The view from the top of the mountain pass is overwhelming. The magnificent vast desert scenery spreads out far below, and the dry Marienfluss riverbed meanders through it. Now is the time to take a deep breath, compose yourself and gather your wits. Because the only way into the valley is down Van Zyl’s Pass, the most notorious pass in Namibia.
Van Zyl’s Pass is situated in the far northwest corner of Namibia, in Kaokoland. The only way to get there is via the D3703 district road through Okangwati. The descent from the top of the pass to the bottom is a distance of ten kilometres but will take three to six hours to negotiate.
If you are all fired up now and raring to go, be warned. This is an extreme 4×4 challenge that requires experience of cross-country driving and a skillful navigator. It is not a simple matter of just cruising downhill. Apart from the steep gradient there are uphill stretches as well. Each tyre has to scramble up and down, and the vertical rocks that protrude from the track in many places pose additional risks to the tread. It is highly advisable to tackle this adventure in convoy, if only to encourage one another.
“If anybody had told me before the trip that you can actually make it down here without wrecking your car I wouldn’t have believed them. It is a good idea to explore the pass on foot before starting to drive down,” Andrea Böhm and Jochen Brett advise on their website “Abenteuer Namibia”. “Since visibility is extremely limited from the driver’s seat it is of vital importance to have a person on the track to give directions.”
“In places the vehicle was moving on three, or even just two, wheels only – the others were suspended in the air,” they recounted their adventure. “This was due to different levels of gravel banks and slabs of rock in varying sizes. It was similar to a staircase with large steps. You had to approach them at a specific angle because more often than not the vehicle did not have sufficient clearance for this extremely rough terrain. It was a matter of millimetres!”
“Of course it also depends on which time of the year you cross the pass,” says Dr Ben van Zyl, after whose father the pass was named. “After a rain shower the track will be more eroded and drivers need to be really skillful. This is no place for ‘cowboys’ who expect to go for a fun ride.”
Ben van Zyl senior, respectfully called “Oom Ben” (Uncle Ben) by Afrikaans speakers, hails from Britstown in the Karoo in South Africa. A position advertised for a stenographer brought him to Outjo in northern Namibia in 1940. Nine years later he was appointed Commissioner for Bantu Affairs in Ohopoho, today’s Opuwo, in Kaokoland. 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.
At the time a white person was not allowed to enter Kaokoland without a permit. 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 new 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.”
Looking for the best possible route he followed a cattle path. He was convinced that it could be turned into a road right down to the Marienfluss riverbed. Two government vehicles were available for his construction work, an ordinary 3-ton Chevrolet truck and a tractor with trailer.
With a group of 20 men van Zyl got down to work. “Any rocks which were in our way literally had to be 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 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 realised that his road was far from complete, but turning back was out of the question at this stage.
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 initially extremely narrow. They were broadened for military vehicles much later, during the bush war.
Some time after his work was done, van Zyl of course had to negotiate his way back up the pass. By now he was driving a 4×4 International. His assistant, Grootman Hondulu, sat next to him during the whole nerve-wracking 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.”
Author: Kirsten Kraft