Conservancy ladies tackle the Brandberg

As the rains ended and the winter began, five determined ladies from Namibia’s communal conservancies scaled the Brandberg mountain; to show that they could do it, and to improve their career prospects. After seven days on the mountain they had earned the respect of experienced mountain guides, and learnt a good deal about the rock art high up the mountain.

The Damara name for Namibia’s highest mountain is Dâureb, meaning ‘the burning one’. The German name Brandberg claimed the mountain for the colonial power, but slowly and surely the mountain is being reclaimed by Namibians, male and female. The Dâureb tour guides are based in nearby Uis and take visitors to the White Lady painting near the foot of the mountain. Up to now, the top of the mountain was accessible only with male guides, but times are changing.

Dr Tilman Lenssen-Erz is an authority on Namibian rock art, based at the Heinrich-Barth Institute in Cologne, Germany. It was his idea to link up with NACSO, the communal conservancy networking organisation, to provide training for Namibian female guides on the Dâureb. The mountain sits in the northern part of Tsiseb Conservancy, and two ‘White Lady’ guides, Ennethe Eichas and Juniegreth Afrikaner signed up for the training straightaway.

Three other ladies from ≠Gaingu Conservancy also joined the climb. ≠Gaingu means ‘call each other’, and is the Damara name for the Spitzkoppe and the conservancy surrounding it. On a clear day you can see the ≠Gaingu from the Dâureb. Both mountains have rock art, and both are tough to climb. The five ladies from both conservancies hadn’t met before, but had a lot in common.

The training began at the foot mountain, in the Amis Gorge. A constant trickle of water formed a small stream: just enough to wash and clean teeth. Everybody got on first name terms and Tilman explained the camping basics, like not pitching tents where water might run in the night. Food for seven days was laid out and divided up between the rucksacks. Muesli, biscuits, rice and corned beef were strictly rationed and fairly shared. Everybody would need just enough food and energy for the hike. Notebooks were issued with headings for the training. Key words were O for organisation and E for ecology; we were to leave no trace of our presence on the mountain apart from ashes and footprints; every scrap of rubbish was to come back down with us at the end.

Next morning, before the dawn broke, the camp was alive and water for tea was boiling. The aim was to break the back of the climbing before 11am and the sun became too hot. Climbing was hard work, especially for the inexperienced trainees. The leader was Angula Shipagu, who has been guiding on the mountain for 38 years. Despite having reached retirement age, he moves like a bokkie over the rocks. Along with the ladies were three porters, Tilman and his wife Marie, and one tired reporter.

The recent heavy rains had brought the Damaraland landscape to life. The plain around the mountain was filled with tall grass, waving like endless fields of wheat. Water was pouring down the Amis Gorge. Climbing was more difficult than usual because the rocks were hidden by the grass. There are no paths, the ascent is a secret trail between boulders and up small rock faces, and it took its toll. Shortly before lunch Ennethe fell back exhausted against a large rock and started hyperventilating – breathing very fast and shallow. With luck a shady spot was nearby and the group could rest. But Ennethe was not the only one in trouble. Juniegreth suffers from asthma, and was also soon short of breath.

Team spirit kicked in. Thomas and Ernst, two of the porters, went ahead, dropped their heavy packs and came back for Ennethe and Juniegreth’s rucksacks. With the upper mountain in sight and no luggage to carry, Juniegreth burst into song and kept the group’s spirits up with a selection of gospel numbers. The last stretch of the climb was over a bare rock face. Thomas and Ernst carried one extra rucksack between them, and so did Ivonne and Lizeth. The three ladies from the ≠Gaingu Conservancy never tired. Ivonne Afrikaner runs marathons, and on the climb was always just a step behind Angula, the leader. Lizeth Afrikaner and Moreen Eichas were never far behind.

By mid-afternoon the group had reached the Lufthöhle, a cave with a semi-circular roof, and walls alive with paintings. A few metres away was a flat area suitable for camping, and not far beyond were three cracks in the rock still filled with rainwater. With the moon in its first quarter and a small fire crackling for the cooking pot, everybody was tired, but happy.

The Lufthöhle was the group’s morning lecture hall. Just four kilometres away is the Riesenhöhle, where Tilman taught the basics of rock art and archaeology in the afternoon. Nobody knows for certain who painted the pictures, or why. They were all painted in the late stone age, between four and two thousand years ago. It is commonly stated that ancestors of the San were the artists, although others say that Damara ancestors were the painters. What we do know is that the painting stopped 2,000 years ago, and it seems that the people left the mountain then. Given the age of the paintings, they are in remarkably good condition, thanks in part to their inaccessibility.

