Van Zyl’s Pass | A pass too far
On the back of a mule is the only way he’ll ever consider returning to Van Zyl’s Pass, admits Rony Desodt, after having faced the angel of death on that infamous pass in Kaokoland. But never again on anything mechanised.
At daybreak I make my way towards the dry riverbed and, using a metal dish, dig a hole of about a metre deep in a shady spot. I’m hoping water will surge forth, but alas, nothing.
Back at our tent near the bottom of Van Zyl’s Pass my wife is busy praying. Things are getting serious.
At seven o’clock the temperature hits 31 °C. I lurch over to the other two. Steve can barely walk and has started to hallucinate. Olaf is quiet, he stares vacantly ahead. Encouraging him proves to be difficult.
We know the nearest water is at Orupembe but it is almost 120 km away.
Nobody speaks of it. Everybody struggles quietly. Some of us want to weep but cannot; the body has more important uses for its last bit of moisture…
With a song in my heart
When the five of us got together in Pofadder a week earlier, we had no idea that our two-week tour of Namibia could end in near-death, caused by dehydration.
The group consisted of my wife, Jos, and I (both 48 and from Wellington) on a BMW R1200 GSA, Tony Chasen (53) from Johannesburg on his Honda Varadero, Olaf Gaertner (51) on a BMW R1200 GSA and Steve Field (also 51) on his BMW R1150 GS Adventure, both from Somerset West.
The plan was to ride through eastern Namibia to the Epupa Falls, far north along the Kunene River and from there south and over Van Zyl’s Pass to Orupembe. From there we would come down the western routes through places like Sesfontein, Khorixas, Henties Bay and Solitaire before heading home.
Originally we were to be accompanied by a support vehicle but that plan changed when the owner of the vehicle could no longer join us.
We decided to continue on our little adventure despite the setback, but months of planning were thrown in disarray because now everything had to be loaded onto the bikes instead.
In all likelihood that was the moment things began to go wrong, even before we departed.
The first part of our journey went without a hitch. At Okangwati we had to say farewell to Tony as his bike didn’t have the fuel capacity to join ours for the trek over Van Zyl’s Pass.
We arranged to meet up again in Sesfontein two days later.
Little did we know…
Pg 2: When windolene …
When Windolene starts to look good…
We study our GPSs again just as we swing away at Okangwati. They display several “not recommended” markings on the route from here to Van Zyl’s Pass. We press on regardless, full of bravado. After all, we are well prepared …
The information we got from those who have crossed Van Zyl’s Pass on bikes (and there aren’t many – the locals say they can’t recall more than thirty), was that the climb is pretty steep but the rest of the pass quite ride-able.
Roughly 40 km after Okangwati we are still puzzled by the “difficult climb” warning because up to now it’s been almost child’s play.
Shortly thereafter, though, we begin to notice the umbrella thorn bushes, hundreds of flies start swarming around us and we encounter the first of many rocky climbs where we are forced to dismount and push the bikes.
Another 20 km (taking an hour) later, we arrive at the Otjitanda Camp – with three litres of water each. The plan was to get more water at Otjitanda’s Himba village – but their water pump doesn’t work. Hasn’t for months…
Tonight we are tired but pleased. After all, we are near the pass and the worst is behind us. Or so we think…
Tomorrow it’s just a question of riding to Rooidrom, some 70 km further, and from there roughly another 80 km southward over Bloudrom to Orupembe for water. Or so we think…
We unpack, avoiding the scorpions scurrying after our light sources and go to sleep.
We unroot our tent pegs during the early morning hours, drink our last bit of water and discuss the possibility of turning back to Okangwati or Opuwo to fetch water. Eventually we decide to push on over Van Zyl’s Pass because, according to our calculations, the distances to water on either side of the pass is more or less the same. And if we turn back to Okangwati, we would have to negotiate the same rocks we encountered yesterday.
We quickly regret the decision. The route onward is unforgiving and the rocks, some as big as trash cans, put a serious brake on things. To compound the problem, the tyres won’t grip on the loose rocks and we frequently have to man-handle the bikes over the boulders.
A fully fuelled BMW 1200, luggage, emergency equipment and pillion passenger, altogether easily weighs half a ton. Van Zyl’s Pass is certainly not built for it. Even though this motorcycle has one of the highest ground clearances on the market, it was still did not make it any easier to handle the pass’s countless rocks, steps, taluses and ridges.
By two o’clock, six hours after we left the camp at Otjitanda, we have progressed only 23 km. The struggle in 36 °C heat, without a drop of water, is depleting our last reserves. We begin to dehydrate. We can’t eat because we cannot swallow.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and the old army trick of sucking on a pebble placed under the tongue no longer works. The two water pumps we encounter along the road are rusted and empty.
