Recent floods, wildlife sightings and challenging roads make for good adventure as a group of travellers take the scenic route from Etosha to the top of Van Zyl’s Pass.
The last time we visited Kaokoland we experienced water and flash floods like never before, getting stuck in one river for over four hours. So, when I saw just how much rain Namibia had received at the beginning of the year, I started experiencing serious déjà vu.
I am always apprehensive to ask questions about road conditions on the various Facebook off-road groups as too many couch experts freely vomit inaccurate knowledge on the unsuspecting traveller, making them reconsider their intended route for no good reason. However, on this occasion, I thought I should put some feelers out and see what the conditions were on our planned route through Kaokoland, knowing I could back this up with some local knowledge once we were up there. Desiree and I had wrapped up our Ultimate Kalahari Adventure just before this trip started, so we arranged to meet our group of guests for the Kaokaland Adventure at Kalahari Bush Breaks situated just inside the Namibia border.
It seems that many people are still very nervous about crossing borders due to additional COVID-19 regulations needed and the fear of being at a crowded border post with no social distancing. I am happy to report that the border crossings into our neighbouring countries are running smoothly, and all COVID-19 precautions with sanitising and social distancing are strictly enforced.
However, you do need to present the immigration officer with a negative PCR result from a test done within 72 hours of crossing the border. The same procedure applies when you travel back into South Africa. There are plenty of labs and clinics around Namibia and Botswana offering the PCR test, so it isn’t anything to worry about, just an additional expense to consider (this can run up to R850 per person, paid in local currency). We flew through the border into Namibia in under 20 minutes as the border posts are dead quiet due to the lack of tourists.
Great sightings in Etosha
Our group consisted of five vehicles, all coming from various parts of South Africa. Jurgen from Durban was the first to arrive at our meeting point, with Dietmar, Rita and Roger rolling into the campsite not long after us. René and Romy, who were driving in from Knysna, had decided to take in some sightseeing opportunities in the south of Namibia before meeting up with us in Etosha. Jannie and Irene were delayed due to Jannie suffering a spider bite and falling ill. They were planning to catch up with the group in Etosha. The first night of our tours is always a jovial one, with elevated excitement levels and plenty of campfire stories flowing while everyone gets to know their new travel companions. And this night was no different. From Kalahari Bush Breaks, we headed north towards Etosha, staying over in Tsumeb at Kuperfquelle Resort. This is a fantastic campsite with grassy lawns, spotless ablutions and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
We usually stay just outside Etosha’s Von Lindequist gate at a place called Onguma Lodge, but this year decided to stay inside the park at Namutoni Rest Camp and add an extra night to give three nights in the park. Unfortunately, that morning, we received a message from Jannie informing us his doctor had advised him not to travel, so they would not join us in Etosha. We all sent our well wishes and sympathy as we could only imagine his disappointment after waiting more than a year for this trip since the 2020 lockdown forced us to postpone it.
We were now only one vehicle short of a full squad, and when I heard the growl of the V8 Land Cruiser Namib in the distance, I knew René and Romy were close. We all looked on (and listened) with envy as this magnificent machine pulled into our campsite. Finally, our group was complete and the two newcomers were quickly welcomed and made to feel part of the family.
We spent the next two days exploring Etosha with everyone doing their own thing at their own pace. We would then share our day’s sightings around the campfire at night while enjoying Ultimate Adventures’ travelling chef, Master P’s delicious meals under the stars. We had excellent sightings with a few of the highlights being leopard, black rhino and a mating pair of lions right next to the road. This made up for the poor state of the campsite and general facilities in Etosha, which were well below par. Namibia Wildlife Resorts certainly has their work cut out for them to improve the infrastructure before the hordes of international visitors return to their flagship national park.
North to the kunene
The amount of water in the Etosha pan and the surrounding areas got me thinking about what lay ahead and wondering if we would be able to stick to our planned itinerary. My biggest
concern was the Hoarusib River in Puros, as it was flowing like the Nile in the last video I had seen. However, I knew from experience that it subsides very quickly, so I hoped that it would be crossable by the time we got there. On the other hand, I figured that our plan to drive the riverbed route from Red Drum to Puros was risky and probably off the agenda. With everyone having thoroughly enjoyed their time in Etosha, it was time to get on with some real adventure and head north to the Kunene River. The tarred stretch up to Ruacana went as smooth as could be with large lakes of water next to the road all the way up to Oshakati, a constant reminder of the heavy rainfall that had fallen over the past few weeks. Our next stop was at Hippo Pools community campsite on the banks of the Kunene River, just below the Ruacana Falls.
It is a delightful campsite with basic facilities and a great view of the river. It is from here that we leave the tar road behind and head for Epupa Falls. There are two different routes you can take to get to Epupa Falls from Ruacana. One option is 340 km of good gravel via the town of Opuwo, and the other is a spectacular 140 km drive on fairly good gravel alongside the Kunene River. This route used to be a gnarly two-day affair, but the road was upgraded a few years back, making it an easy drive. That said, a couple of years ago we decided to travel on the river road after heavy rains, and the decision came back to bite us when we got stuck in one of the many rivers that flow from the mountains down to the Kunene, costing a day in detours and back-tracking.
