Weekends at Ameib Ranch

The First of Several Weekends at Ameib Ranch – June 2006

Someone in Underberg once said: “Here comes the tortoise” when I drove the Toyota into their driveway.  I smiled when I realized that they were referring to our rooftop tent – the little house on the back of our bakkie.  Yes, that’s true and what a wonderful little house it has proved to be over the years.  It has served us well on many trips and Namibia has been the ideal country to put it to good use.  This being the land of eternal sunshine, one can always rely on the weather being sunny and fine when planning a camping trip.

Thanks to an informative book called “African Adventurer’s Guide to Namibia” by Willie and Sandra Olivier, we discovered Amieb Ranch quite soon after our arrival in Windhoek.  Situated in the beautiful Erongo mountains halfway between Windhoek and Swakopmund, Amieb is one of my favourite places in Namibia.  There are two ways to get there, one via Usakos and the other on a rather scenic route via Omaruru and through the Erongo Mountains.  If one has time obviously the scenic drive is better, but it is longer, so the first two times we stayed at Amieb we opted for the shortest route to get there.

After turning off at Usakos one crosses the dry Khan riverbed at least six times as it winds its way alongside the road to Amieb.  Huge trees line the river banks and I always feel that we should take a walk along this riverbed sometime before we return to South Africa.  Amieb Ranch, being a nature reserve as well, is fenced off and on arrival one is met by an enormous metal gate that the guard opens with great effort to let one in.  The scenery here is quite dramatic, with the Erongo mountains forming an awesome backdrop. These imposing mountains just get bigger and bigger as one comes closer. After passing an airstrip flanked by an “arrivals  building” consisting of a thatched roof supported by four wooden poles, a large dam comes into view.  The two bird hides on its banks invite us to view the water birds that live there.

On arrival we are guided into the car park by a friendly employee and escorted to Reception through an amazing garden of indigenous trees and plants.  We are greeted by a number of friendly cats, one of which looked like it had long gone Siamese ancestors.  With the formalities taken care of we spent some time looking at photographs on the walls.  They had the usual pictures of the mountains and Phillips Cave, but we were interested in a photo of a zedonk – a cross between a zebra and a donkey.  Assured that this creature did actually exist and could still be seen, our appetite was whetted for whatever other wonders lay in store for us.

Zeedonk

We were then directed to the camping area a short way from the main buildings and were pleasantly surprised to see how neat and orderly it was.  Campers have their own reasonably sized swimming pool and a small but adequate ablution block.  Many of the sites had thatched umbrellas and bomas with concrete floors, but generally the ground was dirt that was meticulously raked every day.  The groundsman must have had Zen tendencies as he raked away any footprints almost as soon as they were made!  We’ve been to Ameib several times and always managed to stay in the same campsite – a rather nice one close to all the amenities.

Located on the property is Phillips Cave, a national heritage site because of its rock art, and Bull’s Party, a collection of gi-normous round granite boulders spread over a large area.  We haven’t worked out why it’s called Bull’s Party, but everyone we’ve taken there has been most impressed with the place.  In addition to these two attractions, the Ranch also offers technical climbing in the mountains and numerous hikes.  On arrival we’d discussed an ambitious circular hike with the owner that would have us walking from the campsite to Phillips Cave, across the valley to Bull’s Party and then around the mountain to see Elephant’s Head and back again, a distance of roughly eighteen kilometres.  Not too far in hiking terms, but when one takes the heat into consideration, the hike becomes something of an epic journey.

Setting up camp literally takes a few minutes for us.  We have a wonderful routine going – Rob opens up the rooftop tent and I tend to the table and chairs and unpack sleeping bags and pillows.  In no time we’re relaxing in our new environment, usually with a kettle on the gas fire for some tea, or with a cold beer from the fridge depending on the time of day.  Apart from the rooftop tent, our little Engel fridge has been the single most useful purchase that we’ve made for our camping trips.  Always assured of cold beers, cool drinks and unrunny margarine, it’s an absolute must in this hot environment.  It’s also ideal for storing meat and salads for a couple of days.

