Kaokoland in Namibia

Kaokoland covers roughly 40,000 sq km of sparsely populated land and is often described as one of the last truly wild areas in southern Africa. Outside Opuwo, the regional capital, the area is devoid of amenities, with no fuel, very few shops, no telephones or cell phone reception and only a network of tough gravel and dirt roads. And this is a large part of the appeal; a vast wilderness with small isolated communities living a subsistence existence off the land. The attractions are the simple beauty of the mountain landscape, the ruggedness of the access routes and the tranquillity enjoyed by those reaching the northern and western corners. These days the region is administrated as the Northern Kunene Region but it is still referred to as Kaokoland, especially in tourist literature. En route, as well as 4WD challenges, is the opportunity to see the unique and photogenic Himba villages and people. The Kunene River rewards weary travellers with the beautiful Epupa Falls, watersport possibilities and numerous riverside lodges and camps.

Kaokoland is bounded by the Skeleton Coast Park on the west, the perennial Kunene River to the north, the C35 gravel road to the east and Damaraland to the south. The only sizeable settlement is the dusty town of Opuwo, which has the only banks in the region and you can pick up provisions in the supermarkets or get punctures repaired at the petrol stations. Elsewhere in the region visitors need to have a degree of self-sufficiency, but allowing time in your schedule to visit Kaokoland will be amply rewarding.

Ins and outs

Self-driving is becoming increasingly popular, but with it comes the risk that the under- prepared may venture into the region and expose themselves unwittingly to danger. Maps of the area give the misleading impression that there is a well-established system of roads allowing free access to many parts of Kaokoland. Nothing could be further from the truth. Roads are often little more than dirt tracks, which can be hard to follow and become impassable bogs during the rainy season. The rocky, mountainous terrain of much of the region makes all travel extremely slow and hazardous. For example, it takes on average of two hours to cover the 76 km between Okongwati and Epupa Falls, while you'll need to allow at least three hours just to cross Van Zyl's Pass.

One of the most important considerations when visiting Kaokoland is to carefully plan your route in advance and calculate distances and fuel consumption. Very few roads are passable by 2WD car, and it is advisable to travel by 4WD, ideally in a convoy of at least two vehicles in case of an emergency or breakdown. You should carry two spare tyres and puncture repair kits, basic spares such as oil and fuel filters, at least 160 litres of fuel, water and food, a decent medical kit; a GPS is a good idea . There are a few lodges and campsites in the area and careful planning is needed to reach these before dark. Remember, bush or free camping is prohibited in Namibia, but nevertheless tolerated in very remote locations and is the only option on some of the back roads described below. If you find yourself exploring the area during the rainy season be prepared to wait several hours, even days, before being able to cross certain riverbeds (there are no bridges in the region). Do not be put off from visiting this region but do come prepared and take heed of all local advice. Finally, whatever the condition of the road, stick to existing tracks as off-road driving scars the landscape - there are still pre-Second World War tyre tracks visible in some coastal valleys. Most importantly, stock up well, allow plenty of time and get advice from lodge owners and fellow travellers as to the conditions ahead before embarking on each stretch of your journey.

Before driving into Kaokoland, be sure at least to read a 4WD guide, or take a course. Jan Joubert's
Practical Guide to Off-Road Adventures in Southern Africa
is a recommended introduction to the challenges faced, and there are many similar books. Read up also on the flora and fauna of the area to more fully appreciate your environment. Also get hold of the
Shell Kaokoland Kunene Region Tourist Map
; while some of the roads marked no longer exist, it is the best map of the region and provides information, both practical driving advice and regarding the wildlife and vegetation in the area. The routes outlined below assume visitors arrive via Damaraland. However, self-drive visitors who entered Namibia via the Caprivi Strip are likely to follow all the routes in reverse - entering Kaokoland in the north from Oshakati and Ruacana, and then working their way south into Damaraland.

Tours

If you are unable or unwilling to make an independent trip to Damaraland and Kaokoland, consider an organized tour. These are not cheap, but having a guide familiar with the terrain and practicalities can enhance your enjoyment of the holiday, particularly if you are an inexperienced or unlucky driver. And it may not be much more costly, given the expense of hiring two 4WD vehicles. There are a number of tour operators offering guided trips in the region.

Khowarib

Driving north from Damaraland, the first village you will reach is Khowarib, about 77 km from Palmwag. The village is spread out along the banks of the perennial Khowarib River, which irrigates local agriculture. This small village and Warmquelle, below, are of little interest in themselves to the passing tourist, however, they have each started a community campsite in recent years. These are worth patronizing since it is one of the few ways in which these marginal communities benefit directly from tourism.

