Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

A mission completed: Dorsland Trekkers part 2

Jan-Harm du Plessis and his family set off on an epic trip to retrace the steps of the Dorsland Trekkers of the 1800s through Namibia. More than a month later their mission was complete, and they arrived at their end-destination in Pretoria.

As a direct descendant of the Dorslandtrekkers of the 1800s, I decided to retrace the route my forefathers had taken through Namibia as they headed north from South Africa to Angola. It became a family adventure as we travelled from one spectacular destination to another, learning, exploring… Just over a month and 24 destinations later, we had a newfound appreciation for the trials and tribulations the intrepid Dorslandtrekkers endured.

Destination 13: Halali Camp, Etosha National Park,Namibia

After falling asleep to the sounds of lions, hyenas, jackals, and zebras at Namutoni Camp, we had a relaxing morning before setting off for Halali Camp, which is situated between two koppies about 75km from Namutoni and close to the Rietfontein waterhole. The drive delivered great sightings as Etosha’s abundance of wildlife never disappoints!

Namutoni played a significant part in the Dorsland Trek. After drafting new regulations and appointing a new leader at Leeupan in Khaudum, the group continued onwards along the Okovango river, experiencing many issues with local tribes and malaria before arriving at Namutoni where they camped for a while. From there they continued west towards Okaukuejo, where they discovered that the water was foul and unusable, so they headed back east to Rietfontein, where they stayed until the winter of 1878. Today Rietfontein is one of the main waterholes in Etosha National Park as it is extremely scenic and frequented by many wild animals. There are also a few Dorsland Trekker graves and a memorial, together with the ruins of hartbeeshuisies that were built there.

Destination 14: Okaukuejo Camp, Etosha National Park, Namibia

We planned to spend two days at Okaukuejo so that we could do some laundry and also stock up on much needed fresh produce and fuel. So, after a hearty breakfast we packed up camp and started the 75km journey.

On arrival it was straight into the pool after check-in as it was a scorcher of a day! We started our meal preparations early so that we could spend time at Okaukuejo’s famous floodlit waterhole. Our effort paid off and we were treated to some truly spectacular sightings.

We also experienced the region’s rainy season in full swing when a massive sandstorm blew in from the pans, followed by rain that lasted almost the entire night. This at least meant that temperatures would be cooler!

Destination 15: Olifantsrus Camp, Etosha Nationa Park, Namibia

Our next destination was situated about 120km from Okaukuejo on the far western side of Etosha. The drive from Okaukuejo is a very scenic one and it was made even more interesting due to the rain that had fallen overnight. This was our second visit to Etosha and one thing that stood out was the small herds of elephants that we saw. This was supposedly due to the rainy season that provides other water sources. However, the birdlife this time of the year is amazing and definitely worth a visit!

Olifantsrus has only a campsite, a reception desk and a small kiosk and is one of the smallest camps in Etosha. It has a bit of a sad feel to it, mainly due to its history as an elephant culling abattoir where, between 1983 and 1985, 525 elephants were put down to control their number. The remains of the abattoir are still here. The camp, however, is well equipped and it has one of the nicest hides and waterholes in the park.

This part of the park is often overlooked as it is located far from the main pan, towards the west of the park. That said, it provides easy access to the Kaokoland area, which is exactly where we wanted to be as we headed further north towards Ruacana and Epupa falls.

Destination 16: Kunene River Lodge, Namibia

By 08:00 the next morning we were ready to tackle the 365km north towards Kunene River Lodge. It takes two hours to cover the 65km towards Etosha’s western Galton Gate from Olifantsrus. This area almost makes you forget that you’re in the Dorsland as the vegetation is thick Mopani and there are plenty of hills around. From the park gate we got onto the main tar road between Kamanjab and Ruacana and it felt weird to drive at speed again. We inflated the tires to normal pressure, had a quick roadside breakfast and continued north. Ruacana is home to one of Namibia’s main hydro power stations and the roads in the area are well kept. The road from the power station to Kunene River Lodge is well graded gravel and made for a smooth drive. So, we made quick work of it and arrived at the lodge to set up camp right on the edge of the river, overlooking the banks on the Angola side.

Destination 17: Epupa Falls Lodge and Rest camp,Namibia

The plan was to visit the last official waypoint in our quest to walk in the footsteps of the Dorsland Trekkers, the stone memorial at Swartbooi’s Drift, located just north of Kunene River Lodge. This memorial was erected in 1928, almost 40 years after the first trekkers supposedly crossed the Kunene at the same point. It marks the official repatriation of the last remaining Dorsland Trekker descendants from Angola to South West Africa (now Namibia), due to ongoing conflict with the Portuguese government of the time.

