Up until this stage, our trans Ugab Expedition had been all about our struggles with isolation, geological claustrophobia as well as the ‘great untamed’, and the final episode of the season remained thematically consistent. The last leg of our journey took us due east up the sandy Ugab River bed in the direction of humanity’s closest outpost, The White Lady Lodge.
The lodge lies at the foot of the impressive Brandberg mountain, which to this day appears to erupt from the surrounding flatlands despite having been dormant for millennia. Add to this the sooty black rocks that give the peak its name Brandberg or ‘burnt mountain’, and we knew for certain that our destination for the day would be standout, recognisable on the horizon long before we reach the relative comfort waiting on its flanks.
The real challenge of the route that lay before us was dealing with the uncertainty. Of the vehicles that make their way down to the Ugab River Rhino Camp – and there are not many – few choose to leave the relative safety of the track to wander up a river that is only periodically passable. The trouble is that the Ugab River has cut a fairly deep canyon into solid rock and the effect is that wherever the canyon narrows, subterranean water gets forced to the surface, forming great black stagnant pools. This water – which for the valley’s inhabitants is a godsend – creates a few challenges for visiting South Africans.
The most obvious difficulty is the process of wading the Land Rovers through the black puddles which hide all sorts of boulders, branches and other debris from the last time that the river actually flowed. Moreover, the size of the pools is completely unpredictable as they can swell from rains that occurred inland but with runoff that flows underground to the sea. In fact, the state of the pools is such an enigma that not even the valley’s only human resident – the camp warden – could give us reliable insight into whether or not we would be able to get through to White Lady.
The second difficulty created by the ponds is the foliage. For the most part, Namibia is a dry country and this is especially true at present. Plants tend to struggle with an absence of moisture and yet Namibian flora seems to have worked out how to combat the drought. Instead of trying to eke out an existence on the odd barren plain, it all – and I mean all – just chooses to gather around waterholes. Indeed, the waterholes are so densely vegetated that the few animals who do call the Ugab home have to, quite literally, fight back the foliage in order to get a drink.
For us, all the greenery meant even further restrictions in mobility. Not only were we confined to the limits of the valley, but even within it, we were further limited to the areas where the vehicles before us had bashed a path through the growth. For the entire duration of our journey, it was not uncommon for us to be unable to see where we were headed as the reeds we were driving through rose considerably higher than the Land Rovers.
The reed bed myopia caused one last problem which was perhaps the most alarming of the lot. Just as we were reduced to the only path cutting its way through the river, so were the valley’s largest residents, Desert Elephant. The track that we were following through the bush was as much the result of the work done by previous travellers as it was of the work done by elephant. Judging by the profusion of droppings on the road, it was clear that the elephants used the track as their own personal thoroughfare. There was the distinct possibility that we would round the next blind corner only to find an elephant; if there is one thing that I don’t wish to imagine, it’s a startled and confined Desert Elephant.
All these factors made our progress slow; we averaged just 16 km/h for the 75-kilometre journey between the Ugab River Rhino Camp and White Lady, and yet it was not time, or the lack thereof, that played on my mind. Instead, it was the question of how much commitment to show the undertaking. As anyone who has ever gone into an uncertain situation will attest to, there is always a point where the effort required to retreat is greater than that required to move forward, regardless of how big an obstacle ‘forward’ represents. Unfortunately, it is at that point, where the pressure to ‘charge’ and ‘retreat’ converge, that common sense often fails.
In our case, our research indicated that the highest concentration of water lay only a few kilometres short of White Lady, and we had no way of knowing whether or not we would be able to navigate that section. I kept visualising a scenario where we stood on the banks of a body of water that was obviously too large to cross, and yet the energy required to withdraw would effectively force us to make an attempt at doing so.Adding to my concerns was the propensity of Lance – our travel partner – for absurd ideas. On an earlier occasion, he had glibly indicated that wading his Land Rover across the Orange River was a reasonable solution to his missing the Octha Ferry.
Thankfully, my fears were not realised. As we inched our way into the area known as the Ugab Swamp, it became clear that there was indeed a substantial reservoir of water, but that there was also a sliver of land on the northern bank where a track had been beaten through the bush. I for one was overjoyed to see the route although I played it cool, never once letting my concerns show as weakness.
We had made it all the way through the Ugab River Valley and now, late in the day, stood in the shadow of the Brandberg Mountain, harbouring a strong sense of achievement. Perhaps it was not the same sense of achievement that the first travellers of the route must have had, but it was the comforting kind associated with doing something that few others ever will.
For all the signs of elephant en route to the White Lady Lodge, it ultimately took us a long time to cross paths with the giants. We only met up with them about 10 kilometres away from the end, fortunately in an open section of the riverbed. Interestingly enough, both the earlier herd in the Huab River and this herd in the Ugab had calves and, as such, I’m happy that we saw them only on open ground.
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