Some names are synonymous with wilderness – Mana Pools, Etosha, Richtersveld, Okavango, Niassa… Words like these are clarion calls to escape the city and plunge into an adventurous African journey. Then there’s Kaokoveld and Damaraland, two more poetic names that evoke images of timeless landscapes, starry skies and an unfettered life free of modern burdens
Today, the territories of Kaokoveld and Damaraland in the north-west of Namibia are known collectively as Kunene. Commonly described as “the last wilderness”, this region stretches 450km north from the Ugab River to the Kunene River on the Angolan border.
Unsurprisingly it was one of the last places in southern Africa to be inhabited by contemporary man. The rugged landscapes can be extremely challenging to explore. Distances are vast, summer temperatures soar above 50C and fresh water is hard to find.
The wildlife and people have adapted to the rhythms of the desert. About 90 000 Himba, Damara and Nama live in an area of 115 000 square kilometres – one of the world’s least populated regions. It is possible to drive for a day without seeing anyone.
A fully equipped 4×4 is imperative if you are going to travel anywhere off the main C43 gravel road that runs from south to north. Don’t get lost here without water, food and shelter. Without these you are unlikely to survive, but if you’re properly prepared, the rewards outweigh the risks many times over.
It’s hard to take a bad photograph in Kunene. Just press the button on your camera, and the chances are you’ve got a masterpiece.
I’ve travelled extensively around southern Africa’s wilderness areas, and Kunene’s scenery is among the most memorable. It’s an ageless land that quickly places our own short lives in context: why do we fret so much in our 80-odd years on earth when the sunbaked rocks are a billion years old?
Far from being a monotonous desert, Kunene is an ever-changing mixture of foreboding mountains rising to 1500m, rocky chasms, vast gravel plains and dune fields adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean. Over every horizon there is another awesome, even intimidating view.
The lifeblood of Kunene is the ephemeral rivers which, over millions of years, have cut gorges through the escarpment. The Hoarusib and Hoanib, for instance, flow only every few decades after heavy rains. Then their surfaces dry up, but the ground water and springs almost always flow.
The Faidherbia erioloba trees that grow in the dry sand have long taproots. The desert elephants dig deep holes to drink, at the same time providing water for the other animals. Without these rivers, the animals and people could not survive.
Damaraland in the south resembles parts of the Great Karoo in SA, but the scenery farther north in Kaokoland is unique. Here, the sharp edged Otjihipa and Hartmann mountains emerge like ramparts from the surrounding plains, framing the beautiful Marienfluss Valley.
Today, most of the region comprises community conservancies – huge tracts of land that are used by the Himba, Damara and Nama people.
Some of the conservancies are bigger than small countries. Marienfluss and Puros each cover more than 3000 square kilometres. Including the national parks, Namibia now has more than 40% of its land formally protected – one of the highest figures in the world. Importantly, there are few fences, so animals and people can move freely across the land to places where rain has fallen.
But while the national parks are managed by the state, the local people manage the conservancies. Soon after Namibia’s independence in 1991, legislation gave the communities the right to decide on how they wanted to use the land – and the wildlife that lives on it. This was a radical notion when prevailing wisdom was that people and wildlife could not co-exist. How wrong that has been proven. Today, most of Kunene is covered by the conservancy laws.
Both the people and wildlife have benefited considerably. Tourists contribute millions of dollars to Kunene, creating sustainable jobs in an arid region where commercial agriculture is not an option.
During the border war of the early 1980s, poaching by South African armed forces reduced the wildlife to pitiful levels, especially elephant, black rhino and lion. Even gemsbok, springbok, giraffe and Hartmann’s mountain zebra were scarce. (For an excellent account of Kunene’s conservation history, read Garth Owen-Smith’s book, Arid Eden).
But today, thanks to the conservancies, the north-west of Namibia abounds with a diversity of life that exceeds that in any other desert region. Although rainfall is limited to just 30mm to 150mm a year, mostly from scattered thunderstorms, all the animal species have shown dramatic growth in numbers.
