Tanya and I have been keeping a travel diary on this trip so we can keep track of what we have been doing and have some notes from which we can write the blog, which is becoming more and more important as we slip further and further behind. Often our daily entry is about a paragraph or two, sometimes as little as a few words if all we did was “chill on the beach”, sometimes half a page or maybe more if something interesting happened. For the day we did Van Zyl’s Pass, it was over 2 pages. And the first 3 sentences of that entry summarise the pass rather well.
“Well, Van Zyl’s pass hey. Fuck me what a monster. That pass is badass.”
Van Zyl’s Pass is one of the great adventure riding Trophy Routes in Southern Africa. If Kaokoland is the golden crown of Namibian adventure riding, then Van Zyl’s is its crown jewel. It is well known and well respected because it is technical, remote, and in some places downright scary. Back in South Africa when discussing riding routes for northern Namibia, Van Zyl’s came up every single time as a must do for serious off-road adventure riders, and was described to me as being “like Bezuidenhouts (the off-road pass we did back in KwaZulu Natal in blog 4) but bigger”. Which I suppose is true enough, but akin to describing Godzilla as being “like a lizard, but bigger”. Anyway, what I’m trying to put forward here is this stretch of road isn’t for the faint hearted, the under-experienced or the ill-prepared.
Getting to the top of the trail – hope you like rocks.
We got some intel on the route our usual way – talking to people who had done it. In this instance though we went so far as to also track down some photos and read a few ride reports as it was obvious Van Zyl’s was a little above and beyond normal off-road riding. One fellow we spoke to online suggested that it might be too much for Tan and that attempting it loaded was “insane” and requires “balls of tungsten, not steel”. And this is coming from a motorcycle tour guide who has done it many times and on many different bikes. He was also the only guy to call ‘bullshit’ on the Bezuidenouts comparison, describing it as a whole ‘nother level of hectic.
Matter of fact, I don’t mind rocks so much. A good steering damper does wonders here. Note you can see the backyard repair job I did to Tanya’s fender on the RH stantion cover. It got a crack in it all the way back in Australia from an altercation with a tree, but it took the nasty corrugations from Purros to Opuwo to break it in two. I did the advriders 1st pass repair job – duct tape. That lasted about 2 hours. So the night in the camp ground I fixed with an Aluminium Composite, which is engineering bullshit for a beer can I found in a bin sandwiched between a disposable cake tin from our breakfast with 2-pack epoxy resin. 10000kms later its still there.
If I’m honest, this news put a little doubt in my mind. I went back to the photos and reviews we had found and pondered whether this was really such a great idea or not. If something went wrong, the nearest hospital of any consequence was 1000kms away in Windhoek. But I was confident in the bikes and our setup, and pretty confident in our ability to deal with whatever challenges came up one way or another. And I knew I would be kicking myself for a long time if we never even attempted it, especially after being forced to give up on the Doodsakker dream after failing to secure an Angola visa over the Christmas period. So that’s how we found ourselves at the campground at the top of the pass that morning.
The first 2.5km or so from the campsite wasn’t challenging, just rocky, narrow and pretty slow. We rode past a couple Himba huts were the men were herding their cattle and goats from kraal to pasture. They waved happily enough but looked at us a little surprised and intrigued, maybe even a touch confused. I’m guessing they must question why people would ride this track by choice. It must be strange for people whose life is so naturally tough they spend most of their energy trying to make things easier, to watch tourist vehicle after tourist vehicle drive all this way to tackle some fucked up piece of rocky mountain path which would make their billy goats trip over. Maybe we are strange.
Shit just got real.
We arrived at our first obstacle after only about 10 minutes of riding, got off the bikes and walked up for a look-see. It was plainly obvious we weren’t on the wrong trail, and that the stories of the trail’s evilness were true. It was a rocky, washed out and a steep stretch of trail around 40m long. I walked the obstacle a couple times, picked a line to ride, filled a few holes with rocks and went for it. And binned it within about 20m. On a very steep off camber section washed down to bedrock the front wheel locked while feathering the front brake and the bike went down to the right at slow speed. It was a bad start.
