Saturday, June 14, 2014

How to Hike in the Brandberg Mountains and Climb the Konigstein, Namibia

Bushman rock art in the "Snake Cave" in the Brandberg Massif.

I’ll have a lot of photos and stories from my Africa trip to post in the next few months.  This post is meant for people who might be looking for information on hiking in the Brandberg and climbing the Konigstein, which happens to be the tallest peak in Namibia (a little over 2500 m).  I wasn’t able to find one consolidated place that described the logistics, so I’ll provide an overview here based on my experience.  Thanks to Mark Jenkins, who also did this hike.  He provided me with some of this info ahead of time. 

Exploring Namibia’s Brandberg Massif was something that I’d wanted to do since I first ran across a satellite image of the area while preparing a lecture for one of my remote sensing classes.  The massif, which has a remarkably round footprint in the Namib Desert when viewed from above, looked exotic and interesting, and a little research revealed the famous Bushman rock art there, providing further enticement.  When the opportunity came to make the trip after working in Uganda for One School at a Time, I took it. 

The Brandberg, as seen by the Landsat 5 satellite (NASA image).

 When to go:  The Namibian summer is beastly, with temperatures in the 100s.  If at all possible, travel in the Namibian winter (June, July, August).  Temperatures during this time are perfect, with 70s in the day and lows from the 50s to around freezing at night (bring some warm clothes).  Water is a critical factor.  Summer is the “rainy” season, and if the rains came there is well-spaced water along the hike that lasts through the winter.  If it was dry, you’ll have to carry a LOT of water, which is heavy, and you’ll have less hiking options!  I hiked in early June, after a wet summer, and water was plentiful after the first day, though a little scarce on the descent down Amis Canyon at the end of the hike. 

Guides Angula (front) and his son, Thomas, at the first water we encountered.

Flights:  Most flights go through Jo’burg, South Africa to get to Windhoek.  Both airports are very upscale, with all amenities. 

On the tarmac at the Windhoek Airport.  Nice dry air and palm trees.

 Car Rental:  You do not need a 4WD or high clearance to drive to Uis.  You can save money by renting a small 2WD car instead, unless you plan to do other trips before or after the hike that require a heavier duty car.  I rented a very tiny little Toyota car that did fine (one flat tire).  There are many places in Windhoek that offer 4WD camping rigs, but of course they are more expensive.

My very small rental car in the very large Namib Desert, west of Uis.

 Permit:  You must have a permit to hike in the Brandberg.  This needs to be acquired ahead of time.  The easiest way is to contact Basil at the Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis and let him get the permit and organize your trip.  He will e-mail you the permit application which you can fill out and return to him, and he’ll get your permit before you arrive.  Cost is 150 Namibian Dollars (about $15 USD).  Basil can also organize your guide(s).  Ideally, try to go with Angula, a local man who discovered many of the rock art sites while working with German archaeologist Harold Pager.  Angula doesn’t speak English, but his son Thomas (also a guide) does, so I hired both of them.  It’s nice to have Thomas along to translate and so that you have someone to talk with!  Angula is great even without direct English communication, but you can get more information if you have Thomas along as a translator.  When I went (June 2014) Angula charged $50/day and Thomas charged $30/day.  Angula is at least in his 50s (stories vary), so I don’t know how much longer he’ll want to keep guiding, but he’s extremely strong by any measure.

Me with Thomas (left) and his father, Angula at the trailhead, about to begin the hike.  

 Money:  The Namibian currency is the Namibian dollar, and the exchange to USD is about 10 to 1, so $100 Namibian equals about $10 US (as of June 2014).  The Namibian Dollar is tied one-to-one to the South African Rand, and Rands can be used in Namibia, but not necessarily vice versa.  Note that if you have leftover Namibian money at the end of your trip, exchange it in Windhoek before you leave.  I didn’t know this and waited until I got to Jo’burg, where nobody would exchange it (anyone want to buy some Namibian Dollars??!!)
  
