22 Sep 2013

Himba Tribes & Three Wheel Driving in Kaokoveld

Namibia: Kaokoveld: Van Zyl’s Pass Campsite, Epupa.

The road to Etanga started off well and we quickly reached the village where we had planned to camp.  But this was a miserable looking place – ramshackle huts and beer bottles littered the dusty ground, and the locals looked more confused by our presence than welcoming.  So we decided to press on into the bush, aiming for *Van Zyl’s Pass Community Campsite* but prepared to wild camp if need be.  It was on this road that a Jeep Wrangler overtook us, the driver waving as he powered past, this was the only car we were to see for the next 2 days.  Very soon after Etanga, the road dwindled to a sandy track, before finally giving way to rocky gullies and riverbed trails.  Our speed slowed to an average 20km/h, but the reward was seeing numerous Himba settlements along the way.

The Himba tribe are a subgroup of the indigenous Herero people, who originated in Central Africa.  The Himba are elegant people, long limbed and proudly defensive of their traditional way of life.  They are also highly distinctive, with a number of symbolic hairstyles which denotes social status, for example: age & marital status.  Similarly the height of a woman’s ankle bracelets and the number of vertical stripes on it, indicated the number of children she had.  They also smear their bodies with a bright red pigment made by mixing animal fat (or, more commonly today, Vaseline) with ground ochre stone.  This is mainly decorative, but has the added bonus of giving a high degree of sun protection.  

The settlements we passed were not tourist traps but authentic homesteads.  Photography is considered highly intrusive by the Himba and so we had to resist the temptation.  We wanted to keep a low profile and so gave them a wide berth.  Even still, we had great views of their round mud huts, animal kraals and burial sites.

With the late afternoon sun beginning to sink low we decided to try to press on to the Van Zyls Community Campsite.  For the last 50km the track deteriorated to two tyre tracks in the sand occasionally straddling rocky outcrops and descending deep ravines into dry river beds.  Tonka lurched from side to side as the steep camber alternated, and more than once one wheel balanced in mid-air as Tonka decided which way to topple.  So with sweaty backs it was with a sigh of relief that we entered the community camp at Van Zyl’s Pass. 

Here we met the only other person staying there – the driver of the Jeep Wrangler that had overtaken us earlier in the day.  He was an energetic South African, touring alone and about to embark the next morning on the decent of Van Zyl’s Pass.  This pass is touted as one of the steepest and most dangerous 4x4 routes in Southern Africa.  It descends more than 600m over steep boulder fields, in places having a terrifying gradient of 1:1.  If you successfully get down it, you then find yourself in one of the remotest corners of the continent.  A no-man’s land sandwiched between the steep mountains to the East and the Skeleton Coast to the West.  The reward for your efforts is a drive out through the Marienfluss, an area of virtually zero human habitation but animal population of legendary variety.  We had already ruled out the pass as Tonka is too long and heavy to be ideal for that.  If we could have planned our route again, we would have headed South of the pass and then North into the Marienfluss, skirting the worst of the mountain passes.  But this would have been a detour of several days.

So we wished the lone driver well before having dinner in our very tranquil and secluded campsite.  Our fire of Mopane wood glowed late into the evening, and the stars shone brilliantly through the clear mountain air. 

The next morning we set off for the long drive North to Epupa falls, on the border with Angola.  We had a choice of two 4x4 routes, each terminating in the town of Okangwati.  We chose what seemed to be the shortest and most direct. Having ditched 20L of water to minimise weight, we left camp.  None of the driving the day before prepared us for the trail that lay ahead.

For the first two hours it was the same sandy track, snaking across rocks and dry streams, and twisting through thick Mopane bush.  

After that, any semblance of a road disappeared.  Driving through dense scrub we eventually had to stop at the bottom of the first of several very steep rock escarpments that lay between us and the main road still some 100km away.  Only dislodged stones and scratch marks on the tops of the boulders where cars had scraped over them, indicated that anyone had ever driven here before.  It was now Tonka’s time to shine, and his low range gears came to the rescue.  In low 1st he has huge torque from his big but otherwise lazy engine, and he began to crawl his way up.  Low range gears are a bit like half shoe sizes – when normal gears are either too high or too low, you can use low range to find one that is just right (so long as you don't need to drive more than about 30mph...).

We were conscious that any mistake here could leave us stranded for days and Josi often had to jump out to spot guide as the wheels moved from one rock to the next.  Going downhill was equally eventful and at one point John made a classic novice mistake.  As Tonka listed heavily to one side, so much so that Josi abandoned directions, and simply stood with her hands to her face, John instinctively thrust his arm out of the open window as the car lurched suddenly even further over towards the mountainside.  This is a hard instinct to overcome and has resulted in plenty of broken arms. Windows closed was the safer way to go…

But this was an exhilarating experience.  We were truly in the wilds here and the only other person we met was a young Himba boy leading his herd of goats down the pass as we came up it.  He looked very entertained by us and then asked for water, which we gave him. 

The next hundred kilometres took us about 5 hours and we were relieve to reach the tiny town of Okangwati back on the main road to Epupa.  Filling diesel here was another experience.  Finding the only filling station in town, the woman attendant looked perturbed when John asked for what he thought was a modest 60 litres.  It was then we noticed there were no fuel pumps.  The woman emerged from the back of her shed with a length of hosepipe.  This explained her reluctance to sell any great quantity – she put one end of the hose into a 200 litre drum of diesel and then sucked until it slowly began to decant into a plastic jerry can on the ground.  This happened painfully slowly and we settled on 40L instead.  She did this all the while with a baby clinging to her chest and standing next to a government awareness sign reading “TALK, Don’t Shoot” with a picture of a handgun with blood dripping from the end of it.  Politely declining the woman’s offer to sell us a further 5L of fuel in a watering can, we resumed North after the 1 hour 20 minute fuel stop!

It was dark as we finally neared Epupa Camp and in the preceding twilight a large Kudu suddenly sprang onto the road next to us and made a panicked dash alongside us for a few moments travelling at 60km/h.

Arriving at Epupa Camp we were unaware until dawn of the amazing location of our pitch…


Days in Africa: 14
Km driven: 303km

Km total: 1,917km

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