Records reflect that our great-great-grandfather, Petrus Johannes Du Preez, crossed the Kunene River from Namibia into Angola, supposedly at Swartbooi’s Drift, where he settled at Humpata with his foster family – the Van der Merwes – for four years. Thereafter they headed back to South Africa, again due to conflict with local tribes and the Portuguese government. He was 10 years old when he left Pretoria in the old Transvaal in 1874 and returned 10 years later, in 1884. In remembrance we engraved our names on a rock and placed it on the pile to pay tribute to the enormous courage the group had displayed and the suffering that they had endured.

The 95km to Epupa Falls from Kunene River Lodge winds upand- down along the banks of the river and through numerous Himba-tribe villages, where modern-day life seems to have evaded them as they still live in much the same way they did many years ago.

Located in the northern-most point of Namibia, Epupa Falls is where the Kunene River simply disappear into a crack in the ground and continues west towards the Atlantic. According to locals, the water levels were extremely low for this time of the year, a fact they attributed to the management of the power station dam upstream. However, the power of the water and rumbling sound of the cascading falls still leaves you breathless and it’s difficult to imagine what a sight it must be in full flow.

Destination 18: Ongongo Waterfall Campsite, Warmquelle, Namibia

One of the locals had told us about a place about 65km from Epupa called Alfons Restaurant, located in a village called Okangwati towards Opuwo, that has the best food in these parts… and he wasn’t exaggerating. We bought lovely bread rolls fresh from the oven and delicious fried chicken before hitting the road again.

The road from Epupa to Opuwo is well graded and wide, which makes for easy driving. However, heavy rainfall is starting to take its toll and we had to slow down to pass through numerous shallow water drifts. We refuelled and bought supplies in Opuwo and it was sad to see how desperate the locals have become as we were completely overwhelmed by beggars and hawkers.

Initially we considered visiting Puros from Opuwo, but at the last minute we decided to rather turn south towards Sesfontein, mainly because it’s closer. We drove through the most amazing and dramatic scenery as thunderstorms raged all around us… you could almost hear nature celebrating! After consulting the iOverlander app and our maps, we decided on Ongongo Waterfall Campsite as our destination for the night. The campsite is about 12km outside Sesfontein on the road towards Palmwag and sits immediately below a stream that cascades down a small waterfall into a refreshing natural pool below. This provided welcome relief from the heat and because we were the only people in camp, we had the pool all to ourselves. That evening the skies cleared and we finally had our clear open night-sky filled with millions of stars. Namibia was properly showing off!

Destination 19: White Lady Lodge, Brandberg, Namibia

We had to start making our way south and try to get as much distance covered while our visitors’ permits were still valid. Back on the gravel at around 09:00, we made a quick stop at Palmwag Lodge and Campsite to buy souvenirs before hitting the road again.

The next two hours were rather unpleasant as we had quite the unpleasant confrontation with Namibian officials at the Palmwag vet fence. We were under the impression that red meat in a vacuum sealed bag, bought in Namibia, was allowed. Turns out we were misinformed, and the meat got confiscated. Obviously, we were upset, and this did not sit well with one of the police officers who went on a bit of a power-trip and decided to take me into temporary custody in his office to explain the laws related to vet control.

I was extremely offended and felt completely violated but decided to comply just to get it over with. I was eventually allowed to pass after completing a transgression form. Interestingly, we were allowed to ‘donate’ our meat to local hawkers at the gate, who seemed to be quite used to this kind of scenario. By now our time and patience were running out, so we did a quick lunch stop in Twyfelfontein and decided to head for the White Lady Lodge. Situated at the foot of the Brandberg mountains, it boasts sparkling blue pools, a great restaurant, sun decks, green grass…and all of this within one of the most unforgiving and arid landscapes imaginable. The campsites are scattered far apart within the dry riverbed and most of them have trees that provide semi-shade. We set up camp and went to bed underneath a blanket of stars.

The next morning, we went to see the famous White Lady rock painting which, for the record, is not actually a painting of a lady. It is believed to be around 5 000 years old and the identity of the ‘artists’ are a bit of a mystery, but since this is in the heart of Damaraland, our guide was of the opinion that this was created by the Damaras. It was a hard but stunning 5km hike to get to the rock and back and after returning to camp we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around the pool and bar.

Once it had cooled down somewhat, we went in search of the famous Damaraland desert elephants. We had seen traces of them all along the route from Opuwo to Palmwag, but they are very hard to find as they continuously move around in search of water. Luck was on our side though and we manage to find a large heard grazing in the dry Ugab Riverbed, about 12km from our camp. The photo opportunities were stunning, and we drove back to camp reminiscing about our great sighting and soaking in the dramatic scenery on offer.

Destination 20: Swakopmund, Namibia

We refuelled in Henties Bay and visited the butchery to replace the meat we had been forced to leave behind at Palmwag two days previously. About 45km north of Henties is the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home to the largest Cape fur seal colony in Africa! We decided that it was worth a visit and also wanted to see the famous cross that was erected as a navigational beacon by the Portuguese explorer, Diego Caō, in the 1400s.

