Namibia | Of mountains and molehills
If plains and open country are all you associate with Namibia, you are so wrong. Come along with Barnie Louw and photographer Theo Coetzee on an exploration of a fistful dirt road passes.
Namibia is neither known for its overpopulation, gridlock and short distances between towns, nor for its bad beer or Rugby World Cup glory. Likewise, the country isn’t quite famous for its mountain passes.
When you think of Namibia, you probably see endless, flat, wide-open plains in your mind’s eye. However, if you carefully study a good map you will see there are indeed a handful fine (and sometimes tough) passes: Divorce Pass, Brandberg West Pass, Joubert’s Pass, Sesfontein Pass, and probably the mother of them all, Van Zyl’s Pass.
Added to that are a clutch of dirt road passes slithering off the Khomas Hochland – the central plateau west of Windhoek – from an altitude of between 1 700 m and 2 500 m above sea level to the Namib desert and the coast.
If you want to, you can drive six dirt road passes between Windhoek and the Namib, and two more just for the fun of it:
- The C28 via the Bosua Pass is the shortest (but not the quickest) route from Windhoek to Swakopmund, and it’s one of Namibia’s steepest passes;
- The D1982 via the Us-hoogte Pass is the shortest route between Windhoek and Walvis Bay;
- Namibia’s longest and highest, the Gamsberg Pass on the C26 between Windhoek and Walvis Bay, overlooks Namibia’s own Table Mountain;
- The Spreetshoogte Pass, on the D1275, is also quite steep, but is more renowned for providing the best views in Namibia;
- Further south is the Remhoogte Pass on the D1261 between Windhoek and Solitaire (Namibia’s smallest town, some reckon); and
- The tame Kupferberg Pass on the C26 just outside Windhoek is one of the access routes to the Khomas Hochland;
- On the C14 between Solitaire and Walvis Bay are the Gaub and Kuiseb passes. If you’ve read Henno Martin’s The Sheltering Desert, especially the Kuiseb Pass will no doubt fascinate you.
How you want to tackle these passes is up to you: you can explore them individually on a comfortable 5-6-hour daytrip from Windhoek, you can take a shortcut to the coast and stay off the tar roads, or, like us, you can drive them consecutively and turn it into a holiday.
Pg 2: Boshua Pass
BOSUA PASS (1:5) | Fearfully steep, but nice
I’m nervous, very nervous, because since we left Wind¬hoek 50 km ago on the C28, we haven’t seen a single other vehicle; in fact, we’ve come across no living soul. Should anything happen to us now …
Why this nervousness, you may ask. Like us, two German tourists from Westerwald, Johannes and Elke Fellinger, also stopped here at the old stone walls of the Von Francois Fort, in their rented Toyota bakkie on 8 July 2007 after arriving in Namibia earlier that day.
Johannes was taking photographs when two men shot him in the head, threw him into the rented bakkie and raced off with his wife and all. They later ditched Johannes’ body in a dry riverbed.
A farmer who became suspicious gave chase. During the chase, the bakkie overturned and the attackers ran away. Two men, one of whom is a former Namibian policeman, were arrested later.
Nevertheless, don’t let this isolated incident deter you from driving the C28 over the Bosua Pass. If, on your next holiday, you are on your way from Windhoek to Swakopmund and have a little time, or feel like a change, try this route.
On tar, it is about 350 km from Windhoek to Swakopmund on the B1 and B2 (via Okahandja), but over the Bosua Pass it is about 35 km shorter.
Granted, you might not be able to stop for fuel (or a beer) in Karibib or Usakos, but the C28 is much more scenic than the tar road, and there is not much traffic to boot.
On the some 180 km from Windhoek to the pass, the road winds up and down so many small kloofs, there will be a couple of times you’ll think you’ve already reached the pass.
