Words by Koos Zietsman Pictures by Koos and Sanette Zietsman
The jewel in the crown
Damaraland, Namibia: Self-drive tour
Most visitors to Namibia tend to focus on either the Namib, or Kaokoveld: the far south and the far north. I guess it’s in the nature of adventurous people to head for the extremes. But, right in the middle of Namibia, you’ll find the jewel in the crown – right under the noses of the hordes who head for Walvis Bay and Swakopmund!
Our Namibia adventure began in Lüderitz, and took us through the Namib dunes for five glorious days with URI Adventures, before spitting us out in the neat town of Walvis Bay. Here we stocked up on everything we needed for the second part of our trip – the subject of this article: our trek through the vastness of Damaraland.
Our plan was to visit Spitzkoppe, Messum Crater, Brandberg, Desolation Valley and Twyfelfontein. Our main source of information about the area came in the form of five booklets published by the Henties Bay Tourism Centre; these cost R25 each and were posted to me after I had made an internet bank transfer. The booklets were worth every cent, containing detailed information about routes and features in the area, complete with accurate GPS waypoints which were invaluable to us.
The drive from Walvis Bay through Swakopmund in the cold morning mist had an eerie feeling about it; one kept expecting to hear a blast from a ship’s horn.
Fortunately, the sun broke through after we had pointed our 4x4s inland towards Spitzkoppe. You can spot this formation, rising above the surrounding plains, from far; and I was filled with wonder at how it continuously changed colour as we neared. First, it was a hazy light grey in the distance, then it changed gradually from stark blue with black shadows to an eventual warm and inviting red and brown colour once we got up close and personal.
We stopped a couple of kilometres before the campsite entrance at some roadside vendors, who sell rocks, minerals and crystals from a row of rickety counters. We began at one end of the row and walked along, picking up whatever caught our eye, often exchanging what we had in hand for something new. When we were done, we walked back down the row of counters, paying each vendor for whatever we’d taken from their display. It was an enjoyable social interaction, one that we’ll remember fondly each time we look at our collection back home.
Spitzkoppe is about as photogenic as Princess Diana; as the sun sank over the quiet plains to the west, the rocks offered up richer hues of red contrasted with dark shadows – a great opportunity for awesome photos. We loved Spitzkoppe’s secluded campsites, which lie at the foot of the mountain on the south western side; run by the local community, they’ve been positioned with care to offer privacy and a feeling of closeness with this great place. Amenities at the campsites are very basic, as water is a scarce commodity in this part of the world. Spitzkoppe is home to a wide variety of birds, which, for us keen bird watchers, was an added bonus. While taking an early morning walk around the base of the rock, I noticed birds congregating higher up.
It took me quite a while to scale the steep rock face with my cumbersome camera around my neck and Crocs on my feet, but I was richly rewarded by close-up shots of the birds having a cool drink from a small spring between the rocks.
The drive from Spitzkoppe to Henties Bay via the Omaruru riverbed was interesting; it was the first riverbed we had navigated on this trip, so its novelty value was high. The 4×4 track meandered through barren rocky fissures leading down to the sandy riverbed below. Driving on the riverbed, we came across a stretch where the water flows on the surface in a metrewide channel, complete with small tilapia fish, only to vanish in the sand some hundred metres later!
Every keen fisherman knows that Henties Bay is the place to be on this coastline, and Buck’s Camping Lodge is the place to stay; efficiently run, every campsite offers a private ablution block complete with hot shower and flushing toilet. As we were due to venture into the dusty hinterland the next day, we made good use of this luxury. For supper we feasted on fresh Steenbras in a cosy little restaurant called Fishy Corner. The flickering warmth from the fireplace helped us forget the misty cold world outside; and the friendly service and excellent food made for a memorable evening.
Visiting the Cape Cross seal colony, north of Henties on the way to the Messum Crater and Brandberg, is one of those things you do if you haven’t done it before. The raised walkway behind the lounging seals is made from recycled plastic which is very resistant to the corrosive sea air; a testament to what can be achieved if the mind is properly applied.
