VAN ZYL'S PASS
(24 August 2015)
I haven’t been everywhere (but it’s on my list). For now, I just needed to move, to explore, to discover. There are places that my eyes need to see and the North of Namibia was next.
Braam invited me on a trip through the Kaokoveld. A trip that would include the notorious VAN ZYL’s pass.
I have been brave, I have been stupid. But van Zyl’s pass would require a good dosage of both these characteristics.
We were supposed to be quite a large group, but the other guys got hooked by the dreaded ‘work’ disease. Braam was still confident that the two of us would make the trip. “Even if we have to carry the bikes down the pass piece by piece.”
…he definitely signed up for an intensive course on picking-up-Skinny’s-bike!
I got to use Braam’s 690 – lucky me! Even though the bike is a bit higher than Brom, my forever-legs still touched down both sides.
As we left the gate, Braam slapped down plonks in the middle of the road. The game was on!
Braam vs. Skinny 1:0
The first leg was a 160km tar road through little towns and long stretches of sweet-blue’s. I have finally found the creation point of all donkeys in the world. You have never ever seen so many donkeys in one place. The only thing trumping the donkeys in numbers is the amount of pubs. Every second house is a bar, with American names like Apollo 11 bar, Emirates bar, Washington bar…
I’m not sure if the veterinary check points (for bek-en-klou-seer) was maybe more intended for the DRONK-bek-en-PAAL-klou-seer?
(120 m high, 700 m wide… when there’s rain)
Ruacana has a hydro-electric power station. The dams above the waterfall regulate the flow of water, with the power station being underground below the waterfall.
It’s not raining…
From here-on the tar dried up. But there was no short supply of dirt. We turned off on a small dirt road, but not far down this road Braam scored his second point.
Braam vs. Skinny 2:0
I am NOT smirking!
We decided to turn back and rather follow the meander of the Kunene River.
Kunene River Lodge
The first night we camped at the Kunene River Lodge. Sipping an ice cold beer, while watching Angola pass by on the other side of the Kunene.
The second day, I was up and ready for the next day’s breakfast, lunch and dinner of stof a-la-carte.
We stopped at a heritage site for the Dorsland trekkers… actually; it’s for the Dorsland TERUGtrekkers. Apparently Angola wasn’t everything they hoped it would be. These were the afstammelinge of the South Africans that trekked up north past Namibia to find groener weivelde on the other side of the Kunene (1874 - 1901). This couldn’t have been that long a search, as this side of the Kunene is one big-ass woestyn.
We stopped often for a butt break. But… but… where are we???
Oh, how I wish I appreciated the smooth dirt roads more!
We stopped in a small bush town for supplies and petrol. I considered the purchase of a fresh mule, but petrol turned out to be cheaper… just!
Braam took one of the little boys for a spin around the yard. Maybe it’s just the different cultures and different facial expressions, but I don’t think he enjoyed it much.
Time for a quick Tafel before we tackled the last stretch for the day.
We made good time and even though we had a long day’s riding behind us, we (well… I can only speak for myself) were still moerOfa excited for the ride ahead.
After a few misunderstandings (“Yes… I KNOW the Epupa falls, but what does epupa mean?” was asked a few unnecessary times too many), I finally understood the meaning of ‘epupa’. It actually means ‘falling water’.
We were in favor of the Weather-god. Most of the trip was cloudy and we even had rain that evening. Sukkeling over mountains and through sand roads makes any soul sweat. It was a lafenis to make a rum and Coke epupa down our throats. Up the Bucc!
The next morning we returned to Okangwati to fill up on petrol again.
We then rolled down a path not often travelled. I asked Braam if this was actually a road on a map, or just a road they found while exploring the wilderness. Turns out – this is actually one of the MAIN roads in north Nam?!?
Within a few kays, the sandman almost took his first victim.
I don’t mind the sandMAN, it’s the sandMONSTER I’m scared of. In both cases you end up in almost the same position, but the second one is not volentarily.
We stopped for a quick water break and a leg stretch. Within five minutes we had Himbas asking for swwweeeeeets!!!
I do think I’ve taken a PG rated kiekie here. There’s only one set of nannas vissible – WHERE IS WALLY!
When we finally got going again, we found that the tortoise was in the lead. So, in the words of Rick-The-Racer:
MORE GAS SKINNY!
We took hole shot past Michelangelo, but got boxed in by Billy and the mob. This was one of the biggest herds of goats I’ve ever seen. You could hear them bleating for miles.
From here onwards the road started getting rof. Van Zyl’s pass is only 11km long, but I’m not sure who decided where it starts and where it ends? The road leading up to the official start was by no means a gentle push.
And soon I finally put some points on the score board.
Braam vs. Skinny 2:1
Braam parked his bike and came to sit next to me, asking me what happened. My reply, “I don’t know. But if I look at the rocks on my right and I look at the rocks on my left… I think I decided the safest was to fall over just here.”
