Climbing to the highest point in Namibia, the Konigstein in the Brandberg, sounds as though it should be easy. It stands just 2574 metres above sea level (well, the reported height differs by a few metres depending on the reference you use, but this is close enough) and the entire climb can be done within three days. So, what is the difficulty, then? Stones. Rocks. Boulders. Lots of them. The “walk” up the mountain consists of hours of clambering, or hopping, from one boulder to the next. Tiring and hell on the legs. There is almost no even ground, other than a little stretch at the start and a little on the plateau at around 2,000 metres above sea level. For the rest it is more suited to klipspringers than to walkers.
Our excursion to climb to Konigstein had a long incubation period, talked about in general terms for some time before we finally set a date and settled on the five days that would be needed for the return trip from Windhoek and for the climb itself. Jo, Hartmut and I arrived in Uis on Friday 30 April, 2010 and were immediately faced with a change to our carefully laid plans. We met with Manuel, who was to be our guide on the excursion, and he explained that although we had arranged to travel to Brandberg that afternoon in order to camp near the start of the climb, thus enabling us to make an early start on Saturday, the porters would not be available to travel from Uis until Saturday. We had decided to make use of two porters to assist in carrying our kit, adopting the view that we would have more fun if we weren’t weighed down by 20-plus kilograms of camping gear. Carrying smaller bags of 8-10 kilograms would, we reasoned, add enormously to the enjoyment of the trip.
In terms of our new arrangement, we picked up Manuel and the two porters, Elton and Thys, at 5:00 on Saturday morning and were at the start of the climb, located at about 700 metres above sea level, by 7:00. Both porters had really serious hangovers from celebrating a birthday the night before, but seemed cheerful enough at the prospect that lay ahead.
We spent a few minutes re-arranging the kit to the satisfaction of everyone and we were soon on our way.
We had chosen the route up the Hungorob valley, reputedly not the easiest nor the most difficult of the several routes that can be used for the climb to the highest point in the Brandberg. To start it is fairly flat and easy walking, but that doesn’t last too long! The major part of the climb is over rocks and boulders. For most of the way there is no clearly defined path, just occasional small cairns of stones to give an indication of the route.
The Brandberg is a granite intrusion formed billions of years ago when volcanic activity was common in the area. During the intervening millennia these deposits have been eroded into the essentially dome-shaped plateau that we see today and the erosion has also been responsible for the granite boulders that coat the mountainside. The Brandberg was a spiritual site of great significance to the Bushmen who lived in the area a few thousand years ago and they have left a wonderful legacy of rock art in many shelters on the mountain. There are reputedly more than 45,000 rock paintings in the Brandberg (no, I don’t know who counted them either), and we were treated to a few during our climb. The most famous of the paintings in the area is the White Lady, located in the Tsisab River valley at the foot of the mountain, but this is a long way from the Hungarob Valley route and we didn’t visit it on this occasion.
The Brandberg is located in Damaraland, in the north western Namib Desert and lies about thirty kilonetres from the coast. “Brandberg” is Afrikaans for Fire Mountain, and as the sun sinks low with the approach of evening, the glowing colours of the golden granite emphasizes the appropriateness of the name.
We walked at a relatively slow pace, with many stops to take pictures and to admire the view. And even more stops to allow the porters to recover from their excesses of the night before. After little more than an hour we reached a shallow cave and the first of the rock paintings that we would encounter on the trip. These are fairly faded and not of particularly striking quality. The view down the Hungorob valley is stunning, and grew more so as we gained in height.
At lunch time we passed a group of five French hikers and their guide, who were taking an extended midday break at a small stream running down the valley. A word of greeting and we went on our way. The next two hours were probably the toughest of the trip; the route is very steep and the boulders are difficult to negotiate.
We reached Waterfall Cave in the late afternoon and decided to spend the night in the cave, rather than on the more exposed plateau that was a half hour walk further up the mountain. Waterfall Cave is fairly large and also carries quite an impressive array of rock art. It is characterized by a small waterfall created by a stream flowing over the overhanging rock and dropping down over the cave entrance to the rocks below. The source of this water so high up the mountain – we were at close to 2,000 metres – was a puzzle and the subject of some discussion amongst ourselves. We sat at the entrance to the cave and enjoyed a little Old Brown Sherry as the sun went down and we were treated to the continually changing colours and the panorama of the valley below. An early supper, and we were soon all in bed.
The following morning we found that the decision to spend the night in the cave had been a wise one, as we awoke to the sound of a more vigorous waterfall, strengthened by steady rain that was still falling. Rain makes the granite extremely slippery and the footing treacherous, so Manuel was insistent that we not move from the vicinity of the cave until the rain had stopped and the sun had dried the rocks. Luckily this happened fairly early and we were able to start walking at a little after 9:00. We would be returning along the same path, and therefore we left most of our gear at Waterfall Cave, and took with us only what we would need for the day. This made walking a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.
We joined up with the French group, who had spent the night in a rather exposed position on the plateau, and we all walked together for the next few hours. Just half an hour after leaving Waterfall Cave we passed Snake Cave, which we would visit on the way back in the afternoon, and shortly thereafter we were on the plateau proper. This is as amazing area that seems to have an ecosystem all of its own. There is a wetland (Bingo! The source of the stream that flowed over Waterfall Cave!) with fairly long grass and reeds. We saw several klipspringers and came upon the droppings and paw prints of a leopard near the path. The walking in this section was extremely pleasant, and we were royally entertained by the numerous birds that flitted around us.
Three hours of walking brought us to the peak of Konigstein where we were treated to the most amazing views. 360 degree views of Namibia! We could see the Messum Crater and the Atlantic Ocean in one direction, Spitzkoppe in another. The village of Uis was clearly visible, as were the seemingly endless open plains. It is this vastness that makes the most lasting impression. The clean, unpolluted air and the wide open spaces. It was absolutely wonderful. We took the obligatory photographs, wrote a short note in the “visitors book” that is kept in a box built into the cairn at the highest point, and then began our walk back down.
We stopped at Snake Cave on the way back and were astounded at the quality of the rock art. Some of the pictures are so vivid that it seems that they must have been re-painted at some time in the not so distant past. Manuel was adamant that this is not the case, that the paintings are original, but compared to all the other paintings that we saw on the mountain these certainly appeared much brighter and more clearly defined.
We reached Waterfall Cave in the late afternoon and decided to spent a second night there rather than start the descent at that late hour. So we enjoyed a few sundowners before making supper and then it was into our sleeping bags for another early night.
The following morning we set off an about eight o’clock and reached the point where we had left our car at lunch time. It was very hot and the walk down is hard on the legs, so we were fairly pleased to reach the end of the trail, although it signaled the end of a wonderful weekend.