Desert driving

During the night P and I were woken by a large group of some kind of sizeable animal grunting around outside. We were both thinking “elephant”, but the tracks in the morning seemed to suggest zebra and hyena. Or possibly elephants in disguise, sneaking around in “zebra boots” barely able to contain their hysteria. 

The village site where we camped was three and a half thousand feet above sea level and it was a cold morning. As we had our breakfast, three girls came to see us and ask for water. We gave them some in their plastic jug and offered them some hot chocolate which they sipped politely and handed back with a look that suggested that we were possibly playing some kind of practical joke on them. Clearly no-one would want to actually drink such muck. 


Now we were all mates I asked if we could take a photo. One of the girls ran off shrieking in the way of pre-teens everywhere, the others were happy for us to take a picture with them and stared seriously at the camera. 

Eventually the older man we met last night walked towards us, stopping a short distance away to call the girls back to the village. He had the air of a head man about him and we went to see him and shook hands.  He mimed that the boy still had the headache and we prepared another bottle with Disprin in it. He clapped and smiled when he saw us getting it ready. At worst we did no harm but of course Disprin wasn’t going to cure whatever the boy had. He walked back to the village, a tall figure with a blanket wrapped around him to keep off the morning chill. 

We were hoping we would see the rest of the family again, but they didn’t come back. The Himba lead such a precarious sort of existence that whatever we gave them was just a drop in the bucket. It was really nice though to see them in their real world and not as part of some tourist experience. They also seemed completely unchanged by our presence; no cries of “sweetie, sweetie”, no demands for anything actually, just a normal family going about their lives. We drove away looking back for the family but the clearing was silent and empty.

From there, the track began heading towards the mountains. Once through the sandy clearing the track instantly turned rocky and difficult again and we began to climb. We saw big flocks of ostrich, running hilariously with their oversized chicken legs. A few cattle grazed between the trees and when we stopped at one point we could again hear the sounds from a village in the distance. At the junction where we should have turned right to go to Marble Camp, we turned left towards Puros. 


Four giraffes were crossing the plain ahead of us with their stately slow-motion gate. 



They look almost like sailboats being propelled slowly across the sand. Further down the track we turned right at a little handwritten sign that said “Puros”. 


The sun was getting high now and we were still climbing too, up towards a mountain plateau and through what the Bradt guide describes as one of the largest sheets of ancient lava in the world.  As we climbed, the scenery widened out and soon we were crossing a martian landscape pebble-dashed with red boulders and spiky grey-green plants, and surrounded by broad, red-rock mountains with crew-cuts. It was completely breathtaking. 


Here and there were the wooden skeletons of Himba huts and cattle corrals. We guessed that this was one of the areas hit hardest by the drought and now more or less empty. I don’t think we have ever been so completely and utterly isolated. 

We hadn’t seen another car for more than 24 hours and more than 400K – and only a handful of people, but none since we set off this morning. The wind made eerie groaning sounds as it whirled around the truck and the track curled endlessly up and over ridge after ridge. At the highest point we could see a long puddle of green in the distance marking the line of the Khumib and Hoarusib rivers. We began descending – steeply at first with the tyres struggling to keep a grip. At one point we passed a small settlement with a still, silent Himba couple selling some wooden trinkets from a little stand. They were in about as lonely a spot as it is possible to be. We were in pressing-on mode and we didn’t stop, but we should have and it haunts me that we didn’t.


At the bottom of the pass we hit the soft sand of the – now dry – Khumib river. I had been nervous about driving in deep sand having never done it before and I’d boned up about techniques online before we left. Don’t brake hard or you create a sand berm in front of your wheels, keep moving in 4wd in a lower gear with the revs up. Try not to stop! There is a shovel in the back but I hope we don’t have to use it. We rolled and slid through the deep yellow sand surrounded by trees, all alive with clouds of birds. This is desert elephant territory and they are not friendly. I am deeply hoping to see one of course, but given the complications in slowing down and stopping and pulling away again I did rather wonder what we would do if we came across one…

The track left the riverbed and followed it along the bank for a while. We stopped for lunch overlooking the floodplain and the mountains from a high part of the river bank. Tuna and pickle sandwiches in the desert and a bit of a read in the camp chairs enjoying the solitude, and using the binoculars to pick out cattle on the lower skirts of the red mountains far across the river. 

When we left the satnav said to “continue 6.5K to Aggressive Elephants” That’s the joy of the Tracks-4-Africa software; it includes all the important points of interest recorded by previous drivers along the route. 6.5K later we were met with a sudden group of…donkeys.  


Eventually we left the Khumib and joined the Hoarusib where we had the option to continue on the rocky track or drive in the deep sand of the river bed – which Chris Card (a Namibia veteran) had advised was the fastest and smoothest route. Nothing ventured… It was smoother than the track and quicker too and we weaved in and out of the trees and palms. Driving in that deep sand is like one of those fairground rides where you appear to be steering but actually the track is propelling you along a set route and turning the steering wheel elicits an alarmingly vague response. 


We reached Puros easily enough; a sizeable village with the “Head Man’s hut” marked on the satnav. Could we find the campsite though? No. There are three or four places to stay but I couldn’t quite find the one we had booked. We asked for directions from a smartly dressed young woman who gave fairly precise directions which saw us pounding across a desert plain and up towards the mountains again, when we should have been aiming for the river. In fact we had passed the campsite on our drive up the Hoarusib, but it is so broad and leafy, we never saw it. 


We got there and checked in at the window by the sign warning us not to leave out anything that the elephants might smell. They had no record of our booking but found us a site in the flood plain surrounded by gnarled story-book trees. 



We lit a fire and had lamb chops and baked (er incinerated – sorry chaps) potatoes and all was right with the world.  

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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