We now conclude that the information we’d been given was wrong…
Fortunately we happen upon a group of Himbas near the Marienfluss viewpoint who spare us 6 litres of water. The purifying tablets make it taste like swimming-pool water but we down it there and then.
From the viewpoint it is a mere 2 km downhill to the bottom of the pass but the GPS shows three “very dangerous” markers along the trail.
I eventually ride my bike with difficulty (and with the help of Olaf and Steve) to some 800 m below the viewpoint. All that remain now is about 1 km to the cairn that marks the end of the pass.
But we can’t go on. It is four o’clock and we are exhausted and once again desperate for water. Olaf has difficulty speaking, even though silence has never been his weakness. We decide to overnight right there in our tents.
As Olaf and Steve’s bikes are still parked above us near the viewpoint, they decide to hike back and sleep near their bikes. It takes Steve three hours to walk the 800 m.
Sleep does not come easily, the thirst is bad and that Windolene is starting to look really good.
Pg 3: Flying pigs, stars …
Flying pigs, stars and a cloud of dust
After my futile digging in the riverbed for water earlier this morning, we start to use our last ergs of energy to ride the bikes down the final descent of the pass.
At ten, after about two hours of hard labour, we finally get the bikes to the bottom of the pass. The next target now is to reach Orupembe, roughly 120 km south on the Marienfluss grasslands, where we’ll find water.
The Marienfluss is flat and we thought that even in our weakened state we’d not have too much trouble getting to Orupembe. But the Marienfluss that was supposed to be our deliverance turned into yet another obstacle along our path.
For more than a day we strugg
led with Van Zyl’s Pass, without water and in scorching heat. And now this: Loads and loads of sand, the bane of the motorcyclist.
The trouble begins barely 5 km from the cairn at the foot of the pass.
It’s been more than a day since we had anything to eat and nobody has an ounce of energy left to stand up in the saddle. Even though we are proficient riders, we fall frequently due to the circumstances.
I find I can’t get my bike up. We hallucinate. Steve cannot get back on his feet and curl up into a foetal position next to his bike.
It is then, around eleven o’clock, that we decide that we need outside help; it’s time to break out the satellite phone.
Why didn’t we phone for help earlier? Because we knew nobody could easily reach us on the pass.
We phone our kids in Wellington who have some difficulty extracting the GPS co-ordinates from me. A while later the owners of Camp Syncro at Otjinhungwa, 60 km north of us along the Kunene, inform us that they are on their way!
The minutes creep by slowly. The hallucinations increase and we start to see flying piggies and stars. Everyone is quiet. We drag Steve out of the sun and under a small tree.
Then, about an hour after we ground to a halt, a dust cloud appears on the horizon. Probably another hallucination or dream, I think. But the dust cloud comes nearer until out of it emerges a herd of cattle – followed by their Himba herders (and our salvation).
Quite a bit of sign language later they realise that we want water. They don’t carry any with them but they offer to fetch some, jogging away into the mountains with our empty containers.
They return two hours later. Finally we can drink!
Each of us gets three litres, but oh dear, the sudden moisture in our dehydrated bodies cause the toxins to be expelled violently. Even in our weakened condition, we must run like mad to find a bush for privacy.
An hour later, at around three, our next group of saviours from Camp Syncro arrive. We leave the motorcycles in a nearby Himba kraal and climb on board Camp Syncro’s Land Cruiser. Three hours later, at six o’clock, we arrive at the camp on the banks of the Kunene.
Before we fall asleep we drink nearly 10 litres of water each.
Pg 4: Not again, not likely
Not again, not likely
We spend the next three days resting and recovering. At least we now have the opportunity to explore the northern part of the Marienfluss, something we would not have been able to do if Van Zyl’s Pass had not stumped us.
Eventually we get back to our bikes (with 200 litres of water, sugar, maize and tobacco to thank the Himbas) we continue our trek to Orupembe and the last stretch home.
Even though the section to Orupembe is quite technical, with tall grass, sand and eroded roads to keep you on your toes, it is also extremely beautiful: hordes of eland, springbuck and other game on the grasslands wherever you look.
In the meantime we had gotten hold of Tony and he informed us that there is no fuel at Sesfontein. What now? A detour to Opuwe is the only option, but according to the bike’s onboard computer we don’t have enough fuel to make it.
But unfortunately we have no other choice. Roughly 30 km outside Opuwo the fuel warning light comes on. I can’t remember that I breathed at all during those last few kilometres but mercifully none of us runs out of fuel. (Tony had meanwhile departed from Sesfontein and made his own way home. Several punctures had been giving him a hard time and he decided to head for Windhoek for a replacement tyre).
Greatest lessons learned?