Warmquelle

The campsite at Warmquelle, 11 km further on up the road, is one of Namibia's most scenic and has an enticing water feature - a year-round natural pool which is large enough to swim in and it's an impossibly pretty spot. Like Khowarib, the village of Warmquelle has little to offer the visitor beyond refreshing patches of green in this dusty environment. Worth a quick look, however, are the remains of a
Shutztruppe Fort
: there is a stone entrance with tower, stables with stone cribs and the prison with two cells, dating from 1895. Warmquelle is also the place where Bondelswarts leader, Jan Christiaan Abrahams, was shot, which led to their uprising in 1903. Skirmishes continued until peace was agreed in December 1906; the local cemetery houses numerous interesting gravestones.

Water from the spring, which feeds the Warmquelle pool, is piped for domestic needs and to irrigate a few small fields growing maize and vegetables, following the efforts made by a Greek farmer who, long before tourists started visiting the area, built a series of irrigation channels to nearby fields. A few sections of this aqueduct remain hidden in the scrub bush.

Sesfontein

The name originates from six springs that surface in the area. In 1896, following the devastating rinderpest epidemic, which killed off huge numbers of both livestock and game, the German colonial authorities established a number of control checkpoints across the country; these now form the so-called
Red Line
which demarcates the boundary between commercial and subsistence livestock farming in the country. Sesfontein formed the most westerly in a string of such checkpoints. It lies 31 km north of the Hoanib River on the C43 and is the northernmost point in Damaraland.

Following the construction of a road between Outjo and Sesfontein in 1901, the German authorities transported materials to build a military outpost. This was designed to assist in the prevention of poaching and gun-running in the aera and although a fort (complete with vegetable garden) was built, by 1909 Sesfontein had been relegated to the status of police outpost before being finally abandoned in 1914. The fort fell into disrepair but was given a reprieve in 1987 when the former Damara administration renovated it. Today it is home to the
Fort Sesfontein Lodge
. Amenities in Sesfontein include an Engen garage with shop just before the lodge gate and puncture repair places.

North from Sesfontein

While Sesfontein can be reached in saloon car, anywhere further north requires a 4WD. The choice from here is to head 11 km southeast to
Anabeb
and take the C43 north to Opuwo. In parts, this road runs through a valley that is so narrow elephants use the road. About 13 km from the junction at Anabeb is the short but very steep
Joubert Pass
. Another option is to continue north on the D3707 towards Purros and Orupembe. If you are going to take this route, ensure you have sufficient supplies and fuel before leaving Sesfontein.

Sesfontein to Purros

The tiny settlement of
Purros
is 107 km northwest of Sesfontein and the D3707 follows the (usually dry) Hoanib River. This stretch of road has recently been upgraded and should take about two to three hours in a 4WD. The area supports populations of desert elephant, black rhino, giraffe, gemsbok, ostrich and small numbers of predators such as leopard, cheetah and lion. The
Purros Campsite
is a NACOBTA initiative where local guides can be hired for hikes and to visit the Himba.

North of Purros

North of Purros is the part of Kaokoland where all the advice and warnings about travel come into play and be very careful about carrying sufficient fuel. Driving sensibly you can expect to get from Purros to just beyond Red Drum before having to pitch camp in the wild. Marked by a windmill,
Orupembe
is 105 km from Purros and about midway the D3707 skirts the boundary of the Skeleton Coast National Park and you are only about 40 km from the Atlantic Ocean. However, this is part of the Skeleton Coast that is closed to the public. Once at Orupembe, the D3707 heads 184 km east to Opuwo. Alternatively, from Orupembe turn northeast for 15 km on the D3703 to another intersection. The right fork is still the D3703 and continues to Opuwo, roughly 200 km, while the left fork goes another 50 km to
Red Drum
, literally a painted drum full of stones and bullet holes. Take a left here for Hartmann's Valley and a right for Marienfluss Valley. Remember it is not possible to get to Opuwo from Marienfluss Valley via Van Zyl's Pass as it can only be tackled from east to west. Instead you'll have to back track to the intersection with the D3703.

Opuwo

Surrounded by low-lying hills, Opuwo, which means 'the end' in Herero, is a small and uninspiring town in the middle of the bush, 235 km from Khorixas and 290 km from Oshakati. The town grew into a permanent settlement and administrative centre for the region during the bush war prior to independence, when the South Africa Defence Force used it as a base from which to launch expeditions into the surrounding area. There's an excellent new smart lodge here for tourists passing through to the more isolated, attractive spots in the region.

