Up the Ganamub Without a Paddle

Blog 23 by Mick: Up the Ganamub Without a Paddle

At least we got some semi-working internet with our horrifically expensive camping at Palmwag Lodge. But with that I got a hell of a shock – an email from Delorme about a cancelled emergency SOS activation. I had been carrying the InReach in my tankbag where it was convenient, along with other things which I wanted quick access to like our camera, some basic tools and a hat. But in there it had somehow been turned on, the SOS button had been unlocked, then the SOS button activated, cancelled again, then re-activated. Oops. In fact that understates the situation slightly, more like “very big oops”.

Thankfully, Delorme had thought that it was pretty strange that the SOS had been activated and cancelled and activated again, and they could see that we were moving during this time. They got in contact with my folks in Australia and agreed that it seemed accidental, that if we were on the road we were probably ok and decided to ignore the SOS, which I was very thankful for. It would have been exceptionally embarrassing to have emergency services come all the way out to Palmwag only to find us safe and sound, and the InReach bouncing around in my tank bag. Oh well lesson learned, the InReach now securely lives in a soft wool lined Goretex bag and then in a side pocket of my backpack all on its own, rest assured I think its very unlikely to be accidently activated again!


Needing a decent rest we paid an absolute fortune for a room at the Sesfontein Fort Hotel. It included breakfast at least and we used the pool a bunch


From Palmwag to Sesfontein it is only a bit over an hours riding and we arrived at about lunch time. Even though it was such a short day, Sesfontein would be our last bit of civilisation for a little while so we decided to enjoy it and got a room at the Fort, which was the old German Police Station from colonial times. The relaxing afternoon gave us a bit of time check over the bikes, do some other small little jobs and have a swim before heading into Kaokoland.

Being late January we were in the middle of the “wet” season, a very ‘relative’ term considering Namibia is one of the driest countries on the planet, and this area is one of the driest in Namibia. We had planned to ride up the Hoanib River to Amspoort, before heading north to Purros. However, after being forced to cross the flowing Aba Huab River a couple times I figured we better check with the locals whether the route was open before committing to 150kms of riverbed riding.


Downtown Sesfontein – not much around at all despite it being a major town in the area. This is the main/only shop. Seriously.


It was a wise move. Apparently the track to Amspoort was blocked by water and saturated soft sand at the Sesfontein end of the trail, however we could bypass it by riding up the main road about 30km towards Purros, then heading south down a remote and unmarked trail following the Ganamub River for about 30kms. This would bring us out on the Hoanib River. He wasn’t sure about the track from Amspoort north to Purros, but we could find out and make a plan when we got there. Sounded good to me; our adventure just got a little bit more adventurous!

The following morning we fueled up the bikes and went to the “Fontein Shop” to stock up for a couple days of bush camping. Grocery stores in remote Namibia are pretty sad affairs. They all consist of the same things, being bully beef, canned pilchards, chukalaka, canned vegetables, soya mince, powdered soup, long life milk, millet meal, beer and cigarettes. Some stores have a greater choice than others, ie there are 3 different brands of bully beef, or different flavours of canned pilchards or chukalaka, and the real fancy joints might have 2-minute noodles, but it is all basically the same shit. So it limits your camping food options pretty significantly.


The petrol station where we filled both tanks to the max. The humble Datsun 1200 ute/bakky is a stalwart of African transport.


The road north. Here is a nice spot but the majority of the road is full of nasty rocky sections just begging for tyres to rip open


We rolled out of Sesfontein with enough fuel to get us all the way to Opuwo and supplies for a couple days camping. It was a route of nearly 500km but about 150km of it was deep soft river sand and the rest of it was reputably slow and variably sandy, rocky, and/or heavily corrugated, so it was outside the range of our front safari tanks alone. To add a fair bit of contingency we hit the road with both front and rear fuel tanks full, which is 44 litres of petrol plus about 9 or 10 litres of drinking water not including the 3 litre of emergency water in our bashplate tanks.

The 30kms from Sesfontein to Ganamub River turn off took us about 45 minutes. It wasn’t technical at all, but relentlessly rocky and slow. We were told there was a “village”, also called Ganamub, where the main road crosses the river and that is where we would find the riverbed trail south. When we reached what I’d guessed must be about the right spot on the GPS, the village turned out to be only 4 or 5 tiny huts and a stockyard spread over half a kilometer or more of sand and rocks. The definition of village is obviously pretty relative in this part of the world also.


