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Travel – Floods in the land of thirst

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In a land known for being parched and barren, sudden heavy rains can change conditions overnight. This is the background to a great adventure on a recent Kaokoland tour with Simon Steadma

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Story Simon Steadman & photography Desiree Steadman

When you think of Kaokoland in the far North Western corner of Namibia, your mind fills with images of vast open spaces, long, dusty gravel roads and dry riverbeds. Definitely a land of thirst, in need of water, you would say.

However, at the right time of year you can see a completely different side of this desolate wilderness; one that involves spectacular thunderstorms, flash floods and burst riverbanks. This is the face of Kaokoland that we saw on our recent 16-day tour to the area – and it certainly made for an exciting adventure. The Trans-Kalahari highway through Botswana is always predictable and boring. Still, it needs to be endured in order to reach the Buitepos border post into Namibia, which is just below the cartographer’s ‘step’ on the border between Botswana and Namibia. The 1 100km or so from Johannesburg went by fairly smoothly with us meeting up with our group at Kalahari Bush Breaks campsite just inside the Namibian border.

You could feel the excitement in the air mixed with a generous dose of uncertainty as to what lay ahead of us over the next two weeks. As I fell asleep that night, surrounded by the sounds of the Kalahari, I pondered the route up north and tried to go through all the variables that we may be faced with. You never know what will come your way when tackling such a remote piece of Africa.

After a quick refuel in Gobabis we headed north on a new tar road that the locals had told us about. To my delight it took us straight to Grootfontein, cutting off a lot of gravel travel time compared to previous visits. This is where we got our first taste of the weather that lay ahead, as we were hit by a massive thunderstorm minutes after retreating to our tents for the night. The rain continued through the night and made packing up the next morning a rather glum affair before we continued north to Onguma Safari Lodge on the border of Etosha National Park.

This is one of the highlights of the tour, as Etosha is on most overlanders’ bucket lists. We were treated to a great sighting of a lioness and her three-month-old cub right next to the road, while on our way to the campsite at Onguma. This was a special sighting, one of many, despite the presence of so much surface water around in the bush. With some very happy campers after two nights at Onguma, we enjoyed a beef casserole under the awning that evening while the heavens opened on us once again.

Kunene & Ruacana Falls

This next leg of the tour took us all the way to the Kunene River and to the Hippo Pools Community campsite. The campsite, with its long-drop toilets and solar geysers, is just downriver from the Ruacana Falls, and is run by the local Himba community. Its location is spectacular and it served up a breathtaking sunset that evening while we sat on the banks of the Kunene River sipping on G&Ts. It’s moments like these that remind us of why we travel thousands of kilometres in our 4x4s to witness more of this magnificent continent of ours.

Around the fire that evening, discussing the next day’s travels, we made a decision that – unbeknown to us at that point – would hand us the biggest dose of adventure that we would encounter on the entire trip.

The planned route from Hippo Pools to Epupa Falls was to travel back to Ruacana and then south via Opuwo on good gravel roads – a total distance of 340km. The alternative was to drive along the Kunene River from Ruacana to Epupa Falls. This is a distance of only 144km but is a much more adventurous route with the possibility of having to cross rivers and do some proper off-road driving. I had made a few calls earlier that day to lodges on this route to evaluate road conditions and everyone confirmed that their guests had no problems accessing their lodges. One of the guys in our group had also read somewhere that the road had been recently graded and was now decent gravel all the way to Epupa. So, after a brief discussion on the pros and cons of each route, we decided to tackle the more adventurous route. After all, this was a 4×4 adventure.

After a quick breakfast and camp packed up, we headed west along the river towards Epupa Falls. After the first few kilometres it was clear that the reports were correct and the road had actually been graded, and it was very easy going. So much so, that after the first hour or so we even made comments like, “So much for the adventurous route!” How wrong we were. After driving along this scenically great gravel road for a few hours, we were stopped by a construction bakkie coming towards us. The driver told us that the river up ahead was flowing very quickly. He hadn’t been able to cross and was turning back and going via Swartbooisdrif to Opuwo. This was a four-hour detour and not what we were up for. So we decided to carry on and take a closer look at the river crossing.

In deep water

As we reached the river, we were met by a boisterous and friendly local named Langa, who was confident we could safely cross the river with the vehicles we were driving. His excitement at showing us the line and route through was overwhelming at first, but after walking it through a few times myself, I was confident our man had seen this movie a few times before and knew what he was talking about.

