Fire Mountain: To Brandberg and Back; Big Jack
To make a long story short: We survived our vacation.
To make a long story long:
Day –18: Wondering where to go on our holiday, I flip through a travel magazine and happen upon a stunning photo from the top of Brandberg Mountain. We like mountains. So we decide to climb this mountain (this highest point in Namibia) on our vacation.
Day –17: Our friend and fellow volunteer, Pat (23), comes over and I ask him, “Pat, how do you feel about ‘climbing over house-sized boulders’?” Pat likes the idea, so he’s in. The only problem is there is no way to get to or from the mountain, there’s no marked trail to get to the top of the mountain, and it’s 2573km high. Minor obstacles.
Day –16: We go to the Ongwediva college computer lab to do some research on Brandberg. All our research turns up is that there are many guides available for about N$200. We don’t want a guide and we certainly don’t want to pay money for one.
Day –13: Another volunteer, Jonathan (40), hears about our plan, or lack thereof, to climb Brandberg. He wants to join, so the fellowship is formed. We randomly pick the 19th of May as our day of departure, return date unknown.
Day –7: Pat goes to Windhoek to the Namibian Geological Society and gets topographic maps of Brandberg Mountain.
Day –6: Pat, still in Windhoek, meets up with an Afrikaner from the Namibian Mountain Club who climbed Brandberg last week. This newfound friend shows Pat on the map exactly where to go to get to the top of the mountain, how many days, where the water points are, etc. We’re all set.
Day 0: Sunday night, Jonathan and Pat come to the Arcaro Rest Camp. We compare cool camping gadgets, try to avoid too much redundancy in our equipment, assess food supplies and make a plan: we’ll go stand on the side of the road tomorrow morning and hope someone picks us up.
Ekulo to Otjiwarango
The first leg of our trip started at 7am Monday morning from a random point on the B1 tarred road—our only “plan” being a hope to get to a specific campsite at the foot of the Brandberg Mountain (BM) by the end of the day. After wildly hailing everything that passed by, the Arcaro Travel Luck (ATL) kicked in, and a bus stopped near us and a kid burst out and ran off into the bushes to drain his bladder. While he was gone, we bribed the government driver to take us to Otjiwarongo for the outrageously low clearly-this-is-only-for-booze price of N$30 each. Once on the bus, we discovered that it was owned by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, and was currently transporting about 40 very sick people from Oshakati to the better hospital in Windhoek. The bus didn’t smell very good, and the top speed of the bus was about 80km/h, but we were comfortable enough. At this point, it was clear that we were lucky just to be moving south. After five hours and a few stops at clinics to pick up more patients, we arrived at a gas station in Otjiwarango.
(Hiking Competency #1) Lesson Learned: Something is better than nothing.
Otjiwarango to Omaruru
While the bus filled up with petrol, we hopped off and asked a man filling up at the adjacent pump where the hitchpoint was to get to Omaruru. He looked at us, with our telltale iilumbu (white people) backpacks, and offered to take us there himself for N$150. We crammed all our over-stuffed packs into his small car, and off we went. In the course of conversation, we discovered our driver came from the Democratic Republic of Congo to “preach the gospel in Namibia” in a blue and white-striped tent. He evangelized to us a bit along the way, while we tried to steer the conversation elsewhere, but all in all the ride was fairly painless. He got us to Omaruru in short order and dropped us nicely at the hitch point to Uis.
(Hiking Competency #2) Lesson Learned: Pacify the driver.
Omaruru to Uis
We spent about fifteen minutes at the hitchpoint in Omaruru realizing that nobody was going to Uis. Finally, a truck sped by, then slammed on the breaks—a telltale sign of a potential ride. Jon ran up and negotiated, we piled our bags in the back, and were soon speeding down the gravel/ sand road to Uis. In due time, we learned our driver, Bryan, luck of all lucks, was the man in charge of the conservancy for the Brandberg area, as well as the director of the community based tourism project there—which explained why he kept telling us we should get a guide to climb the mountain. We told him we were poor volunteers, not tourists, but he insisted we were tourists since we were only going to be in the country for two years. “If you were here for three, then you wouldn’t be a tourist.” Then he proceeded to attempt to scare us by saying we didn’t know which mountain was Brandberg and that he could just drop us off at any mountain in the area and tell us it was Brandberg. When I correctly identified Brandberg, he tried a different scare tactic—something about UFOs. When that didn’t deter us, he then resorted to telling us about all the people that died on the mountain. Eventually we arrived in the tiny abandoned mining town of Uis.
