How to deal with flash floods and approach water crossings in Namibia

by Feb 24, 2021Destinations, Namibia, Safety Tips

Navigate your way through Namibia’s flooded roadways with these Bushlore 4X4 tips

NASA Earth Observatory documented Namibia’s ‘green transformation’ between 24 January &7 February, which has been a boon to farmers in the region.

Namibia is an arid country defined by vast sandscapes and a menial rainy season during the summer months.

Naturally, one can only imagine the surprise and delight when rainfall totals up-to trippled the norm in northeastern, central and southern Namibia in January 2021. According to a weather monitor in Windhoek, 228 millimetres of rain fell in January, a stark contrast to the usual 85 millimetres.

While the rains have been beneficial to the farmers in the area and filled many reservoirs, including the Neckartal Dam, which overflowed for the first time in history in January, some roads are poorly equipped to handle heavy rain. Flash floods and overflowing rivers posed problems for many travellers for much of January, including a Bushlore 4×4 vehicle that nearly got washed away while parked in a campsite located in a dry riverbed that had been dry for decades.

A Bushlore vehicle got caught in a flash flood while parked in a dry riverbed, but was saved from washing away by a sturdy tree. No persons were harmed during the incident.

Step by step guide: how to deal with flash floods

The risk of heavy rains and flash flooding must be a consideration when embarking on a Namibia self-drive safari in the summer months (November to April). It is unusual to be caught in heavy rains in Namibia, but January proved that it is not impossible, which is why it is important to be vigilant of potential flooding regardless. Here are a few guidelines to remember when dealing with floods in the desert.

1. Be aware of weather patterns

The only perennial rivers in Namibia are those on the southern and northern borders, and in the Caprivi Strip, but that doesn’t mean that water crossings are not a potential risk. This is particularly true for mountainous areas, which act as vast catchment areas and could lead to dangerous flash floods. In addition, most campsites in Namibia are located in dry riverbeds as trees regularly grow here and offer ample shade. Most of these riverbeds can be dry for decades, but they are prone to flash floods under heavy rainfall conditions. If heavy rains are in the forecast, we recommend that you set up camp on higher ground to avoid being caught in a fast flowing accumulation of water rushing down the riverbed.

Keeping a close eye on weather conditions will also help you determine the severity of water-flow at water crossings. Being aware of rainfall upstream from your water crossing could prevent you from being caught in heavy water-flow and washed down river. We suggest that you avoid water crossings, low-lying tracks and campsites where there is any sign of heavy rain upstream or in the general area.


2. Walk a water crossing to test the depth

The roads and tracks in Namibia regularly cross through dry riverbeds. While many of these have been dry for decades, the heavy rains in 2021 may have prompted them to flow, which is why you need to be very cautious when crossing water in your 4X4.

As a rule of thumb, you should always inspect the area that you are crossing. You can do this by walking through a water crossing to measure its depth (manufacturers wading depth on 4×4 vehicles is typically a maximum of 700 mm). Walk through the crossing where your left wheel will drive, and return on the path that your right wheel will drive. This will help you identify whether there are any holes or drop offs underneath the water. Seeing the exit point or where the flood subsides is also important, as the depth could increase as you progress through the water. If the water exceeds 700mm you need to wait until it subsides or find an alternative route. Some vehicles are fitted with snorkels but this does not increase wading depth as you have electronic components which must still stay dry.

3. Engage 4X4 before entering a water crossing

Once you have decided that a river is shallow enough, that the surface of the river is not too muddy and that the water-flow is gentle enough, drive slowly and steadily across the river. Engage 4X4 low as well as your diff lock (if necessary) prior to entering the water, and make sure you maintain your momentum as you drive through.

Remember, this is not a race. You should move through the water slowly to create a small bow wave in front of your vehicle. The main objective is to maintain the bow wave, and not let water go over the bonnet. Do not use very high revs or drive too fast as the water could break the engine fan as it is denser than air. Keep the RPM to around maximum torque, which is around 2,200 – 2,500 in most diesel vehicles.

4. Avoid mud wherever possible

Although most rivers beds are sandier in Namibia there is still risk of encountering mud. Mud contamination is a major cause for concern when driving through wet areas, so try and avoid it as much as possible, including mud holes. You will often find that there are tracks around the mud, which you should try and use to avoid unnecessary mud contamination. Muddy conditions also make for very poor tractability and challenging 4WD conditions. Try and avoid thick mud wherever possible. Muddy water can also coat the radiator and lead to overheating. Be sure to clean off the car and monitor your radiator if you find yourself in this situation.

5. Check your vehicle

Before continuing on your journey, perform these few simple tests to make sure that no important systems were affected by the flood water:

  • Press the brake pedal lightly to check that the brakes still function, and give the brakes some time to dry off.
  • Check that the hooter works
  • Check that the headlights and the brake lights are still working
  • Check that the power steering is working and requires no extra effort to turn
  • Check that the air filter is still dry if you are concerned that the water level went higher than the air intake

If you get stuck in a river crossing where the water is higher than 700m deep, disconnect the battery and wait for assistance. If you are in a Bushlore rental, we advise that you call the company for help. Remember, your safety is paramount. Only cross deep floods and low-lying bridges if it is absolutely necessary.


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