Gondwana's Newsroom

Blue skies, dry scenery – but the danger of floods is lurking

Avatar of inke inke 10. May 2017 - Weather, Environment

The two occupants of this off-road vehicle escaped through a window in the nick of time but were swept away by the muddy flood waters. At a sandbank in the middle of the Omaruru River they were able to get onto a thorny tree where they had to sit tight in the relentless summer heat for six hours until a police helicopter came to the rescue. With the help of a policeman they retrieved some belongings from their vehicle which was found several hundred metres further downstream.

2017 has brought good rainfalls to large parts of Namibia. After two years of drought numerous seasonal rivers came down in flood, filling dams and replenishing essential ground water reserves. In places the rain was even above average and the gift from above was a great relief for the whole country. For some, however, it had disastrous consequences – especially in areas where the landscape hadn’t seen a drop of rain yet and was still suffering from the drought.  

A young couple from Austria, on their first visit to Namibia, had to sit tight in a spiky Ana tree amidst the whirling muddy floods of the Omaruru River for six hours until a police helicopter came to the rescue. The masses of water had swept their vehicle with all their documents and equipment downriver for several hundred metres and toppled it over against the embankment. 

The couple had been camping at the Spitzkoppe in the Erongo Region and were on their way to the Brandberg. The Omaruru River stopped them in their tracks. The seasonal river had come down in flood and they watched for hours as the water level was slowly dropping again. Nevertheless they decided to wait for it to recede further and spent the night on the southern bank of the river. The next day the water level was indeed much lower and together with a German couple who arrived that morning they checked the condition of the road through the water. It had not been washed away and the brown water was now rather shallow and sluggish in the wide riverbed. Both couples drove their rented all-wheel drive vehicles to a dry patch on the other side to find a suitable spot for negotiating the steep sandy northern bank.

While they were still looking around and deflating the tyres, the German couple suddenly shouted that a new flood wave was rolling down the river. Seconds later the shoes they had left on the dry patch were washed away. The Germans managed to jump into their car and reverse back to the other side of the river. The two Austrians also made it into their car but couldn’t get away anymore. The water was rising steadily and soon washed around the vehicle. The two climbed out through the window on the passenger side and, holding on to one another, attempted to reach the embankment. But the powerful surge of the water swept them away – to a sandbank which had formed behind two trees in the middle of the riverbed. They felt ground under their feet and were able to climb into one of the thorny trees. 

From the southern bank of the river the German couple saw the disaster unfolding and drove to the next farm to get help. Meanwhile the two Austrians were stuck in the uninviting tree, getting increasingly thirsty in the relentless summer heat. Every now and then they saw others arrive at the river and leave again. One group of courageous travellers actually did their best to come to the couple’s rescue but the man who tied himself to a rope and tried to reach them was again and again swept away by the masses of water and was finally pulled back to firm ground by his friends. The couple had spent six hours perched in the tree when a police helicopter from Windhoek appeared. They got down onto the sandbank which luckily had increased in size behind the two trees, so that the helicopter, hovering over the water, was able to pick them up from the middle of the river. A policeman then helped them to retrieve some belongings from their vehicle which was half submerged in water.  

This couple was extremely lucky. Quite a few vehicles were swept away by floods during this year’s rainy season. There were no casualties among tourists but many cases of drowning among the local population.

During the rainy season – from October until late March or early April – you always need to keep in mind that a seasonal river may suddenly come down in flood even though the sky is blue and there is no sign of rain where you are. But there might have been heavy downpours in the interior, hundreds of kilometres to the east, and suddenly the seasonal rivers are in flood. Most of them are heading west. The muddy torrents drag everything along that is in their path. Before attempting to cross a seasonal river in flood you should make sure that you know how deep the water is, whether your route is obstructed by pieces of rock or whether there are holes underneath and whether the ground is firm enough. Enquire about the condition of the road before you set out and rather wait at rivers until the flood has subsided or locals have crossed them safely. 

Never underestimate the rushing danger you might encounter at a seasonal river even though the sky is blue and the landscape is dry. 

Dirk Heinrich

Comments are disabled for this post.

0 comments

Stay up-to-date with our monthly 'Gondwana Tracks' Newsletter Sign up Today