Yes, it’s a great dirt road to drive, but there are a few warnings: there’s no fuel between Windhoek and Swakopmund, watch out for kudus at night and early morning, and long stretches of the road are quite bad – it is rutted, there are many corrugated stretches, countless cattle grids and loose gravel.
Rising quite incongruously between the Khomas Hochland koppies some 40 km from Windhoek, there’s an impressive, if dilapidated, German mansion – the so-called Liebig House.
The house, which even had a fountain in its solarium, was built in the early 1900s for the director of a farming consortium, Liebig’s Fleischextrakt Kompanie (according to some sources the head honcho was the director of the Oxo factory).
On a hill to the right, just some 10 km further, is the Von Francois Fort, also known as Fort von Francois and the Von Francois Feste.
When Hauptmann (Major) Curt von Francois, commander of the German Schutztruppe, moved his headquarters from Tsaobis near Otjimbingwe to Windhoek in 1890, this fort was built to protect the road between the two places.
It was usually manned by three troops.
Later it became an outpost to safeguard the oxen and horses of the garrison in Windhoek against the Namas, and it was also used as a so-called Trockenposten (dry post) for soldiers who got too out of it.
Some 180 km west of Wind¬hoek, you eventually get to the pass itself. With a gradient of 1:5, Bosua Pass is one of Namibia’s steepest passes, and therefore definitely unsuitable to trailers.
Because the pass is so steep, it is probably better to drive it from east to west.
Fortunately, the steepest part of the pass has been paved to keep you from falling all the way to the Namib desert at the bottom of the pass …
(By the way, the average gradient of the Bosua and Spreetshoogte passes is similar to that of Van Zyl’s Pass in Kaokoland.)
The views from the top of the pass are less spectacular than that from the Spreetshoogte Pass to the south.
Some 25 km past the pass, you have the option of either driving a further some 150 km on the C28 to Swakopmund, or turning south on a small farm road to the D1982 and returning to Windhoek via the Us-hoogte Pass, like we did.
Pg 3: Us-hoogte Pass
US-HOOGTE PASS (1:10) | The hidden runt of the litter
The Us-hoogte Pass (also known as the Us Pass) is the most disregarded of Namibian mountain passes. Although it is on the shortest route between Windhoek and Walvis Bay, it isn’t even indicated on some maps.
To be honest, the pass doesn’t have much going for it: it’s neither particularly steep and winding, nor nearly as exciting as its more noted neighbours – the Bosua Pass in the north and the Gamsberg Pass in the south. Moreover, the views from the pass are also so-so.
Maybe it’s because we drove the pass at midday in late winter when everything looked quite colourless, but I don’t think the Us-hoogte Pass will take over the number one spot on my must-do list anytime soon.
If you want to go and see whether you disagree, take the C26 out of Windhoek, over the Kupferberg Pass, and after some 40 km turn off onto the D1982 at the road sign indicating “Walvis Bay via Us Pa
After this turnoff there’s a stunning stretch of dirt road (high-tension cables spoil the views somewhat) until the road starts becoming more interesting and you reach the pass itself about 40 km later.
In the valley below, on the way to where the D1982 eventually joins the C14 between Solitaire and Walvis Bay, you cross the Kuiseb River, drive through several drifts and riverbeds and over blind rises.
GAMSBERG PASS (1:9) | Scraping the starry, starry night
Jonker Afrikaner was probably the Sol Kerzner of his time. Apart from founding Windhoek, this Oorlam-Afrikaner leader is also the man who, in the 1800s, built a road between Windhoek and Walvis Bay that enabled traders to freely move between the coast and the interior.
What does this socio-economical history lesson have to do with Namibian mountain passes? Well, part of the road that Jonker built is what we know today as the Gamsberg Pass on the C26 between Windhoek and Walvis Bay. (The C26 later joins the Solitaire-Walvis Bay road, between the Gaub and Kuiseb passes.)