The elephant population has increased several times over, while black rhinos are the most notable success of all, numbering several hundred – up from just a few in the early 1990s.
With wildlife prospering, lions have also bounced back, and to see this predator roaming the desert is one of Africa’s great sights. But with more lions comes more conflict with communities, and livestock shepherds sometimes poison, shoot or trap lions.
Dr Philip Stander started his Desert Lion research project (www.desertlion.info) in 1998, collaring the lions, studying their movements and working with communities to develop ways to manage the conflict.
The dry conditions limit the absolute numbers of animals that can survive, but it’s arguably more rewarding to see these creatures silhouetted against the starkness of the desert than watching the herds in Chobe or the Kruger National Park.
Visitors to most parks in Africa are not allowed to leave their cars, but that does not apply in Kunene. If you go walking and bump into a lion or black rhino, then so be it.
There’s a sense of ancient Africa in this arid region, as if this is how things always were and were meant to be – people and their livestock living alongside wild animals. It’s not all harmony, however. Lions sometimes kill cattle and elephants do raid crops, but these are exceptions.
The Himba people
The semi-nomadic Himba are among the last of southern Africa’s people to live a life intimately connected to nature. They are independent in their pastoral lifestyle, moving their cattle with the rains. They are also among the most beautiful, friendly and dignified people I have met. As part of the larger Herero tribe, they gave the region its name.
According to the excellent book Kaokoveld – The Last Wilderness (by Walker, Hall-Martin and Bothma), it is said that when the Herero moved southwards into the Kaokoveld from their ancestral homelands in Angola in about 1550, the Kunene was on their right, or to the northwest, so they called the river okunene, meaning “the right arm”. The land to their left they called okaoko, from which Kaokoland takes its name.
Visitors will come across Himba people all over the Kunene region, but especially in the north. They are happy to be photographed, but always ask permission and always offer to pay them. It’s certainly worth it. The women cover their bodies with otjize – a mixture of butter fat and ochre, not only because it looks beautiful, but also for protection against the sun. Elaborately decorated with jewellery, the Himba women make superb photographic subjects.
Puros conservancy and campsite
GPS co-ordinates: S18 44.061 E12 56.555
As one of the most established of Kunene’s 35 communal conservancies, Puros is one of the best spots for wildlife and scenery. The campsite is on the banks of the dry Hoarusib River, in the deep shade of camelthorn trees. Each site has its own rustic but clean shower and flush toilet, which are serviced daily by the community staff.
The camp is unfenced and when I arrived, caretaker Max Kasaona told me that the desert elephants sometimes walked through camp, so I should be careful after dark. (A tourist was killed by an elephant at Puros two years ago.)
I saw no elephants that night, but the next day local guide Robbin Uatokuja and I set off before sunrise. A thick fog had rolled in from the Atlantic, over the mountains and into the valley.
After about half-an-hour we spotted a few elephants on a rocky slope, chewing on commiphora bushes. Robbin said the elephants did not usually leave the riverbed. Because of the cool fog, they must have felt comfortable out on the exposed mountainside.
The elephants then started walking down the mountain, across the vast plain towards us. At first they looked like ants on the immense desert tapestry. They came closer until they were about 20m away and then stopped, seemingly untroubled by our presence. Then they wandered off into the thorn trees in the dry riverbed.
The experience is etched in my memory. We were alone with the elephants, with no-one else for miles around. The light was surreal, and the sound of the elephants walking softly on the rocky gravel plains was dreamlike.
Camping at Puros costs R60 per person. Contact Max Kasaona on +264-81-664-2102, cellphone reception permitting. Contact guide Robbin Uatokuja on +264 81 716 2066, but you can also ask Max to call him when you get to the campsite.
Desert Rhino Camp
GPS co-ordinates: S20 01.526 E13 50.697
Guests at Desert Rhino Camp in the 3500 square kilometre Torra conservancy are taken out every day by trackers from Save the Rhino Trust – an organisation that has been instrumental in protecting one of the world’s rarest animals.
