WHEN the convoy struggled out of that first drift across the
Hoanib River in the afternoon of the fourth day of its journey, it
entered a strange world that few European eyes had previously
been privileged to see.
The Hoanib River, winding its way from east to west, flows
through a narrow canyon 20 miles long, with cliffs rising almost
perpendicularly on either side for 1,000 feet. Except during floods
the river remains invisible during most of its passage, flowing below
its bed until it rises to the surface well down the canyon, later
again to dive under the desert. For miles on either side stretches
a high range of mountains. The canyon is the only passage through
them. Travellers therefore must share it with the river. The wagon
track and the river criss-cross seven times in the course of the
The policemen and soldiers were amazed at the grandeur of
the scene as they drove their trucks into the mouth of the giant
cleft. The sides of the mountains guarding the entrance fell away
in ridges and rugged terraces, one upon another. The shadows
cast by the afternoon sun seemed to turn the stone into myriads of
Once they were swallowed up in its depths, the travellers'
enchantment soon became disillusionment. The chasm was a giant
oven. No air moved upon its floor. The sun blazed down and the
heat could be seen rising in shimmering waves from the rocks.
The temperature, even in the shade of the cliffs, must have been
well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The trucks became so hot that
nobody dared touch any metal part exposed to the sun. The tanks
on their sides in which drinking water was carried absorbed so
much heat that some of the men swore the water steamed. The
water trailer, exposed to the full power of the sun, radiated heat
waves. Every now and again, as the trucks laboured in low gear,
there was a loud "pop" and a radiator cap flew into the air. There
was the smell of scorched rubber from the tyres riding upon the
burning hot sand. The men could feel the heat from the sand
through the soles of their shoes as they walked.
When they switched the engines off and listened there was
no sound to be heard. The canyon was silent as the grave. Not
a breath of air stirred the few humps of dry grass here and there.
The only evidence of life was the flies. Of those there were plenty.
There seemed to be a veritable plague of elephant flies there. Gnat-like
creatures, they seemed to be everywhere. They settled on legs,
arms, and necks, and the first intimation of their presence was a
bite that made one jump.
Under such conditions the convoy struggled along down the
canyon. It nearly met its Waterloo at the second drift. This turned
out to be a mile long. Despite every precaution that could be taken
to prevent it, it was not long before every vehicle in the convoy was
hopelessly bogged in the sand. This was so loose that even the
lightest of the vehicles, the repair van, sank nearly 12 inches and
was only prevented from going further by its running boards.
Every man was put on the job of manhandling the trucks, one
at a time, to the firm ground on the opposite bank. They used jacks,
ladders, wire netting, bushes and tree trunks, not to mention engine
power. Smith even resorted to deflating the tyres, despite the handicap
of the single pump. As if their difficulties were not enough
already, the men found that before they could get the vehicles out
of the river bed they had to break down sections of the steep bank
and make ramps. It was not sufficient merely to fashion rough
ramps from the loose soil of the broken bank. The ramps had to
be reinforced with tree trunks and bushes if they were to bear the
weight of three-ton troop carriers.
All this work took many hours, and by dusk Smith and his men
were so exhausted and dispirited that, but for the knowledge that
those shipwrecked people were depending upon them for rescue
from an even more serious plight, they would have been sorely
tempted to admit the desert's victory, abandon their trucks, and
digging out the lightest one, return to tell of the impossibility of
forcing that passage.
Instead, however, they determined not to give in while human
brain and brawn could still function. They had their reward when
at a quarter past ten that night the last truck dragged itself up
the ramp and joined the laager formed for the night on the further
side of the second drift.
Next day they started again at dawn and during the morning
negotiated five more drifts, meeting trouble at each. The last three
were across the strongly flowing river, which had appeared from
beneath its bed and was in places 20 to 30 yards wide. Whereas in
the dry drifts it was the sand that gave the trouble, in these it
was the water that stopped the engines and left the trucks marooned
in the river. It was less trouble, though, to tow them out and get
the motors working again, than it had been to dig the bogged trucks
out of the sand.
