UKC

Namibia - Deserts, Mountains, Wildlife and Climbs Destination Guide

© Robert Durran

Rising in dramatic isolation from the vast arid plains of Damaraland in central Namibia is one of Africa's mountain wonders. The magnificent red granite pyramid of the Spitzkoppe and the neighbouring great domes of the Pontoks are a superb climbing attraction; their monolithic faces and the surrounding wonderland of sculpted boulders and small domes provide everything from single pitch sport climbs to adventurous scrambles, long traditional routes and big intimidating walls.

The Spitzkoppe at night  © Robert Durran
The Spitzkoppe at night
© Robert Durran

When, a few years ago, a friend suggested a trip to Namibia, I knew very little about the country at all, let alone its climbing potential. A little research, however, had me fascinated. Namibia is a land of spectacular desert and mountain landscapes, amazing wildlife, and ethnically diverse, welcoming people. It is politically stable and feels as safe as most places I have travelled to. The tourism infrastructure is well developed and planning a trip is straightforward, yet, once away from the sparse towns and a few tourist honeypots, it is possible to find real isolation in immense open spaces under huge star-filled skies.

I have now visited Namibia twice and, while I have really only scratched the surface of this wonderful country, I shall aim to give a practical introduction to the Spitzkoppe and a flavour of its climbing as well as a brief introduction to some lesser known climbing areas. I'll also give a little advice on visiting Etosha National Park for its wildlife in the north and the awesome Namib Desert to the south. I hope that this article will serve as an inspiring and helpful guide for climbers visiting for the first time.

The Spitzkoppe and The Pontoks

To reach the Spitzkoppe from Windhoek, head north on the main north-south Highway for forty miles to Okahandja, where you can stock up at the supermarket before heading west for a hundred miles on the romantically named Trans Kalahari Highway. After passing the enticing Erongo Mountains to the north and not too far beyond the last petrol station at Usakos, turn right onto gravel roads towards the Spitzkoppe, which, towering out of the haze, dominates the landscape. A rattly half hour reaches a small village and school. Beyond it is the entrance to the campsite which is well run by a local cooperative (see website). Near the office are basic washing facilities, some great open air solar-heated showers and a friendly little bar and simple cafe.

Camping below the domes of the Pontoks.  © Robert Durran
Camping below the domes of the Pontoks.
© Robert Durran

The individual camping spots are widely scattered around the otherworldly landscape of granite boulders and domes along the southern edge of the mountains. Some are more attractive than others, so it is worth driving around a bit to find a good unoccupied site – the best are idyllically secluded with shady trees. Each site has its own fire pit and a covered drop toilet nearby. Bird life and rock hyraxes abound and, if you are lucky, you might catch sight of a leaping klipspringer. Black eagles often soar above the peaks.  Once settled in, if you have four-wheel drive, it is well worth driving right around the mountains (turn left outside the entrance then left again), to get your bearings. At sunset, when the granite turns an imporobably deep red, the Spitzkoppe is a truly fabulous sight from the north west.

For most suitably experienced climbers on a first visit, the peaks of the Spitzkoppe itself and of the Pontokspitze, the highest point of the Pontoks, will be the obvious objectives. The Original 1946 Normal Route on the Spitzkoppe and the modern To Bolt Or Not To Bolt on the Pontokspitze provide outstanding and contrasting climbs and are by far the most popular major routes on each, though the summit books suggest there are still only a handful ascents of each each year; on my visits we encountered very few other climbers. I shall focus on these two classics before summarising the rest of the climbing in the area; full details can be found in the comprehensive guidebook.

The Normal Route, The Spitzkoppe

This is a wonderful almost alpine-like rock climb, not sustained and with plenty of scrambling but continually interesting with complicated route-finding. There are some fine and varied pitches in the upper part and the crux, at a South African grade of 17, is probably worth at least a testing HVS. The climb and descent are normally completed in one long day, but, after an afternoon recce of the lower slopes, we came up with a cunning plan to indulge in a bivi above the initial walking and scrambling. This allowed us to complete the complicated approach slopes in afternoon shade, and then, with an early start, to avoid the worst of the heat on the upper technical part of the route. This tactic made the whole expedition a relatively relaxed undertaking and the evening at the bivi. The view at sunset past the Pontoks and the wide plains to the Erongo Mountains and the distant Brandberg is guaranteed to be sublime.

