Northwestern Namibia is often seen as a faraway hinterland of desolation. Stark, empty and rugged landscapes as far as the eye can see. Home to ancient rock-art sites, the country’s tallest mountain, geological marvels and desert-adapted species such as elephant, lion, rhino and giraffe. The Kunene Region, made up of what was previously known as Damaraland and the Kaokoveld, is an enigmatic and magnetic corner of this vast land, full of hidden gems and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
GEMS, CURIOS AND SHOPPING ON THE ROADSIDE
As you traverse the northwest’s gravel roads en-route to far-flung destinations, you will note small and unassuming stalls along the side of the road. These setups, often built from rugged wooden poles, are in actual fact small curio shops that locals of the region have built near their homes. Many have made creative signs or statues to advertise their small enterprise and you might see them waving, dressed in colourful cultural garb, as you drive by. If you choose to stop at one of these shops though, you won’t be disappointed. Beaded necklaces, carved bracelets (or some made from recycled plastic), wooden animal statues, baskets, material dolls or semi-precious stones and gems are all on offer here. Friendly locals will explain how each craft is made when asked and are all too happy for your business. If the shop or stall appears unattended, do not fret! Soon after pulling over you will likely see a child or young adult come running along from their nearby settlement to welcome their newest, or perhaps only, patron for the day. Many stalls also run on an honesty system. The general prices of items are scratched into the wood or marked with pencil. Just leave the money in the jar provided or under a rock and be on your merry way, locally sourced and handmade crafts in hand to take home with you as a pleasant reminder of your rural shopping experience.
BRANDBERG’S FAMOUS LADY
The famous – or recently perhaps more infamous – White Lady of the Brandberg is the most noteworthy and legendary rock painting of the mountain and the surrounding areas. The Brandberg, Namibia’s tallest mountain, is host to numerous rock art sites, dated between 2000 and 4000 years old. The White Lady is located in what is known as Maack’s Shelter, named after the surveyor who discovered it in January 1918. Reinhard Maack came upon the site by chance when he stopped to rest in the shade of a rocky overhang while he and his companions were descending the mountain. Just two days earlier they had stood on its highest peak, Königstein. Their expedition is the first recorded climb to the very top. French pre-historian Henri Breuil, a foremost authority on cave art at the time, determined that the painting was that of a white female of Mediterranean descent, despite Maack’s own conclusion that the figure was male. Much debate has ensued on the true origins and the depiction of the Brandberg’s White Lady, with archaeologists discussing whether the painting is male or female, Mediterranean or Khoisan. But how are we to ever really know the truths of ancient times? Today Maack’s Shelter is a National Heritage site, open to visitors daily. Be sure to start the hour-long walk early in the day to avoid the heat.
TWYFELFONTEIN ROCK ART
In 2007 the site was inscribed as a UNESCO cultural World Heritage Site. The 2 000-plus rock engravings at Twyfelfontein in the Kunene Region represent one of Africa’s largest and most important rock-art concentrations. They are estimated to be 6 000 years and the newer paintings approximately 2 000 years old.
The Burnt Mountain, just south of Twyfelfontein in Damaraland, is part of a 12-kilometre long volcanic rim. The sediments of ancient lava flows make for a visually interesting and unexpected geological spectacle.
Visit Ma i Go Ha, Save the Rhino Trust Namibia’s basecamp at Palmwag, to learn more about rhino conservation in the region.
TRACK A DESERT-ADAPTED RHINO
In an increasingly virtual world, a ‘real’ adventure has become rarer than… well, rarer than a desert-adapted black rhino. The unique population of black rhino found in the remote north-western Kunene Region of Namibia is the largest one in the world to have survived outside of a formally protected park. Through the work of Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), IRDNC, MET and the local community, the numbers of black rhino in the region have more than doubled since 1985.
At the centre of this species’ conservation is Desert Rhino Camp, offering one of the most original wildlife experiences to be had today: tracking a “desert rhino,” as these rhinos are commonly known, in the starkly beautiful Palmwag Concession. An experience that can well be classified as once in a lifetime. The experience plays off in the 450 000 hectares Palmwag Concession in Damaraland – a region characterised by its minimalist beauty and a surprising wealth of arid-adapted wildlife.
