Bermac tests the pass and passes the test
Herman Steyl shares his family’s hair-raising experience of descending the treacherous Van Zyl’s Pass in two vehicles – with trailers, including a Bermac Trail Camper! No mean feat, indeed.
The journey started at our rendezvous point, the Kalahari Monate Lodge near Upington. Our party consisted of two vehicles, both with trailers in tow. The crew was made up of my mom and dad, Alet and Johan Steyl, who would enjoy our carefully planned road trip in a Ford Ranger 2.5 XLT with customized Venter Bushbaby trailer. My Mitsubishi Colt Rodeo 2.8 TDi held myself, my wife, Ilze, and our two kids – five-year-old Ewan and three-year-old Danika – and towed our Bermac Trail Camper trailer. Both rigs were heavily laden with equipment, giving us complete self-sufficiency for almost the entire journey.
Between us we carried water, diesel, 12 V batteries, solar panels, recovery gear, fridges, freezers and all groceries and munchies for six tummies for three weeks. After passing our Nakop-Ariamsvlei border-crossing test with flying colours (largely thanks to the fact that all our travel documents were in order) at 11:00 on 10 September 2012, we were officially on foreign soil and headed for Grünau.
At Grünau we left the tarmac and set course via the C12 and C37 for Hobas, where we spent the night at Canon Lodge, a central point that allowed us to explore the great Fish River Canyon the next day. Having indulged in several hours of canyon wandering in picturesque surroundings, we turned north, heading to Keetmanshoop.
The next few days saw us travelling via the B1 to Mariental, Windhoek, Otjiwarongo and Outjo, until we reached Kamanjab via the C40. Wanting to avoid any delays on the road the next day we prepared for an early start, which is a mammoth task if your motto is, ‘make your camp your home’. Luckily, the luxury of having our kitchen, fridge, groceries and wardrobe all close at hand inside the Bermac made this much more manageable.
About 25 km after turning north on the C35 at the south-westerly corner of Etosha, we encountered the first predicted delay, the Werda Veterinary Control Point, where two officials checked our fridges and freezers, and we were off again in no time. But the next delay, at Omaganga, where we came close to a third-degree interrogation from the Namibian police, was a little more nerve-racking: vehicles were searched, a head count done, and driver’s licences, vehicle licences, cross-border permits and all passports intensely scrutinised. However, after a thorough search, the authorities gave us their nod of approval, and we soon hit the road again. It was just after Opuwo that we had our last sight of tar for what would be the next 1200 km.
That day’s destination was the Epupa Falls, but not before we’d embarked on a roller-coaster ride on the very dusty C41, which was the most horrible, bonerattling, tooth-snapping, ear-tickling corrugated road I had ever traversed. Thick clouds of dust billowed from the wheel arches. The fine powder settled in white layers everywhere, and, like sand after a day at the beach, somehow even crept into sealed food cans!
The Epupa Falls were indeed magical. Even though the water level was fairly low, we could still appreciate the breathtaking beauty that I had read so much about before the trip. The cherry on top was being able to spend two days at the Omarunga campsite beneath the tall makalani palm trees, where we could virtually feel the stress evaporating from our shoulders like water off a gently heated pan. Fortunately for us, the water level rose quite substantially during the night, so we were able to enjoy an even better experience of the main falls and even most of the smaller secondary falls, with the omnipresent baobab trees always somewhere in the viewfinder of the Handycam.
We ended our time at Epupa with a heavy heart, but we knew it was time to head for the big one, Van Zyl’s Pass … with two trailers. After all, that’s what this trip was all about. We retraced our steps to Okangwati and then turned due west on the D3703. It was time to see what our towing combinations were really made of.
Oh boy! In my opinion this is one of the most underrated 4×4 routes in the whole of Kaokoland. Yes, it’s a 4×4 route! Put it this way: I have great faith in my GPS, loaded with the latest T4A maps, but soon after we had past the first Himba village, I began to have doubts about the so-called ‘route’. After all, we were supposed to be on an officially labelled D road, but instead found ourselves on an overgrown, washed-away, rocky, sandy two-spoor. The monotonous voice of the GPS assured us that we would ‘drive for another 103 km then arrive at destination’: as easy as that!
Well, after a lot of road building, dry riverbed crossing and everything in between, we pulled into the Van Zyl’s Pass campsite late that afternoon. Most of the trip reports I have read speak of ‘the big one’, but very little is said about the D3703 to Van Zyl’s camp. For those who are interested, it’s officially the longest grade 3-4 4×4 trip I have ever done in one day.
