by John H Marsh

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 passage.
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 frozen waterfalls.
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 taken.
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.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

Return to main page