Namib Naukluft Hike

Namib Naukluft hike July 2015 The Naukluft mountains are in the Namib Naukluft National Park which is about 300 kilometres from Windhoek. Just getting there is an adventure in itself and from Durban took us 4 days.

Altogether we did 5500 kms , there and back, of driving through South Africa, the transKalahari highway in Botswana and Namibia and then from Windhoek along a dirt road towards the sea and the sand desert. The trail was led by Wayne Matthews and together with Simon my son, with Karen and Mafunyane, a quiet but tough and well-prepared couple from Pretoria.

The Trans Kalahari Highway links Windhoek and Johannesburg and goes through 1300 kms of long, gently winding curves to relieve the monotony.

Domestic and now and again wild animals are a hazard on the road particularly at night, otherwise fatigue and boredom is the main problem.

Wayne knows every lay bye on the road, there’s a nice one just here where we can stop. Here he introduced us to a geocache that he’d placed behind a bush, a small parcel containing some goodies and a logbook that discoverers write in, fixed by a GPS reading. Plenty of people had written in it.

This is one of Wayne’s favorite lay byes to sleep in until we saw lion and hyena prints all around, fresh too. Luckily it was too early to sleep so we bowled on, to stop later at another of his nice lay byes. We lit a fire and Wayne took some amazing pictures of us stood by the fire with the Milky Way and the amazing desert sky above. It emerged that Wayne and Simon are in fierce competition with posting the best photos on Instagram and claiming the most followers. Wayne has a strong Russian female following all ooohing and aaahing and wishing they were there in the desert. Little did they know?

Sleeping under the stars is all very romantic but not next to the road. In the desert you can hear a truck coming for about 10 minutes before it roars past you and then a further 10 minutes as it disappears into the distance. Long after it’s gone you can hear faint whispers of sound wafting on the breeze. We were joined by a van and a truck in the lay bye and the drivers, at some ungodly hour in the morning, proceeded to have an argument about the van driver backing up to let the truck past. How is it that in the immensity of the desert with the lowest population density in the world men can still conspire to have an argument about rights of way? I gave up and slept in the car.

The next morning revealed a litter-strewn environment with a strong smell of urine and human faeces strewn about. The next evening we made it to Windhoek and to the beautiful well-manicured camp site at Daan Viljoen resort, about 20 kms outside the city. This is more like it I thought, but alas, fully booked. So we had to turn round and make our way back to Windhoek and found a large resort in town. The guys were happy to sleep out again but at my urging we plumbed for a room, hot shower and a steak and beer in the restaurant. It also allowed us to sort out our gear and apportion out the food for the coming hike.

The next morning we shopped, had breakfast and generally agreed that Windhoek is a pleasant city that we could, if ever the need arose, live in. We then drove on to the Namib Naukluft road along a beautiful dirt road through the mountain with views of the sand sea in the distance and mountain zebra climbing nimbly through the rocks. We then hit a bad stretch of road and disaster, we had a puncture; in fact the wheel rim was buckled by hitting a rock. We limped on to the aptly named Solitaire where the garage there put a tube into the tyre and we used this as a spare.

There we met Karin and Mafunyane, and he and Wayne and shot off to put food provisions at camp 4 of the hike whilst Simon, Karin and I drove on and nearing the camp site, bang, another puncture. This time a rock had gone right through the tyre. We limped on in the dark very slowly and made it and met up with the others. So we put the problems of tyres into the back of our minds and concentrated on the forthcoming hike.

According to the information the 8 day trail covers 120 kms but we are all sure that it’s further than that. Apart from 1 day where we finished walking at lunchtime the rest of the days we walked from 8 am until between 5-6pm. The walking time is also underestimated and for someone not knowing the trail this could lead to problems. From my point of view it would have been better if the distances between camps would have been less to allow us some time to chillout and explore around a little. As it is most nights we arrived late, cooked our meals and went to bed as it became very cold once the sun went down. The going was also very tough, no manicured paths like in the Drakensberg.

