Back in late 2009 we had an serious outbreak of Measles in the Kunene Region, for a while we were even featuring on the WHO website. As you might expect the Government and specifically the Ministry of Health and Social Services swung into action throwing money and resources at the problem which thankfully was resolved in the end.
The response effort was massive, involved the Namibian Defence Force, various ministerial visits and more than a few column inches in the national press.
During this time it was all hands to the pumps in the Kunene Region and even the lowliest smelliest IT Advisor was roped in. This then is the story of a small part of the battle to defeat Measles; the Great Trek to Serra Cafema.
In a week in which the massive special immunization drive was already in progress a report came into the Ministry of Health from a far-flung outpost called Serra Cafema, far up in the North West of Namibia in the Namib Desert and sandwiched between mountain ranges and the Kunene River with Angola on the far side.
The lodge had reported, via satellite phone to their head office, a number of deaths related to Measles in the area and requested assistance from the Ministry of Health. As most of the people in the office were already out with the immunization drive a crack team of a misfit (the IT Advisor) and health professionals was hastily assembled and agreed to load up and attempt to go and get through to Serra Cafema, find out what was happening and immunize as many children as possible.
- Driver – IT Specialist: Dave (me!)
- Nurse – Senior Health Program Administrator for Health Information Systems: Michael
- Environmental Health – Opuwo District EH Officer: Barbara
- Social Mobilization – Kunene Regional Information and Education Coordinator: Anika
First off we had to find a car and see if we physically could carry enough fuel to get through. The transport team found us a Nissan Hardbody 4×4, one of the vehicles with a good if not Landcruiser-quality reputation and from the IEC stores we managed to get three 20-liter fuel cans. Quick expert calculations involving the back of an envelope, tutting and cussing revealed that it would probably be enough.
In addition to our camping equipment, food and fuel we would be taking a large chest of immunization supplies, mosquito nets and water purification kits (not to miss the opportunity to distribute these to an area the MoHSS rarely reaches).
We also filled up several 10-litre plastic water containers. These promptly leaked all over the back soaking luggage and people before dripping out of the drain holes.
I Can’t Tell You Not To Go. But…
At this point we had a rough idea of the place we were going. We had also heard a few horror stories from the transport office and not least from Barbara who it turns out was once stranded for more than two days along the route we would have to take in part.
Lacking a map or any sort of a clue we headed to the police station where the Opuwo District Commander brought us into his office to offer assistance.
The verdict it seemed was not good; the roads were bad, the entire place is isolated, deep sand, shifting dunes, gut-wrenchingly steep mountain passes and almost certain doom.
He got out a photo album of the most recent police trip to the area – they went in a convoy of seven vehicles. One of the vehicles was dedicated for the mechanics alone and carried the generators, compressors and airbags required to traverse the terrain. The photos were mainly of cars suck axle deep in sand and bemused looking coppers standing around the scratching their heads.
But it was no good – we had to go we were after all a handpicked crack Ministry of Health team on vital work.
“Well” he said, “maybe if you have a really strong car”. We pointed to our Nissan. He didn’t seem impressed.
“Well” he then said, “it really all depends on the skill of your driver”. All eyes turned to me. Well Sheeeeeeeeet.
“Well” he said finally, “I can’t tell you not to go, but… I would strongly advise against it”.
In the end we agreed that we would stop at the Orupembe police station and take their advice before going cross-desert. We would turn back if they said it was impassable and if we carried on they would know our route and radio it back to Opuwo. At such time as we made it back out of the middle-of-nowhere they could also radio back our safe return. If nothing was heard a search party could then be dispatched (I think to bury the bodies and bring the car back).
As soon as I heard we would be radioing through updates I tried to convince everyone we would need a codename. I suggested the likes of Operation Brokeback, Operation Certain Death or Operation Megadeath. Sadly nobody seemed as up for this as me. It didn’t stop me referring to us by various Operation monikers from that point on.
We were also able to get a map from him which we used for the remainder of the journey.