Lucy Spark at the bivouac on The Spitzkoppe, looking out past the Pontoks to the distant Erongo Mountains.  © Robert Durran
Lucy Spark at the bivouac on The Spitzkoppe, looking out past the Pontoks to the distant Erongo Mountains.
© Robert Durran

The route starts directly east of the summit and is approached in about twenty minutes from a vehicle parked by the gate in the fence which spans the narrow gap between the Spitzkoppe and the Pontoks. This fence is part of an ill-conceived wildlife enclosure and is kept locked, but climbers squeezing through the gap at its side seem to be tolerated. The way up the gullies and slabs of the lower slopes is entertainingly convoluted and has a few tricky steps but is well cairned. A prominent chimney eventually leads to the bivi site, superbly situated on an exposed prow with the big hanging gully which the route follows towering above. Reaching this point at a leisurely pace and with heavy sacks will probably take two or three hours.

John Fraser on the upper part of The Spitzkoppe Normal Route.  © Robert Durran
John Fraser on the upper part of The Spitzkoppe Normal Route.
© Robert Durran

The first exposed pitch negotiating a huge boulder which blocks the entrance to the gully is quite awkward. There then follows a series of short pitches interspersed with scrambling and several through routes until a desperate squeeze chimney-cave where combined tactics might prove crucial accesses the open upper part of the mountain. The crux follows with two alternatives. The more direct variation climbs a tricky slabby wall, protected by three sportingly spaced bolts, before continuing more easily rightwards to eventually join the original line. This seemed the logical choice to us, though the original route with its infamous cut steps, approached via a short but committing abseil, is certainly intriguing. A total of five or six varied and enjoyable pitches spiral around to the north of the peak. A short technical slab traverse followed by a bold and awkward open chimney on the penultimate pitch stand out. The small summit is a stunning viewpoint. The direct bolted abseil descent described in the guidebook is intimidating and spectacular but leads straightforwardly to below the squeeze chimney. The bivi site can then be regained by scrambling and a few more short abseils.

Lucy Spark leading the penultimate pitch on the Spitzkoppe Normal Route.  © Robert Durran
Lucy Spark leading the penultimate pitch on the Spitzkoppe Normal Route.
© Robert Durran

To Bolt Or Not To Bolt, Pontokspitze

This brilliant modern eight pitch route tackles the imposing and shady south face of the mountain. A standard rack including a good range of cams is required though its tremendous slab pitches are fully, albeit quite sparsely, bolted. The belays are fully bolted. Some might argue that its mixed nature and line feel slightly contrived, but the sustained quality of the climbing is undeniable. At a grade of SA 18, its difficulty is probably equivalent to at least a solid E1. The route and descent will probably take a full day so it is certainly worth recceing the approach, or at least locating its start, in advance. Cairns show the way, slanting up slabs beneath the Pontok domes and through a jumble of boulders, but route finding still requires care. The foot of the route is reached comfortably within two hours.

Zoe Strong leading the crux fifth pitch of To Bolt Or Not To Bolt.  © Robert Durran
Zoe Strong leading the crux fifth pitch of To Bolt Or Not To Bolt.
© Robert Durran

The first two pitches might be best stretched to three and lead up a big corner system with some awkward chimney moves along with delicate slabby sections. The route then breaks boldly out left and up immaculate, finely featured slabs for a further two pitches until a narrow ledge leads left to the fabulous and intricate crux pitch which gives an absorbing lead. An amazing juggy pitch then leads to a good ledge below a sort of off-width corner leading into a chimney. The start is very awkward and a bit of a sting in the tail. A further short pitch leads to the superb summit. The equipped abseil descent is fast and straightforward though care needs to be taken with the ropes toward the bottom.