The village of Gunamub is the few huts you can see in the distance


I found a couple Himba guys near the stockyard sitting in the shade of a tree, which seemed like a pretty good place to be considering it was probably about 40 degrees. It was late January in Kaokoland – its pretty toasty. I pointed at the river bed and asked “Ganamub?” to which they nodded, then pointed south down the river bed and asked “Amspoort?” to which they nodded some more. Good, we were on the right track.

We headed south and it was obvious this trail sees very very little traffic. Where there were some trees, the vehicle tracks were covered in plenty of old leaf litter. The trail was soft round river sand with plenty of hidden rocks, so I wasn’t keen to lower our tyre pressures more then they were (front ~20psi, rear ~25 psi) for fear of pinch flatting. However, a couple kilometers down the trail we were forced to stop. The sand was so soft and hot that our front wheels were tracking poorly and making riding very hard work. I took 5 psi out and the bikes performed much better, we would just have to avoid the rocks.


The start of the thick sand – rutty much? I dropped it not far from here trying to get started in the nasty soft sand.


Letting the tyres down a wee bit. Made a massive amount of difference.


After over an hour of tough sand riding we had travelled the 30kms to the confluence of the Hoanib and Ganamub Rivers, and arrived at an eroded water course which had very recently had fast flowing water in it. I could see the track on the other side but there was no entry or exit point anymore, just a near vertical 1.5m drop into a wet silty bottom.


Convenient time for a rest stop on one of the very very rare sections of hard trail. Good photo op too.


Tanya had spotted an alternative track off to the right and after a bit of investigation on the GPS, I could see it ended up on the same trail. It seemed a little foolish to commit to a muddy and difficult crossing without at the very least investigating the alternatives, so we turned around and followed the trail around to the south-west.

After a couple minutes or so we came to the Hoanib. The trail had disappeared and we were riding on an expanse of freshly exposed round river rocks, and it didn’t take long to see why. The Hoanib was flowing with muddy water, and it was obvious from the debris and erosion it recently had water from bank to bank that had washed the track away. Knowing that tracks like this always have plenty of alternative lines, I looked on the opposite bank for any sign of a track we could follow out of the flowing river. Nope, there was nothing.

There was no safe way downstream, the way we want to go, on our side of the river as it was blocked by the flowing water and a steep rocky valley wall, so I went upstream to see if there was a safe way across onto the other bank and maybe we could travel down from there. About 200m or so upstream I came across this…


This is Wolfgang, his wife Nicole, and their Hilux. They are in what is sometimes referred to as “a pickle”.


My immediate thought? Bloody hell, this bloke is in some strife right here. The car was bogged to the axles with flowing water at the sills. Not only that, judging by the vehicle, a white Toyota Hilux with roof tents, I figured it was probably a hire car. And based on our experience in the Ugab only a couple days previous, where the river had gone from empty to 40cm deep in about 20 minutes, it was feasible the car was in serious jeopardy. This bloke is not in strife – he is deep shit. Proper deep shit.

I got off the bike as the guy walked across the river to meet me. “Looks like you might need a hand there hey?” I said dryly. I could see he was pretty stressed out just by the look of him, and my Aussie accent was obviously a little too broad as he asked if I “spoke English?”. “yeah not too bad”.   “Sprechen du deutsch?”. “Nah mate no German”.


Another flashflood thwarting our plans. I went to walk the river in riding gear thinking I might ride across, then realised it was a pretty silly idea. I’ll just walk from here and save myself the bogging.


Tan and I took our boots off and made our way over to help. Thankfully the water wasn’t deep, generally only about 10-20cm, with the occasional 30cm deep spot. I could see the car was sitting on its chassis, so I grabbed Wolfgang’s shovel and started digging. Without some weight on the wheels, this thing wasn’t going anywhere. I spent a good 10 or 15 minutes digging out the front left wheel and down the side of the car, before conceding defeat. The flowing water was filling in the hole with fresh sand as I dug, and back at the front wheel it was only marginally better then when I’d started digging.


Jacking the car up and digging out the wheels. Wolfgang was hot and changed into something more comfotable (forgive us for the pic Wolfgang). This photo has 3 of the 4 wheels jacked up and rocks stuffed under.


