North of Etosha, around forty percent of the population is squeezed into under ten percent of the country’s landmass, across four small regions – Ohangwena, Oshana, Omusati and Oshikoto – more readily referred to as the “Four O’s”, or even Owamboland, the former apartheid-era designation for the homeland for the Owambo peoples. It’s the SWAPO heartland, where during the 1970s and 80s resistance against South African rule was at its fiercest, resulting in its conversion into a heavily militarized zone. Though development and reconstruction money has poured into the region post-independence, the emotional scars will take longer to heal, not helped by high unemployment and poverty – despite some pockets of wealth in evidence – with many people still having to migrate south in search of permanent or seasonal labour.

The urban agglomeration of Ondangwa, Ongwediwa and Oshakati, strung out thirty odd kilometres along the B1 and C46, is the commercial fulcrum of the north’s economy. Unprepossessing, flat towns, they contain little to interest the tourist, beyond browsing the open markets, though they are the gateway to a handful of interesting cultural sights in the vicinity. What’s more, they are good places to visit a bank and stock up on food supplies and fuel, though you’ll need to keep your wits about you and remain streetwise when parking your vehicle and going about your business. Most services are dotted along the dual carriageways in Ondangwa and Oshakati that scythe through the dust, lined with a seemingly endless stream of warehouses, car showrooms, service garages, tyre repair enterprises and cuca shops – shebeens (that also sell basic necessities) named after the Angolan beer that was illegally stocked here in the 1970s and 80s, and with alluring names such as Hot Stuff Bar, Nice Time Shebeen or Happy Life Number 2.

The rural landscape here too is strikingly different; expanses of flat, loamy sands are noticeably lacking in tree cover, beyond the emblematic clumps of makalani palms that stand sentinel, and pockets of mopane, fig and marula trees. Homesteads fill the countryside, though the traditional mopane palisades and conical thatched rondavels are gradually incorporating more aluminium, breezeblock and plastic sheeting in their construction. Hot, dry and dusty for much of the year due in no small part to the insidious downward spiral of overgrazing, land degradation and deforestation, the region’s harsh aridity is blunted somewhat once the iishana (shallow pools) fill with water and the seasonal rains arrive.

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