Solitude, silence and contrast call to the adventurous spirit.
The northwestern stretches of Namibia, comprising what was previously known as Damaraland and Kaokoland, now the Erongo and Kunene regions, have been described in countless ways. Most lean toward the extremes. A harsh land. A visit to another world. Not of this earth. More like Mars. Uninhabitable. Unimaginable. The word, however, that will forever best describe it – the landscape, the fauna, the flora, the people – is rugged.
As you travel from the central highlands covered in acacia bush, or from the desert wonderland of the coast, into this rough-hewn northwest, you will notice the stark change in scenery almost immediately. It is not a gentle shift or subtle slope. One minute there is either bush or sand and within a short turn of the earth on its axis you find yourself surrounded by red rocky ranges. The real adventure starts where the tar road ends. The smell of dust. The bumpy rhythm of tyres on gravel.
To many, the first introduction to the region are the protruding peaks of the Spitzkoppe, an inselberg in the middle of vast flat plains. Not unlike a gothic cathedral, it towers over the surrounding landscape, a fitting prelude to the dramatic displays yet to come.
Here, everything is few and far between. Gravel roads connect conservancy areas where humanity lives in the most wonderfully simplistic of ways, right alongside the wilderness. Encased in it. More often than not, surrounded by nothing…
There is magic in the “nothingness”. The remoteness. Can you conceive a place where with little over-exaggeration you may wonder if there is indeed another human within a 100 km radius?
How do things survive here? Among the rocks and sand. Through wind and drought and harsh heat beating down on the ravished yet utterly beautiful earth. The enormous clear sky above.
Yet, despite all logic, no rhyme or reason, on the hills and mountainsides, across gravel plains and in dry ephemeral rivers, you will find so much life. Hardy plants flourishing in a world of extremes – commiphora, sterculia, welwitschia, albitrunca – and wild creatures so well-adapted that they thrive in number and astonish anyone lucky enough to come across them in this hinterland. Perhaps most confounding of all – the people. Humans who have made the craggy slopes their home, and the wildlife their neighbours. Who share their meagre water with giants. And who stand up with a vehement passion to those who threaten the survival of species they have claimed as kin.
One in four Namibians choose to live with wildlife. Here, in the north-western parts they are the Damara, Herero, Riemvasmakers and Himba. Each with an enthralling story of how they got here, how they ended up in this corner of the world. Where did their ancestors’ pasts take such a dramatic turn? Millennia ago, the earliest inhabitants of southern Africa, the San, left their marks and told their stories on the rock faces of outcrops in the region. Today, connoisseurs and the curious travel from far-away continents to view, ponder and interpret the messages they left behind. Their rock art and engravings the subject of legend.
From the granite boulder-strewn plains northward you will cross the Ugab, Huab, Uniab, Hoanib, Hoarusib, Khumib. All of them rivers, technically, yet they run dry. Far off from almost any direction the bulk of Namibia’s highest mountain, the Brandberg, lay in view. On clear days it seems like you can see it from a world away.
Along the dry rivers, wildlife meanders – slow and steady like the changing of the seasons. Hustling to survive. Allowing visitors a glimpse at life where it flourishes in an unyielding, weather-tarnished landscape. Special species, adapted to life in this harsh terrain. On the rare occasions when enough rain has fallen inland, water inundates the river systems and drenches the land, kick-starting life. Giraffe, springbok, gemsbok, steenbok, jackal and many more creatures thrive here. The most iconic of them all: desert-adapted elephants, lions and black rhino.
For the black rhino this region is a sanctuary. They are the largest free-roaming population on the globe. Modern day dinosaurs, millions of years in the making, so perfectly in sync with the ancient geological marvels of the terrain. A land before, or perhaps beyond, time.
To the far north, with the Kunene River and Angola beyond, gaze down into the Hartman’s Valley from the surrounding heights, the Marienfluss to the east. Nothing will prepare you for the sight.
Sweeping landscapes. Fairy circles scattered across the valley floor. A moment of absolute awe at the magnitude of space, and the mystery of how it all came to be. A valley from where the horizon-bending vantage stretches to infinity.
A lone Himba traversing the vast land like a mirage in heat and dust.
Take a moment as you stare across the mighty expanse. This quietly wondrous desertscape. A moment that might help you realise how small we and our problems are in the grand scheme of things. These ancient terrains have stood the test of time. Weather, volcanoes, earthquakes and floods bigger than our minds can fathom, beyond the realm of our understanding, have shaped this dramatic vista.
We are here to marvel at the wonders of nature, appreciate not intrude. Absorb, not take.
A day in the Kunene is akin to floating inside a kaleidoscope. A colour wheel. A Pantone performance. The mornings start soft and subtle. Pastels with a watercolour wash of mist and fog. Then the acute rays of the sun morph the world into piercing contrast. A glittering reflection of bright and beautiful life casting the textured ochre landscape into sharp relief. At the golden hour the rugged hues of orange turn a dramatic molten lava red and the world around you is set ablaze. As the pink sun sinks toward the horizon, the dark blues of far-off mountainscapes offset the cerise skyline. A multi-layered visage. Like cardboard cut-outs. An artwork of depth. Further and further away the mountains lie, navy protrusions, another adventure on the horizon. And when the darkness of night finally descends, the sky is once again set alight. Either by the brightest of moons, seemingly so close you can reach out and stroke its cratered surface, or by the inconceivable grandeur of Namibia’s evening sky. Fireflies stuck on a midnight blue canopy. Shooting embers sparking across the vast nothingness overhead.