(Hiking Competency #3) Lesson Learned: Don’t believe anything anyone tells you.
Uis to Brandberg Mountain
Still leaning heavily on Arcaro Travel Luck, Bryan called his friend Eric to take us to the BM and arranged for him to pick us up. He arrived quickly, bringing with him a haggardly looking man, whose purpose we quickly discovered. When we asked how much the rides would cost from Uis to Brandberg and back, Eric said in a manner that showed he said this before, “You know, we recommend that you bring a guide along this trip.” We glanced at the so-far-not-introduced man and decided we’d like our chances better alone. But what could we expect? Eric worked for the community based tourism group in the area, and it was his job to encourage tourists to rent mountain guides. His first price for the rides was presented as: “Well, my price for tourists is N$7 per kilometer.” We still had 42 km to go, and 42 km to come back, so this would have been obviously ridiculous. But to our surprise and relief, Bryan and his wife argued for us: “Oh come on, Eric, give them something tangible.” Eric said, “OK, for you guys, being tourists, N$500.” “Eric, come on, they are volunteer teachers.” “OK, for you guys, N$400.” “Eric, come on.” “OK, for you guys, N$300.” No argument from the other side. So we hmmed and hawwed, and eventually agreed that it was an OK price. On the way to Brandberg we went.
(Hiking Competency #4) Lesson Learned: The more you make people feel sorry for you, the more they will do for you.
We arrived at our campsite at 17h00, exactly 10 hours after we started, shocked and amazed how far we had gotten, and that we were actually at the exact spot we wanted to be to start the hike. Our longest layover was 15 minutes. It would truly be impossible to plan travel arrangements as perfect as it worked out.
(end of section from article)
It was Monday night and we asked Eric to pick us up early (6am) Saturday morning. He agreed, and abandoned us to our fate for the next five days. That night, we set up camp, cooked some supper, and talked confidently about our impending hike up the mountain. We went to bed early, in order to get an early start the next morning. Plus, since it’s winter here, it got dark at 6pm, and once you’ve eaten supper, there’s not much to do in the dark.
Camping in Africa is quite an experience. Every noise is not just a raccoon anymore, it’s at least a hyena or a jackal, and if you’re really paranoid, it’s a cheetah or leopard. We suspended the food from a tree, and with no fear of rain, had left our backpacks outside the tent. While trying to sleep that first night, I hadn’t yet reached the completely paranoid stage, but I did spend two hours convinced a hyena was getting into our stuff.
Day 2: We awoke early Tuesday morning, watched the sun turn “fire mountain” a deep orange, ate a little food, packed up all our stuff, examined the topographic map, and headed on our way to spend the next three nights on the mountain. We were confident of our ability to master this mountain, without a guide or a trail. After all, we had all done mount Katahdin and several other mountains in New England, as Jonathan was from Vermont and Pat was from upstate New York. We were experience and well prepared. And it was another beautiful, windy Namibian day.
We were heading up a boulder-infested dry river bed, and after about an hour of walking, came to a cascading waterfall that would have been quite impressive had there been more than a trickle of water running down it. I had my first scare trying to walk up the bare rock face that the waterfall had carved. I prefer boulders to open rock faces, because on the latter there is nothing to hold on to climbing up or falling down.
While climbing the rocks that comprised the surface of the lower part of the mountain, I soon became aware of a crucial divide: it is one thing to scramble up and over boulders with a light day-pack on, and it’s one thing to do backpacking through the hills of Kentucky, but it’s another thing altogether to be climbing over the house-sized boulders with a giant pack on my back.
Nevertheless, the scenery was spectacular. The mountain had a unique and beautiful array of flora, few insects, multitudes of birds and lizards, and vistas that are quite impressive. The climbing wasn’t extremely difficult in the beginning, but the majority of the mountain was still looming ahead of us.
