This is one of those journeys that started quite some time ago. I’ve always been keen to get on board one of Peter Van Kets’ amazing adventures, but when we started chatting around an adventure collaboration earlier this year, I never expected that we’d launch the first in a series of Beyond Expeditions before the end of 2017.
Somehow it all came together in a couple of months, with Dunlop Tyres SA signing on as main sponsor for our first expedition, Beyond The Desert Edge. Incredible additional support from Isuzu South Africa, Wilderness Safaris, My SPAR (Eastern Cape), Gianat Bicycles South Africa and Hi-Tec South Africa meant we had a green light to tackle a one-of-a-kind desert MTB crank, all the way from the Cunene River against Angola, to Swakopmund in Namibia.
A few weeks of frenzied organising, branding, packing and gazing at the Google Earth crystal ball, and we were good to go. (There had been a small crisis around the wrong size rims for the Grand Trek tyres – which were flown in especially from Japan – but these Dunlop beauties were now fitted and ready to roll. Aside from myself and PVK, we had Pistol Peter Kirk and his brother Graham on board to handle the video and camp logistics side of things, and by late Thursday arvie on August 31st, we gunned the two Isuzu KB bakkkies onto the N7 and got stuck into the long road to Serra Cafema.
Getting to this incredible Wilderness Safaris camp on the banks of the Cunene River would prove to be one helluva adventure in itself. There’s just no easy way to get to Windhoek from Cape Town by road, so a massive drive along the N7 loomed. PVK had named the one KB Bakkie ‘Trevor’ (because he’s ‘manual’), and I came up with ‘REM’ for the other (as in ‘automatic for the people’). A quick take-away stop at Klawer and fuel fill-up in Springbok got us to the border post at Noordoewer, where a slight hiccup occured around the quantity of red wine we’d packed for the trip.
The issue was that we had three cases of the good stuff, rather than the allotted two bottles each, but it was well after midnight and I have a feeling the officials were not in the mood for the ensuing red tape … just a good thing they did not notice the cases of Darling Brew Desert Dragon! Whichever way, we fought off some sleep monsters on the long straights between Grunau and Rehoboth, eventually pulling into Windhoek just shy of 8AM the next morning, relatively red-eyed and pretty much moer-toe.
A quick pit stop at Woermann & Brock – their coffee shops serves a weird German brotchen with raw meat and gherkins, and some passable coffee – fired up our resolve for the road north from Windhoek. (And also to face the Maerua Mall, for a final provisions shop at a local SPAR Supermarket, to stock up on meat, fresh goods and biltong). By now, we had hooked up with Gert, our guide from Wilderness Safaris, and we followed his big Land Cruiser as we chugged along past Okahandja and Otjiwarongo, with the Grand Treks whistling a merry tune on the tarmac.
Fortunately, neither the two Isuzu bakkies or the tyres had long to wait for their first taste of Namibian gravel, as the dirt roads proper started just beyond Kamanjab. We were now around 24hrs into the drive with road conditions fast deteriorating, and with the drivers seriously running out of steam. Palmwag was a good few hours away with the sun setting, so we decided to pull into Oada Camp Site, right on the edge of the Palmwag Concession.
And what a good move this was … dramatic rock outcrops, rustling stands of mopane all round, and eerily quiet, except for a distant serenade from a lone black-backed jackal. I crawled out of my tent in the early morning hours for a traditional tree-wetting ceremony, and the landscape was brightly lit by the waxing moon for as far as I could see … and for the first time, it really dawned on me that this was finally it: Beyond The Desert Edge was a reality, and our adventure had now officially started.
Day 2 of the road trip coincided with PVK’s birthday, a fact he’d been keen to keep under the radar. (He looks pretty all right for 64, is all I can say). Oada was also the prefect place to christen our BTDE tin mugs, and we all huddled around a smoky Naminbian hard-wood fire as the sun blazed up in the east. From here, the road began to morph into more of a track as we headed beyond Palmwag (our final guaranteed fuel stop) and Sesfontein, before meandering onwards towards a smattering of tiny mud and corrugated iron shanties in a Himba ‘village’ by the name of Purros.
All around us, the landscape had started rucking up in a series of dramatic ridges and outcrops. It’s pretty much as if some ancient god got pissed off with the whole creationist process, and just dumped a final consignments of stones and rocks and peaks in haphazardly fashion. In the process a dramatic and magnificent mountain desert was shaped, and it very much seemed like the kind of place that would kick your arse if you did not pay due attention. It’s undeniably majestic, though, and with heaps of attitude, with the added cachet of being a personal ‘terra incognito’ for both Pete and myself … we had never been further north than this point in Namibia.
Travel beyond Purros and it feels as if you’ve just gone into a time-jump in the Starship Enterprise. It is around here that the landscape goes utterly alien, as if you’ve warped onto the surface of an extra-terrestrial planet. One senses stone-cold reptile eyes amidst the shale-shocked outcrops out there, but there are no outwardly visible signs of life as we know it. In fact, you see nothing, except for the endless shimmer of alluvial plains – stretching for anything up to 30km towards the haze of the horizon – and with jagged volcanic peaks saw-blading beyond that washed-out blue line.
