Following in the footsteps of Ernst Gries onto Königstein - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Following in the footsteps of Ernst Gries onto Königstein

Avatar of inke inke - 22. January 2018 - Discover Namibia

Dr Helge Kleifeld (left) and Brandberg expert Joe Walter (right) looking at one of the first maps of Brandberg. Following his ascent of Königstein in the beginning of the year and a brief vacation, Dr Kleifeld met Walter on 18 January in Windhoek.

Dirk Heinrich

“I am an expert on Prof. Gries, but certainly no Brandberg expert”, Dr Helge Kleifeld, a historian and geographer from Cologne in Germany remarked drily at the end of his three-day expedition to Königstein in the Brandberg Massif on 2 January this year. Accompanied by archaeologist Martina Trognitz and pilot Lukas Gehring he climbed the highest mountain in Namibia to commemorate the centenary of the first ascent by a European. The party who scaled the 2573 m peak on 2 January 1918 consisted of Prof. Ernst August Gries, Reinhard Maack and Georg Schulze. 

When Dr Kleifeld’s plans became known, many in Namibia felt that it was quite a reckless endeavour considering the extreme temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius at this time of the year.  Namibian mountaineer Joe Walter, who has climbed Brandberg on numerous occasions and in fact erected the beacon on top of Königstein, also said that he would never attempt Königstein at the height of summer – because apart from the scorching heat it is usually difficult to find water. When Walter met Dr Kleifeld on 18 January, shortly before he returned to Germany, he congratulated him on his remarkable achievement. “We were very lucky with the weather”, Dr Kleifeld said. “It didn’t turn out as hot as expected, we even had fog at the foot of the mountain. As advised by a lodge owner we took more water than intended and our three guides also managed to find water.”  

Ernst August Gries (1879 – 1944) was a teacher, school official, natural scientist, explorer and soldier. He lived in former South West Africa (a German colony until 1915) from 1911 until 1938 and taught at the German middle school in Windhoek. For his more extensive expeditions he had to use the summer holidays in December/January. That was the reason why he climbed Königstein with Maack and Schulze in early January, basically at the worst possible time. On the descent on 4 January 1918 Maack was the first European to set eyes on Namibia’s most famous rock painting, the White Lady. 

Much to Dr Kleifeld’s regret he didn’t get to admire the White Lady. “I have climbed Brandberg before, in 2009, but didn’t take the detour. And now I missed her again! All the guided tours to the rock painting were cancelled because lions have been spotted in the area”, he explained. 

Walter replied that he has never cancelled a hike because of lions in the surroundings. “We often saw their spoor at the foot of the mountain.”

“It was simply terrific to stand on the summit, especially on this particular day. The fact that I am not a mountain hiker or a sportsman of any sort is all the more reason to be proud of this achievement”, 46-year-old Dr Kleifeld said. He briefly got acquainted with the other two members of the expedition, Martina Trognitz and Lukas Gehring, in Germany before they set out on their adventure. “We only met for the second time here in Namibia, when they came to fetch me in Swakopmund.”   

Prof. Gries was the archivist of a students’ fraternity called Schwarzburgbund, and so is Dr Kleifeld now. When his idea for a centenary ascent of Königstein started to take shape, he made it known within the fraternity and Trognitz and Gehring came forward to join him. On New Year’s Day they started to climb through Ga-aseb Gorge, on 2 January they stood on the summit and the following day made their way down again.

According to Joe Walter they wisely chose the easier route and would probably not have made it through Tsisab Gorge.  Prof. Gries and his team climbed up and down Tsisab Gorge on their epic feat one hundred years. 

“When I come back to Namibia I would like to follow in the footsteps of Prof. Gries again, on another route, like hiking in the Huab River or down to Bethanis, east of Twyfelfontein”, Dr Kleifeld said. But he also pointed out that Prof. Gries should not only be remembered for the first ascent of Königstein by Europeans, which also resulted in the discovery of the White Lady, but much rather for seeing to it that the German school system survived in Namibia. In his capacity as headmaster of the German middle school (the building now houses the National Museum) he was involved in negotiations with the South African authorities on retaining the German schools. At that time Gries was not allowed to move freely around the country and had to apply for permits for his expeditions, including the ascent of Brandberg. Permission was usually granted, says Dr Kleifeld, because Gries gave botanical interests as the reason for his excursions. 

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