The black rhino is known to be shy and easily agitated, moving away from people when disturbed. As a result, it often leaves protected areas and ventures into places where it may be exposed to poaching activities. Therefore, if a rhino becomes aware of tourists watching, it may well take off in a hurry, which defeats the purpose. To avoid that, you get the pleasure of enjoying an extraordinary sighting on foot, as long as trackers deem the situation safe for both parties. Conservation and safety first.
As you stand on the red soil, car parked far off behind a hill, looking at a rhino cow browsing on a Euphorbia damarana bush, you will finally understand the enormity of the situation. First of all, it is mind-blowing that there is no fence between the two of you. Maybe for the first time you will actually realise how huge these animals are. You will recognise and appreciate the weight that the SRT trackers carry to protect this special species. And you will get the thrill of knowing that you contributed to their conservation.
After all, the goal of saving the rhino is bigger than one group of people and arouses passion on more than one continent. Support keeps coming from around the world, from organisations as well as individuals. It is a battle that we as Namibians cannot face alone. Become part of our conservation story.
Rhino tracking is offered by a number of lodges in the area, including Desert Rhino Camp and Grootberg Lodge, and is facilitated by Save the Rhino Trust and communal conservancy game guards.
CLIMB THE SPITZKOPPE
Spitzkoppe is known as Namibia’s Matterhorn, due to its striking resemblance to the mountain in the Alps. The mass of granite rock in the otherwise flat landscape of the Erongo is about 700 million years old and sports an impressive plethora of ancient San paintings. When camping at the foot of Spitzkoppe, however, the extent of this collection of rock art is put into perspective. Scramble up the mountain’s sides, try not to do it on all fours, and if you are lucky you find rainwater pools along the way for an ice-cold dip. The daring among us might opt for a more exciting and somewhat dangerous activity: rock climbing to the top. Spitzkoppe may not seem like the toughest rock to climb, but appearances can be deceiving. The rough granite is tough on the hands and the climbs range from the relatively easy level 16 to the more difficult 24. The reward, though, is endless views from the summit.
FIND A LONE MAN
The Kaokoland has long been described as a forlorn and mysterious place, but a new enigma has recently emerged, one that adds to the atmosphere of this fascinating wilderness – the Lone Men of Kaokoland. Nearly life-size sculptures of men have started appearing across the area. Made from thick metal wire and rock prevailing in the region, the figures strike different poses and each is perched in a different desolate spot on this landscape. No one knows who makes them, but their unpredictability surely keeps adventurers entertained and intrigued. Keep alert, they may surprise you around any bend!
AMP AT THE KUNENE RIVER
The Kunene, strong yet calm, emanates a sense of peace, also reflected in the demeanour of the local Himba. Outdoor lovers can treat themselves to the unforgettable experience of camping directly on the banks of the Kunene River.
A hike through the 400 km2 Etendeka Concession in the Omatendeka and Anabeb Conservancies will take you through the untouched landscape in the foothills of the Grootberg Mountain massif. This new hiking adventure is facilitated by Etendeka Mountain Camp.
EXPERIENCE THE SPRAY OF THE EPUPA FALLS
Sit on a rock on the side of the main falls with the water gushing below and the baobabs rising from the cliff sides. You will want to return for a second helping of this baobab-and-water treat.
HISTORY IS ALIVE WITH NAMIBIA’S LIVING MUSEUMS
A ‘Living Museum’ may seem like an oxymoron, but this novel initiative by the Living Culture Foundation of Namibia (LCFN) has provided a new lease on the concept of cultural tourism. These open-air museums, as they are sometimes classified, offer visitors an utterly unique view into the traditional cultures, skills and identity of Namibia’s endemic peoples. They also support the preservation of cultural heritage for local communities, and at the same time create job opportunities for those who make the visitor’s experience an engaging and enlightening affair. Learn first-hand about living in the Namibian bush, dance and sing around a traditional fire, learn about ancient techniques of medicine-making, crafts and cooking and be amazed by the intriguing cultural diversity of this corner of Africa.
Visit Namibia’s Living Museums across the north of the country:
The Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi (Namibia’s first Living Museum) at Grashoek; also stop at the Little Hunter’s Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San close to Tsumkwe
The Living Museum of the Mafwe, situated under huge Baobab trees near the Kwando River in the Zambezi Region
The Living Museum of the Damara close to Twyfelfontein
The Living Museum of the Mbunza, 14 kilometres west of Rundu in the Kavango Region
The Ovahimba Living Museum near Opuwo