Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
The Kaokoland is an area that’s sometimes said to be the last remaining wilderness in southern Africa. To me, it’s best summed up as southern Africa’s very own Outback – it’s dry, desolate and unforgiving. If you and your 4×4 can handle this region, you can handle anything. It’s about solitude, isolation, and most of all, preparation. Coming here unprepared is like meeting a blind date at an all-you-can-eat curry buffet. Prudence goes a long way.
Originally we’d planned a solo trip to the Kaokoland but after speaking to Mondjila Adventures and overland tour operator Johan Swanepoel, we thought it best to join him on his next trip through the region. Of all the trips Johan offers – including Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Caprivi – the Kaokoveld is his favourite and what he calls his “own backyard”.
The Hoanib River demarcates the Kaokoland’s southern border while the Kunene River forms the region’s northern boundary as well as the border between Namibia and Angola. In the mid-1800s an explorer by the name of Charles John Andersson visited the Kaokoland and had these words to say about it: “When a heavy sea fog rest on these uncouth and rugged surfaces – and it does so very often – a place fitter to represent the infernal regions could scarcely, in searching the world round, be found. A shudder, amounting almost to fear, came over me when its frightful desolation first suddenly broke upon my view. ‘Death,’ I exclaimed, ‘ would be preferable to banishment to such a country’.”
Although Charles John Andersson wrote these words over 200 years ago, the Kaokoland is much the same place today as it was back then, thanks to the fact that it’s largely uninhabited. Maybe this is why the region’s often called the last frontier.
Our 12-day tour of the Kaokoland started at the Mondjila base camp just north of Outjo. Here we had the chance to meet our fellow travellers before embarking on our journey through Namibia’s barren backyard.
Our eight-car convoy stopped briefly at the town of Kamanjab for one last fuel stop. Each vehicle was required to carry enough fuel to drive 1 100 off-road kilometres over terrain which would include sand, rock and – thanks to this year’s heavy rainfall – lots of mud. We filled our Discovery’s 83-litre fuel tank and topped up another four jerrycans, bringing our total fuel capacity to 163 litres which, as we’d later discover, wasn’t nearly enough.
The Mondjila Kaokoland tour is structured in such a way that the camping / driving experience kicks off with a few community campsites and plenty of scenic drives. Halfway on, the route gets progressively tougher with several bush camps and some technical driving required. Then things cool down with a lodge visit and a few more nights spent at well-equipped campsites. It’s important to remember that any tour of the Kaokoland has to be of an expeditionary nature as things don’t always go according to plan. For this reason, the Mondjila Kaokoland route can differ from one trip to the next.
Our tour took place in early May and although my bag was packed for cold desert nights I seldom wore anything other than a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. The days here are hot and dry; the moment the sun breaks the horizon you’ll be reaching for the aircon button. By 16h00 the heat settles down to a simmer and the sun casts a golden glow over the surrounding mountains, transforming the grassy plains into an amber sea that ripples with every desert breath. For these brief hours this coarse country morphs into a soft , textured realm of colour, shapes and shadows.
The first day’s drive took us through an area known as the Klein Serengeti to the Khowarib Schlucht Community Campsite. Although they accept bookings it’s really a matter of first come first served, so don’t expect any agreements to be honoured.
Before arriving at this site we crossed the Rooilyn Veterinary Gate. Using his 2-way radio Johan explained the so-called ‘purpose’ of the gate and told us it would be a good time to have our yellow fever vaccination certificates handy; without one, we’ll be denied access into the area.
I quickly turn to my mate and co-traveller, Rory: “Yellow fever certificate? I ain’t got one of those! Look through the information pack, I can’t remember Johan saying anything about yellow fever injections!” The rest of the convoy sails through the gate but the security guard wants a word with us: “Waar’s jou geelkoors papiere?”
Our faces take on that don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about look and we even try a bit of Japanese: “Haaa wasabi, salmon roses with California roll and sashimi.” It works – the guard is just as confused as we are and quickly waves us through. A few minutes later we stop for lunch and I approach Johan. “Dude, what’s the story with this yellow fever stuff and how many gates are we gonna have to go through?” I ask. A big grin stretches across Johan’s face as he explains that it’s not really a yellow fever check point – he had told the guard to give us a hard time about yellow fever certificates. Oooooh, so it’s gonna be one of those tours is it? Rory and I plot our revenge.
