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Van Zyl's Pass

(25 - 29 September 2023)

And Life said, “I don’t think this is a good idea…”

And the Tank Girls asked, “What do you mean?”

And Life said, “Maybe you shouldn’t…”

And the Tank Girls asked, “What do you mean?”

And Life said, “You won’t make it…”

And the Tank Girls replied, “Bring it on!”

And boy, did the ‘it’ get brought!!!

Van Zyl’s pass - the most notorious pass in Namibia (but maybe even wider than that) is situated in the Kunene region, or like the locals say… top left.

The pass was, in the broad sense of the word, ‘built’ by Ben van Zyl, back in 1965. Oom Ben fancied a crazy, small, steep track down the Otjihipa mountain for future manne wanting to come and test the solidity of their… let’s call it ‘bearings’.

Oom Ben, an old Model-T Ford, and a handful of local Himbas pinned the cattle tracks down the mountain. They skopped a few boulders out of the way, skoffeled a stone or two into place and threw a rock into a ravine. It took them a few months, and they finished just in time to get back to a rugby match with Namibia playing some other team, nobody ever knowing who won. Apparently, in Namibia, that’s a thing.

Personally, I think Oom Ben meant the whole thing as a joke. A joke that ended up on many an adventurer’s bucket list.

We started planning this trip months in advance, to get everything in order, and at the very least give some kind of impression that we were prepared. We’ve heard motorcyclists use this term before they take a trip to Barberspan. We wanted to try it out.

What was our personal findings on this business called ‘preparedness’? Honestly, it’s a lot of work to try and manipulate the course of Life, just for Life to roll her eyes and stir the world anti-clockwise below your feet.

Passports had to be renewed. Life started off with a doozy, but we kept our heads down and soon we all had clean slates in our little green books!

We had to get permission to take the bakkie over the border; the bakkie that was not in Chikita’s name. Certain documents may not have been as authentic as a master of the court would have liked. But what Life doesn’t know…

The 2M Lazy Lowder trailer also needed docs, so Skinny’s local police station pretended not to know what an affidavit is. We think Life passed them a bribe. Multiple visits later and the papers were finally secured.

There was the wonderful conundrum of having too many bikes out of which we had to choose which ones to use. We have been spoiled with two Hero Xpulse200 motorcycles (Comet and Clark) lent to us by Hero South Africa. They are 200cc lightweights, manufactured in India. Some call them dual sport, some call them multipurpose. However, since it sounds so much more heroic saying we took two delivery bikes down Van Zyl’s pass, that is how we classified them and how they shall be regarded for the remainder of this story. The most popular small capacity bikes roaming city streets worldwide today, delivering all sorts.

We had somewhat bought into the notion that the bikes needed a bit of timmering to give us a sense of prospect. We’ve seen more powerful, purpose-built, and stronger bikes fail. These small horses were going to need all the help they could get. Or were they…?

With 17Nm at 6500rpm, our concern was whether these little mules would get up steep, rocky inclines with our luggage and ourselves; or would they gasp for air, choke up and die. Once again Life tried, but we threw her with a curve ball. No pudding for a month, and only one extra panty and a spare t-shirt in our luggage. We could not travel any lighter.

Small adjustments were ordered, like hand guards, raised suspension, spare levers… But Hero South Africa had a top-secret meeting and decided instead to trade our requested items for a set of lekker knobbly tyres. Guess we just had to make it work then.

Life upped the ante!

Braap Elvis was going to escort the two of us (as he knew all the hidden petrol treasure spots), but Braap ran into the tail end of Life and she must have battered him into submission. On very short notice we had to decide if we were going to adventure on our own or reschedule. Guess what we did?

Waiting in anticipation for the bikes’ cross-border papers, Chikita could finally set off on her journey with about 20 minutes to spare.

Life let Skinny have only a few days leave, but Chikita and her mom (the original pole dancing queen) went up ahead, holidaying along all of Namibia’s best spots, towing the bikes up to Windhoek, where they would pick Skinny up from her shortcut on a fly-machine. A bit of a side-mission went on to get Skinny delivered back to the airport for her return flight after the ride. Luckily, we found out about a very empty shuttle just waiting for some passengers from Etosha to Windhoek.

Then there were the Life-possessed humans, trying to discourage us; to scare the living bedjiesus out of us. Saying that there was no way we would make it, that we needed more petrol, that we needed more water, that we needed better bikes, that we needed better skills, that we needed more muscles. Our sense of humour and tequila drinking talent wasn’t going to be enough! We needed so much more, but what Life didn’t know is that sometimes STUPIDITY wins!

On the morning of our eventual departure to Opuwo, we first pulled into Windhoek Yamaha for some emergency bike supplies that we might never need (like a clutch lever, handlebar guards, etc.). But the workshop was closed, and we stared each other right through the eyes knowing full-well why neither of us ever attended a technical school. Fakkie Gouws (the owner) quickly phoned a guy that knew a thing or two about spanner-swinging. Bryan and Karel zoomed over, and before Fakkie could finish reliving with us all his glory days of racing enduros, our Hero’s were in tip-top shape. Heroes saving Hero’s and giving Life a whole handful of fingers!

