Text and photographs Ron Swilling
On your way to Waterberg, once you’ve passed Okahandja and the Omatakos – the two prominent inselbergs that every tour guide will tell you resemble a woman’s buttocks –you can feel the landscape changing. Ever-more warthog caution signs dot the side of the roads and more of the small stocky animals are seen digging close to or crossing the road in family groups, tails up like radio antennae tuning into the African savannah.
When you’re driving along the C22 towards Okakarara, however, the scenery starts changing more dramatically. The elongated Waterberg Plateau comes into view on your left, with its unusually eroded crown coloured in lichen shades, and its leafy base reaching up towards its craggy cliffs. The area not only boasts natural bounty. Okakarara is also the Herero capital of Namibia.
In the late afternoon I passed a group of Herero women standing on the roadside next to their bakkie. I gathered they were waiting for vehicle assistance from Otjiwarongo before resuming their journey to the town. Strikingly clad in their voluminous dresses, they looked like regal African queens dressed for a ceremony.
While pitching my tent at the Waterberg Plateau Park campsite as the sun dipped towards the horizon, I watched iridescent blue starlings flitting here and there and francolins scurrying about. Before long, nocturnal birds filled the air with sounds of the bush. As the pearl-spotted owl’s lilting call peeked and fell, fell, fell, peeked and fell, I could feel the special energy of this lush pocket of Waterberg that supports a host of life, both flora and fauna, and fell asleep contentedly to the yelping calls of jackals.
The sandstone-crowned flat-topped Waterberg Plateau extends in a south-westerly to north-easterly direction for 48 km. It varies between eight and 16 km wide, and rises 220 km above the plains. Rainwater that falls on the lofty crown is absorbed by or runs down the porous Etjo sandstone, emerging as springs on the lower slopes. These give the ‘water mountain’ its name and support its verdant vegetation, contrasting with the more arid surrounding thorn savannah.
In the morning a troop of baboons clambered through the campsite, looking for tasty titbits, and disturbing campers having their breakfast. Some of the animals, looking bored with the procedure, simply sat yawning, exposing ferocious-looking canines. It was time to decide how to spend a Waterberg day. Although there is a choice of trails, the highpoint of a Waterberg visit is the relatively short walk and scramble up the cliffs to the plateau. The wonderland envelops you as you begin walking up the wooded slopes, giving you the feeling that you’ve passed through an invisible doorway into a secret kingdom of Nature.
A Damara dik-dik with a silver rump watching me from a clump of trees bustling with birdlife, suddenly dashed off into the dappled shadows. Turreted eroded rock and a tangle of trees created innovative designs, shaped by benevolent mountain gods. Each bend called for acknowledgment and inspired me to take photographs. I eventually negotiated the short path that leads to the top of the plateau and stood on the sandstone rim, feeling like a jewel in the mountain crown. Rewarded with a view onto the plains below – a few roads radiating out like grounded sunbeams – I rested and absorbed Waterberg’s balm for the soul.
Eventually, I persuaded my lethargic body that had draped itself, sycamore-fig style, over a rock to mosey down and have lunch in the century-old restaurant, formerly used as a police station in the Herero/German war. Then I visited the German cemetery, which accommodates some of the casualties. History has laid a heavy hand in this exceptional oasis of land, leaving scatterings of the past in its wake. Happily, Nature has won the battle and continues to thrive in a place that nowadays emanates only peace.
A family of banded mongoose ran across the road and collapsed in a heap in the shadows under the trees. With only a few hours of daylight left, I felt torn between following them down a leafy lane and exploring the reserve established as a sanctuary for rare and endangered species usually viewable only in the northern reaches of the country. Roan and sable antelope can be spotted here amongst the trees, while buffalo can often be seen quenching their thirst at the water points. This section is accessible only on guided game drives that leave in the morning and afternoon to explore the area on top of the plateau.