Opuwo's name is indeed appropriate as it is both the first and last place offering supplies, fuel, banks, accommodation and telecommunications in the region. Along or just off the main street are petrol stations, a few other shops, post office, an information centre and the town's bars. The residential areas are a few streets of bungalows built during the bush war for army and government personnel; these now house government officials and the few business people in the area. Not far away are the Himba and Herero settlements and their beehive huts surround the town.

If you want to visit one of the outlying Himba villages with a guide in your own vehicle, then go to the
Kaoko Information Office
, www.nacobta.com.na
. The guides speak English and will be able to translate for you. A half-day visit is also a way to put a little money into the local economy as crafts and other souvenirs can be bought directly from the people themselves. You will see many of the striking looking Himba people on the streets of Opuwo, indeed you may find yourself in a queue with them in one of the local supermarkets, but do not take photos. Always be accompanied by a guide/translator who will negotiate a donation for taking photographs.

Driving out of Opuwo can be a bit confusing. The C41 will take you 60 km east to the C35 (the main road heading north), on a good gravel road; turn right out of the Shell garage and immediately left past the BP garage, sports stadium and airfield. The C43 to Okongwati is also a good gravel road. The shortest route to Hartmann's Valley is via the D3703 through the Steilrand Mountains, but this involves negotiating Van Zyl's Pass, very much 4WD only .

Okongwati

This small settlement marks the end of the reasonable C43 from Opuwo. There is a police station, basic store, bottle shop and a scattered collection of houses. There is a small sign for
Epupa Camp
(for Epupa Falls), which takes you across a wide sandy riverbed shortly after leaving the village. This road needs to be driven with care; allow three hours.

By the time you reach Okongwati you need to have already decided which route you are going to follow. The reason for this is simply the availability of fuel and the distances you plan to cover. Opuwo is the most northeasterly source of fuel. There are a few possible routes you can follow and each will take you through beautiful country.

The adventurous and well-equipped can take the D3703 west from Okangwati towards Otjitanda, Van Zyl's Pass and Hartmann's Valley.

Van Zyl's Pass, Marienfluss and Hartmann's valleys

From Okongwati a rough track leads 36 km to
Van Zyl's Pass
, which is regarded as the most difficult mountain pass in Namibia. The narrow track, leading through the rugged Otjihipa Mountains, and consisting of coarse scree and jagged rocks, is not to be treated lightly and can only be crossed from east to west (downhill). If you reach here with less than three hours of daylight remaining, camp by the road and cross the pass in the morning. If you started your day's journey in Opuwo you will not manage to cross the pass before nightfall. The precipitous road gets very little maintenance from the authorities, it's strewn with large rocks, which you may have to remove; you will need to engage low ratio and, at times, diff-lock. From the top of the pass there is a scary view of the final 3 km drop. The pass was built by Van Zyl with the help of a few Himba and an ox cart and is a tremendous feat of engineering. From the bottom of the pass the track splits and goes north roughly 65 km to the
Okarohombo Campsite
on the Kunene River at the other end of the Marienfluss Valley, and south to Red Drum and the Hartmann's Valley. Having got this far, both valleys are worth visiting but you will need to be completely self-sufficient. There is only one campsite in this region, though there is an upmarket lodge in the upper reaches of the Skeleton Coast Park which can only be reached by plane Keep to existing tracks, which in places are soft sand. The
Marienfluss Valley
is very scenic and relatively greener than Hartmann's Valley. The valley is known for its 'fairy circles' - round patches without any sign of vegetation thought to consist of hard ground that is impenetrable by moisture. If you are interested in seeing such circles but can't get here, then a couple of days spent at the
NamibRand Nature Reserve
near Sossusvlei will teach you all that is currently known about their origins.

Hartmann's Valley
is closer to the Atlantic and yet much more arid. It has a strange atmosphere when the sea mists drift inland, rather like at Swakopmund. The drive is a tiring one and you should allow three hours to complete the 91 km from Red Drum to the end. Here the road meets a bank of sand dunes, which are part of the Skeleton Coast Park proper, and you are not permitted to continue. You will have to turn back on the same road. For other options from Red Drum .

As you drive up each of these valleys it is difficult not to feel a certain sense of achievement and good fortune to be able to visit such a beautiful and fragile environment. Somehow nothing else in Namibia has quite the same impact as a week or more discovering the beauty of Kaokoland.