This was the map. We were going from the bottom-right (Opuwo) to the top left. Along the roads clearly marked – in pen.
And so we set off triumphantly, water leaks trailing behind, towards Kaoko Otavi and Orupembe.
Things went well for the first ten minutes or so until frantic waving from the back stopped us and Anika jumped out and promptly threw up. One of the fuel cans had a misfitting top (I had noticed this when filling but expertly wedged it closed with a plastic bag and brute force) and was filling the back of the bakkie with petrol fumes (sadly we only had a single cab vehicle so passengers rode in the back with the luggage, water and fuel).
After a brief conflab she swapped places to sit in the front with me so Michael and Barbara went in the back with windows open for full ventilation.
Eventually after going over umpteen hills and through endless dry riverbeds we reached Orupembe. Not so much a town as two huts, a small shop (also a hut) and a massive police station (explained as they also live there not by the massive amount of criminal activity).
We consulted with our friends in blue who were very helpful besides constantly asking with some amazement if we were “really going there, in that, on your own“. They confirmed there were two routes – the long way through the desert or the less-long-way (I don’t want to call it short) through the mountain passes to Rooi Drum which I naively assumed was a funnily named town.
We decided that the mountain passes would be better – avoiding the sandy stuff for as long as possible and offering a better chance that we wouldn’t run out of fuel and die of thirst in the middle of the desert.
So in good cheer we set off toward Rooi Drum looking to find somewhere to spend the night. Apparently there was a place called Marble Camp just before the passes which would be a good bet. It was now getting dark and we picked our way out of Orupembe and into the hills. At one point the road split and I was going to take the right-hand fork when Anika pointed out the danger blasting area sign so we took the other way.
We pressed on and presently came into Marble Camp which was offering camping with hot water and all the other good stuff for N$50 (about 4 pounds) per person. Barbara and Michael stressed to them we were MoHSS people on important immunization missions and places normally let us stay for free but the owner was away and the staff couldn’t do that.
For myself I would have happily paid the N$50 but it was decided we should head off to an abandoned IRDNC camp a few km away. So we headed back and into the blasting area. Eventually we found this ghost camp in the middle of the blasting area and with some kerfuffle over the Ministry tent that lacked working zips bedded down for the night.
At first light we were up and packed ready to commence the crossing of the passes to get to the desert after which the crossing of the desert would commence.
Having found our way out of the blasting zone I said to Michael “we must hit the main track soon” as the track we were on was little more than a goat path. “No, this is it” was his reply. Ah.
Slowly and not-so-surely we climbed up through the hills feeling our way through loose rocks and around boulders standing in the middle of the track. Eventually we came across a Y-junction and, wonder of wonders, another vehicle with a Himba family sitting around enjoying a picnic. They confirmed we were on the right track for Rooi Drum. In return we handed them mozzie nets and water treatment kits. Their kids were either too young or already immunized.
Eventually having climbed up in low range we came to the top of the first bit of the pass and were faced with a series of very steep twisty descents and angular ascents. A few times we were forced to stop entirely and walk ahead, surveying the route and planning mad left-then-right wheel wrenching. Only once did I get stuck on a rock and then the mighty Nissan pulled itself back off with no damage.
Amazingly and to everyone’s surprise (not least of which mine) we actually made it through. Intact. And with most of our bowels still under control.
As the track got better and the inclines gentler we emerged from the hills into the edge of the desert and Rooi Drum. Rooi Drum is Afrikans for Red Drum. I did think this was a funny name for a town. Except it isn’t. It’s literally a drum, a red one, in the middle of nowhere.
Next to the fabled drum itself is a stone used as a plaque upon which people write their details. It turns out this is actually the remote bit of a remote tourist trail serious off-roaders do. Of course where they were turning back at this point or maybe going straight on into Marienfluss we were turning left and heading into the desert.
There were some guys at Red Drum who had been out hunting Springbok and other game for meat and also to control the numbers so we were met with carcasses hanging from trees when we arrived which was a bit surreal and gave the place a Deliverance vibe.