The Hoanib River is a popular place for sighting desert elephants, but besides that, the drive is a lot of fun as you criss-cross a dry river bed several times in an attempt to track elephants and avoid inconspicuous mud. This track is clearly depicted on the latest T4A Namibia map and it’s a great way to travel from the Khowarib Schlucht campsite to Puros.
If the Kaokoland were a country, Puros would be its camping capital. Because elephants regularly visit this community campsite, it’s advisable to spend more than just one night here. Our convoy stayed for two nights, giving us the chance to spend a full day tracking elephants before moving to the first of three bush camps on the tour.
Day 5 of the tour is spent descending the infamous Van Zyl’s Pass; for this reason, the location of the first bush camp is a matter of how close the convoy can get to the top of the pass. Johan tries to camp as close as possible so that the convoy has a full day to tackle Van Zyl’s and enough time to make it to the next bush camp deep within the Hartmannberge mountains.
Our eager-beaver convoy got within roughly 40 km of Van Zyl’s, camping in a beach-like river bed that many felt was the best campsite of the tour. Strangely, our Discovery 4 picked up a puncture in this area thanks to a steel nail that must’ve fallen from the skies. A few days later another vehicle got a puncture from a brand new-looking galvanised screw. On that note, a tyre repair kit is an absolute must on a trip like this; besides AWOL nails and screws the rocks here are sharp and merciless.
Van Zyl’s Pass is approximately 15 km long and it was first constructed and mapped by Barend Johannes “Ben” Van Zyl who served as the Bantoekommissaris of the Kaokoveld. Ben’s patrols often took him through the Marienfluss up to the Kunene River, but in order to save two days’ travelling time with each journey he decided to make a more direct route through the mountains.
In ’65 Ben plotted a path using elephant and migratory animal tracks to dictate the direction of his route. The pass took only four months to complete using picks, shovels and just 20 workers. As our guide told us, the local Himba people weren’t fond of Ben’s attempts to descend the steep Otjihipa Mountains and to this day they very seldom make use of the pass.
Today, Van Zyl’s Pass is world famous – I’ve even found a website that lists Van Zyl’s as one of the world’s top 10 dangerous roads. It’s not. Provided you have a capable 4×4 with low-range, respectable ground clearance and decent approach, departure and break-over angles, there’s really nothing to worry about. What’s more, Johan and his guides know the pass well and they do an excellent job of guiding you through each turn.
In terms of actual difficulty, I’d say there’s only two sections to worry about: one close to the beginning of the pass and another about halfway through – just after the lookout point. I’d rate both these descents a possible grade 4 – with 5 being the highest. Our Discovery 4 made it through effortlessly with no damage to report. Some other vehicles on our tour that tackled the pass with ease were a Hilux Vigo with Ironman suspension, an ’05 Pajero LWB with slightly raised suspension, a Land Cruiser 200, a Land Cruiser 70 SW and the guide’s Defender 130 Puma.
The most surprising thing for me – and I think for most of us who drove the pass that day – was Oom Terry Barnard, a fellow explorer on the Mondjila Kaokoland tour. Terry was travelling solo in his ’05 Pajero LWB; he was always the fi rst guy up in the morning and the last oke to hit the sack in the evening. He’d set up camp faster than most of us and when we battled to empty our jerrycans from the Landy’s roofrack Terry went about doing the same job on his Pajero without assistance.
You might be thinking to yourself: wow, big deal, the guy’s a solo traveller and he can empty a jerrycan all on his lonesome. Well, that may be the case but Terry looks about 70 years old. After driving down Van Zyl’s Pass we gathered our courage and asked Terry his age. Without any special emphasis on the number, he told us: “Eighty.”
Maybe I’m making a big deal about this – and Terry would probably be the first person to tell me that I am – but for the duration of our trip Terry was an inspiration to me and many others. Rest assured, if I ever catch myself making excuses about why I’m too tired to get my lazy ass off the couch I’m gonna think of Oom Terry clocking up the miles in his modestly-kitted Pajero.
After completing Van Zyl’s Pass we drove through the ever-popular Marienfl uss. Depending on the season’s rainfall these grassy plains are best driven with some form of seed net covering your 4×4’s radiator. On the other side of this scenic valley you again climb into mountainous territory towards a little-known track dubbed the Mondjila Pass.