What we did not know is that it was breeding season for the seals and that the pups are usually born during the first two or three weeks of December. During this time chaos ensues within the colony as many pups die, either after being abandoned by their mothers or from being trampled by angry fighting bulls. It was a bitter-sweet experience, accompanied by the worst smell you can imagine. Swakopmund is well managed and well maintained and with numerous great shops. We spend the afternoon browsing for souvenirs while enjoying some ice-cream, bBut the highlight of the day was when we managed to get our hands on our very own copy of Die Dorslandtrek 1874-1881 at one of the local bookstores.

Destination 21: Solitare, Namibia

It was time to head south and get back to Pretoria. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast and cappuccino at one of the many cafés and only left Swakopmund around midday. The road to Walvis Bay is unique in that it is sandwiched between the beach and massive desert dunes. Dare Devil Adventures provides quad-bike tours and sand boarding expeditions within the dunes of the area, and how could we resist? Apart from being loads of fun, this must surely be one of the best ways to experience the vast desert landscape. We used what was left of the daylight to cover as much distance as possible and managed to reach Solitaire, a small desert town located within the Namib-Naukluft Park. It has a bakery, a filling station, a church, and a lodge with campsites. We had the entire campsite to ourselves and enjoyed the solitude at Solitaire… See what I did there?

Destination 22: Canyon Roadhouse, Namibia

If you travel in Namibia, you know that somewhere on your journey you will have to spend long days on the road, often more than once and mostly towards the end of your journey. This was one of those days… 560km of dirt road that took us about 7.5 hours to complete. However, I must add that we spent a lot of time sightseeing, stopping for picnics and the occasional bospiepie… or in this case, a woestynpiepie! Another famous stop on your way south is Helmeiringhausen, and as luck would have it, we reached the town in time for lunch. The local hotel is owned by a very friendly German family and has a lunch menu to die for. Springbok lasagne for lunch, in the middle of nowhere – how decadent? Canyon Roadhouse, located approximately 70km north of Hobas and the world-famous Fish River Canyon, was our destination for the night. It is well known for its collection of vintage cars and memorabilia on display, as well as a bar and restaurant that will quench any thirst or hunger. The campsites are located behind the lodge and also have all the necessary amenities. We completed a total moon cycle on the trip as we watched how the full moon rose in all its glory over the sandstone ridges of the Klein Karasberge, and we reminisced about our first full moon four weeks before at Wildlife Camp in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. We have a long drive ahead of us, not to mention a border crossing and a Covid rapid test to get into South Africa, so we turned in early.

Destination 23: Vryburg, North West, South Africa

The 75km dirt road from Canyon Roadhouse to Grunau was to be the last stretch of gravel on our trip. We refuelled at Karasberg before making our way to the Ariamsvlei/Nakop border post. We were expecting the worst, but it was one of the smoothest border crossings we’ve ever had. It took us just an hour to depart from the Namibian side and arrive back in South Africa, immigration, customs and police checks included. The plan was to stay over in Kuruman, but we reached Upington by lunchtime. So, instead we gobbled down a Spur lunch and set the GPS for Vryburg. We had camped every night of the trip since we left Lilongwe and decided to reward ourselves by checking in at Mams Accommodation in Vryburg for the night. Clean linen is always a treat after a month in the bush!

Destination 24: Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa

We had made it… 31 days, 4 countries, 22 destinations, 7 636km at an average of 57km/h and 134 hours on the road! Ironically, we were excited to be back in the same region that our forefathers decided to abandon almost 150 years ago.

We got to visit most of the significant Dorsland Trekkers landmarks and experienced some of the same fantastic scenery that they had seen, without the hardships of course. In Nicol Stassen’s book, Die Dorslandtrek, 1874-1881, he references a description from a popular travel writer, named Lawrence Green, describing the Dorsland Trek as “the most painful chapter in the whole history of the Afrikaner race”. However, in the same book he also references Lord Mayo who stated: “Taking them all round, a finer set of men I have never seen; without doubt, during that terrible seven years’ journey it was a case of the survival of the fittest”. It is indeed a privilege to be a descendant of Petrus Johannes Du Preez, who survived the entire journey, against all odds, from the old Transvaal to Humpata in Angola, and back. His resilience lives on within us!

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

You might also like

A TRUCK CALLED WANDA

With wanderlust virtually embedded in their DNA and a yearning to travel flowing through their veins, the Browns named their trusty Hilux Wanda. Together they

Read More »

A TRUCK CALLED WANDA

With wanderlust virtually embedded in their DNA and a yearning to travel flowing through their veins, the Browns named their trusty Hilux Wanda. Together they

Read More »