Long before one-armed Chris can cause any problems the convoy set off at the crack of dawn. We crawl up and over the rocky hill, I came down last night. Twenty kilometres into the day drive Williwaw blows her exhaust just at the sound box. In the silence of the desert, she roars like a tank. Temporary repairs reduce the noise.
The plan is to follow the Somadommi River and camp that evening at Purros. The sun makes it difficult to hook up meaningfully impressions, with any scenery. Everything is warped, distorted. Shades of shale colour on the ground mingle into one block of a parched desert.
A midday stop brings to light that our new companions are two x Royal Navy captains. Robin and Robert with their perspective anchors Julian and Juliet. It seems that Juliet daughter has marked a map, which is produced. My eyes read a note on the map < bare and beautiful sandy desert. > I make a mental note to veer to the right when we get going again. The bare and beautiful can wait till mother and daughter are together. We have had enough sand for a lifetime.
A dust devil (mini tornado) passes over us lifting Williwaws sun canopy sucking Robin’s hat skywards. Covered in a shower of dust it’s a sort of macho event as no one made a move even though we all saw the funnel approaching. I am sure that our two Captains as I had seen waterspout at sea. Mind you I had never experience been hit by of one. It gave us quite a wake up to take evasive action in the future and not to stand there with our mouth open.
After Purros, we push on to Orupembe our first Himba settlement/village. Not a Himba or Himbo to be seen. Not to worry says the bible they are a nomadic cattle loving people who move from one location to another. We have a close look at one of their beehive style dwelling. Inside there are a few utensils and it is obvious from the number of empty bottles about that they are rapidly developing a liking for the daemon alcohol.
Juliet map has a campsite marked on their some ten to twelve kilometres to the north. The lure of a gin and tonic, dinner with some British sarcasm and wit defeat any other course of action. However, pitch no 75 presents the first real test of 4×4 driving. The site is situated on an island at the source of the Somadommi River.
To reach it we are faced with a decent of a steep riverbank onto a sandy dry riverbed and an even steeper out on the opposite bank has to be negotiated. With Williwaw roaring I lead the way. The decent is no problem. The whole trick is not to get stuck in the soft sand and to have enough speed to attack the opposite bank. In low dif, we hit the floor a dart of smooth acceleration and we are across. Three car lengths from the out bank I whip her into high dif. We mount the opposite bank, doubling clutching I change her down as she drags herself out. We have just cleared the bank when Robin at the helm of their Toyota on their second attempt goes air born Dakar Rally style. Landing on all fours the Toyota bounces up and down on its suspension to the sound of Fuck my head. All inside hit the roof twice for good measure.
Installed in amongst the trees that night we all get to know each other better with Florence getting her first music lesson on the recorder. Morning > my head won’t take another day of Williwaw blowing exhaust so with some effort I make a splint out of last night Heinz bake beans cans. Some wire and a substantial smearing of exhaust gum we once more have a silent Williwaw.
After a few slip up to find our bearings it is out with the compass. Gravel plains as far as the eye can see. Our target is a red drum about fifty kilometres to our north than another 80 or so more through the Mountains to the banks of the Cunene. The drive is rugged with striking topographical features. A craggy escarpment run’s parallel to the coast, dividing the interior plateau from the lower lying, semi-desert steppe, which gradually merges into the gravel, flats which we are on a haven for four-wheel driving.
Arriving at the red drum our high point we crawl down into the stunning valley of the Hartmann’s, named after Hartmann’s zebra which aew extremely agile, more adapted than gemsbok at digging for water. The drive is gobsmacking. Open grassveld country called the Marienflues. Trees and shrubs are mostly absent. A sea of golden grass dotted with large and small circles of exposed terra cotta earth some time called fairy circles or hardpans depending on the theories of their origin.
Prof. Theron South Africa theory: Euphorbia plants once grew in these circles then died leaving poisonous chemicals in the soil. Prof Moll’s South Africa theory: Tropical termites are blown in during the wet cycles but snuff it during the dry season. Another is that the hardpans are layers in the soil, which are waterproof making plant life impossible. We like the fairy one. Florence theory: Fairies practice ground for weaving their wands burning the grass.
