A Desert Trip of a Lifetime by Gerald O’Brien
I have always rated my previous Dune trip from Lüderitz to visit Saddle hill and Spencer bay over a number of days as my best 4x4 trip ever.
Well as of this July, I now have a new number 1 trip of a lifetime. This was an awesome 4x4 trip, adventure, sight- seeing and wild camping all in one package.
This was the Kunene river mouth tour run by Live the Journey. You cannot do the trip alone, besides the fact that you will get lost, you need the back up and experience that Live the Journey provides as the concession holders and leaders of the tip.
It all began at 07h00 at a filling station on the northern outskirts of Swakopmund in Namibia. The trip was made up of 11 vehicle in total, two from Live the Journey and then eight from Halfway and one other who was in on the trip due to the fact that we were one vehicle short. The vehicle make up was two FJ’s, two Fortuner’s, one Prado, five Hilux’s and one Landy Defender. The vehicle were all well and truly loaded with the FJ’s carrying 280 liters of fuel, the diesel vehicles 120 litres and most vehicles with around 120 litres of water and at least two bundles of firewood per vehicle.. This had to see us through for the next seven days of living and driving in the desert. The two live the Journey vehicles in addition carried all the meals for the 26 of us, they would be doing the catering for us on the trip.
Once we had all introduced ourselves, connected up two way radios, filled the jerry cans etc., we were on our way north, following Andre in his lead Hilux. The mornings drive was accompanied by the usual morning smog for which the west coast is so well known but by the time we reached the entrance to the Skeleton Coast Park, it had burnt up and the sun was beginning to make its presence known. After Andre had all the formalities of permits over, we were on or way once more, now headed for Terrace bay where we could do a quick top up to our fuel tanks before saying good bye to any form of road or track for a few days. We were soon driving over fairly rough and rocky terrain as we headed further north and towards the Kunene river mouth. The first night stop over was in the first set of dunes after the high water mark, what a fantastic place to camp. The wind was blowing a gale but nothing that we could not handle and something that we would soon become used to. The routine was soon set for what was to happen on the evenings to come. Andre and his team would set up a large windbreak firmly secured between their two Hilux’s, then the gazebo for the porta pottie would be erected, followed by the shower tent. Then the fire would be lit and we would be free to heat up our water for the shower. Whilst all this was happening and as we were all soon to find out, the most amazing meal was being prepared. Braaing in the dunes with the Atlantic a hundred meters away, excellent company and on a 4x4 adventure, fantastic. We were also quick to learn that any simple, or perhaps stupid mistakes would not go un-noticed. When we heard the clanging of a spoon against an empty kettle and Ryan from 4 ways shouting, hear me, hear me we knew that court was in progress an somebody would soon be found guilty, to great cheers from the others and when the guilty ones downed their “Straff Dop”. The ladies team were the first guilty party, they were late at arriving at our meeting point in Swakopmund.
The following day it was up early, have breakfast which Andre and his team had laid on and then pack up and be on the road by around 08h30. The wind was still blowing and conditions were not the best but that’s what this is all about, we take it as it comes. Within a few kilometers we were on the beach, deflating tyres and then following our leader north once more. It was not an easy low tide drive with miles of firm sand to drive on, this was the Skeleton Coast, the sand was as soft and the vehicles tracks were deep and momentum was your friend. We spent virtually the entire day on the beach, dodging incoming waves, sometimes not getting it quite right. At one stage, I thought the Fortuner in front of me was going to the bottom of the ocean, but good driving got the vehicle out of the waves and going once more. It certainly made one realise just how quickly things can go wrong, one minute you are driving along quite happily and the next instant you are in a desperate situation to save yourself and your vehicle. At one stage a recovery of the ladies team, close to the water edge became a matter of urgency and using two vehicle winch’s that were soon recovered. Rumor had it that they really enjoyed the previous night’s “Straff Dop” and were trying to catch Judge Ryan’s eye again.
That night around the campfire there were many war stories for the day as everyone relived the moments but it was the couple who tried scuba diving in their “Tuna” who went under the Judge’s hammer. The night’s camp was away from the beach and in a reasonably protected area from the wind where we once again ate well and enjoyed each other’s company around the fire.