“Just over 4500 black rhinos survive in the wild in Africa,” said Simson Uri-Khob, the trust’s field operations director. “Thirty years ago there were probably only 70 black rhino in the whole of north-western Namibia. Today, that number has tripled, and is growing at about 4,5% every year.
“This population of desert-adapted black rhinos is considered one of seven key groups on the continent, because it’s one of the largest and fastest growing.”
This area is the best place in Namibia to see black rhinos. The camp is priced at the high end of the market, but as a visitor you know you’re making a real difference because a share of your fee contributes directly to the Save the Rhino Trust. And you’re almost guaranteed to see them.
“The communities are fiercely protective of all their wildlife, including the rhinos,” said Simson. “They know that these rhinos bring tourism dollars to their region, and because most of the locals rely on tourism for their livelihood, they have a vested interest in the survival of the wildlife.”
Etendeka Mountain Camp
GPS co-ordinates S19 45.713 E13 57.657
Recently ranked as one of Africa’s 50 finest eco-friendly lodges, Etendeka is managed by owner Dennis Liebenberg, a longtime stalwart of Damaraland conservation.
Set in a basalt mountain valley below the Grootberg massif, far from the main gravel road, this lodge is basic but comfortable, with tented rooms appropriate to the sparse surroundings.
Guests leave their vehicles at Palmwag Lodge and are driven to Etendeka and into the conservancy, where it’s possible to see elephants and black rhino. But don’t come expecting to see loads of animals.
Visitors come mostly for the silence, the solitude, the stars and the small, wondrous things. Nature walks are the main attraction, and guide Ivan Narib makes the land come alive with his expert interpretation and commentary.
From R2 215 per person, including meals and activities. Tel +264-61-239-199, e-mail [email protected], www.bigsky-namibia.com.
Doro Nawas Camp
GPS co-ordinates S20 26.929 E14 18.158
Located in the Doro Nawas Conservancy, this lodge is a few kilometres off the gravel C43 road between Khorixas and Palmwag. Established in 1991, the conservancy has a spectacular setting of basalt ridges to the east, and a massive sandstone mountain range to the west.
The central dining area and bar are located on a hillock in the middle of basalt plains. Around the hill are 16 semi-luxury en-suite stone and canvas chalets with thatched roofs. The mountain scenery is superb and the night skies indescribable.
The beds in the luxury rooms can be wheeled out onto the huge verandas, so you can fall asleep to countless shooting stars.
I’ve stayed at many lodges over the past few years, and the team at Doro Nawas is certainly one of the friendliest I have met on my travels. Michael Kauari is a knowledgeable guide on wildlife and the local culture, clearly passionate about the desert and its animals.
GPS co-ordinates: S20 35.437 E14 22.332
Close to Doro Nawas is Twyfelfontein, where visitors can see some of the most impressive rock engravings in Africa.
This was Namibia’s first World Heritage Site, proclaimed in 2007. There are more than 2500 engravings, some dating back 6000 years, when hunter-gatherer Bushmen lived in the area, drinking from the nearby spring.
A small restaurant and interpretation centre serves food and cold drinks.
Omarunga Lodge at Epupa Falls
GPS co-ordinates: S17 00.124 E13 14.785
The Kunene River, which forms the border with Angola, is fed from the highlands of Angola and flows south, then west, to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an unexpected, wonderful sight – a powerful river coursing through a desert region.
Epupa Falls is not as impressive as the Victoria Falls, but it is definitely worth a visit, especially in summer (November to April) when the river is often in flood. There are few tourists here, so you feel as though you’ve got the place to yourself.
The main gorge is narrow and precipitous, the river plunging about 40m, but the rest of the falls stretch out about 1,5km in a series of rocky cascades and promontories, dotted here and there with baobab trees.
The air is thick with moisture and the Angolan hills are green, hinting at the sub-tropical climate that begins a little farther north.
There’s a small community of Himba people in the area, and at sunset they come to wash in the river, their glistening bodies glowing in the fading light.
Omarunga Lodge is right on the river, just 200m from the falls. It’s a great place to relax and recuperate from the heat. Emile and Nadine Visser are excellent hosts, and the restaurant food and service are good.