This brief ascent is definitely low-range stuff, and unfortunately for one couple, their Cruiser 100 Series gave them trouble and could only engage 2WD. It couldn’t have happened to a better couple. Colin and Geraldine were two of the friendliest, most easygoing folk I’ve ever met, and although disaster struck and their Cruiser went berserk with flashing lights and a failing drivetrain, they remained upbeat and positive at all times. Likewise, the rest of our convoy happily jumped in to help and after several winching attempts the bruised Cruiser made it through the pass. That night we camped on an expansive plateau within the Hartmannberge mountains, right up against a rocky cliff face.
The following morning, Colin tried to engage his Cruiser’s centre diff -lock while I lay under the vehicle listening to… anything I guess. Each time he pushed the diff -lock button I could heard some form of actuator / motor making a buzzing sound. With that, I decided to turn the front prop shaft back and forth in the hope that it would engage. It did. The Cruiser was returned to 4WD.
I dusted the grass seeds off my shirt and the rest of the convoy congratulated me on “fixing” the Cruiser. “A photojournalist and a mechanic… impressive.” I basked in the glory and decided not to tell anyone that I hadn’t a clue what I’d just done.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to drive through the Hartmann Valley. Originally, this route forms part of the tour but due to poor planning (I don’t like to point fingers but the idiot’s name was Grant Spolander) one vehicle was low on diesel and there was no way the distance could be covered.
Words cannot express how embarrassing it is when a group of people, paying for a tour of the Kaokoland, are unable to get their money’s worth because you didn’t carry enough fuel. So take it from me: carry all the diesel you possibly can!
With that, we took a more direct route south, skirting the bottom end of the Hartmann Valley past the famous Bloudrom marker. Our last bush camp was spent in yet another dry riverbed, a run-off from the Hoarusib River; here, we got to meet a common creature of the Kaokoland, the wind scorpion or solifugae.
Apparently, these six-legged creatures can grow to monstrous proportions, they’re insanely fast and they’re drawn to campfires. Rory, my travelling companion on this trip, is a big fan of snakes and reptiles but when it comes to creepy crawlies his pigtails start to show. Needless to say, the idea of a hairy, semi-arachnid induced a whole new kind of fear in him.
It’s hard to spot these creatures in the dark but every so oft en one would run over your feet and head to the fi re to feed on insects. Rory, subscribing to the belief that all scary insects are best met with the back end of a spade, sat on the edge of his seat and waited for someone to shriek or raise their legs in horror. When this happened, he’d spring from his chair, grab a spade and squat on the floor in search of solifugaes.
Thinking he was doing the group a huge service, Rory didn’t realise that the rest of the party wasn’t too worried about solifugaes, but rather the spade-swinging maniac who only had a narrow torch beam to guide his assaults.
One of the greatest highlights of the trip for me was Epupa Falls. After seeing a photograph of the falls a few years back I’d been desperate to see the real deal for quite some time. We couldn’t have picked a better time of year; due to heavy rains this year the falls were the highest they’ve been in over 90 years.
Epupa Falls is a completely unexpected sight that greets you as you travel along the C43 dirt road. The surrounding terrain is mostly mopani shrub and there ain’t much to look at. One last rise of the C43 suddenly reveals a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie.
A plume of mist rises from the falls, baobabs cling to the rocks and tall green palm trees lean across one another like a game of pick-up sticks. The Epupa Falls campsite is right on the water’s edge; there’s a small restaurant on the premises and a stilted wooden deck overlooking the falls. It’s the Kaokoland’s very own oasis.
We spend two nights here, soaking up the tranquillity of the falls and relaxing to the sound of water rushing by – it’s like we’re camping next to the sea. In the evening, we sit around the campfire and reminisce about the days behind us, each person sharing their thoughts and highlights of the tour.
Everyone talks about the bush camps and most of us favour the day of Van Zyl’s Pass, Marienfluss and the rocky ascent into the Hartmannberge Mountains. But it’s not just because the scenery was beautiful and the driving a bit more technical, it’s because everyone pulled together to help with tyre repairs, a stricken Cruiser and a lack of diesel.
This made me contemplate the fundamentals of overlanding and my original view that one can never be too prepared for the Kaokoland. Personally, I love driving, exploring and seeing new things, but in a few years from now I’ll probably forget what Van Zyl’s Pass looked like and I won’t remember the names of the campsites either. But what I will remember – hopefully to the ripe old age of 80 – is the events that brought people together: Johan siphoning fuel from his Cruiser 70 SW so that we could make it to the next fuel stop, Colin and his upbeat attitude towards his 2WD Cruiser, and Werner and Gerhard who were always willing to lend a helping hand despite the dust, dirt and baking sun.
