On The Road Again - Into Kaokoland

27 Sep 2019

So long Swakop and civilization. Heading on the salt and gravel roads to the more remote fence-free reaches of Namibia, home to desert elephant, rhino and lion, and further north to the semi-nomadic Himba people, must rate as one of the most exhilarating adventures in the country. And, although there are routes to the same destinations with a touch more tarmac, I thought that might take some of the fun out of the journey. Wouldn’t it?

I wasn’t sure, but I had chosen the more adventurous option. When I said sayonara to the team at the Delight Hotel, I drove through the mist that had replaced the sweltering east wind, which had flung desert sand gleefully around like a child discovering sand for the first time. The chilly coastal weather had now returned, and it had been time for hot water bottles and soft blankets, things that would quickly become superfluous as I ventured into the warmer north. The mist, however, wouldn’t be that easily shrugged off and followed me all the way to the Ugab Gate, entrance to the infamous Skeleton Coast. Along the way I passed the seal colony at Cape Cross, fields of lichens and tables of pink salt clusters sold by salt workers on an honesty system - if you like a piece, you drop a few dollars into the container nailed to the table. The desolate coast is a popular fishing haven and signs to well-known fishing spots dot the road. Some are marked by the old method, the miles from Swakopmund. Others are more descriptive. ‘Sarah se gat (Sarah’s fishing hole - named after a well-known fisherwoman), Bennie se rooi lorrie, so named when young Bennie left his favourite toy truck on the beach. Baklei gatArgument hole, for reasons unknown, but guessed. And St. Nowhere, for obvious reasons. 

The daunting skulls and crossbones graphics on the Ugab gate sent a chill down my spine. This coastline was, after all, named after the whale and seal bones that washed up on its desert shores, and the flotsam and jetsam from the many ships that have come to grief in its treacherous waters. Contrary to belief, there is not an assembly of shipwrecks decorating the beaches. They break up quickly and disappear into the sand and sea, and only the most recent remain. 

I had stopped briefly south of Henties Bay at the 2008 wreck of Zeila, a fishing trawler whose tow-line broke in the early hours. It has been taken over by cormorants roosting on its rusting hulk and as an attraction along the coastline provides a place for the stone sellers to ply their wares. But, soon after the Ugab gate, I discovered the wreck of the South West Seal, a 90-ton South African fishing vessel that caught fire and beached here in 1979, its ribs now poking through the sand at the waterline in perfect shipwreck fashion. A few whale bones lay adjacent to it, jackal tracks etched the beach, the sun sparkled on the waves and besides the singing of the surf, it was quiet. There was not another soul around. I gulped it all in appreciatively. 

Only two vehicles passed me on the 103km stretch to the Springbokwasser gate, where I left the coast and veered inland. The veterinary fence, preventing animals crossing from north to south and thus spreading disease, kept me company on my left, and to my right I discovered a treasure-house of welwitschia. The taxonomy of the unusual large desert plant, sometimes referred to as living fossil, befuddled scientists for many years until they simply gave up and classified it in a family of its own.

The sun was already dipping in the sky when I stopped on the roadside to chat to Willibard Ketjivandje, a long-time road grader, who told me that there is a healthy population of lions and elephants in this north-western region. He was thankful for his bed in the truck, a solar panel to charge his light and phone, and a teammate to keep him company. It was clear that I had now entered Namibia’s wild west.

The Huab River valley stretched around me flaunting its loveliness; a green line of trees marking the underground river juxtaposed against the dry surroundings. But, when I turned towards Palmwag, I had to gasp at the magnificent landscape. A series of table-topped mountains and rocky land tinged a deep basalt red was dotted with green from the rod-like euphorbias and the robust mopane and shepherd trees. The superlative beauty took my breath away. The turnoff soon appeared and as the sun did a final bow in the sky, I drove into Palmwag, positioned in a small oasis of makalani palm trees that mark the underground watercourse of the Uniab River.

My striking home for the next few days forms part of the 582 000-hectare Palmwag Concession, a vast conservation area with an abundance of wildlife. Palmwag collaborates with neighbouring conservancies, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and Save the Rhino Trust to safeguard this rich wild heritage, offering guests an extraordinary African experience. It’s a partnership where everyone benefits, including the wildlife. Some of the animals, like Jimbo, the old elephant bull, venture regularly into the lodge grounds and campsite. He had gone walkabout when I arrived, presumably snacking in someone’s garden. With a healthy choice of activities, I started off with a drive into the concession to view the Aub Canyon in the morning, and then joined a guided walk from the lodge in the late afternoon. The guide filled us in on flora, fauna and geology as we happily stretched our legs. The small gradient provided the perfect view of the lodge from the hillside. I breathed in the beauty and the clean, unpolluted Damaraland air. 