The mountains are very rocky and stony and you had to look where you were placing your feet so you could really only look around at the scenery once you stopped for a break. Add to that the fact that you were carrying a pack with clothes, sleeping bag and food and you can see that this was no walk in the park. But we knew that this was going to be arduous. The main thing on things like this is to remain positive and keep pushing on and ignore the pain and fatigue.

It’s all in the mind.

Much of the trail goes up and down dry river beds and we had to boulder hop and then use chains to go up and down the sheer waterfalls. Although nerve wracking and strenuous, particularly for my son Simon who has a fear of heights, it was also exhilarating. We all finished these stretches with broad smiles on our faces at our accomplishments. On one climb we had to haul the rucksacks up by rope due to the steepness and exposure. Surprisingly going down is worse than going up; it’s a leap of faith to abseil down a sheer face with a 20-kilo pack on your back.

Sometimes we had to climb up and down steep slopes where the rocks were loose and unstable and at times the drops below were frightening. Other times we were walking along the plateaus on the top with distant views on all sides. We stayed in shelters which gave some protection against wind but the nights were cold and when we slept high up it was very cold. We bought blow up mattresses which folded up into a tiny package and these were invaluable only Simon’s punctured but he was able to repair it with glue provided. The shelters had water, often from wells with a hand pump and most days we found water on the trail in rock pools.

One source was from an old windmill and we had to lower a container down into the well and haul it up. Apart from fatigue many of us suffered one way or another, Simon from chaffing which made him walk like John Wayne after getting off his horse, Karen had sore knees which she strapped up and we all suffered from sore feet to a greater or lesser extent. It was very unlike Wayne to buy a cheap pair of hiking boots with a thin rubbery sole which led to him strapping up his feet with duck tape and padding and in the end he was hobbling along like a pregnant duck. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the tougher it gets the more he likes it. One time near the end of a day’s hike I started to go dizzy and wander all over the road. I took off my sunglasses and gradually my vision went back to normal. I think this was due to low blood sugar.

Its important to keep eating energy bars, snacks and supplements.

Another time when arriving at the shelter I started shivering and had to put all my warm clothes on and get into my sleeping bag. A cup of tea and some hot noodles soon revived me. So what did we get for all this pain and anguish? Eight days when we never saw another soul, complete stillness, beautiful desert trees, flowers and plants, to be surrounded on all four sides by soaring rocky crags, black eagles high up catching thermals on the cliff edges, cool mountain pools, walking through a leopard’s cave with bone remains strewn around, baboons barking warnings, springboks pronking, wildebeest, the stunning gemsbok, jackal and everywhere the ages old mountains twisted in amazing formations.

Also not to be forgotten is good comradeship. At the end of the trek, near the camp site, we came across some beautiful pools and Simon jumped in but didn’t stay in there long as it was very fresh. We saw some day hikers, the first people we had seen for 8 days tip toeing gingerly across the stream. Along we came, and bounded unconcernedly from rock to rock, by now we had become experts on boulder hopping. But our challenges were not over with the hike, we still had the tyres to contend with.

We drove slowly down the mountain and found a tyre repair shop where an African skillfully put in a gator on the inside of the tyre to use as a spare. And we needed it. Just 30 kms from Windhoek, at night, we punctured again. We put on the dodgy spare, with some difficulty, and drove on in complete silence, into Windhoek with some prayers muttered.

The hotel was full, we had a splendid meal and found another room down the road. It was sheer bliss, hot shower, shave and a good night’s sleep. The next morning Tiger Wheel and Tyre lent us a car whilst they put new on tyres and fixed the wheel; where else would you get such wonderful service. But then catastrophe, Simon lost his cell phone with all his photos. After spending time going through security videos at the shopping centre where he lost it we eventually left for home. This meant another lay bye night, I slept in the car whilst the other two guys slept outside with the temperature at 2C. We rolled into Zeerust Wimpy for breakfast and drew some funny looks as we really did look like the tramps we were.

From there it was home via Pretoria and Phinda. Since then people have looked at me quizzically and asked me why do you crazy guys do such things? It’s a difficult thing to answer; it’s a physical challenge that spurs you on to train and keep fit, overcoming physical obstacle helps you in your life, doing tough things with others cements friendships, and it gives you an opportunity to meditate on and appreciate the wilderness.

