Simon and Desiree Steadman of Ultimate Adventures complete the tale of their incredible northern Namibia adventure to the land of thirst, fairy circles and stone men.
Travelling in remote areas such as the Kaokoland in far-Northern Namibia is what overland dreams are made of. Wide-open spaces, oil painting-like scenery and ear-piercing silence, are just some reasons to seek out and explore these remote areas.
There is now a new drawcard for the area, which is quickly gaining cult status, and that is to find the mysterious stone statues that are scattered around this northern corner of Namibia. Adding to the enchantment of this overlanding treasure hunt is a mystery: the artist or artists creating these “Lone Men of Kaokoland” remain a secret.
In our last instalment, we shared our group’s successful journey through Van Zyl’s Pass, and the excitement at finding our first stone man, just before the Kunene River a few kilometres south of our campsite. With the first one ticked off, eyes were scanning every nook and cranny of this unforgiving environment so as not to miss another one, as we did on Van Zyl’s Pass.
As we headed in the direction of camp, I had an idea that a swim in the Kunene River would be a very welcome surprise for everyone after such a hot and dusty day, so I bypassed the turn-off to our campsite and headed west along the Kunene River to a croc-free spot in the rocks where we had swum on previous visits. “Follow me, I have a surprise for you,” I announced over the radio and sped off along the river with the convoy in tow. After a few kilometres, I turned right, and after driving over a few large bumps, you reach a little beach next to the river, which serves as a perfect parking area with access to the rapids and rock pools. As soon as we stopped and everyone jumped out of their vehicles, their eyes lit up like disco balls when they realised what I was up to. Shoes off, we were soon floating around in a rock pool with the Kunene River flowing over us, washing away the layers of dust that we had accumulated driving down Van Zyl’s Pass and through the Marienfluss. Enjoying a cold beer while sitting in the Kunene River is one of those moments that overlanders remember forever, and it’s what makes our efforts to reach these remote areas so rewarding.
Heading to camp… or not?
With the toils of the day all washed downstream, it was now time to get to camp and set up before we ran out of daylight. The Okarohombo Community Campsite has been around for ages and is our campsite of choice on our annual Kaokoland tour. It has rustic but functional facilities and the location – overlooking Angola on the other side of the river – makes it a very special place to camp.
You know that feeling you get when you walk out of a shopping mall, and you can’t find your car? Well, that is exactly the feeling that hit me when I led the convoy to the “campsite”, and it was no longer there! Gone! Missing! Just very thick river sand and a few concrete slabs where the ablutions used to be. I was so confused by what I was seeing that I had to triple-check my GPS and our position as I was now second-guessing myself. At the same time, I was not watching the track in front of me, leaving us belly-deep in the very soft and fluffy river sand. As this is a family magazine, I cannot repeat Des’ reaction to my shortcomings. Just the thought of “that look” on her face sends shivers down my spine.
On overland adventures like this, there are plenty of guys dying to use their new fancy recovery gear and get stuck in when a recovery is required. In fact, the look of excitement on René’s face when he realised he could put his new sand tracks to work reminded me of the look on my daughter’s face when she got her first bicycle for Christmas. In no time, we had the sand tracks in place, and two Land Cruisers were pulling me swiftly from my sandy grave.
During this commotion, we hadn’t noticed the small group of locals who had gathered on the nearby koppies to see what we were up to. Luckily, one of them was from the community campsite that had now been relocated a few kilometres upriver after recent floods had decimated the original campsite. So, with us all on solid ground again, we made our way to the new camp and managed to get set up before dark, giving us time to sit on the riverbank watching the most amazing sunset.
Up until now, I had managed to suppress any anxiety about the flash floods in the rivers around Purros. But now, it was time to face those demons and decide if it was safe to take the scenic, adventurous riverbed route to Purros. The alternative route is a very corrugated gravel road that runs just east of the Skeleton Coast National Park. After making a few calls on the satellite phone to our local contacts, I had to make the tough decision to abandon our original plan and instead follow the bone-shaking alternative along the D3707.
The search for stone men continues
I could sense the disappointment when I broke the news to the group, but there was some cheer when I added that stone men had reportedly been found along the way. The next stone man that we were hunting for was to be found somewhere in the Marienfluss as we made our way south to Red Drum. The scenery on this drive, with the Hartmann’s Mountain to our right and Mount Ondau to our left, is exquisite. This is probably the reason why we all missed the stone man that was sitting under a tree somewhere along the way. So far, our hit rate has not been exemplary. The call was now to up our game as there were apparently many more ahead.
