The cowboy turned country singer from yesteryear, Roy Rodgers, unwittingly described Namibia perfectly: “Give me land, lots of land with starry skies above, but don’t fence me in”. Bernie Williams was recently lured back to this charming African country.
If I had to describe the magic of Namibia I would have to talk at length about the wide-open spaces with a biodiversity second to none. It is a true wilderness area, and much of that is down to the people who live there and want to keep it that way.
Whether you are in the arid south or the old mining town of Luderitz, visiting the tourist hub of Swakopmund or the Himba in the north-western corner, its people are welcoming, friendly and always willing to assist. Okay, almost everyone! The immigration officer at the Namibian border post must be the exception – he decided that it was time for me to get a history as well as geography lesson when I detailed my final destination. According to him, the Kaokoveld no longer exists and it is now called the Kunene Region. Being my polite self, I informed him that no matter how many times they try to change the name, in my heart and that of many other travellers, it will always be the Kaokoveld.
For me, Namibia is the best tourist destination in southern Africa. You simply cannot help but want to share it with friends. When I started promoting my Namib adventure, I secretly hoped it would attract a small group of like-minded people. We don’t always get what we wish for, but on a recent adventure there, the gods smiled on me! The oldest person in our group was Uncle Jim French, all the way from the UK. What an absolute gentleman. Now pushing 77, he has undertaken many solo adventures in his trusty Land Cruiser 4.2-litre single cab and is well equipped for this type of travel. Carol and Dave Bennet, in a Toyota Hilux 3.0-litre D-4D, are long-time friends from Klerksdorp, and they brought along Dale and Charmain Ridder, in a 3.2-litre Ford Ranger. Dale turned out to be quite a character, keeping us well entertained with his special brand of humour. Last, but not least, was Christopher Bennet and his dad in another Hilux D-4D, who booked this trip as a special father-and-son bonding adventure.
In the days before the start, it was agreed that everyone would meet up at Ripley’s campsite just outside of Windhoek. Kallie Swart and Christa Bergh are the perfect hosts and very good friends of mine. They have campsites as well as chalets and luxury tents available. With everyone safe at the campsite we settled down for the obligatory first night “braai & banter”. The next morning would see a relaxed and easy start to our 10- day adventure to the land of the Himba people.
Let’s Get going
Our next stop was Kamanjab, around 480km north of Windhoek. En route we passed through the bustling little town of Outjo. To my dismay my favorite butchery had closed, but I was still able to get hold of some decent Namibian biltong before carrying on to Kamanjab. With only 6 000 inhabitants, don’t expect too much of this little town. It is, however, a reliable refueling pit-stop and the well-known Oppi-Koppi Rest Camp offers fully-equipped chalets and camping facilities. The bar and restaurant are extremely popular with the local farming community and you are sure to meet some interesting people over a couple of ice-cold Jägermeisters. It is the perfect base for a day trip into Estosha National Park via the Galton gate. After a hearty breakfast at the restaurant, it was time for us to get this adventure officially off the ground. The original plan was to stay over at Kunene River Lodge, but at the time of doing our bookings the lodge was flooded. The closest accommodation was the Opuwo Country Lodge. Make sure that you fill up all your jerry cans and extra fuel tanks in Opuwo as this will be the last reliable fuel until you reach Palmwag roughly 700km away. Here you will find most retail shops and can stock up on the basics, but be vigilant as petty crime seems to have become a real problem in the village.
It was also the place where things almost went badly for us as a group. They have beautiful campsites and facilities at the lodge and an awesome view over the valley below. However, in the early hours of the morning, Uncle Jim was woken by someone trying to get into his tent. Being a seasoned traveller in Africa, he quickly got the fellow to scoot off. In the commotion, Dave and Carol woke up to find three guys outside their tent. I went looking for the security guard, only to find him sound asleep! At check-out in the morning, I told the lady at reception what had happened. She disappeared into the manager’s office and came back with a message that they would speak to the security company, without much more concern for our discomfort or safety. Rather disappointing, but at least we all were safe and sound.
Our route took us all the way to the Kunene River, passing the Dorsland Trekkers monument. This is worth a stop. The Dorsland Trekkers were hardy farmers from the then Western Transvaal, trying to escape the rule of the British at the time. The original trek was led by Gert Alberts and covered around 2 000km through Botswana and Namibia from 1874 to 1881. Most of the trekkers settled around Humpata in Angola. Many returned to the south and on that trek succumbed to thirst and the ever-present malaria pest. There are still dependents of these Boer trekkers to be found in Angola today.
