mattresses that were still wrapped in plastic, and they didn’t charge us a cent. A few years later that holiday camp was washed away by a devastating flood – and not for the last time!
On my way back I was signalled to stop by the driver of a blue Pajero with a GP registration number. “Where does the road go?” he asked. “You know, my navigator isn’t so good,” referring to his wife sitting next to him.
I laughed and answered: “This road goes nowhere – pad loop dood – and don’t worry my navigator is hopeless!” So we had a good laugh and a chat, and then he made a U-turn and followed me.
On my final leg, I stayed for two nights at the Norotshama River Resort, on the northern banks of the Gariep. Situated in the Aussenkehr Nature Park, it offers a variety of leisure activities.
The shaded camping sites are on grass and there is electricity, clean ablutions and a good restaurant, overlooking the river. Here I met up again with Hennie and his crew from The Growcery camp, on their return from a trip far down the river.
My first excursion was into the rugged and sweltering Gamkab River Canyon at a blistering 39˚C (October). The trail follows the riverbed for about 10km and forms part of the old Ai-Ais 4×4 trail. Along a trickle of water, the riverbed is painted white by the crystallisation of soluble salts. Gigantic rock faces tower on the western side of the canyon. They are carved out at the bottom, and one can easily park a car underneath them.
The scenic Gamkab Canyon is another place of great silence, rarely frequented and deprived of life in that harsh desert wilderness, but it’s a rewarding drive. The C13 gravel road through the transfrontier park is very scenic. I made an excursion up a mountain on a steep track from which there is a great view over the river, the Aussenkehr winelands and the Richtersveld.
Then it was time for my last trail, the canyon route in the Aussenkehr Nature Park. It is called the Canyon 4×4 Trail, but apart from two rocky obstacles it is relatively easy to drive. You have to pay $145 and you’ll get a key that unlocks a gate.
The trail follows a dry riverbed through the canyon with dramatic dolerite rock formations, 100m high. This would make a great location for a Wild West movie.
After crossing the Springbokvlakte and negotiating the rocky obstacles, the trail passes a kloof of quiver trees, followed by a plain, sparsely grown with silvery Aristida grass, waving in the wind. Here I spotted a number of wild horses and, among them, a mountain zebra with an identity crisis.
It had been a journey into the past, but I also conquered new frontiers and experienced again that overwhelming feeling of relaxation in the solitude and tranquility of wild places – particularly the desolate and hauntingly beautiful “Canyon Land”.
Jürgen Höntsch, 73, learned about off-roading and sand driving in the old South West Africa, particularly during a Kalahari crossing in 1970 with a friend in his Toyota Corona 1200 bakkie.
Geology played a role in his professional life, so it still interests him in his retirement.
Customised/converted Jeep KJ Cherokee 2002 Ltd, 2.5l CRD with OME raised suspension, Rancho dampers, ARB bumper/winch bar, ARB air-lockers front and rear, Centreforce competition clutch, large tyres, SAC chip and a number of other modifications. No mechanical problems were experienced.
Jurgen’s first 4×4:
Brand new Toyota FJ40 Series Land Cruiser in 1975.
New set of Kumho Road Venture A/Ts. Jurgen was impressed by their performance in sand. No punctures.
Total distance: 2450km
On gravel and trails: 1210km
Average fuel consumption: 10.3l/100km
Engel 40-litre, powered at night by a jump start/power supply.