The intrepid explorers who joined the Ultimate Adventures’ Kaokoland Tour earlier this year proved their mettle through the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass.
Sleeping under the stars on a stretcher out in the open is something that myself and Des try to do as often as we can. It’s difficult on most of our tours as we are normally in wildlife areas with lions, leopards and sneaky hyenas creeping around the campsites at night.
This tour of Kaokoland in northern Namibia offered a great opportunity to sleep out under the blanket of stars, pondering the answers to what is really up there and getting a reminder of just how insignificant we really are… Of course, we also pondered our group’s ability to successfully traverse the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass that was our group’s challenge the next day.
On VZ-day, everyone seemed to be awake and pottering around a bit earlier than usual, in high spirits as the nervous excitement built to a crescendo. The night before, I had set our departure at 09:00, which would give us plenty of time to tackle the 12km descent of Van Zyl’s Pass before snaking our way to the Kunene River via the picturesque vistas of the Marienfluss. After a quick breakfast, I gathered the troops for a safety briefing so that everyone knew what was expected of them. Our convoy soon rolled out of camp and started the slow crawl down the pass.
The first tricky section is a very uneven, bumpy descent with sharp steps that seemed to be a bit deeper after recent heavy rains washed away the rocks that other travellers had packed into the holes. Being in front and towing a trailer comes with its own set of challenges as I often need to take a slightly different line to what the rest of the convoy would take, in order to get my trailer wheels where they should be.
“Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for that Lone Man hidden somewhere on Van Zyl’s Pass!” I reminded everyone over the radio. A few times, Des and Master P (our travelling chef) shouted out with excitement as they thought they saw a figure in the rocks, each of them a false alarm. When you are driving in the bush and looking for something specific, your eyes start playing tricks on you, and every tree stump or ant hill starts looking like a lion – or, in our case, every rock was morphing into a human figure.
Halfway down the pass, there is a nice flat area in a riverbed that we normally use for a pit stop and a morale check to see how everyone is enjoying the rocky driving. Everyone was absolutely loving the challenges being thrown at them and enjoying how effortlessly their trusty 4×4 steeds were coping. The smile on René’s face was priceless, and I could see the love for his Land Cruiser was growing by the minute. This is one of the things that makes our jobs so rewarding, and worth every hardship and challenge that overland travel throws at us.
After a quick snack and leg stretch, we saddled up again, ready to tackle the last (and most challenging) section. This is my favourite part of the drive as the views open up and the mountains seem to become more picturesque around every corner.
A few kilometres from the bottom of the pass, there is a little turnoff to the right with a short climb to negotiate. “Get ready to have your breath taken away,” I announced over the radio as we reached the pinnacle of the climb.
As the bonnet of your vehicle levels out, you are faced with one of the best views you could ever imagine. This is your first view of the Marienfluss. This is German for “Mary’s River”, and it’s slightly misleading as it is a grassy valley completely surrounded by mountains, rather than a river.
Mysterious fairy circles are scattered all around the valley floor. These circular patches in the sand where nothing grows at all have had scientists scratching their heads for years, trying to understand what they are and how they are formed. It seems the answer to this mystery is that they are caused by termites that build their circular nests under the sand, disturbing the soil then eating whatever vegetation is left. The circles are most visible just after the rainy season when the Marienfluss is covered in grass.
While everyone was enjoying the views and a quick cup of tea, Des and myself were scratching around among the rocks at the viewpoint, trying to find a geocache that our Garmin GPS had alerted us to. After a thorough inspection, we came up empty-handed and decided it must have been removed. No matter, we joined the group for tea and a group photo with one of the world’s most exquisite views in the background.
… and the beast
With our senses and memory banks overflowing, it was time to tackle to final descent into the Marienfluss. This is by far the most challenging obstacle of our expedition to date.
This very rugged and uneven rocky step-down looks impassable at first inspection, and causes a lot of eye-popping and jaw-dropping expressions from the convoy as we stand at the top of the obstacle. However, once I have walked the obstacle and explained the line to be taken and the action plan with all of the drivers, it starts to look slightly possible.
Not everyone seemed convinced this time. I have driven this pass many times towing a trailer, so I know exactly how the vehicle and trailer will react over each bump and down every step. Still, my palms get a bit sweaty every time I set off and slowly plot my way to the bottom. Once the Cruiser and trailer were safely through the obstacle, I made my way back up the mountain on foot with my handheld radio so I could be in constant contact with the drivers. It helps a lot when there are audio and visual commands being communicated at all times.
As this obstacle is so steep, the driver has zero view of where the wheels are going, so it is imperative they trust the person guiding them down, who has the best view of the line and where the wheels are positioned. Each driver followed my instructions perfectly, and we managed to get all the vehicles safely down with no knocks or scrapes. Meanwhile, the passengers had all opted to walk down and take photos and videos. The last kilometre of the pass is a series of sharp hairpin bends that spit you out into the Marienfluss with a great sense of achievement and gratitude to be on level ground again.
