Stepping back in time : Dorsland Trekkers part 1

As a direct descendant of the Dorsland Trekkers of the 1800s, Jan-Harm du Plessis had a strong urge to retrace the route his forefathers had taken through Namibia as they headed north from South Africa to Angola. The result was an epic trip that took the family from one glorious destination to another as they explored, experienced and made memories that will last a lifetime.

Sometimes I wonder if we truly appreciate how fortunate we are to live on a continent where adventure is on everyone’s doorstep and around every corner. Fortunately for my wife and I, this is how we were raised by our respective parents and a love for the outdoors was instilled in us from a very young age. Camping, fishing, hunting, overlanding, beach holidays, hiking and even the occasional lodging… it was as if our parents colluded to raise us for each other.

However, there is also the reality of life and making ends meet. This, for most, makes it impossible to be free all the time and often we get consumed by the proverbial real world. Thankfully, our spirit of adventure, mixed with the grace from the Almighty, afforded us as a family the opportunity to work and live in the beautiful country of Malawi for the past four years. Malawi is not just the warm heart of Africa, but also the passage between South and East Africa. Living here just fires that passion for travelling the region!

Regular trips down to South Africa, our home country, has become the norm and we prefer driving over flying. Unfortunately, as for many, this passion was slightly dampened by the Covid-19 pandemic. It did, however, give us the opportunity to properly explore Malawi. However, as soon as the borders were reopened, we were eager to get on the road again. Since we were hungry for an adventure and had the time, we wanted to take the long way back to South Africa.

The beautiful country of Namibia had been on our radar since we last visited there in 2016. We decided to trace the footsteps of my great-greatgrandfather, Petrus Johannes Du Preez (born 10 November 1866), who was part of the Dorsland Trek of 1874 to 1881. We are fortunate to have his history well documented by one of the granddaughters of oupa Du Preez, tannie Drinie Janse Van Rensburg, who spent countless hours doing research and digging through family archives. In January 2017 she put together a well summarised document on the history of the Dorsland Trekkers, with particular reference to our great-great-grandfather. Her findings are mostly based on a book by Nicol Stassen named Die Dorsland Trek 1874 – 1881 that was published in 2016. Incidentally, as descendants we get together every two years on Easter Weekend to honour our heritage and have a feast together.

There is a lot of speculation about the exact reasons for the trek. Since the majority of the trekkers were members of the Reformed Church, it was apparent that they were not happy with the South African government of the time which, under the leadership of President Burgers, had banned religious education in schools. There was also a lot of conflict within the church itself and many of the trekkers considered themselves as the chosen ones, in search of God’s promised land. Apart from this, there was also the fear of British occupancy, as well as racial tension and economic pressures.

The first group left Pretoria on 20 May 1874, with no specific destination in mind. Two more groups followed within the space of two years. My great-great-grandfather‘s father joined the trekkers at the Limpopo River in June 1876. By this time the Portuguese government of Angola had gotten word of the trekkers from South Africa and lured them northwards with the promise of a better life and land to cultivate. My great-great-grandfather was 10 years old at the time. From the Limpopo they continued onwards through the treacherous dorslande… known today as Namibia. Armed with Tannie Drinie’s summary and a relative understanding of our family history, we set-off from our home in Lilongwe to trace the footsteps of our forefathers…

Destination 1: Wildlife Camp, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

You have to drive through Zambia to get to Namibia from Malawi, which is tricky since Zambia is a massive country that holds many natural treasures. So, simply driving through was not an option. The South Luangwa National Park is considered to be the second most popular safari destination amongst international tourists after the Serengeti, and it’s easy to understand why. We’ve been there twice now and both times we were treated to some incredible sightings. There’s a reason why it’s known as the leopard capital of Africa!

There are no campsites inside the park itself, only lodges and private tented camps. However, there are many places to camp along the Luangwa River, which borders the park. We opted for the Wildlife Camp since, in our opinion, it has some of the best camping spots on the river. Campsites numbers 6 to 9 are situated directly on the banks and offer the most amazing sunset views over the park.