Windhoek:  Windhoek is the capital of Namibia.  The main city is modern, relatively calm, and easy to drive in, even if you aren’t used to driving on the left side of the road.  Trips to the Brandberg will probably begin with a flight into the Hosea Kutako International Airport, about 40 km west of the city and connected by the B6, a good highway with little traffic.   As with any city, there are many places to stay in Windhoek with a full range of prices.  In general, I found that accommodation in Namibia was very nice and reasonably priced.  In Windhoek, I stayed in the Hotel Uhland, where deluxe rooms ($70+/night) were very cushy, and standard rooms ($50+/night) were predictably less so.  There are many backpacker places and more upscale hotels.  Shopping in Windhoek is easy, so you might take advantage, though goods for you hike can also be purchased in Uis (the nearest town to the Brandberg and site of the Brandberg Rest Camp).  Note that on the hike you will need to cook your own food, so you’ll need at least a minimal cookpot and utensils, etc., and a stove, although you can also cook over a fire if you don’t want to buy a stove.  You might be able to buy a cheap stove in Uis, but don’t count on it.  There are lots of safari supply places in Windhoek.  Grocery stores are better stocked in Windhoek than Uis, but you can get the food you need in either place.  You can also camp inexpensively in many places.  Windhoek seems very safe during the day, but oddly empty of people at night, which makes one feel vulnerable walking around.  I recommend either driving yourself around at night (to get dinner or whatever), or using taxis, which aren’t expensive.  There are good restaurants in Windhoek. See the Lonely Planet Guide for  descriptions. 

The dining area at the Hotel Uhland in Windhoek.  Pretty cushy!

 Driving from Windhoek to Uis:  The drive to the Uis takes about 5 hours or so, and is easy.  There are many places to get gas along the way, though you could make it all the way to Uis on less than a tank, and there’s gas at Uis.  The first half is on good paved highway, and the second on good graded gravel road.  The drive takes you though acacia woodland, quite dense in places but thinning out to grassland as you drive west.  Watch for animals.  I saw baboons, warthogs, and ostrich, though not many.  

Uis is a very small town associated with a now defunct tin mine (they are making brick now from clay in the mine tailings).  The Brandberg RestCamp is well-signed and easy to find, and it directly across the street from the only supermarket in town, which is more than sufficient for trip needs.  There is also an ATM at the store that allows withdrawals of 1500 N$ at a crack (about $150).  In fact, there are ATMs at most gas stations, so you can get cash.  The Rest Camp takes credit cards, but the guides require cash, so you’ll need to get enough cash built up to pay them at the end of the trip.  My bank only allows me to make one ATM withdrawal a day, so if yours is the same, keep that in mind and plan ahead. 

The C36 to Uis.  Well-graded gravel with occasional baboons.  

 Brandberg Rest Camp:  The Brandberg Rest Camp offers very nice rooms and camping, along with a decent meals, wireless internet, a pool, and lots of information and guided side trips (e.g., looking for desert elephants, going the White Lady rock art site, etc.).  There are other places to stay in Uis if the Rest Camp is booked (I stayed at the “balloon place” down the road one night, which was also very nice).  Basil owns the Rest Camp and is extremely gregarious and friendly, not to mention helpful.  He was gone to Windhoek for business when I arrived, but had left his friend Louis in charge, who was great.  Louis helped me negotiate with the guides, and he drove us to the trailhead and picked us up at the end, as well as taking me on a drive after my hike to look for elephants. 

The Brandberg Rest Camp.  Also very cushy.

Maps:  I didn’t have a map, which felt a little odd, since I never knew exactly where we were or where we were going.  There is a government mapping and survey agency that has an office in Windhoek, and you can buy good maps there.  I saw a nice topo map posted on the wall of the grocery store in Uis, just behind the ATM. 

The Hike:  You can climb the Konigstein and see some of the premier rock art in a 3-day trip up and down Gaasep Canyon, or you can do a 5-day trip and exit Amis Canyon (Amis means Ostrich in a local language), which is what I did.  I’d recommend the latter if possible.  The deciding factor is water availability.  If it’s dry, you’ll have to do the up and down trip and climb the Konigstein as a day hike from your camp at the only water—at the top of Gaasep.  If the preceeding season was wet, there is nicely spaced water along the hike.  Bring a filter and/or purification tablets.  In either case, the first day is the toughest, since you’ll be gaining a lot of elevation in steep, rugged terrain and carrying all of your water. 


