(first posted 1/1/2013) The Queen of Sheba said about Solomon: half was not told to me. This is how I feel about my first visit to Namibia this past winter holiday. Yes, the Fish River Canyon and Dooievlei at Sossusvlei were impressive. But it’s the people of the country who will linger in our memories and make us return.
Our first overnight stop is the Hobas rest camp near the Fish River Canyon. It’s a tidy, well-kept camp of Namibian Wildlife Reserves, with helpful staff. After a visit to the lookout at the Fish River Canyon the previous night (top photo), we depart early the next morning. We drive to Aussenkehr along the blue rift of the canyon on the C37 against the Orange River.
The endless green vineyards at Aussenkehr look unreal in this parched landscape, as do the hundreds of little grass huts that the seasonal workers from the north of the country build next to the road. The road from here to Rosh Pinah initially reminds you of a moonscape, but later on, as you get closer to the Orange River, there are plenty of trees and spots where you can pull over and admire the river.
Our speed on the gravel road varies between 60 km/h and 90 km/h, depending on the road condition. We have to stop a few times to let the Peugeot 404 cool down, because after emergency repairs in Springbok its fan mechanism wasn’t engaged again.
Rosh Pinah is a mining town that looks as if it’s experiencing a boom. There are plenty of new businesses and there’s a bustle of people and vehicles. The enormous zinc mine near here is the biggest in Africa and lead is also excavated here. From here there’s a beautiful tar road to Aus, almost 170 km further. This village’s main road winds up a slight hill in amongst the houses. Outside the Aus Bahnhof Hotel (German for “railway hotel”) colourful flags of several countries flap in the wind and while we get fuel from the Namib Garage, I buy a Namibia bumper sticker.
We drive along the railway, past Aus’s beautiful ivory-coloured Lutheran church with its red roof, and head for Helmeringhausen.
Dusk is approaching by the time we turn off the tar road to the C13 north. The wide landscape of the Neisip Plain beckons us forward and the grass plains next to the road look spectacular. At the end of the plain the Tiras mountains are on our left and the Rooirand on the right. We are now near our first overnight stop.
The Farm at Tiras
The sign says Tiras Camp. We are about 65 km from Aus and turn right to the Kochs family’s farm and follow a jeep track of red sand. Klaus-Peter Koch receives us with a smile and says there’s also a chalet at the camp site. We are exhausted and will sleep in the chalet tonight, thank you very much. The 450 km from Hobas to here did take us 9½ hours, after all.
The camp site is on a koppie (small hill) opposite the main road. Our chalet has a stoep (veranda/porch) and a braai (barbeque grill) with a beautiful view and the electricity for the lights and hot water is generated by the sun.
Shortly after breakfast the next morning Klaus-Peter comes driving up in his Series II Land Rover bakkie (pickup), bringing two bags of camel thorn wood, apologizing for the price. It comes from far. “You can see there are no trees here.” But it’s prime wood and three pieces are enough for a braai for two. At dusk I decide to explore the farm.
I take a jeep track through long grass. Here you have to know what you’re doing driving-wise, because under the grass of the middelmannetjie the gravel and rocks are higher than you’d expect in places. Initially I feel the rocks bump against my steering mechanism, and I realize the rubber housings around the arms have been stripped away. My brakes also start fading and I have to pump them more and more. If a ditch were suddenly to appear in front of me, I wouldn’t be able to brake in time.
Klaus-Peter warned me that grass accumulates under your vehicle and can catch alight due to the heat of the exhaust system. You can smell it very quickly. Then you have to get out in a flash and carefully push the grass away with a stick. The next morning I drive the 45 km to Helmeringhausen to have the brakes adjusted.
En route I see an old Mercedes Benz truck parked next to the road. Next to it is a newish Isuzu double-cab bakkie on its axles, completely burnt out. Even the alloy rims are ashes. The driver of the truck says it’s his brother’s bakkie that caught fire after he drove it in the grass veld.
The Mechanic of Helmeringhausen
The road to Helmeringhausen winds through koppies, and in two places I have to drive through drifts of water. To the left of Helmeringhausen’s main road is a general dealer with a liquor store, fuel pumps and the garage. To the right is the farmers’ association’s open-air museum and the Helmeringhausen Hotel.
Here, Janus Kotzé, the local mechanic, tells me how everything – from the tools in the workshop to the petrol pumps –works on solar power and how he builds an Uri pipe car every year. Even on their farm the windpumps are now replaced with solar power.
In the shop I hear there is a dispute over who actually owns the name Helmeringhausen,because officially it’s not a town yet. You can get everything here – from clothing irons you heat up on a stovetop to good wine and even a Helmeringhausen clothing range consisting of shirts, Tshirts, jackets and caps, all with its logo of two fan-tailed meerkats. A short while later, Janus quickly helps me to bleed and repair the 404’s brakes in the workshop. On the drive back I see someone lying in the middle of the road.