Really real. Picking lines through hectic rocks.
Line picked. Its go time. And 30 seconds later it was bin time. I think this photo shows quite well how steep this prick of a thing was. Almost like a set of nasty rocky stairs in some spots.
Tanya wasn’t keen on attempting the obstacle – to be honest it was pretty damn hairy – so after walking my bike down the last of the rocky patch I walked back for Tan’s bike to ride that, hoping to conquer the obstacle after my failed effort. I missed out on redemption, but at least bettered my first attempt by getting about 30m down this time before dropping it. Bugger. Tan’s bike is actually 12mm lower than standard and 25mm lower than mine, and its suspension a bit softer than mine so with me on it the bike sits even lower again. I cased the bike out on a tall sharp rock, took a reasonable chunk out of the bash plate and dropped it. It was a doubly bad start.
The chunk of aluminium gouged out of the bashplate on the sharp rock in the foreground of the photo.
The yella-terra is successfully at the bottom.
Looking back up the track – yes this is the track. That the parts washed down to bedrock was off-camber made it that little bit extra tricky on the bikes.
We rode on. There were various steep but negotiable sections, in amongst the odd nasty semi-obstacle (as in it was a bad bit of trail, but not bad enough that we had to stop and pick a line) and the occasional nice fun bit of rocky trail. At one point we came around a corner, with Tan leading as she likes to do in tough technical terrain, and the trail dropped straight into a nasty steep and rocky section. While it was nowhere near as bad as the first obstacle, it was steep, washed out and reasonably hairy. And because Tan quickly found herself in the middle of it all, she didn’t have time to over think it and did what she had to do. She rode through it to the bottom, straight into a gully and up a quite steep and loose rocky climb. As is generally always the case, the hairy moments that come out of nowhere are never caught on camera.
Tan on a decent bit of trail. The photos as always don’t do the gradient justice.
My bike way down at the bottom of an obstacle, and me back at the top to help with Tan’s bike. Walk walk walk.
Continuing on, we encountered a few more proper obstacles. At all of these we would stop, walk it, pick a line and move rocks around as necessary. I’d then ride my bike down and then Tan would decide whether to attempt it or not. Generally she would have a crack at it first, and either make it, or stop and have to paddle her bike though the nastiest bits. A couple times I would have to chip in and help walk it down the real steep sections.
Riding Tan’s bike. The suspension feels too squishy for my beer inflated mass.
The blue beast on a decent bit of trail. These actually were the good bits.
In this manner we covered another 3.1kms in a bit over an hour. We came to a dry creek crossing and pulled up for a breather under a tree, the shade was welcome as it was now mid-morning and starting to heat up into a proper Kaokoland summer’s day. When looking for rocks for our cairn ceremony, I found water dripping from Tanya’s bashplate tank. The heavy whack I gave it on the sharp rock in the first obstacle had cracked a weld, so we recovered the water to a water bag. It was not the place or the season to be wasting 3 litres of drinking water.
My chosen rock for our Cairn Ceremony. The deal is you get a rock at the top of the trail, put your name on it and place on the cairn at the bottom.
Tan and her precious.
Tan on a steep descent into a small gully.
Near bottoming out the rear suspension and using good technique on yet another tricky climb. Clamping the tank with the knees and leaning forward over the bars to keep the front wheel where it belongs, on the ground…
Winning…. another successful steep and rocky climb.
The next section wasn’t particularly challenging, just rocky and slow with ride-able climbs and descents, and one proper obstacle before reaching a cairn with named and dated rocks celebrating people’s completion of the pass. We had done 8kms by now including passing the Tracks4Africa waypoint for “Van Zyl’s Pass”. Arriving at a cairn we figured we must have completed the pass proper, and celebrated with a rest and placed our rocks on the cairn. On the GPS I could see that there was still more trail to do before we hit the valley bottom but figured the gnarly stuff must all be over.