After following the west side of the river-bed for quite some time, we had to make a decision about which way to actually go up the mountain. Patrick and Jonathan opted to take the “highway to the top,” a big open rock sheet that went straight up the mountains’ southern face at a 50 degree angle. I couldn’t think of a worse way to climb the mountain, so we split up, and Zac and I decided to take a boulderful ridge to the west of the rock face. We agreed to meet up again at this certain peak. So we climbed up, and I tried to defy gravity and remain upright as much as possible. When we got high enough that we were beside the “highway to the top” we could see that it was probably the most dangerous way to go up the mountain. Jon and Pat were clearly insane. We rested a bit, and then we saw them emerge onto the rock face. They were really far away, but we could see these two dots slowly inching up the highway. Zac and I were hoping they would soon realize the futility of their endeavor and choose a different route. Sure enough, an hour later, we saw them coming up toward where we were climbing. I waited for them there, currently a little worried about the effects of gravity, while Zac scouted out the coming route. To get to where we were at that point, we had crossed another open rock face, where you just couldn’t look down without realizing how fragile your existence was. I didn’t want to cross any more open rock faces for the rest of my life. Pat and Jon soon joined us, quite frightened by their brief climb on the highway to the top. We had our lunch, while seriously questioning our ability to summit this mountain. But, once fed, we plunged onward and upward, driven by something.
Then there was another bare rock face to be crossed. I was quite scared, but everyone else seemed to get up it just fine. Then, after that rock face, there was another one. I had met my waterloo. I couldn’t make myself cross another rock face. Every rock face I crossed going up was a rock face to be crossed going down again. How much further would this go on?
I sat there for a while, on top of Namibia, and seriously thought about things. What if the spirit is willing, and the flesh is willing, but the muscles that are needed to transport the flesh and spirit are weak? On the one hand, I did not want to cause a split in our party. I really did want to get to the top of that mountain. On the other hand, I had to face reality: the weight of my backpack made me unsteady at every crucial moment, one misstep at wrong place could make me dead… I thought: doesn’t this seem like the beginning of one of those stressful adventure movies? All four of us are separated and wandering around this dangerous part of the mountain, with daylight fading fast.
We decided to set up camp on a more or less horizontal rock face a little ways down.Zac filled up the water bottles at crevice in the rocks that was full of water that Pat found, and came back down.Later, Pat and Jonathan came back down and decided to camp with us, and see how they felt in the morning. We built a little fire in the sand below two boulders, and were feeling quite good after our day of climbing on the brink of death. We were all tired and went to bed early, cracking silly jokes about how it felt like we were sleeping on a rock.
Day 3: I enjoyed waking up on a mountain, climbing a few rocks to get a good view of the sunrise over the peaks. I looked over the plains below, and decided that as beautiful as it was on the mountain, I would much rather be down there. Both Patrick and Jon decided to continue on up the mountain. We agreed to meet, if not earlier, at the same place we camped on the bottom of the mountain Friday night. After a breakfast of instant oatmeal, we headed down the mountain and they headed up.
Zac and I descended the mountain by trying to avoid all the rock faces we had to go up. I basically scooted down the mountain on my butt, one time landing right on a pricker bush. Our legs were shot, and we were both stumbling down the mountain, our packs pushing us down carelessly. It was quite steep. While hiking down the mountain, I was thinking I needed to seriously reconsider my definition of a holiday.
There was a plateau near the base of the mountain that we were thinking of camping on, and it was near the waterfall, so we would be able to get water there. However, when we finally got to the plateau, that looked lush and green from the mountain, we discovered it was actually covered with jagged rocks. So we continued on down to the water fall and decided to camp at the top of the cascades.
While sitting there watching all the birds, we heard a noise over head, which was rare way out here where there is no air traffic. It turned out to be a microlite power hang glider. I was thinking to myself that that was a smart person. Here we were exercising our muscles to get up a mountain, when all we really needed was a microlite.
Day 4: We got up leisurely Thursday morning, having nowhere to go in particular. Zac filled up all the water bottles and I put the iodine tablets in. Even although we all have water filters, only Jon brought his, in our attempt to avoid duplication, before we anticipated that we might split up. So although the iodine kills everything in the water, it does not get rid of what we affectionately call “floaters”—all that stuff floating in the water. I don’t even like pulp in juice, let alone floaters in water! I convinced myself I could go the next three days without drinking water.
