Words and pictures by Richard van Ryneveld.
As our group left the Palmwag Lodge campsite before sunrise we all knew a strenuous day lay ahead; but Johan Swanepoel, our Mondjila Adventures guide, had given us something to look forward to, saying, “It’s a long day, but the game viewing in Palmwag Concession area is well worth the long haul. And just wait till we get into the Hoanib tonight!” By this stage in our tour everyone in the group knew about Johan’s obsession with the letters “LR”. No, not Land Rover, although Johan is crazy about his Defender 130; in this instance, the L stood for lion and the R for rhino: an animal which has become an obsession with this bush-mad, born-and-bred Namibian.
I was holding up the group, yet again, by photographing a group of Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra as we began our trip into the Palmwag concession. We had passed herds of springbok interspersed with oryx, and in the far distance a couple of giraffe browsed on low trees. Then the Kenwood radio crackled into life; it was Johan, and the excitement in his voice was unmistakable. “Man… man. Leonie’s spotted a rhino… a rhino! Hurry, hurry, catch up with us before he goes!” Then the two Defender 130s were bumper-to-bumper. Stupidly, I climbed out to see where Leonie had spotted the black rhino, by looking in front of the lead vehicle. I couldn’t for the life of me see the beast, until Johan shouted,
“Not in our direction…. Look RIGHT… It’s charging towards YOU!” It took me an alarmingly long time to spot the five-ton grey behemoth approaching from some 100 metres away. Luckily it broke off its charge and, with a small branch still in its mouth, the black rhino lumbered out of the dry riverbed on the rocky slope to our right. Heart pounding, I managed to rest my ancient Nikon 600 mm manual lens on a sandbag and get a couple of pictures of this rare desert inhabitant. Just how privileged we’d been to have this sighting only became apparent when we stopped for a heart-deceleration break at a small clump of trees a couple of kilometres further on. Johan isn’t a guy prone to theatrics, but you could hear the break in his voice when he said, “I’ve been tracking, searching and dreaming of seeing a desert rhino for fourteen years! Fourteen years!” He shook his head as if he didn’t really believe what he’d seen.
Looking back now at the pictures from this trip, I also have moments of wanting to pinch myself and ask, ‘Was it for real?’ As journalists, we’re often spoilt by being able to go on journeys to places many only dream of. Then along comes a trip that’s truly life-changing. Johan Swanepoel’s new tour, exploring the dry riverbeds of north-western Namibia, was such a trip. The itinerary had been brewing in Johan’s head for a number of years; he wanted to explore the five largest of the west-‘flowing’ rivers, or linear oases, of the northwest – the Omaruru, Ugab, Huab, Hoanib and Hoarusib Rivers.
Johan envisioned covering these five main rivers, but with side trips to explore the smaller, lesser-known riverbeds like the Numas and Klein Numas, two rivers ‘flowing’ from the Brandberg into the Ugab. He explained over our first campfire in the Omaruru River. “I want us to have time to explore, time to sit and watch the gemsbok, the springbok, the kudu, the elephant – and small things like a dung beetle, for that matter. I want us to experience the timeless beauty of these so-called ephemeral rivers. I want the Five Rivers Tour to be flexible, with nothing stopping us from staying another night if we feel like it.” Johan and Leonie Swanepoel’s philosophy of ‘having time’, on this new tour of the dry riverbeds of the Kaokoveld, struck a chord with the whole group from the get go.
One’s fellow travellers determine to a large degree whether a trip is memorable or not. And this group gelled on the first day in the Omaruru riverbed. The team consisted of Johan Swanepoel, with wife Leonie, 10-yearold daughter, Elisbé, and six-yearold son Juan, in their Defender 130. Accompanying them were their great friends Buc and Alfie Louw from Outjo, with their two children, 13-year-old daughter Cassandra and six-year-old son Du Rand. The Louws were in their Cruiser 80 Series.
Driving a magnificently-kitted Land Cruiser camper were Carine and PR Nel of Vryheid, KwaZulu- Natal. PR (pronounced Pierre as in the French pronunciation) and Carine, a retired farming couple, had been with Mondjila Adventures on Johan’s long trip up through Van Zyl’s Pass into the Marienflüss, Hartmann’s Valley, and on to the Epupa Falls on the Kunene River. PR had also been with Johan on a really long trip, up through Angola to the Congo, on another Mondjila long-range adventure! So we were in the company of a very experienced 4×4 couple.