After a quick leg stretch at Red Drum, our convoy turned south in the direction of Marble Mine and the underrated Joubert Pass. This rocky pass is nowhere near the level of its bigger brother, Van Zyl’s Pass, but you need your wits about you to tackle some of the rocky ascents that require low range and dampen the palms a little.
Just as the time approached to start looking for a suitable place to stop for lunch, Des shouted, “There! Stone man!”
“We’ve found another one,” I proudly chirped over the radio, prompting another one of those classic Des looks and a sarcastic mumble of “We?” She hates it when I claim the glory for her efforts. This lone man was lying on his back on a rocky outcrop with his hands behind his head, just chilling there looking up at the sky. It’s amazing how well they blend into their surrounding environment, so you really must be on full alert all the time.
After a lunch stop in a dry riverbed, we continued south to Orupembe, where I was hoping to get some fuel, as our thirsty chariot had burned more fuel than planned during our fun and games in the sand the day before. Unfortunately, due to the lack of tourists in recent months, the demand for fuel in the area had diminished, so I was out of luck. A quick calculation using my standard grade maths indicated I should be able to just make it to Purros, so we joined the dreaded D3707 and braced ourselves for a couple of hours of teeth-chattering corrugations.
Luckily our stone man hit rate improved impeccably along the way, with us finding four more between Orupembe and Purros. My favourite one was a chap called “Dapper Stapper”. With a knapsack slung over his shoulder, he was headed to “one big gathering”, according to the message engraved on his metal plate. Another favourite was a guy sitting with his head in his hands, contemplating life’s challenges in the desert.
There is nothing quite like a petrol light coming on in the middle of nowhere to make you squirm nervously in your seat, especially when you are unsure of where the next available fuel will be. The last 40km to Purros was an uncomfortable experience, and I cannot explain the relief that flowed through my veins when we finally rolled into the Ngatutanga Community Campsite in Purros. Now I just needed to make it across the river the next day to the nearby village where fuel would hopefully be available.
This campsite is another favourite as you are right in the Hoarusib riverbed, and there is often plenty of animal life around you, including the elusive desert elephants, which we were lucky enough to see just after pitching camp. One of the camp staff came and called us as a small herd was browsing alongside the river. These amazing creatures are smaller than a normal elephant and do not like people too much, so they tend to try and keep their distance – hence the lack of any decent photographs to publish!
My dilemmas the next morning were two-fold. Firstly, I needed to check the level of the river, hoping it had subsided enough for us to make it across the next day to reach our final destination at Palmwag Lodge, and secondly, there was the fuel issue. I knew the Land Cruiser was right on the limit, and we still had some thick sand to negotiate to get to the spot where we normally cross the river. So that morning, Roger offered to follow me in his Ford Ranger just in case we ran out of fuel, and he could ferry us across the river. I’m sure by now you are saying to yourselves, “Why didn’t he just get someone else to fill up his Jerry cans instead of driving the Cruiser?” Well, I had the same thought but didn’t want to inconvenience any of our clients who needed a well-deserved rest after a couple of tough days in the saddle.
The point where I had planned to cross the river was approximately 5km from our campsite, and as we snaked our way through the riverbed towards Purros, I could see that the river was still considerably higher than it normally is at this time of the year. To my amazement, the Cruiser made its way through the thick sand and safely to the riverbank where we were supposed to cross over to Purros. Our next challenge was to find a safe route across that wouldn’t leave us stuck in the mud with even more problems on our hands.
Suck it up, princess
So, we removed our shoes and were strolling up and down the river looking for solid ground that would support the weight of a three-ton stallion. After about half an hour, we thought we had connected the dots to create a safe route across, so I got back into the Cruiser and made my way down the bank and to the agreed entry point of our complex zigzag across the river. I hadn’t made it five metres when I could feel the surface below me getting very soggy.
“This is a bad idea!” I thought to myself and quickly put the Cruiser into reverse and backed safely to shore. “I think we should rather just walk across with the Jerry cans,” I shouted to Roger and Des, who was strategically positioned as beacons on the route I was supposed to be tackling. By now, the sun was high in the sky and beating down on us with an unrelenting heat that drains every drop of energy you have in no time at all.
“Suck it up, princess!” I told myself as I grabbed a Jerry can off the roof and made my way across the river to where Des and Roger were sitting in the water waiting for me. As we walked across the river, we continued to check the consistency of the sand and mud to see if we could find a suitable route for our convoy to cross the next day. Luckily the water level was steadily dropping, so we predicted things would improve even more within 24 hours. After about 15 minutes of walking, we reached the edge of the village in Purros and started to scan the area for someone who would be able to help us out with fuel.