While all this was happening, Tan was on the telephone. Wolfgang mentioned he had a satellite phone, so we offered to ring our friends in Windhoek who could call around and hopefully organise vehicle recovery. I was ‘reasonably’ confident we could get the vehicle out ourselves, but it was Wolfgang’s hire car and his bill to pay if it all got washed down the river so I let him make that decision. Tony in Windhoek then proceeded to get in contact with people in Sesfontein, which was about an hour and half away. However no help was coming. Tony spoke to someone at the Fort but because a few tourists had called for help but had gotten their car out while the recovery car was still coming, or given wrong directions so they were never found, or had been recovered and then just driven off, no-one does recoveries from Sesfontein anymore because tourists weren’t paying their bills. Now that is some shit behavior that puts innocent people at real risk. Basically… no one was coming to help.

Anyway, back to the Hoanib. Wolfgang then mentioned he had a high lift jack, so he got that out while I went looking for something to place it on and found a nice thick flat piece of flat rock (schist to be specific). It was then a case of jacking every corner of the vehicle as high as it would go and stuffing the hole with rocks. The reasonably close supply of schist meant we could even make a short little runway of hard rock for the car to reverse down and build up a bit of momentum. Nicole and Tanya brought the stones, while Wolfgang and I jacked, dug and placed the stones. We then unloaded everything we could pick up from the tray to lighten the load and let down the tyres. Wolfgang said he had already let them down to 1.4bar, about 20psi, but I told him we should let them down “until they look basically flat” which he did. This whole exercise took about an hour and a half. Thankfully during that time the water level had been pretty constant. It had look like it was coming up for a little while but it then thankfully stabilised.

With all that done, it was time to try and get this thing to move. Wolfgang hopped in the drivers seat while Nicole, Tan and myself all got ready to push. Sitting on the rocks the car had instant traction, but I was expecting it to sink as soon as it hit the wet sand. But it didn’t, now with a heap of a momentum and rolling on a set of balloons it powered straight out of the river with Wolfgang hooting from the drivers seat and Nicole looking like a mountain had just been lifted off her shoulders.




We sat down triumphantly on the sand with a cold beer from their camping fridge and Wolfgang then went on to explain what had happened. They had been driving up the dry riverbed trail, when the Hilux sunk in a patch of soft water logged sand. Now that’s not a great situation to be bogged in a remote riverbed, but its not a massive problem either. While getting his recovery gear out however, a wall of water came down the river; flash flood. Suddenly there was water at the bottom of the doors. Now that is a massive problem. Wolfgang put down some bog mats which soon sunk deep into the sand, and tried to pull the car out with the winch by burying a log but all he managed was to pull the log out of the ground. They had been working for 2 hours when we arrived and were very stressed, poor buggers.


Some happy people


Tan and I evaluated our options. With water in the river and considering that the trail for the next 30 or 40 kilometers to Amspoort is the riverbed, continuing on didn’t seem so clever. I’m ambitious, but not stupid, and getting riding down a flowing river is pretty stupid, especially considering the trail north of Amspoort to Purros is also a riverbed and we had no intel whatsoever on that. The deal was sealed however when Wolfgang mentioned they had seen a Hyena on the trail not long before getting bogged.

We had been planning to bushcamp around Amspoort somewhere, but Tan mandated that bushcamping was firmly off the agenda now that there was first hand accounts of Hyena only a few kilometres away. The area was also known to contain the odd lion, later confirmed by Tracks 4 Africa on our GPS showing a nearby village which was “abandoned due to lions”. Flashfloods, hyena and lions were too much for us, so turn around we did. We later found out we were in the river valley that had elephant attack in 1999 which, if it wasn’t fatal, was surely at least highly unpleasant.

The ride back was pretty tough. It was late afternoon now and really hot, the sand was hot and soft, and we were tired from digging in the river for a couple hours. But Tan was on fire on the bike and achieved, for the first time ever, to drop the bike less then me in a day. On the way down the trail I had dropped my bike trying to get started in some soft sand after taking a photo, and on the way back I dropped it once more doing exactly the same thing. Tan dropped hers only once mid-corner in a really nasty rutted section where she was just too tired from hauling rocks to fight the fall. Not bad considering we were fully loaded up for a few days of camping, leaving with 44l of fuel and 10l of water or so. 2 stacks vs 1; she was stoked. However, Tan’s excitement at ‘being the best rider’ was diminished somewhat by Wolfgang and Nicole coming upon her and her fallen bike on the ride out. We hadn’t seen a single car all day yet her only drop was witnessed by onlookers. She wasn’t happy.


The Ganamub Riverbed 4×4 trail. Its like this for about 95% of the way. Nasty.