If people touch the paintings, their fingers leave grease marks, over years this causes immense damage, and the White Lady painting near the base of the mountain was set behind iron bars for a while, to protect it. That’s why the training of guides is important. Nowadays nobody visits the White Lady without a guide. Tour groups on the mountain have done stupid things, like building fires under the paintings and camping in the caves. As the groups crossed the mountain, the porters collected any rubbish left by careless visitors and carried it with them. The Dâureb is still a pristine wilderness.

Climbing the mountain is not too difficult. It’s a three day hike straight up and down. But crossing the Dâureb is another story. The mountain sides are a series of gorges that reach almost to the top, so moving along the mountain means climbing up and down steep valleys strewn with massive boulders amidst thick vegetation. For compensation there are stunning views down every gorge. On a clear day the ≠Gaingu, or Spitzkoppe, can be seen. In the upper reaches of the mountain the vegetation changes. There are Butterboom trees, aloes specific to the area, and Euphorbia Virosa, a highly toxic plant that looks like a cactus. Its pretty red spikes pump out deadly white milk as soon as you touch it. Perhaps the San used it to make poisoned arrows. Climbers should beware!

By lunchtime everybody was exhausted and water was running low. Just below a ridge we had crossed was a dark patch, running down the rocks. Water! We scrambled down, to find only enough for a dog to lick. The little we had was shared and then rucksacks were pulled on again for another hard hike. The goal was the Wasserfall cave, and we could see it in the distance, high up a hill on the other side of a steep gorge, but the sun was going down. Tilman wanted to press on – as team leader he never tired – but Angula knows what is possible and when to stop. At the base of the gorge was a fast flowing stream. “Shower, “said Angula, who is a man of few words, and “camp”.

There were two large and icy cold pools of water, one for the men and one for the ladies. While the group washed, Angula and the porters got a fire going. It had been a tough day, and the going had been slow. Hard decisions had to be made and Tilman laid out the facts. The training was about rock art, the group was moving slowly, we would probably not be able to climb to the summit, the Königstein. While he made up his bed for the night, the ladies mulled it over and came to a decision: they had set out to prove to the men that they could tackle the mountain too. The proof would be the climb to the summit, and nobody was going to stop them. By the time Tilman had come back for dinner the ladies had made a plan with one of the porters. We would camp near the Snake Rock, an important rock art site not far from the Königstein, and climb the summit from there.

Tilman agreed, as long as everybody was fit and stayed together. Part of the job of guiding, he pointed out, was to make realistic decisions and to make sure that everybody could keep up. If one member of the group were to be too slow or have an accident, then the whole group would have to lower its expectations and perhaps abandon the climb. The decision put fresh energy into the group, and the next day the Wasserfall and Snake Rock were reached without difficulty.

A is for archaeology. Tilman continued his lectures at Snake Rock, where there are extraordinary pictures of people and animals. His theme was interpretation, and the group looked in particular at the image of a springbok with its foreleg extended. That’s what male springbok do just before the rains, explained Tilman. They tap the female’s hind leg with their front leg as a prelude to mating. After the rains begin the calves are born, and have enough grass to eat. Tilman believes that the painting is a metaphor for rain, perhaps a prayer to make the rains come, painted in a place with religious significance. Whether you believe it or have another interpretation, the paintings are stunning.

For our group, the rains had stopped, and winter was coming on. An arctic wind whistled across the top of the mountain, and by 7pm everybody was in bed, resting for the attempt on the summit. Reveille was at 5.30, and before sunrise the tents were packed and a meagre breakfast prepared. Either somebody had not packed enough muesli, or too much had been eaten at the start of the climb. Now there was none. We made do with instant oshifima, which to your correspondent’s amazement comes in banana and strawberry flavour.

At the top of the mountain there is a grassy plateau. With the abundant rains it had become a marsh, with boggy patches hidden under the grass and hard to traverse without feet sinking into the mud. But anything was better than boulders, and the group pressed on in good spirits until we rounded a hillside and the Königstein came into sight. Climbing it is quite easy compared to the difficult boulders and rock faces in the gorges. In 40 minutes the ladies were at to top, and totally elated.

Cell phones came out to broadcast the news to families below, and entries were made in the summit book, which is kept in a tin, sheltered by some stones that support the trigonometry point on top of Namibia’s highest point. To celebrate, Tilman dug a packet of lemon cream biscuits out of his backpack – everybody had two!

The descent was a hard slog. After the trip all of the ladies received a certificate from the Heinrich-Barth Institute, attesting that they had climbed the mountain and learnt something about guiding and rock art. Despite almost collapsing on the first day, Ennethe Eichas had kept going, carrying a heavy rucksack across the mountain for another 5 days, so she should have the last word: “I am feeling very proud as a Dâureb female guide,” she wrote in the summit book, “I have learned a lot.” You can check for yourself. The book is 2,573 metres above sea level, on top of the Dâureb.

Steve Felton
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