Dominique and I were the last members of the group, in our Defender 130. We had driven up from Cape Town to join the tour at Swakopmund. We filled up our vehicles at Swakopmund on the start of our first day. On Johan’s recommendation we carried an extra 100 litres of diesel in four 25-litre jerrycans. Having taken some three days to travel to our start in Namibia, we were already in love with our Landy and had the packing arrangement sorted by the time we arrived. As we have a double-cab, we kept our 60-litre National Luna fridge/ freezer securely strapped to the back seat. Next to it, behind the driver’s seat, was all the camera gear for capturing the wildlife ahead. We had tons of space in the back, under the canvas canopy.
Our journey began some 70 kilometres north of Swakopmund, when we entered the dry Omaruru River just off the beach north of Henties Bay. It was an easy-pace day. Passing small groups of springbok, we crossed the wide wall of the Omdel dam. This is not a dam in the normal sense of the word; it works by trapping water that flows into the underground aquifers. It’s an amazing sight: a high-walled, apparently waterless dam filled with reeds! (Johan is very knowledgeable and is good about sharing insights over the radio, but never to the point that you grow tired of the radio chatter.) The dry, sandy riverbed widened and there were more and more trees; Johan drew up next to some tall Anna trees for our first night’s camp. Dominique and I loved our throw-out Oz tent – no heavy lifting for us.
Dominique is a treasure; on trips she keeps detailed notes. These are her observations on that first day: Past Omdel dam, two farming communities in the river – Nama and Topenaar. 1st farm Rietkuil, 2nd Leewater. Saw goat herders & lots of fat, healthy goats. Huge Ana trees (Faidherbia Albida), lots of seedpods but no sign of elephant who love the seeds. Beautiful patterns on the rock cliffs with bands of quartz – lots of big shady trees, including beautiful fig trees.
From the first camp you realize why Johan’s clients at Mondjila return time and time again. Johan, and his pharmacist wife, Leonie, get the whole camp running so quietly and efficiently that you hardly notice that the campfire’s lit, the shower cubicle is up and there’s hot water for your evening shower. Johan busies himself getting the food ready for the evening meal. Man, I couldn’t believe it! Seafood paella as good as any at El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s famous restaurant in Spain.
One of the primary tools in Johan’s armoury is his Defender 130. It’s his ninth Landy and was kitted out to his specifications by Onca Off-Road Products in Kempton Park. That they were able to please someone like Johan is a great testament to their skill and to their products.
Johan’s Landy is loaded to the proverbial. He has two National Luna fridges with a combined capacity of 160 litres, large water tanks, and big, industrial-size gas burners on a stainless steel fold-out kitchen fitted into the tail section of his rig. And, as the trip progressed, we realised that the paella was by no means the high point of the trip’s meals, but only an indicator of what was to come.
Like the food, the scenery and animals also got better and better as we headed up north. We left the Omaruru River, heading over a wide rocky plain while making our way to Rhino camp on the Ugab River. We first stopped at a sandstone ridge shaped like the backbone of prehistoric dinosaur; one of the rocks was shaped like a baby elephant. The Brandberg beckoned in the background. There were many small baobab-like trees (Commiphora vertigo), their fat, tortured stems seeming to grow out of the bare rock. We continued north with the Brandberg on our right, stopping to take pictures of the numerous strangely-shaped Welwitschia Mirabilis found on both sides of the road, before our descent on the extremely rocky rough track into Rhino Camp.
If there’s one place I could spend a month, it’s Rhino Camp on the Ugab River. Run in conjunction with the Save the Rhino Trust, the freshwater spring is a magnet for animals. If you’re lucky, there’s a good chance of seeing desert elephants, giraffe, gemsbok, kudu or springbok. The truly privileged might catch sight one of the predators: a lion, leopard, cheetah, or brown hyena. The truly blessed will spot one of the black rhino that roam these riverbeds. We loved the camp. Each large site is enclosed by a simple reed fence and contains a toilet and a donkey-boilerfed shower. And you are so far from your neighbours it feels like you’re camping rough somewhere… but with a toilet and a shower. Fly and his wife Charlotta, who have five kids, look after the camp and ensure that the fires are lit and ready every day. As we were enjoying our first dop of the day, we heard the kids shouting from the high, blackened cliffs above us: “Elephant…. elephant!” We had seen fresh tracks all over the campsite but there wasn’t a tusker in sight, so we took their shouts with a pinch of salt.
