Namibia: Opuwo to Spitzkoppe

17 May – 2 June 2013

After a slightly uncertain start from Epupa (Freddie’s car was making some disconcerting noises), we were Opuwo-bound. We made it in good time and luckily when we pitched up at the post office all the spare parts had arrived … in a Toyota box no less!

After a couple of days of mechanics, odd jobs and restocking of supplies we were back on the road towards Van Zyl’s Pass. Van Zyl’s Pass, as mentioned in the last blog, is infamous in overlanding circles and seems to be something a lot of 4×4 enthusiasts want to be able to say they’ve done. For us it was more about the surroundings and views of the Marienfluss along the way, however we can’t deny we were also looking forward to seeing what the pass had to throw at us. The pass itself is approx 11km long, with sections of very steep descents and can only be driven from east to west (ie, down rather than up). Depending on what damage may have been done to the road by the previous vehicles, big dips/holes in these sections can need building up with rocks to make the route less likely to damage or topple your car.

We made pretty good progress the first day as most of the journey was along a good gravel road. We wild camped in a riverbed that night: always good fun to camp in what feels like the middle of nowhere with no one else around. As we set off the following morning, what the GPS said would take one and a half hours actually took around four. As time wore on it looked less and less likely that we would be tackling the pass that day. However, we also soon realised that we weren’t entirely sure where the pass actually started. Our map had the co-ordinates for the summit and the base, so we had assumed the summit was the start, but as we approached said summit we came across a couple of very steep spots where Freddie and Marcello had to guide each other down … so perhaps we had started it afterall?!

We arrived at the Marienfluss viewpoint, close to the summit, at around 3.30pm and decided immediately that this is where we should camp for the night. The view was incredible: mountains behind and to the side of us and a vast desert plain in front. That evening we were treated to another spectacular African sunset, followed by a potjie curry and fire under the stars. We’d thought it had worked out well as we could get a good night’s sleep before taking on the pass in the morning. Boy were we wrong! Not long after hitting the hay the wind picked up to what seemed like gale-force. The flysheet was flapping around making the most incredible noise and Marcello was up several times securing the ladder and tent as it felt like it (and we) were going to be blown off the roof and over the edge of the cliff. Then we heard something we hadn’t heard since March … rain! It was only patchy, nothing heavy (luckily for Robbin who only had a thin tent), but we wondered when the last time that area would have had even a drop of it. By 5.30am we gave up trying to get any sleep and packed up and took shelter in the car.

So, feeling slightly weary, we set off to tackle the rest of the pass. It was only a few minutes until we reached the first steep descent and we all got out. Marcello and Freddie, deciding on the best line to take and then guiding each other down; with Karen and Joel watching from the sidelines trying to get some good photos. After about three sections like this (there having been about two the previous day) we were through and heading into the valley … after stopping for a quick cuppa along the way that is. Although typically after said cuppa, we did come across one final steep section.

So, was the pass all it was cracked up to be? As with a lot of things we were all expecting it to be far more challenging than it was and didn’t think it lived up to the hype. It’s definitely one of the trickier stretches that we’ve driven on the trip so far, but as long as you are sensible and take it slowly, planning the best route through, it’s fine. The boys concluded that, having now done it, they would have been happy to have driven it as a solo vehicle. Still, better not to tempt fate.

Once into the valley we entered the Marienfluss and headed up towards the Angolan border for the second time (the first being Epupa). We went from mountain passes to vast flat plains, with mountains in the distance on either side. The sand would change from white to red to grey, like one of those bottles of sand you get at holiday resorts, and, other than short grasses, there was hardly any life there at all. It’s hard to describe how remarkable the landscape is, but as one author put it: this is big sky country.

When we got to Otjinhungwe we managed to find a lodge that Freddie and Marcello had seen pictures of online: it had the most inviting swimming pool you can envisage overlooking the mountains and river (as well as the croc sunning itself on the opposite river bank). Alas, for reasons we can’t imagine, they don’t allow camping, so we had to drag ourselves away. Instead we went to a watering hole nearby which, as there are a small series of falls, is croc-free and we cooled ourselves off there. We then went and found a campsite which, although not quite the same as the lodge we’d left behind, was very nice all the same and also had a spot alongside the river. As a bonus for Freddie, some Himba women came down to the river to fill up their water containers, so he was able to negotiate taking some photos of them.

The next day we started the drive South – this would now be the main direction we would be travelling! We stopped off at the Rooidrom (Red Drum) which is in all the guidebooks as a place where those travelling through write their names on a stone and place it on top of the drum. It was a little disappointing in reality … literally a red gallon drum with a few stones scattered around it – for some reason we were (or at least Karen was) expecting something a bit bigger. The stones are obviously collected up after a time as there weren’t many older than a year. We had a quick read, but decided against adding our names to the pile and moved on.

That night we headed to Marble Camp as bush camping isn’t allowed in the area. The camp gets its name from the marble in the surrounding hills and we drove up to the quarry to have a look around and get some shots of the Landies in this unique setting. The whole of the Kaokoland is rich in crystals and we were driving past the most impressive specimens of rose and white quartz … so much so that we couldn’t help picking one up as a souvenir (after checking with Robbin that this was okay of course!). We did eye up one of the huge squares of marble, but considering we’re over our weight limit already we decided that something as heavy as Charlie might be a step too far!

When we set off the following day we’d intended to wild camp before completing the loop back to Opuwo. However we made such good time that we decided to push on right through. Freddie still had one particular shot of the Himba that he wanted to get, so this extra day would be put to good use. So, we were back in Opuwo for the third time – the only place on our whole trip that we’ve been to three times. It was here, after Freddie’s final day of shooting, that we bid farewell to Robbin. But by now we had persuaded Freddie and Joel to join us for a few more days on our respective journeys south.