I'm turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so
…I started raking in the points! At all the very steep inclines I kept repeating to myself – NO CLUTCH! LEAVE THE CLUTCH! DON’T PULL THE CLUTCH! And for some miracle, I never did *pats myself on the back*
In Otjitanda, we stopped to buy beer. Sitting under a tree, I asked Braam if the other people in town also have to BUY beer, as I was wondering where they would get the money for it. Braam pointed to a skorokoro bakkie behind me. They were busy loading three cows on the back, with two cows and five goats on the trailer. This caravan would then travel up the road we just came from (CRAZEEE!) and go sell the goods in the next big town. The freight master would take his cut and the rest would (eventually) make its way to the bartender.
One beer! One beer!!! I had only ONE beer… which brought the tally up to,
Braam vs. Skinny 2:3
We swam backstroke through thick sand to the camp spot for that evening – van Zyl’s pass campsite.
We parked in the riverbed under a big tree. There was a basin with a water tap, a toilet, a shower, a donkey (the geyser type) and a dog. Puma the dog kept us company the whole evening and if I had space on my bike I would have taken up his owner’s offer to buy him. Awesome dog!
We had hot wieners and beans for grub. Stop laughing!
I woke up the next morning with a stiff bod. It took me a few minutes before I could roll out of the tent. The hardest day of riding was lying ahead. So I tried some leg stretches to get my physique going, but it kept telling me to sharrup and get back into the tent.
When I finally got up on all fours, I was surprized to find that Braam didn’t even bother getting into his tent??? But on closer inspection it turned out to be only his boots.
We had a cuppa and evacuated the site, taking deap breaths and getting ready for the unknown.
Van Zyl’s Pass
Van Zyl's pass is the most notorious pass in Namibia. It is located between two very steep mountain ranges in Namibia’s Marienfluss. It’s a classic extreme road, but not really a road, just a route made over the mountain by travellers over time. The outrageously steep pass itself is a pure adrenaline rush.
And so, we took the first of many small steps for biker-kind.
‘In 1940, Oom Ben van Zyl started a new job as a stenographer in Outjo (northern Namibia). Nine years later he was appointed Commissioner for Bantu Affairs in Ohopoho (today’s Opuwo). In this post, which he held until 1981, he was also responsible for the infrastructure. Building gravel roads was as much part of his job as was drilling boreholes for the Himba people.’
The difficult decision here was which rock looked least aggressive???
‘It was the time when a white person was not allowed to enter Kaokoveld without a permit. And there were only two more or less passable gravel roads: one from Ohopoho to the west, via Kaoko Otavi to Orupembe (a water station on the edge of the Namib Desert), and the other one to Sesfontein in the south. Forever striving to establish more routes, Oom Ben decided in 1960 to build a road across the pass, “so that on my inspection trips I can finally go for a spin as well.”’
Braam saving me from yet another P…P…Plonk!
‘Looking for the best possible route, Oom Ben followed a cattle path. He was convinced that it could be turned into a road right down to the riverbed of the Marienfluss. Two government vehicles were available for his construction work: an ordinary 3-ton Chevrolet truck and a tractor with trailer.’
Scoreboard standing at,
Braam vs. Skinny 3:4
‘With a group of 20 men, van Zyl got down to work. Any rocks which were in their way were literally hewn away. At some stage he had to go back for more provisions and tools. When he returned, the workers were adamant that the newly constructed track was ready to be used.’
I call stront on that statement!!!
‘“I prayed to the good Lord as my vehicle slowly moved down the steep slope.” It did not take long before he found himself in a tight spot. He realized that his road was far from complete, but turning back was out of the question at this stage.’
We did not encounter any other mad travellers on van Zyl’s. We did however find remnants of previous life.
‘A herdsman, who tended his cattle in the vicinity, helped him to find a new route. With considerable detours and tremendous effort he finally made it to Orupembe. “It took altogether four months to complete the road.” Some sections were extremely narrow at first. Much later, during the bush war, they were broadened for military vehicles.’
The most spectacular crash of the day happened on the smoothest part of the whole pass?!? For some or other reason I closed the throttle ALMOST at the top of a small hill. I was definitely not concentrating anymore. A few things snapped off, but not important things… e.g. a mirror and half a clutch lever.
Braam vs. Skinny 4:5
‘Sometime after his work was done, van Zyl of course had to negotiate his way up the pass. By now he was driving a 4x4 International. His assistant, Grootman Hondulu, sat next to him during the whole nerve-racking endeavour, sweating and with all ten fingers pressed against the windscreen. “Meneer (sir), this is quite a steep track”, Hondulu said when they had safely reached the top. And then he added proudly, “We would never have made it if I hadn’t leant forward all the time and helped to push.”’
Taking a breather…
The view from the top of the mountain pass is overwhelming. It is magnificent: the vast desert scenery spread out far beyond, with the dry riverbed of the Marienfluss meandering through it.
HEY?!? How’s this for freaking beautiful!!!
There was only 1.7km left, but Braam wisely decided not to inform me that it would take us three (3!!!) hours to complete this bokdrol-spoeg distance.
For some or other reason he stopped in front of me? I parked my bike and walked up to him to find out if everything was okay. Then, I almost fell off the edge of the earth………..
