Kunene 2019 Trip Report

by Gerald O’Brien

As someone mentioned on the trip. This Is Not a Trip, It’s an Adventure. How true those words are, in fact if I were to do another trip, I would rename it the “Skeleton Coast and Kaokoland Adventure”.

The adventure was to take from December the 29th through to the 4th January 2020, slap bang in the middle of the summer months in northern Namibia, was this for real?

Well after months of emails and preparations, d – day minus one had arrived on us, some were to stay over in Swakopmund and others in Walvis Bay. By morning, we were all to be ready to drive out by around 06h30 to our rendezvous point in Swakopmund, this means final loading and preparations the day before. Over and above one’s own personal baggage, it was mandatory for each vehicle to carry around 100 litres of water,20 litres would go towards the kitchen, 2 x 15kg bags of firewood (also for the kitchen) and then depending on the vehicles engine type and capacity, around 220 to 240 litres of fuel. A fridge would also be a good idea, and what about beers and Coldrinks and snack and nibbles for seven or eight days. Then of course a tent, some form of mattress, clothing, and I suppose if there’s any space left, a few tools, spares, recovery items, puncture repair kit, compressor and so the list goes on. Even a Porta Pottie, and how many spare rims and tyres do you carry? Get the idea, the vehicles were going to be loaded like never before. And we were soon to be driving up and down dunes and along the beaches, this was going to be very interesting indeed, but remember, we were headed for an adventure covering close to 1000 kilometers in a harsh and hostile environment.

At the stroke of seven on D – Day we were all at the dedicated meeting point ready to meet and greet each other, receive our two way radio’s and most importantly meet our team of guides for the next 7 days. Andre Richardson, who is an experienced and seasoned operator was to be our guide and tour leader for the exciting days ahead. We were in very good hands, Andre was a professional and knew these parts of Namibia like his Cruisers dashboard and always kept his cool, no matter the conditions or challenges thrown at him, and as everyone would be finding out, his cooking skills were simply amazing. We would be provided with two meals a day.

The first day consisted of roughly 550kms of driving up the west coast past Hentjies Bay, entering into the Skeleton coast park and then on to Terrace bay for our last and final refuel point until we reached Sesfontein in seven days from now, with a lot of ground to cover. From Terrace bay we had a 100km dirt road drive and then a short beach drive to Rocky Point, our destination point for the first night. The conditions were perfect, no wind and no cold Atlantic fog, we were in a piece of paradise, miles from anywhere on the notorious Skeleton Coast. En route we stopped over at a fairly recent ship wreck’ it was close to the shore line and in amongst the waves. The wreck had by now become a haven for the large number of seals and marine birdlife. A quick pic and we soon back in convoy.

Andre and his team are masters at what they do, in no time at all, the fire was lit, the shower and toilet tents were up, his kitchen was set up and we were all soon sitting around the fire taking in this exhilarating moment in time. Suddenly, those frustrating hours of packing and repacking and getting everything just right for the trip were lost and forgotten, time had slowed down here at Rocky point.

After coffee and Breakfast the following morning, we were once again on our way up the beach  by around 08h30 headed for falls Angra Fria, a distance of around 150km, much of which would be spent driving along the beach, or as the tides permitted. Just before driving off we had our first field fix. One of the vehicles had a rear puncture, so we replaced the wheel with a spare and after squeezing four plugs into the punctured tyre we were ready to roll out. With team work, the exercise took no time at all and for some it was a good practical exercise to look and learn from. We stopped to view the remains of a Ventura Bomber which had crash landed in early 1942 whilst being involved in the rescue attempt of the stranded passengers of the Dunedin Star, a ship with roughly 120 people on board which had run aground on the rocks, a day’s drive north of where we were at present. Some were rescued directly from the ship before it broke up whilst others made it ashore but were then stranded without food, water or shelter. The ones who were lucky to make it off the ship were now the unlucky ones as they were stranded and alone. All passengers were eventually successfully rescued, however, two sailors from another ship involved in the rescue operation died in their brave attempts to help.

