My father is from Namibia, a vast country to the north of South Africa, on the west coast of Africa. This country has miles of open space and desert landscapes, and is one of the least populated countries in the world, with a population of 2.54 per square kilometer.
We used to drive from Cape Town to Namibia during the school holidays to stay with relatives, and when I was a kid the scenery on the highway through the car window seemed endlessly unchanging. From far away, the mountains and koppies (little hills) looked dry and barren. However, go deeper into the Naukluft mountains of the Namib-Naukluft national park and you will find a beautiful world of kloofs (ravines), emerald springs, shaded riversides scented by wild mint, cathedral-like limestone formations, and evidence of animal life all around. This world is evocatively described in the book “The Sheltering desert” by Henno Martin, one of two German geologists who took refuge in the Namib desert to avoid being conscripted into the Germany army during the second world war.
As Namibia is close to my heart, I decided to write about a hiking trail I did there for the Show your World series. The Namib-Naukluft national park has several hiking trails, including a 120km, 8 day trail, and in 2012 I joined seven others in walking this trail. The great thing about this trail is that they allow only one hiking group onto the trail every two days or so, and the group must consist of 3-12 people, so you are truly alone in the wilderness. The trail starts at Hiker’s Haven, where you can stay over the night before and organize your backpacks for the trip ahead. You are allowed to drop food off at the halfway point, so you need to organize enough food in your pack for four days and then a “refill” pack that you will collect on day four, bearing in mind that you will still need to carry the things you have left with you after the first four days.
Four of us travelled to the national park by kombi (mini-bus) from Cape Town over two days while the other four flew to Windhoek (the capital city) and travelled from there by rental car.
When we arrived, the ranger told us that in recent weeks none of the groups that had set out on the trail had completed it as they had found it too challenging. There are sections of the trail that require climbing up and down on chains, and at the time a rope was required for day seven, a section where there is a steep dry waterfall that needs to be scaled (as we were there three years ago, I’m not sure whether or not that is still the case). However, we had climbers in our group and my friend and I had been on long practice hikes in the mountains of the Cape, so we felt confident that we were well prepared. After re-organizing all our bags and packing for the next day, the eight of us had a braai (barbecue) at Hiker’s haven.
The next day when we woke up, it was raining lightly, which is unusual for that time of year. So we put on our rain jackets and our backpack covers and set off into the cool morning.
I was relieved that the going was not too tough the first day, after hearing how tough the trail was. There were some ascents, with lovely views over the far off hills, and we even saw some Hartmann’s mountain zebra (in fact, this part of the trail partly follows the zebra path). We stopped for lunch near a stream and then continued on to Putte shelter, the first night’s stop. The shelters on the hike were mostly constructed of rock walls with a metal roof and are rudimentary but help to protect from the cold, and had a piece of wood to pull across the entrance to the shelter so that animals did not try steal the food at night. Headlamps are essential for these hikes as it’s very dark in the middle of wilderness, away from the city lights, and once the sun goes down it gets dark rapidly. You can see the whole milky way and a million other stars in the heavens above. It also gets cold very quickly, especially since these hikes are mostly done in the winter months, as summer is too hot. As soon as the sun went down it was time to put on layers of warm clothes and jackets. While it was still light, we managed to fill up our water bottles and have a bit of a wash using the old metal water pump near the shelter.
Day two started off with a walk along some plains, until we reached the first climbing section of our trail, Ubusis Kloof. There were three climbing sections, scary, scarier and scariest 😉 Actually, the first section was fine and not scary at all, we had to climb down some rock pitches but the holds are very easy and you do not feel unsafe, especially if you already have some scrambling experience. The second section I did find a bit scary because I’d never climbed on chains before, and had to get used to the way of climbing downwards where you can’t look where you are going. Some practice in a climbing gym before would have been helpful, but at least the guys took our backpacks down for this section, which helped a lot. It was quite a long stretch of going down. The third section was similar, maybe a bit steeper, but shorter. After this adrenalin rush (quite a fun section), we had to walk further until we reached the next night’s stop, and old run-down holiday cottage. A nearby river allowed gave us a place to fill our water bottles for drinking and cooking on our gas stoves.
Day 3 started with climbing back up the chains of Ubusis kloof – so all the climbing was just for fun, surprise! Then it was a relatively easy day’s walk to the next overnight shelter, which was on a grassy plain. There are quite aggressive grasses in Namibia, i.e. they are spiky, sticky seed-bearing parts which can stick to your socks and get into your shoes and be very uncomfortable, but we’d been pre-warned so were all wearing something called “gaitors” over our shoes. Our feet were all quite tired by the end of this day, so once we’d used the remaining sunshine to take a “bucket bath” behind a bush, we just lay around relaxing. Once the sun fell, it was a very cold and windy night. Something also ran over my face, which turned out to be a lizard, luckily, and not something worse!