John Fraser coming up the easy sixth pitch of To Bolt Or Not To Bolt.  © Robert Durran
John Fraser coming up the easy sixth pitch of To Bolt Or Not To Bolt.
© Robert Durran

Other Routes on The Spitzkoppe

Other full-length routes on the Spitzkoppe are either very rarely climbed, and would probably prove decidedly adventurous, or very hard. The showpiece is the huge south west wall whose bold and intimidating routes should prove irresistible to those with proficient skills. On the lower right side of this face, the fine looking shady three pitch corner of Watersports (SA 20) is relatively popular and has a single abseil descent. Further right again the slabs of the Klipdachswand offer some attractive  three pitch routes with abseil descents.

Other Climbs on The Pontoks

The impressive slabby south faces of the four Pontok Domes offer a great looking selection of routes. Some look reasonably amenable but their challenge will largely depend on the extent to which the blanker sections are bolted. Apparently there is now a technically reasonable fully bolted line on one of these faces which must be outstanding and would certainly be worth seeking out. There are some easier routes via the cols between the domes, but the most straightforward ascents to the summits are on their much less impressive sunny north sides.

The five star North Face Route (SA 21), which follows deep shady chimneys on the North side of the Pontokspitze itself, sounds great in the guidebook, but all three in our party refused to even attempt the appalling looking guano-smeared initial chimney and we opted for a pleasant scramble up the first Pontok Dome instead. Our decision to abseil down the shady but fig tree choked gully between this dome and the Pontokspitze rather than reverse our approach from the north in the heat of the day proved highly questionable however!

The Sugarloaf

The Sugarloaf is the most significant satellite peak of the Spitzkoppe. The wonderful slabs of its south east and east faces offer a selection of brilliant routes from two to seven pitches long and with grades from SA 17 to 25, though, as usual, the spacing of the bolts will largely determine the overall challenge. Note that 60m ropes are needed for some of these routes.

The Rhino Horn

You simply cannot miss this striking tower low down on the south side of the Spitzkoppe. The classic route is Goldfinger (SA 21). With a short approach and a quick but wild abseil descent, it gives an essential half day outing. After an easy introductory section, the main pitch is a brilliant and fully bolted wall, gradually easing in angle and difficulty. Opinions on the grade in our team varied from 6b to 6c+! The short direct continuation to the top is a bit loose and is probably best avoided via the obvious flakes above the optional belay on the right. 50m ropes just suffice for the mostly free abseil to the neck behind the tower.

Single Pitch Routes

There is a good selection of single pitch climbs amongst the plethora of outcrops and giant boulders scattered below the south west face of the Spitzkoppe. There is a further cluster of attractive looking routes on the Felsenteich domes south of the Pontokspitze. Most routes are bolted but there are also some appealing trad lines. Many of them are of good quality and worth seeking out for some enjoyable shady entertainment or simply to become acquainted with the style of granite climbing in the area before attempting the bigger routes.

The Erongo Mountains

The Erongo Mountains are the extensive range whose western escarpment rises some thirty miles to the east of the Spitzkoppe. There is a vast amount of rock in the area but only two areas seem to have been developed. Access to the Ameib area in the south is currently problematic, but Omandumba in the north is well worth a visit, ideal for a few relaxing days after the sterner challenges of the Spitzkoppe. Although a more direct drive might be possible, Omandumba is probably best reached in a few hours from the Spitzkoppe by first returning to Usakos before heading north on a gravel road for thirty five miles then taking a right turn, soon entering the Erongo Conservancy and reaching Omandumba Guest Farm (see website) a few miles further on.

Shauna Clarke climbing on the Sugar Loaf with the Spitzkoppe behind.  © Robert Durran
Shauna Clarke climbing on the Sugar Loaf with the Spitzkoppe behind.
© Robert Durran

The family who run the farm are very welcoming and actively encourage climbers. When we visited in 2019, we were given a personal tour by the son who is a keen climber. Camping is at individual sites widely scattered over the estate. When booking, be sure to say you are climbing and request the Three Elephants site. This amazing spot is isolated several miles up a beautiful rock-girdled and wildlife-rich valley south of the farm - high clearance essential. It is tastefully and amazingly well appointed, and its facilities, including an outdoor bathroom amongst the boulders with a wood burning heated shower, need to be seen to be believed.

