For me, mountain trekking has always meant Kendal mint cake, wet socks and windburn. Namibia offers something rather different. Its highest peak, the Brandberg, which juts 1,800m out of the Namib Desert’s gravel plains, 2,606m above sea level, is a collapsed volcanic dome in one of the world’s remotest and most starkly beautiful places. It’s uninhabited, wild and covered in over 45,000 San paintings – prehistoric Bushman art – many of which are thousands of years old.
To shoot up it in a long weekend, travelling from London and taking Friday off, is (just) possible. Whether it will also prove wise or enjoyable is questionable: in May, the mercury will hit 40ºC by midmorning. There are also probably more scorpions here than anywhere else in southern Africa. We’ll be carrying our own food and water, but ropes are forbidden – and rescue not easy.
Thursday 1800Leaving town and jumping on the overnight non-stop to Johannesburg from Heathrow is straightforward; I only wake up for an early transfer to Windhoek.
Friday 0700From there I bounce across to Swakopmund in a small Cessna. The pilot banks hard over tall, red sand dunes, then over shipwrecks, seal colonies and enormous cliffs of pale sand that only stopped their march when the ocean got in the way.
Friday 1030Disembarking on Swakopmund’s dusty little airstrip feels like stepping into an oven. Hans, my guide, picks me up in a Land Rover and we grab last-minute supplies before heading to base camp, a couple of hours away. The sand is full of mica and the whole world flares and twinkles as we drive past.
Friday 1330We pick up a local guide, Colin, who lives in a shack at the foot of the mountain. I’m used to European peaks with soft tree lines that offer a sense of scale. Brandberg has craggy lumps and chunks of granite, basalt and dolerite. The rough track is pitted with sudden potholes – relics of the work of aardvark, meerkat or some other snuffling termite hunter. It’s punishingly hot. I’m starting to wonder if perhaps I might find a shady spot to snooze for the weekend instead, when Hans announces we aren’t far off base camp.
Friday 1530We spend the afternoon prepping bags for an early start. We split the food; I realise I’ve overpacked badly, and cache everything that’s not absolutely necessary. The mountain is called, in various languages, fire mountain (German), burning mountain (Damara) and mountain of the gods (Herero). As the sun sets, it’s easy to see why. The rock glows bright, while the heavy black basalt, grey-blue thornbushes and ossified grass give the land around it a true scorched-earth feeling.
Friday 1900After a quick fireside supper, we look over the next day’s route. It’ll be a hard push to get up the steepest part of the climb before it gets too hot. It looks like around 18km each way. Then I shimmy into my sleeping bag and count stars, wondering what the next day will bring.
Saturday 0445Up before dawn for a quick bowl of porridge out of a mess tin, we stuff our pockets with snacks and apples and get moving as soon as there’s enough light to see by. It doesn’t take long to realise this is going to be a very tough climb.
Saturday 0600We’re at 760m above sea level. The path started out easy enough, following the broad flat gravel bed of an old stream, but soon we’re huffing up big pieces of granite and struggling to pick out a trail between the rocks. As the sun rises, we fight to stay in the shade.
Saturday 0945We hit 1,300m. Heavy bags weigh down hard on hips, knees and ankles. I’ve nearly toppled a couple of times already, and sweat washes flies and sunscreen into my eyes. But my bag is already lighter, chiefly because I’m racing through my water. “No mercy on Brandberg,” says Colin, grinning. “It gets harder later. Look at this, though.” I follow him across the slope to a large split rock. On it a series of 5,000-year-old paintings show stunning hunting scenes. Hans, meanwhile, has discovered a spot where he can get reception, and calls his wife.
Saturday 1100Onwards and upwards. I scramble for purchase on the hot granite slabs. My legs are on fire, feet boiling in my boots. A light westerly wind can’t cool the sweat on my back. The top of the canyon is still a way off. We pause to drink by a huge rock with a vast view of the valley below us. Ochre paintings of elephants and dancing ladies decorate the sheltered edges. We scramble to another ledge, much further up, where through the sweat I can just make out a beautifully proportioned painting of a giraffe.
Saturday 1215Finally, after a last scramble, we reach the top of the gorge – almost 1,900m up. We march past some leopard spoor. “Something of an exhibitionist, the leopard,” notes Hans. “Likes to let you know where he’s been.” On the other side of the ridge, it’s much flatter and broader. Oddly proportioned butter trees sprout from crevices, yellow bark clacking in the wind like an old typewriter.
Saturday 1230Granite isn’t porous, so when there’s rain, it collects in small pools. The hope is that we can fill our bottles – and we’re in luck. The sensuously curved pools are shallow, a mass of tadpoles and weeds clinging onto survival, but the water is good. We lie beneath a low overhang, sticking to the shade while the sun gets its furnace on, black eagles circling above us.
Saturday 1630Now we’re out of the gorge, the going is easier. The top of the Brandberg is a plateau and the extreme climate begets multitudes of bizarre flora. There’s nothing to eat, though; everything I indicate elicits the muttered epithet “toxic”. The granite stretches out in great pink sheets, thin layers that crackle and creak underfoot like a cooling engine in the waning sun. A klipspringer – a tiny deer – watches us for a moment before bouncing away.
Saturday 1800We’re at 2,250m. It’s just beginning to get dark when Colin darts to one side off the path: Snake Cave. This is where we’ll spend the night. When he lights a “Bushman candle”, a small, waxy plant stem that gives off a yellow, oily light, I see walls covered in San paintings, among them an enormous picture of a coiled reptile. As we unroll our mats and scoff a quick meal, we’re silent – and not just because of the climb. To shelter in a place humans used 5,000 years before us – seeing the same paintings, listening to the same noises, looking up at the same stars – is deeply humbling.
Sunday 0530We’re up before dawn, filling up on porridge and stashing our packs before heading for the summit. The plateau is dotted with small pools and more leopard tracks. Hans was woken up by one last night, he says. I’m glad he didn’t tell me – I was using all the leftover-food bags as a pillow.
Sunday 0600One last, tearing push, and we’ve made it: 2,606m. Big smiles and gasping for breath all round. I read through some notes people have left in a tin under a cairn. The view is exceptional and the morning is cool – cloudy, but for once that’s a good thing.
Sunday 0900We slither down some granite to one of Hans’s favourite caves. The trek back is easier in some ways, but much, much harder on the knees. Having teased me slightly for bringing a set of walking poles, Hans ends up borrowing one. We’re in good spirits – exhausted but elated, enjoying the odd tree and the pinks, blacks and reds of the composite rocks.
Sunday 1600Finally, base camp. Coca-Cola never tasted so good. I leap into the Land Rover and dash to the airstrip at Uis for the hop to Swakopmund – and then Johannesburg and home.
Sunday 1700My Cessna pilot is fascinated by my trek. He’s flown over the mountain many times and this time I look with him: seeing the plateau with its caves and small pools from above, it seems like another world. No wonder climbing is high on many Namibian guides’ bucket lists.
Sunday 1930Hobbling slightly, and smelling a little richer than I’d like, I take a quick shower and swap ripped clothes for a blissful clean change. The scratches, sunburn and bruises are offset by one of the deepest senses of accomplishment I’ve felt.
Wednesday 2000It’s a couple days before I have time to unpack properly. Along with handfuls of sand and mica, I shake ochre chips, some acacia thorns and the remains of Colin’s Bushman candle from my bag – a strange collection of trophies, but hard-won and all the more precious for it. Drifting to sleep, I recall the magical strangeness of the Snake Cave, of falling into slumber surrounded by Bushman art. My bed has never felt so inviting – but I can’t help feeling it’s missing something.