Text and photographs Ron Swilling
In south-western Namibia – not far from the Namib-Naukluft Park, home to the wild horses; the Sperrgebiet, once forbidden diamond-mining territory; and the legendary mining town of Kolmanskop, where desert sand filters into houses that once glittered with diamond wealth – is a lodge called Klein-Aus Vista, an exciting destination for the activity and adventure enthusiast.
Klein Aus unites granitic-gneiss amphitheatres and grand pro-Namib vistas with adrenalin-generating mountain biking, trail running and hiking. This unusual and exciting amalgamation of landscape and sport is the result of the efforts and passion of Piet Swiegers, veteran Namibian cross-country mountain-bike champion, who for the last few years has been making his dream a reality and creating a network of trails through the scenic land.
The trails and routes lead through a landscape of rocky outcrops, rugged valleys and dry riverbeds to reach koppies with altitudes of 1 250–1 700 metres and affording expansive views to the west, where grasses and an array of colours merge gracefully into the sands of the Namib Desert. Klipspringers can be spotted on the rocky hills and majestic kudu are occasionally seen along the routes. Situated in the botanically rich and diverse Succulent Karoo biome, the area is also of historical interest. Tracks follow old colonial Schutztruppe supply routes dating back to World War I and old German ramparts are still visible stretching through the Aus Mountains.
Mountain biking is one of the fastest-growing sports in Namibia and South Africa, and Klein-Aus Vista is catering to this new pastime with gusto. With a view to making Klein Aus the mountain-biking mecca of Namibia, Piet has created a 22- and 28-km mountain-biking loop for the intermediate and advanced mountain biker.
The route is part narrow single track and part historic jeep track through the Aus Mountains. Piet completes a 28-km loop via the Nemesis viewpoint in a quick 1½ to 2-hour afternoon’s drive, after a busy day managing the family-run lodge. The Swiegers opened their doors – or rather, farm gates – to the public in 1996, offering camping and a choice of attractive accommodation.
As he tells the story, his eyes shining with passion for the sport, I realise that the less-fit or novice mountain biker would probably require an extra hour or two to negotiate the route. There is also an option of loops to include or exclude along the way, and the choice to do it in proper holiday mode by stopping in Aus to rest up and have a drink or lunch at the Bahnhof Hotel.
Piet says he wants to extend his events over the whole area so that everyone benefits, whether staying at Klein Aus or not. When you buy a permit to partake in the activities, you receive a booklet containing information on the many features in the surroundings, especially the flora, and with detailed descriptions of the routes and maps. Those staying at Klein Aus can deduct the fee from their guided activities. This small cost is reinvested to maintain the routes. (Klein Aus has bikes for hire, with helmets provided. Riders must bring the rest of the gear with them, such as shoes, gloves and suitable clothing.) Klein Aus Vista is also in the process of establishing a cycling club in Aus with the aim to assist community members who have an interest in cycling.
A mountain-bike event of note
The highlight of the year for the mountain-bike competitor is the Klein-Aus Vista Mountain Bike Challenge, which is held towards the end of April/beginning of May each year and is now in its third successful year. This year it takes place from 2 to 3 May. It is rated as one of the best by Mannie Heymans, one of Namibia’s top mountain bikers, who is known as ‘Mr African’ after winning both the TransAlp and Cape Epic events in the last few years.
Limited to 100 participants, the challenge is an Aus experience par excellence, with the entire area involved in accommodating the cyclists and their families who accompany them and entails their occupying every available bed. The challenge, sponsored this year primarily by Kia, Standard Bank and the Gondwana Collection, is a two-day stage race, mostly on single track. The mountain biker has the option of a 65-km half-marathon or the more challenging 130-km full marathon over the two-day period.
There are separate categories for men, women and juniors – and a hefty sum in prize money to be won. The route begins and ends at Klein-Aus Vista’s Desert Horse Inn, leading participants through Aus, the Kubub Farm and the Aus Mountains in the 51 000-hectare Gondwana Sperrgebiet Rand Park. Described as ‘Tough – Scenic – Rewarding’ and depicted as such on the striking licence discs advertising the event, the challenge is fast becoming one of the mountain-bike events to circle on the calendar and enter as soon as booking opens at the end of the year.
Hiking routes in abundance
For hikers, nature-lovers and those looking for something different, Klein Aus is an enjoyable hiking destination offering a selection of well-maintained, well-marked and colour-coded hiking routes. These popular trails provide an ideal opportunity to explore the landscape, stretch the legs and break long car journeys. Several hiking trails are offered from various starting points at Klein Aus, giving hikers the choice of trails in the various areas with different levels of difficulty.
There are short, relatively easy, one-and-a-half hour/4 to 5-km routes for the unhurried walker to see the WWI ramparts or sample the splendid vista over the Namib plains. Middle-range adventurous 6- to 12-km routes for the more energetic and sure-footed hiker snake through valleys and dry riverbeds, past ramparts, along the old Schutztruppe supply road, through pockets of succulents and to rocky viewpoints. And to top the list, there is the more taxing five-hour/17.7 to 20.4-km Eagle Trail, and even here you have an option of negotiating a more gradual descent.
Trail-running routes are marked in white, incorporating some of the hiking and some of the mountain-biking routes suitable for trail runners, covering distances of 7.5 to 35 km.
Balancing a journey with healthy activity, rest and sightseeing is the ideal for any traveller, whether an exercise junkie, a sportsman or a leisurely hiker. Klein Aus is making this possible, transforming the area into an appealing activity destination, adding to its already alluring appeal as a base to explore the natural beauty and sights of this scenic corner of the country.
This article was originally published in the Travel News Namibia Autumn 2013 edition