Destination 2: Bridge Camp, Luangwa River Bridge (T4), Zambia

Our plan was to reach Lusaka as quickly as possible so that we could make our way to Namibia. We made the mistake of deciding to take a shortcut instead of looping back via Chipata. So, we turned right on the old Petauke road that follows the river south along the border of the park, but it soon became apparent why this road is not accessible during so-called green season. Because of thick mud and slippery road surfaces it took us more than six hours to get to Petauke, where we joined the T4 (otherwise known as the Great East Road). There was no way we were going to reach Lusaka that day, so we decided to camp at the Bridge Camp, close to the Luangwa River Bridge.

Destination 3: Camp Nkwazi, Livingstone, Zambia

We left Bridge Camp early since we had a lot of ground to cover due to our shenanigans of the previous day. After a quick shopping spree in the Zambian capital, we took on the remaining 500km to Camp Nkawzi, Livingstone. The road was generally very good and well maintained so we made quick work of the distance. We drove through a couple of heavy thunderstorms along the way and arrived at Camp Nkwazi at sunset. What a truly magnificent place! The campsites are immaculate, with spacious, green and shaded stands, dedicated braai stands, taps, electricity, a kitchen area and ablutions await you here.

Destination 4: Victoria Falls, Livingstone, Zambia

No visit to this part of the world is complete without a visit to the Victoria Falls. We had seen the falls from the Zimbabwe side before but never from Zambia, so we made sure that we could also tick that box. You gain a different perspective from this angle and as the water level was low, we also had an opportunity to see the gorge. We ended the day with a cold beer at Royal Livingstone (apparently the oldest recorded bar in Africa), after feeding Junior, the resident giraffe.

Destination 5: Namwi Island Campsite, Katima Mulilo, Namibia

It was time to tackle the infamous M10 between Livingstone and Sesheke/Katima Mulilo. The road was in such a bad state that it would probably be better just to rip up the remaining tar and grading a proper gravel road. This was by far the worst 115km we have ever driven on a so-called main road.
We reached the Sesheke border in one piece and after a relatively painless crossing we headed for Namwi Island Campsite, right on the bank of the Zambezi River. It is a truly beautiful place and a birder‘s paradise. We even had the privilege of witnessing African Wood Owl chicks taking their first flight!

Destination 6: Nakatwa Campsite No. 3, Mudumu National Park, Namibia

The next morning, we were up early to do some shopping before heading deeper into the Caprivi. Mudumu National Park was our next destination and we had managed to secure the popular Nakatwa Campsite No. 3, directly on the Kwando River backwater. Camping is free and you only pay park, conservation, and vehicle fees on entry. We arrived from the south via Shona gate (from Linyati) and had to go to the northern gate to pay at the main reception. The entrance into the park and camps are deep sand tracks, but recent rain made the going slightly easier. However, it is advisable to deflate tyres and remain in low range.

We ended up staying two nights and it was one of the wildest and most amazing camping experiences we have ever had. Lions roaring close by, a hyena in the camp, baboons barking and an angry elephant bull on the rampage kept us awake. Sightings included hippos, giraffes, elephants, kudus, roan antelope, zebras and numerous impressive bird species that included storks, vultures and bee eaters.

Destination 7: Nambwa Campsite, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Our next destination was Bwabwata National Park, located within the Kwando Core Area. Our home for the next two days would be Nambwa Campsite, situated on the western bank of the Kwando River. We reached the camp after a 55km tarred road, followed by a challenging 15km sand track and set up camp under a massive sycamore tree. Once again there was an abundance of wildlife and we were lucky enough to see a leopard and her cub, just south of the famous horseshoe waterhole. There are also many reminders of the Angolan Bush War, including the Fort Doppies recce training camp.