The Next Drums
From Rooi Drum we headed to Blue Drum which was, as I now had learned to expect, a blue drum. This one featured a satellite phone for some bizzare reason. Of course a sign explained the phone didn’t work for one reason or another.
Blue drum had just three or four names scrawled on rocks at the base.
From there we entered the desert proper and at Orange Drum stopped heading West, turning North for the great push up to Serra Cafema. There were no names at Orange drum.
North Ever North
The Namib desert is beautiful and I would say no more so (and I have seen it in most places) than the far North-West. Here great mountains give way to hilly dunes and tussocks of grass with the occasional scrub tree. It is stunningly desolate and yet still teeming with life this far inland.
We headed north tracking along the edge of the desert through valleys and endless numbers of dry river beds which for two days a year would spill out into the sea which was still another few hundred kilometers west.
Though meeting patches of deep sand we managed to get through using momentum, power and luck. Above all I wanted to avoid “airing down” the tyres (a curious turn of phrase meaning letting some air out). This was because all we had to air them back up again was a crappy handpump which didn’t work at the best of times.
Eventually many hours into crossing endless expanses of nothingless (which really I can’t adequately describe save to say that Michael and Barbara who are actual Namibians were awed by the immense wonder) we were climbing up the side of a valley when the inevitable happened and we got stuck.
Michael suggested we air down. I countered by showing the pump. So we tried to find another way.
By digging under the car, making mats of grass and pushing we managed to cover the next kilometer or so in an hour of sweaty sunbaked hell.
Above you see Operation Drunken Monkey stuck in the sand. This was actually one of our shallower stickings. Barbara is energetically digging out underneath while the rest of us look on.
Finally we managed to get some good (ish) traction and I simply couldn’t stop so had to power on 500m or so leaving my pushing team behind. On what I thought was firmer ground I stopped. And stuck solid. How they laughed once they had finished walking up.
Sadly on finally cresting the hill the other side of which I dreamed of tarmac or maybe just firmer sand the soft stuff stretched out in front of us. I still refused to compromise on the tyres and we continued to start-stop-dig-matt-push-start-repeat. Fun.
Suddenly along the road came the first vehicle and people we had seen for nearly 12 hours. It was a raised seating Safari style Land Rover from…. the Serra Cafema lodge. We were not only on the right road (which had been in some doubt) but had only a few kilometers to go.
The Land Rover was taking some of the lodge guests down the valley to the lodges’ own airstrip. The contrast between us, plastered with sweat and namib sand driven ever so slightly mad in the sun and these clean ultra-rich tourists was stark. Anika says one of them waved though I am pretty such they looked on in horror and disgust while holding scented hankies to their noses.
The driver also told us the deep sand was pretty constant from here on in and we should air down our tyres. He had a plane to catch so couldn’t hang around but promised he would tow us up if we were still stuck when he returned.
With a heavy heart and a foreboding of the reinflation to come we aired down the tyres and…. immediately were crusing through the sand like it was tarmac.
Another few kilometers of sandy hills and we finally came across civilisation – a rough Himba homestead perched on a dune in the middle of nowhere. Hardly had we stopped to distribute nets and water kits as well as find kids to stab with syringes than another Land Rover and a Quad Bike turned up from the lodge having been alerted to the approach (and stuckness) of Operation Platonic Penguin and come to rescue us. As we had rescued ourselves (get in) the Land Rover headed off but the guy and Quad Bike waited for us to finish in that homestead and show us the way to the lodge.
We followed the quad bike for a good few kilometers up and over severe dunes and steep sandy hills until he stopped and looped back to us.
“Be careful in the next bit, it’s quite steep” he said and motored off.
Steep? The next bit? Bloody hell – what was the bit we’ve just been doing?
