Shifting Sands - Part 2

Through the Skeleton Coast

With me driving once more the following morning, it was time for us to head northwards then inland towards Khowarib Lodge. Here we were to meet our guides for Fred’s trip into the far north-west of Namibia. I drove a total of more than 300km, first north into the Skeleton Coast National Park, and then inland to the lodge. The trip was pretty uneventful, we saw a few Giraffes and the inevitable Oryx and Zebra, but not much else on a pretty deserted road.

As we moved eastwards, inland, the landscape changes from the rocky and sandy desert of the coast to a slightly greener and more ‘African’ mixture of low trees and sparse grass. The 300km plus drive is the longest I’ve ever done as a driver. Coming from the Isle of Man, 30km is a long drive, never mind 300km.

The landscapes are varied and spectacular as we move from desert dunes through rocky buttes into rocky mountain valleys. It’s a shame we don’t have more time to explore the landscape, but we need to cover so many kilometres between locations that we can only take time for an occasional stop at a scenic location – time enough for me to take a panorama or two, but not much else. I should be able to take a set of stills from the action-cam that I’m using to record the journey.

Khowarib Lodge sits in the bottom of a rocky river valley. The river had water in it – the first flowing water we’ve seen in Namibia – and was apparently teeming with frogs. The amount of noise a late-night frog chorus can make is incredible. It’s not enough to keep a tired traveller awake, but is monotonous and insistent. The valley is more of a gorge – steep sided with rocky hills rising hundreds of meters all around the camp.

At dinner, we are introduced to Caesar and Candice. They are going to be our hosts for the next few days and will guide us through the tricky roads and tracks that make up the adventure that Fred has arranged into the far north-west of Namibia.

4X4 For Everyone

Fred is sometimes easily lead by the examples and enthusiastic reports of others to visit unusual places and do unusual things. The trip into the Marienfluss and the navigation of Van Zyl’s Pass certainly qualifies in this regard. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the rest of us were just following along to keep Fred happy. I was really looking forward to the scenery and the remoteness of the locations, just not keen on driving in proper 4x4 territory. It was simply not something that I had thought of doing at any time. I have enjoyed driving on the roads, but have no real desire to drive off them.
If I was being honest, I’d also say that I wasn’t keen on the idea of camping. But, as we were being taken care of by experts and they would do all the work for us, it wasn’t such a bad thing. When someone else is putting up your tent and getting your bunk ready whilst others are lighting the fire and preparing the dinner, camping can be quite fun. Just sit down with a cold (note they have a fridge) beer and relax while dinner is prepared and the sun sets.

Chris and I have decided that Fred isn’t going to do all the driving, but it will be his honour to do the pass itself. As it works out, Fred takes the first day’s drive up to Epupa Falls on the Kunene River. The river forms the border with Angola to the north and is one of only a few permanent rivers in Namibia. The falls are a broken series of channels with some narrow main falls into a deep cleft with other side falls that stretch for almost a kilometre. We eventually arrived – late because of some sort of 4x4 test detour by Caesar – without time to look at the falls as the sun was already setting.

As we sat having dinner we could see that the river was running strongly, but by the following morning it had dropped by maybe half a metre and was considerably quieter. Still, we went down to the falls for some photos and we all walked right to the edge of the chasm to get the best view of the roiling waters. I have a feeling that, if we had had the time to see it the previous evening it would have been more impressive.

The rest of the day’s journey is Chris’s turn to drive. We set off back south, heading for Van Zyl’s Camp along allegedly numbered roads. We spend much of the day driving on truly terrible surfaces, but Chris takes it all in his stride. Even the bit where we have to go uphill for about 100m in low range with the diff-locks switched on. The Hilux takes it all in its stride however and never misses a beat.

We finally arrive at the camp late in the afternoon. It’s a barren and desolate place in the bush, but the water is running and the toilet flushes with only a little persuasion. Dinner, cooked over the campfire, is excellent and we all head to our tents early for a sunrise start towards the pass. We have a good breakfast and camp is broken ready for a long and difficult day’s drive.

Van Zyl’s Pass

Let’s be honest – who, outside of South African 4x4 enthusiasts – has ever heard of the route into the Marienfluss found by Van Zyl in the sixties. I certainly knew nothing about it before Fred suggested that we would go there on this trip. It has gained a reputation as some sort of 4x4 rite of passage, but we’d looked at the videos and photos and really couldn’t get a proper feel for it until we were actually there.

