Namibia – Brandberg Mountain

Brandberg Mountain – 8,442 ft

Matthew and Amanda
August 26, 2016

Leopards, Cobras, no water, oh my!

If the route was well marked and we knew where the water was, we wouldn’t have needed a guide. As it was, though, the route was poorly marked and we didn’t know where the water was. Moreover, a guide was required by law, so we were left w little choice.

Generally, we don’t hire guides unless specifically required by law because doing it by yourself is more exciting w greater sense of adventure, not to mention cheaper. Backpacking typically attracts those who have the philosophy that exerting effort under your own power without usual comforts of daily living shouldn’t be associated w a big price tag.

Matthew camps w style at Brandberg trailhead

Matthew camps w style at Brandberg trailhead

On the other hand, when there is virtually no information about a remote or little known trail, then hiring a guide can be safer. In Madagascar, there could have been benefits of having a guide. Although we knew the route and didn’t get lost, a guide could have facilitated communication w the villagers and provided on-hand info about safety of river crossings.

For the Namibian high point Brandberg Mountain, having a guide was not only required but also helpful. Upon discovering that there were leopards and king cobras as well as there was challenging rock scrambling that made it hard to identify the best route, Amanda was particularly grateful for the guide.

Still, even if you know you need a guide, acquiring one is sometimes not straightforward. Eric had done some initial legwork, and from his research he discovered that you had to go through the National Heritage Council (NHC) in Windhoek. He tried emailing them and never received a reply so assumed that was a dead end.

Namibia country tree in front of our canyon route

Namibia country tree in front of our canyon route

Given that Matthew and Amanda were going to be in Namibia for 3 or more weeks, we decided to dig a little deeper. Calling rather than emailing turned out to be more effective. Matthew called the NHC and connected w a gentleman named Bertold Karipi, who emailed us a PDF of the permit application. About a week after returning the completed application, we received our permit and the contact info of one of the lead rangers in Uis named Terry, who gave us the phone number of our guide-to-be Justus (pronounced Justice) Hamseb. After a net total of 3 hours of effort and for reference 750 Namibian dollars (about 55 USD), we had surmounted all the red tape needed to hike the mountain.

On a desolate gravel road 5 hours from Windhoek, Matthew said, “we should call up Justus and let him know we’re close.” Using the sim card which we had received from a benevolent French traveler named Clemont who was just wrapping his own trip and which Matthew had trimmed to size to fit in the iPhone micro SIM card holder, we made the call.

“Hi, I’m currently in ‘the location’ and trying to swing a ride to meet you, but maybe you could pick me up?” Justus asked.

“Sure, what’s your location?”

“I’m in ‘the location.'”

“But what is that location?”

“Just ask anybody where ‘the location’ is.”

A frustrating, circular conversation finally resolved itself when a young girl at a gas station got on the phone, received clarification from Justus in the local Damara language (interspersed w vocal clicks), and pointed to a cluster of shiny, tinned roofed buildings on an far away hill in the opposite direction we had been traveling.

Giraffe cave painting dates to 5000 years ago

Giraffe cave painting dates to 5000 years ago

We rendezvoused w him in the appointed location. Justus ran to the car (we were the only tourist car in the area) waving his arms and smiling. He was tall and thin African young man (probably late 20’s), red soccer jersey, blue jeans, aviator sunglasses, bald shaven head, and the nickname “CHEEKY” tattooed on his forearm. He hopped in the backseat.

“So,” Matthew asked after introductions and apologies for the confusion, “what’s the plan?” We all agreed on camping at the trailhead that evening since it was already late then starting our hike first thing in the morning, taking the steepest yet shortest trail via Gasep Canyon.

“Where’s your stuff?” Amanda asked looking back at Justus who had no bag or gear w him.

“Well, we’ve got to pick up my bag then go to where my colleague dropped off a sleeping bag for me. We also need to find out if there’s any water at the top. We should each bring 5 liters of water.” (If there hadn’t been water, we would have had to carry 20 liters a person.)