In the bend of the river between the last two drifts they came
across several Klip Kaffirs guarding cattle belonging to the Zesfontein
Hottentots. The Kaffirs were so degenerate that they had hired
themselves to the brown men - something the black men's proud
forefathers would never have done.
The last drift was cleared by midday. Not long after the convoy
passed through a Hottentot-Native settlement called Warmquelle
which was almost an oasis in the veld. The few inhabitants had
extensive gardens under irrigation and offered to barter vegetables
and fresh meat. Money they did not want, for it had no value
to them. There are no shops in this country. Their money was
coffee and sugar - "drinkgoedjies" that were everywhere in demand.
The settlement was watered by several springs, the water of which
was slightly tepid and said to have a sulphurous content with a
purging effect upon the bowels.
Shortly before two o'clock the convoy reached Zesfontein, the
last inhabited place on the way to the coast. It is a Hottentot
settlement ruled over by a Chief Benjamin, who is greatly respected
by his handful of followers. They include the last dozen "Topnaar"
Hottentots left alive. Several Ovashimbas, a cattle-grazing tribe of
the Kaokoveld, live in the settlement with the Hottentots. The
inhabitants carry on extensive gardening and have a fair amount of
large and small stock. The settlement has a strong supply of water
from several springs. The water is fresh, crystal clear, and
exceptionally pleasant to the palate.
The convoy was able to replenish its water tanks, and Smith
bought a magnificent fat sheep for the equivalent of eight shillings.
The fresh meat was a very welcome addition to the iron rations
upon which the expedition had been living.
The convoy stopped for several hours at Zesfontein. Smith had
hit the trail without delaying for breakfast that morning for he knew
that the shipwrecked party had been told to expect the convoy three
or four days after it started out from Windhoek, whereas it had now
been on the road five days and was still 300 miles from them. He
was therefore anxious not to waste an hour. At Zesfontein, however,
he took the opportunity to have minor repairs and adjustments
carried out on the trucks, at the same time having each one checked
over carefully, while the cooks prepared the first meal of the day.
He also arranged with Chief Benjamin for six of his followers
to take the place of the two who had come as far as the settlement
with the convoy. The Chief said they would accept only their food
and no other payment for their services. His people, he said,
were glad to be of service to their country in its "great fight against
the bad men" of which he had heard, and they regarded this as
their little contribution to the war effort.
After a three-hour stay the convoy started off north-west
into the trackless desert. From now on there was not even a
wagon track to be seen. Directed by the Hottentots, the trucks
simply steered for mountain ranges in the distance. The first 25
miles was very heavy going. Once it was necessary to climb a steep,
lava-covered hill with a grade of one in six. The trucks, in extra
low gear, had to feel their way up the bare rock, avoiding loose
surfaces which might set them skidding down again. They drove
over the top along a narrow, bumpy ledge, with a 200-foot sheer
drop on either side.
After that the country that was traversed consisted mainly of
small grass-covered sand dunes, which gradually changed to pebbled
hills as the mountain ranges drew near. With no direction signs
and no maps to guide him, Smith soon found that valuable time
and effort was being wasted running into dead ends and deviations.
He and Cogill therefore walked on ahead of the trucks to explore
the terrain and choose the best route. Sometimes they had to walk
miles and tire themselves out climbing koppies in order to get the best
view of the country ahead, before they decided the direction to be
When they got among the pebbled hills they discovered that they
were fairly high, with steep sides leading to intervening ravines.
The tortuous route they had to follow through these ravines added
many miles to their journey.
After nearly five hours they had covered 50 miles, and about
half-past nine at night they came to a large dried-up river which
turned out to be the Gumatum. Floods had played havoc with its
banks, which were precipitous, and as it was too dark to find a way
across, the expedition made camp for the night.
Next morning at dawn Smith and Cogill left the camp on foot
to search for a drift. When they had chosen what seemed the most
suitable crossing place, all hands set to work with picks and shovels
to break down the banks and lay out a track across the river bed.
This took several hours. Before it was completed some of the party
began to suffer from severe attacks of diarrhoea, which Dr. Hutchinson
attributed to the water that had been drawn from the
Hoanib River. He gave the sufferers medicine and ordered that all
the water should in future be boiled before use. It took two days
before everybody was cured.