Then came the cliff. Seriously. The sand just stopped and disappeared downwards. The quad bike just vanished over the precipice (there is no way I would have driven over it if not following the bike). I waited until he was probably clear, made a quick prayer to any listening god, steeled my bowels and – counterintuitively – drove over the sheer bloody drop.
In low range first gear we basically fell down the side of the dune. The sand free-falling alongside just kept pace with us. Had I not lost the power of speech through fear I would have screamed out loud. In fact I think I might, almost a year later, still be screaming inside.
200+ feet of near-vertical descent later we reached the bottom to find Mr Quad Bike grinning at my pale face.
We then descended into the Kunene River valley proper – rocky passes of 45 degrees or so (seemed like nothing after the CLIFF OF DEATH).
Suddenly we caught a glimpse of the river – a narrow ribbon of lush green cutting through the empty orange desert.
Before long we were down on the floor plain and heading into the lodge.
Ice Cold in Alex
Parking up in the lodge carpark (for employees only – nobody drives there, they fly in) we shambled over the bridge to reception.
Two days hard on the road through the desert and hours digging sand by hand we stepped into another world. Standing there, gummed up with sand ingrained to our stubble (and that is just the ladies), a liveried waiter handed us ice-cold apple juice and cold wet towels to wash our faces.
A minute later and we were through in the bar meeting the manager who, with correct priorities, asked us if we wanted a drink.
“Tafel lager” I croaked and by some magic it appeared in front of me. Cold. Condensation dripping down the side. Perfect. Beautiful.
It was my ultimate Ice Cold in Alex moment.
Operation Drugged Dragon had arrived.
Over a sumptuous meal we met with the lodge manager who had requested us. It turned out (thank goodness) that the 10 deaths were more hearsay than anyone local and if they had happened at all it was on the Angolan side of the border.
The mission therefore of Operation Perturbed Parrot was to immunize as many local kids as possible and distribute our nets and water kits.
It’s worth me just mentioning the lodge here. Serra Cafema (named for the mountains on the other side of the river) is part of the Namibia Wilderness Lodges who operate various plush lodges all over Southern Africa.
It costs about US$1000 (600 pounds) per person per night for the lodge only and guests exclusively fly in. On the companies dedicated small airline.
In the months before our visit Microsoft founder Paul Allen had been staying as well as various other movers and shakers. The lodge is simply plushness itself – everything is built to perfection and (unsurprisingly) the staff are amazingly friendly, helpful and able to converse in many different languages.
In addition to catering to, let’s be honest, very well off tourists part of the agreement is the lodge is involved with the (sparse) local population. They operate a border crossing service by boat and know all the local families well. In such a remote spot everyone has to stick together I suppose.
Rather wonderfully, equipped as we were for another night of hard living, we were put up for the night in the family suite – two rooms with twin beds. For free I hasten to add as I don’t think the Ministry would have signed our expense claims.
Simply; it was pretty damn plush and pretty damn swanky. Ever find yourself as a rich holidayer you should give it a look.
But fly in. Seriously.
Operation Blind Badger Begins Proper
Fortified, rested, washed and invigorated we headed out. To Angola.
It turns out the Himba locals are pretty transient and cross between Namibia and Angola regularly. The manager had heard that the main local Himba family were at their Angolan homestead.
So we (some of us – those allowed into Angola) jumped into the boat with a couple of lodge staff and cruised down the Kunene River to find them. A wonderful small boat ride later I jumped off the boat and scrambled up a steep bank to invade Angola! Sadly it was already claimed else I would have added another territory for Her Majesty.
Hiking through scrub on the Angolan side (sadly pretty similar to the Namibian side) we found a homestead. Abandoned. Not a person in sight.
We tracked our footprints back to the boat and scrambled back down the bank. Retreating from Angola after half an hour having immunized zero children – Operation Mental Mongoose was not going well.
Back in Namibia we saddled up in one of the lodge Land Rovers and went out hunting for Himba children to immunize. Fortunately we had more luck this time and got round all the local homesteads with even enough time to pop up a quick mountain and admire the view.