After a couple of days in Opuwo and our now-traditional leaving-day breakfast at the lodge, we continued to Palmwag where we hoped we might have another encounter with the desert elephants. It’s a lovely camp and beautiful area but unfortunately the closest encounter we had with elephants was Joel’s comedy impression of them (fully clothed we might add). We did however get woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of zebra munching on the other side of the bushes by our tent though.

From here we pushed on to Twyfelfontein in Southern Damaraland. This is an area we’d read quite a bit about as it has a World Heritage site of rock engravings, as well as the Organ Pipes and Burnt Mountain. We’d thought we might need a few days here to explore and absorb the surroundings. However, after driving out to the Organ Pipes, we soon changed our plans. The Organ Pipes are angular columns of dolorite formed around 120 million years ago. Whilst they are quite interesting, in such a spectacular environment we were expecting something more like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland than the 200m or so long crevice that we found. Similarly, the Burnt Mountain, whilst quite pretty, was not really what we were expecting. Having spent so much time in such beautiful, dramatic scenery over the last couple of weeks our expectations had obviously been running pretty high.

So, leaving Twyfelfontein earlier than expected, we ventured to another area of stark wilderness: the Skeleton Coast. The Skeleton Coast earned its name because of the many ships that were wrecked there as a result of the shifting sandbanks and fogs that roll in on a regular basis. It has the icy cold Atlantic on one side and the Namib Desert on the other.

We travelled slightly north to enter the Skeleton Coast Park at the Springbokwasser Gate where we camped for the night at the small campground they have there. The next morning, approx 20km from the gate, we caught our first glimpse of the ocean for what seemed like an age. (In reality it was just shy of three months.) As we travelled south down the coastline, with vast stretches of sand and gravel to our left, Freddie and Joel felt it was only appropriate to don turban-style headgear … it certainly had that feel to it! We stopped along the way to see if we could uncover any semi-precious stones or crystals that the area is known to have, but we obviously didn’t have a clue what we were looking for so merely found some interesting looking ones.

We’d planned to stay at Mile 108 camp that night, but on arrival discovered a very bleak and deserted looking site. As it was still early we pushed on to Cape Cross where there is a seal reserve. Here there can be up to 100,000 cape fur seals at one time. As we approached the beach and rocks we couldn’t quite believe how many were crammed in there. Everywhere we looked there were heads bobbing around and blubbery bodies clambering all over each other. The smell wasn’t quite as bad as expected, but it’s not pleasant, however, it’s the sounds they make that really amuse. They range from something similar to the bleating of sheep to old men farting and grumbling at each other!

Having amused ourselves with the sight and sounds of the seals, we found a lovely camp at the Cape Cross Lodge nearby. This was to be our first chilly night for some time. With the wind pumping and winter setting in, we felt like hobos that evening wrapped up in our jackets, beanies and huddled around a fire pit.

The next day we drove the short distance along the coast to Swakopmund. Here Freddie needed to do a bit more work on his Landie and Charlie had a much needed bath. It felt like we had a brand-new car after all the dust of the last few weeks had been washed away! We’d all been dreaming of seafood, so that evening we went out for dinner at The Tug, literally a tug boat that has been turned into a restaurant. It was nice to be watching the waves pounding onto the shore from the warmth of the restaurant. Many thanks again to Joel who insisted on treating us: a treat it certainly was as the food was fantastic.

After stocking up on a few more supplies in town we headed out to Spitzkoppe for what was to be our last day/night travelling with Freddie and Joel. It seemed a suitable setting for our last soiree together. Spitzkoppe is the highest of a cluster of mountains that rise up from the desert plains in the south of the Kunene Region. The restcamp there consists of around 12 stands, but they’re scattered around the base of the various mountains, so it feels as though you have the place to yourself. We were camped under a huge bolder and one of the biggest of the mountains, which glow an amazing burnt orange colour in the sunlight. That evening, as we were enjoying a final feast of fillet steak and mushroom risotto courtesy of Marcello, we were visited by a genet (we’d progressed from Camp Dog to Camp Genet). It seemed bigger than the ones we’d seen in South Luangwa, but perhaps it was because we were seeing it up close and personal. It was funny watching it watching us and we enticed it as close as we could with a few left over pieces of boerewors. We finished the night off with what was now a bit of a tradition courtesy of Freddie and Joel of the digestive Underberg.

All too soon it was time that four became two again as Freddie and Joel started their three-day push for home (Cape Town). It was with a tear in our eyes that we waved them goodbye, running after the car begging them not to leave us. Seriously though, we really enjoyed our time travelling with them and couldn’t have asked for more compatible road buddies. From day one we slotted into a routine of team work, banter and name-calling. Fritzie and Heinrich: Poncho and Crystal are looking forward to catching up with you again once we finally make it to Cape Town. Also, we’re not quite sure why, but we’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be as many African Barking Spiders around since you left … odd.

As for us, we decided to give ourselves time to grieve and spent another night at Spitzkoppe. We had a wander around exploring some of the rock formations, including the rock arch (F&J: actually more impressive when you get up close to it than it looks from a distance – sorry guys). We were also kept entertained in the afternoon by the cheeky squirrels around our camp looking for scraps: they were pretty bold and we wouldn’t have put it past them to have jumped on our laps if they thought we’d have something for them. That night, as we admired the view around us, we did consider dancing naked under the stars – because we could – however it was pretty darn chilly, so we called it a night instead!

Next stop: Windhoek.

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