Not wanting a repeat experience, we called a few of the local lodges to see if they had an update on the road condition. They all agreed the river road was not passable for the last 30 km to Epupa but was fine until that point. This was great news as we could still do a portion and experience the spectacular views before turning away from the river at Swartbooisdrift, thus avoiding the 340 km detour.
The river road went well, but you could see that some of the little streams that run over the road had come down in flood a few days prior. At our lunch stop in the river bed, before we had to turn away from the river, I could see that a few group members were itching to attempt the last stretch to Epupa. Still, the thought of having to turn around a few kilometres before our destination and still have to face a five-hour detour was enough to cement the decision to take the safer road and make it to Epupa Falls in the early afternoon.
As you approach Epupa from the south, the last section of the road snakes its way through rugged mountains. You would never guess there was a river anywhere near you until you crest the last slight rise and are hit with the sight of the Kunene River flowing through an oasis of palm trees, with the spray from the falls rising into the air all around. It really is a sight to behold. We camped at Epupa Falls Rest Camp which has a beautiful raised restaurant and bar which looks down on the falls. When the river is high, the spray from the falls cools you down while you sip on your gin and tonic. The swimming pool at the lodge is a welcome respite from the unrelenting heat and a chance to cool off after a walk down to see the falls in the afternoon light.
This time the level of the Kunene river was lower than we had seen it in previous years, taking away some of the magic that Epupa Falls normally offers up with the river flowing around the baobabs growing from the rocky outcrops in the middle of the river. It is still a magnificent spectacle no matter what the level of the river. We spent two blissful nights here relaxing and enjoying drinks in the bar before dinner.
The tricky road ahead
On the second night, I could sense everyone was starting to think about what lay ahead of us, and it wasn’t the rain or flooded rivers. Instead, the concern was the little mountain pass we needed to tackle to get down to the Marienfluss – none other than the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass! This rocky 12 km pass zig-zags through the mountains before spitting you out into the awe-inspiring Marienfluss plains. This awe-inspiring scene is certainly a fitting reward for the arduous three hours spent negotiating the rocky descent.
I always reassure everyone that Van Zyl’s pass is not as bad as it is made out to be on those Facebook forums and groups that I mentioned earlier. I usually add that most drivers are likely to have tackled more challenging obstacles on one of the many 4×4 trails around Gauteng and the Free State. In my opinion, the 60 kilometres before the Van Zyl’s Pass Community Campsite, with its large boulders and rocky ascents, is worse than the actual pass.
Our 144 km route from Epupa Falls to the Van Zyl’s Pass campsite usually takes us around eight hours to complete. Our convoy rolled out of Epupa Falls Rest Camp at 08:00, filled with excitement and quite a bit of trepidation for the challenge that was to come. The fact that we had done a part of the Kunene River road and had not refuelled at Opuwo, meant that we first needed to stop in Okangwati before heading into the wilderness. Here we purchased some rather expensive fuel in five-litre containers from a local general dealer. R25 a litre seems expensive in normal terms, but when you are in the middle of nowhere and have a V8-powered beast as thirsty as our Stoffel is, you will pay anything to keep the wheels turning.
With happy fuel tanks, we pressed on towards our destination and it wasn’t too long before it was time to engage low-range and slowly enjoy the scenic drive to the community campsite at the top of Van Zyl’s Pass. Again, the group tackled the testing trail with aplomb; the only setback being a puncture to one of our trailer tyres which we quickly plugged before continued on our way.
The Van Zyl’s Pass Community Campsite is a beautiful spot, with the sites widely scattered. Some are right next to the dry river bed, some in the river bed and others are nestled amongst rocky outcrops, providing protection on windy nights. The very rustic ablution facilities were out of order when we arrived, probably because the previous year’s lack of visitors had meant there was no need for maintenance. That night, as we sat around the fire, you could almost taste the nervous excitement in the air as we chatted about our experiences so far and discussed what was to come. One topic that came up was the mysterious Lone Men of Kaokoland. This series of life-size men made out of steel and rock are scattered all over the Kaokoland and each one is doing something different. Twelve have been found so far, but they are numbered, and one found to date carries the number 35. Does this mean there are many more out there to be discovered? Or do the numbers have a different meaning?
Only a few of our group had heard about them, so we quickly got everyone up to speed. Soon we were all scouring the horizons to find these elusive stone characters. The first one that we knew of would be somewhere on Van Zyl’s Pass, and we wanted to see how many we could find in the week or so we would spend in the Kaokoland. At least everyone had been distracted from the daunting task of the next day’s rocky descent, and drifted off to sleep thinking of lonely stone men in the desert instead of worrying about the “road from hell” they had heard about from online couch experts. At least that’s what I hoped as Des and I lay there on our stretcher under the stars. “Van Zyl’s Pass, bring it on!”
About Ultimate Adventure
Official tour operator for Adventure Afrika, Ultimate Adventures is run by the husband-and-wife team of Simon and Des Steadman. Offering top quality self-drive adventure tours throughout the continent, they pride themselves on delivering expeditions of the highest standards. Their hospitality, attention to detail and superb catering, courtesy of a chef accompanying each trip, is legendary.
For their calendar of tours: https://www.ultimateadventures.tv/4×4-tours