Desert Adventure – Day 6

Things had gone too smoothly. Plans had been achieved a little too easily the previous two days. Our last day of our desert adventure and of course something had to go wrong. We found ourselves in the Hoarusib river where we camped last night searching for the track that was purported to be there. It wasn’t. We drove back and forth and (literally) around in circles. No tracks.

“Do we just go for it ourselves?” we both thought. (I’m sure Cheryl thought this too…)

Our thoughts flashed back to the day before when we drove through the same river much lower down. There we had at least some tracks to follow. We also saw the signs of people who didn’t follow the tracks and had really bad days. (read: deep ruts in the mud with shovel marks all around.) We remembered driving yesterday when we had to turn around lower down in this river and drive around a mountain just to get back into it because we couldn’t find tracks and got stuck.

“I think we’ve got to use Plan B.” we both agreed.

Disappointed we decided to back-track out of the river bed and take a northerly route passed fields with massive herds of oryx, springbok and zebra mixed in with the occasional herd of cattle, to the Khumib river. From there we would be able to join the numbered gravel road to get us back on track.

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Sunrise in the Hoarusib River valley

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We take ‘Leave No Trace” seriously.  Covering our tracks after filling in our fire pit from the night before.  Yes, I’m sweeping the desert…

This time things worked according to plan and although the day was a bit long we ended up all the way in the north of Namibia at Epupa Falls drinking a beer and G&T on the banks of the Cunene river.

My only gripe on the day is this: The proper numbered road was extremely deceptive. We started out feeling great. Cruising along at 50-60km / hour when we noticed a small warning sign. It seemed benign enough. The sign made it look like there was a small bump that would cause a mild inconvenience on our otherwise unobstructed pathway back to (momentary) civilization. It did not state that we were about to enter a technical 4×4 track and that I should slow way the heck down. Suddenly, our open gravel highway turned into a steep incline with loose rocks, axle twisters and big dips. It’s like the road builders got together and said to themselves “what’s the most understated sign possible but where we are still warning people?”

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You can see how good the road was that we were on when we saw a sign just like this one.  Who would have guessed what lay ahead?

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Don’t go off the path to the right.  You may fall in a ravine.  But of course I knew that from the sign that was 6km back.  At least the track here was relatively good or this could have been really interesting.

Next time we saw any sign, like the one that showed a mild bend in the road approaching, we decided to take it very seriously. (This one said next 5km under it which we were amazed at. How do you have a 5km bend in the road? World’s slowest turn?) The bend it turned out wasn’t mild at all but a series of zig-zags and along a sheer drop that eventually led down into a shallow ravine. “These are some of the most subtle and understated sign posts of all time” we thought.

So you can imagine how slowly we proceeded after seeing this sign, half tucked behind a bush.

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The funny thing was, after taking a photo and getting psyched up for what lay ahead, it turned out that there was no real obstacle up ahead after this one. Not even that many turns.  And we had gotten our hopes up!

At least they put signs up though. That’s more than we can say for some other roads we’ve been on.

Desert Adventure – Day 5

I’m sitting tonight in the Hoarusib river (well, the mostly dry bed of the river) after an amazing drive through long stretches of desert, deep sand, hard rock, thick mud, running water, Himba villages, deep canyons, steep graded loose stone inclines, steep dirt declines and pretty much everything else besides tar. It’s the beginning of June (normally winter down this way for my Northern Hemisphere readers) but I’m sitting in shorts and a T-shirt sipping a Windhoek lager. What a day.

As was our plan, to plan day by day, we decided to change plans. Our original, original plan was to do this whole desert trip north to south directly after Etosha, ending in Swakopmund and then heading out to do a day or two of hiking in the Waterberg. Of course that plan was thrown out the window when we went directly to Swakopmund to get Fiona serviced (is it OK to say that in polite company?) so now we are doing the drive south to north instead. We still had the idea of going to the Waterberg but that would require a loooong drive, which would see us criss-crossing all over northern Namibia. Our other option was to continue driving north into northern Kaokoland into the Marianfluss or Hartmann’s valleys. This area is described as “The last true wilderness in Southern Africa.” Since we feel like we are in the deep wilderness we couldn’t imagine what that would be like and we might just have to go.

This morning (well, last night) we decided to scrap both of those plans. No Waterberg. No “true wilderness.” Who needs hiking? We feel like we are already in true wilderness.

Instead, we’ve decided to continue our desert adventure for just two more days and head north to Epupa falls (on one of our original lists for Namibia but got removed a while back as time got tight – yes, believe it or not time still gets “tight” on a 90 day trip.) From there, we’re read out an awesome “northern track” along the Cunene river, which forms the boarder with Angola, to Ruacana falls. It should take us ~2 days from Epupa to Ruacana. It should be epic. Who needs hiking when we are loving this wild driving so much? We’re sold.

Because of that, this morning we decided to high-tail it the rest of the way west down the Hoanib, then north through the desert, before dropping into the Puros Canyon and up the Hoarusib river. There we get through Puros village, along a dirt track and then back into the Hoarusib river where we find a camp spot. That was the plan and we almost made it exactly according to that plan. Except for one small part where we had to detour around a mountain instead of driving through the Hoarusib a second time but we made it back on track.

On top of this, we had an awesome morning drive where we came across our first desert-adapted elephant in the daylight.

The amazing thing about desert elephants is that they’ve actually adapted to living in the harsh conditions of the desert. It may be tough to realize from the picture below that we are in a desert given all of the green around but this is the only real green for long distances to the north or south. These elephants have bigger feet to walk on the soft sand which makes their ankles look narrower. They also have shorter tusks that we’ve noticed tent to go out at different angles but we aren’t sure exactly why.

We continued north through the desert and after a quick pit stop at something our GPS described as “Castle formations” (According to the HMT2DM I gave it a 2, Cheryl gave it a 3. That’s a 2.5 interest level. Add 1 for still being able to get where we’re going and add 1 for not stopping us from doing anything more interesting. That’s a 4.5. Clearly counting as 3 or more. We went there without delay.)

Puros canyon was awesome. It was the first river bed we’ve driven down that actually had water in it. The sand was soft in places and the mud was deep. Luckily, we weren’t the first people to drive this way so we stuck to the main track and got through with no issues. We loved the incredible scenery. Probably our favorite of the trip so far. The photos just don’t capture it.

After the canyon we drove through Puros village and back into the Horarusib after seeing some ostriches and 4 more desert elephants. This time one of them was a baby. Awesome.

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You can really see the contrast here. When I say there is no water to the north our south for the elephants this is what I’m talking about.  Where the river cuts through the sand there is a lush eden.  Everywhere else is another story.

The GPS kept trying to take us up and around a mountain that seemed entirely out of the way. We promptly decided to shut it off and continue up the river as we planned. Once in the riverbed we quickly realized why the GPS was trying to take us a different way. There were no tracks. Well, there was one VERY faint track. We went anyway.

And we got stuck.

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It doesn’t look too bad in the photo but believe me, we were going nowhere.  A quick shovel and some well-placed sand tracks (borrowed from Cheryl’s uncle Bryan) and we were on our way again.

Luckily we got out quickly and after a bit of back tracking back to the main dirt track and we were back on our way. A quick loop around the Himba Sphinx (the name of the mountain that was on the GPS) and we dipped back into the river bed.

A long day of driving but we made it. Should be another long one tomorrow but hopefully we’ll be in Epupa Falls by then.

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Desert Adventure – Day 4

Somewhat astoundingly for everyone involved, things went relatively to plan on Day 4. We woke up at dawn and drove to Aub canyon over rocky dirt roads where we had a lovely breakfast overlooking a small canyon (more of a gorge or ravine but since they call it a canyon we’ll go with that). There was one interesting bit of driving on the way there that required some 4wd-low but we managed just fine without popping any tires or sliding off of any hillsides.

All in a morning’s drive

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Aub canyon.  I’ll let you decide for yourself whether it fully live up to its canyon name or not.

As per our plan we dashed up to Sesfontein on a relatively good gravel road. When waving hello we noticed, to our surprise, a small diesel station which had fuel so we decided to fill up. If we go all the way up to the north we don’t want diesel to be the limiting factor. And, with all the 4-low we are using, we are going through the precious fluid a bit more quickly than we originally expected.

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We had to watch out for these guys on the road.  There were no signs to warn us!

Full of fuel we headed off north of town. We decided to skip the traditional turn-off into the Hoanib river 6km out of town in order to use the Ganamub river and drive south down that back into the Hoanib. (I assume at this point you’ve all got Google maps out to follow our path…)

Just after the turn-off into the Ganamub I am super hungry and have to use the loo. We pull under the first big shady tree we find and as I open the door Cheryl blurts out: “There’s a lion!”

I didn’t get out of the car.

Right next to us was a lioness lying under the tree. Looking a bit closer though and she was a very sickly looking lion with little time left. We took our photos but became more and more uneasy looking at the animal. She really looked to be on her last legs. We also noticed a collar around her neck with a large white box on it. After debating what it could be we settled on it being a GPS tracking device for scientific study. Still, our hearts went out to the dying lion who looked so skinny and whose eyes were nowhere near as sharp as those we had seen in Etosha. Despite how sorry we felt for her, we decided not to get out of the car to share our lunch (or become lunch ourselves) and continued on to find the next shade (or the next, next shade, whichever was furthest from known lion locations.)

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A quick lunch (this time with ample searching around the car before getting out) and a bit of a drive later and we found ourselves camping once again in the wild in the Hoanib river valley. I took a moment to do some exercises after a few long days in the car and we even attempted to wash ourselves with a little soap rather than just baby wipes. We felt refreshed and almost like respectable human beings.

We had a great spot to camp just above the river bed, off to the side, where we could see anything that happened to walk past without getting in its way. It’s a good thing we did too. As we were sitting around the camp fire have a deep discussion about the merits of removing Pluto from the planet list vs. the sentimental value of thinking that there is a cartoon dog orbiting the sun (we were discussing something like that at least) we heard a few twigs breaking in the river bed off to our right. At first we couldn’t tell what it was. It looked like a ghost in the dim moonlight, slowly and silently making its way down the river. As it approached it was clearly an elephant. Slow, silent and massive. It had most likely come from a waterhole slightly further upstream (or at least what should have been upstream if there had been water in the riverbed.)

We aren’t in a national park here, we are in an unprotected area but game still roams wild. It is true wilderness and animals aren’t used to seeing humans here. Because of this we’ve heard that elephants are much more testy here then we got used to in Mana Pools or Etosha.

We got in the car. (Of course I forgot the keys outside of the car though and the tent was open so we weren’t going anywhere too quickly…)

Despite all of the warnings the elephant just sauntered past without merely a glance of recognition in our direction. No “Yo. What’s Up?” No customary bro-to-bro head nod. No trunk up. Nothing. He just walked past. It was eerie though. He was a ghost. And then he was gone.

Now back to Pluto…

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Sometimes you just need to work out after the long days in the car.  Gets the energy out after sitting for so long.

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After a workout I needed a beer. 

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Having a bit of fun with the shadows. 

 

 

Desert Adventure – Day 3

After driving past the lion tracks we decided to stay in the Huab river bed and continue exploring its sandy tracks. The scenery only got more and more phenomenal. Cutting through a dry and barren landscape of red clay, black rocks and deep sand is this oasis of green. Towering trees, lush reeds, chirping birds and plenty of mammal tracks. It’s amazing what some water can do.

Our road through the river bed.  Pretty different than the roads we had been on through the desert just the day before.  We knew that just over the ridge was desert again though.

We had gotten a bit delayed in the morning because our tent was soaking wet with dew from the night before so we stopped once the sun broke through the early morning fog to dry it out before it got too moldy smelling. Because of this, we decided to stay in the river bed until it met the main gravel road and follow that north to Palmwag rather than taking smaller dirt tracks all the way north. It was a great decision too. The riverbed was absolutely indescribable and I’m sure the pictures won’t do it justice. Unfortunately we couldn’t find any of the allusive desert elephants, lions or rhinos but we did see a bunch of relatively fresh tracks so we knew they were around (or at least that we were the first people to have gone that way in a long while. Also, there are only about 200 desert rhinos so we don’t really expect to see any, maybe because they are mostly nocturnal…)

We did see quite a few kudu even if we didn’t see the elephants, lions or rhinos.

Once in Plamwag, which we had thought was some sort of town but turned out to be a fuel station and a lodge next to a concession, we debated staying at the lodge campsite to have a shower and relax by the pool, beers in hand. After a quick wobble we regained our senses, thought better of it and headed into the concession for another night of wild camping. This will be the first night camping in an “official” campsite, i.e. we are told where we have to camp, but it is still completely wild. We are located in an elbow in the dry Aub riverbed with a cliff on one side and riverbed leading through to an open plain on the other. Unlike the previous few nights there are few trees around.

At camp for the evening.  In these photos you can see Cheryl demonstrating two important parts of camp life: 1) cleaning our feet with baby wipes before putting on socks and/or going to sleep – it’s the little things but this makes you feel oh, so much better. And 2) pouring wine.  Notice she is using a 5L water jug.  Only the classiest for us but our 5L box of wine started leaking so we used what we had! (That or Cheryl turned the water into wine but I’m pretty sure that one’s been done before.)