The trail complete and back in Ganamub village we decided to head back to Sesfontein rather than carry on north west to Purros. By the time we had pumped up our tyres up again we were starting to run out of sunlight, and Wolfgang and Nicole had invited us to their campsite for a braai of Gemsbok steak, fresh vegetables and cold beer. That was an offer too good to refuse, so we didn’t, and had a great night with them around the fire. And here’s a kicker, Wolfgang is an avid biker himself and works as a marshal for the Ertzberg Rodeo extreme endure in Austria, and offered to arrange us some tickets if we can get to Europe by early June. How’s that for luck! We’ll try our best to make it in time.

Speaking of luck, considering the odds that anyone, absolutely anyone, would find those guys bogged in that riverbed is a bloody mind bender. Kaokoland is proper remote Namibia with few tourists, even in the high season in winter its hardly a busy place. We were there in the middle of summer and had seen no-one in cars outside of the towns. Literally no-one. Think Simpson Desert or Canning Stock Route in Australia, in winter you might see a couple cars a day, or maybe none. In summer though there is no-one but the very very odd foolhardy soul. Not only that, we were way off the main Kaokoland roads, the only reason we went down that Ganamub trail was that we knew the normal trail from Sesfontein to Amspoort was blocked. And even then we only found them after riding upstream a couple hundred metres and that was only after investigating the alternative route to the Hoanib that Tanya found. Rest assured, the odds of anyone finding them are very very slim indeed. We were glad to lend a hand to people that would have done the same for us and to have made some new friends that we’ll do our best to meet again in Europe.


We stopped at the Fort for a refreshing Rock Shandy on way to camping


The following morning we bid our farewells to Wolfgang and Nicole, replenished our water and fuel, and headed for Purros. The road conditions were quite variable but constantly slow, sandy and rocky and corrugated in various combinations, and getting more and more isolated with every kilometre. Purros is renowned as a place were you’ll see desert elephants, and Tracks 4 Africa warn of ‘aggressive elephants’ and sites of elephant attacks, in addition to lions and flash floods. In Sesfontein we were told the elephants had moved down the riverbeds to the Skeleton Coast, which was a little sad as it meant we missed the spectacle of seeing elephants in the desert, but good as it meant we missed seeing elephants while exposed on our motorcycles in sand. Back in South Africa we were told a story from a couple years back of a European guy who was killed by an angry elephant right in front of his poor wife while on in Purros. We were obviously pretty keen to avoid the same fate.


The road to Purros. There is sand…


And sand.


Oh here is some more sand


Here is some sand with corrugations for something different


While we missed out on the elephant we did manage to see desert giraffe, including a mother with what could/must have been twins. As we approached Purros we were greeted with more and more sand and even some sizable sand dunes in the distance. Beign late January, the sun was beating down with considerable force complete with a heat haze in the distance, and as ever we were keen to set up camp on arrival and then down a couple of cold cokes.


Here are some rocks


Rocks with Giraffes.


We wondered it we had come across the rare case of twin giraffes as they were both the same size and following a lone giraffe. Who knows?


The trail was like this most of the way, with many lines to choose from


We were rather underwhelmed by the town of Purros which is little more than a collection of huts spread out in the middle of the sandy river plain. We had been told of a 5 star resort by our friends Danie and Sara who suggested we visit for a sundowner. It was a navigational mission to find the right tracks here through the sandy riverbed and eventually we came across the entrance, unfortunately with signage saying that the resort was closed. It was a little disappointing as we were looking forward to gatecrashing the swanky resort for the rich and famous and having a rock shady, but it wasn’t to be.


Sand with rocks


Rocks in a riverbed just to spice things up


I think you get the idea now, here is some corrugations.


Heaps of Sand


Heaps of it. Its harsh and isolated country out here.


Conceding defeat we set about finding a campground. Again we struggled with finding the trail into town as there was a mass of lines through the massive sandy riverbed. We eventually found the deserted campsite and just went ahead and set up camp figuring rightly that if someone wanted money they would find us. We then headed back into ‘town’ in search of a cold drink and information of the nearby ‘Himba Cultural Village’.


This is us in Purros CBD. Seriously. This is the middle of Purros. This is it.


We had heard of the Himba cultural village from a couple of friends who hadn’t gone too deep into Kaokoland but still wanted to see the Himba people. Both groups of friends had told us they didn’t really enjoy the experience, as it seemed a little too much like a ‘human zoo’. We had time to kill and rather foolishly (in retrospect) we thought we might not get to see any other Himba besides these people in the cultural village. So there we were, faced with the dilemma of wanting to see and learn more about the interesting foreign culture and not wanting to be insensitive arseholes reducing the people of a proud culture to inhabitants of a profitable human zoo. Curiosity prevailed however and we decided to go for it and if we didn’t like it we could just leave and add that to the list of lessons learned.