Scarce water near camp 2

Scarce water near camp 2

Subsequently, we made four stops prior to heading out of town. Justus directed down a short road lined w identical, small, square, concrete houses. “This used to be a mining town for tin.” Justus said. “We have electricity; now they are trying to install pipes for water. It hasn’t rained in 2 to 3 years.” We stopped at a small light blue painted house, smaller than a one-bedroom apartment in Boston, with an addition of sheet metal and sticks. “That’s my mother’s house.” He soon emerged a clean blue Osprey pack.

Then we stopped at the gas station, where he picked up a tent but then realized his colleague had not left him a sleeping bag, so we had to go back to his mother’s neighborhood to the house of another friendly colleague John who had just come down from the mountain w other tourists. The final stop was at the grocery store, where we provided 300 Namibian dollars for Justus to buy his food for the hike.

Finally, it was time to head out of town. We turned onto a wide but heavily wash boarded gravel road, heading west. Half an hour later, the road became a single dirt track that headed to the Brandberg massif. The road steadily decreased in quality and was at times soft sand. Although we didn’t need 4WD, we were thankful for a vehicle w high clearance and in retrospect a 2WD would not be recommended.

Arriving at the foot of the canyon, “this is base camp,” Justus announced. We were relieved to finally park the car, ditch the transmission, and now rely on our own two feet.

Cave paintings dated to 2000 years ago

Cave paintings dated to 2000 years ago

Our first task of collecting firewood introduced us to two hazards of the mountain. The first – a plentiful plant called “ephobia”, a light green straw-like bush, which could produce fatal fumes if burned. The second – what should be completely absent on the mountain – anyone else besides us. Behind a shrub, Justus discovered a 25-liter jug of water and a large hammer used for mining semi-precious stones. “These should not be here. I’m just worried about the car…”

The alternative parking place for the car was very unappealing. It was 9 miles away. We submitted to the only other way of having a sense of reassurance, which was once we climbed higher on the mountain where we might find cellphone coverage, Justus would call his colleague John to determine if the jug and hammer had been there during the previous hike without incident. (It turned out it was.)

That night we camped in style. We unfolded our rooftop tent, table, and chairs and ate mountain house beef w chili and fresh pineapple around the campfire. The desert sky was exquisitely clear. The Milky Way extended from one horizon to another directly overhead, and we could witness countless satellites and shooting stars.

Day 1 of hike

Woke up at sunrise then started hiking at 7 am. Proceeded up the canyon in the direction of a steep cliff. Justus asked if this was similar to the Grand Canyon in the US. In some aspects it was as it was extremely dry and steep. Mostly, though, this trail was much more rugged. Unlike the Grand Canyon, this rock-scrambling trail was not suitable for livestock.

Trail register at the summit of Brandberg Mtn

Trail register at the summit of Brandberg Mtn

The next section involved long stretches of steep slabs of rock that were fortunately dry. After couple hours of hiking, we stopped by large boulder, on which Justus pointed out 5000-year old rock paintings – single color, red figures of people and of a giraffe. (No giraffes nowadays within sight of the mountain; just fecal and footprint evidence of leopards and marmots.). Went over lowest pass at about 6500 feet and descended about 500 feet into another valley, where we camped. At end of hot sunny day, we had each drunk about 4 L of water. With the empty water bottles stored at camp 2, Justus showed us the way to a single pool of water remaining in a scoured hole on a dry rock riverbed called “Lonely Pools.”. He had to lie on his stomach and stretch his arm down to reach cool, clear, yellow water. There was another rocky hole w a large stick that Justus had left last time he was up to rescue a giant cobra that had fallen in. Boiled the water back at camp. Ended day w another campfire and magnificent view of night sky, playing cards w Justus.

