Kaokoland | Clutchless in Kaokoland
If you are stopped in your tracks even before the white-knuckle part of Van Zyl’s Pass, you only have one option: make a plan, and fast, says Herman of Staden.
My clutch has gone!” my brother-in-law says when I stop next to his Gelände-wagen.
We have barely started driving the infamous Van Zyl’s Pass, with only the rough stretch of road before the pass, behind us. No cellphone reception, no satellite phone and now no clutch, we are stranded about 900 km north of Windhoek, in the heart of Kaokoland.
“Quickly phone the AA,” I suggest jokingly.
Van Zyl’s Pass isn’t a mountain pass you tackle without caution, or a clutch. It is notorious, legendary and extremely difficult to drive under the best of circumstances. What now?
We can probably turn back to Okangwati, about 80 km (and four hours’ drive) to the northeast, but there definitely won’t be any help there. At the “filling station” in this hamlet diesel (at R12.50 per litre!) is pumped by hand from oil drums.
Repairs are out of the question and you can forget about spares for a Geländewagen.
I tow the stricken vehicle to a flat, sandy spot on the roadside so we can crawl in under it. The problem is quickly identified: the rubber part of the hydraulic clutch pipe has burst.
“Will you be able to drive down the pass without a clutch?” I ask my brother-in-law after we have removed the defunct rubber pipe.
“Let me think about it first,” he replies and walks off.
Pg 2: White sand, palm …
White sand, palm trees
When our group of six people in two vehicles, a Mitsubishi Pajero and the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, met a few days ago just south of Etosha, clutch problems were the furthest from our minds.
Just after the rains that had fallen till late in the season in Namibia, my wife, Charmelle, son, Jacques, and I from Pretoria are on a tour through Kaokoland with my brother-in-law, Martin Laubscher, sister-in-law, Annelize, and their daughter, Martinique, from Walvis Bay.
On our way north we found the normally dry Kaokoland was surprisingly green and covered in little yellow flowers. Even in April, some of the roads were still wet and washed away.
Our holiday (officially) started laid-back on the banks of the Kunene River at the Kunene River Lodge near Ruacana, with Angola tranquilly baking just beyond the river.
Awaking to the cooing of red-eyed doves on the very first morning, we realised this is a special place.
We planned to drive along the river to the Epupa Falls, but although it had already stopped raining, the road was still impassable. The Kunene had burst its banks, flooding the road here and there.
The lodge owner had tried the day before to drive the 100 km along the river to Epupa in an old Samil 20 truck, but was stopped in his tracks.
Our only option now was to drive the easier route, inland from Swartbooi’s Drift where the Thirstland Trekkers crossed the river, over Okangwati to the Epupa Falls.
The falls are an experience words fail to convey. Here the Kunene tumbles over red granite rock in one main and numerous secondary falls.
Ancient baobab trees grow seemingly out of solid rock on the islands between the falls.
Our stand at the Omarunga campsite was almost too good to be true. On white sand, literally against the Kunene, we pitched our tents under large makalani palm trees.
When push comes to shove …
After two nights at the waterfall we leave for Van Zyl’s Pass, over Okangwati and Otjitanda.
We decide to overnight at a dam some 15 km before the pass, allowing us to devote the whole of the next day to driving the pass.
Although the pass is only 11 km long, it has to be driven slowly and carefully. Some sections require serious road building if you want to prevent damage to your vehicle.
We make good progress along the part before the pass until the clutch packs up.
While Martin walks off to rack his brains, Charmelle and Annelize erect a table and start preparing lunch.
Uncertainty hangs so heavily in the air, we take in very little of the surrounding wilderness beauty of our “picnic” spot.
After a while Martin returns – with a plan. He will reconnect the steel part of the clutch pipe to bypass the burst rubber part.
Two hours later, after the steel pipe has been disconnected at its attachment points, a couple of bends have been straightened and automatic gearbox oil is flowing through instead of hydraulic fluid, we are ready to tackle the rest of the pass.
With Jacques mostly walking in front, directing us around the largest obstacles, we battle down the pass in our vehicles.
Large sections of the pass have been washed away and parts are littered with sharp stones. Moreover, the detours haven’t been well cleared yet.
Nevertheless, the mountainsides covered in yellow flowers halt us in our tracks frequently to take photographs.
Pg 3: Shuffling across …
Shuffling across the pass
Eventually we reach the Marienfluss lookout where everyone is relieved to be able to stretch their legs. The view across the plains is astonishingly beautiful.
Just ahead, the mountains open up and we know the end of the pass is near.
From here it is some 2 km to the bottom of the pass, but some of the steepest parts are found on this section. It’s low-range, first gear all the way to the bottom.
As the Pajero has an automatic gearbox, I have to brake often. More often than not, one wheel is suspended in mid-air.
Slipping and sliding we safely reach the bottom.
Repairs aside, it took us two and a half hours to drive the pass. Martin’s DIY repair lasted not only the rest of the way, but the rest of the holiday.
At the bottom, the pass spits us out on the Marien¬fluss, an open savannah between the Otjihipa and Hartmann mountains, stretching north back to the Kunene.
The Marienfluss is covered with long grass, with intermittent grassless patches, the so-called fairy circles.