We hiked for about an hour and then we were at the base camp. Zac let me lay there for maybe 20 minutes before he decided we should try and hike around the base of the mountain to get to the other side to see the sunset. I was pretty content just laying there, but I agreed it was a good idea. We had plenty of water on us to be able to camp somewhere and then come back on Thursday and go to the waterfall for more water. So off we went, with our full packs, over rocky, but mostly flat, terrain. We walked for about two hours and started looking for a good campsite. We came to a place that looked to be good—it was in a sandy river bed with a few small trees for shade. But when we got closer, we discovered numerous animals tracks, animal dung and lots of bees. Not a good place to be camping. Zac, who dislikes bees as much as I dislike spiders, then decided we should just go back to the base camp. Apparently he didn’t really want to see the sunset anymore. So we rested for a bit, away from the river bed, then traipsed back across the rocky, ankle-twisting terrain to where I was laying just a few hours ago.
We sat around enjoying the nice evening, while I whined about the floaters in the water, wishing we had brought our water filter also. Just then, we heard Jonathan’s voice hallooooing from behind some boulders. I jumped up, happy. “Jonathan, boy am I glad to see you. Do you have your water filter?” While I filtered the water, Pat and Jonathan told us about their adventure on the mountain. They made it to the plateau on top, but needed another day to get all the way to the official peak, and had decided to just be satisfied with making it to the top. They said while they were up there they saw the ultralight come up over the mountain and nearly crash due to the high winds. They also saw some of the debris from a plane that had once landed on the mountain, then crashed trying to take off.
That night we cooked a big pot of tomato soup and rice, and just enjoyed being alive.
Day 5: Friday morning we got up and all walked up to the water fall to get water, nice, filtered water. That afternoon we just sat around camp reading, eating, and generally trying not to move any of our painful muscles.
That night we are sitting around the fire just relaxing when Zac and I see a little critter crawl by in the firelight. I sound the freak spider alarm, which consists of me jumping up and calling out “Freak spider! Freak spider!” until the spider is caught and/or killed. Pat has been at our house during previous freak spider alarms, so he knows the drill but Jonathan was a bit confused at first. However, Jonathan is quite interested in critters, so he got out his flashlight and magnifying glass to help us examine this wild specimen. Sure enough, it was the same type of mysterious ten-legged spider thing that we find in our house. Jonathan commented that it resembled a cross between a spider and a scorpion. Great. Super.
After the freak spider incident, I couldn’t sit back down in the sand and relax, and the only thing left to do was go into the tent. It was getting late anyway, nearly 8pm, so we started to get ready for bed. Zac picked up my sweatshirt off the ground, and a rather large critter scurried out. Jonathan was nearby and quickly stepped on it—but didn’t squish it. Zac whipped out his utility knife pliers and as Jon eased his foot up, Zac grabbed the critter. I warily come to the scene to discover that it is in fact a scorpion. First freak spiders, now scorpions under my sweatshirt! What if I had gotten chilly and put my jacket on? According to our scorpion book, this particular scorpion, called a “thick-tailed scorpion” has a lethal sting. Luckily, Jonathan likes poisonous things like scorpions and snakes, so he went through our campsite shaking out everything, hoping to find some more scorpions. He was disappointed to not find anything else. I got into the tent as soon as possible.
Day 6: (portions of this are taken from our article)
Brandberg to Uis
We were ready for Eric to pick us up at 6am Saturday morning. We took bets on what time we thought he’d come. Zac bet 7:30am, I bet 8:30am, Jon bet 3:30pm, Pat declined to bet. I won, but it was Bryan who showed up at 8:40am, glad to see us alive, still saying we should have got a guide. (By this point we were agreeing with him).
(Hiking Competency #5) Lesson Learned: Never forget African Time.
We shortly made the dusty trip back to Uis. There we were deposited at a petrol station to await a lift out of Uis. But nobody was going to Omaruru. We waited around for an hour. Bryan came back (because we purported to be so helpless—hiking competency #4) and said we should just camp in Uis that night, because he was going to Omaruru the next day and could take us then. So we did just that.