The Kaokoland can be travelled alone provided you and your 4×4 are ready for the task, but some of the best memories are made and shared by groups. So don’t wait for months or years while you save up for rock sliders, drawer systems, long-range tanks, winches and whatever else for your 4×4 – take your money and join a tour like this one. This is what it’s all about.
Discovery 4 TDV6 HSE 3.0
As many of you know, SA4x4 had a long-term Discovery 4 test vehicle. I drove the D4 to several weekend getaways and 4×4 trails and every time I did so the Discovery’s on- and off-road performance blew me away. However, it wasn’t until I took this vehicle on a long-distance trip that I got an appreciation for what the Discovery 4 is really made of.
The term ‘armchair travel’ may refer to books and magazines such as this one, but what it should apply to is the Disco 4 – it’s like going on holiday in your favourite Lazy Boy couch. Lower the armrest, engage cruise control and watch the odometer maul the kilometres like some kind of ravenous road animal.
The Discovery 4 TDV6 is the perfect overland vehicle with its gargantuan cargo capacity (2 558 litres max), numerous seat-folding configurations, square interior dimensions, impressive on-road performance and class leading off-road abilities. Contrary to what many believe, although it would prefer 50 ppm diesel, the Discovery 4 TDV6 can run on 500 ppm with no hassles.
What’s more, to further increase the D4’s abundant packing space, buyers can now purchase a Land Rover-approved roofrack direct from the agents, one which won’t forfeit the vehicle’s warranty. The vehicle featured in this story (we dubbed it Barney the purple Disco) was OE-equipped with such a roofrack and it allowed us to carry four jerrycans, an extra spare tyre and a few bags of wood when needed. The roofrack also comes fitted with a tailgate-mounted ladder for easy access to the roof.
When traversing Van Zyl’s Pass we engaged the D4’s Hill Descent Control and let the vehicle do all the hard work for us; all we had to do was turn the steering wheel. It’s amazing how well this feature works as the Disco somehow monitors the terrain and pre-empts the physical forces at play, quickly braking the right wheel at the right time.
The Terrain Response system is also a highly commendable feature. Selecting the Rock Crawl mode made the traction control system ultra-sensitive to wheel slip while the Sand mode programme sensitised the throttle for quick and responsive acceleration.
Although some may see the Discovery 4 as a flashy, softer cousin of the Defender, nothing could be further from the truth. The D4’s adjustable air suspension system raises the vehicle to give it a phenomenal ground clearance measurement of 310 mm, which further imparts terrific approach, departure and break-over angles of 36°, 30° and 27° respectively. If you’re looking for a 4×4 that knows no compromise, the Discovery 4 TDV6 is the perfect choice.
MORE ON MONDJILA
After our 12-day tour I spoke with a number of clients about Mondjila and what their opinion was of the guide and co-owner of the business, Johan Swanepoel. The consensus was much the same from everyone: professional, polite and easygoing. One client had this to say: “What many tour operators don’t understand is that it’s not just the R8 000 fee you’re investing, it’s all the extras you’ve bought for your 4×4 and the leave you’re taking from work. I’ve been on dozens of tours with several operators and what many of them get wrong is that they treat their clients like children, lecturing them about punctuality and not littering out your vehicle’s window… duh!”
“Johan set the mood on the very first day of the tour by providing lots of information and assuring us that the tour would be fun, relaxed and full of beautiful sights. That night, unlike so many other first nights on previous tours, my wife and I slept very well, at ease and excited about the days ahead.” For more information on Mondjila and the various tours they offer into southern Africa, go to www.mondjila.com or call +264 64 406 395.
Kamanjab (Last fuel stop at start of tour)
S 19° 37.313 E 14° 50.515
Khowarib Schlucht Community Campsite
S 19° 15.941 E 13° 52.998
S 18° 44.078 E 12° 56.501
Epupa Falls campsite
S 17° 0.142 E 13° 14.706
WHERE WE STAYED
Goibib Mountain Lodge
S 27° 19.842 E 18° 34.130
This is one of my favourite stopovers when travelling through southern Namibia. Approximately 150 km north of the Vioolsdrift border post, Goibib Mountain Lodge offers a wide range of accommodation options including fully furnished rooms, a list of camping options – trailers, caravans, pre-tented camp – as well as a bush camp deep within the farm’s wild and varied reserve. Call +264 63 683 131 or go to www.goibibmountainlodge.com for more information.