The sandy track north to the Kunene is severely corrugated, but after deflating the tyres we drive comfortably at 60 km/h.
For two nights we camp right next to the Kunene at Camp Syncro. Shady ana trees protect us against the fierce sun.
On the morning of the third day we leave early and drive back through the Marienfluss, past the turnoff to Van Zyl’s Pass and over the Red Drum Pass.
The road is very rough here and there and you have to go slowly. And don’t expect a filling station at Red Drum – all there is, is a red drum.
The road is long and the passengers are tiring, but fortunately the surroundings make up for it. Clumps of mopani trees and thorn trees populate it here and there. And in the grass-covered open spaces you see herds of springbok and gemsbok – and now and again Himba cattle.
Tagging along after elephants
We are quite close to our next destination, Purros, in the middle of Kaokoland with its wide open plains, inhospitable mountains and (usually) dry
However, we first have to detour some 500 km along a number of rough roads to Opuwo to draw cash as no one in this part of the country accepts credit cards.
From there we’ll drive over Sesfontein to Purros where we will camp next to the Hoarusib River for two nights.
Although you can see game such as rhino, kudu, zebra and giraffe in their natural surroundings in this part of Namibia, we’re actually here for the giants of Kaokoland, the desert elephants. (After our trip, I heard other parties had found lion tracks in the river. Had I known that, I would not have walked to the bathroom so readily at night …)
The campsite at Purros has six stands, quite far apart, next to the river. Other campers tell us about elephants in the riverbed, but we find nothing.
After breakfast the next day we drive downstream. We make good progress along the river that is actually just a narrow rivulet with a wide sandy bank.
We haven’t gone far when we see the first elephants – a herd with a baby. We drive down the river in the direction of the Hoarusib Poort, and after a while encounter a herd of six elephants.
Here the river has much more water and we can’t pass the elephants without disturbing them. Slowly we tag along behind them while they feed, ambling along the river. After a while Martin decides to cross the stream, but his front wheels sink into the soft, wet sand on the other side. I tow him out in a flash.
Pg 4: Going nowhere …
Going nowhere in a hurry
For a while we tag along behind the elephants. When the tuskers veer off into the dense bush on the riverbank, Martin takes the gap and overtakes them.
After deciding rather to drive through the river, I send Jacques walking ahead to explore the river crossing. We ford easily and eventually all of us have passed the elephants.
A little further we reach the Hoarusib Poort, and once more Jacques has to ensure the route is passable.
What an experience to be able to drive through a poort with a river flowing through it like this in the wilderness.
Twice more I have to tow Martin’s vehicle out of the soft sand. During these recoveries I realise the patches of soft sand are quite small – one moment you’re walking on firm ground, the next you’ve sunk in knee-deep in a type of quicksand.
After the second recovery I take the lead and decide to drive faster to avoid getting stuck – what a pity there’s no pill for stupidity.
Just some 2 km past the poort my car gets stuck up to its axles. When I engage a gear, all four wheels start spinning before I touch the accelerator. No diff locks or deflated tyres will get me out of here.
Meanwhile, Martin has found firmer sand and tries to recover me. He is tugging so hard his car is hopping around, but the Pajero doesn’t move.
We try digging the chassis out, but with each scoop the same amount of sand flows back again. Jacques later starts digging a furrow to try and drain the water away from the Pajero.
Martin and I start jacking up the Pajero, but the stones under the jack are pushed into the sand. Eventually I find a large rock on the riverbank, roll it to the car and place it under the jack. The jack sinks in slightly at first, but then steadies and we’re able to lift the car’s rear.
Hereafter we place stones under the wheels, and in a blink Jacques digs the sand away from the car. Two hours later, after much sweating and frustration, the Pajero is on dry land again. (If we had an exhaust jack we would have saved ourselves much frustration.)
We slowly drive back to “civilisation”, dragging out our Kao¬koland adventure as much as possible.
The return trip through the Hoanib River, Sesfontein and Palmwag, as well as the people we encounter, confirm what we had known all along: once Kaokoland has bitten you, you don’t escape in a hurry.
I want to go too:
It is difficult to pick one. The fact that we could experience a wilderness area with little disturbance by people is worth more than any manmade place on earth.
The Chinese opencast marble mine near Red Drum. The caretaker at the nearby campsite told us the Chinese who work at the mine take water from his borehole without making any arrangements. The mineworkers allegedly have also slaughtered a donkey for food. Africa can do without such resource robbers.
What are the indispensible items?
Drinking water and fuel for the trip from Ruacana to Sesfontein. We did cook with the local water. Be self-sufficient, but live simply – leave the luxuries at home.
Don’t leave without a GPS with Tracks4Africa – there are simply too many turnoffs.
What will you do differently next time?
I’ll take more cash. The camps and lodges don’t accept credit cards. I will also take an exhaust jack. Lasly, I’ll take extra fuel along, as we did not have enough of it for visiting the Hartmann’s Valley, which we want to visit next time.
Be well-equip¬ped to get your vehicle out of trouble. Driving with a single vehicle is a risk.
Don’t believe those who say you can only make it down Van Zyl’s Pass in an aeroplane. A reliable 4×4 vehicle will be able to make it through. Just be prepared to get your hands dirty and to get a bit of sand between your teeth.