Zoe Strong on Cassiopeia, Griechischewand, Omandumba.  © Robert Durran
Zoe Strong on Cassiopeia, Griechischewand, Omandumba.
© Robert Durran

Omandumba could be described as a sort of Joshua Tree with zebras (but without the Joshua Trees). There is a huge amount of rock and endless scope for development. The shady Schattenwand is just a few minutes from the Three Elephants and is well signed. It is probably overbolted, but there are great pitches at all grades up to SA 27 on beautifully featured granite and it will give most a very enjoyable day in idyllic surroundings. There is a topo on the Namibia Mountain Club website. Several other walls in the vicinity have more scattered routes. The other well developed area is at the Griechischewand which is a short way east of the farm on the north of the road. It is quite tricky to find so ask for directions and information. The area's showpiece, the amazing Split Apple boulder, is close to the parking place. Other more isolated routes including some appealing cracks are spread around here – go and explore!

Robert Durran on The Split Apple, Omandumba  © Robert Durran
Robert Durran on The Split Apple, Omandumba
© Robert Durran

The Tiras Mountains

The remote Tiras Mountains are situated some 250 miles south of Windhoek in the Namib Desert. This is one of the most staggeringly beautiful places I have ever been privileged to visit. The developed climbing alone is possibly not worth the two day drive from Windhoek but no trip to Namibia is really complete without experiencing the breathtaking wonders of the Namib, so little excuse should be needed to head south if you have the time.

It is possible to reach the Tiras by heading south from Windhoek on the main highway to Mariental and then heading west, but it is much better to take one of the roads which wind south west through the hills of the central plateau before dropping down from its escarpment to the desert. Any of the options are scenic, but I would strongly recommend choosing the Spreetshoogte Pass on the way south; the sudden vista over the Namib at the pass is sensational, especially at sunset, and a great little campsite is superbly situated on the left half way down the set of hairpins which descend to the plains. A further hour or so brings you to the amazing bakery and coffee shop at the remote crossroads of Solitaire.

Sunset, Tiras Mountains.  © Robert Durran
Sunset, Tiras Mountains.
© Robert Durran

The plains on the edge of the Namib between the mountains to the east and the endless sea of dunes to the west abound with zebras, springboks and ostriches. Further south is the tourist honeypot of Sesriem. This area is justly popular and campsites are best booked early, especially the very busy National Park one (see website) which allows early morning and late evening road access to famous dry lakes at Sossusvlei deep in the dunes. A highly option is the campsite of Hauchabfontein (see website) further south at the foot of the Naukluft Mountains where the Zebra River permanently flows above ground for a short stretch forming an astonishing oasis of lush vegetation and abundant wildlife.

Continuing to the south, the traffic thins out, the road becomes rougher and the desert even more austere; make sure you are travelling with plenty of water and the knowledge to change a tyre on your vehicle. Eventually you will reach the small settlement and last petrol station at Betta and about half an hour turn later a right turn. This minor road loops for 75 miles between the jagged red granite peaks of the Tiras and the shimmering golden dunes to the west. The plains at the foot of the mountains abound with grazing oryx. Leopards have their stronghold on the rocky slopes above; they are very seldom seen but will certainly be watching you. Morning fog regularly rolls in across the dunes from the distant ocean at dawn, bringing life to the desert and an exquisite quality to the light. Although straying on foot from road is not strictly allowed, a wander into the dunes at sunset will be utterly spellbinding.

The climbing is above the excellent campsite at the Koiimasis Ranch (see website) which nestles at the foot of the mountains about 15 miles along a track to the east. There is a series of steep buttresses on the mountainside giving mainly demanding crack climbs of a pitch or two on excellent granite. Hand-written topos in German are available at the farm. A waymarked loop into the mountains gives wonderful views. I travelled to this area on my own, so did not actually climb, but I would need little persuasion to return to this fabulous area with a partner.