Day 2 of hike

Left camp at 7 am with thankfully much lighter packs. We had 6 liters of water in all, all of which Matthew carried. After an hour of hiking, overhang w mural of a 50+ white and red, 2000-year-old paintings of people, elephants, giraffes, kudu, other antelopes, snakes, etc… There were also leopard footprints in this cave, which gave Matthew hope that we would get an opportunity to see the elusive creature. After another hour of hiking through steep rocky sections and dry grassy fields, finally spotted the summit for the first time. We climbed steeply out of the field for about 30 minutes, and at last we found ourselves on the roof of Namibia! The view was spectacular – 360 degrees, completely clear. The peak is situated on the middle of Brandberg massif, a big circular field of mountains that towers 5000 feet above the surrounding plains. To the way, we could see the town of Uis in the distance. To the west, if we squinted, we could convince ourselves that we could barely discern the ocean. About 200 feet away, we also saw a tall telecom antennae, which had probably been airlifted by helicopter. Justus made phone calls to his family, and although we were not quite sure what he was saying, his excitement was obvious. Meanwhile, we sent a text message using our satellite messenger. Justus then said, “How about we leave at 12 o’clock?” Giving us an hour and a half on the summit. After signing the summit register, Amanda relaxed and did yoga, while Matthew ran around exploring. We proceeded back to camp 2 on the same route arriving approximately 2.5 hours later, a 30-min improvement on our ascent time. Relaxed at camp, boiled more water and around the campfire we learned a bit more about Justus…

He was the middle child with two older siblings and two younger siblings. His father died when he was 12. He was a father himself with 2 daughters, one 6 and one 3 years old. He lived w them and his girlfriend in a house that he constructed from wood he had collected from the river and cow dung. He was born, received all his education, and never moved from the area surrounding Uis. He worked for the NHC, making a salary of 1200 Namibian dollars per month, working out to about 88 USD dollars per month, slim to support a family of four. He told a story of coming home after being on the mountain, and his daughters asking where he had been. At this point in the story, he hesitated and struck an awkward note about them asking about what money he had brought home. He said for this, his girlfriend and him would playfully threaten the girls with torturing them by braiding their hair. “There are some people who are good who provide a tip, but some don’t, just drive off, and we understand.” It sounded like he gets the opportunity to climb the mountain w tourists for extra income only once every couple of months. (On the summit register, his last entry appeared to be in April while it was now August and he at first didn’t know the latest water availability.). Apart from guided hikes, he denied having another job. He had never left Namibia, but said the first country he would go to would be England.

He then asked Matthew if learning Chinese was easy. We had learned that Justus had an affinity for language. His English was good which he had learned from Peace Corps volunteers from Mississippi; he could imitate American slang from rap songs; he could also speak Afrikaans and Damara dialects (clicks and all); and he knew the difference between Spain and Mexican Spanish because of medical missions volunteers from Spain. He shared how in The Location (capital letters), there was a “China shop.” He imitated how the Chinese shop owner spoke in binary English: “You buy, not buy” and spoke about all the things one could buy there. He also quietly added that there was a vegetable garden in the back, which seemed to mean something to him, as he repeated it a couple times, and imagined he was like Mr. Miagi from the movie “The Karate Kid” teaching kungfu in his backyard. We taught him how to use chopsticks with two twigs, so that maybe he could catch flies like Mr Miagi.

Yet another peaceful sleep under a blanket of stars.

Day 3 of hike

Retraced our steps down mountain, marveling at terrain we had covered. Brandberg seemed like a giant wall behind our backs. After descending 3500 feet over 3.5 hours w tired quads and toes, we triumphantly made it back at 10:30 am to our safe and sound car right where we had left it.

Total elevation gain: estimated 6500 feet
Round trip distance: 18-20 miles

Breakdown of costs:
150 Namibian permit fee
600 Namibian for hiking fee (of which 300, Justus said, had been for his food – in other words, he didn’t ask for it twice.)

While dropping Justus off at his mother’s house at The Location and hugging goodbye, a half naked toddler wearing a cotton shirt that said “ETOSHA”, ran out of the yard straight at Amanda and hugged her legs. He then ran back to the house. “His name is China.” Justus grinned. As we drove away, looking out the window, we saw Justus smiling, pouring water out of his hiking water bottle down into China’s wide open mouth.

-MG and AM

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