The next day was 16 September 2012, my dad’s 67th birthday, and to celebrate the occasion we’d organised a quick drive over Van Zyl’s Pass. (That’s a bit of a joke in our family – for anyone to attempt to do anything ‘quickly’ over that pass!) All our planning over the past nine months would be put into practice and tested today. Most of the trip reports available on the web, including those by professional guides, strongly discourage driving the pass on your own, let alone with trailers. Would we pass the test? Would my trusty Bermac Trail Camper rise to the occasion? After all, it was only 12 km from where we were down to the Jan Joubert Memorial: easy game!
Soon after leaving the camp at 09:00 we confronted our first obstacle: a seriously steep incline of about 200 metres with a nasty rocky ridge right at the top, forcing us to stop on the incline and walk it first. What followed was a sequence of many obstacles, requiring some serious civil engineering insight. We crawled at snail’s pace, the thought of a cracked sump or broken tie rod ever present in our minds, the unbraked trailer constantly pushing and pulling behind the towcar. Becoming yet another ‘failed’ point on the statistics for this pass was not part of our plan!
While the ladies wielded their Handycams to capture all the drama on film (if such a slow, painstaking process can be called ‘drama’), my dad and I took turns guiding each other safely through, over or around each obstacle, monitoring everything from the winch fairlead to the tail-lights of the trailers. Hours later, we were gazing over the beautiful Marienfluss from the viewpoint at S17°39.349’ E12°41.723’, a mere ten kilometres from the start of the pass. It was absolutely breathtaking!
After a quick 40-minute break, allowing us to regain our strength and appreciate the view, we were ready to roll again. It was only two kilometres from this point down to the end of the pass, but we would be descending nearly 350 metres. From where we were standing at the viewpoint, the route seemed to drop, literally, over the edge of the cliff, and according to the T4A, the way down was unequivocally dangerous. On several occasions our vehicles were performing three-wheel and even two-wheel tricks. Apart from that, we had to contend with nerve-racking side angles, axle twisters with very little or no traction offered by the loose rocky surface.
At one particularly rocky stage, the BF Goodrich tyres on the Ford lost traction completely, sending my dad sliding down a couple of metres followed by a few tense moments of silence. When the dust settled, we discovered that everything was in order and we could all resume our regular breathing patterns. Nearly one and a half hours after leaving the viewpoint, we were safely standing next to the Jan Joubert Memorial. We’d made it! All feeling very relieved, we participated in a quick rock-laying ceremony to mark our treacherous trip over the pass. Then we piled back in our vehicles, ready for the next little speed bump.
Our plan was to drive up north into the Marienfluss, see the famous burned-out Landy, then turn south at the junction just east of Mount Ondau. By the time we got to this junction, 20 km further on, I was praying for the kidney-jarring corrugation to end: the old marble mine was still some 52 km further south via Rooidrom!
At about 18:30 we crawled into Marble Mine camp. I was finished! This arrival however, marked a definite improvement in our prospects, as we could relax a bit more and enjoy the rest of our trip, with the infamous Van Zyl’s Pass now behind us. Total distance for the day: 86 km, time spent on the road: nine hours and 40 minutes.
A quick photo shoot at the marble mine set the tone for the following day. We were off to Orupembe and then to Puros, 116 km along the dried-out Khumib riverbed 4×4 trail, in search of the elusive desert elephant. It was tough go ing: we crawled though the thick, dry river sand in first and second gear in low range, with the tyre pressure on our vehicles and trailers down to one bar. After about 66 km, we climbed out of the Khumib river and crossed over to the Hoarusib riverbed. Unfortunately our search was fruitless, or elephantless, but it was nevertheless a very scenic drive, and we arrived at Puros at 17:00.
Early the next morning we set off to explore the Puros Canyon, again hoping to spot an elephant or perhaps a lion, but Lady Luck must have been busy elsewhere, as we had no such sightings. The drive was quite a treat for me, however, as it criss-crossed the Hoarusib’s crystal clear water, which just appeared from beneath the dry river sand like magic.
At first we took the shallow water crossings slowly and in a dignified manner, but after a while I started making hundredmetre dashes across the water, giving the Colt a much-needed Kaokoland carwash and entertaining the kids, not to mention indulging my own inner child ! The following day tragedy struck, twice. We were on our way to Palmwag via the Gomatum River, Giribes Plains and Fort Sesfontein on the D3707. We were surrounded by beautiful scenery but struggling to enjoy it owing to the severe corrugations on the ‘road’: it was like trying to watch a movie on the most turbulent of aircraft!
Finally, the deep corrugations gave way to a (relatively) decent gravel surface. Even though it appeared freshly graded – we often encountered graders at work during this trip – the surface was very loose and slippery, and it felt as if we were driving on marbles. Suddenly something felt wrong – I just knew it! I pulled over, but by the time the vehicle came to a stop, the Bermac’s left-hand tyre was already in shreds, both sidewalls completely disintegrated.