Bryan and Karel’s advice?

Stay positive! Just ALWAYS stay positive!!!

It was a long drive up to Opuwo (750km) with Life scrambling around for last minute hindrances! Pulling into Kamanjab’s garage, we were greeted with a few concerned faces. How long have we been driving like this? Life only knows… Not only was the tyre gone, but some of the rim as well. The Hero’s must have had their capes on.

We replaced the tyre and rim with our spare and bought a local home-made rim with three plugs in the tyre as a justincasewerunoutofluck extra.

We laugh in the face of Life!

The next day, we left Antie Chikita at the Opuwo Country Lodge to live her days in luxury while we headed out on this adventure that could be the last one we ever have… We were nervous, anticipating all the worst Namibia could chuck at us. Our eyes kept darting back and forth for any KO’s Life might still have up her sleeve.

The road up to Kunene River Lodge was short, smooth, quiet, flat, beautiful. In the words of true adventurers… monotonous.

We got to camp at 1pm and contemplated continuing to campsite two. But not knowing what lay ahead, we decided to call this a short day. A few rums, some friendly Belgians, intrigued tourists, and bats above our heads; we knew Life was running out of ideas on how to stop us.

The Belge, Sophie and Suzie didn’t think there were crocodiles in the river. We suggested they take a swim, while we removed the lens caps off our cameras. They squinted suspiciously and left it there. Apparently, sarcasm has the same tone in Flemish.

Day two, we rode all along the Kunene and found a new favourite hangout called Camp Cornie. Ice cold beers and one of many of our own blikkies kos – canned viennas this time. Camp Cornie is actually a base for hunters, though the young lady was hesitant to tell us what they were hunting in this dry desert. She finally mumbled in a barely perceptible tone… crocodiles – huge crocodiles. Where are the Belgians when you need them?!?

The road was once again smooth and uneventful, with a few courageous ascents testing our rev limits in first gear.

That night we would drink a few more rums as we listened to the water falling at Epupa falls. A young Frenchman named Jonathan came over to say hello, all dusty and dressed in bike gear. It seems that the word of our arrival spread like wildfire. One of the other campers sent him over to chat to us about our intentions for Van Zyl’s pass. He was cute, so after some consideration we agreed to meet up the next day at Okangwati, the small town where we would hopefully get some last-minute fuel.

To give you some idea about how hard Life was trying to discourage us… The roads leading up to Van Zyl’s pass are also a challenge. There are no fuelling stations, no petrol garages, no Saudi oil-drills. You just might (…BIG might) get lucky enough to find a lady in a shack who keeps a few old 5L jugs filled with dirty Angolan petrol. Trust us - you’ll buy that petrol!

We were spoiled the next morning with Florah, the camp gatekeeper’s freshly baked, steaming bread rolls. Yet another good day was about to unfold in Africa!

It was a flat, and moderately mundane, cobbly road to Okangwati, with Chikita moaning in Skinny’s ear about rather wanting to take the small river trail. Let’s not tempt Life…

At Okangwati, we found the Lady Of The Fuel, and surprize-surprize… there was the Frenchman, bike parts scattered around his old BMW R100. He looked concerned, Skinny looked concerned, the scrawny cat sitting in the shade looked concerned.

Before Skinny even took off her helmet, she asked him how much he knew about Van Zyl’s. He tentatively replied, “Un petit”. She asked him if he’d seen any of the YouTube videos, and after a longer pause he replied, “A few”. Skinny speaks all kinds of languages, most of them foul, but she no speake da Frans. Asking us if we didn’t believe he could make it, we shook our heads reassuringly, never having been the discouraging type. Especially when it comes to doing stupid stuff…

He still had a few nuts to fasten and said that he would either see us at the community campsite… or not. He would go as far as he could, and if he could go no further, he wouldn’t.

We never saw him again, and all we can hope is that he found something way more fun to do, before arriving at the big step-off-of-no-return.

While we dawdled at that step with Hell’s Heights looming, temperatures shot into the hard-boiled egg range, and we had no cold water left. The technical level rose to expert. Winding Clark’s knocker all she could, Skinny leapt into action but took a kneeling halfway up. Chikita picked up the bike and nearly flipped it over onto its other side. Damn these bikes are light!

Encouraging words from Chikita, “You can do this. I believe in you. You’ve got this.” Skinny soldiered on over the big rock and with abundant yelps of joy, plonked down 2 meters later. Too soon…

The day was long, but not really that hard. We only had the one section where Life could have applied the brakes, but it seems like she lost interest is us moegoes.