And it is in that moment, with days spent in the harsh beauty of this rugged corner of Namibia, that you can absorb and appreciate the fact that few places such as this still exist in the world.
Damaraland. Kaokoland. Hinterland.
No matter the name, the north-western wilderness of Namibia – enigmatic, forlorn, dramatic and rugged – will always have the most authentic atmosphere and character. Untouched beauty. The solitude and silence of this land of contrasts will forever call to the adventurous spirit.
Kaokoland extends from the Kunene River southwards across a sparsely populated and harsh environment down to the ephemeral Hoanib River. The area holds a special allure for those who love remote and wild places, to negotiate the challenging and rugged terrain in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Attractions include the famous desert-adapted elephants, scattered Himba settlements, the impressive Epupa Falls, off-the-beaten-track destinations such as the expansive Marienfluss and Hartmann valleys, the wild and beautiful Khowarib Schlucht as well as Swartbooisdrift, site of a Dorslandtrekker monument.
It’s hard to believe that plants can flourish in a harsh arid landscape such as this. Hardy and rugged plants grow among the rock-strewn plains and on eroded slopes. A wide variety of species such as commiphora, euphorbia and other desert plants are found there. Namibia’s national plant, the Welwitschia mirabilis, is a wonder in itself. Endemic to the Namib, it occurs in the desert’s central and north-western parts, up into Angola. These plants can live up to 2000 years. The dry ephemeral river systems are often lined by tall trees. Ana trees, lead wood and camel thorn are a source of food for elephants that roam the area. Some of the trees are as ancient as the land around them – like this old and gnarly camel thorn in the Aba Huab River.
The geology of a landscape is such an innate aspect of it that it is easily overlooked. The complexity and beauty of how this rugged terrain was formed is something that should not be overlooked. The fauna and flora of the region is certainly to be admired, but appreciating the fundamental force with which the landscape was shaped is just as intriguing. It is a story of collisions and accretion that resulted in the formation of the supercontinent of Gondwana 550 million years ago. When Gondwana started to break apart 180 million years ago, extensive volcanic activity created vast fields of lava that covered much of what is north-western Namibia today. In many places, tectonics lifted the margins of the new continent and entire mountain ranges formed. Erosion smoothed the landscape and further shaped it over the ages. Left for us to marvel at is one of the most interesting and intricate patchworks of geology in Namibia, known as the Damara Sequence in the greater area of the Erongo, Brandberg and Doros Crater.
Both fauna and flora have adapted to the harsh terrains. In the ephemeral river systems, biodiversity thrives.
Namibia’s acclaimed Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) programme was a game-changer in conservation in Africa. Through the inception of this programme in the mid-90s, the Namibian government gave local communities ownership rights to the natural resources that they live with. Communities set up legal entities, known as conservancies, which have an internal governing system and management plans to derive financial benefits for their members through the utilisation of natural resources. Examples of such use include tourism enterprises (e.g. joint venture lodges with private companies or tourism operations in their own right) and conservation hunting. With income generated by activities such as rhino tracking, the conservancy is able to appoint more game guards and thereby simultaneously creates more jobs and protects wildlife. This sense of ownership of wildlife encourages communities to preserve and protect what is now their asset. The CBNRM programme has been tremendously successful.
Here, a Himba woman harvests myrr from a Commiphora wildii. This sustainable practice is a much-needed source of income for these remote communities.
The Brandberg is Namibia’s highest mountain. Rising from the flat landscape around it, the mass of rock can be seen from far and wide on clear days. The Brandberg massif covers an area of 760 km² and has a mean height of 2 500 metres. The highest peak is the Königsstein at 2 573 metres above sea level. Numerous rock paintings are found in the Brandberg area. The most famous is the White Lady, discovered in 1917 by Reinhard Maack. Originally the painting was interpreted as that of a woman of European descent. Now scientists are convinced that it depicts a San warrior or shaman. Nevertheless, the name White Lady remains.
Perhaps Namibia’s greatest conservation success story is that of the black rhinoceros. The largest free-roaming population on the globe can be found in the northwest. After a shocking decline of 98% between 1960 and 1995, the population stabilised, with a resurgence in poaching in the years 2012 to 2017. It is estimated that there are fewer than 5 600 black rhinos left in the wild today. Namibia is thought to be home to 95% of them. Since the peak of poaching in 2013, the collective effort of government, police, NGOs and most notably the communities that live in the area, has resulted in poaching operations dropping by 80%.
With its scenic surroundings, the Epupa Falls are one of Namibia’s most pristine tourist destinations. The ‘falls’ are a series of cascades where the Kunene River drops a total of 60 metres over a distance of about 1.5 km, forming a multitude of channels and a myriad of rock pools.
Namibia’s coastline extends over more than 1500 km from the Orange River in the south to the Kunene in the north. Scattered along these tumultuous shores are over 1000 wrecks of ships and crafts that never reached their destination. The northern section of the coastline and the adjoining desert landscapes form the Skeleton Coast National Park. From the Ugab River northward to the Kunene River, and up to 70 km inland in certain places, this conservation area protects some of the most pristine arid landscapes in the world. This wilderness is home to desert-adapted wildlife and ancient flora. Dramatic vistas are mostly untouched by the destructive human hand.