Van Zyl’s Pass

We continued north after the Himba campsite on some pretty poor condition gravel until the town of Okangwati. Then we turned left and headed west on the 4×4 tracks aiming to do a big loop of about 330 miles and end up back in Opuwo again to refuel. For the first time in our trip we’d filled our two jerry cans, carried on the roof. Kaokoland is a vast area in the north west corner of Namibia, largely unexplored by tourists. Wild landscapes dotted with tiny Himba villages and tracks which are more used to the foot-fall of livestock and shepherds than vehicle traffic. There are very few fuel stations in the area except in a few of the larger settlements, and we’ve been monitoring our fuel consumption for this very trip to see how far we could travel with a sensible safety margin.

Once on the 4×4 tracks we saw no other car except the occasional pick-up belonging to the ‘well off’ people in the small settlements (usually one per settlement). We did see lots of kids running towards the track trying to get us to stop and with a hand out looking for money.

An option for the this loop was to drive down the fabled Van Zyl’s Pass. This is a bit of a mecca for off-roaders, as it is a challenging route which will put your off-road skills to the test. We’d been told do it with another vehicle in case one breaks down and because you need someone to ‘spot’ for you – i.e. the passenger getting out and guiding the driver over the safe route down an obstacle). We were told that other cars would be doing the pass so we thought we’d head towards it and try to tag along with one.

Unfortunately a lot of the track was through the shrubs, so the views out onto the landscape were minimal, but interesting when they came. Once again many dry river crossings were made through slightly soft sand, which was no problem for the car. The road had a few ‘special’ bits to it including some downhill sections that needed holes filling so we could drive down it and a pretty bouldery uphill climb – low range, diff-lock in and the Landy just eased up with no drama, although we were bounced around a bit by the rocks.

We got to the junction that was our decision point – whether to do the pass and go to the campsite near it to carry on to one south of the pass and avoid it. We’d seen no other travellers all day so we reluctantly decided to take the southerly route and headed for the village camp shown on the map. Another moment to notch down to experience. As we arrived at the settlement there was no sign of the community campsite. A quick check of the GPS map showed the camp site was closed – doh!

There were many Himba villages on the way down to this ‘site’, so we could have chanced our arm wild camping near one of them, but decided to head back to the Van Zyl’s campsite and see if there were other cars there to tag along with down the pass in the morning.

As time was pressing on, so did we and drove quite a bit faster as it would be getting dark soon. It did get dark, which slowed us down a bit ad we finally arrived at the campsite around 9. Unexpectedly, there was someone at reception and we said hello and can we camp for the night and he said we were the only one’s there. Tent up, quick pasta with garlic and chilli and off to bed. We had one slight shock when we glimpsed a large pale animal out of the corner of our eyes. It turned out to be one of the local dogs but for a moment gave us minor palpitations about lions…

After checking the car, as we do before every start, we noticed one of the rear tyres had some trauma to the side wall. We found out later that we were running all the tyres a bit soft and this coupled with the rocks and boulders pinching the tyre walls was enough to do the damage.

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Tyre bulges

After breakfast we headed to reception to pay only to find out that the last visitor had been before Christmas. Decision time, again: to do Van Zyl’s Pass or not on our own. We’d come this far… The car was running well and we are used to ‘spotting’ for each other so weren’t worried about having someone else do it for us. We’ve also met people who have done it solo. So that decision was made – and we can always turn back… and we’d read about some brave souls who’d taken off road trailers and others that had taken an off road caravan down it, so it must be fairly doable Smile

Despite this, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t a little nervous as we set off. The first half or so was pretty straight forward, with only a few stops to look at the lines we’d want to take and fill a couple of big holes with rocks to level the dips out a bit. Then on the map it said ‘Very Bad Road’, but I think they need to calibrate the collective comments on the map as it wasn’t that bad. There were a couple of places where people had obviously wild camped and signs near them saying to use the community camp as it gives something back to them, which is a good thing. We passed the shell of an off road trailer that someone had tried unsuccessfully to bring over the pass – that’s expensive to leave behind…

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Expensive decision to try and bring this trailer over the pass

Then it got interesting. Towards the end of the pass the signs on the GPS said ‘Dangerous Road’. OK. We go and look. We can always turn around if it’s too bad… So now we’d got to the crux of Van Zyl’s – a descent of approximately 500m and it was a doozie. We got out to have a look and to ‘spot’ the best lines to take. From the ground it was better than it looked from up in the car and we could see a safe line down, although we had to do quite a bit of road building to make it as easy as possible on the car (and us!). Ang was doing the spotting while Gareth drove it. The first 10m or so was ok with a minor touch of the tree sliders (steel bars on the sides to protect the sills – there to do a job!). Then it got much steeper and a bit slippery. So deep breath and point it down… It slipped a bit (all 2.7 tonnes of her – Ang has never moved so fast to get out of the way…), but nothing other than the wheels touched the ground and we came to a halt for a photo opportunity. The rest of the descent was easier and with a big smile we popped out at the bottom.

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Pictures never do steep angles any justice, but here are some anyway.

There’s a mound at the end of the pass where people have written on stones to say they’d been there, but we didn’t indulge. There was a sign about firewood for sale and a man approached us with a machete in his hand – I’m sure to cut firewood – but we made our exit into the Marienfluss. It’s a spectacular place that is a relatively flat valley floor hemmed in by mountains that squeeze it in as it heads north to the Angolan border. We drove about a third of the way up and turned round to continue our loop.

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Marienfluss – a spectacular valley in north west Namibia

We passed a memorial to Jan Joubert, a leading conservationist and the guy who created most of the 4×4 routes in Namibia and headed towards our campsite for the night – the Marble Campsite which was, as the name suggests, next to an old marble quarry. The stark white of the cut rock faces and abandoned blocks of stone was such a contrast to the rest of the rocks in the region.

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Marble garage – everyone should have one

We celebrated our trip down Van Zyl’s pass in the appropriate manner and had a relaxed evening near a dry river bed.

The morning brought the bottom half of the loop and quickly turned into a very sandy affair. First we had to cross a sandy valley floor.

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Not a drop of water for miles

During the loop we saw some stone artworks called the Lone Men of Kaokoland. No one knows who the artist is and how many there are, but we saw two in our travels. They are made from the rich brown stone of the area held together in a welded mesh. They stand about a metre tall.

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A Lone Man of Kaokoland striding across the landscape

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Here’s one (number 3) with a title “Looking forward to meeting number 27”

We continued through some very fine sand/dust that had the consistency of talcum powder and Ang did a great job of steering us through it. We joined the Hoarusib River 4×4 trail and crossed the river that was lined with palm trees – a fairly surreal sight.

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One Landy looking for a bridge!

Then it was back to Opuwo to refuel and restock, then back to the Himba living museum camp before we set off for the Epupa Falls on the Angolan border.

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