Kaokoland - beyond logical reasoning

2013-06-28 08:38

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The north-west of Namibia is known today as the Kunene region, and comprises the former territories of Damaraland in the south and Kaokoland in the north. While Damaraland is remote and wild itself, Kaokoland is the ultimate desert destination for 4x4ers and nature lovers.

The traditional home of the Himba people, Kaokoland extends for several hundred kilometres from the Hoanib River north to the Kunene River which forms the border with Angola. The harsh desert scenery of mountains, plains and dry river beds inspires awe and respect in equal measure.

Namibian author Olga Levinson once wrote that “this is a strange land, engendering a love that goes beyond all logical reasoning. For it is a hard country, and will always remain so; hard and uncompromising: it nevertheless has an inexplicable appeal…the spell of the country holds the traveller, and he can never forget what he sees.”

This is frontier territory, wild to its core.

If you yearn to escape the corridors of your city offices, there is no better antidote for your claustrophobia than the furthest northwest of Namibia. (A fully-equipped 4x4 is critical, as well as several spare tyres – the rocky roads guarantee punctures).

Kaokoland is more diverse than Damaraland in its scenery and more remote. Most of the land is under community conservancy protection. Visitors will come across local Himba people who live semi-nomadically, moving freely with their livestock, finding the grass that grows after sporadic summer rains.

Puros, Namibia

My first stop on the way north from Damaraland was the 3 500 square kilometres conservancy of Puros. The usually-dry Haorusib River cuts through the mountains from west to east, on its way from the escarpment to the Atlantic Ocean on the Skeleton Coast. 

Immense gravel plains lie on either side of the ancient river course, which itself is dotted with impressive acacia trees that provide shade for the unfenced community campsite.

While Damaraland in the south probably hosts more wildlife at times, Puros is wellknown for its desert-adapted elephants. It may be the best place in the region to see them, and as camp caretaker Max Kasaona warned me, “they often walk through the campsite, so be careful!”

The next morning,  a coastal fog had rolled in over the desert and local guide Robbin Uatokuja jumped in my Ford Everest 4x4 to help me find some of the elephants. After a few kilometres of driving along the river bed, Robbin spotted four adults and one youngster on a rocky hillside, feeding on hardy commiphora bushes.

We drove closer, then stopped and admired them from afar. After an hour or so, they came wandering towards us, getting as close as 20 metres before walking back to the river bed to feed on the acacia trees.

We were alone with the elephants, with no-one else for miles around, and the surreal light, the immense scenery and the sound of elephants walking softly on the rocky gravel plains was unforgettable. Even Earth’s largest land animal looks tiny on the tapestry of rock, sand and mountain.

“We were very lucky to see them out in the open like that,” Robbin explained, “because the elephants hardly ever leave the river bed.”

From Puros, I headed north to Epupa Falls on the Cunene River, where the beautiful Omarunga Lodge and Campsite is located. Fed by the highland rains of the Angolan mountains, the Cunene flows powerfully in summer time, and although the falls are not nearly as impressive as, say, Victoria Falls, they are worth visiting.

The main gorge is narrow and precipitous, the river plunging about 40 metres down, but the rest of the falls stretch out about 1,5kms in a series of rocky cascades and promontories, dotted here and there with baobab trees.

The humid air is thick with moisture, and the Angolan hills are green, hinting at the sub-tropical climate that begins just a bit further 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.

From Epupa, I travelled back south to an airstrip, where I was flown in a small aircraft to the remote, luxurious Serra Cafema camp, located in the Kunene River gorge in the 3 000 square kilometre Marienfluss Conservancy. Serra Cafema gives visitors the best of both worlds: wilderness and comfort.

Activities at Serra Cafema are mostly centred on exploring the landscape in a Landy or on quad bikes, and visiting the local Himba people. Guests are also taken on a motor boat up the river at sunset (there are no hippos, just a few crocodiles).

Candle-lit dinners are served under the stars and you’ll go to sleep to the sound of the rushing river water. At a place like Serra Cafema, the drudgeries of city life, Facebook, cell phones and email seem like mad, foreign concepts.

Here, it’s just the stars, the sky, the animals, the desert and the water. Like the rest of Kaokoland, Serra Cafema quickly recalibrates your spiritual compass.

Puros Community Campsite – Caretaker Max Kasaona – Cell +264-81-664-2102
Puros Elephant Guide - Robbin Uatokuja – Cell - +264-81-716-2066

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay spends most of each year exploring Southern Africa's wild places, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in the protected areas. Through his project Year in the Wild 2013-14, he hopes to create awareness for conservation and to inspire others to travel responsibly to the continent's wildlife areas. For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com or www.facebook.com/yearinthewild.

Partners include Ford Everest, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, Globecomm, Vodacom, Frontrunner, EeziAwn, National Luna, Hetzner, Tracks 4 Africa, Outdoor Photo and Birdlife South Africa.

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