At some 2 330 m the Gamsberg Pass is Namibia’s highest and longest mountain pass – here the C26 tumbles off the central plateau. At 2 350 m, the eponymous flat mountain nearby is Namibia’s second highest. Gamsberg is also known as “Namibia’s Table Mountain” and the name apparently is derived from the Nama word “gan” which means flat.
I’m no engineer, but this winding pass snaking seemingly infinitely upwards (or downwards), is a darn impressive road-building feat – a mountain pass in the true sense of the word.
A small, hidden turn-off at the top of the pass takes you to a viewpoint of sorts – worth the effort if you excuse the stretch of bad road. When the weather is good the views are unsurpassable, but unfortunately more often than not haze spoils these vistas.
Heights apart, the Gamsberg area is also known for stargazing. Because it is so high and far from city lights here and the air is still unpolluted, it is ideal for studying the stars.
It’s for this reason you’ll find the world renowned HESS telescope (if you really want to know, it’s the abbreviation for High Energy Stereoscopic System) in the Gamsberg area. Although the telescope is on a farm some 100 km from Windhoek and not on the mountain itself, it is still some 1 800 m above sea level − the same altitude as the Sutherland telescope.
Besides HESS, local residents – the handful that eke out an existence there – have also embraced stargazing: the Hakos Guest Farm near the top of the pass, offers astronomy tours and even has its own observatory.
Pg 4: Spreetshoogte Pass
SPREETSHOOGTE PASS (1:4,5-1:6) | The Barry Manilow of passes
Here’s some good advice: if your Hymen’s boat has struck choppy waters, pack a bottle of sparkling wine and a picnic basket and ensure you are on Spreetshoogte Pass at sundown.
With its unsurpassable views over the red, yellow and orange of the Namib desert, it’s not without reason this pass is known as the most beautiful in Namibia – or rather the views from the pass are.
The views from the top are as wide as the road many camel caravans travel – and a tad wider; it will genuinely feel as if you can see forever.
Sitting at the top, the seeming infinity of the Namib unfolding before you, is more romantic than listening to Barry Manilow singing I write the songs while you’re lying in a foaming jacuzzi − promise.
You can unpack your picnic basket (and save your marriage) at two picnic spots at the top.
The one lower down is the better of the two, because the views from the topmost one are spoilt by an agricultural society hall that was built in the line of your view years ago.
The pass itself isn’t as romantic as the views. Firstly, it is very steep in places – in the pass’ just more than 5 km, you descend almost a whole kilometre. In fact, it is so steep, there are large warning signs all over cautioning you not to try it with a trailer or caravan.
Even with just a vehicle it is a challenge: there are hairpin bends, the road surface has been washed away in places and it is steep … very steep, although some of the steepest parts have been paved to help you. If you’re in a hurry, rather choose a different route. The views from the top make concentrating on the road difficult, and vice versa, to boot.
How do you get there? Take the C26 from Windhoek and turn off on the D1265 and then again on the D1261. At Nauchas turn off on the D1275, and about 170 km from Windhoek the views will astound you.
From the pass, it is a further some 15 km up to where the D1275 joins the C14 between Solitaire and Walvis Bay, and about 50 km to Solitaire.
REMHOOGTE PASS (1:10) | Tame enough even for the Jurgens
If mountain passes were rugby players, the Remhoogte Pass would have played in his school’s third team. This pass on the D1261 between Solitaire and Nauchas won’t exactly awaken your inner Kingsley Holgate – you’ll probably only drive it if you’re in a hurry, or don’t have the stomach for Spreetshoogte Pass’ heights.
The name “Remhoogte” is said to stem from the pass’ sharp turns – apparently, they are so sharp you can see your own tail lights when you take a corner …
(Namibian storytellers evidently believe in cutting the boring truth off at the pass.)
Strictly speaking, the Remhoogte Pass isn’t 100% in the Khomas Hochland, but actually on the outskirts of the Naukluft Mountains – and it is evidenced by the landscape through which the pass and the road twist.
