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The Burning Mountain


Our man in Africa, Dan Slater, talks about his hiking trek through Namibia’s iconic Brandberg Mountain Range.

If, like myself and Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, you’re one of those people who has an overwhelming urge to climb every big pile of rocks you see, you’ll quickly fall in love with Namibia.

It’s not that the mountains here are huge, snow-capped behemoths that challenge one’s physical and mental fortitude; quite the opposite. But they are surely among the world’s most beautiful.

From relatively small heaps of boulders that can be shimmied up in half an hour, to larger, free-standing inselbergs that dominate the plains around them, to curious massifs like the Brandberg, every single piece of geology in the country demands to be scaled.

Like Odysseus of ancient Greek legend, I hear their siren song everywhere I drive through this barren land, frequently finding myself pulling over and being drawn to the summits of small hills like a soft, stumbling magnet.

On my first visit to Namibia 15 years ago, I thought I had found the ultimate rock idol in the Spitzkoppe, a series of granite monoliths standing proud on the Damaraland plain like a row of upturned cups on a draining board.

While the Spitzkoppe is indeed spectacular, slightly to the north sits its big brother, brooding and flaming. As highest-in-country elevations go, 2573m is nothing special (although it tops our own puny Mt. Kosciuszko by around 350m), but geologically the Brandberg is very special indeed.

I hadn’t time back then for the three-day return trip to the summit, Konigstein, but now, four visits later, it has finally wormed its way onto my itinerary. 


The author enacts an African version of Day of the Triffids

A short drive from the mining town of Uis, along an indistinguishable 4WD track cutting across the broken desert, Quinton and I stand gazing up at our morning’s work – 1000m of cliffs, cracks and boulder-strewn gullies that will lead us to Brandberg’s summit plateau.

In truth, it is our two Damara guides who will lead us there, Dunige Taniseb and Taodugo ‘Hûseb. The Damara are one of the 11 official ethnic groups of Namibia, making up around 7 per cent of the population, and their traditional homeland is here in the northwest of the country.

In terms of fauna, some landscapes are so barren you’d think nothing could live there, and the flat, rocky desert of Damaraland is one such place. But there is beauty in desolation, and life too, both large and small.

From tiny rock agama lizards and the unique endemic ‘gladiator’ insect (mantophasmatodea – a new order of insect only discovered in 2002) to scurrying rock hyrax, through various antelope to the top of the food chain, and no… it’s not us. We’ve barely started walking when we come across our first leopard print, then frequent hyena droppings.

I’m immediately hyperaware of my surroundings, especially every rock shelf and large tree beneath which we pass, two of the big cats’ favourite ambush spots. The hearty climb up the Ga’aseb valley (optimistically referred to as a river by our guides) soon makes me forget my paranoia.

Whenever I look up from a precarious footing, the first thing I notice is the trees. Namibia has the most amazing trees, from the fat-trunked, succulent botterboom to the quiver tree, so-called because the indigenous San people (previously known as Bushmen) used to hollow out its branches to hold their arrows.

The gnarled Camel Thorn is renowned throughout the world for its firewood, and almost any species that can survive here shows its hardiness in twisted limbs poking the sky, knotty bark and roots that creep into every crevice and weakness in the rock, digging in, clinging on and above all, surviving.

Funniest plant award goes to euphorbia virosa, a cactus-like tree with wicked thorns and poisonous milk which the San used as poison for their arrows. Nowadays the plant’s only victims are desert rhinos, who eat the thorns as a sort of masochistic bowel-cleansing treatment.


The guides by the fire

Five hours of scrambling, ducking and shuffling up slabs finally brings us to the lip of the escarpment and the campsite a short way beyond.

The arrival of dusk explains the etymology of the Brandberg’s name, Afrikaans for Burning Mountain, as the glow of the setting sun turns the rocks all around us the colour of fire. Ablaze with pink and orange hues, the massif’s bulging shoulders radiate warmth until long after the darkening sky has revealed another of Namibia’s secret joys – the planet’s most incredible night sky.

The Milky Way is particularly impressive. Once you’ve witnessed with the naked eye this glittering band of stars, nebulae, dwarfs and the supermassive black hole, you’ll never enjoy the Southern Cross the same way again.

After dinner, and warmed by a crackling fire, our new friends tell us stories about the sacred mountain, which Taodugo describes as the capital city of the traditional religion, Shamanism, one of the oldest in the world.

He explains that, back in the days of his grandparents, people approaching the mountain would pause to show their respect and greet their ancestors, a ritual performed via the inhalation of a local variety of snuff. If they did not, they would likely get lost on the mountain.

“You should have told us this before we came up!” exclaims Quinton.

The last shaman died in 2010 leaving no apprentice to continue the tradition, the end of a millennia-long era.

As evening advances, the talk becomes less serious, the boys recounting traditional African children’s stories. Each episode starred the wily jackal and his friends, and usually ended in the ridicule of the butt of their jokes — the dumb hyena.

In one of Dunige’s favourites, Jackal persuades his intellectually-challenged friend to jump up onto a high cloud and devour the yummy fat of which it is made. When Hyena leaps down afterwards, instead of breaking his fall as promised Jackal quickly moves out of the way, causing Hyena to land on his back legs and break them. And this is why they are forever shorter than his front legs.


Pausing to catch breath and appreciate the scenery

Konigstein (King’s Stone), the summit, is about a four-hour walk from camp, so the next morning we leave most of our gear and proceed with day packs.

The path is slightly less steep than yesterday but with plenty of ‘interesting’ sections, and we’re soon sweating under the morning sun. We’re keen to seek shelter in any patch of shade, and in a cool twist, many of the rock overhangs in this area come with their own entertainment.

Another of the fascinating aspects of Damaraland is its San rock art, most of which was produced between 2000 and 5000 years ago. On Brandberg alone, 45,000 examples have so far been found from over 900 sites. The oldest paintings are monochrome, finely-ground red rock mixed with animal fat and delicately applied with a brush of animal hair or feathers. These account for 60 per cent of the art on the mountain, while polychrome designs became more popular in the later period. 

Having taken our fill of rock art we continue walking, higher and higher, eventually reaching a smooth-topped boulder crowned by a rock cairn and flag. This is the summit, Konigstein, from which it seems we can see all of Namibia, if not Africa.

The knobbly shadow of the Spitzkoppe lies to the south, the hazy Atlantic Ocean to the West, the incongruous cluster of Uis to the southeast and the endless dusty plains of Damaraland everywhere else. It is magnificent.

“This has been mind-blowing,” enthuses Quinton, a Namibian born and bred. “An information overload. Every tiny little plant and rock has a story, whether folkloric, practical or medicinal. I feel so much more connected to the land.”

Already he’s talking about his next trip, maybe taking a week and doing an east-west traverse. We relax in silence for a while, basking in the sun and the panorama, reflecting on how lucky we are to be here.

“One thing Namibia can be really proud of is its natural beauty,” he adds after a while, “but also how much history has been recorded here over thousands of years, preserved through our arid climate.”

“Namibia plays an integral part in not only who I am as a Namibian, but also who I am as a human.”

As a human myself, I couldn’t agree more.

Read the full article, including information about booking to climb the Brandberg, in the September/October Issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today to keep up to date with all the latest outdoor adventures, travel news and inspiration.