We discovered that the Kunene River Lodge had in fact reopened for camping after the flood. Had I known that I would have preferred to travel to the lodge as the campsite is on the banks of the Kunene River with awesome views over Angola. No use crying over spilled beer, I guess. If you plan a trip via western Namibia to Kunene, I would strongly recommend making use of this lodge – they offer a range of activities and it is worth staying longer than only one night. Sadly, the very challenging Kunene 4×4 trail, also known as Swartbooisdrif Road, is no longer operational. It used to be 90km of difficult sand and riverbed driving in a wonderfully remote setting, taking you a full day to reach Epupa Falls. There is now a graded road all the way from Ruacana to Epupa Falls, though not much maintenance is seemingly being done here and the riverbeds that need to be crossed can sometimes be challenging. On this section of road, you have the perfect view of what they call the Zebra Mountains.
Falling in love with the falls
Our next nights’ accommodation was at the popular Epupa Falls Lodge, which is owned and managed by Koos Verwey, a colourful character who has been here for longer than three decades. He started his hospitality career here and is now synonymous with the far northwest of the Kunene region. He has a solid reputation through his dedication and loyalty to the local people.
The lodge is involved in upliftment projects with the local people, and has assisted with drought relief in the area over the last few years. Koos always makes any experience in the area something special, whether it is visiting the local Himba village or taking a day hike. Of course, the highlight is Epupa Falls, where the water spreads out over a large area and plummets into a gorge 40 metres below. When the Kunene River is in full flood, it is a spectacular sight! There is a lookout point with a minimal entrance fee and the route offers several shelters where you can sit and relax, taking in the sights and sounds of the falls. The Makalani palm trees in the campsite give the sense of a true desert oasis – a little paradise in the middle of this barren land.
Our route took us south now to the village of Okongwati where the old SADF base still exists and is now used by the Namibian Defence Force. From here we start making our way in a south-westerly direction to the infamous Van Zyl’s Pass. The community campsite is situated in a magnificent spot, but at the time of our visit there was no water available – thus not much use for the shower and flushing toilets. Regardless, with surroundings that are hauntingly beautiful and quiet, we had without a doubt one of the best evenings enjoyed around the campfire.
All Van Zyl’s Pass “graduates” have a lot to say about this notorious pass. Most of it is urban legend, though. What is very true is the fact that the “road” getting to the actual pass is more challenging than the pass itself! Along the way you will find what is left of an off-road trailer that didn’t survive. As you are almost done with the pass you come across the point where the spectacular Marienfluss opens before you. But the descent into this natural wonder is where things get very interesting. To make things more hair-raising, you can look to the left and see the wrecks of vehicles that rolled down the pass. A good reminder to keep focused! The unwritten rule is that the pass is only driven from east to west, but there are always people that try to prove a point by driving up the pass, causing massive damage to the tracks. Please don’t be that guy! Respect our environment, because the places that are still open to us overland travelers are getting fewer by the day! From Van Zyl’s Pass we start to cross the Marienfluss. This large valley with its characteristic red sand colour provides grazing for the cattle and goats of the Himba population. It covers an area of around 3 300 square kilometres, and was registered as a conservancy in 2001. There are only 340 people in the entire area – around one person per square kilometre! Income is normally derived from hunting and tourism. However, at the time of our visit, the drought had played havoc, and with hardly any grass in the valley, we stumbled upon many cattle carcasses as well as the carcass of a giraffe.
While crossing the valley we come across a well-known beacon in the form of an old Isuzu pick-up that detonated a landmine. From here you make your way south until you reach “Rooidrom”, which is also known as the Jan Joubert Memorial. He was an intrepid adventurer that loved this area and was sadly murdered in the eastern parts of Namibia. From here we keep heading in a southerly direction toward Orupembe and the well-known Marble Mine. A well-run community campsite is situated here which is where we were heading. However, it was closed due to the water shortage so our group opted to head straight to Puros along what should be the main road. Its condition is horrendous, though, with corrugations as deep as the Kimberley Hole! We eventually reached Puros in the late afternoon. The reason for taking the main track was that one of our travelling companions was dangerously low on fuel.
Normally my route would take me down the Hoarusib River, which is by far the more scenic route to travel, but on this occasion we had to give it a miss. If you ask around in the village of Puros you will be pointed in the right direction for either petrol or diesel, at a price! In this case R22 per litre! It’s like brandy during lockdown, I guess: no matter what the price, it’s still a bargain. Our campsite for the next three nights was the Puros community campsite situated on the edge of the Hoarusib River. To be honest, I was in no hurry to leave this campsite. If you are lucky, the desert elephants will visit, and this is always a splendid sight. Just be warned, they are not to be messed with as they have killed tourists in the camp on previous occasions.