Sanette now began using the booklets we’d ordered from Henties Bay Tourism more and more; our GPS breadcrumb trail looked like we had a drunken navigator, as we side-tracked a number of times to view something not on our original route. Better planning will save you time, here; there’s really a lot to see in the area. We climbed gingerly up the lookout koppie in the centre of the crater, as the rocks are brittle and the climb is steep enough to get the heart pounding. But it was well worth ttravhe effort, as the view over the desolate plains around us, leading to the jagged outcrops on the edges of the crater, is difficult to describe. Even pictures don’t do it justice.
From Messum Crater the track took us in the direction of Brandberg, a truly imposing sight as we drove past its southern flanks in the late afternoon light, heading towards Uis for the night. After a forgettable night in the dusty mining town of Uis, my advice would be to head rather for the Brandberg White Lady Lodge and campsite, on the banks of the Ugab riverbed.
We got up early and drove into the Ugab riverbed at the Brandberg White Lady Lodge, and headed west in search of the desert elephants. Many animals live in the green belt along the river’s course, and we spotted oryx, springbok and kudu as we made our way slowly through the thick sand. We kept a sharp lookout for ellies in the dense bushes along the banks and I couldn’t believe my luck when we eventually spotted a small herd grazing peacefully.
We sat and watched them for quite some time before moving on again. After about 30 kilometres in the riverbed, we got out and followed a track to the rhino gate at the foot of the Desolation Valley trail en route to Twyfelfontein. If I were to do this trip again, I would follow the Ugab riverbed all the way to the Rhino gate; but be aware that this alone will take you a whole day.
Driving the Desolation Valley trail was a life-changing experience for me. I felt humbled and insignificant in this harsh and unforgiving place, but at the same time my heart soared because of the promise of life around me. It was a truly spiritual experience. Rocks in every form, size and colour are scattered around the place, but life breaks through persistently here and there: sometimes in the form of sparse dry grass or low bushes, sometimes a lone oryx, and at other times a small herd of springbok or ostriches breaks the still landscape. One cannot help but be amazed at the incredible ability of these animals to survive in the barren surroundings.
(Note that the Desolation Valley trail is only for the very experienced overlander in the company of similar vehicles; never alone. You need to be well equipped, have a reliable 4×4, and lots of off-road driving experience. If you have a problem here, you are very far from help!)
The Desolation Valley trail ended in the Huab riverbed, where we found a suitable place to camp for the night. We were nearing the end of our adventure and savoured the stillness of the desert around us, accentuated by the crackling of our campfire, for one last time before crawling into bed bone-tired but totally content.
Rising early the next morning, we were greeted by low mist which slowly lifted as the sun warmed the earth. We followed the riverbed in a north-easterly direction, heading for the Aba-Huab community campsite near Twyfelfontein. We had lots of excitement along the way as we found plenty of fresh elephant spoor, but no elephant were to be seen. Our excitement reached a peak when we came across the fresh spoor of a pride of lions which we followed for a kilometre or two, only to find vultures finishing off the remnants of the lions’ previous night’s kudu supper. We fanned out in the riverbed in our 4x4s, hoping to spot the silent killers, but called off our search after an hour of fruitless searching.
The Aba-Huab community campsite was a real pleasure after the tough driving of the previous two days, and the cold beer I bought from their pub was as tasty and thirst-quenching as a beer’s ever been! There are a lot of things to do in the Twyfelfontein area, but we had to leave all this behind us when we realised that I had forgotten my laptop at the lodge in Uis! Sanette and I left the other two couples to relax in the shade at the campsite while we drove the 115 kilometres back to Uis to pick up the laptop.
The drive from Uis back to Gauteng is long and mostly boring, but we happened upon another jewel of an oasis just 25 kilometres west of Kang on the Trans-Kalahari highway. The place is called Kalahari Rest Lodge, and here we enjoyed succulent steaks for supper which rivalled the best available elsewhere. The rooms were tastefully decorated and the hot showers were a real lifesaver. The price for all this was, happily, also easy to swallow.
We arrived home the following day, and were faced with the boring job of unpacking the heavily-laden vehicle and getting everything cleaned up and packed away. But we did this with a song in our hearts and a smile on our faces. This trip ranks as the best safari we’ve done to date; and the low cost of the accommodation along the way, with the short distance of the actual driving through Damaraland, makes this more affordable than just about any other destination in Namibia. I can’t wait to go back again!