Because we were on the beach driving heavily laden vehicles, we had reduced our tyre pressures to around 1.00 kpa. It made the going fairly easy but one still had to be on top of their game as the beach changes without warning, one minute on hard sand the next sinking in, one minute on the flat the next traversing a slope with the waves on one side. What a drive out here, in convoy, on the desolate Skeleton Cost. Already a big tick off the Bucket list for most.

The second evening was as stunning as the first, in paradise somewhere along the Skeleton coast and still approximately 150 kilometers from the Kunene river mouth. Andre never let his chef skill slip and a really tasty meal was had by all and to end it off we had Malva Pudding and custard.  It was also the first evening after a full day into the adventure and time for what was to become the evening ritual of the Straff Dop and kangaroo court. We had two judges whose beady eyes let absolutely nothing go un-noticed. After handing down judgement, the offenders were soon raising their glasses and holding on as they swallowed the contents of the glass. One thing for sure, it was never water or coldrink, this was a serious part of the evening!

On the 3rd day we were destined to reach the Kunene River mouth, which is the border between Namibia and Angola and where we set out for 3 days ago. It would mean another day of beach and a bit of inland off- roading before we got there. Along the way we stopped off at the point where the stranded Dunedin Star passengers built their shelter and survived on the beach for around 22 days. Andre gave us all a really interesting story on the whole event over the two way radios.

After an interesting drive going inland for a while to check out an old mining area we were back on the beach past Bosluis Bay and up to the Kunene River mouth. What a site it is, to see this wide and strong flowing river flowing through the desert into the Atlantic Ocean and really, in the middle of no- where. The river was muddy brown due to all the rain that they were having up stream of the Epupa falls but it was obviously bringing down the fish, we could see the soft shelled turtles in the river mouth as they went about their business of catching these fish.

We spent a bit of time taking it all in on the beach before heading off into the dunes for our overnight stop. This was to be our first real bit of dune driving and a good warm up for the next day. Descending down those steep slopes of 43deg and listening to the roaring sand as it rolls down ahead of the vehicle is amazing and an experience that is difficult to describe. The dunes are not always easy to drive and certainly caught out a few of the convoy. The snatch straps worked well and in some cases, just lowering the tyre pressure and reversing helped some get out of really tricky situations. In the dunes, momentum is your friend, it’s where the auto’s work well because the gear changes are so quick and the loss of momentum during a quick auto change is minimal. Driving a manual requires the driver to plan things very carefully so as to possibly avoid a gear change and risk the chance of losing momentum. If one is driving in High ratio, the vehicles VSC system needs to be switched off. When the VSC clicks in it will cause a serious loss in momentum by almost bringing the vehicle to a standstill, it’s the way the system works and that’s why it has an on – off switch, it’s not meant for mud or sand.

Driving out from our camp the following morning, we were presented with a steep and high dune climb which required a lengthy and fast run up if you wanted to make it to the top. The dune got the better of quite a few of us and after repeated attempts, trying different gears, different gear ratios and always getting as much speed as possible  we were all at the top and able to proceed further. We had a long day ahead of us, we were headed inland towards the Hartmann Valley and to get there we needed to cross the wide dune belt between the Atlantic in the west and the Hartmann Berge in the east. As the day heats up, the sand becomes softer and the tyre pressures creep up making it necessary for constant adjustments to the tyre pressures to keep them low enough for maximum floatation over the soft sand. After a long and hard day in the December heat, recovering vehicles, reversing down for a second attempt and doing snappy gear changes, we made it on to Terra Firma where the going got a bit easier. We made our camp site just before dark which was a hundred meters or so from thundering rapids on the Kunene River.