While settling in for the night, we heard Alfie calling urgently outside our tent, so we hurried to the reed fence. The sound of branches breaking grew ever nearer. Under a full moon, six huge silent grey shapes passed by so close that they almost brushed against our fragile grass wall. Then a young bull appeared; he’d circled behind the group like a scout. He came right up to the fence and stared at us. He swung his trunk around, apparently sniffing the air, then casually padded away to join the others. Johan summed it up pretty succinctly: “Bliksem! Nou het ek ’n spierverslapper nodig!’. Bloody hell, I needed more than a muscle relaxant after such a close encounter. A whisky did the job.
The next morning, the elephants were still grazing calmly in the trees and bush surrounding our lapa. Johan told us, “These elephants have adapted to the desert-like conditions of the Kaokoveld. They’re smaller than their bushveld cousins but have larger and broader feet.” An adaptation for the soft sand in the riverbeds. He continued, “These elephants don’t destroy the trees – they seem to know that their very survival depends on preserving their food source.”
We spent two days exploring the area around the Ugab. There were gemsbok, kudu and once again ellies in great number. In fact, on our second night, Dom scuttled back from the loo after almost colliding with a herd in the dark. We lay in our tent watching them lumbering past. For some unknown reason, the teenage bull destroyed the reed fence of a site nearby, where a Namibian family was camping. Next morning, Fly and Charlotta told us that the ellies had destroyed most of the water pipes in the camp; this poor couple was obviously used to repairing the damage these pachyderms left in their wake. We were going to exit the Ugab via Divorce Pass on the way to Huab River, but the ellies threw a spanner in the works. Perhaps it was the same herd who’d destroyed the waterworks the night before; they seemed quite agitated by our presence, even though we kept a good distance away. We waited quite a while before Johan called on the Kenwood to tell us to turn around; that he would take another route.
The alternate track took us out of the riverbed alongside high rock cliffs, before the terrain opened up to reveal a golden grassed plain. Dotted here and there were those strange long-leaved Welwitschias. Johan stopped to show us an ancient watercourse lined with the remains of some petrified trees. “They washed down here millions of years ago from Etosha,” he said. One could only imagine what these prehistoric trees must have looked like millenniums ago. With this thought in mind, we moved steadily onwards over some truly desolate plains.
In the middle of this apparent wasteland we came across the remnants of what must have been a large Damara settlement. Dotted around were the remains of the homesteads, and when we crested the low hill we found the ruins of two, much larger, dry-stone buildings. Down on the plains, three lone camel thorns stood vigil over a green-fringed spring. It was surreal. Perhaps the word ‘ephemeral,’ used to describe these rivers in Namibia that flow only after heavy rain, also describes how quickly the landscape changes.
We had crossed Desolation Valley, which meant that we had to enter and cross the Huab River to get to its northern bank. This was because the Huab has a large wide swamp plain, and Johan had planned to camp above the reed bed. But the Huab wasn’t going to let us off easily! A tricky, steep, muddy embankment afforded us some adrenaline-pumping moments, but, guided by Johan, we all crossed safely. PR wisely felt that his Cruiser might prove too top heavy, so he and Johan scouted out a safer route, arranging to meet us at the campsite later. Setting up camp under some towering Ana and Fig trees, we soon had a campfire roaring. When, after a while, there was still no sign of PR and Johan, nor any radio chatter, we started to get a bit worried. Then suddenly we heard the Cruiser grinding its way towards us; and finally its headlights crested the steep sand embankment opposite our campsite. Apparently they had done some serious low-range work, powering through thick, powdery sand on their way to the camp.