From where you turn off from the C14 between Solitaire and Maltahöhe onto the bumpy D1261, the road twists through the Tsondab River a few times and then through a rough, pristine mountain landscape with numerous small kloofs, ravines and baboons.
The area may be more rough, but Remhoogte Pass is not nearly as steep or uncivil (or as beautiful) as Spreetshoogte Pass – your Golf will make it at a trot, and you will even be able to tow your Jurgens Palma over it.
About 35 km beyond the pass the D1261 joins the D1275, which is the road leading to Spreetshoogte.
Pg 5: Gaub & Kuseib Pass
KUPFERBERG PASS (1:12) | Pass? What pass?
The Namibians must forgive me, but I haven’t the foggiest where the “pass” fits into Kupferberg Pass – my backyard is more challenging than this so-called mountain pass, some 15 km southwest of Windhoek on the C26.
It’s little more than a few windings with a couple of inclines and declines through the foothills of the Khomas Hochland. There are no viewpoints or lay-bys – probably because there isn’t much of a view.
It is a rather utilitarian road − an access route to the Khomas Hochland that spits you out at other, much more exciting mountain passes further southwest, such as the Spreetshoogte Pass or Gamsberg Pass.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to seek it out, but if you have time to kill in Windhoek and want to get a little dust on your vehicle, drive it late afternoon when the setting sun softens the harsh landscape.
GAUB PASS (1:18) & KUISEB PASS (1:9) | Martin and Korn’s ‘Survivor’ world
Apart from being the only route between Solitaire and Walvis Bay, three other aspects make driving the C14 worthwhile: the road itself, the “upside down” mountain passes (the Gaub and Kuiseb passes), and the history around the Kuiseb Pass.
At the risk of sounding theatrical, there are few Southern Africa dirt roads that can vie with this dirt road tracing the border of the Namib-Naukluft Park.
Why would that be, you may ask. Well, here are a few: charming, breathtaking, superb, first-class, wonderful, fantastic, magnificent …
Let me put it like this: if it was a woman, I would have proposed.
The “upside down” passes.
When you picture a pass, you usually see a road running over a mountain. Yet, the Gaub and Kuiseb passes don’t run over anything, but descend through an eponymous river.
The Gaub Pass is quite unimaginative: you descend, drive across a banana shaped bridge over the Gaub River (a tributary of the Kuiseb River) and chop-chop you’re through the pass.
After the Gaub Pass the terrain becomes increasingly inhospitable until you reach the Kuiseb Pass in the Namib-Naukluft Park. This tar-and-dirt pass follows the course of the Kuiseb River over long distances.
This can be a problem when the river floods, which fortunately happens once in a blue moon.
Apart from the unlikely flood, you have to keep your eyes peeled for the hordes of foreign tourists in rented 4x4s on the way to Sossusvlei.
The Kuiseb Pass is much more substantial than the Gaub Pass, and not so much because of the pass itself, but because of the history locked up between its rugged hills and canyons.
To most, the Kuiseb Pass will simply be a mark on a map, but not if you’ve read Henno Martin’s The Sheltering Desert about the daring of the two German geologists who preferred trekking into the desert for more than two years during the Second World War to being locked up in an internment camp.
In his book Martin relates how − with a shotgun, a pistol and a pavement special − he and Hermann Korn fled into the safety and isolation of the Kuiseb Canyon, one of the most desolate places on earth, and how they had to survive Robinson Crusoe-like off the desert.
Just after the pass there is a turnoff to the Kuiseb Canyon viewpoint and Carp Cliff, the first of Martin and Korn’s three shelters during the 2½ years they spent in the desert.
Once you’ve traversed the Kuiseb Canyon, you will either think Martin and Korn are tougher than Schalk Burger, or that they were bonkers to hide in the Namib.
Originally published in Drive Out #29 | Feb-Mar 2009
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