Life is not about shopping at the mall and accumulating material things.

Many thanks to Wayne for his leadership, always positive and fun attitude.

Phinda

Digital Camera

Phinda has a number of black rhinos as part of a WWF / KZN Wildlife range expansion project on the understanding that they are monitored visually on a daily basis.

Simon, my son, arranged for me to go on a walk with Zamu and Sipho; the two rangers dedicated full time to this job. Dedicated is the word; two small wiry guys who look as though they could walk all day and probably do. I’ve been out with them previously and then they were armed solely with knobkerries – a Zulu stick with a knob on the end.

I asked them if they had ever been charged and if so what did they do? They smiled and said “Often and we throw the knobkerrie or our cap at the rhino” Can you imagine throwing a stick at 1 ton of charging, snorting, enraged beast coming straight at you?

One elderly female called Gogos will always charge you they tell you fondly with a smile. They have one old male they told me that is hovering between life and death after one too many fights and the vet can do nothing for him. Even though they realise this is the normal order of things Zamu says he somehow feels personally responsible as the animal is under his charge.

The black rhino is a seriously endangered species, smaller, more nervous and aggressive than the white rhino. The white rhino grazes in grassland and open woodland whilst the black rhino is a browser and likes to feed on twigs and branches in dense bush , hence they are more difficult to view and more dangerous to get close to on foot.

This time they had rifles and we started walking at 06.00 ona perfect cloudless day. I made a mental note to tell Paul for future reference where I keep my will if/when I returned. Walking in the bush is a great experience because all the senses are brought into play and not just sight. One also has time to appreciate the smaller things in the bush, butterflies, different bird songs, overpowering smells and animal calls.

On the walk we saw recent leopard and lion spoor and disturbed wildebeest, impala, kudu and giraffe and heard elephant trumpeting close by. In one heart stopping moment an nyala bull exploded out of a bush next to me. We picked up fresh black rhino tracks which after awhile the guys said were from a male patrolling his territory.

Picking our way through thick bush we were suddenly confronted with two huge rhinos with massive horns; they swivelled quickly and crashed through the trees away from us. The guys said they were white rhinos; I personally just had time to identify them as rhinos before they made off.

After the heart had slowed down we continued to track the animal, it’s astonishing how much the guys see from a broken branch, a footprint, grass with smelly urine on it, warm dung and where he had drunk. There’s no talking, communication only by signs and clicks, single file walking and strict instructions not to run whatever comes at you.

Another heart stopping moment, the guys had spotted a male buffalo ahead. We quickly hid behind a rock and wondered if he had seen us and would search us out; the hunter being hunted and then we heard the sound of heavy hooves galloping through the bush as he made off.

We lost our rhino’s prints for a while in thick grass and we then made our way into a dense area of bush and searched some more. Twice the guys shinned up trees to scan but with negative results. They were worried that it was too dangerous to continue as the bush was thick and there was nowhere to go if we came across a rhino.

We had mentally come to the conclusion that we would have to withdraw without seeing our animal when suddenly there was a rhino just 10 metres ahead of us. I could see his ears swivelling right and left to locate the noise; rhinos have poor sight but make up for it with acute hearing and smell. Then he was up and charging away to the left of us.

Mission accomplished, the guys said this was a different, smaller male than the one we were tracking .Each rhino has a set of notches in his ear for identification but the guys don’t need that as they know each rhino personally. Once back home they log each sighting with GPS coordinates. So we started to make our way home and then suddenly we were on top of a black rhino mother and calf. Zamu whispered “out, out “. I didn’t need much urging and started to back off keeping them in sight.

We rounded a bush and stopped to watch them. The wind was swirling about and the mother must have caught our scent; she was agitated and did a 360 turn looking for us. Zamu said “out, out “again and we backed off quickly and left them in peace.

Back home later I saw Zamu and he said they were going out again later in theafternoon. For them it was just another day at the office.