After a group discussion and carefully wading through and plotting the route across, we decided that it was safe enough to tackle. The entry point was tricky as it was a fairly steep drop-off on rocks into the river and then about 50 metres of 700mm deep water until you reached a rocky bank, followed by another 50 metres of shallower water to reach the other side. As I was towing a trailer we decided that another vehicle should go through first so that we had it as a safety net on the other side just in case my anchor kept me in the river. Andreas quickly volunteered to be the guinea pig and made easy work of the crossing in his 100 Series Land Cruiser. Seeing them them reach the other side with ease gave everyone else a lot more confidence. Now it was my turn, and with diff locks engaged for extra traction to pull my heavy trailer through the sand underneath the rushing water, I entered the river slowly as not to bounce the trailer off the rocks and powered through the first 50 metres with ease to reach the rocky island where Langa was screaming with excitement, “You’re the man, you’re the man!” The worst part was conquered. At this point I think complacency kicked in and I eased off the power just a fraction as I was going through the last shallower stretch of water. It was like I had hit a brick wall! The Land Cruiser came to a complete stop with no traction on any of the wheels. I was axle deep in a sand bank and not going anywhere.

Without hesitation Langa and his mates were under our wheels, digging away the sand and packing rocks underneath them in order to try and give me traction. I won’t go into all the details of the ordeal, but after four hours of jacking and packing rocks in the baking hot sun, the only way out was to unhitch the trailer and winch ourselves out using vehicles as anchors on the other side of the river. Once we managed to get the vehicle out, we faced the tricky task of winching the trailer out through the thick sand and flowing water.

After about an hour of battling to keep the jockey wheel on the shovel while winching it towards us, my wife Desiree had the great idea of using our aluminium wind shield for the task – as it was longer and easier to manoeuvre when the jockey wheel was resting on it. Thankfully this worked a treat and after another half an hour we had the trailer safely ashore. Everyone cheered as we thanked Langa and his friends for their assistance and effort. It really was humbling to see how these guys just got stuck in and helped us for so long with no expectation of reimbursement or handouts.

Crossing take #2

We were now running out of daylight and needed to get going if we were to reach Epupa Falls before nightfall. A quick goodbye to Langa and friends as he raced off on his motorbike to get back to his village for dinner and we were on our way again. It was now late afternoon and I wasn’t very confident that we would reach Epupa before sunset as we still had quite a distance to travel. After about half hour of driving there was another small river crossing the road that, at first glance, didn’t look very challenging at all until I went through it and realised it was a muddy bog, which just sucked my anchor in once again and brought me to a halt.

Now with a serious sense of humour failure, I jumped out to inspect the situation and could not believe who was standing there next to the road. It was my mate Langa. “Not in front of my house guys,” he sighed, before getting stuck in once again and helping turn the trailer around so I could get the Land Cruiser on to hard ground and pull it out of the bog.

By now it was nearly dark and we asked Langa if there was anywhere close by that we could set up camp for the night. Being the friendly, welcoming person that he is, Langa kindly said we could camp in his village and showed us to a little piece of paradise right next to the river. He even brought us firewood and joined us for a beer around the fire, where we laughed and joked about the day’s events.

Just before we were about to serve dinner that night, the heavens opened once again and myself and Andreas thought this was a great opportunity to wash away the dust and dirt from the hours spent in the river and baking sun. We quickly stripped down to our undies and enjoyed a shower in the rain. The next morning we got up earlier than normal, as we knew we had more uncertainty ahead of us and wanted as many daylight hours as possible. Another quick thank you to Langa and his friends for their hospitality and assistance in the riverbed, and we were on our way again.

If all went according to plan, and the river that lay ahead was as easy to cross as Langa said, then we would be at Epupa Falls in a few hours. We should have known that things would not be as easy as all that. All went well for the first 20km or so, with a few small streams easily negotiated, and then we arrived at the last river that lay between us and Epupa Falls. Clearly the rain of the previous night has seriously influenced the level and flow rate of this river, as the one we were looking at was very different to the one described to us by Langa. At this point it was decision time again: do we try and negotiate this one or turn around and go back the way we came, through the river that got the best of us the day before and then another 200km of gravel road to Epupa Falls. While I was busy going through all of this in my mind, Dirk and Des had already removed their shoes and were halfway across the river.

Things weren’t looking good as the water was over knee height and flowing quickly. This was just a recipe for disaster and tackling this river would be foolish and reckless so we had no other option but to turn around and go back the way we had come. Everyone agreed that this was the best thing to do, so after a quick breakfast in the shade we turned around and headed back towards Langa’s village and the river that we had spent so many hours in the day before.