- Aside from taking enough water, make sure your information is trustworthy. We were well prepared but unfortunately had incorrect information about the pass.
- Most of the motorcyclists who crossed Van Zyl’s Pass did it with a support vehicle. They therefore didn’t have to negotiate the rocks and boulders with luggage and pillion passengers.
- Take a satellite phone.
- If you see a fuel pump, fill up.
- Make sure your GPS co-ordinate grid format is used by all. S17 15.830 E12 26.592 and S17.15830 E12.26592 are, as the crow flies, 71 km apart.
Next year, again in May, we will return to criss-cross the Marienfluss and take hundreds more photographs of the Epupa Falls. But we won’t go near the Van Zyl’s Pass again.
Neither with or without a support vehicle. The place is not called the Dorsland for nothing.
Pg 5: Quick facts
Oom Ben’s handiwork
To say that Van Zyl’s Pass is challenging is like saying Naas Botha is an average flyhalf. No, this pass is more than challenging, tough or even damn difficult. It is legendary. But what is the story behind that pass in the rugged Kaokoland?
Nowadays it takes anything from three to six hours to complete the 10,6 km of the Van Zyl’s Pass in a 4×4, but way back it took a team of men several months to hammer out the route along the small mountain chain.
The pass is named after Ben van Zyl (who, for 32 years, from 1949 onwards, was a government official for the Kaokoveld) who built the pass during the sixties to shorten his inspection tours.
He followed an existing cattle track over the mountain, shown to him by the Himba. “Then I saw it looked good. I am certain we can build a road here” he said during a 2001 interview.
Together with 20 workers he set off for work, with a regular 3-ton Chevrolet truck and a tractor-pulled wagon, into the mountains.
“Actually we didn’t build a road. We hewed it out of stone and rock. And once the road had been hewn out, we drove on it,” he said afterwards.
The pass was completed four months later. The road was originally quite narrow but during the border wars it was widened here and there to allow military vehicles to pass.
The first time Van Zyl drove “up” (in an easterly direction) his pass, just after completion, it was just as harrowing an experience as it is today.
“I drove a 4×4 International pickup-truck and one of my assistants rode along,” said Van Zyl. “When we hit the climb, I saw him lean forward here next to me with his hands pressed tightly against the windscreen. And that’s how he sat for the whole time.
“When we reached the summit, he said: ‘Meneer, this road is very steep, if I didn’t push as hard as I did, we’d never have gotten to the top.’”
Don’t even consider driving “up” the pass. There have been several cases of people and their vehicles failing to reach the top and getting stuck for days. In the seventies the local officials even decided that the route was too dangerous and the pass was closed for a while.
*Source: Die Burger (6 February 2001)
Over the pass with a hop, jump and skip
Skip Scheepers of Windhoek and three of his friends crossed Van Zyl’s Pass in October last year, all on motorcycles and all in just two hours. Skip offers a few tips.
What were you riding?
I was on a KTM 640 Adventure. The other bikes were a KTM 950 Adventure, a BMW 1200 GS and a BMW 1200 GS Adventure. We packed as you would for a hiking trip (no luxuries, little extra clothing, additional fuel, liquids and food) and everything was carried on the bikes. We filled up at Okangwati and prearranged to refill at Camp Syncro.
What is the most challenging part of the pass?
The pass is approximately 10 km long, of which the first and the last two kilometres are the
toughest. These sections are very rocky (large and loose) and there are steep descents. It is therefore technically quite demanding, especially when you’re handling a big bike and are tired to boot.
Your ompressions of the pass and would you do it again?
Because I rode a lighter bike with good ground clearance, it was much easier for me than for the guys with the heavier motorcycles. We had to help them down one by one at the more difficult sections. Sure, I’ll do it again as part of a route but not as a destination.
General advice you can give to someone planning to go by bike?
- Plan properly, specifically what you are going to do about obtaining enough fuel and water.
- Give yourself enough time in which to do it.
- Don’t underestimate the distances and conditions involved.
What are the big no-no’s on the pass?
- Don’t underestimate the pass.
- Don’t attempt the pass if you don’t have enough water. Remember; from the base of the pass the nearest water is at the top of the Marienfluss (through 60 km of soft sand) or at Orupembe (100 km further, of which the first 40 km is through soft sand).
- Don’t lose sight of one another.
How much water is enough?
It depends of several factors like temperature and humidity. Take as much as possible and refill whenever you get the chance. That is why a good map, with as many accurately marked water holes as possible, is essential. Tracks4Africa is the only map of the area that I trust.
What equipment is vital?
- A satellite phone;
- GPS loaded with Tracks4Africa;
- equipment to repair tyres;
- binding wire (there is no wire to be found lying around in that part of the world).
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