On our right, the Otjihipa Mountain range comes into view and our first signs that we are approaching the Cunene. Birds: Where there are birds water cannot be far. Furthermore we have been travelling downhill for some considerable time also there is a similar smell in the air as when you are at sea approaching an Island.
Our new bird book is in overdrive. There are ten species of birds, which are endemic to the Kokoland/Damaraland with two of the rarest in the whole of South Africa found only along the Cunene. They are the Cinderella waxbill and the Rufoustailed palm thrush.
We arrive at the banks of the Cunene full of the joys of the Kaleidoscope of Physical beauty. The landscape now changes from the dry Mopane savanna and the open grassveld to the dense riverbank vegetation almost tropical forest. Leadwoods >Sycamore fig> Boesmangif with a striking pink flower, Strangler fig, Makalani palms all too much for the amateur botanist.
Our campsite chosen by Colin is six kilometres beyond Otjinungwa just above some rapids. The water looks inviting but no one is in a rush to take the plunge. Fourteen-meter crocs as large as fallen tree trunks slumber on sandy banks. With visions of one-armed Chris Pitch, no 76 is no the roof. Colin, however, has told us that far up the river there is a bend where it is shallow and safe for a wash. True to his word we find a sweeping bend. With Robin on croc watch, we strip off and soak the day’s heat away. The sparkling crystal clear water has some little fish that nibble our bums or feet a Japanese treat in this unspoiled jewel of nature. In the true sense of the word an unforgettable day.
Morning brings a visitor. He appears as if out of thin air promising to return with some gemstones. A lazy day with a spot of fishing is in order. (Top Tip: Bring a fishing rod and some tackle.) I am obviously using the wrong bait for not a hint of a bit do I get. If only Chris was about I could have borrowed a morsel of his arm.
In the late afternoon, we the men drive down to the rapids. They are located down towards the Skeleton Coast. It does not take long before we meet sand.
Parking some distance from the river we walk past a dilapidated sign indicating mines. An old wreck of an army vehicle bears witness to the sign so our footsteps follow the leader till we reach the river. Across on the opposite bank set in dense tree cover the remnants of an army lookout post that add to our tingling hair sensation does not mention a dozen Goliath size crocodiles.
I know from Colin that many a poor soul was tossed into the river, as croc fodder during South Africa guerrilla war contra SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation.) and later when a full-scale invasion of Angola to smash the Marxist-oriented Popular Movement (MPLA) who supported the UNITA which controlled much of the south of Angola. Angola is just a short swim.
The walk back is silent.
That evening our gems arrive. >Uncut garnets. My knowledge of gems does not surpass my knowledge of botany, but there is no need to worry thirty fingers around the campfire is vastly experience in these matters. The girls buy a bag full each.
Morning brakes with the news that Robin is suffering from heat exhaustion. Not last night’s grog. There is no way up the river to Epupa falls located over a hundred kilometres to our east other than on foot. It is back to the red drum. For Robin’s sake, I suggest we drive it a night. In the silvery track of the moon, we lift anchor and are once more stunned into silence by the beauty of our surroundings. Other than the crocs we had not seen any large animals. No desert Elephants, No Zebra of any strips, No Rhino and no Himba. Arriving at the Red drum we camp looking back down the Hartmann’s valley. Pitch no 77
We awake to the sound of an approaching motor. One-armed Chris appears with another ranger. A cup of coffee rules out the Van Zyl’s Pass. It is a one-way system down not up from or side and anyway according to Chris the track is in bad condition after the rain. What a shame. It means a long haul over to Opuvio. From Chris description of the Pass the girls are relived and to tell the truth so am I. Even though Colin map is in favor of this route there is no way with our English friends driving experience that I could attempt it. There is one bonus to the Opuvio it is one of the two places in the whole of the Kaoko region that has fuel.
