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BORDER PATROL – NAMAKWA ECO TRAIL

At around 600km, the Namakwa Eco Trail is SA’s longest and most remote 4×4 trail. We went in search of solitude along the Orange River

Having read about it over four years ago on a forum one evening, the Namakwa Eco Trail has been eluding me ever since. While living vicariously through the photographs of others’ adventures is better than not at all, we simply had to go ourselves. Through all my travels with SA4x4, no other trail in South Africa promised to be so remote, long, and beautiful, so off we went, hunting silence.

The route technically starts along the N17 highway at a tiny settlement called Witbank on the Orange River near Pofadder. Instead of this standard direction, we decided to do the trail backwards, beginning on the coast at Alexander Bay. From there we’d pick up the narrow tweespoor track that characterises most of the trail and follow the backs of old ‘Toyota’ and ‘4×4’ signposts, while occasionally consulting an outdated T4A map and the provided pamphlet.

The trail should take two to four days, depending on what you’d like to see and if you’re in a convoy or not and, while there are some very tricky sections requiring low-range first gear, all of it is doable in a standard 4×4 bakkie or SUV on decent rubber.

While the trail delivers almost unlimited scope for impromptu campsites and endless sightseeing, there are no facilities in the traditional sense of the word, and much of the going is extremely remote. During Part Two of the trail (as listed on the provided maps) you may not spot another traveller for days, and you can choose camping options ranging from canyons to caves, riverbeds, and rocky swimming spots. Only much further along the trail do you come across demarcated spots where a fee is exacted.

Derelict Alexander Bay

Just a stone’s throw away from the border with Namibia, Alexander Bay is the most northerly town on SA’s western seaboard and marks our start point. Due to a declining sea-mining diamond industry, the town itself looks like something out of a Chernobyl documentary; a creepy sprawling metropolis that is all but deserted. Despite stopping at a vacant tourism office, the best advice for a camp spot that we received came from a lone policeman saying ‘absolutely nothing here’. So we pushed on to the promise of Brandkaros camp before getting completely lost in the maze of derelict farm tracks surrounding the town.

Half an hour from town, on a massively corrugated sand road, Brandkaros campsite lies on the banks of the Orange (now Gariep) River. The camp used to rest amongst a thriving citrus farming industry, which has since fallen into disrepair due to some poorly managed government ‘land redistribution’. Today, the Brandkaros campsite is once again an oasis amidst the remnants of old farms and a windswept sea of sand.

Bordering the Richtersveld National Park, and only a few clicks from our starting point to the Eco Trail, the camp promised a welcome relief from driving into uncertainty. This was our first night in the bush and the last one with decent ablutions for three nights, so we revelled in a swim across the warm Orange River glowing in the sunset, a hot shower, and a gigantic fire. From here on out, we would be solo.

First day’s challenge

From the Brandkaros campsite, after a hearty breakfast and two goodbyes (we had to turn back for directions again), we turned into the abyss that is the Richtersveld Mountain Desert. The drive to Eksteenfontein about 140km east is the primary challenge of our first day. We encounter a harsh mix of shale rock climbs, sand, Cape Fold mountains, countless river crossings, and spectacular spreads of quartz crystals tumbled out of cliff faces like Martian ice.

Due to high winds and infrequent traffic, tracks that make up the Namakwa Eco Trail from Brandkaros to the dry Daberas River are often blown over with thick red sand. This resulted in plenty of guesswork and following T4A on maximum zoom to figure out where the track lies. Deep sandy sections are loads of fun while the high canyons and intense heat are awe-inspiring. According to some locals, temperatures regularly exceed 50 degrees in these parts during summer.

Eksteenfontein has a small tourism office where a tiny gentleman of Baster descent, with a shaky grasp of English, showed us some of the closest campsites on an old map. There’s no fuel here, but you may be able to restock on beer and basic supplies at the local shop. You might even get sporadic cell reception. Nearby, several pristine riverbed campsites around the Rooiberg Mountain lie in wait.

Situated amongst the magical Halfmens trees, named for resembling half man and half tree, a mystical riverbed would be our home for the night. It must be noted that, despite already driving for a full day and passing through a town, we still hadn’t seen a single vehicle. Camping way down an empty riverbed, surrounded by sun-baked rock, a luminous full moon proved a magical experience.

From road to riverbed

While rough and uncertain, the tracks so far hadn’t proved very challenging, but beyond our river camp near Eksteenfontein, everything changed. The ‘road’ through the canyons soon becomes a riverbed widening and narrowing with hundreds of tyre tracks spreading out before coming together just as the river’s water would.

Unlike beach sand, river sand is much coarser and more difficult to drive on, especially during the heat of the day. While climbing over a large river rock I had my first ‘stuck’ moment of the day. The unmistakeable clunk of stone on metal sent shudders through the vehicle and we came to an abrupt stop. A rock had wedged itself between the ground and our rear differential, lifting the rear wheels off the ground while the fronts had dug themselves into the sand hunting for traction. Thankfully, with a bit of digging and some work with the recovery tracks under the front wheels, we manage to reverse out and try a different line.