It is a Van Zyl’s Pass tradition to write your name and a message on a rock at the bottom of the pass and add it to the mound of rocks left by the other adventurous souls who have successfully completed this notorious challenge. Also, once at the bottom of the pass, I like to get feedback from the group on how Van Zyl’s Pass lived up to its scary reputation. It is interesting to hear the mixed reactions. Some of our group said it was much easier than they had expected, while others felt it was the toughest thing they had ever conquered. The most important point was that everyone had done superbly well and was safely at the bottom with no vehicle damage at all. This was definitely worth celebrating with a bit of lunch under the trees.
Our stop was a lively affair with adrenaline levels at an all-time high, as we all relived the last few kilometres that had taken the best part of three hours to complete. The topic of the elusive Stone Man came up too, along with the fact that everyone’s eyes were firmly fixed on the rocky terrain rather than gazing into the mountains looking for rock art. We all agreed that we would not beat ourselves up too much for missing that one, but committed to finding those we heard were hiding somewhere in the Marienfluss area. “Let’s head off to camp,” I suggested, as everyone packed up quickly, looking forward to the epic drive that lay ahead.
“It feels like we are driving in an oil painting,” was one of the analogies that came over the radio as we made our way into the heart of the Marienfluss. This is exactly what it feels like. You can try and explain the beauty of the vistas in this area to your friends at home, but to truly understand it, you really must experience it for yourself.
The red sand and flowing grasslands contrasted against the rugged mountains work in harmony to fill your soul with tranquillity. As you inhale the beauty with your eyes, you can almost feel the stress oozing its way out of your pores.
This year, the Marienfluss was showing us a different face. There was not a blade of grass in sight as the area had missed the heavy rains experienced further south, causing flash floods and sleepless nights for me prior to the start of the trip. The starkness of the valley floor, however, brought out a whole new beauty. The orange sand gave you the feeling of driving through the Namib desert, but with a corridor of spectacular mountains.
Due to the lack of vegetation, the valley was also devoid of the usual herds of springbok and the occasional ostrich that stared in curiosity at the convoy.
Car on fire!
“Roger! Stop! Stop! Your car is on fire!” broke the silence over the radio, sending us all into panic mode, with me doing a 180-degree turn in record time while grabbing the fire extinguisher behind my seat at the same time. By the time we had made our way back to where Roger had stopped, there were luckily no flames or the burning vehicle I had pictured in my mind – only a slight hissing sound as green fluid dripped from the Ford’s engine bay.
Roger had been experiencing aircon difficulties on the trip so far and had attempted a bit of MacGyver bush mechanics during our lunch stop. These had not gone well and caused something to short under the bonnet. On initial inspection, it looked like the fluid that had caused the cloud of smoke was engine coolant, but after checking all the fluid levels, everything seemed fine.
We simply removed MacGyver’s bridging wire, and the Ford started without hesitation. And so we were on our way again, relieved this was nothing serious, apart from Roger again being without aircon. To prevent him from overheating, Des kindly offered him the use of her ice towel, which he gladly accepted and proudly wore for the rest of the trip, wrapped around his head and neck like something out of Lawrence of Arabia.
We were now only a few kilometres from our campsite on the banks of the Kunene River, and as we were coming down into the little village, Des shouted, “Stop! Stone Man!” I slammed on the brakes, causing the Cruiser to stop in a cloud of dust. “I think we’ve found one!” I exclaimed over the radio as Des and Master P exploded out of the vehicle like a couple of kids that had been cooped up in the vehicle all day on the N3 down to Durban and had just reached the ocean. By the time I had made my way up to them on the hill, they were already taking selfies with the child-sized figure made out of a steel frame, filled with rocks taken from the surrounding area.
The rest of the group arrived with much excitement as we had found our first Lone Man of the Kaokoland. This one was in a sitting position and had the number 25 engraved into a steel plate attached to his hip. There was also a plate with a message engraved on it, which got us all looking around with our binoculars to see if it perhaps referred to another sculpture in the area, but we couldn’t see anything close by.
The number 25 gave us food for thought as only 17 have been seen so far, leaving us pondering the meaning of the numbers yet again. Does it refer to the distance to the next one? Is the artist just playing games with us? Whatever it means, it certainly adds an air of mystery to the area and provides travellers with an exciting live treasure hunt and something to debate around the campfire at night.
Once we had all taken our photos, we bundled back into our vehicles and made our way north towards the Okarohombo Community Campsite on the banks of the Kunene River a few kilometres away, and our home for the evening. Little did we know that those few kilometres to the campsite were going to take a lot longer than expected…
*Leaving us on the edge of our seats, in the next part, we will reveal what held up the convoy on the final stretch to the camp. Watch this space! – Ed.
About Ultimate Adventures
Official tour operator for Adventure Afrika, Ultimate Adventures, is run by Simon and Desiree Steadman. They offer top quality self-drive adventure tours throughout the African continent, always going the extra mile with top-notch catering courtesy of a chef accompanying each trip.
CONTACT: +27 84 447 4666 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.ultimateadventures.tv | @UltimateAdventures
For the first part of this story: