To truly appreciate the phenomenon that is ‘Namibia’s ephemeral rivers’, one needs to view them from the air. For a mere mortal such as myself, this means Google Maps, but anyone who gets a bird’s eye view will see that the Huab and the Ugab rivers both have their march to the ocean impeded by a pretty substantial geological resistance. The Huab River has to drive its way through a silt plug that extends a long way inland from the sea, while the Ugab has to cut a course through rock that rather resembles a tectonic accordion.
While for some the connection between the geology and the driving conditions present in a given location may be obvious, I would argue that many people, myself included, take little notice of this relationship. If I had to provide an explanation for the failure to reconcile the two, I would suggest that it’s likely the result of the comparatively slow pace of geological change relative to other changes that might occupy the mind of a driver. Be that as it may, as we headed out of the Huab River en route to the start of the Desolation Valley, we soon realised that keeping an eye on the rapidly changing terrain would prove useful.
There are a few ways to get into the Ugab River Valley. The valley may resemble a bit of a fortress, but ambitious – or perhaps desperate – explorers have scratched roads through the dirt in several places. The Desolation Valley itself represents one such access point and begins with a desolate pan, which I assume to be the source of the route’s name. It’s an unusual location in that it sits at a considerable elevation in the middle of a desert, and yet has evidently been formed by the forces of water. Moreover, the pan is divided into two with one-half covered by grey-coloured pebbles and the other with the common iron-oxide coloured variety. Both the colouring and its expanse make the pan something to behold, even if it is not all that photogenic.
After crossing the pan, the road immediately begins its descent to the valley floor. Initially, the drop is gentle and the track regularly passes through open areas surrounded by the now typical ‘mineralised hills’. It is all very pleasant to look at as well as to drive through, with prominent colours on display and no notable obstacles with which to be concerned. Gradually, over the course of many kilometres, things begin to get decidedly more claustrophobic. The valley walls get closer and closer and the road more and more confined until, at some point, one is confronted with a slot in the canyon wall wide enough for only a single vehicle.
It is at this stage that the difficulty of the road takes a substantial step towards ‘4×4 only’. In the kilometres that followed, the pace of our journey declined substantially as the track navigated the exceedingly tight watercourse. Acute turning angles, rock steps and the odd sandy section saw to it that the going was slow. Fortunately for us, gravity was on our side as I suspect that the relative ease with which we traversed the channel was, in some part, the result of our descending.
As the canyon walls grew higher and higher and appeared more and more menacing, we started to see traces of water. The presence of any water at all was a sure sign that we were getting down to the bedrock. A barely running and decidedly sulphurous spring, as well as an enormous, but dry, tributary that must have been subject to catastrophic flooding indicated to us that we were near to the camp. On the most distant peaks, we could also make out cairns that had obviously been erected to indicate to those who had ventured this far from civilisation that refuge was near.
All these factors meant that when we finally made it onto the sandy riverbed that is the Ugab River, everything felt a bit surreal. There, with no other human beings around for miles, was a well-established community campsite run by a delightful community-appointed ranger. I don’t know where the ‘community’ was because I’m quite sure that the area is uninhabitable, but this gentleman and his family appeared to live quite well. He was several hours drive away from any humanity, but he had a vehicle and seemed more than content with his isolation.
The campsite itself, called the Ugab River Rhino Camp, includes several reed-lined campsites scattered around a central reception building. The sites are all shaded – some more so than others – and each has a stone fireplace. There is running water, hot showers and, in truth, it all seemed almost too cordial given its location. To be fair, however, as exciting as wild camping is, the relative comfort of the Ugab River Rhino Camp will be a welcome relief to most visitors. Having a ranger nearby definitely relieves one of some of the inherent stresses associated with the dangers of wild camping, stresses that exist no matter how improbable the manifestation of that danger is.
We were the only ones at the Ugab River Rhino Camp, and I am quite confident that it will be the same way for almost anyone who chooses to visit. I cannot see a rational reason why one would try to make a booking to stay at this campsite, but we did. Unfortunately, we were exploited for our naivety and were charged four times the actual daily rate by a tour operator who happened to know how to get hold of the warden. In reality, one can arrive at this camp and expect to pay only R80.00 per person per night without any risk of being turned away.
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