Arriving at Van Zyl’s Pass. This is it apparently, or at least according to Tracks 4 Africa anyway.
Yet another obstacle. This one about 20m before the top cairn.
Riding it. This one wasn’t too serious, just needed a bit of a look before barreling it.
Tan paddling her way through.
Placing our rock. We didn’t carry this one from the top! We cheated. Forgive us.
But this itty-bitty one I carried.
Tan hamming it up at the top cairn.
And so it seemed. The next 2.4km took only 10min. We reached a lookout point and had an early lunch (salami and jellybeans), enjoying the views of the Marienfluss Valley which wasn’t far below. After 30mins of photos and snacks we hit the road again, assuming that the trail must gently follow a spur to the valley bottom. Well we were mostly right, in fact, just replace the descriptive verb “gently” with “viciously” and we were 100% bang on.
More decent trail on the way from the top cairn to the look out. Steep and rocky, but ride-able no problem.
The Marienfluss Valley not far below. We were so close but so far.
Truly amazing scenery, and no-one for miles. I should actually say kilometres being metric and all, but miles are further.
The two conquering steeds.
Tan happy(ier) after eating all her jelly beans.
Within 500m we had arrived at an incredibly steep washed out monster motherfucker of an obstacle. It was a serious bloody thing. Tan wasn’t convinced we would get down at all, and after walking down and up again I knew it wasn’t that bad but still wasn’t convinced it was actually ride-able. Walking the bike down looked doable but physically dificult to hold the bike up on such a gradient, so I had a crack of riding it anyway. I picked a line which basically followed the fall line, sat on the bike, started it and let out the clutch before I second guessed my bravado. I stood up, leant back, and feathered the brakes as much as I dared and made it, but not by much.
Me on the intercom to Tan. “You’re not going to like this”
Tan looking down and me looking up. This thing is gnarly.
And looking up. This thing is really proper gnarly.
“but but but? We’re finished?! I put my rock on the cairn and everything!”
But I couldn’t do it twice. The bike was right on the limit of traction coming down and seemed like it would slip at any time on the loose gravel and steep gradient. It wasn’t a good feeling and I wasn’t keen at all on pushing my luck twice, so Tan and I walked her bike down.
Riding my bike down. If you look close you can see my heart in my mouth.
Coming down the fall line – I was worried if I went off camber the rear wheel would slip out.
Actually had a reasonable head of steam by this point, relatively speaking anyway. I could only feather the brakes so much with out locking up.
You can get a sense of the speed here…. the rear wheel locked on the last super loose stuff but it was all over now. My heart is still in my mouth though.
Looking down before walking Tanya’s bike down. That was hard work in itself, even with two people. Riding is tricky, risky, and a bit scary, but walking the bike is physically taxing. You’ve got to pick one option; be tired or shit yourself.
From then on the trail was continuously steep and rocky. Even with the real nasty obstacle behind us, Tanya’s confidence was shot. She had thought the tricky descent was all over after the stop at the lookout and couldn’t come back from that mental closure, she couldn’t refocus. She had a few moments on the steep and loose descent, once dropping the bike into the trail-cutting cracking the fairing and doing some electrical damage, and another time actually bouncing off the track, around a tree, over a massive rock (about the size of a bar fridge) before maneuvering back on to the track now at much too high a speed and dropped it. It was a massive moment that thankfully didn’t end as bad as it could have. But mentally and physically she was spent.
The trail continues. More rocks. More loose gravel. Nastiness and at a serious gradient.