The return trip

You know that feeling you get in your stomach when you are sitting in the dentist’s waiting room or just before it’s your turn to do your Afrikaans speech in front of the class? Well, this is the same feeling I got as we approached the river crossing. We couldn’t afford to lose another day and needed to get across quickly in order for us to reach our destination before sunset. As we came around the corner and stopped on the banks of the temporary river, my worst fears were confirmed. The night’s rain had also affected this river and increased its ferocity. A quick wade through confirmed it was too deep and too fast for us to cross. We needed a new plan.

By now a small group of locals had gathered and, after asking a few questions, I was told that there was another place to cross further up through the bush that a local mining company often used during these flash floods. “That’s where we are going,” I said, with a glimmer of hope in my voice. It was apparently only about three kilometres up-river and one of Langa’s friends offered to lead the way in return for a few Rands worth of petrol money. I couldn’t argue with that and off we went in search of this river crossing that would save the day.

Once again, my stomach started its acrobatics, but this time it was that feeling you used to get on Christmas Eve; a feeling of excitement that we would now be able to cross this river and get to Epupa Falls and put all of these flash floods behind us. As we drove past a temporary camp with large earth moving equipment scattered around, I knew we must be close to the crossing point. We emerged from some thick mopane bush and there the river was; things looked promising. The river was definitely wider and shallower at this point, and also a lot rockier than where we had crossed downstream.

Without hesitation I started wading through the river feeling for the route with the best traction and also for any hazards that may be hidden beneath the surface. After about half an hour, having strategically placed a few rocks at the exit point for extra traction, it was time to get this convoy across the river. It was by now definitely time to make our way to the oasis of Omarunga campsite at Epupa Falls and the sparkling swimming pool that we had all been longing for over the last few days. Once again Andreas volunteered to be the guinea pig and test my proposed route across. After a short briefing with all the drivers and pointing out the route to follow and what to watch out for, we were all ready and lined up on the riverbank. On my command, Andreas slowing waded into the river, increasing momentum and staying on the power, and making it look easy until a few metres from the exit point when the Land Cruiser came to a sudden stop. He was stuck! I ran in and made my way to the other side to assess the situation. Things were not that bad. He had slightly missed the rocky road we had built to the exit point and with a bit of pushing was able to reverse back to solid ground and give it another go, easily negotiating the last few metres and making it safely to dry land on the other side of the river.

The roar that erupted from the crowd that had gathered on both sides of the river was overwhelming and sounded like we had scored the winning goal in the World Cup final, sending shivers down my spine. The plan had worked! Now to get everyone else across and out of here. After packing a few more rocks on our exit point road, I headed back to the other side of the river and watched as everyone else made it across without any difficulty. Now it was my turn to get the three-tonne Land Cruiser and heavy trailer across first time and avoid another time-wasting recovery.

With diff locks engaged I headed into the river shouting words of encouragement to Mufasa, our Land Cruiser, eyeing the exit point all the while. It seemed like it was miles away, but after the first few metres I knew that Mufasa had what it took and I powered through the river, not easing up on the accelerator until we had landed safely on the other side. Mission accomplished! Now let’s get to that swimming pool.

The Promised Land

The next few hours’ drive seemed to fly by in no time at all and before we knew it we were ambling down the pass with the palm trees of Epupa Falls in sight. It felt like we had reached the ‘Promised Land’ and the first thing we all did was head for the pool and order a few ‘cold drinks’. As we sat there in the pool reliving the events of the last couple of days, I started thinking of what still lay ahead and the best route to avoid any more run-ins with flash floods.

As we had now lost a day, due to our shenanigans in the river, we were due to leave Epupa Falls the next day, but after much contemplation I decided it was a good idea to scrap our planned overnight bush camp in a riverbed on the way to Puros and rather spend an extra day at Epupa Falls enjoying the sights, sounds and that swimming pool. After all, with what we had experienced over the last couple of days, the last place we should be going anywhere near was another riverbed.

Instead, we opted to take the very corrugated gravel road to Puros from the Marienfluss, which would guarantee no further river crossings until we reached the Hoarusib River at Puros. Everyone was more than happy with this change of plan and enjoyed another day relaxing in the pool and visiting the spectacular Epupa Falls.

It’s at this point in the tour where I normally say to the group that the real adventure is about to begin as we head towards the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass. This time it didn’t seem fitting as everyone was well into adventure mode already and ready to tackle anything that Kaokoland could throw at us. Van Zyl’s Pass, here we come!

Next month: Van Zyl’s Pass & the Marienfluss