On day 4 we set off into the grasslands and soon arrived in a gorge formed by the Tsams river, where we negotiated our way through some rocky areas where riverside vegetation grew, smelling of wild mint. There was evidence of zebras and also of other animals – perhaps leopards – as there were also zebra bones. It was a hot day, and after a steep climb we came around a corner to find beautiful natural pools, emerald green in colour – needless to say we couldn’t jump into them quickly enough. We didn’t stay cool for long though, as more steep climbs followed and then a steep descent. At the bottom of the path down was another pool surrounded by many boulders. Some of us went for an adventurous climb over and under these giant boulders, to be rewarded with waterfalls, pools and amazing cathedrals of rock, carved by the water. Finally, we made our way to the day 4 stop, which was Tsams Ost, where we found our day 4 supplies waiting in the lockers and so could have a bit of a feast. (If I remember correctly this was also the worst toilet of all the stops. They all had long drops but this one seemed particularly overused). The brief wash that evening was by a windmill which could pump water.
Every day before we started we read aloud the description of the day, and so we knew that a hard uphill slog was ahead of us on day 5. In the morning I had a feeling it would be a hot day, so I carried extra water despite the weight. As expected, the hill was hard work: we had to climb over lots of rocks and it was steep. But the extra water turned out to be a blessing because there was no water on route (a pump mentioned in the description was dry) and quite a few in our group had drunk their water quickly due to being so hot on the slog up the hill at the beginning of the day that they had little left by the afternoon. By that time I still had plenty of water left and was happy to be able to give it to them and also lighten my load, a win-win situation! It was a very hot afternoon and there was little shade, we stopped next to a rock face for a bit, and later on under a small tree that offered the only shade for quite some while. We were all pretty glad when we arrived at that evening’s shelter, which had a beautiful setting in between the mountains.
I had strange dreams that night, it was windy and somehow I dreamt that there was a flood in the canyon and we had to escape. I woke up convinced it had rained, but it was just the wind. More steep climbs followed that day, and long walks across dry areas. My friend H and I amused ourselves in the afternoon by taking photos, trying to break the monotony of the sometimes endless walking.
On day 7: another steep climb to start the day, over bigger and bigger rocks until we reached the climax of the trail, a climb up a steep dry waterfall. Or dry in theory, but actually there still some damp, slippery moss. The climbers went up ahead to secure the ropes above, so that we could climb up with a rope attached to our waist in case of slipping and falling. They also took our backpacks. Nonetheless it was a scary climb. There was one step where I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and was sort of stuck, overthinking it. Then when I tried to move to one side my foot slipped on moss, and with that I shot up the rest of the wall like a gecko, forgetting that I “couldn’t” climb up that way! Nothing like a bit of adrenalin to kick start the survival instincts. After we reached the top we celebrated with chocolate and a rest, and there were even some (freezing cold) pools not far away, where H went swimming and then three of us enjoyed a nice cup of tea. The little tea and picnic stops along the way were one of the most pleasurable parts of the hike, a moment where you could stop and just take in the beauty around you and the feeling of being far from civilization.
After hiking out of the rocky area and some more walking, we reached a plateau and the top of Bakenkop, the highest point of our hike at about 1950m. The views over the valley below were beautiful. Then the trail meandered over a flat area, the Kapokvlakte, which was a long walk to our next overnight stop. The area had quite a few animals (springbok, jackals, zebra) and the sunset over the plateau was beautiful.
We woke the next morning to find that it has been such a cold night high up on the plateau that all the water in our water bottles was frozen solid! The thermometer had registered -6 degrees C. It was a freezing cold morning and since we knew now that all that remained was to descend, we dressed up quite warmly. It was a very sad feeling knowing that it was the last day. The walk down was easy, first we descended into a gorge, then walked along the river, past some more beautiful rock pools and waterfalls. It became warmer and warmer as we descended and the sun shone brighter. We stopped for one last lunch with tea next to one of the waterfalls, all feeling very nostalgic. Then it was just the remainder of the trail following the river into the valley, and finally back to Hiker’s haven when we had started. The memories of this trail linger with me still, and the memory of the Naukluft mountains will always have a special place in my heart.
Written for Show your World.