Our bikes at the village.


First of all, we didn’t know where the village was so at the only shop in town we asked around, and were eventually put onto a guy claiming to be a tour guide, who turned out to be reasonably drunk (it was about 3pm) and a bit of a shiester scumbag. He kindly offered to take us the village for a completely stupid amount of money and when we told the guy we would rather find out own way he got a little aggressive, threatening that if we went without a guide the Himba would call police or even that we could be physically attacked if we took photos. Even though we had been told that the Himba do sometimes get angry with people taking photos, and it is common knowledge that they do ask for money, we laughed him off.


Saying hello to all the kiddies.


Turns out the location of the Himba village was in our GPS so we made our way there all by ourselves after dumping most of our luggage at the campsite. By now the campsite custodian had arrived and delivered us our 10L bucket of water and said he’d mind our gear. Cool. We had a great little ride out to the Himba village and could really get stuck in on the deserted sand road with the luxury of only minor luggage on the bike. We showed up at the camp and they seemed happy enough for us to come in and have a look around. There was no-one who spoke any English beside “photos ok” and “thirty”, the cost in Namibian dollars to get in. We paid our US$3 equivalent entrance fee and set about looking at what they were doing.


The kids liked having their photos taken.


And they were pretty stunning


The kiddies loved my camelback, they all wanted a drink from it.


We definitely got the sense the Himba women were sick of having their photos taken over and over and over again.   But Tan managed to strike up rapport with one of the women and they seemed to have a good time together chopping off the end of some palm fronds. Tan reciprocated the interest by showing the Himba her colourful back tattoos. Meanwhile the kids had taken a keen interest in my Camelbak after seeing me drink from it. We went from hut to hut checking things out and feeling a lot like intruders. In the end we bought a little bracelet for Tanya and then invited the ladies to come out and check out our bikes and kit. This really made them come out of their shell, probably because they weren’t the ones being gawked at for a change. Even the stroppy ladies seemed to be enjoying themselves checking out all the riding gear.


This lady was cutting palm fronds for use a shelter


Like this


Tan had a go


Tan showing off her tats


Note the animal skins on this lady’s skirt. This is very common.


We are not sure what the belt around her guts is for. Too many pies maybe?


This old lady was resting in a hut


And this lady was very keen to show off her new born baby. We are not too sure what the dress is about as this is very uncommon, it might be because she just came from hospital and had her ochre washed off.


Tanya put on her body armour and demonstrated its use of by miming crashing a bike. It was pretty funny watching one particular lady understand what it was all about and then explaining to the others. Despite the language barrier it was obvious to us that one of the ladies thought we were completely nuts to be travelling this way. Not having a tour guide meant we didn’t learn a whole lot about the culture but it was a far nicer experience on the whole I think. And once again the bikes were a fantastic icebreaker. To them we weren’t just the usual foreign tourists rocking up nice and fresh in their 4WD with cameras ready to snap away. We were a bit different and they were curious about us as we were about them. Even after paying our entrance fee and buy a bracelet, none of that made them as happy as when we gave them a couple packs of matches on the way out. We had been told that this was a very well received gift and it was certainly the case for us, they loved these more than money.


This old lady made a lot of the nick-naks for sale…


…and looked after many of the kiddies.


The kids loved Tanya’s sunglasses


Some cute portraits.


and again


and again


and again


The hair is actually a goats hair weave filled with ochre and butter


The kids loved seeing themselves in the photos


We went to sleep really fulfilled and happy with our first Himba encounter, our experience wasn’t at all the “human zoo” we had been warned of, at least not for us. We had such a genuine human experience and I think, or at least hope, they enjoyed it nearly as much as we did. Tanya coined the following phrase on our Facebook page that actually floored me the first time I read it, as really sums up our adventure riding experience thus far in an incredible way.


“A car is a bubble; a bike is a bridge”. This was certainly the case that day.


The lady who seemed to really enjoy interacting with us


The old lady who sold Tanya the bracelet.


The ladies with the bikes


They enjoyed looking at Tanya’s riding gear


This little kid came out to see what was going on, but ran away in terror when the bike started, to mass laughter


The kids loved the show


Showing off the riding gear to the amusement of the Himba ladies


Mmm shoei is a good brand I hear


The lady on the right thought we were interesting, the lady on the left thought we were crazy.

2 Comments on “Up the Ganamub Without a Paddle

    • Glad you’re enjoying the blog Andrew and thanks for the feedback

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