Survival mode kicked in and we changed the tyre in no time. Then, about six kilometres from Fort Sesfontein, on the same type of road surface, my dad fell victim to an awkwardly positioned rock, which cost him the right front tyre of his Ford. We had had enough bad luck for one day! Driving the 240 km along the beach of the Skeleton Coast towards Henties Bay was a pleasant experience.
We stopped at Torra Bay, the derelict oil rig and one or two marked shipwrecks and visited the 250 000-strong seal colony, all great experiences if you have young kids. The few tarred suburban roads of Henties Bay were like manna from heaven after all the time we’d spent shaking about on the corrugated roads.
We spent two days at Buck’s Camping Lodge in Henties, just relaxing. However, on the first evening at about 21:00, Lady Luck looked the other way for a third time, leaving me unprotected against a nasty encounter with an old, rusty tent peg. My right index finger was severely gashed as I tried to dislodge the peg from the ground and it broke off in my hand. Ouch! It bled quite severely, but what could we do? Mom just patched me up and kissed it better. We left Henties Bay and headed for Spitzkoppe on the D1918, a better D road than some of the C roads we had travelled. About 68 km from Henties, I took a slight detour onto a sandy two-spoor in search of the so-called elephant’s foot plant.
We found it, as marked on T4A, perched high up on a sandstone outcrop right next to the road, a truly beautiful specimen. Back on track, we continued to Spitzkoppe to find the rock arch, something you must see if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods. Just as we were starting to get used to the humming of the BFs on the tarmac, our route turned off onto the D1919. Over the next few hours we would visit Goanikontes Oasis, cross the Khan River, feel like Buck Rogers surveying a barren moonscape, have lunch at a giant Welwitschia mirabilis specimen and even be held up on the main set of the new Mad Max film being shot in Namibia. No doubt I’ll be watching Fury Road on the big screen one of these days. We left a short tar section on the D1919, kissing the soothing comfort of the smooth surface goodbye for another 700 km. We camped at Blutkuppe, one of my mom’s most favourite places on earth. I can’t quite pinpoint what its great attraction is, but it certainly has something.
At Solitaire we had traditional apple strudel and chocolate eclairs for lunch – the only menu to contemplate when passing through Solitaire – and it was obvious that we were back in ‘civilisation’, judging by the number of tour buses around us. The solitude of the past two weeks was now, sadly, a thing of the past. Our arrival at Sossusvlei was rewarded with a rather rare sight: the vlei was filled to the brim with water. An abundance of waterbirds added to the tranquillity, making the spot even more special. It was during our drive back to Sesriem that I quickly came to understand and appreciate the rare juxtaposition of monster dunes on either side of the road. It’s a sight that can mend a troubled soul, that’s for sure. The midday sun was burning, so we only stopped briefly at the Sesriem Canyon before making our way back to the Little Sossus Lodge.
Our next leg saw us head in the direction of Betta, passing through the Namibrand Nature Reserve. We saw plenty of oryx, springbok and giraffe. It’s such a privilege to encounter these majestic animals in their natural surroundings. Beautiful vistas greeted us as we drove through the Neisip Plain, and finally the gravel gave way to tarmac on the B4 to Lüderitz, a welcome relief. Our time in Namibia was drawing to a close, but we still had two important stops to make, one of which was a day trip to Kolmanskop, a ghost town, and Lüderitz. Having an architectural background, I found Kolmanskop quite fascinating: all those old buildings slowly being swallowed up by the desert made some very interesting photo opportunities.
We had a late lunch in Lüderitz and, after exploring some places of interest in the area, left the Atlantic Ocean behind. We were just in time to catch a good glimpse of the Wild Horses of the Namib near Aus. It was one of those rare mystical moments in one’s life: I mean, it’s not every day you have such beautiful wild animals in your viewfinder. After contending with two Namibian police officials (who never found what they were looking for) on our last day in Namibia, we fixed our miniature RSA flags on the front of the Colt, where they fluttered proudly as we crossed the Gariep River at the Sendelingsdrift pontoon crossing. To our disappointment there was no welcoming party with helicopters and film crew awaiting our arrival back in South Africa, but nevertheless it was a great feeling. And a memorable experience it had been indeed: 21 days on the road, pitching camp a total of 17 times.
We drove 6886 km: 3546 km tarmac, 187 km rocky grade 3-5 off-road tracks, 144 km grade 3-4 off-road riverbed 4×4 routes, and the balance of 3009 km C and D gravel roads, mostly bad gravel with terrible corrugation – some real roller-coaster rides when you consider that we had a fully loaded trailer at the back. We took more than 700 photos and 64 gigabytes of video footage. For those who’re interested, our overall fuel consumption in the 2.8TDi Colt Rodeo with Bermac Trail Camper was 16.59 l/100 km. We came, we saw and we conquered Van Zyl’s Pass – and, given half a chance, I would do it all again!