Spitzkoppe; Sandstone and quartz; The most amazing rock formations ever; In which we climb a mountain in the heat of the desert afternoon; No cave for us; Overnight windstorm

Spitzkoppe is an area of rock outcroppings buried deep in the Namib desert. Words can’t do justice to the amazing rock formations there. All the rocks are yellow-orange and weathered rough. The outcroppings are huge rounded hills in the most fantastic smooth, blobbed shapes. The wind has eroded them so that giant round boulders sit poised on top of rock mounds like so many giant basketballs. Our campsite was in a big cleft in one rock mound that had a huge boulder trapped between the walls at the top to form something like a cave. It wasn’t a real cave, but we weren’t complaining - it was the only shade around. The sun was punishing hot and the air felt like a blast-furnace, but that didn’t stop us from venturing out in the afternoon heat to go and climb rocks.

Rocks at Spitzkoppe

Now, I’m not a rock climber per se. I can’t be having with all those ropes and harnesses and clamps and spikes and all the rest of the expensive paraphernalia. I just like climbing around on rocks. I like the muscle strain and the roughness of the rock under your hands and the puzzle of finding a route upward. Now that I think about it, the little experience I’ve had with formal rock climbing makes me think that they call this sort of thing “bouldering” - but I may be wrong. In any case, Spitzkoppe is paradise for people who like messing around on rocks. The weathering has left the exposed orange-red rock surfaces so rough and textured that my shoes nearly stuck to it and I could walk right up even a 60-degree slope. I felt like Spiderman. We had to be careful, though, because among the rough orange rocks were scattered white rocks that weathered smooth, and you could take a step and slip.

Sheryl and I decided to attempt the tallest peak, because it’s us. Why do anything smaller? We knew the heat would be a big danger, so we each brought a litre of water. The biggest peak is, at my uneducated guess, maybe five hundred meters. Not a mountain, but plenty big enough to kill you if you’re not paying attention. Our biggest danger besides heat-exhaustion were loose boulders - a few of them were precariously balanced and it would have been easy to pull a half-ton of orange sandstone over on top of ourselves. Our first route up didn’t work out. There was a huge ramp of stone starting at the ground and going halfway up, getting steeper and steeper as it went. We reckoned we’d be able to follow the ramp up and then swing around and over the big outcropping of stone at the top, which would get us to the last bits of a big slope of tumbled boulders that we could use to gain the peak. But when we reached a spot near to the top of the ramp we realized that it was too steep to continue. This was probably at 250m with a clear, unimpeded roll to the ground if we slipped, so we decided to retreat halfway and tackle the slope of boulders instead. This proved more successful - and more interesting. It’s satisfying to puzzle out a route up, and there were lots of stunted trees and little plants to look at on the way. The only downsides were the possibilities of loose boulders and venomous snakes or scorpions in the crevices between rocks.

Quiver Tree

At a couple of points our route led us past a Quiver Tree - a bizarre-looking rubbery tree with upward-pointing branches that have leaves only at their tips and bright golden yellow papery bark that was constantly peeling off in great sheets like sunburned skin. The most difficult part was where we found our route blocked by a veritable forest of thin green reed-like plants. Their stems were finger-thick and rubbery but easily broken - and they gushed a thick, sticky white milk when they broke. We couldn’t get around them - the only way up was through them, and so that’s what we did, crunching and snapping our way up and over. I felt quite horrible about it actually - plants have a hard enough time on mountains in the desert without the likes of us showing up and crashing through them - but the grove was huge and the damage comparatively small. That didn’t stop us from getting covered head to foot in sticky white sap though - clothes, skin, hair and my camera lens, I discovered after we were through. I was very happy to find that the sap was water-soluble (well, spit-soluble to be more honest) so my lens escaped damage. The rest of us, that was a different story. The sap dried and our sweat and dirt stuck to it so that we were absolutely filthy, and the campground had no running water (it is in the desert, after all)) so there wouldn’t be any way to get clean until we reached Swakopmund late the following day. There’s a certain liberating quality in being filthy, though, so we threw caution to the winds and continued upward.

Rocks at Spitzkoppe

We’d nearly reached the top - maybe nine-tenths of the way up - when Sheryl called a rest stop. She was feeling hot, dizzy and nauseous. This is not a rare occurrence for her, and it’s almost always caused by something she’s eaten that disagreed with her - but those are also the symptoms of heat-exhaustion. There wasn’t any way for me to tell the difference at that point so I called off the exercise and we headed back down. I’m legendary for my ability to go for ages in the heat without any water, and Sheryl said she was feeling better, so we could probably have made it to the top, but I wasn’t willing to risk it. We went out again later that afternoon after she’d had a chance to lie down in the cool of the cave, and climbed one of the smaller, rounder hills to see the sunset.

After dark the others built a fire to sit around inside the cave, but it was way too hot, noisy and claustrophobic for us, so we took some chairs and went to sit in the dark to watch the stars and the heat-lightning on the horizon. We were visited by a genet - a little weasel-cat with a striped raccoon tail and a spotted body that likes to climb trees and eat beetles, and whose eyes reflected a bright neon blue in our flashlights. We weren’t destined to get much sleep that night, though - a huge windstorm blew up. We woke with the tent walls punching us in the heads and the whole tent threatening to lift off and blow away in the roaring wind. We stumbled outside into a sandstorm to peg the tent down firmly through every loop and grommet we could find. Adam, the driver, had his tent beside us. We thought to help him, but he never came out so we figured he was okay. We found out in the morning that he’d had nothing heavy enough in the tent to hold it down if he ventured out in search of pegs, and had had to spend the whole storm spread-eagled inside his tent, holding it down with his own weight for fear of it blowing away with him in it!


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

July 16th, 2012

Very amusing! Stunning amlnais. Difficult to see them in captivity instead of being able to live in the wild, but it seems the country is not so supportive yet of preservation. These creatures do seem to have domestic cat-like temperaments.

¬ Auth
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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