Just then, a short skinny chap appeared and introduced himself as Mike and asked if he could help us with anything. When Mike indicated that there was no fuel available, I think every ounce of blood drained from my head. Eina! Luckily, after 15 years of travelling in Africa, I have learned not to trust the word of every person you speak to and to rather get a second and third opinion. Purros had always been a reliable fuel source for our convoys, so I marched on with Jerry can in hand to a shack in the distance where we had filled up with fuel before. By now, Roger was melting away like a snowman in the Sahara, and Des was so red in the face, I thought she was going to explode, so I told them both to go and get something cold to drink and find me when they had cooled down. As I approached the “fuel shack”, I could see an overlanding truck with people holding Jerry cans around it.
I wanted to run, but the brutal heat had sapped everything out of me by then, so those last few hundred metres to the shack seemed to take forever. There I was greeted by a smiling young lady, with the words, “Yes sir, we have lots of fuel. How many litres do you need?” Instant relief! Thankfully, after the first 50 metres of the walk back to the Cruiser, Mike (who earlier indicated there was no fuel) popped up again and offered to carry the Jerry can. I think he saw that I was about to collapse in a heap as my strides had now diminished to a slow shuffle.
So off Mike ran with my Jerry can on his shoulder, and by the time we had made it back to the river, he had already emptied the fuel into my tank and was waiting to show us the best route across the river. Travelling in Africa, you often come across these good Samaritans that just want to help and make sure your experience in their country is memorable. After saying our goodbyes and rehydrating Mike with a cold Tafel Lager, we made our way back to camp.
That afternoon was spent relaxing in the shade, reliving the adventures of the past few days while speculating about what may lie ahead the next day when we had to cross the Hoarusib River. When we arrived at the river crossing the next day, the water levels had dropped even more, and we could see the tyre tracks of other vehicles that had crossed that morning on the route Mike had pointed out to us. We have been stuck in a few rivers in Kaokoland over the years, so I could see the concern on Des’ face as the nose of the Cruiser dropped into the riverbed.
Looking at the tyre tracks in the riverbed, I was confident that we would be able to cross the river without any hiccups. The entire convoy made it safely across one by one, each of them with the same look of relief on their faces as their tyres hit the dry sand on the other side of the river. After refuelling a few of the vehicles that were also running dangerously low, we rolled out of Purros and headed to Palmwag Lodge, some 200km away.
With the stress of the floods and river crossings now well behind us, I could start to relax and focus on the last few stone men that we had heard about. Our total count was now seven, a few short of our goal of 10. A couple who were camping with us in Purros had told us about one a few kilometres away on the road to Sesfontein. The sharp eyes of Master P made quick work of locating this one, hidden up in a little rocky outcrop. Number 8 done!
Now for the one, we had all been talking about after seeing numerous photographs. The poor soul clinging to a ledge for dear life was unmissable as we rounded a bend on one of the winding rocky roads in the Sesfontein Conservancy. We spent a bit more time at this site as we inspected the stone man and marvelled at the engineering and effort it must have taken to create such a great piece of art. The shade in the little cave beneath the ledge was very welcoming, and it was only the promise of lunch in the shade of the palm trees at Sesfontein Fort that motivated the group to leave the shady retreat.
The Sesfontein Fort is another one of those landmarks that every overlander in the area knows about and makes a point of visiting. It has a fuel station and serves great lunches in their beautifully manicured garden. It’s a perfect place to enjoy a cold one, but there was no drinking for our group as we still had to drive just over 100km to Palmwag Lodge, where the promise of a bar and a swimming pool kept us motivated. With nine stone men in the bag so far, we were hoping to find at least one more along the way to get to double digits.
A few kilometres into the Palmwag Conservancy, we started to climb a small rise in the road with a small red, rocky koppie to the right of the road. “There’s one!” I shouted in elation before grabbing the radio. Just as I was proudly announcing to the group that I had found number 10, the stone man stood up and started waving at our convoy as we approached his lookout point on the top of the koppie. “False alarm!”
Needless to say, I was given a “strafdop” or two for that misdemeanour as we sat next to the pool at Palmwag Lodge, enjoying a little bit of luxury after nearly two weeks out in the wilderness. Even though our last stone man was fake, we all agreed that there is nothing fake about the amazing adventures and experiences this unforgiving, yet breathtakingly beautiful part of Namibia had delivered over the past couple of weeks.
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