The next day we were headed for Marble camp, a campsite close to a disused marble mine. They used to mine the marble there until it was decided that the quality of the marble did not fetch the prices need to sustain the costly process of removing and transporting the marble from such a remote and inhospitable part of the country side. Getting to camp took us across a few rugged mountain passes where low ratio and rear diff lock was all too often the order of the day.         The inevitable punctures slowed the convoy up a few times, but we were really driving through a very harsh and rugged country side in the Kaokoland. Once again we were in camp just before darkness fell, but this time it was very different, we had running water, flushing toilets and hot showers. Dinner was once again, another fine and tasty dish by Andre and his team. Toasted ham cheese and tomato sandwiches for starters, and braai’d ribs for the main course’ we never knew that heaven was in the Kaokoland!  Again the Straff Dop was out and those who earned it were called up. The offenders were beginning to enjoy their punishment and we needed to change this.

There was a twist in the tail of the Straff dops tonight, the rum was substituted with cold black tea, and a few drops of Tabasco sauce. When handed out, it looked the same but the new taste took them by surprise. I think I know which drink they preferred downing.

Today we would go in search of the desert elephant and giraffe, the lions did not venture this far north. Andre’s tracking skills never let him down, what an amazing site it is to see these beg animals out there in the desert. We found them in a dry riverbed, no water to be seen but there was a limited amount of browsing available in the river course. We were fortunate to see a herd of around eight which included juveniles moving along, absolutely fantastic. The route we took was once again exquisite, photo opportunities all the time and one fantastic sight after another, the sights just never let up and just too many photo opportunities to capture all of them. It’s also difficult to describe and near impossible to reproduce on camera, you need to be there to see and experience it.

Our last night to this adventure of a life time was at Puros community camp site, a well- run and clean site with hot and cold running water. The drive to Puros was another day of fantastic sights and brilliant off-road driving, through dry river beds, wet river beds, mountain passes and soft sand, again arriving in cam not long before dark. Being the west coast on December, night fall only happens at around 8.30 pm, giving us a lot of day light hours and time to see the country side. Today we visited a Himba tribe to see just how these amazing people have adapted and survive on what they have, which is a little more that nothing. They are nomadic and will move around following the grazing as it appears, leaving behind their overgrazed kraals. Northern Namibia, after a prolonged period of severe drought was experiencing rain and the veld was showing its amazing way of quick recovery with the trees sprouting new leaves and twigs and the grass seeds sending up new shoots. A welcome relief to the Himba people and their animals who lead a really hard and simple life style where many others simply would not survive or last for very long.

Andre had saved the best for the end, on our last dinner with everyone together as a team we had Steak and chips.

The last day presented problems of its own, the up country rains had brought the dry river bed which runs next to the camp down in flood during the night.  We now needed to cross the river if we wished to reach Sesfontein, and it was still flowing strongly. It did not take long and Andre found a way through and we all negotiated our way through safely. We later heard that the river came down again just after we left and flooded parts of the camp site as well. We could quite easily have been stranded for a few days.

Sesfontein is sadly where we split up as a team. We had all been together through was seemed like a long long time experiencing just so many new and wonderful sights, places and adventures, making new friends and developing a sense of camaraderie as team, how could it all end so suddenly. Unfortunately that’s life and we would all be heading off in different directions. Some to the Etosha, some to the north again to the Epupa falls and Van Zyls pass., and others to make their way home again.

It was a fantastic adventure made possible by a great bunch of people. Thanks to each and every one of you.

Note: In Northern Namibia one needs to look out for the “Lone Men of the Kaokoland”. These are small stone figurines that have been positioned in different area partaking in different activities, such as hiking, climbing, sight -seeing and so on. There are reportedly 17 of these figures to look out for. They have tags and a number attached to each one. The tag gives their number and their activity. No one knows who made them and placed them out there but they have become an international attraction for travelers to look out for.

Try googling. “The Lone men of Kaokoland”, you find it very interesting.

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