Fortunately, the struggles in the dry riverbed were made all worth it as we happened upon the massive Orange River once more – an oasis of green meandering between endless towers of red stone. Mowed short by local wildlife, and itinerant herds of goats, the green grass and wide beach rewarded us with a wonderful swim in the canyon, surrounded by countless tiny mud fish.

After this point, the trail meanders east along the Orange River on its way to Vioolsdrift border crossing, and while both the GPS and maps tell us to continue along the river, as far as we can see there’s simply no track. Large round river boulders jutting out of the soft beach sand present another driving conundrum; too slow and we sink into the sand, too fast and we risk a bent tie rod or worse. We drop pressures even more to just above one bar and manage to crawl a few difficult sections, but once again, the feeling of solitude and fear has reared its head.
Our destination, Vioolsdrift, is a small town on the border of Namibia. There is no fuel (despite what the map says) and very little in the way of supplies. If fuel is necessary, you’ll have to cross the Namibian border to Noordoewer or (as we did) drive the 66km of N7 highway to Steinkopf before re-joining the trail just south of Vioolsdrift.

The second half

As the Namakwa Eco Trail is split into two sections, Vioolsdrift marks its halfway point. While section two (that we travelled first) is characterised by shale rock, riverbed driving, and canyons, part two is perhaps the tamer of the two. Wide open, sandy, and vast – the usual Part 1 won’t necessarily challenge your vehicle. It’s perfect for those with heavy 4×4 trailers, keen to escape and find the perfect riverside fishing/camp spot.

From Vioolsdrift we re-joined the trail heading to a tiny border settlement called Goodhouse perched on the Orange River. As we had discovered about many of the listed towns on the Namakwa Eco Trail brochure, the description didn’t quite match. Turns out the little settlement of Goodhouse is little more than a ruined old building and some shelter for those trading with Namibians across the river. That said, its claim to fame is being one of the hottest places in SA. We find out that it may not exist for much longer, as a dam in the area is proposed that will completely drown the remnants of the town.

After driving in circles trying to find the Eco Trail again, having lost it near Goodhouse on one of the countless tracks leading to nowhere, we finally got back on track and stumbled upon two overlanders with massive trailers. These were the only other travellers we saw on our journey, and they advised us of an awesome river campsite further on. Indeed, having a look around the river revealed ideal camp sandy spots at regular intervals, often with small springs leading into the Orange. We meanwhile got stuck in the hot sand again and decided to keep pushing further until we happened upon a stunning rocky riverbed, perfect to pitch camp for the night.

The site we’d chosen, like our previous camp spots, is not listed as a campsite on the map. But due to its remoteness, wild camping is perfectly safe – simply park where you please. Having a swim with a cold beer in hand as the sun set on this warm evening was a brief definition of paradise found, as far as possible from society’s grasp.

The route to Pella

The river camp would be our last night rough camping on the Eco Trail, but we decided to keep exploring. The tiny town of Klein Pella would be our next stop. This oasis-like settlement is surprisingly high tech and grows dates on a huge scale. Make sure you buy some dates or date balls at the local bed and breakfast or grab a room there if you’re in need of a hot shower and other comforts.

From Klein Pella to Pella, the track opens up and is much less challenging and, unfortunately, our first introduction to the last town on the Eco Trail was met with disappointment – Pella was characterised by roadside litter.

With the official Eco Trail complete we still had some lust for adventure and headed to the Riemvasmaak Hot Springs and 4×4 Trail. Here, you’ll find a stunning riverbed campsite in a massive canyon right next to the small hot spring, plus a choice of chalets. Riemvasmaak also offers a variety of 4×4 trails through the canyon, but beware that the only supplies available come from local spaza shops.

Over the course of five days’ camping and exploring this most northerly part of South Africa, the particularly hot, windy, sandy, and rocky conditions opened my eyes to the fact that you never need to leave SA for a wild camping adventure. The 600km or so of the Namakwa Eco Trail hugs the Namibian border and shares much of our neighbour’s scenery, and makes for a spectacular camping adventure. Now go and do it yourself.

USEFUL WARNING

If you’re planning on doing the route, make sure you have proper all-terrain tyres with hardy sidewalls. Also, due to its remoteness, travelling alone isn’t advised, because if you do break down it could be many days before help arrives, nor do you want to risk an extremely long, potentially deadly hike.

TRAIL INFO

The trail is an impressive 600km long, making it by far the longest 4×4 trail in SA. That said, not all of it is low-range stuff and many hundreds of kilometres will be racked up on gravel highways and even a couple of tarred roads.
The trail is divided into two sections, and we did it backwards starting from Alexander Bay. Doing the trail either way is fine but you’re more likely to get lost doing it west to east as the route description doesn’t make much sense in reverse.

The trail has a formal grading of between two and three but I’d say some sections are a Grade Four and proved challenging for our heavily-loaded Isuzu D-Max, which sustained some dings to its side steps.