After its first crossing of the Gumatum River the convoy made
slow progress. The trucks had to follow the river for some
distance, driving alongside the foot of the mountains that hemmed
in the river. The slopes were very stony, and frequently deep
ravines in their path forced the trucks to cross the river and continue
down the opposite side. The drifts, of rubble and loose sand, were
ticklish problerns each time.
At a place called Cerehamis where the river passes through a
fairly narrow gorge, the men found three waterholes. One was on
the south side of the river, about 50 yards up the mountain slope, in a
large basin edged with rushes. There was not much water in it,
and what there was tasted salty. On the north bank of the river,
beneath a very high precipice, was a fountain with a fairly large
standing pool of clear water that tasted a little brackish. In the
river bed below was another small waterhole where game, including
elephant, were wont to drink, from the many footprints around it.
Continuing down the river, about three o'clock in the afternoon
the convoy reached the junction of the Gumatum with the Hoareseb
River at Purros. The natural watershed of the surrounding country,
they discovered, forces the rivers together there, and they then pass
through a very narrow gorge, which is the only outlet through the
mountains to the sea. At Purros they found a strong running fountain
covered with vegetable matter and green slime, which they did
not find attractive and avoided. Just above the intersection of the
two rivers, in the bed of the Hoareseb, however, they found a ghorra
or small waterhole which appeared to have been scooped out with
elephant trunks. There were many of the beasts' tracks around.
Nearby the men made their own well and from it and the elephants'
one they filled all their water containers to the brim. As they were
now on the edge of the Namib Desert and it was unlikely that they
would find any further water supplies, Smith gave orders that those
who wished should have their last wash and shave, as no more
water would be issued for this purpose. The supplies in the containers
had to be conserved for the use of the expedition and of the
survivors for drinking only, and for the vehicles.
After a two-hour stop the expedition began the difficult task of
crossing the Hoareseb. The southern bank, on which they were, had
a 20-foot perpendicular drop to the river bed, due to erosion
during the floods. Despite an exhaustive search, there was no other
place to cross, so all hands had to set to to break down the bank
with picks and shovels, and build a ramp, reinforced with tree
trunks and branches. Then the usual quantities of bush had to be
cut and laid across the river bed, which was 50 yards wide, to
prevent the trucks sinking in the sand. All this took several hours.
When the convoy was safely across everyone was set to work
collecting wood and loading it into the troop carriers. Once they
entered the desert proper there was little likelihood of finding firewood,
and supplies of it were essential not only for cooking purposes
and to enable the river water to be boiled, but to provide watch
fires for protection against wild animals at night.
When sufficient wood had been taken on board, the convoy
began the climb to the high plateau that divided the bush country
from the Namib Desert. It reached the top shortly before half-past
nine, and as it was now dark and all the men were dog tired, Smith
ordered camp to be pitched.
The next day was the seventh since the convoy had started out,
and Smith was extremely worried as to the condition of the shipwrecked
people. He got the trucks going at daybreak. The last
of the vegetation was soon left behind, and the vehicles entered
a barren country, nearly flat, of loose, burnt earth and sand, where
there was no sign of life. The going was heavy, but in places the
trucks were able to knock up a fair speed. Eventually they struck
the dry Khumib River about 25 miles from its outlet into the sea.
They were now among the big sand dunes through which the river
winds its way to the ocean. It was soon apparent that the going
along the bed of the river would be easier than that over the dunes,
and accordingly the convoy took this route. It encountered many
difficulties caused by loose sand and tortuous bends, but overcame
all. About four miles from the sea they found a waterhole, but the
water was salty and almost undrinkable.
Cheers wafted up the river bed from the crew of the first truck
when they sighted the sea ahead. They were less than 50 miles
from the shipwrecked party now and they had won through against
tremendous odds and made history by bringing the first convoy of
motor vehicles across the Kaokoveld to the sea.
High in the air above, an airman watched the khaki trucks,
almost indistinguishable against their background of brown sand,
struggle like little beetles out of the river bed, and head southward
toward Rocky Point to pick up the spares awaiting them. The
bomber's radio crackled as the message went out that the missing
convoy had been found.