Arriving back at the campsite after dark, I had missed the afternoon sunset ‘show’ lighting up the craggy cliffs and crown of the plateau, but was in time to see three dik-dik wandering through the campsite, nibbling at the green grass in passing. Night-time once again brought pearl-spotted owl serenades that competed with the sound of snoring from a nearby camper.
Morning calls by guineafowl and francolin started the day, and there was ample time for early-morning coffee and breakfast before the first baboon ambled over to investigate. I found myself falling into a Waterberg rhythm, feeling drawn towards exploring the park further. But sadly it was time to pack up and depart the Waterberg paradise. With its distinctive character it is a destination that has earned its place on the list of marvels to be experienced in the intriguing country of Namibia.
On the road once again, driving slowly to avoid families of warthog, I contemplated plateau peace, and then picked up speed as I veered off the C22 onto the B1 towards the two buxom beauties, Okahandja and the dry hills of Windhoek.
The history of the Waterberg dates back to the Karoo Age 300 to 130 million years ago when glaciers gouged deep valleys into the basement rock. Subsequently climatic changes, due to the supercontinent Gondwana drifting away from the South Pole, melted the glaciers, leaving the transported rock behind, and taking shape as the Dwyka Formation.
As the climate changed over time, the depressions filled up with meltwater, forming swamps and lakes, and collecting sediments from the nearby Damara Mountains. Under increasingly warmer conditions 240 to 180 million years ago, the sandstone and shales of the Omingonde Formation were deposited. The lakes dried up about 190 million years ago, and over subsequent millions of years, windblown sand covered the wetlands, eventually forming the petrified dunes of Etjo sandstone seen on top of the Waterberg Plateau today.
Rainwater is absorbed into the porous Etjo sandstone until it meets the impermeable shale layers of the Omingonde Sequence, emerging as springs and creating the dense and lush vegetation that makes the lower reaches of Waterberg so appealing. The run-off water intensifies the erosion of the slopes, carving them creatively into ridges, a process that will ultimately, over millions of years, remove them completely.
Colonial battle scars
Waterberg marks the last stand of the Herero people against the colonial forces in the 1904–1908 Nama/Herero wars in southern and central Namibia. The Battle of Ohamakari led by the notorious General Lothar von Trotha on the German side and Samuel Maharero on the Herero side, took place on 11 August 1904.
The Herero had led a relatively successful campaign due to their knowledge of the land, drawing the German colonial forces into ambushes and taking control of farmland in the central parts of the country. Maharero then moved northwards to the Ohamakari/ Waterberg area where there was better grazing. It is reported that there were 6 000 fighters and 40 000 women and children gathered there. Von Trotha had spent months preparing for the battle, encircling the area and accumulating supplies, while the Herero were depleting theirs.
It has been speculated that Maharero was expecting peace talks with Von Trotha’s predecessor, General Leutwein, rather than a battle, but Von Trotha was set on annihilation. By nightfall, although the Herero had put up stiff resistance, it was evident that they had been defeated. Many of them fled, pursued by the Germans into the Kalahari Desert east of Waterberg. Some reached the safety of British Bechuanaland, but a large number perished in the desert.
… and sanctuary
Situated 280 km north-east of Windhoek and 68 km east of Otjiwarongo, the 405-km² Waterberg Plateau Park is one of Namibia’s national scenic and species-rich treasures. It was proclaimed as a nature reserve in 1972. The plateau, which rises more than 200 metres above the surrounding plains, was recognised as a suitable sanctuary and breeding centre for rare and endangered species. Several species – black and white rhinoceros, buffalo, tsessebe, roan and sable antelope – were translocated here from other parts of the country.
Namibia Fascination of Geology: A travel handbook, Nicole Grünert, Klaus Hess Publishers, 2009
A History of Namibia – from the beginning to 1990, Marion Wallace with John Kinnahan, Jacana, 2011
This story was originally published in the printed edition Travel News Namibia Autumn 2013