After picking us up at the gas station, Bryan drove us to where three Peace Corps volunteers from group 21 were staying for their community based training. We said hi to them and told them we’d be at the rest camp and they could join us there later. Then Bryan took us to The White Lady B&B and Camping. There was a small swimming pool there, and since we hadn’t showered in 6 days, we decided that it was actually a large bathtub. The water was freezing cold, but it felt great. Feeling refreshed after our bath, we walked down to The White Lady restaurant where Pat got his long-desired steak and beer, and the rest of us got hamburgers. It was great. No more floaters in the water.
(Hiking Competency #6) Lesson Learned: It’s better to drink beer and eat steak in a nice cool restaurant than wait for a ride all day.
After a while the owner’s nephew came and visited with us. Jonathan asked him about snakes, and somehow the freak spiders came up. The nephew said that he knew what we were talking about and that they were just discovered three years ago when a biologist noticed that they weren’t normal. Exactly. That’s why I call them freak spiders. We kept talking about our time at the mountain, and Jon asked if he saw the micro light go over a few days ago. The kid said “Oh yeah, that’s my cousin.” A while later the cousin came, and gave us a fright-by-fright rendition of his flight over the mountain. Apparently it was the first time he did it, because he was trying to get a photo of the airplane crash on top. He too was afraid he would join the crash. I asked if he could give us a ride in it, and he said, “ah, not tonight, but maybe tomorrow morning.” We used our “poor volunteer teachers” line and got a descent price quote of N$150 for a 25 minute flight. Then he went off somewhere, Jon and the nephew went looking for snakes, Pat started trying to smoke a pipe he just bought, and I was just taking it all in.
Towards dusk, the cousin comes back on a motorcycle and says he’ll take me on a tour of the mines. I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before, but this seemed like as good a time as any. I might as well die doing something rather than wait for the scorpions and freak spiders to get me. It was a great ride and I learned a little bit about the history of the area.
I was safely returned to the camp, we had some disgusting canned spaghetti heated up on our campstove (because we really are poor volunteer teachers) and then the other volunteers came by and we went back to the White Lady restaurant. We compared our experiences and had a good time complaining about Peace Corps rules and discussing the nuances of the local cultures. Then their trainer came to collect them and we walked back to our camp for a good night’s sleep.
I dreamed about flying in a microlight.
Day 7: I woke up hoping that the cousin, Nicol, wouldn’t forget about taking us flying. He didn’t. At about 6:30am he had the hang glider out on the runway, then up in the air for a test ride. He came back down, and Pat, me, and Zac each took turns riding in it. It was so beautiful gliding above the mines and mountains in the early morning. I wasn’t the least bit afraid. This was definitely the way to go. Best N$150 I’ve spent so far.
Uis to Omaruru
Byran picked us up at 10am Sunday morning, picked up another colleague, then we were on our way out of Uis and on to Omaruru. We almost crashed into a kudu that decided to surprise us with its presence as we sped along the dirt road at 110 km/h.
(Hiking Competency #7) Lesson Learned: Make friends with people who drive around a lot.
(Hiking Competency #7.5) Lesson Learned: Watch out for kudus.
Omaruru to Otjiwarango
Upon entering Omaruru, Bryan drove us to the hitchpoint and saw a friend there. Here also, we applied the lack of effort competency to bring out the best results. He convinced him to take us four helpless iilumbu to Otjiwarango for a fair price. So, off we went. The conversation was dull, and the sun was shining into the car, hot, so we either slept or read. Within a fair amount of time, we were in Otjiwarongo at the main hitchpoint, ready for the memorable last leg of our journey.
(Hiking Competency #8) Lesson Learned: It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, it’s who your driver knows.