Looking forward to our hike the next day, we settled into the camp and watched the sun set over the distant peaks of Spitkoppe.  This was followed by a scrumptious braai under fifty trillion stars!  The night sky in Namibia, especially out in the country, has to be seen to be believed.  One feels rather small and insignificant in the grand scale of things when one looks up at the Milky Way in all its glory.  Namibia is well-known for its magnificent views of the stars and the big observatory in the Gamsberg draws lots of visitors.

We set off early the next morning to try and catch the coolest part of the day.  The walk to Phillips Cave starts off along a flat path that is flanked by lots of trees, most of which have been numbered.  We’d been given an information sheet about all the numbered trees, so spent some time identifying them as we walked past.  One of the most common in the area is the Shepherd Bush, a strange tree with stemless leaves growing directly on the branches.

Also plentiful and literally growing out of the rocks, are the varieties of Commiphora (also known as “kanniedood”) – vaguely similar to the botterboom with their papery bark, they are bulbous in shape and seem stunted in their growth.  Sometimes their bark is a bright copper colour, making them rather beautiful.  Because of their short stocky shape, they look like miniature bonsai arrangements on the rocks and I never cease to be fascinated by these quaint little trees that seem to grow with no nourishment whatsoever.

When the path changed to rock and we started climbing a bit, Rob pointed out a small and somewhat lethargic Horned Adder he’d spotted.  We were wearing hiking boots so were in no danger of being bitten by the adder if we’d inadvertently stepped on it.  Horned Adders are quite venomous and a bite has some nasty repercussions, so one does want to avoid them if at all possible.  Hikers have to keep an eye open for snakes as they are rather plentiful in Namibia!   Fortunately they are more prevalent in summer and most of our trips are done in winter, so we don’t come across them too often.

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We reached Phillips Cave about an hour later after a very steep climb up a rocky incline.  Set in the side of a huge rock face, the cave is more of a gaping opening in the mountain really and looks like a large open mouth.

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The back wall is covered in bushman paintings, some very faint, others more distinct.  There is a real danger of them fading and not being visible quite soon in the future.  The paintings typically were of animals, and included antelope, zebra, ostrich and a big white elephant.  There were also some humans depicted, probably performing a spiritual ritual.  On the floor of the cave were a number of stone implements supposed to have been used by the bushmen.

Rock art in Phillip's Cave Rock art in Phillip's Cave

Rock art in Phillip's Cave

It was interesting to see the composition of the rock at the entrance to the cave and also on the way up there.  It is very soft and breaks off in huge chunks.  This process is known as exfoliation and that’s an apt description because that’s exactly what it looks like the rocks are doing.  In fact the pieces of rock fall off like an onion peeling layer by layer.

We sat for a while watching a magnificent lizard with a bright orange head and blue scaly body.  Its proper name is the Namibian Rock Agama and these colourful little fellows are found wherever there are rocks.  I think they provide a tasty snack for the eagles and kestrels that hunt over the mountains.  One can also always be sure of seeing dassies wherever it’s rocky and the Phillips Cave area is home to dozens of these little creatures.

After a light snack and some cold drinks we set off on the track that lead across the valley to Bulls Party.  The path wound down the same way we’d come and then crossed a dry river bed before turning right onto new territory.  The walk across the flat plain seemed to take forever, probably because of the lack of shade, and the heat that was making itself felt.  The sky was an endless blue with no signs of clouds to cover the sun even for a moment.  We saw some buck along the way and were amused by the loud screeches of the colourful rosy-faced lovebirds as they flew overhead in small groups.  With their rounded heads and beaks, Rob likened them to spitfires – the planes used in the Second World War.  That description appealed to me immensely and I had a good chuckle every time I saw them after that.