The pass is actually a route down into the Marienfluss valley from the higher inland plateau. We would descend about 600m or so from camp down into the valley then drive north back to the Kunene river. The route is never more than a track, there are no passing places and it is generally only attempted downhill – you definitely wouldn’t want to meet someone coming the other way.

The day had dawned clear and bright, promising to be blisteringly hot by the middle of the day. Fred was, of course, the driver for the adventure and I was going to take the navigator’s seat for a pair of eyes able to lean out of the window if necessary. We followed Caesar and is vehicle out of camp for the short easy section to the first of three rough descent sections. Instructions were given to go into 4WD and low range for the rest of the descent.

After a couple of kilometres scrambling over rocky stuff we stopped to get out and survey the first rocky descent. Fred watched Caesar from above as the rest of us took photos of him on the way down. Caesar then walked back up and guided Fred and I down the tricky descent. It’s not something we’d ever done before and learning to put your trust in the engine, gearbox and suspension isn’t easy when you’re thrown it at the very deep end. Right, select first gear in low range and then don’t touch the clutch again once you are moving. Let the brakes off and the car will run itself down the hill on tick-over. Just concentrate on Caesar and his left and right hand signals and steer firmly.

Before you know it, we are down the first section without a scratch – although some of the grinds and bangs from beneath our seats are a little disconcerting. Now we have a few more kilometres through the high valley – down into the dried-up river bed and back over the spurs several times on very rough, steep and twisty track.

The second rocky section is much like the first, but steeper, narrower and longer. Once more Caesar leads the way and once he is safely down, we follow him down. This is more difficult – right from the top, you cannot see where you are going until you are in the middle of it. The descent angle must be more than 40 degrees. I have to hold onto the dash to stop myself from falling out of my seat – there’s no way I’m wearing a seatbelt in this situation. The almost sheer drop of my side is maybe 50m down to the floor of the valley.

Looking back at the videos we shot of this, you can see just how big each step that the car takes is. We only just have enough clearance for it – any less and we would risk being grounded. I can’t imagine anyone trying this without a guide. Caesar’s directions are invaluable, as we cannot see what is under our wheels and the road closes down to just a few inches wider than the car with sharp rocks on each side.

If anything, the final section is the most difficult. Fred drives down a steep rocky slope behind Caesar, unguided except by watching the car in front on a bed of loose rocks and boulders with a couple of sharp bends thrown in for good measure. The ever-present drop into the valley to our left is a daunting prospect. Soon enough, however, the descent is over. We’ve made it through Van Zyl’s Pass and both the car and its occupants are unscathed.

Fred stays in the seat for the long drive north through the Marienfluss to the campsite at a bend in the Kunene River. Once again, we arrive at a working camp with essential facilities late in the afternoon. Time for us to relax whilst Caesar and Candice prepare some food and Michael, their local assistant and invaluable member of the team, prepares our tents for the evening.

My Turn at Driving

I don’t know what to expect from my day behind the wheel. Yesterday was an experience to be neither forgotten nor repeated, but the assumption is that my day will be somewhat milder. For the coming evening, we would be staying at Etaambura Lodge, a self-catering luxury lodge set on the crest of a hill more than 100km to the south of our starting point by the river.

The first section is relatively straightforward, driving on the sand and loose gravel of the road back down the Marienfluss, but we soon turn of for a bit of a detour to see some of the sights. Caesar calls over the radio that the next bit is soft sand and to take a bit of a run at it. I don’t, and get stuck just short of the summit of the dune. It takes me a couple of turns to get the idea and I finally make it to the top in low range and plenty of momentum.

As we move steadily southwards, the landscape changes from the sandy valley floor to more and more rocky terrain. I’m starting to get the hang of it thought and can happily switch from 2WD to 4WD as I think I need to. As we near the end of the day we have to do another steep ascent. I follow Caesar up in low range, just letting the car do all the work and steering round the boulders sticking into our path. The climb must be more than 100m, but we make it in one attempt without incident.
As the day draws to a close I complete another steep ascent to the camp and we park up for a night of luxury with real bathrooms and showers and a proper bed. The view from Etaambura is spectacular and I set up the camera to shoot a time-lapse of the sunset as we head off for dinner. It should catch the nearly-full moon rising before the battery goes flat.