The next morning, I was up before the birds, showered as per instructions using no scented soaps or lotions and donned all of my winter woollies to go rhino tracking in the nearby conservancy with the conservancy rhino rangers. It was our lucky day. The rangers spotted a black rhino and her calf on a hillside in the distance and we quietly made our way there. With the all clear from the rangers, who gauge the wind and the rhino’s mood, we edged forward to about a hundred metres away. Black rhino are known to be bad tempered and a mom with her calf added the extra edge to the experience. When the calf lay down to sleep - and with no need to stress its mother, we slowly backed off and returned excitedly to the vehicle where the rangers explained how they identify the rhinos and the records they keep to monitor each individual. We had apparently met Matti, born in 1999 and mother to three calves. They also informed us that most of the rhinos in the conservancy had been dehorned to prevent poaching. Matti seemed none the uglier for the lack of a horn, and it amazed me how such huge and powerful animals could be slaughtered for horns that are nothing more than keratin, just like our finger and toe nails. 

Lunch at the pool bar and a sunset drive into the rocky hills filled the rest of the day.  As the land shone in the late afternoon light, we had the chance to be awe-struck by the landscape dressed in her finest colours. We turned towards the sun and gave it our full attention and its due respect, as it sank into the horizon.

A roller coaster road of dips and rises led out of Palmwag towards Sesfontein. A series of river washes and the winding road meant slow going until the road levelled out closer to Opuwo. The frontier town of Kaokoland is always a good place to stock up and fill the fuel tank. It’s an intriguing place where Himba, Zemba and Hakahona stroll the dusty hot streets in traditional garb and Herero women sashay along in their long dresses among their contemporaries in more conventional modern attire. It is a step into another world, a transition which is reinforced on the drive northwards to Epupa, where Himba live as they have done since time immemorial.

It seemed like everyone was flagging me down on the Sunday afternoon for lifts; first school children who needed to return to school and afterwards a Himba woman who wanted a ride to the next village. With no common language to communicate, we ended up laughing as she and I, regardless of our differences, inherently understood that were just two human beings who laughed and loved in the very same way.

Although baobabs along the roadside herald the proximity of Epupa, it is only when you drop down to the Kunene River and spot the belt of makalani palm trees that you know you have arrived at this small African settlement. Omarunga-Epupa Falls Lodge, set on the riverbank under the palms, radiates Epupa charm. Here, the wind whistles through the palm trees, rosy-faced lovebirds chirp as they fly from tree to tree, mourning doves chrrrrr in avian contentedness and the gentle song of the falls, a short distance downstream, lulls you into a peaceful reverie. Amongst the must-do’s in this magical destination is a sunset overlooking the falls and a visit to a Himba village.

Guided by Ruiter, one of the Kaokoland Guides who has been brought up in the area, the visit to a nearby Himba homestead was an informative experience, respectful of the lives, privacy and customs of the family. Ruiter guided us through the village explaining traditions and dress, and enlightening us about this fascinating group of people who live in these remote areas and who are gradually being influenced by the western world. Entering a hut, I noticed that the woman’s adornments filled the wall, like a western woman’s would, just made of different material and presented in a different way. The cool mud and dung hut felt cool, safe and comfortable and I had the urge to curl up and go to sleep.   

It was difficult to leave Omarunga, a peaceful retreat of wood and thatch. And it was difficult to leave Epupa, where life seemed to flow at a different and more sensible pace. Eventually, after adding an extra day to my booking, I could delay no longer. On the road, Himba women were once again flagging me down for a ride, providing for some more interesting experiences.

Back in Opuwo, I turned southwards to Kamanjab and then Khorixas. Someone had inconveniently pressed the fast-forward button and my trip was fast coming to an end. My last night before returning to Windhoek was spent at Damara Mopane Lodge. It seemed that the journey was all about oases of varying types. In the midst of a mopane woodland, Damara Mopane’s chalets have gardens filled with vegetables. Scarecrows, sunflowers and a vibrant selection of greens make this a sweet spot on a journey, and the fresh food provides a nourishing dinner feast.

After a good night’s sleep, it was back on the tar travelling southwards to Windhoek. The extraordinary opportunity to experience sweeping landscapes and cultures of old remained with me, and perhaps always will. It tugged on my heartstrings and even as I approached the city, I could feel it calling me back. Somewhere deep inside I knew that if Life granted me a second helping, I would grab hold of it with both hands – by the horns or whatever I could, and that I would return to ride the wild west rodeo once again. 

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