Something I really enjoyed about this trip was the family feeling that developed. There was a morning hug from young Juan and Elisbé, followed by a high-five from the tough-as-teak Du Rand. From the start of the trip I called him “Captain Du Rand”; his reply: “My name is Du Rand Louw.” He enunciated beautifully and with great gravity; but as he got to know me he finally said, “You can call me Captain Du Rand if you want to.” And what a privilege to spend two weeks with kids whose only toys were a battered old rugby ball and a Velcro bat and ball. The girls, Cassie and Elisbé, also kept themselves busy without any iPods, iPads or other electronic distractions. Our first stop, as we exited the Huab River the next morning, was at a high red sand dune which created a natural amphitheatre looking out over the plains. Alfie and the kids quickly scrambled to the top. Johan smiled, ruefully remembering. “You won’t believe it, but I organised a party here for Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend; he’s the owner of Chelsea Football Club. They flew eight planeloads of guests to an airfield near here, but Abramovich himself didn’t even come to the party!” We made our way to Twyfelfontein before pushing on to Camp Xaragu, our overnight stay. Dominique’s notes.
SA4x4 Route Guide
WHERE WE STAYED
Xamarin, Panorama Park Nature Reserve, Lamberts Bay
S 32° 05’ 13.55”E 18° 22’ 00.62” We arrived late at night, so it was a real surprise to wake up to a cacophony of birdsong from the small dam and find our private campsite surrounded by rock formations and beautiful scenery. The sites are still under construction, but they promise to be lovely by summer’s end. There are 18 secluded sites, a rock pool and jacuzzi, electricity points, solar geysers and ablution facilities. In addition, self-guided wildlife sightseeing trips in the park are free in your own 4×4. The restaurant serves dinner from 18h00 till late – reservations are essential. For more information, contact owner, John Hayes, on 083 250 4706, 027 432 1325, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website – www.xamarin.co.za Richtersveld Tours Guest House, Port Nolloth
This welcoming spot serves as the base for Richtersveld Tours. On offer are simple, yet comfortable, double rooms with shower facilities, and a central lounge/dining room where clients are briefed if they’re going on a Richtersveld tour. Johan and Magda de Waal manage all aspects of the lodge from catering and preparing delicious meals to showing you the Richtersveld area on their personalised tours. For more information, contact them on 082 335 1399, 083 928 3571, mail@ richtersveldtours.co.za or visit their website – www.richtersveldtours.com Anandi Oceanview Guesthouse, Swakopmund
S 22° 38’ 11.40”E 14° 31’ 58.58” A big, well-run, owner-managed guesthouse in a quiet suburb near Vogel Strand in Swakopmund. The rooms are large, comfortable and tastefully furnished, with a private bathroom and kitchenette (with fridge). The lounge is big enough to accommodate a large group and the breakfast room serves a lovely spread of cereals, fruit and yoghurt, plus a hot breakfast. This guesthouse is conveniently situated close to the centre of Swakopmund and provides a good base for touring the surrounding area.
For more information, contact Johan & Yolandi Fourie on (+264) 64 40 6553, email@example.com or visit their website – www.anandiguesthouse.com Ugab Save the Rhino Camp S 20° 57’ 46.65”E 14° 08’ 01.81” Managed by Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), the Rhino Ugab Camp is accessed by a 4×4-only road so it’s off the beaten track. With the sites close to the Ugab River, there are wonderful bush showers with hot water, plus basic toilet facilities. The reed ‘walls’ surrounding the campsites give a false sense of security – elephants, lions and various animals walk right through this camp every day, looking for water, and the walls offer no protection; they’re merely there to demarcate the campsite areas. Although it’s an amazing experience to see the famous desert elephants in such close proximity, you have to be on your guard. Campers have to be completely self-sufficient here. For more information, contact +264(0)64 403 829
Camp Xaragu, Damaraland S 20° 24’ 28.43”E 14° 20’ 10.89” Hidden in a valley along one of the ephemeral rivers is the ‘Meerkat’ Camp, with views over some remarkable hillocks and bizarre stone formations. The camp is neat and the campsites are spacious, with shadecloth cover – a real bonus in the unrelenting harsh sun. There are braai areas and taps, and all campsites are very close to sparkling-clean ablution blocks, which have hot-water facilities and a mirror in each bathroom.
Koedoe and Rina Kruger run a tight ship. The Damara people that are part of the operation obviously have enormous regard for them, and a huge sense of pride in the campsite. If you’re not camping, the en-suite Safari Tents and five Standard Tents are a real luxury. The main building houses the reception, bar and restaurant area; some upgrades to the kitchen were being built during our trip. The pool offers relief after a long, hot day and the tame animals give the camp a unique and fun feel, great for the kids. For more information, contact +264 (67) 687 037, +264 (64) 406 252 (fax), firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website – www.xaragu.com.