Steep. The last bit of trail
There was only one really tricky bit left before the bottom, so I rode both bikes down that. The last 2.2km from the lookout to the bottom took nearly an hour and ten minutes, mainly due to the amount of walking up and down reconnoitering obstacles and riding 2 bikes. By I was now pretty shagged after all this walking on a steep gradient in my bike gear, and maneuvering, man-handling and picking up dropped bikes all in the heat. Now at the bottom we rested under a tree before placing a new stone on the bottom cairn. There was physically no more “down”, we are unmistakably at the bottom. We had actually finished it this time. Including walking all the major obstacles, a 20min stop in the creek crossing to transfer water, a 20min stop at the top cairn to prematurely celebrate, and a 30min stop for lunch, the pass had taken us over 4hrs. That’s about 3hrs of ‘riding’ for 12.6kms.
The last obstacle. We could see the bottom cairn from here so knew this was it and it was all over.
Me riding Tan’s bike. She wasnt up for this last challenge.
Steep and rocky and…
…straight into a tight left hander other wise you go straight off the edge of the mountain. Just what you need after a rocky descent.
Looking up at Tan coming down the last bit to the cairn.
A few extra notes on Van Zyl’s (pronounced like “sails” but with a Z):
This is a serious and remote bit of trail. Proper serious and proper remote. If you are considering doing this trail in a supported group, as a minimum I’d recommend that you’d need to be an intermediate rider, reasonably experienced and pretty confident in your ability. If you’re considering going solo or loaded, then I’d suggest its really only advisable for more advanced riders. For my risk acceptance level at least, I’d think twice about going solo in summer. If you break yourself or your bike you’ll be lucky if your only waiting a couple days before someone comes past, if your unlucky it might be a couple weeks.
Obviously for this sort of terrain the smaller the bike the better. It will be more achievable and more fun. Loaded up I wouldn’t have wanted to have been on anything bigger than a 650cc machine. People have done it on 1200GS’s as part of supported groups (ie no luggage and minimal fuel), but I’d suggest this isn’t the terrain for a 1200cc machine. A South African friend of ours told us the story of a friend of his who attempted it solo and loaded on his 1200GS. He ran out of talent mid pass and got stranded – couldn’t go up and couldn’t go down – and paid thousands of dollars to have his bike recovered.
From our GPS log I’ve put together these notes which might help people get a handle on travel times for the pass. Note that at all major obstacles we would stop, walk it and pick a line, then bring the bikes down one at a time. Obstacles where I rode both bikes down obviously slowed us further. I’d guess that a small group of intermediate level riders would do it in a similar amount of ride time. A solo or pair of advanced riders could probably do it half these times.
• 10min for 2.5km from Van Zyl’s camp to 1st obstacle
• 1hr10 for 3.1km from 1st obstacle to creek crossing (1hr 20min for 5.6km cumulative)
• 20min stop at creek crossing.
• 20min for 1.4 km from creek crossing to top cairn (2hrs for 8km cumulative)
• 20 min stop at top cairn
• 10min for 2.4km from top cairn to lookout (2hr30min for 10.4 kms cumulative)
• 30min stop at lookout
• 1hr10min for 2.2km from lookout to finish (4hrs10min for 12.6km cumulative)
Buggered. Bloody buggered. And still isolated as hell with hours upon hours of off-road riding to do to get anywhere.
So tired our spelling failed us.
All done. “Fuck you Van Zyl you prick! What sort of sadist bastard builds a pass like this?”
We thought it might be interesting for Tanya to voice her thoughts on Van Zyl’s, so here it is.
Van Zyl’s according to Tan:
Mick had been advised by a friendly and helpful guy we’d been talking with online that Van Zyl’s might simply be too difficult for me and that either one of us doing it fully loaded was pretty mental. This guy had done Van Zyl’s a number of times on a bike so while it wasn’t what I wanted to hear at all, we appreciated and respected his input and thought about it a lot. Mick has actually seen what I can do on the DR and he was confident I could do it even if I was a little nervous. It’s been a long time coming but I am at the stage where I can more than hold my own off-road. We decided to go for it.