Otjiwarongo to Omuthiya!!!!! (BIG JACK)
Upon first arriving in Otjiwarango the prospects of finding a hitch home looked very promising. Within a few minutes Jonathan had found a small bakkie willing to take him to Oshakati for a fair price and squeezed in the back with several memes. It didn’t look like it would be very comfortable for three more to fit in, and since the rest of us were ready for some lunch, we decided to stay in town a bit longer and find another hitch. After we had a nice relaxing meal sitting in the grass across from Spar we decided it was time to get serious about finding a ride. While standing by the road, we learned just how small Namibia is. We met several Peace Corps people, as well as a random man who asked if our chief knew where we were, and then threatened to report us to her. All the while, we were still trying to get a ride home (none of these people being of any help). We tried our usual trick of pointing in the desired direction but there were no vehicles stopping. All of the busses going north were already full—making a sardine can seem spacious—and the drivers could only shrug in helplessness. The well-heeled Namibians, white and black, driving by in their nice cars only ignored us. We had long since resorted to making signs advertising our destination, but to no avail; they attracted a lot of attention but no rides. It seemed as if our luck had finally run out, daylight was burning fast and we were 400 km from home. Little did we know, though, that we just had to bide our time ‘till “Big Jack” rolled into town.
We were hailing everything, so when this huge semi truck with two trailers went by we gave it a try—and magically we had our ride: the cab of a 32 wheeler (said Big Jack: “35, if you count the two spares and the steering”). Riding in a big truck was a novelty for us and we were pretty pumped at our good fortune. The truck was heading for Angola with 38 metric tons of Pure Joy juice and Big Jack, wearing very short white shorts, which exposed his massive white thighs, said he would give us a ride to Omuthiya for 50 nabs each (or “whatever… just get in”).
Now, in the course of life, one is bound to meet a few of those souls whose character and countenance are so profound as to be etched irrevocably into memory, and Big Jack, the driver of this truck was one of those people. Big Jack was a former member of the South African Special Forces (he killed his first person at age 18), had smuggled abalone, was an ex ‘debt collector’, was an aspiring free style prizefighter and was fluent in Afrikaans and English, as well as four indigenous languages (specializing in profanity and insults). Whenever an oncoming vehicle (of which there were few) failed to dim its lights, Big Jack turned on the light in the cab so that oncoming driver could see his fearsome face and raised middle finger.
He was a very nice guy; in fact his honesty and sense of honor were quite admirable. We asked all sorts of questions about trucking and his other various occupations. In general, the conversation was quite lively and it was consummately interesting to hear his perspective of life. He summed up his philosophy thus: “I’m a nice guy. I like teddy bears and animals and children and women—I love women. I don’t fuck with anyone, but if someone fucks with me, I’m gonna fuck him up. I’m not going to tell him I’m going to fuck him up, I’ve already done it.” He just finished saying this when Celine Dion’s Titanic song came on the radio, and he reached for the radio knob, turned it up, and sang along in a reverie. Soon thereafter, he started rooting around in the cab behind him (while still managing to keep all 32 wheels on the road) and pulled out a photo album and started showing us pictures of his wife and kid.
A while a later, he told us about a time some guys attempted to hijack his truck back in ‘96. He got out, confronted the guy with the gun, got shot three times, then, “I f***ed the guys up. When the ambulance came, it picked up those two guys and I was still walking around.” Among other things, we learned he hated being called a Boer, first made love to a woman at 19, had gone 6 months without bathing before, had been driving trucks for ten years, and could drive for 22 hours then sleep for 2 repeatedly.
At a gas station, Pat bought him his third can of Red Bull as an insurance policy. He evidently wanted a break from driving, because he let both Pat and Zac have a turn at the wheel. He coached them by insisting that all you had to do was “relax and just drive.” Time went by, and before we knew it, we were deposited safely back on the road outside Ekulo, right where we started a week before. Big Jack refused to take any money, but we did exchange cell phone numbers. We walked the remaining 800 meters home under the moonless stars, already reliving some of the highlights of the trip.
(Hiking Competency #9) Lesson Learned: Don’t f*** with Big Jack, but if you’re lucky enough to get a ride with him, you’ll never forget it.
The phone rang at 6:30am Monday morning. Sera answered it and heard a deep, cheerful voice say, “Were you sleeping?” It was none other than the voice of Big Jack! “I just wanted to make sure you all made it home safely last night.”
(Hiking Competency #10) Lesson Learned: The world is full of nice people, one just needs to give them a chance to show it. Or The world is full of people, and the ones that are nice will show it by giving you a hike.
Love always, Sera and Zac (and Pat)
“Anyway, that’s my man of magnitude. Who’s yours?”