Today was going to be the big day, we were going to see the Kunene River mouth. The days driving turned out to be a difficult drive with the vehicles winch’s and snatch straps being used at regular intervals as we were at times driving just a few hundred meters away from the shore line but at below sea level. This resulted in extremely soft conditions and where there was little time to rest or take your eyes off of the conditions ahead. We were lucky to spot a rather large colony of seals close to the water’s edge and of course never far away, the jackals. We were also fortunate to spot brown Hyena spoor but were never fortunate enough to have an actual sighting of one. We had lunch on the beach at the sight of the Dunedin Star ship wreck of 1942. Although nothing left of the ship, there are still pieces of the Ventura plane that crashed when trying to assist with the recovery of the passengers that made it from the ship to dry land. The survivors that made it to the shore were stranded for around 205 days and the wooden shelter that they made to protect themselves for the elements still stands today. A plaque commerating the 75th anniversary of the ship wreck was erected last year by one of the survivors. After a long and trying drive, passing a disused diamond mine virtually on the beach, we got to within a few hundred meters of the Kunene but getting there would have been a bridge to far. The conditions were far from favorable with plenty of water and extremely soft and muddy conditions. We had all had our fair share of luck throughout the day as we slowly made our way north and were not going to chance it any further, I think we were all quite relieved when Andre suggested that we rather head into the dunes for the night and try again in the morning when conditions should be better, the tide would also be out. The camp for the night was set in the dunes which meant that we now had a bit of dune driving still to do, the sun was still fairly high and so off we went for a bit of fun driving along the way. By now were had our tyre pressure down to 0,8 kpa giving the vehicles quite a bit of floatation over the sand but you still had to hold onto your buddy called momentum. Those steep descents, driving down 42deg and fifty or sixty meters high get the adrenalin going every time but what a feeling to do it. The right speed and the right conditions will also get those dunes roaring as you descend, this is caused by the millions of sand particles rubbing against each other as the sand rolls down the dune in front of the vehicle as it descends. The formations, shapes, sizes and colors of the dunes are something to behold and I do not believe that one could ever get tired of it or say that I’ve had enough. Driving through, over and around them is simply amazing. Camping in them is also special, the quietness and remoteness is not something that we are able to experience now a days so we need to make the most of it when we can. The fact that we were paid a visit by two jackal made the moment just so much more memorable for all of us. The night and early mornings were cold but once the smog lifted each day the temperatures went up to the mid- twenties and sometimes a bit beyond. Later on as we moved inland, the night became much warmer as with the mornings and evenings.
Judge Ryan threw a curved ball into the group on this evening by finding one couple who really thought that they were well and truly under the radar by finding them guilty of not being adventurous enough. This meant that nobody was safe from the judge, no matter what you did.
The following morning, the conditions were just perfect, no wind, no smog and the tide was out, we were going to the Kunene, and so we did. What a sight to see this wide and strong river flowing through the oldest desert in the world, and no trees or bush lining the river banks, nothing. There were quite a few pelicans floating on the river and a few other seabirds around, but what a sight and feeling of accomplishment after having been through what we had to, to get there, fantastic.
We now had another days dune driving install for us as we headed east along the Kunene river and into the Kaokoland proper. The views of the Kunene as it meanders through this dry and barren country side was quite spectacular and in places had a narrow path of vegetation along either bank. The opposite bank, which is Angola is quite different to Namibia in that there are no dunes on the Angolan side, just barren rugged and rough rocky terrain with not much else. We were driving dunes today so the snatch straps and winch remote controls were kept close at hand and use on quite a few occasions with once again awesome sight as we worked our way inland. The nights camp was set amongst high rocks on the banks of the Kunene and with the constant sounds of the rapids, we were camping in a small part of paradise. During the course of the drive, one Prado driver deviated from or tracks, not slightly, but at 90deg to the track where he went end got stuck. The Judges Hawk eye did not miss this and the Prado couple paid dearly for their silly maneuver at the camp fire.
The following day we were headed south into the Hartmann valley which was an amazing drive through a sparse grassland with the Hartmannberge on either side. We had continuous sightings of Oryx and Springbok as we passed through on our way to “Yellow Drum”, the first of three drums that at one stage were drums that had been left in the valley by the owner of a transport company that had fuel on hand whilst on his deliveries. The Yellow, blue, orange and red drums have now become land marks which are used by tourists. As we progressed south we were to see more and more signs of human habitation creeping in by the way of the odd farm hut or wooden fence. That night we sent at what Andre call the Marble camp site. That’s because very close to the camp is a disused marble mine. Its open cast and there for all to drive up and have a look. The story goes that the marble was mined and sent off to Italy. The Italians found the marble to be of an inferior quality and so when they wanted their vast amount of money returned to them, the miners had disappeared. There are still numerous large square blocks of marble waiting for transportation, which at this stage will no longer happen. Setting up our camp on arrival at the camp site was delayed by a short while as Andre communicated with a few other off roaders who had set up camp in our camp sites which Andre had pre booked or our large group. These other campers took it upon themselves to override the local camp manager and stated that they would set up camp where ever that wanted to. They did just that. Our group, clearly being better people than them, accepted what they had done and we scattered ourselves around the small community run campsite in the remaining sites. By now our resident judge was fast running out of Dop, plenty of Straff but not enough Dop so he decided to carry it over the last night together which was to be the next night.
After the visit to the mine in the morning we heads south once more for another community camp at a place called Purros. Shortly after leaving the mine Andre had the convoy all stop at a small Himba Tribe’s home. It was really interesting to see firsthand how these people live and survive and what they survive on. There were no males around, only females and after a few NAM$’s were passed on we were all granted permission to look around and take pictures. The next day we saw more of them just after passing Palmwag. Once again, it was an interesting drive passing through amazing country side and finishing up driving down a wet river to the campsite. We went looking for the elusive Desert Elephant and although their presence was visible by the number of droppings, we sadly never got to see one. The same for the Giraffe, we looked for them but never found them, saw fresh spoor but not the real thing. The river at lease gave us an opportunity to rinse off some of the salt water from out vehicles after the long stretches on the beach and numerous drives through the salt water close to the Kunene.
Sadly this was our last and final night together as a group after what had been the most amazing of times spent together over the past seven days and six nights. The judge was on form, had found another bottle of Dop and so the Straff Dops were soon flowing in every direction. No one escaped, even our leader and back up were tried, convicted and Straff Dopped in a short space of time. Everyone got even though and the judge had to swallow some of his own.
What a trip, what a group of people and what a leadership team