The en suite tented cabins are shaded by Makalani palm trees. My room was right on the river, and I fell asleep to the sound of water lapping against the bank. There is a campsite too, also right on the river.
Unfortunately there are no elephants or hippos in the area. They were shot out decades ago.
If you want a guide, I recommend Owen Muhenye. He can show you the falls and the gorge, and also take you to a Himba village. Call him on +264-81-806-1162.
Fly in to Serra Cafema
Strictly for those with big budgets, or on extra special holidays, Serra Cafema in Marienfluss conservancy is perched on the Kunene River, about 100km from the sea and is accessible only by plane.
Managed by Wilderness Safaris, the lodge is located in the 3000 square kilometre Marienfluss conservancy in the most northern part of Namibia. After rain has fallen, luminous green grass sprouts from the desert, attracting hundreds of zebra, springbok and gemsbok.
The camp is constructed on stilts on the banks of the Kunene, where crocodiles (but no hippos) lurk.
A luxury lodge in this remote, arid area is so incongruous as to be unbelievable. No wonder the rates are high. Just supplying the lodge with food and drinks is a major adventure in itself.
Activities at Serra Cafema include exploring some of the best scenery in Kaokoland and visiting the local Himba people, who live in settlements nearby. Guests are also taken up the Kunene in a small boat.
It is important to remember that there are no fences here, and very few people – just the stars, the animals, the desert and the river – and that cold gin and tonic in your hand!
Palmwag Lodge and campsite
GPS co-ordinates: S19 53.137 E13 56.224
The gateway to the north of Kunene region, this sizeable lodge and campsite are close to the main C43 gravel road, just north of a veterinary fence gate. Although it lacks a wilderness feeling, it makes a good revictualling station, with restaurant, bar, swimming pool and fuel station.
The campsites and chalets are basic but clean, with good staff service.
Look out for desert elephants, which sometimes come to drink at the spring nearby.
Cost: From R840 per person, including dinner, bed and breakfast, and R120 per person for camping. Tel + 264-61-234342, e-mail [email protected], www.palmwaglodge.com.
Marble Campsite near Orupembe
GPS co-ordinates: S17 59.155 E12 35.150
Less impressive than Puros campsite, Marble nevertheless makes a good stopover point for travellers coming south from the Marienfluss area or heading north from Puros towards Epupa via Kaoko Otavi. Ablutions and small campsites are adequate, but the mopane trees offer little shade. R60 per person per night. No contact details available – just arrive!
Erongo Wilderness Lodge
GPS co-ordinates: S21 27.651 E15 52.475
For 4x4ers heading north from Windhoek to the Kunene region, Erongo Wilderness Lodge is highly recommended. Easily accessible off the C36 road near Omaruru, it’s about a three-hour drive from the capital.
Erongo sets the scene for the rest of the north-west, with ten luxury tented chalets perched on top of massive granite boulders, offering fantastic views.
The restaurant serves the best food in the region, the service is world class and the rock-art walk is fascinating.
From R1 590 per person, including dinner and breakfast. Tel +264 -61-239-199, e-mail [email protected], www.bigsky-namibia.com.
Olive Grove Guesthouse in Windhoek
GPS co-ordinates: S22 33.223 E17 05.433
For travellers heading north from SA via Windhoek, the Olive Grove Guesthouse in the capital city is a good-value, upmarket B&B, with rates starting at around R600 per person, including breakfast. Tel +264-61-383-850, e-mail [email protected], www.olivegrove-namibia.com.
Year in the Wild, 2013-14
Following on from his first Year in the Wild, photojournalist Scott Ramsay is travelling from July 2013 to October 2014 to some of the same parks (but in different seasons) as well as to many new parks and nature reserves in SA and the transfrontier parks in southern Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Again, his goal is to create awareness about protected areas and inspire others to travel to these natural wonderlands.
Ramsay’s partners include Cape Union Mart, Ford Everest, Goodyear and K-Way, with support from WildCard, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Globecomm, National Luna, Outdoor Photo, Safari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.
For more information, go to www.yearinthewild.com.