It’s a woman, and there are two people with her. She fell off her motorbike and hurt her leg, and now she doesn’t want to move until help arrives. They’re from Durban and on day six of a three-week trip. Their support bakkie with a nurse is on its way. And I wonder: whatever happened to all the insurance company helicopters that will allegedly come and pick you up anywhere in Africa? Some distance further on I see two other bikers next to the road. The one is lying down and the other one is making shade for him. The one lying down complains of a sore wrist and says he thinks he’s cracked some ribs. He’s also a member of the Durban group. What on earth happened? He was admiring the landscape, and then hit a patch of sand. Next thing he’s doing a somersault. The BMW is a writeoff and they’re also waiting for help.
Later that day we drive to another part of the farm with some beautiful rock formations. The biggest formation is called “Elephant” and the other one was christened “Mussolini” after the Second World War. Nobody can really remember why. This part of the farm, called Alt Tiras, is the route the German colonists took inland in their oxwagons from Lüderitzbucht because there was a waterhole. “Tiras” is Nama for “the place where jackals drink”.
The red dunes beckon
The next morning we drive 7 km south along the C13 towards Aus before we turn right (west) on the D707. It’s a back road of about 120 km, which traces an arc back northwards. Someone discouraged us from taking the D707, but according to Klaus-Peter the road is in good condition. He also says that we’ll be able to see the Namib’s red dunes on this road. And he’s right.
First, you only see the mountains to the right that look as if they’ve been thrown here from heaven onto the grass landscape. And then, for the first time, I set my eyes on the rolling red dunes of the Namib. I feel the same way I felt when I first saw the sea. And although the dunes disappear later on, the Tiras Mountains still tower to our left. I enjoy the gravel road, but the rocks on the final stretch before Spes Bona are a bit much and I start feeling sorry for the 404.
Spes Bona is indicated on the map, but it’s basically a farmstead set on either side of the road. We turn left at the Tjunction on the C27 to Betta, a welcome rest in the desert. Betta has fuel pumps, a shop and small eatery, as well as a neat camp site. There is no grass, but there are shade awnings, a tidy ablution block and a lapa (thatched roof structure) built of twigs.
From Betta we head further north along the C27 towards Sesriem. The road is bad and the 404’s brakes start going soft again. Finally we turn right on the D845 and 14 km later left on the C19, towards Solitaire. About 5 km later we turn right onto the D854 to the Tsauchab river camp. This final stretch of gravel of 35 km is so good that we drive at 90 km/h.
The farm on the Tsauchab River
After 300 km and a six-hour drive from the Tiras camp we turn into the Tsauchab River Camp. The road runs to the farmhouse, which is also the reception room, shop, bar, restaurant and reading room. But on either side of the path are several sculptures that owner Johan Steyn welded together from pieces of scrap metal. There are birds, dogs, a rhino, trucks, wagons and even a gardener. It’s wonderful to see how he’s transformed ordinary objects into works of art. When we stop, his wife, Nicky, welcomes us.
No farming is done any more, and the 7 127 ha farm has been set up for tourists. We get a map with the path to our camp site. It’s some distance from the house in a stretch of the Tsauchab River’s dry bed. The camp sites are so far from each another that you’re not even aware of other people.
By four we’ve pitched our camp under a huge wild fig tree and it’s still a hot 35ºC. Our shower and basin are a few meters to the right in the riverbank and our toilet quite a few meters to the left, cemented in under a tree.
Early the next morning we wake from an unearthly sound that sounds like a creaking door. We finally realize it’s rock pigeons. The other notable bird voice comes from a beautiful little crimson-breasted shrike. It’s a tubby, black little bird with the brightest red patch on its breast.
The service at Tsauchab is good: the donkey at the little bathroom was fired up for us the previous night and the candles around our camp were lit. In the morning the braais and bins are cleaned.
Sossusvlei and the “Oerwald”
We are at Sossusvlei’s gate at 06:40, and five minutes later the gate opens so we can hit the tar road down to Sossusvlei. There we resignedly pay R100 each to take the Landie shuttle to the vlei (low flat valley and/or seasonal lake bed) . Initially you wonder what the fuss is about.
But as you go higher and higher up the dunes, you realize what a singular phenomenon it is.
The 1.1 km walk to Dooievlei over loose sand in the afternoon sun gets you, but it’s worth it.
The dead, black tree trunks on the white sand, etched against the red dunes and green sky, are something to see. They are estimated to be about 600 years old. The climate is too dry for the wood to rot away, there are no insects to devour them and no wind to blow them over or weather them down.