A Filistyn-Hippie aka Woestyn-Piepie

If we were to have a mishap… there was no signal… cell phone, satellite, radar or even smoke! Last time that area had contact with life outside was when the aliens got lost and asked for directions. Someone waved them in the direction of Van Zyl’s pass… and they decided to rather go home. Baai-baai ET!

That night we slept under the mist of mosquitos, listening to night jars and munching down on 2-minute noodles. The campsite had no water, and we knew we had to work sparingly with the little bit of bottled H2O we had.

All the water (if you could find any) was very brackish, meaning it has a high salinity ratio and tasted like licking an old fish that had been out of the water for three weeks. It’s also not good for the untrained stomach – or anyone with a limited supply of toilet paper…

D-DAY! Van Zyl’s pass (and Life) – here we come!

Some rugged terrain, steep drop-offs, a badly placed boulder here and there, but all in all JUST A STUNNING PASS! These Xpulses ran over that mountain like a snail slides over a buttered lettuce leaf. We had absolutely no hiccups with the small engines. Not one cough, not one faulty idle. The brakes kept braking, the sparkplugs kept sparkling. There was not a minute’s hesitation with these two Hero’s – they go places where Elon Musk could only dream of.

If you ever wanted to go to space, go to Namibia. There is so much space!!!

We stopped a few times for the magnificent views, for a sluk of tequila and for a moment of noise that only lonely mountains can make.

Toppling over the finish line at the bottom of the pass, Skinny came to a halt under a tree. We enjoyed freshly canned peaches from the wrong side of the tin, cause that’s how we roll.

Next up was the sand monsters of the Marienfluss. Sand monsters are always misrepresented as vicious, flesh eating, rectum curling, devourers of men. Yet, for the first 10 kays we were surfing over the heads of these gedrogte, smiling at each other, punching the air, thinking we were nailing it.

But then Life smiled back, and mockingly replied, “Oh you think THAT is sand?!? Let me give you some SAND!”

Boy, were we handed the sand!!!

“Everybody has a notion of what a desert should look like. Effective definitions of deserts vary according to the background of those doing the defining and the purpose of their enquiry. An artist’s approach to deserts may be different from the stance taken by a scientist although, broadly, the two usually overlap geographically. It may, or may not, be surprising to learn that no universally accepted definition of the term ‘desert’ exists.”

The same goes for adventurers.

At Rooi Drom, where there is only a red drum and a lady that keeps her pet flies in her left nostril, sold us a voodoo doll of herself. Meet Rapana!

There was still a slatey Joubert’s Pass to climb before we got to our last campsite, Marble Community campsite. It’s bumpy, it’s narrow, and it’s sharp, but so are we!

Again, we arrived at our destination well before canned-dinner time, and lonely as rabbit poo. Not a soul in sight, but at least there were working showers. Some lingering smells got rinsed off and we took a stroll around the three-spot campsite.

The campsite manager finally showed his face late afternoon. We were hot and thirsty for a saltwater alternative. Skinny tactically dropped that she would pay R100 to anybody who brought her a cold Coke. Fanjas’ question-marked face gaped back at her. He confirmed that there was indeed a spaza shop about 2km up the road. She offered her cash reward two more times before he accepted the tender.

It was the best R100 Coke she’d ever bought!

That night we watched as the pale sun set behind the dry scabs of huge Mopani trees and the evening came to life, when, delighted in the desolation of the desert, Chikita ran up the pebbly purple peaks and pooped a bursting full moon.

The last day was supposed to be a straightforward, national road back home, but Life still had some life left in her. We knew we were running low on fuel, and our concerns grew when we found no juice at the Shop 1 café at Orupembe. In the words of Marié Antwostrokenet, “If they have no fuel, let them burn oxygen.”

The road surface fluctuated between rocks, sand, blind-rises-into-tight-corners, and our favourite – fesh-fesh. The sun brightened up the strikingly white powder so nicely, rendering the tracks completely invisible, and along with it, any idea of what may lurk underneath. By the time you realize you’re axe deep in rock dust… it’s too late. It was a long day – the longest of the whole trip, and we were hungry for some cold beers and friendly smiles.

Cue Kaoko Otavi shebeen!

BoomBoom and her posse entertained us with tales of… of… of sitting around doing nothing, making fun of stressed-out people with high profile jobs and their extravagant hobbies. How we laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

Comet’s final fuel bar started flickering 20km before Opuwo. We had a 10L jerry can and topped him up, though we believed firmly that both bikes would have made it all the way on the vapour bubbles floating in the tanks.

Van Zyl’s pass now has a tick next to it. Life tried to stop us, to no avail. Because if you are resolute at living, there is not much Life can do about it. All the wrong that could have gone, didn’t...

Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

*Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland*


Two courageous cookies, two Hero Xpulse 200cc delivery bikes, one hectic mountain pass – Van Zyl’s pass in Namibia! We had one chance, but plenty-plenty fun. Watch how easy we make it look… Life couldn't stop us - even if she tried!

Video produced by Jolandi Mentz (25 Sep 2023)


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