Okongwati to Epupa Falls

From Okongwati, the road continues 76 km north to the beautiful
Epupa Falls
(allow three hours). The falls are a series of cascades where the Kunene River drops a total of 60 m over a distance of about 1.5 km. The main drop is roughly 32 m. As the river drops, it divides into a multitude of channels creating hundreds of small vegetated islands. While most people content themselves with a quick peek at the falls by the road, there is a path along the rocks high above the river, downstream of the falls, affording fine views back towards the falls. From here you can appreciate their extent and beauty, and see the range of vegetation including waving makalani palms, wild fig trees and precariously placed baobabs. These attract a varied birdlife so look out for bee-eaters, fish eagles, the Malachite kingfisher and paradise flycatchers. Beware of snakes on land and crocodiles in the water. Just before sunset, drive a short way back towards the airfield and take the only track to the right. This leads up to the top of the hill where you are presented with a magnificent view of the falls and all the islands. An ideal spot for your sundowner.

Over the past few years, Epupa has welcomed a considerable amount of tourist activity. There are thatched structures by the approach to the falls which house collections of local crafts. You will encounter a few (mostly South African) self-drive visitors and the occasional tour group being ferried from airstrip to Himba village to Epupa Falls to lodge; but this is a truly beautiful spot and one can only hope that too much tourism doesn't spoil it. Part of its charm lies in the effort required to get here; it's worth spending a couple of days to enjoy the feeling of remoteness. It is essential to take sufficient fuel as there is none at Epupa. There are, however, a couple of small shops selling fresh bread (the clay oven is outside) and whatever stocks have been brought in from Opuwo. Cold drinks and beer are available to refresh those without an onboard fridge.

Epupa Falls to Ruacana

The most straightforward route is to head south to Okangwati and Opuwa and loop round to Ruacana via the C41 and C35. However, if you have sufficient fuel and a high clearance 4WD (as well as off-road driving experience) you can follow the very rough D3700 next to the Kunene River. The narrow rocky track, whose course is vague in places, runs 125 km upstream from Epupa Falls to Ruacana via the
Kunene River Lodge
. Note this road does not follow the river as closely as some people expect and is very hard going in places. If you are not experienced but still want to follow the river to Ruacana, we recommend that you drive back to Okangwati and then south to Otjiveze on the D3700 and then take the D3701/3702 signposted
Kunene River Lodge
. While this road is not smooth or easy, it is not as tricky as the first part of the D3700 between the Epupa Falls and K
unene River Lodge
, and the road on to Ruacana Falls is in reasonable condition.

Ruacana Falls

Ruacana Falls are not the destination they once were. Built in 1975, the Calueque Dam 20 km upstream in Angola has stopped any flooding and the steady stream that does come through is deviated through the hidden turbines of Nampower's Ruacana Hydroelectric Power Station. While they are fully functional today, both the dam and the power station were bombed in a Cuban airstrike in 1988 during the Angolan civil war. However, this corner of the country is still worth a visit; the Kunene River continues to flow, there is a range of watersports including excellent whitewater rafting and canoeing, beautiful riverside accommodation and the chance to see the photogenic Himba and their villages.

Ruacana Falls are 15 km from Ruacana, well signposted from the C46. The falls can still be spectacular, but this requires consistent heavy rains (ie summer). Year-round, the flow of the river is increased and decreased with demand for electricity; it runs faster on weekdays in the morning and evening for example.

Below the falls is a gorge which ends at
Hippo Pools
where there are a couple of small islands in the middle of the channel. There is a campsite here, a NACOBTA project, where local guides will take people for walks along the river and to the falls. The border with Angola runs down the middle of the river below the main falls.

Ruacana

Ruacana itself is a useful supply stop for those heading to or returning from northern Kaokoland. The town only came into being as a camp for workers involved with the construction of the Ruacana Hydroelectric Power Station. The Kunene River provides both an important source of power for Namibia and water for irrigation in Owamboland, the water being carried by the
Ogongo Canal
alongside the C46 to lands beyond Oshakati.

Ruacana is well signposted, 5 km south of the C46; the airport is 3 km east along the C46. A legacy of the armed conflict in the area is that there is only one entrance into the settlement. This was an important South African military base; the barbed wire and bomb shelters are no longer here, but there is still the feel of a military camp. There is a BP garage, the only fuel in the area, with a well-stocked shop, a small supermarket 200 m further along the same road, hospital, post office and one good place to stay .

From Ruacana there are a few options. If you have approached through Oshakati you can avoid backtracking by returning south via the C35 past the western end of
Etosha National
Park
to
Kamanjab
, a 272-km drive. This road is navigable with a saloon car. For
Epupa
, 4WDs
can take the D3700 westward along the banks of the Kunene the entire 162 km of the journey, which is very challenging west of the
Kunene River Lodge
. The Shell road map of Kaokoland is your best companion for the journey .

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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