Going into remote areas, we had to carry all our own fuel. As we left Swakopmund, we filled our jerrycans with the amount of diesel we thought we’d need for approximately 1 300 km of travel. Many of the towns or settlements we were to pass through were tiny, so there were no guarantees that we could get fuel en route. It’s important to remember that garages in Namibia only accept Petrocards or cash – don’t try using your debit or credit cards.
PROVISIONS AND FOOD REQUIREMENTS
On a Mondjila tour, the evening meals are catered, so all we had to provide was breakfast and lunch. Most of this food we purchased in Cape Town, but there are many places in Swakopmund offering similar supplies. Chef Johann chez Mondjila made sure we ate like kings all the way. The meals ranged from paella, to steak and chicken schnitzels with cheese sauce, to lamb potjie – we often ate the previous night’s delicious leftovers for lunch. On a ‘normal’ tour, quickie Pronutro breakfasts, and lunches with Provita, cheese, tinned tuna and boxed salad, seemed like easy choices. Carry lots of juice and drinking water and any extra snack stuff like choccies and chips.
CONVOY OR SOLO
Without a doubt this is a convoy trip, and led by Johan Swanepoel of Mondjila Adventures. Getting to the start in Swakopmund is an easy solo effort. Note: Mondjila only offers this trip twice a year for a maximum of 10 people. 2013 dates: 2 – 12 September, and 23rd September – 3rd October.
We covered many kilometres from Cape Town to Swakopmund, but it was only when we joined the Mondjila tour from Henties Bay that our Defender 130 was able to demonstrate its off-road competence. The going was slow on most days, as we travelled mainly through thick sand in the dry riverbeds, and then traversed either very rocky or stony plains to get to the next riverbed. Most of the tracks were tweespoor paths and we also had some hairy moments on sharp rocky off-road tracks. After getting out of the last river bed, Otjipepa, we travelled back towards Cape Town on excellent roads all the way.
You will spend many hours on the tar getting to the venue and once off-road you will experience gravel, sand and rock, so this trip is best driven in a vehicle fitted with All Terrain (AT) tyres. Grabber ATs from Continental Tyre are the latest generation of 4×4 tyre: their compound and tread pattern were developed to provide maximum safety as well as strong grip and excellent handling, both off- and on-road. Compared to its predecessor, braking performance on wet roads has improved and noise reduced. Their robust construction provides protection against damage to the tread pattern and sidewall area, plus high mileage potential. For more information, contact your nearest tyre dealer.
The 2011 InfoMap of Namibia, 1:1 400 000 High Detail GPS Map, was really good. The GPS co-ordinates, accommodation info on camp or lodges, places of interest such as Bushman paintings, and other details, were invaluable. For more information, contact them on email@example.com or 021 797 2567. The Tracks4Africa Namibian map 2011/2012, 1:1 000 000, printed on tear-proof and water-resistant paper, is a bonus in the car. Having distances with travel times helps a great deal when travelling on tracks and roads off the beaten track. For more information, go to http:// tracks4africa.co.za/maps/about/ paper/.
The Mondjila crew have a fullyequipped recovery vehicle, including a satellite telephone; 2-way radios are included for all vehicles in the convoy. Excluding the above, our own gear consisted of our camping equipment, including tent, chairs, table, cutlery, crockery, etc. Good-quality water bottles and jerrycans that don’t leak are a must. We had a canvas cab Defender so the dust was a big factor – a canvas groundsheet over everything helped some, but was by no means completely dust-proof!
We thought at first that the thick high-density foam mattresses we lugged along were an embarrassment to the camping fraternity (I could hardly lift them on my own), but they proved to be a complete bonus for comfort. Secondly, packed on top of all our gear, water bottles, crates and fuel cans, and tied down firmly with ratchet straps, the mattresses were a buffer on the really bumpy byways and saved the interior of the cab from some serious damage from flying missiles.
We discovered that the Defender is OE fitted with tubed tyres, and it was just as well we were carrying two spares, as we used both. Tyres for this kind of trip should be the tubeless variety. We enjoyed seriously good service from Casper and Jackson at Welwitchia Motors in Khorixas, who repaired the tyres on a late Sunday afternoon.