Take the route at a leisurely pace and absorb the scenery and history of the little towns you’ll pass through. If you’re interested in fishing, there are countless opportunities to dip a line in the river and catch a Largemouth yellowfish, Smallmouth yellowfish or the commonly sighted Orange River mudfish. Taking a canoe or kayak is also a great idea.

If going the correct way around, make sure to fill up at Pofadder and again at the halfway point near Vioolsdrift (at the town of Steinkopf) and again at Port Nolloth, as Alexander Bay’s fuel station is derelict. Do not underestimate the distances and the extra fuel consumption that comes with heavy going.

Check out the listed website for more information as it goes into great detail about every attraction.

NEED TO KNOW

HERE
Pella (close to Pofadder) in Namaqualand, Northern Cape
WHEN
Bookings are essential. It’s best to avoid the summer months as Namaqualand gets unbearably hot.
HOW MUCH
Prices on request.
TELEPHONE
+27 (0)27 712-8035
OVERNIGHT
Stay nearby in Pofadder, in the Northern Cape
WEBSITE
www.namakwa4x4.com

WHAT WE DROVE

We took the venerable, trusty, and much-loved Isuzu D-Max, fully loaded and kitted with an alloy rooftop tent from Eezi Awn, perched on an Eezi Awn K9 roof rack. Our D-Max sports a RSI stainless steel canopy with a built-in SmartKitchen and a fitted stainless steel camping table. We recently upgraded the stock tyres to a set of Cooper ST Maxx all-terrains, which have proven to take plenty of punishment – particularly necessary on a trail that alternates rocky and sandy sections, such as this.

The Isuzu bakkie is an updated version of the KB300, with a new and improved infotainment system as well as a six-speed auto gearbox. The 3.0D engine has remained unchanged and at 3 800rpm chucks out a healthy 130kW and 380Nm of twist. Though the furthest thing from a speed demon, the D-Max proved that, even when loaded to the hilt, it’s an extremely capable, comfortable, and reliable companion. Thick bash plates saved the day on numerous impacts with rocks while the well thought out plastic panelling and large mud flaps made sure that even after more than 1 300km of gravel travel there was not a single stone chip behind the wheels or on the sills.

Unfortunately the side steps took some punishment, but thanks to their simple alloy design, can feasibly be straightened using simple tools, unlike the rather flimsier versions of some competitors. We returned a realistic fuel consumption of about 12l/100km, which isn’t bad considering 600km of 4×4 trail and a large roof rack with a tent on top. Overall, the faithful Isuzu endows its driver with a feeling of confidence, which in remote areas is invaluable.

DAY TO DAY

Day 1 – Cape Town to Springbok Caravan Park
Distance: 561km
Description: This took us all day thanks to getting a late start due to booking a slot at Safari Centre to get our new rack and rooftop tent fitted. We only got on the road at around midday. The drive to Springbok is straightforward and the campsite offered decent facilities.
Day 2 – Springbok to Brandkaros Resort (Alexander Bay)
Distance: +- 325km
We missed the turnoff at Steinkopf and due to the GPS’s reluctance to make a U-turn, we followed it for about 60km before realising our mistake and back tracking. On route, Port Nolloth is a very pleasant surprise, and we were very happy with our fabulous campsite near the derelict town of Alexander Bay.
Day 3 – Brandkaros Resort to Eksteenfontein (trail begins with first wild camp)
Distance: +-140km
Thick red sand, dunes, and driving within deep canyons of the now dry Daberas River characterise Day 3. We were rewarded with a stunning riverbed camp about 10km beyond Eksteenfontein.
Day 4 – Eksteenfontein to Vioolsdrift
Distance: +-90km
Despite the short distance, this was the toughest day due to the most extreme 4×4 driving of the entire trip. Magnificent interactions with the Orange River, stunning canyon, and riverbed driving made up for getting stuck. We camped at Frontier River Resort with a magnificent view over Namibia.
Day 5 – Vioolsdrift to a wild camp beyond Goodhouse
Distance: +- 220km
Having used most of our fuel and supplies, we restocked at Steinkopf before heading to Goodhouse along the Orange River in search of our next camp spot. Unfortunately the best spots were occupied by fishermen so we pushed on and found our favourite camp, on a rocky beach right on the water. It was extremely hot and sandy along the river.
Day 6 – Wild camp to Riemvasmaak via Klein Pella (trail ends)
Distance: +-450km
The first day leaving the trail and we were very sad to get back onto tarmac again. Visiting Klein Pella for the dates and re-joining the trail briefly, we headed to Riemvasmaak to luxuriate in their natural hot springs – totally worth it.
Day 7 – Riemvasmaak – Calvinia
Distance: 460km
We explored some of Riemvasmaak’s 4×4 trails before heading out to Calvinia.
Day 8 Calvinia – Cape Town
Distance: 468km
Taking us through the Tankwa Karoo National Park, we followed the R355 – South Africa’s longest continuous gravel road – before getting home.
Total distance
2 714km

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