We head back to the Tsauchab River Camp. I realise that when the station wagon isn’t loaded, you have to deflate the tyres to 1.8 bar in front and 1.7 bar at the back. That way the back of the Peugeot isn’t so loose on the gravel road. The Kumho LT (light truck) 195/80 15 tyres I’d fitted specially for the journey are well up to the task.
Johan wants to show us Tsauchab’s wonderful secret. It’s 11 km from the farmstead and you need a 4×4. En route he first shows us the San rock art. The Oerwald (the name’s a mix of Afrikaans and German) is a place where a warm water spring originates in the river bed, surrounded by an enormous wild fig forest.
We rock-hop over the river and enter the wood. The dead vlei at Sossus may be impressive, but here you’re well aware you’re in Namibia. Here, among the trees, it feels as if you’re in another world. There is only one camp site and a tidy bathroom and donkey, but it’s enough for a big group.
Maltahöhe, Mariental and Mechanic No.2
Today we pack up and head for Maltahöhe on the D850 which runs right by the farm entrance. It’s a good gravel road with two steep asses. The closer you get to Maltahöhe, the more the mountains make way for plains and thorn trees.
We buy droëwors at a tiny shop on the main road and stop at the Maltahöhe Hotel that dates back to 1907. The perfectionist Arno Rahn runs the place, which has a tidy, spacious but companionable bar, dining room, curio shop, beer garden and guest room block. Even the dogs know exactly where they’re supposed to lie, and GPS co-ordinates on a wall direct you to the toilets!
After a fun stop we unenthusiastically hit the tar road to Mariental. After the guys at the Ford/Mazda garage adjust our brakes, we stock up on biltong, put in Puma petrol and exchange our last dollars for rands at the Wimpy on the main road. Then we carry on further north on the B1 highway. About 11 km later we turn right onto the C20 tar road to Stampriet. It’s real Kalahari grass veld.
One of the landmarks of Stampriet is the row of tall palm trees at Elnatan, the Afrikaans private school in town. The Kalahari Farmhouse is a few hundred metres north of town, not far from the Elnatan school. It’s tidy, with a pleasant reception room, dining room and cottages. Every camp site has electricity, a braai and light. The ablution block is spacious and clean, and you’re surrounded by vineyards.
The next morning Marius “Tollo” Garbers, resident mechanic for the Gondwana Lodge group’s fleet of Land Rovers, quickly tightens the 404’s cylinder head with a torque wrench, as well as the carburetor, which had shaken loose. Then we head south along the C15 past Gochas, all long the course of the Auob River, to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
The farms here change every two to three kilometres. There are beautiful farmyards with tall trees, lawns, gardens and farmlands. The farms are sliced up lengthways across the riverbed, each with a piece on either side of the river.
The Kalahari farm
About 13 km from the Mata-Mata border post we turn left to the Kalahari Farmstall on the farm Gemsbokpan. It’s a real farmyard with goats and sheep, a windpump and geese. The restaurant and farmstall have a beautiful view of the farmyard. Penny, who comes from Damaraland, pours us delicious coffee. Marica van Rooyen is a ball of friendly enthusiasm and convinces us that although we will make it to Mata-Mata, we’ll never reach Twee Rivieren by sunset.
While we walk around and explore the place, her husband, Christo, a mechanical engineer and encyclopedia of stories, comes over for a chat. He tells us the big double windmill on the yard is his own invention and that the goat ewes raise lambs rejected by the sheep ewes.
I’ve heard a lot about the Namibian Uri pipe car, and when Christo offers to go and show us the dunes, I’m all fired up. The engine is a Toyota 2-litre turbodiesel and it goes like the wind up the dunes, even though it’s a rear-wheel drive vehicle. We drive to the highest dune on the farm. On this dune is a dune to which water is pumped, and from there the water flows to each camp under gravity. Very clever.
Before long we experience a true Kalahari sunset. Christo tells us the camel thorns produce more seeds during dry years and that it has to first pass through an animal’s digestive system before it can germinate as the head is too hard otherwise. He digs in the fine sand and shows us how the grass conserves the moisture from the past rainy season, which was a good one. Now we know how the grass survives here.
The dining room is filled with delicious Kalahari lasagne and salads, and the next morning we experience another first: springbok wors (sausage) for breakfast. Afterwards we’re sorry that we hadn’t rather stayed over here and taken day trips into the Kgalagadi.
Each one of the three farms we stayed at were completely different from each other, and each farmer and his wife made a plan in their own way. They know the art of making you yearn for your next visit. The open road back to Stellenbosch via Twee Rivieren, Upington, Calvinia and Vanrhynsdorp is an adventure on its own, but cruising at 90 km/h in our veteran car we are at peace with the world and have plenty of memories of this singular country to ponder on the long road home.
The Botha’s other back roads trip, across remote South Africa, is here.