Roof of Africa
S 22° 33.252 E 17° 5.731
A frequently visited accommodation option for overland travellers passing through Windhoek; the rooms are clean and well-equipped and there’s a breakfast buffet, bar and swimming pool on offer, as well as secure overnight parking. But best of all, the Roof of Africa lodge is within walking distance of the famous Joe’s Beer House restaurant, so there’s no need to worry about drinking and driving after all those Jagermeisters! Call +264 61 254 708 or go to www.roofofafrica.com for more information.
S 19° 34.360 E 15° 54.210
The Mondjila Base camp is a great place to start your tour of the Kaokoveld; plus, it’s ideally located right on Etosha’s doorstep. Either pitch your own tent or stay in one of the well-equipped pre-erected tents with en-suite toilet and shower. The lodge also boasts a swimming pool, restaurant and bar facilities. Call +264 64 406 395 or +264 81 127 7497 or go to www.mondjila.com for more information.
Take the worst fuel consumption figure your 4×4’s ever recorded and buy enough fuel to cover a distance of roughly 1 200 km using that figure. Fuel is scarce in the Kaokoland and although some maps may depict fuel facilities at various towns / villages – such as Sesfontein – many of these fuel stations are unreliable. Note: You will not find 50 ppm diesel in this part of the world so be sure of your vehicle’s fuel requirements.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
Mondjila Adventures offers two catering options: you can either provide your own dinner or a Mondjila chef will cook for you. Personally, I’d opt for the catered option – it’ll save you packing / fridge space while giving you the chance to relax in the evenings as someone prepares dinner for you. Plus, the catered option is far more social than cooking and eating by yourself.
If you do go for the catered tour, you’ll still have to bring your own breakfast, lunch and drinks. Johan provides coffee, tea and rusks in the morning. Other snacks such as bread, Coca Cola and chips can be purchased at places like Puros and Orupembe – where you’ll find a small café – but I wouldn’t count on them having stock so it’s best to bring enough for the duration of the tour.
If you’ve got your heart set on travelling solo I’d say a satellite phone is a vital accessory. It may save your life and if you do break down it’ll definitely speed up the recovery process. On this trip we used an Inmarsat phone to stay in touch with family. The phone costs under R6k which includes the SIM, activation and 250 units. For more information on this phone and other sat-phone solutions contact Zippisat on 072 767 6578 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A compressor, tyre repair kit and an extra spare wheel are all must-have items. What’s more, some sort of packing system in your 4×4 is highly recommended; the roads in the Kaokoland can be bumpy and if things aren’t properly packed / strapped down your vehicle’s interior and roofrack will take a beating. So if you don’t have a drawer system, bring lots of ammo boxes and ratchet straps with you.
CONVOY OR SOLO
If you’re very well prepared a solo trip is doable; however, in the dry season many of the tracks can be sandy and soft, and in the wet season the roads are often muddy and undrivable – prior to this trip our tour guide was stuck for 26 hours on the Ruacana / Kunene road. We advise convoy travel for the Kaokoland.
If you join the Mondjila tour you won’t see a tarred road for roughly 1 000 km. The off-road tracks range from good gravel roads to sharp, rocky tweespoor paths. The tarred road up to Outjo (Mondjila base camp) is in good condition, but be wary of cattle.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
We used the latest version of Tracks4Africa as well as their new printed map of Namibia 2011 edition. The map features lodge / campsite names, points of interest, 4WD trails and a separate Kaokoland chart detailing the travelling times and distances between each village / town. The T4A Namibia map can be bought at most 4×4 stores and will cost you R159.
A 4×4 with low-range and respectable ground clearance is a necessity for the Kaokoland, especially for routes like Van Zyl’s Pass and the various riverbed tracks. What’s more, exploring the Kaokoland with road-biased tyres is asking for trouble, so be sure to fit a good set of ATs or MTs.
Northern Namibia is regarded as a malaria area, but due to the region’s small population density the risk is lower here than it is in Botswana or Mozambique. It would be a good idea to carry a comprehensive medical aid kit; scorpions and snakes are bountiful in this part of the world.