The Palmwag concession is a large privately-owned area. The ground is largely itself is a rocky landscape with small shrubs dotting the red sand and black rock mixture. The trees here are quite small, almost pigmy-esque. We’ve debated whether they are gigantic banzai trees or miniature baobabs. Jury is still out but either way they look really interesting.

This was pretty much the landscape in Palmwag.  Though to be fair there were a few more trees around than these pictures let on.

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I don’t know how these zebra didn’t break their legs running over all of these loose rocks but there were actually quite a few of them.  Notice this is Hartman’s Mountain zebra because the stripes go all the way down the legs and it doesn’t have the faint brown stripe between the black stripes like the Burchell’s Plains zebra.

 

Tomorrow we plan to set out for the Aub canyon for a view (described as a ‘must-see’ by our BF Goodrich guide to off-roading in Namibia so our hopes are high. Seriously, this short guide has been phenomenal in recommending where to go. Almost this whole desert adventure wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for that guide.) From the Aub we’ll continue out of Palmwag and up to Sesfontein. We only plan to stop here briefly and wave hello before continuing out of town as quickly as possible and into another riverbed where we hope to camp wild again tomorrow.

Today’s driving had everything from gravel road to deep sand to steep rocky inclines to tyre-shredding rocky declines.

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As an aside, after no showers for a while we will be very smelly by the end of these 7 days…

Desert Adventure – Day 2

Since we didn’t make it as far as we thought we would yesterday, we weren’t going to make it as far as we thought we would today either. Originally we had designs on making it all the way to Palmwag today. Not gonna happen.

We woke up with the sun and went about our business of packing up the tent (we packed up the rest of the camp the night before in case of a rain storm and needing to make moves out of the rive bed in a hurry…) We had a bit of a leisurely breakfast and set out again after covering our tracks at the campsite and filling in our braai pit so we didn’t spoil the wilderness for the next people driving through.

I hadn’t mentioned in the last post that as it was getting dark we could no longer find the way to continue up the Ugab river and assumed we would have more luck in the morning. We didn’t. The tracks just seemed to end no matter which way we tried. We tried and tried again, almost getting ourselves stuck. Still no way to go.

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It turns out this was the correct way to go. Someone had tried to go that way and had a really bad day a few days before. Impossible to pass.

Plan B was to backtrack all the way back down the river and take an exit out to a well-graded road up and around the river to the Rhino Camp. As this was our only option (besides back tracking all the way to the main road) we took it. A few hours of driving through river bed (we didn’t get stuck this time) up craggy hills and through Mars-like landscape and we arrived at the Rhino Trust campsite.

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Driving out of the riverbed from the night before we realized it was questionable whether we were actually allowed to stay there. No one said anything though so we assume it was fine. (It may be because we saw no one but still.)

We decided not to stay but made some pleasantries to find out about the roads north. All clear. Though there’s no way we were making it to Palmwag, they said. They were right.

We drove through steep canyons and out into an incredible desert where we spent almost the entire afternoon. The scenery was stunning. A lot of it also looked very similar and it was tough to tell where you were going.  At one point we found ourselves getting turned around but luckily Cheryl quickly noticed (after 15 minutes – mind you, I hadn’t noticed anything amiss) that the sun was on the wrong side of the car and we turned around again to correct our mistake.

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Looking out across the desert.  No flowing sand dunes here. The colors varied but mostly a red dirt-like material.  And lots of dust.  Lots and lots of dust.

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One of the welwitschia plants for which the area is famous

As the sun was getting low the desert gave way to the Huab river (again mostly a dry river bed) and we descended into the valley. It was some of the most beautiful landscapes either of us have ever seen. There was no doubt in either of our minds: we would be camping down there for the night.

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Checking to make sure this water was driveable.  It got quite deep in the track but we decided we could do it.  Fiona had no trouble but it did make our hearts race when we dropped in and it was deeper then we thought.  Doesn’t look like it but it went up almost to the hood! Also shows the great contrast between down by the river bed and the desert beyond that we had been driving through all day.

When the road to the Huab River look-out point wasn’t passable we decided to set up camp on some high ground just above a reed-filled area. Our mistake was that we were right next to a bush which blocked our view to one side. Naturally, as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the moon came out, so did the lion grunting: coming from the direction behind the bush.

“It’s far away” I assured Cheryl.

“It’s just the echo that makes it seem close.” Cheryl agreed.

More grunting. Louder this time.