Destination 8: Ngepi Camp, Divundu, Namibia

We made our way back towards the Trans-Caprivi (M8) that runs like a spine right down the middle of the Caprivi Strip and continued west for 200km towards Divundu, a town located on the Okavango River in the Buffalo Core area. Our next destination was the quirky Ngepi Camp, located 15km south of Divundu on the banks of the Okavango River. It was another amazing two days that included some tiger fishing on the Okavango River for the boys and spa treatments at the nearby Divava Lodge for the girls. We also made use of this opportunity to recharge the vehicle and trailer batteries on 220V since we are heading for the wild Khaudum next.

Destination 9: Khaudum National Park, Namibia

Approximately 30km west of Divundu lies a rural Namibian village, presently called Shamaturu. In the late 1800s this area was known as Olifantspan, supposedly due to its large population of elephants. This is where the great-great-grandfather‘s parents and three of his siblings passed away from malaria in 1878. They were four years into their journey from Pretoria to the promised land in Angola. Many of the trekkers died there and the survivors, including my great-greatgrandfather, were eventually rescued by another group of Dorsland Trekkers that camped near Leeupan in theKhaudum district.

The group appointed a new leader and compiled new regulations but there was still division and some of the trekkers turned back towards the Transvaal. My greatgreat-grandfather continued onwards with his adopted parents, the Van Der Merwes, towards the White Pans, otherwise known as Etosha.

Destination 10: Makuri Camp, Tsumkwe, Nyae-Nyae Conservancy, Namibia

We had to leave Khaudum early to make the journey south through the park. This was a tough journey,
but the scenery was worth it. It took us a good six hours to reach the southern gate at Sikereti.
Our next Dorsland Trekkers landmark was a massive baobab tree about 20km south of the gate. The
trekkers camped under the tree as they made their way north between October 1877 and July 1878
and a few even carved their names into it.

After consulting the map and iOverlander, we decided on Makuri Camp as our destination for the
night. It is situated 24km east of Tsumkwe in the middle of the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy and right
in the heart of the Boesmanland. We set up camp under a massive baobab and sipped on a welldeserved
G&T as we kept an eye out for the migrating elephants that are frequently seen in the area.

Destination 11: Roy’s Kafue Camp, Namibia

Our first stop was at the Dorsland Trekkers Stone Memorial, situated about 24km deeper into the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy. It was a proper trek just to get to the closest village, from where we had to do the last 2km on foot as the old road is completely overgrown. We didn’t have much information about the memorial and only a Tracks4Africa waypoint to go by, but the locals knew about the pile of rocks as many people have come in search of it over the years.
Unfortunately, it was the start of the rainy season and some early rains had raised the level of the pans to such an extent that the memorial was completely submerged under water. Although we didn’t actually see the memorial, we felt that we had completed our mission successfully.

Up next was a visit to the Ju/‘Hoansi Living Museum where we spent some time in the traditional village of the local San people. They taught us how to make fire with sticks and we even got to make our own bows and arrows before being taken on a staged hunting expedition. It was a great experience to see these humble and peaceful people in harmony with the bush. That night we camped at Roy’s Kafue Camp, approximately 60km north of Grootfontein on the main road to Rundu. The food and hospitality were great and as the owner is also a descendant of the Dorsland Trekkers, we were entertained with numerous fascinating tales. There were even pieces of an old ox-wagon that had been abandoned there.

Destination 12: Namutoni Camp, Etosha National Park, Namibia

We were running low on supplies, since the last proper grocery store we’d seen was in Katima Mulilo, eight days previously. So, it was time to go shopping. We were advised to skip Grootfontein and rather head for Tsumeb, where there was a mall, and we could shop to our hearts’ content. We even managed to have our bedding properly washed at a local laundromat. However, the highlight was without a doubt the Wimpy coffee and breakfast!

Namutoni Camp in Etosha National Park was our next destination and we arrived in good time to enjoy a swim in the pool and ice-cream from their kiosk. We set up camp as zebras and wildebeest grazed in the background. It was going to be a glorious couple of days in Etosha; which means great white place in the local language.

*Watch this space for part 2 of this epic adventure.

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