When we were in New Zealand we stopped at a tranquil place called The Chasm quite near Milford Sound and came across a notice board nestled in the trees with the following quote:

“The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with liberal allowance of time.”  David Henry Thoreau.

This could have been written about our next stop – Bull’s Party.

At Bull's Party

Bull’s Party is an amazing assortment of round granite boulders.  One in particular looks like the head of a parson, others just look like what they are – enormous boulders.

The Parson

What is interesting about them is the way the wind and water has, over millions of years, eroded them into round spheres, now resting on very small points on the ground.  The geological name for them is ‘woolsack’ granite boulders – due largely to the variations in temperature – extreme heat and cold over a sustained period.  With many of these boulders perched on the side of the mountain one can easily imagine them reaching a point where, with sufficient wind or water, they could roll down to a new resting place on the flat plain below.  It’s a fascinating place and we almost had to drag ourselves away after spending some time exploring the area.

Giant boulder

From Bull’s Party we made our way around the mountain to a flat rocky plain.  From here we had a wonderful view of Elephant’s Head – an enormous rock taking up the entire side of the mountain which, as its name suggests, resembles a large elephants head with the trunk coming down almost to ground level.   We carried on around the mountain, past lots of even bigger boulders than we’d already seen, to a point on the southern side where we could climb to the top of the Elephant’s Head.

Elephant's Head

This section was really interesting.  Where we had to negotiate the sheer rock face, there were rungs hammered into the rock.  Other spots had rungs in conjunction with sturdy ficus trees that we used to pull ourselves up.  Still other places had rungs and chains for us to pull on.  It only really got challenging and a bit scary near the top of the mountain, where we had to pull ourselves up with the help of a chain. It would have been a very high drop if we’d slipped and fallen.  At the top we had to jump over a rather wide chasm to continue with the walk across the top of the mountain.  Unfortunately the wind was blowing quite hard up there and neither of us wanted to risk falling into this deep cavity, so we opted to retrace our steps and go back the way we’d come up.  This wasn’t quite so easy, as the scary section was just as frightening to go down backwards as it had been on the upward journey.  We made it though and felt rather pleased with ourselves for having been so adventurous.

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It’s not really advisable to visit granite sites in the heat of the day.  Not only does one have to contend with the burning sun overhead, but the rocks reflect the heat, making it rather uncomfortable.  Early morning is probably the best time to visit the area if one has the choice and the time available.  The rocks cool down dramatically at night so there is quite a variation in temperature at the start of the day.

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Having seen all there was to see in the area, we made our way back to the campsite.  This time we followed the road that is used by those not fit or mad enough to walk the whole way.  The mountains on either side of the road are really beautiful so we continued to enjoy the spectacle as we made our tired way back.  Our round trip had taken us ten hours, admittedly with many stops to look at birds, so we rewarded our mammoth effort with some ice cold beers followed by a wonderfully refreshing shower.

Early the next morning we walked a short way back along the road and took the trail leading to Zum Reisen.  This is another fascinating place amongst the rocks and we saw lots of interesting trees and animal tracks along the way.  Dassies called out from the rocky outcrops, their cries mimicking the braying of donkeys.  We heard too the cries of the Red billed Francolins, who also like to walk amongst the rocks.  We were especially thrilled to see a pair of black Verreaux’s Eagles circling overhead – too high up for a photo unfortunately, but we were able to identify them easily enough.  We had hoped to see some Hartlaub’s Francolins, which are found in that area, but they remained off our ‘lifer’ list for the weekend.

And yes, we did manage to see the extraordinary zedonk before we left. His body was quite plain, but the stripes were clearly visible on his legs.

On a scale of one to ten, I’d rate Amieb Ranch a nine.  It’s a wonderful spot – and excellent value for money if you are camping as there is so much to see and do.   We like the place so much that we have since taken many of our guests and friends there – Mick – Pete and Lauren – Vaughan and Mary – Mary and John – Jo and Des – Neize and Hartmut.  (I think we should be on the Ameib payroll!)

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