With a warning to watch out for Scorpions especially the one with a flat black tail deadly to all whether they be English or whatever. Chris is not gone more than three minutes when a specimen turns up. All look in horror. I decided to Caterpillar it with my Caterpillar boots. (Top Tip: It is good advice to shake out one sleeping bag and one’s boots before putting them on.) It is not the last one we are to come across so we are not ungrateful for his advice. Before our meeting, we were pulling on boots without a care in the world and hopping into sleeping bags.
In the late morning, we start back to Orupembe. Driving west from the drum we once more close the coast of Hell as the Portuguese seafarers knew it. Sculpted by the wind five hundred kilometres long it got its name after a Swiss pilot Carl Naver who crashed somewhere along it in 1933.
Twenty miles inland from the coast fog lingers till the sun burns it off usually by ten am when there is instantaneous sunshine. Turning south we run parallel to the coast over corrugated Desert floor. The dunes on our right are said to drone when the hit by the East wind called Soo-oop-wa. The noise is caused by the slip face of the dunes collapse. (Crumbling quartz)
It’s a hard drive in relentless heat, on the tiers; the girl, and on poor Robin who we are sure has had his fill of Namibia.
Its handshakes all around on reaching Orupembe. “If you are in Etosha on the first or second of May it is Robin’s birthday.” The Toyota is swallowed by the land and dust. We are never to see them again. Fully fueled we turn east at a more leisurely pace towards the Hoarusib River that forges a passage between the Tonnesen Mountains and the Giraffen Mountains to the sea when it flows. We call a halt in one of most exquisite places of all our camping so far.
Pitch No 78. Is surrounded on all quarter by mountains. Below us, a dry riverbed with large Palm trees sucking the last of the remaining waters captured in deep and shallow pools. Next to us looking like large bee hives a Himba settlement stands silent and deserted. The greys and purple of the surrounding mountains make it a spell-bounding tender place in an unforgiving landscape.
To the sound of the gently swaying palms, our tent rustles in the evening breeze. Over a few whiskeys, Fanny and I listen to Florence loving snoring. Namibia so far has shown us on many occasions, around many bends, and over many hilltops, there is a surprise waiting. Tonight is to be no different. To capture the moment on paper it is like sitting in an undiscovered painting by the master of all artists nature.
Here we are sitting in the haunted air of twilight, soaking up the unpopulated, unpolluted, pristine, natural surrounds when over the mountains Fanny notices a comet. In the clarity of the ink coloured night sky it turns our surrounding into a surreal backdrop > A new world > A biblical scene > A science fiction movie. Halley’s Comet we cry the only comet name we know. Not so it is Hale-Bopp and won’t be back till the year 2400 unlike Halley’s which visits every 76 years or so. Over the next hour, we watch the captivating beauty of its bright tail and blue surround pass over us at 120,000 kilometres per hour. It is hard to believe that it is over 200 million kilometres away from, earth and a mere one million klms wide shell of gas.
The Majestic beauty of the earth and the far-off Galaxies gives us weird dreams. We awake half afraid to open our eyes just in case it has all disappeared and that we will step out into what could be another world. In the silence, you could hear the grass drinking the water that ran deep in the earth. Before breakfast, Florence and I explore the riverbed. There are many small animals’ tracks in the soft sand which fuel Florence desire to see a large animal, a lion, an elephant, anything. I assure her that when we arrive in Etosha we will see everyone from a dinosaur down.
Refueling before we depart calls us back into the real world. We cross our dry river past another larger Himba settlement, which we had not been aware of. No sign of any occupants.
Late afternoon we come on a sign declaring cold beers. We pull in to what can only be described as a container. Converted into a house it is owned by a German named Adi who grinds his false teeth constantly, and even more stridently after a few beers. As the sunset his alcoholic consumption increases.
Our host has a small shop and a garden full of basil. Watched by young faces through the wicker bamboo fence that surrounds his garden we discover that there is a village nearby. Even more importantly I learn that he has a welding unit. He is all welcoming offering a hot shower. “Help your self to whatever you want.” With an offer to weld Williwaw exhaust Pitch, no 79 is on his doorstep.