I started nervously giggling and repeated a word that can only be used by a cattery kennel or gynacologist with respect.
I slowly explained an engineering term to Braam, which Namibians do not have in their dictionary. A ‘pass’ is a route built through a range of mountains where the summit is lower or where there is a gap between peaks. This road may be in different degrees of accessibility, but it stays a road for motorized transport.
What was ahead of us was NOT A PASS!
It was an erosion canyon straight down the mountain!!!
There was absolutely, undeniably, definitely, unquestionably, phokol grip. The only way you could prevent sliding down the mountain was switching off the engine, one hand tapping the front brake and one hand tapping the clutch.
Braam vs. Skinny 5:5
I did ask at one stage if we could not rather give a little bit of juice, jump ship and see how far the bikes would roll down the mountain… My question was never answered?!?
With about 150m left, I watched as Braam slipped over rocks and steps. Standing at the top of one particularly large stepdown, I softly advised him, “BRAAAAAAAM!!! Ek dink nie jy moet ver gaan nie…” But Braam couldn’t hear me and I just had to wipe the sweat off the tip of my nose and ignore my beating hart.
I fell down like a sack of potatoes on a kitchen floor. I couldn’t get up, as I kept sliding down the mountain every time I moved. The petrol cap also broke and the fuel was running out. I tried to stick my fingers in the hole, but it didn’t really work.
As I screamed at Braam to hurry up, I then noticed that he was in a horizontal position himself. DEUCE!
Braam vs. Skinny 6:6
We made it! We made it! We made it!
Finally, at the bottom of this verdomde berg, Braam sat down next to me and said that he has done this pass about 5 times on the bike and probably 10 times in a bakkie. But never has it been THIS bad. While we were still pulling ourselves towards ourselves, a bakkie stopped with a couple that owns the camp Syncro nearby. They regularly come to check up on the signage and the state of the finish line.
They told us that in 11 years the pass has never been this bad. Reason being that the rule of van Zyl’s is that you can only drive it from east to west (downwards). But that some of the wannabe-I-have-to-prove-my-wiener-is-larger-than-a-standard-KOO-can, drives UP the pass… They destroy the road, spinning out rocks and loosening boulders. Because of simple-minded-creatures like these, I looked like this…
Flatness! Oh, the glory of flatness!!!
Until I discovered the flatness was cover in thick sand…
Braam kept on telling me it would get better. But ‘better’ was yet another term Namibians did NOT have in their dictionary. We tried riding next to the road but the sand was blêrrie EVERYWHERE!
It is literally a red drum standing in the middle of niewers. Rooi Drom had its start as a 45 gallon Caltex drum put there by Oom Ben as a way of storing petrol on his long trips into the Niewers. Later on, its purpose changed to that of being a road marker.
There was only 24km left to the campsite and Braam said it was an easy 24.
Halfway up the one marble-clad pass, I stopped. Braam walked up to me to find out if everything was okay? I looked at him in disgust and asked, “Is the idea to kill me??? Is that what this trip is about?” That pass has now been dually renamed to Moord-rif.
Marble Community Campsite
The Marble campsite had one open spot. My ass filled it.
It was our second last day and Braam decided to kick me straight off with a sea of sand.
This was the next thing I explained to Braam. If you ever invite a Saffer to ride with you again, you don’t tell him that at the end of van Zyl’s you might encounter a bit of sand. Na-ah! You tell him that if you scrape together all the sand in SA and throw it on one heap, you will still not have as much sand as you will encounter here.
Orupembe, with the famous Shop 1; stocked with maize, voetpoeier, a local skin care range, AND BEER. We each had a beer under the only tree in town and we were planning on snacking on some biltong, but we decided to give in to the pleading eyes of the two stick-figure dogs.
The BP garage was busy-busy.
For lunch we stopped for some ribs…
But luckily Braam offered me some of his canned meatloaf.
For the last day I had a choice of riding back on tar (3hr trip), or heading back on some of the dirt roads we’d already done. Dirt - here we come!
Anyone that has watched the movie DUNE, will believe that there could be monster-sized-worms lying under the FezFez. And they eat humans – OFTEN! You dip into the FezFez and next moment you are bum deep in powder.
We met up with friends of Braam at the Kunene, and they took us up to a hidden waterfall. There wasn’t really a road, but we wiggled our way through bushveld and over klip koppies. SHE SHOOTS – SHE SCORES!!!!!!!!! With minutes to spare, I raked in the final point for a suspense killing win.
Braam vs. Skinny 6:7
The water was a lovely green murk.
But we dived in – what da hell! Not even crocs or hippos could survive this density of slime.
With wet panties, bloukolle that could win Guinness Book of Records awards, and a sense of HELL YEAH, we road home as the sun set on our backs.
What an amazing trip – THANX BRAAM!
I would rather be ashes than dust.
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.
--- Jack London ---
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*DISCLAIMER: I had no idea where I was most of the time, so if I got any place names wrong – OEPS!*
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YouTube: Skinny van Schalkwyk