Namib Naukluft Mountain Trail
~ Winter 2005 ~
One by one we weighed our bags. The hike leader’s bag came in at 18 kg, and 21 kg for Elmien, sjoe! A whopping 24 kg for Flip and Hannes. Only about 13 kg for Carol – it clearly helps to eat like a bird, a vegetarian bird. Then Eric, Elmien’s son. Right off the scale, over 25 kg. Madness.
But madness is perhaps apt for 12 hikers preparing to spend 8 days doing 120 km through some of the most hostile and tough terrain imaginable. To try and understand why we did this hike, I will attempt to describe the place, the attraction and the spirituality of the event – not the hike itself.
The Naukluft mountains started evolving about 2000 million years ago, when volcanic activity injected vast amounts of igneous rocks like granite and syenite into the existing ancient formations, forming banded gneiss and flaky schist that can still be found scattered on the Western side, from the Kudu Plain to the Quartz Valley – called the Rheoboth formation. Then, about 600 million years ago, the entire south-western part of the continent was covered by a shallow tropical sea, which deposited dark, almost black, “Nama” limestone over the whole area. The sea dried up after a 100 million years, and on top of the limestone were deposited the sheet- like sedimentary rocks, breccia, shale, quartzite and dolomite, and these are the broken rocks covering most of the range, called the Naukluft “Nappe.”
Then the process of erosion started – wind, sun and occasional rain. The rocks were attacked, but the most interesting part is that some rocks were softer than others, relatively speaking. Some were easily broken into rough bricks and grainy soil, others stood up to the forces of nature. Some of the soils and pieces were compressed into sandstone and conglomerates. Within the dolomite, veins of softer limestone wore away faster than their host, and the characteristic ‘elephant skin’ rocks were formed. The slightly acidic rains ate through the limestone and dolomite formations, creating a vast underground drainage system. Today, in many of the deeper kloofs and in faults in the mountains, crystal-clear water is discharged into springs and streams. This water is rich in calcium carbonate from the limestone, and as the relentless Namib sun evaporated the water, the salts deposited as a porous limestone called “tufa” or waterfall formation – a significant feature of the area. The steep gradient of the mountains ensured the rivers ran swift after rains, but ran dry very quickly.
The kloofs formed along old fault lines, giving direction to the intermittent streams. The rocks cracked in the sun, littering these gullies with broken stone from building-sized boulders to petite pebbles and everything in-between. There is not one square metre of the Naukluft mountains that is not dominated by jagged rock. The most magnificent of the kloofs in the Naukluft is the Zebra Kloof, reached on day four. Walls of craggy, indented and weather-worn rock tower above and around you. Some of us had hiked the Fish River Canyon, and we agreed that, though Zebra Kloof may be smaller, it gives nothing away in majesty or grandeur to its larger cousin.
However, plateaux also formed along the flat sheets of the sedimentary deposits, at the base of the mountains, like the Melkbos Plain, or on the high ground, like the Kapokvlakte. These plains may be flat and largely featureless, but they too are characterised by rock after rock after rock.
Where there is water, there is life – and despite being adjacent to one of the driest deserts in the world, the Naukluft has a lot of water below the rugged rocks, secreted away in the porous limestone. In the kloofs and near the springs, you will find sweet thorn and buffalo thorn, ebony and fig trees, reeds and rushes and wild raisin bushes. Near every spring there are hundreds of common waxbills, cape wagtails, batises and shrikes. There are a dozen species of rodent, the ever present dassie being the most common. The once-endangered Hartmann’s mountain zebra wanders into the kloofs to drink, and is sometimes taken by the leopards who still frequent the area. Maybe it is the harsh environment, but these shy and seldom-seen leopards are so big and so strong that the German settlers called them the “Tier” – tiger! Their footprints are found frequently along the trail, even overlying the steps of the lead hikers, nervously observed by the slower hikers following the same path. The leopards must sit and watch the hikers slogging away, but the hikers never see them. Three times on the hike, we found zebra remains, once dragged into a tree where the leopard obviously was comfortable and undisturbed.
Along the northern and eastern slopes of the mountainous terrain, drier because they are in the rain-shadow, vegetation is sparse – shepherd’s trees and mountain thorns dot here and there, and resin trees favour the rocky outcrops. The western and southern slopes are richer, with quiver trees, corkwoods, melkbos and camel thorn. The neatsfoot, skaapertjie and other bushes provide nourishment for a surprising number of kudu, klipspringer and steenbok.
The Kapokvlakte has a character of its own. Lying at the top of the mountain, around 1900 m above sea level and 1000 m above the lower plains, its moon-like landscape is dotted with fluffy-white kapokbos, skilpadbos and other Karoo-like shrubs. These support many springbok – we encountered a herd of over 100 on the vlakte, as well as black-backed jackal, wild cat, Cape fox and aardwolf. The Kapokvlakte shelter, situated under an enormous old camel-thorn tree, is home to dozens of scurrying striped mice. It was amazing to see the number of photographs our party took of this area – a testament to its uniqueness and unusual beauty.
Along the western escarpment the springs and summer rains feed a number of streams that only flow for a few days a year. They reach the edge and tumble down hundreds of meters at Die Valle and Tsams Ost – but all we saw was discolouration of the rock along the paths of these occasional waterfalls. Yet, they are still called waterfalls, are magnificent to view from below whilst hiding pools of water above. These pools, though fed by the clear springs, are mostly stagnant and support mainly frogs and insects. Climbing these waterfalls, 1000 m uphill over a mere 2 km in a few hours, may be killing, but suddenly coming on to the pools is a pleasure and surprise beyond the telling, easily removing the pain.
Below the waterfalls, the Tsondab, Tsauschab and Tsams ‘rivers’ flow westward – above ground after the rains, below ground most of the time. These are the feeders of the famous clay pans at Sossusvlei, one of Namibia’s premier attractions. They run along flat plains like the Melkbos Plain, and form a corridor for the abundant and hardy desert antelope, the Gemsbok, to move between the mountains and the dunes.
The relative abundance of water in an otherwise dry environment has attracted man from pre-historic times. There are stone age sites, San rock art, hides on the game trails and a surprising number of semi-cultivated edible plants, like uitjies. Battles were fought between the Khoikhoi chief, Witbooi and the German settlers, and later German soldiers even hid large guns from British during the First World War.
Largely to provide an environment for the endangered Hartmann’s Zebra, the Naukluft Park was proclaimed in 1968. In the seventies right through to the nineties, farms in the area were bought and incorporated into the park, which was itself part of the even larger Namib Park. Today, the Namib Naukluft covers an area of almost 50 000 km2, just about the combined size of Belgium and Wales together.
The famous geologist Hans Merensky called Namibia “God’s own land.” He certainly included the Naukluft, where simple people like us are prepared to carry heavy packs for 8 days to experience the uniqueness and feel the spirit of this very special place.
Deon van Rensburg