“Maybe let’s move the fire closer to the car.” I offered. We did.  We dug a new braai pit and picked up the fire with a shovel to move closer.  The next couple of hours were spent listening and watching before going to bed. No cats in sight. Though we heard them throughout the night.

In and around our campsite for the evening.  The scenery was absolutely stunning.  We could have stayed there for days!

The next morning as we were packing up I heard more grunting. This time from the other direction. It sounded very close. Very, very close. I called out to Cheryl to listen with me. Nothing. Was I just hearing things?

We finished packing and as we were driving out from our campsite, just around on the other side of a koppie (small hill) we found the tracks. Two sets of very clear cat tracks. Maybe 40 meters from camp.

We tracked them for a while but couldn’t spot them. Bummer.

Cat tracks near camp.  The close-up is of a smaller set, not the ones from the road.  We drove down that track on the left but never found the lions.

You may be thinking: “This is nothing new, you had 13 lions in your campsite in Mana Pools!” and you’d be quite right. The big difference here is that we weren’t in a protected area. This wasn’t a national park. This was truly out in the wild. Desert (adapted) lion are quite rare so it would have been an amazing sighting to have seen them out in the open at our camp. Let alone anywhere in the riverbeds.

On we go!

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One last picture, just for fun. 

Desert Adventure – Day 1

Our directions for today read like something out of a fantasy novel:

(These are literally the directions)

Drive north on the Great Salt Road passed St. Nowhere

Take a right turn into the mouth of the Ugab river (if you get to the Skeleton Coast you’ve gone 7km too far)

Drive 70km up the river bed and try not to get stuck by any of the treacherous obstacles: deep sand, mud flats, sharp rocks which can shred tires, to name just a few.

Oh, also try not to get eaten by a desert lion, trampled by a desert elephant or gorged by a desert rhino (While in the riverbed our GPS literally said: take a right turn onto “Elephants”)

Eventually you should end up at the Save the Rhino Trust campsite

We were only able to leave Swakopmund just after 11AM. Our errands took longer than expected but we made north with haste up the Great Salt Road along the coast. Yes, salt road. Namibia is world-renowned for its unpaved roads and this one is a beauty. It is made out of a mixture of salt and dirt, forming a smooth, hardy surface which almost appears tar-like at times. We’d been warned that although it seems great, it can get slippery when it was wet and foggy out. It was wet and foggy today. We didn’t test the limits of its traction.

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The road looks like tar but it’s actually salt and dirt.

Following the rest of our directions we got past St. Nowhere without issue but that’s just about the only thing we did right. We drove right past the Ugab river and got to the Skeleton Coast so we turned around. We turned down a road that was in relatively good condition and thought “We’ll get to Save the Rhino Trust Campsite in no time!” We were wrong.

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Our first road was easy to drive but the landscape was spectacular.  It looked like we were driving on the moon!

We turned off the road down a steep embankment into the riverbed. It was mostly dry but for the odd muddy bit. Not too many people had come this way but there were clear tracks to follow so we charged forward fearlessly (though with a bit of tingly nerves for good measure.)

The riverbed started out smoothly and I proudly proclaimed to Cheryl “we’ve only got to average 20km / hour and we’ll make it to camp before sunset. We’re golden!”

We were not golden.

We did not average 20km per hour.

We did NOT follow the directions.

We got stuck. After 5 attempts and 45 minutes we extracted ourselves.

We got stuck again. (This time we got out our first try, mostly because we listened to Cheryl’s advice.)

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The first time we got stuck.  You can tell it’s the first time because I’ve got a big smile on my face.  All part of the adventure right?

Still stuck.  Less smiling.  We did eventually get out and continue on our way.  Then the smiles came back big time.

We were still 30+kms from the camp when the light was starting to fade. Instead of pushing on we stopped at a relatively flat spot on somewhat high ground and set up camp. That’s the beauty about having everything you need with you at all times.

We lit a fire, cooked some delicious chicken a la Sweet Baby Ray over an open fire and settled in for a relaxing evening trying desperately to follow the rest of the directions about not getting eaten, trampled or gorged.

Our camp set-up that night.  Nobody around in any direction.  It is the best part about driving around with everything you need with you all the time.  Just set up and you’ve got your own piece of paradise.

Luckily, we were able to follow those and we had a great night to ourselves. We think the closest people to us were around 35km away. That said, we also realized that meant absolutely nobody knew where we were so we decided to send a quick SMS via our sat phone to Cheryl’s dad so somebody knew where to start the search party in case things turned out poorly.

They didn’t turn out poorly. It was awesome!