These famous, trophy routes don’t always live up to the hype. Van Zyl’s for me did and sort of didn’t. In terms of the main obstacles it was much harder than I envisioned. But I was pleasantly surprised that the riding in between the obstacles, though proper technical and challenging with steep rocky up and downhills, was really good fun and represented a chance to mentally prepare yourself for the next really hard obstacle. This made a huge difference for me as I expected an unrelenting 10km of high-level technical riding with no respite whatsoever. Having the chance to recover energy and confidence in between the insanely difficult obstacles was awesome.
The two hardest obstacles I didn’t consider doing. On an unloaded dirt bike I would have given it a shot. But on the fully loaded DR I wasn’t going to attempt it. I like to at least have a go at just about anything but in this case the obstacles were so far outside my ability on that bike that I was humble enough to admit it. So in those cases I just watched and learned from Mick doing it and treated the monster obstacles as an aspirational goal for the future.
One of the main challenges of the pass is its very remoteness. And being so remote it wasn’t a simple case of completing the pass. We had to do it without hurting or overly exerting ourselves, and without doing any significant damage to the bikes. Plus we couldn’t afford to lose any fuel. Once the pass was finished we still had a heck of a lot of off-road to cover after that, in seriously hot conditions in the middle of nowhere.
Damaged fairing – few cracks from a brief meeting with a rock. Seems rock beats fiberglass as well as scissors.
What made Van Zyl’s Pass really hard for me was the last 2km of the trail. At the 8km mark (which took hours to get to I might add) there is a cairn where people place a rock inscribed with their details. Tradition dictates that you take a stone from the start of the pass and place it at the end of the pass. Seeing the pile of rocks we made the mistake of thinking that was the end of the challenge and just after the look out and around the corner we would come to the valley floor. This was not the case at all.
But by the time we found out there was a little more of the trail to do, I have made a huge mental shift that I could not come back from. In my mind I had slayed the dragon and had eaten my celebratory packet of jelly beans. It was all done and my energy levels lasted as long as they needed to. When we came upon the hardest obstacle of the whole route I was DONE. By God, did I struggle that last 1km. It was utter torment and I found it so steep and lose that my hands were shaking at times. I’m not proud to say (but am not ashamed either) that there was a minor amount of weeping that occurred which is how Mick and I have come to grade the seriousness of the off-road riding we do. Van Zyl’s is only the third off-road ride to have reached weeping level of difficulty. I tend to get teary when stressed, frustrated, scared or when I crash a bunch of times – all of which happens on the hardest of the hard routes. There would be another before we left Kaokoland. But eventually we got to the end of it all and onto the mercifully flat ground at the bottom. There we found the cairn that really marked the end of Van Zyl’s.
I had worn my Garmin watch and heart rate monitor that day and found that over the 12km morning ride I had burned 2100 calories. It felt like more.
I was glad it was over and have come to be pretty proud of my efforts that day. I was really satisfied with how I handled the uphill sections. I had that down pat and absolutely monstered them, throwing the DR piggy around like it was a 250cc dirt bike. On these I was bloody impressive! The steep, loose downhill (especially at the end) I felt I could have done better. I was fatigued, had been having issues with my rear brake (later found out it had a hole in the brake line leading to air bubbles and less than reliable performance) but if I’m honest I just wasn’t comfortable and didn’t try too hard. Look it was bloody hard, loose scary shit but when it came down to it I knew there were a couple of occasions I attempted the obstacles in a less than confident committed way then took that as ‘enough’ of an attempt then just got Mick to help.
But I was glad we did it in the end. Van Zyl’s type riding represents my riding Achilles Heal. Fully loaded with 30-odd litres of fuel on steep rocky, washed out descents is not comfortable for me. That is when I feel the weight of the bike. I sort of hate it. On this terrain my usual defense of good technique is not always enough as it requires a level of strength to manage the weight and momentum of the loaded up bike that I sometimes just don’t have. But perhaps that is just a cop out and increased confidence and more aggressive riding would make the difference. Either way, it was good pushing myself and identifying areas to work on both skill and confidence wise. Having said that, I would like nothing so difficult for a good long while. A GOOD long while.