From here we visited the Jan Joubert koppie with its great views over the area and explored further north on the river in search of those elusive desert elephants, who were simply nowhere to be found. We found ourselves a scenic spot to enjoy lunch and a cold one before slowly driving back to our campsite. We were blessed with light showers that helped to cool everything down, providing welcome relief from the heat of the past few days. The next morning, we set out to visit the beautiful Puros Canyon. With good rains in the area not long before, and the rivers coming down in flood, the dynamics of the terrain had changed somewhat. While driving towards the canyon I spotted two sets of vehicle tracks heading in the same direction. It wasn’t too long before we came across the two vehicles: a Ford Ranger, and a Mercedes Gelandewagen. The Ranger was well and truly stuck. We stopped to assist, and I invited them to join us in our visit to the canyon. The sand in the canyon is almost like quicksand, and here it was the turn of the G-wagon to get well and truly stuck. What we thought was going to be an easy recovery turned out to be an hour-long exercise!
After lunch it was time to head back to our campsite, once again through the canyon – only for the G-wagon to get stuck again! Another half an hour later, we were on our way. After getting back to the main track and making sure our new friends were safe, we bid them farewell. The next morning, we made our way toward Sesfontein. In all my years of travelling in this area the gas station in Sesfontein has never had fuel, so do not plan a fuel stop here. Our next planned camping spot was the Khowarib Lodge on the banks of the Hoanib River in the spectacular Khowarib Gorge, and this meant driving the 60km back to Palmwag. If you feel like glamping, Palmwag Lodge is a great stop where you will find great amenities and spectacular views. We took a bit of a break and enjoyed some refreshments before making our way back to Khowarib Lodge. We decided to spoil ourselves with dinner at the lodge, a decision that proved well worth it. This is definitely one of those bucket-list places to visit.
The time had come to start heading back to Windhoek, but not before we had driven through one of the most spectacular places in Namibia – the Khowarib Schlucht. The Schlucht is an intriguing geological formation offering stunning scenery and untamed tracks. Driving in the thick sands of the Hoarib River the track is a test for any experienced 4×4 traveller. Although the trail is only 55km long, make sure that you are well prepared. As beautiful as the Koakoveld can be, it can be just as unforgiving. Do not attempt this route on your own or at the very least make sure that you have a satellite phone with you should you run into trouble. You cross the so-called “red line” for the control of foot and mouth disease, although when we passed through there was not a single soul in sight. Our adventure had come full circle, finishing in Kamanjab at Oppi-Koppi Rest Camp. Everyone in the group opted for a chalet for the last night before heading back to Windhoek the next day, where we said our goodbyes. To me the Kaokoveld – yes, that is what I call it – will always be one of my favorite destinations. The harshness of the landscape, the views, and the sheer beauty of it all keep me going back every time.
*Kaokaland is a favourite among our contributors, including for Simon and Desiree Steadman of Ultimate Adventures, who shared the first two parts of their adventure in the previous editions. Sadly, the Steadmans suffered a bout of Covid-19 and then got stuck in Botswana, so could not finish writing up the final instalment of their epic tale before we went to print. Watch this space. – Ed.
Ripleys Camp, Windhoek
An easy 20-minute drive from Windhoek, Ripleys offer secure camping, chalets or tented accommodation. Amenities include a swimming pool, braai areas and a walking trail, where you will see sable, springbok, blesbok, impala and nyala.
CONTACT: email@example.com | www.ripleyscamp.com
Oppi-Koppi Rest Camp, Kamanjab
An oasis in the desert, Oppi-Koppi is the last (and ideal) rest stop before venturing further to Etosha, Windhoek, Damaraland, Kaokoland, Epupa Falls or Swakopmund. It offers a number of self-catering rooms and five campsites, all equipped with a braai area, power outlet, a tap and neat ablutions.
Kunene River Lodge
Situated on the bank of the Kunene River, which forms the northwestern border between Angola and Namibia, the Kunene River Lodge offers various accommodation options and a number of activities – including Himba village visits, white-river rafting, canoeing and fishing on the Kunene River. A lush canopy of indigenous trees provides shade for the chalets and campsites, which all include a power point, braai area and ablution facilities with hot showers and flushing toilets.
CONTACT: +264 61 224 712 / +264 61 250 725 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.kuneneriverlodge.com