Namibia - Van Zyl's Pass
An article by Neil Hopkinson
“Impossible” they all said, “can’t be done, the climbs are too steep and the gullies are very dangerous to climb as well!”. This advice was generally followed with “the only way to drive Van Zyl’s pass is down and only a mad man would try to climb it”
Music to my ears this sort of rhetoric. Van Zyl’s sounded like a challenge to conquer. The first challenge is just to get there as the pass is in the North West of Namibia many difficult miles from civilization in the Himba’s Kakoland, many miles from fuel and sustenance. You are on your own here in the Bush, Lion, Leopard and aggressive Desert Elephants live here and you must always be aware and obey the rules of the Bush if you want to stay alive!
I have been driving Land Rover vehicle’s in Africa for over twenty years and relish the “impossible”, I enjoy travelling deep into the Bush and have even crossed the Sahara in Libya and Morocco on my own when all around consider such “deeds” foolhardy to say the least, but for me it’s the extra-ordinary that I search for.
Look at my car for instance, a classic Range Rover in yellow and blue sporting 300bhp, air locking diffs and hydraulic winches front and rear and fuel and water for 1000km, a car set up for the extra-ordinary, a car just biting at the bit to drive UP Van Zyl’s Pass!!
I researched its secrets in the bars of Windhoek where the tour guides and expedition leaders rest their weary minds and bodies after the heat and danger of the bush and this is what I discovered from them.
“The worst parts of Van Zyl’s Neil” they said with that tone and look in their eye that men use when they know that the madman beside them cannot be swayed from the task firmly planted in his mind “is a V-gulley on a mountain of loose rock.” They normally took a long swig of Gin and Tonic before continuing “This leads onto a hogsback where two cars cannot pass. My reply of “Hmm sounds interesting” was met with raised eyebrows and a further long drink “The climbs would be dangerously steep Neil and if you start to slide your life would end!!” I listened to their advice and after a few drinks bade my farewells before leaving for the North and Van Zyl’s.
What is so special about Van Zyl’s Pass I here you say? Van Zyl’s is a pass between two very steep mountain ranges in Namibia’s Marienfluss. It gets its name from the Dutch explorer who found the way across in the 1920’s with a few hundred Himba and a Model T Ford. It is approached from a dusty sand track that leads into a seemingly blind valley. The Himba have used this way across the mountains on foot for countless years. Vertical walls of rock close in on you as you follow a distinct track heading straight for them. At first it is hard to distinguish where the track climbs but as the walls of rock loom every closer and larger two feint lines heading straight up the rock face become apparent with at their base a pile of rocks inscribed with the scribblings of thankful travellers who have conquered their fears on its rocky decent.
Van Zyl’s reputation precedes it, resting heavily on peoples minds, colouring their perceptions and experience of its rock gulleys.
The climb was indeed very steep and life threatening if you were not an experienced off road driver. With 1st low selected I drove slowly at its slope and as the nose of the Range Rover lifted up towards the blue, blue African sky I applied just enough power to drive the car up the rock, seconds later the engine note quickened as the nose climbed over the top and I adjusted the revs accordingly.
Two climbs followed with vicious axel twisters which were dispatched with ease by my blue Range Rover, this Range Rover is exceptional and I was soon stopped high up the pass on the hogsback. The view behind was awesome, to the untrained eye utterly impossible but here was I and my car above them all. The hogsback was soon behind me as were the slippery loose rock descents that followed.
Some twenty minutes later I found myself at the foot of the dreaded V-gulley. At first sight even to my experienced eye it seemed foolhardy to attempt its climb. I could see that a failed climb was completely out of the question, there would only be a long crash down the side of the mountain and a grave beside the pile of stones left by successful “decent”ants.I walked up its steep sides. To the left was a near vertical wall, to the right loose rock and axle twisters. The crest was steep but I could see a line.
Back at the Range Rover I sat and took a deep breath, went through the line that I was going to take, checked that all was well and drove up the gulley. Towards the top the wheels scrabbled for grip so I eased back on the throttle and the slowing wheels gripped once more. At the crest all I could see was sky and seconds later the range Rover was over the top and we had conquered Van Zyl’s.
Since then I have led three groups over the pass successfully even though some of them had to be winched up by my trusty stead. It is still as exciting now as it was then as the danger has not lessoned and each and every one of my clients has “gone beyond” on Namibia’s mountains in the heart of Kakoland.