While sitting on a remote hillside in the Marienfluss, photographing another spectacular landscape and sunset, I could not help thinking about Bob Dylan’s song, “When the night comes falling from the sky”
We were camped at the foot of a small hill in the Marienfluss, and I had wandered off with my camera to capture the total wilderness of the Hartmann Mountains off to our west and disappearing towards the distant Kunene River in the north.
As the light faded and the mountains turned into subtle purple and blue tones, I captured a series of images and then put the camera down. Any photographer will tell you that there comes a time when you simply sit back and enjoy the moment. I sat there and watched the “night come calling from the sky”, and the brilliant early stars make their appearance.
The Marienfluss and the Hartmann’s valleys form the focal point of the remote Kaokoland – the last true wilderness in northern Namibia.
Kaokoland was once part of Game Reserve No 2 — so declared in 1907 by the German administrator Theodore Leutwein to protect the abundant game. It was part of the largest national park in the world, stretching westward from the existing Etosha National Park to the coast, bordered in the north by the Kunene and to the south by the Hoarusib River. It covered 93 240 square kilometres.
In 1958, the “Elephant Commission” extended the border southwards to the Hoanib River to allow for migratory game and endangered animals, increasing its surface area to 99 526 square kilometres. It was de-proclaimed as a game reserve in 1964 and reduced to 71 972 square kilometres to serve as one of the ten ethnic areas, or homelands. Today, combined with Damaraland, it forms the Kunene region of Namibia.
To put this in perspective, Kaokoland is about the same size as Israel, and about double the size of countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium. But although it is no longer a game reserve the local communities (Himba, and in the neighbouring Damaraland, the Damaras) manage the area in conservancies where people and wildlife co-exist.
It is sparsely populated, with a “density” of two people per square kilometre, by the nomadic Himba people. They live from the land and their herds of cattle and goats, with minimal impact on the ecology, so this is an ideal place to visit if you are seeking solitude and escape from our frenzied western lifestyle.
Since Namibian independence, the Kaokoveld has become a prime destination for the more adventurous 4×4 traveller. To feed this growing interest, there are regular articles in magazines that cater to the 4×4 market, along with guide books that give turn by turn directions to the highlights of the Kaokoveld. However, there is an “admission price” to be paid if you want to experience this remote wilderness.
The roads are rough and testing, even for modern four-wheel drive vehicles. The mountain passes could be classed as wide goat tracks, with challenging sections of loose boulders and tyre puncturing rocks.
This is a harsh landscape and climate that are unforgiving to the reckless and ill prepared. If you intend leaving the district roads that today can be travelled in a sedan car, make sure you are well prepared and travel with at least three other vehicles.
In fact, with careful planning and care, a modern SUV can carry its passengers to the “best of Kaokoland”. The advent of GPS and satellite phones can create the illusion that this an easily conquered wilderness, and some magazine articles reinforce this impression. But to explore the hidden treasures of Kaokoland, you still need a hardcore 4×4 and an experienced and well-prepared guide. Remember that if there’s a problem, help is many days away and would require a large degree of logistical expertise from your rescuer.
On a recent trip earlier this year, I once again ventured to some of the more remote parts of Kaokoland. Our Nissan Patrol is stock standard and I was a bit worried that it could be a bit too low-slung, since no after-market suspension had been fitted. First looks create the impression that the Patrol is “soft”, with a low ground clearance, and could sustain some damage on the rugged roads. But on the contrary, the Patrol’s suspension is phenomenal, capable of smoothing out uneven terrain by rapidly flexing to the contours of the road while keeping the chassis surprisingly level. This ability stems from the front and rear solid-axle setup, as well as terrific suspension flexibility.
Van Zyl’s Pass is obviously rated a “must” for every 4×4 enthusiast, but to me it is totally overrated. There are some remote tracks in the Hartmann’s Mountains and along the Kunene across the Zebra Mountains that are technically more challenging, and less travelled, but even these proved to be “easy” to negotiate in the Patrol.
There are still hidden places in Kaokoland not mentioned in the guide books and magazines, unmapped tracks and rarely seen vistas. There is no easy way to get there, but if you make the effort, you will experience Africa the way it once was. Forget about “conquering” the Kaokoveld and “doing” Van Zyl’s Pass. Go to enjoy the wilderness for what it is, and immerse yourself in the place where the “night falls from the sky.”