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Beyond the Desert Edge: Part II

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VIEWS

PART II: THE EDGE OF NOWHERE

In September 2017, adventurer Peter van Kets and Jacques Marais set off from the southern Angolan border to tackle a gruelling world-first pedal across the unforgiving Namib Desert. This is Part 2I of their ‘Beyond the Desert Edge’ story, capturing a few of the incredible adventures they experienced during this 1200km crank…

Day 1: Climbing the Cunene valley

There’s no easy way to escape the Cunene River valley from Serra Cafema. Behind you, the in-your-face, belligerent landscape of the Zebra Mountain ranges of Angola bristle with intent, while ahead of you, a massive mother of a climb lurks along a winding sand-trap of a track.

That’s if you’re on a bike. But, get into one of the Isuzu KB double-cabs, and you’re as strong as a bull, and neither the Kirk brothers (Pistol) Pete or Graham (Captain Loose Wheel), nor Gerhard Thirion (our Wilderness Safaris guide), has any skaam about making this abundantly clear as they steam past us on the uphill.

On the fat bikes, it’s a war of attrition as we duel amid sand dunes up the infamous Rocky Pass. Cranking. Pushing. Portaging. Dropping the wheel pressure. Swearing – every now and then. And thinking, “My god, we’re going to die in this desert.” Ja, that first day was massively tough.

About an hour into the ride, we reached the small scattering of decrepit huts where a local Himba family had set up a transient kraal. These desert people live a life as feral as one could imagine here on the edge of Angola, with relatively minimal contact with tourism; we spent some time getting photos and a much-needed breather.

The only way to go from the Himba village was further up, and we continued on the sandy ascent, mostly off-track in the hope of finding slightly more solid surfaces. That first 21km took us more than three hours, so it was a damn hard start. (I can’t really say ‘on the bike’, as a lot of it was a hard, slogging push).

Fortunately, our lunch stop provided an excellent counterpoint to the suffering, and we perched on a granite outcrop with infinite views across bristle-grass plains. All around, the vast desert shimmered in the midday mirage, showing not a single sign of human habitation. I was relieved to switch to the Isuzu to get long shots of Pete as he soldiered on in the saddle.

From here, the route descended to the grassy plains of the Marienfluss Valley, with the arid savanna now dotted with plains game. It was fast and flat riding, and we bombed alongside the bikes as they navigated via the mysterious ‘fairy circles’. At one stage, a herd of approximately two dozen mountain zebra galloped alongside us, dust puffing from their hammering hooves.

The terrain was becoming increasingly sandy, with row upon row of hammock dunes cascading to the edge of the faint track. This combo of soft sand and occasional alluvial rock proved to be an excellent test for the Grandtrek AT3G three-ply tyres fitted to the bakkies, but made it hard going on the bikes.

I joined PVK for the final 25 km on the bike, and we set off to our camp on the Ugab River as the sun dipped low over the Namib… finally rolling into camp after a solid 11 hours in the saddle. A tower of giraffe trotted into view as dusk fell, and it seemed as if we were absolutely the last people on the whole of Planet Earth.

Day 2: Engo River to Sechomib River

Damn, it’s a great feeling waking up in a tiny tent, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in an ancient desert. The utter silence is weird, especially when the mist rolls in from the distant Skeleton Coast. Not even the birds seem to make a sound before sunrise, so there’s only the putt-putt-putt of the coffee percolator on last night’s hardwood coals blowing off steam as its contents approach boiling point.

Coffee is king in the morning, and everyone is in headspace-mode around the smoky fire as we line up our caffeine buzz. Pete van Kets (aka PVK) and I’ve decided to stick with the fat-bikes on the first part of Day 2, as we’ll ascend the sandy side-swipe of the Ugab, which fortunately flattens on the archetypal Kaokoland terrain.

Just on 4km into the ride, we encounter one of the ‘Lone Men of the Kaokoland’ in the meagre shade of a scraggly little shepherds’ tree. This remarkable phenomenon – I suppose one could call it a ‘land-art installation’ – consists of an indefinite number of exquisitely crafted stone/iron statues which are scattered in the rugged and remote Kaokoland.

Created by an unknown artist, these ‘Lone Men’ (which are shaped in the poses of desert travellers) have been discovered atop rocky outcrops, on steep cliff edges, and in the middle of extra-terrestrial plains. Each has a metal tag with a number, and it seems that there are 27 of them, as this is the highest number found so far. Our lone traveller is #19, and he looks as if he is taking a breather under a shepherd’s tree, with a tin mug filled with coins between his legs.

Day 3: Sechomib River to Hoarusib River

HELP THE CAUSE

Peter Van Kets and Jacques Marais are ambassadors to ‘Children in the Wilderness’, and their series of BEYOND EXPEDITIONS Adventures will aim to raise funds for a charity focused on finding sustainable solutions to human-wildlife conflict. #CITW has an SA account for donations from S.A. citizens; you will receive a tax-deductible 18A certificate. The details are:
Account Name: Children in the Wilderness (Mkambati)
Bank: Standard Bank
Account Number: 023031735
Branch Code: 001255
Branch: Rivonia
Swift code: SBZAZAJJ

The Sechomib River runs close to the border of the Skeleton Coast National Park, and from here we crank right upon this unmarked edge. Cue bleak and abandoned plains, illuminated by a watery sun orbing above the Hartmann’s Mountains to the east as we charge off.

According to Gerhard, our Wilderness Safaris guide, this specific area is known as the ‘Garden Route’ of Kaokoland, and it’s truly spectacular. At first glance it looks devoid of life, but on closer inspection the landscape brims with flora. The greenish sheen is lichen fields, with millions of these ancient (and minuscule) botanical dinosaurs taking root amidst the profusion of rocks.

Pete and I lose ourselves in the utter drama of the surrounding landscape, cranking off-piste via successive valleys each more mind-blowing than the one before. Rock-strewn ascents flatten out onto the flood-plains of ridiculously wide ephemeral river beds, with the most sublime gemsbok single-track linking the route together.

Our passage eventually runs into the stone heart of this parched ‘Garden Route’ section, where a massive rock shaped like a bear has stood guard for countless aeons. This unmissable beacon is known as Ursa Major – or Great Bear, as in the constellation – and what a place it is to take a break! After taking some photos, I follow Pete up to our lunch stop and then set off on a quick detour to test the tyres fitted to our Isuzu vehicles.

So far, we’ve not had a single issue with the Sumitomo rubber, despite passing what I’d rate as some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. A specific section of serrated rock rearing up like the fangs from a tyrannosaurus maw did manage to slice into one of the sidewalls, but the three-ply construction did its job and the tyre survived. In fact, in over 4000km of gruelling hammering over the harshest terrain on the planet, not one tyre was destroyed.
By Jacques Marais

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