Basically we would turn up, greet the people who would converge, talk to the adults, hand out nets and water kits and then make the children cry by stabbing them with syringes. Not me but the trained health professionals that is.
This was my first experience with immunizations in the field. The mothers would usually avert the kids eyes (shown above) at the point of injection. The first couple would always go fine until one cried. At this point all the waiting children would (quite understandably) get upset while those that had already been done would walk around looking pleased with themselves and winding the others up as to how much it would hurt.
On a serious note though these children (with few exceptions) had none of their basic immunizations and wouldn’t have even had measles if we hadn’t come all that way on the back of a crisis. It’s easy to see how diseases can spread easily out here with semi-nomadic people and no easy access to basic primary healthcare.
Operation Paralytic Penguin a Success
Thanks to the local knowledge of the lodge manager we completed the immunizations in record time and returned back to the lodge for a few more cold beers overlooking the river and a sumptuous dinner (again on the house).
We decided to get off early in the morning and try and get back to Opuwo in a single day, stopping at any other homesteads we found on the way.
Calculations showed we should be able to get back to Opuwo with 20 litres of fuel to spare and the lodge manager had shown me the best way to get through the dunes and back up out of the valley (going back up the cliff of death not being an option even for such hardy souls as us).
Tired but happy and content we went to bed ready for an early start.
In the morning we were up and off driving through (“charging” is I believe the correct term) dunes, up rocky passes and up and out of the river valley back into the Namib.
With our now “aired down” tyres we had no problem getting back through the deep sand and back down through the desert making it back to Orange Drum far faster than we had taken going (hours spent digging sand didn’t help).
It was here we dug out the handpump of doom and in shifts attempted to reinflate the tyres. The pump is old, knackered and has a habit of loosing the seal so you will be pumping hard once, twice and then as you go to push down with all your might there will be no resistance and you’ll almost break something slamming down. This would then necessitate a pump disassembly and realignment. It was hellish and honestly I preferred digging sand by hand. In the end we got enough pressure to continue to decided to just make for Opuwo and a proper compressor.
From Orange Drum the plan was to retrace our route – Blue Drum, Red Drum, Mountain Pass, Marble Site and Orupembe. I was both nervous and looking forward to going back through the Red Drum pass the other way (this time the really difficult sections would be uphill and harder).
However it wasn’t to be as a few km after orange drum we came upon yet another parting of the ways and, having considered the options, took the right-hand fork. The wrong fork.
After another few hours had passed and Blue Drum was nowhere to be seen it became clear we were lost.
I didn’t want to worry anyone but thought this was potentially a bit perilous. We didn’t really have enough fuel to turn round and go back to the junction, get through and make it back to Opuwo and if a rescue party was dispatched we had left instructions at the lodge we would be heading back the old Orange-Blue-Red route.
A few times I was asked as the driver if I “recognised anything”. Well yes I did. Everything. Sand, sand, sand and more bloody sand crossing dried up rivers. Pretty much like featureless desert.
Though becoming slightly concerned I was pretty certain we had just managed to come back the “long route” we had chosen not to take going – the desert stretched away on our right and the mountains we should have been driving over were to our left. If we kept straight on (south) then we should hit civilisation eventually. Shouldn’t we?
At this point for the first time I dug out my GPS. This isn’t some sort of fancy off-road GPS or even a hiking GPS – it’s a bluetooth one that links to my phone and (though it thought we were in the middle of nowhere navigation wise) did give us a longitude and latitude.
This we plotted on my map of Namibia (which had grids shown). From that we extrapolated our position on a map of Kunene we had and from relative position on that we plotted ourselves on the hand-augmented map we were using. Still north of Orupembe and on the edge of the desert heading south. So all kind of well.
Further still and we came to a valley with – heavens above – buildings on the other side. Down one side and up the other and, wait, yes, it couldn’t be but it was; the Orupembe Police station!
I had no alternative but to jump out and do my “We Made it to Orupembe Alive” dance.
Happy happy days.