After dinner, Florence and I take a wander into the village. Florence clings to me for there are many unwelcoming dogs. She spots a man tucking into a large bowl of caterpillars. Why caterpillar I don’t know as there is no sign of starvation. They must be some kind of out of the ordinary treat. I ask Florence would she like to try one. The look of horror on her face confirms that it will be some time before she will complain again about Mum‘s cooking.
Heir Germany is late-arising. In the daylight, he is a coarse sixty-five years or plus old. As to how he had come to be living in a container amongst the Himba out in the middle of nowhere there is no chance of finding out. To steady the hands and gets the teeth grinding he is already on the grog
Running out of gas and welding rods Williwaws exhaust ends up been riveted. Several more beers are consumed to seal the exhaust after which he crashes out for an afternoon siesta. Before he passed out he has sent a young lad off to get a few Himba lassies to drop over and dance for us tonight. Not exactly the ideal way we wanted to encounter our first Himba close up. Three young Himba arrive. How young is difficult to say. At Adi command, they half heartily shuffle their feet and clap their hands. It is a strange contrived encounter. Florence is spell-bound. Fanny and I are uncomfortable. Adi is drooling. They are the first partially unclothed Africans we have met.
The Himba still dress according to ancient customs and traditions. They are a tall people characterized by their proud yet friendly manner. There are about ten thousand living in the Kaokoland (50,000 square klms.) broken up into 26 tribes each with its own headman. They arrived from SW Africa in the 16th century after migrating from North East Africa and are closely related to the Herero. Not unlike the Dinka or Masai in looks, they are nomadic travel from one kraal to another on a temporary basis. Their cone-shaped homes are fashioned from Mopane trees and plastered with cow dung. They rub their whole bodies with a sour butterfat and red ochre mixed with the aromatic resin of the Omuzumba bush > A suntan lotion of factor 1000 with a forceful reddish shine. Both the men and woman adorn themselves with hand and ankle bracelets made from beaten copper. Every newborn baby is adorned with a pearl necklace. The women wear elaborate hairstyles, loincloths and a large shell dangling between their breasts. Like the Herero, they tend a sacred fire, which constantly burns in the middle of their campsite. To walk between the fire and the headman home is a large NO, NO. It is looked on as the basic ingredient between the living and the dead. Also similar to the Herero they were almost wiped out. Angola and Namibia used them as trackers. Hardcore tourism is now finishing the job turning them into beggars for alcohol and whatever while coffee table photo books continue to exploit their beauty while it lasts.
Resisting clicking our heels we wave our departure with a sigh of relief. Three hours later on what left in the spare tank, we pull into Opowo. While I fill Williwaw tanks and jerry cans Florence discovers a swimming pool behind the Fuel station. Another offer to get the exhaust fixed our covering of a fine film of dust, a clean room and of course the blue pool has us check in for the night.
We wake to a Sunday morning with no hope of anyone looking at Williwaw exhaust we leave. Our roar wakes the sleeping dogs. We pass sad evidence of the Himbas future empty vodka bottles on the one-kilometre of tarmac road out-of-town in the whole of the Kaokoland. A long drive with numerous retracing our steps one of which is to recover Florence’s new bought tin Himba toy car which she had parked during a pump ship stop. Made from coke cans and wire it is guided on four wheels over any terrain by an attached stick without any fear of engine failure, puncher, or lack of fuel. As always the drive is intoxicating with many stops to take shots of flowering stones, lichen, deformed rock outcrops, flowering cactus, bird book consultations, and our first unpretentiously meet the Himba.
Epupa falls at long last becomes audible. With a seasonal peak flow of 50,000 liters per second, it bears it Himba name meaning falling water. We choose a well-shaded spot for Pitch No 79 in amongst tall trees of which the Ana tree; Faidherbia albida is the most dominant.
There is a sense of adventure and discovery when looking at a waterfall for the first time. The same feelings I am sure that many an early explorer had. So we can’t wait to go and have a look.
( To be Continued )
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