Etosha National Park

Especially if you have not experienced African wildlife before, you will probably want to visit the vast Etosha National Park in the north of the country for two or three days while in Namibia. In the dry season it is considered one of the easiest places to see many of the continent's iconic large animals. Unusually, you can self-drive along the gravel roads between the waterholes where the animals gather. I would particularly recommend at least one night camping at Okaukuejo or, preferably, the quieter Halali Camp within the park where there are floodlit waterholes, and game can be watched at leisure in the evening and early morning rather than from the confines of your car. These campsites are popular and do need to be booked as early as possible (see website). If staying outside the park, the gates are only open between sunrise and sunset. I can strongly recommend the pleasant Etosha Safari camp (see website) with its swimming pool and excellent bar and buffet a few miles from the southern Andersson Gate.

Oryx, Namib Desert.  © Robert Durran
Oryx, Namib Desert.
© Robert Durran

Etosha is a full day's drive north of Windhoek on metalled roads. From the Spitzkoppe it is a day's drive back towards Windhoek to Karibib and then north to Etosha via Outjo, where there is a supermarket and a superb bakery and coffee shop. However, if time allows, I would recommend making a round trip and breaking the journey by heading north west on rough roads from the Spitzkoppe to spend an idyllic night camping among the trees of the dry Ugab riverbed at the White Lady Lodge (see website) beneath the Brandberg, Namibia's highest mountain range. The birdlife here is extraordinary and, if you are lucky, you might encounter the fabled desert elephants which roam up and down the river. There is also a bar, restaurant and swimming pool. From the Brandberg, you can head north to pick up a metalled road heading east to Outjo. There is some demanding climbing in the Brandberg but access is problematical.

General Information

Guidebooks and Maps

For climbing, the guidebook Spitzkoppe And Pontoks, Namibia – A Climber's Paradise by Eckhardt Haber will be essential and is available to buy online (see website). It provides good, comprehensive coverage of the climbs and uses the South African grading system. Very basic information about other climbing areas is available online (see websites). For Omandumba and the Tiras Mountains, information is available locally. In addition, one of the various general guidebooks to Namibia will be indispensable along with a good road map of the country.

Equipment

A normal rack including a good selection of cams should be sufficient for most of the climbing. Double 60m ropes are essential for some routes. A fair amount of abseil tat may be needed if you stray off the most popular routes with equipped descents (either intentionally or unintentionally). Take plenty of quickdraws for the fully bolted routes.

Season

The best time to climb in Namibia is during the southern hemisphere winter from May to September. Rain is almost unheard of and temperatures can be expected to be around 30 C during the day with pleasant evenings and cool or even cold nights. Although very hot in the sun, the dry heat means that climbing is pleasant in the shade. The least hot months are June and July. May can be beautifully green in the desert if there have been late rains. The dry season is also by far the the best time to visit Etosha National Park since the vast numbers of animals congregate at the water holes.

Getting to Windhoek and Camping around Windhoek

Although there are some more direct options, most budget flights to Namibia's capital, Windhoek, will be via Johannesburg, or, probably more expensively, Cape Town. It would certainly be very feasible to combine a visit to Namibia with climbing in South Africa. Windhoek itself does not seem particularly interesting but it will probably be necessary to spend a night in its vicinity at the start and end of a trip. The little airport is about twenty-five miles east of the city and there are several camping and accommodation options along the linking highway. I can particularly recommend the friendly Trans Kalahari Inn (see website) which offers rooms, camping with good facilities and meals, including an excellent buffet breakfast.

Another option well worth considering, especially to relax and clean up before flying home, is to straightforwardly cross the small city and camp at the quiet and wonderful Daan Viljoen Nature Reserve about eight miles to the west. Don't be put off by unhelpful online information; just turn up and enjoy the peaceful and very well-appointed camping and amazing wildlife. With water at two small dams, the bird life is incredible and, there being no dangerous predators, you can safely wander the various trails and enjoy close encounters with wildebeest, impala and kudu, baboons and ostriches.

Vehicle Hire and Driving

The easiest option is to pre-book a car from one of the usual reputable companies at the airport. If you are only visiting the Spitzkoppe and Etosha it is possible to make do with the cheapest option of a standard two-wheel drive vehicle, but, away from the few metalled roads, progress will at best be tortuous. By far the best option is to go for a large high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle which will make many more places enjoyably accessible. The standard indestructible Toyota Hilux truck (or similar) will comfortably carry four people with all their kit plus food and water for a week or more.