We were again warmly welcomed by the police who got on the radio to HQ and let them know the good news – Operation Shambolic Retreat had made it through with not a single death.
Phase the Second
Happy to have made it back to Orupembe we were eagerly anticipating the journey back home to Opuwo when a complication arose.
The police had reports of several severely ill people (adults with measles) in the Marienfluss valley who needed collected and brought to the Opuwo hospital pretty sharpish. There is no way our ambulance could even get 10% of the way there, the police only had an open bakkie and we were the only Ministry of Health team for many miles around.
So we were asked could we go back down through Red Drum, up the Marienfluss valley and collect the patients.
Who did they think they were asking? We were the team who had successfully carried out Operation Certain Lonely Death: of course we could. Or rather we could once we had unloaded the car and filled up more fuel from the police stores.
Leaving Anika and Barbara behind to dispatch nets and water kits to the local populis me (big lad), Michael (also big lad) and the police sergeant (also a big lad) crammed into the front bench seat of the Nissan and headed back once again to Red Drum. Owing to the seating arrangement and the four-wheel drive controls I got to know our police friend pretty intimately. Very intimately.
This time a seasoned pass professional we reached Red Drum easily and stayed heading North up into Marienfluss. Is the Hartmann valley was amazing and beyond my skills to describe so was Marienfluss. The sun was westering and the entire place seemed to glow in golden light.
Eventually we found our patients who were very glad to see us and loaded up. Michael wasn’t sure if he had been immunised for measles the the policeman was pretty certain he hadn’t so I was the only person who dared go near our precious cargo.
Back to the south and I did get to drive through the Red Drum pass the “hard way”. This time in twilight. Halfway through we found a Ministry of the Environment bakkie stranded on some rocks and were going slow enough in first gear low range to wind down the window and apologise we couldn’t help him but were on a medical emergency and would try and send someone back (we later heard he had been rescued ok).
Once again in Orupembe and we met back up with our missing team members. In our absence the roadkill Springbock the police were in the process of butchering as we left had been cooked and some kept back for us – it was rather tasty.
Home James Home
As arranged we now headed back to Opuwo in loose convoy with the police bakkie carrying our luggage and Barbara. Anika jumped on the bench seat with us in place of the policeman and there was a little more breathing room (and luckily no need to operate the four-wheel drive controls).
We made it back through the night with no dramas, crossing the plains west of Kaoko Otavi abreast of each other like ships. I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t in a ship and at any moment a tree could appear from nowhere.
Back in Opuwo we delivered our patients to their much needed medical care at about 3am and shook hands, standing around stoically like heroes. Not that anyone else noticed.
Home and bed beckoned.
Back in the office people were pleased yet surprised to see us. We ended up running a day late and they had assumed, with good reason, we were stranded in the middle of the desert somewhere fighting off desert coyotes and hoping to be rescued.
We have all lived up our experiences and when talking about the measles campaign with someone weeks later they said “I heard one team went all the way up Hartmann valley, wow”. “Yes” I was able to say, “that was some kind of crazy team”.
Of course we had been a tiny tiny part in the massive measles campaign and two days later I was off again living in the bush for a week at Etanga, driving over mountains and hunting down unsuspecting small children that we would then make cry.
- Naming your venture Operation Certain Slow and Painful Death doesn’t inspire confidence
- Though I was right to plan ahead and decide in what order I was going to eat my fellow team members it was probably wrong of me to tell them
- Make sure your water containers are watertight
- There is nothing quite like a cold Tafel after a long stuggle under the african sun in the desert
- The Himbas that live up there are seriously tough hombres
- Nissan Hardbodies are hardcore vehicles
I am writing this almost a year after the events and in my usual way have glossed over the parts where I cried or had to be changed by other team members.
You can find a more contemporaneous account here on Anika’s blog.
She also has some more pictures online here.
Her blog also features some detailed posts about the Measles outbreak and is generally writter betterer like and actually updated now and then so you should check it out.