Here and there, humungous sand dunes would but up against the scorched earth ranges, like cafe latte lava flows that have solidified over the ages. Occasionally, when you do happen upon a plant that has a root system deep enough to tap into the underground aquifers, it actually looks psychedelic, as if you want to go up to it and suck on the leaves. The exception are the dry river beds, where ancient ana-, camelthorn- and mopane trees wage a war for water against this impossibly arid land, creating what botanists refer to as linear oases.
The Namib is exceptionally arid, and the coastal dune fields bordering on the Atlantic Ocean’s Skeleton Coast hardly ever experiences any rainfall. Plants do however benefit from regular coastal fogs, often for up to a 100 days or more per year, and this ensures significant precipitation, creating organic ‘irrigation systems’ through dew droplets forming on plants, rocks and other structures.
Namibia is named for its ancient desert, the Namib, which is often said to be the ‘oldest desert of the world’, and by some estimations, the semi-arid conditions here date back anything from 55-80 million years ago. There are a dozen ephemeral, seasonal rivers in the western part of Namibia, with the majority of these traverses the arid Damaraland and Kaokoland regions. The linear oases created by these river valleys are critical to the survival of many of the desert-adapted mammal species who live within these extremes.
These riverine woodland systems are often populated by stands of old-growth trees, of which the Ana (faidherbia albida) is by far the largest and most important. These desert giants are from the Acacia family – at first glance they may be confused with the ubiquitous camelthorn – and is an essential browsing resource, as the riparian canopies provide highly palatable leaves as well as pods rich in protein.Most larger mammals would be unable to survive here if it were not for the ana trees.
The roads (for want of another word) have gone from bad to brutal, with the underlying Torra rock fields battering away at the Isuzu South Africa suspension and the Grand Trek tyres. We’ve reduced the tyre pressure to 160/190, and so far the Sumimoto rubber seems to be handling the hammering from the terrain superbly, with the new 3-ply side wall construction doing the trick. In fact, it’s a surprisingly comfortable ride, but the real test will come once we head off-track on our return journey in a couple of days’ time …
Frankly, this is not a landscape that one can explicate, either in words or photos. Every time you enter a valley, you think “it cannot get more desolate or remote than this”; then you traverse a plain, and a few kms later, Planet Earth bowls you over with next-level minimalism. The sun eventually goes down in a blaze of glory with us still a couple of hours short of Serra Cafema; this may be a good thing, as I believe there’s a tricky descent along a steep sand face lurking just above the Cunene River.
We navigate this and Rocky Pass in the dark without any issue, tail-gating the Land Cruiser into the stunning Wilderness Safaris riverside camp well after 8PM. We’ve been travelling for over 50hrs, but the beers are cold, the food is fantastic, and for the next two nights, we will sleep luxuriously within the rustic embrace of one of the most special places you can imagine on this magnificent planet we live on.
After a good few beers and shooting the breeze, we head off along meandering, wooden walkways set amidst massive old Ana trees. The units themselves are absolutely fabulous, darling; thatched, wooden beams, Out-of-Africa ceiling fans, a bathroom resplendent with copper piping and basins, mosquito nets and, of course, the rush of the Cunene River rapids just beyond your wooden deck … the only problem might be leaving this lap of luxury when we saddle up the mountain bikes …
The beauty of our surrounds hit home properly when I wake at sunrise and wander onto the riverside deck … massive shock-rock mountains boom skywards beyond the turgid flow of the Cunene, with warblers, weavers and finches chattering away within the wavy reed beds. That’s Angola on the other side, really rugged looking, extra-terrestrial. Imagine taking the Richtersveld and super-sizing it: that’s my first impression of Angola. It just looks like a landscape on steroids, the scale is humongous, intimidating, to say the least.
We spent most of the day readying the fat bikes and setting them up; getting our provisions packed; mixing our DripDrop and filling water bottles. Then PVK and I cranked off on a short ride to explore the Cunene’s edge, making sure the bike set-up was fine.There were ochre dunes all round, sort of tumbling down from the surrounding, rocky ridges. In many ways it resembles Greenland, obviously without the ever-present snow and ice.
We spotted quite a few interesting bird species: little bee-eaters, little masked weavers, but nothing truly endemic – apparently the rumours about cinderella waxbills have been unfounded. One of the main activities at Serra Cafema is the boat trip down the river, a leisurely cruise on a small and flat-bottomed aluminium boat that you take from the lodge and you venture out onto the river. We did see a few crocs – some relatively big ones, the largest about 3m or so, sunning itself on the river bank. The water is surprisingly blue and seems crystal clear; I very much expected this desert water course to be a muddy and roiling river, but it is in fact quite stunning and tranquil looking … if it weren’t for those flat-dogs, I would have definitely ventured out on a swim to Angola.
As an aside, a Borat suit magically appeared in the top of my suitcase. I did a quick strut in it last night because I felt it was necessary to claim the garment, and I’d like to think that everybody is going to actually have to wear the mankini at some stage of Beyond The Desert Edge.
I’m slightly apprehensive to take on this journey on the bike, but my Avalanche fat bikes seem to handle the sand quite well. All and all, I cannot wait to exploring this extraordinary piece of forgotten land, at the very edge of the ancient Namib desert. Tomorrow the real expedition starts. Everything happens, and we’ll be laying fresh tracks in Terra Incognito.
And the best thing about it all is that we will be raising funds for Children in the Wilderness, our official charity, with all funds going towards educating kids in wild places, and instilling a love for nature in them. More information at www.childreninthewilderness.com
Click here to view the pics