But take care - although there is little traffic on the roads, animals, both domestic and wild (especially warthogs!), are common and single vehicle accidents through losing control on the gravel roads are common. There are various local companies in Windhoek offering offering vehicle hire with airport pickup a bit more cheaply, sometimes along with camping equipment. This might well be a good option but would certainly be a little more hassle. A popular option is a vehicle with built-in rooftop tents, but this seems to me a real inconvenience when based in one campsite for more than one night, and, unless you are particularly paranoid about snakes and scorpions, the protection from dangerous animals isn't needed in any area you are likely to visit. Probably…

Food and Water

All the main towns have supermarkets which are more or less indistinguishable from your local Tesco where you can stock up on food and large cans of drinking water (water at the main campsites is supposed to be drinkable, but you may wish to play safe). When heading into remoter areas, you should definitely carry an ample supply of water with you. Gas is hard to come by, so by far the best cooking option is to take a petrol stove. Petrol stations usually have a small shop and often sell firewood. If you are heading straight to the Spitzkoppe, I would recommend avoiding trying to shop in Windhoek; instead stop at Okahandja where the supermarket is easily located on the way into town. If you are heading south to the desert, I would likewise recommend shopping at Reheboth about fifty miles out of Windhoek.

Camping

All the campsites I have stayed in have been very well run and extremely pleasant with excellent, clean and well-maintained facilities. Individual sites often have fire pits and barbecues. Expect to pay similar prices to those in Europe. The ground is often hard, so it is best to take a tent which is not too dependent on pegs. The Spitzkoppe site and those in the main tourist areas are popular, so it is best to plan your itinerary and book as early as possible. For my last trip in July I had some difficulty with bookings in March. In the remoter areas of the desert it is certainly possible to get away with roadside camping, but it is probably best to keep a low profile.

Some Useful Websites

A summary of Namibia's climbing areas

Namibia Mountain Club

UKC Logbook for the Spitzkoppe and Pontoks

Spitzkoppe Guidebook

Trans Kalahari Inn (camping near the airport)

Spitzkoppe Camping

Omandumba Guest Farm

Koiimasis Ranch

Brandberg White Lady Lodge Camping

Etosha Safari Camping

Etosha National Park and Camping

Sesriem Camping

Hauchabfontein Camping

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Robert Durran



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31 Mar

A staggeringly beautiful country. With or without climbing gear. Etosha, Khaudum, and the Namib all are stunning. The Namib in particular, with the Dead vlei , and the monstrous sand dune of Big Daddy, is quite the most beautiful place I've seen.

31 Mar

Hi Robert,

Great article, thanks also for the other questions you already answered me.

I read now, must have skipped over it before, why do you recommend not buying supplies in Windhoek? Is it so much more expensive there?

And are there marked hiking trails around the Spitzkoppe or is the terrain not allowing for this?

Thank you so much again!

31 Mar

Terrific article, thanks for sharing. Fair gives me itchy feet!

T.

31 Mar

The only reason I suggest this is that it might take a little while to locate and park at a supermarket in Windhoek, so time can be saved by following signs directly north and shopping in the smaller town of Okahandja where the supermarket is easily found and parking easy. It has everything you might need. If heading south to the Namib there is a big supermarket after about an hour at Reheboth.

There is a network of tracks linking the camping spots, but it is basically flat ground amongst the domes and boulders so you can wander anywhere.

1 Apr

Nice article! I've been thinking about getting out there again, there really isn't anywhere else quite like it.

The Normal Route on the Spitzkoppe is a great fun expedition and, as I recall, the only technically hard bit is reaching the infamous chipped handhold without standing on your second's shoulders. It's a boulder problem off a big ledge, so isn't as scary as HVS makes it sound even if it is nearly at the top.

Sounds like there a bolted belay at the top now. When we did it the only belay was the summit cairn, so we just downclimbed the last easy slab pitch (left of the chimney you describe, I think).

My understanding is that driving off the recognised tracks is discouraged. I would really ask people to be careful - there's a lot of unique and vulnerable wildlife, like the ground-living chameleons.

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