Angula and Thomas walking back to camp after climbing the Konigstein.

Pack as lightly as possible, obviously.  A tent is nice to have, but not essential.  If you aren’t fit for backpacking uphill, you’ll suffer.  It might be good to carry enough water to camp part way up rather than trying to hike all the way to the first water.  All depends on your fitness level.  There is nice rock art on the hike up, and it’s nice to be able to take the time to enjoy it.  We climbed the Konigstein on the second day of our hike.  We hiked to a campsite at the base (where there is water), stopping to see the famous and outstanding Snake Cave along the way, and then climbed the peak without packs and returned to camp in time to make dinner.  It can be cold and windy on the summit, so bring appropriate clothes.  The climb is just a scramble up boulders and isn’t difficult.  Approach shoes with sticky rubber are nice to have, but not essential.  The final 3 days of my hike were shorter, with lots of stops to see art or to relax.  We camped at a gorgeous place called The Cataract on the 3rd night (waterfall, pools, etc.), and part way down Amis on the 4th and last night.  Note that the descent (either down Amis or down the way you came up) is steep and rocky, so if you have old knees (like mine) plan on beating them up.  We were at the bottom of Amis by mid-morning of the 5th day.  Note that someone (you and/or guides) should carry a cell phone on the hike to call the Rest Camp and arrange a pick-up time.  There is (amazingly) cell coverage at the top of Amis Canyon. 

On the summit of the Konigstein, with Angula (photo by Thomas!).

 That’s it in a nutshell.  It’s all pretty easy to set up if you allow Basil to make the arrangements, and the hike is beautiful, so if you get the chance, take it.  I'll edit this as I think of other things.  Feel free to e-mail me if you have questions.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the tips! I'll be hiking it next week!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Any chance you have Topo maps of the area?
    Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Woops--commented (below) when I meant to "reply." No--I don't have a topo map, though it would be fun to study one.

      Delete
  3. No--sorry. I never purchased one since I went with guides, and I never pursued buying one when I returned to Windhoek, though it would be nice to have.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Ken,
    Wonderful. We've seen a few rockart sites in southern Africa, this is also very stunning. We'll spend a long holiday in Namibia with the family this July. A 5-day hike in Brandberg is too long unfortunately as kids are 13 and 15. Would love to visit Snake Cave though. Can we possibly do that in a singel day and back? Or please advice what shortest time is, thanks for the advice!
    Gerrit van Kampen
    Rijswijk
    The Netherlands

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rijswijk. Thank you for looking! I'm afraid the logistics of hiking to see the Snake Cave are complicated--you'd have to spend at least one night out and do the hardest part of the backpack trip. The Snake cave requires a very long drive on dirt roads and then a strenuous hike up to the top of the Massif. Many people opt for seeing the "White Lady" rock art at the base of the Brandberg Mountains, which is an easy day trip. You might consider that. There is lots of art in the general area, so you might be able to find out about other sites as well.

      Delete
  5. Hi Guys.

    I'm planning to hike the Brandberg up to the Konigstein. I was hoping to put a group together. This is something to be done in July/ August 2016.
    I'm currently based in Walvis Bay, so i will be able to arrange for the local logistics.

    Anyone interested, please reply.

    Antonio da Silva

    ReplyDelete
  6. What are the stars like at night there?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is No light pollution at all, so the stars are fantastic!

      Delete
  7. Hi Ken, great articel. We`d like to do the hike in November. Is this still feasible? What equipment do we need for the night? Sleeping bag, camping mat? What about the temperatures?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi. I did this trip in the Southern winter, and it was hot but not terrible. A friend of mine, Mark Jenkins, did the hike in December, and it was almost unbearably hot. They had to hide in shade under boulders between bouts of walking--he wrote an article about the experience in National Geographic Traveler. I assume November would be very hot. I recommend that you contact the Brandberg Rest Camp to get info on the conditions this season. And yes, you will need to bring your own backpacking gear. Good luck! Ken

      Delete