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1909: The first European patrol reaches Sossusvlei

Avatar of inke inke - 17. February 2017 - Discover Namibia

The Sossusvlei after a good rainy season.

In a colonial newspaper, the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung of 1910, German Schutztruppe lieutenant Walter Trenk describes his quest for Sossusvlei in 1909. He was the first European who was successful in trying to get there. Here is an excerpt from his report: 

“The good rains that year prompted me to finally make another attempt, as agreed, to find Sossus-Vley and the mythical Bushman Paradise. Both places were only known to us by what the natives had told us. Others had already tried in vain several times.” 

Trenk knew that back in 1894 lieutenant Rudolf van Eckert had tried to find Sossusvlei. The attempt had cost Van Eckert his life. Johann Regge, a veterinary surgeon of the Schutztruppe, met the same fate in 1905 when he died of thirst in the dunes. 

“My efforts to engage a native guide were fruitless. In talks with old-established farmers I learnt that I was unlikely to find a suitable native because apparently the vley is not known to many, and those who do know about it remain silent.” On 11 February 1909 Trenk nevertheless set out from Sesriem with a patrol of 15 men. 

“From Sesriem the Tsauchab River is narrow and steep like a canyon at first, jammed between sandstone, but then it becomes a little wider and in the valley, where the shifting sand dunes start, it points almost straight west. The valley is 3 to 4 km wide and its end is a vley which is 3 to 4 square kilometres large and without water. Apart from its eastern side the vley is totally surrounded by dunes. The river is also lined by tall dunes on both sides. Their front lies towards southwest and they form vast mountain ranges of sand.” 

Trenk notes that the valley must have been rich in trees at some stage. “As far as almost 35 km west of Sesriem the valley is full of dead trees, almost like a forest, which in many places cover the entire width of the valley. Only in the river course itself the trees are green and stand very densely, while further on they are partly submerged in the ground. Grass was growing in a 45 to 50 km stretch of the river, including a type of grass I wasn’t familiar with. Similar to gorse it grows in tufts more than 1 m high.” 

On the first day lieutenant Trenk allowed his men to rest at every water hole and water the horses. By evening the patrol had covered about 40 kilometres and didn’t find any more water. The men unsaddled their horses and watched the moon rise over the horizon. The horses were peacefully grazing in the river until all of a sudden they were startled by wild dogs or jackals and scattered in all directions, Trenk writes in his report. The men immediately set out in the moonlight to catch their horses but the last ones were only rounded up in the course of the next morning. 

In view of the absence of water Trenk should actually have turned back now. But he was lucky: the patrol discovered a water hole in the river where everyone was able to quench their thirst and the horses were watered. 

“After about 45 km there was no longer any vegetation at all, only the river’s course was recognizable by low shrubs. Towards evening on February 12th we saw an abundance of trees at a distance of several kilometres – which at first we thought was an illusion. Then we reached a large vley with numerous green trees and shrubs on its western side. Behind them the valley was closed off by dunes. We crossed some lower dunes and entered a wide basin which seemed like a park of large shady Ana trees and thickets of Nara shrubs, the fruit of which was now ripe.”  

According to Trenk they met San (Bushmen) at Sossusvlei. They got their water from a water hole in the river, about 20 km away. For the rest, the sweetish yellow juice of Nara melons served as a substitute for water. Trenk says in his report that the San had attached ostrich wings to the Nara shrubs which apparently functioned as scarecrows.  

When Trenk reached Sossusvlei on 12 February 1909 he was the first European to do so. “Since there was neither water nor grazing to be found here we marched off at midnight and were back in Sesriem the next morning.”

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