Occupying the northwest corner of Namibia, northern Kunene is a predominantly mountainous wilderness area, accessed by few roads and sparsely populated even by Namibian standards. The Baynes Mountains, which overlook the picturesque Epupa Falls on the Kunene River, rise to over 2000m. Elsewhere, the land consists of rock-strewn, reddish earth covered in acacia trees and flat-topped escarpments. Often referred to as Kaokoland – the former bantustan name that is still commonly used to designate the geographical area – it is home to the vast majority of the fifty thousand Himba, who are very much in evidence in Opuwo, the Kunene region’s unlikely capital. Stretching from the Skeleton Coast in the west a few hundred kilometres inland towards Etosha, northern Kunene is bounded by the perennial Kunene River in the north, which marks the border with Angola, and the dry Hoanib River in the south. It is here, and along the sandy riverbeds of the Huab, Hoarusib and Khumib rivers, that desert-adapted elephants and black rhino wander, seeking out vegetation in the scarce, spring-fed waterholes.
There’s a touch of the Wild West about Opuwo, a frontier feel that exists nowhere else in Namibia. During the day, there’s a purposeful bustle of tourists, NGO workers and the occasional film crew passing through on their way to somewhere else – usually Epupa Falls, lesser-explored parts of the Kaokoveld, or a Himba village – pausing only to stock up with supplies. Indeed, the reason most tourists are drawn to Opuwo – though relatively few ever reach this remote region – is in order to interact with and learn about the Himba.
Only officially declared a town in 2000, Opuwo is now the regional capital of Kunene. For many years after independence it was a neglected backwater – in no small part due to the fact that many Himba and Herero, who are related to the Himba and also fairly well represented in the town, were on the wrong side in the independence struggle. Even now, Opuwo’s town centre still consists of little more than a couple of paved roads that converge at a T-junction, a collection of government buildings and ever-expanding, informal Himba settlements. Indeed, when many Himba lost cattle and other livestock in Namibia’s worst drought for thirty years, in 2013, they saw little alternative than to migrate to Opuwo in the hope of some relief. These days, pavements are crammed with Himba camping out, the women surrounded by crawling babies, swigging out of large bottles of Fanta, while the older men sit in deckchairs or on makeshift stools, surveying the scene. Himba from remote villages also periodically come into town, to visit the hospital or to sell crafts to tourists.
There are no tourist sights as such, but pick your way through the rubble and rubbish dumped by the roadside and the thriving shebeens to take a wander round the Himba market behind the main shopping complex, or seek out the newly opened Kunene Conservancy processing plant, Scents of Africa, just north of the T-junction, which manufactures Himba cosmetics made from traditional ingredients, and offers guided tours (daily at 2.30pm; t 081 214 8448); alternatively browse the many crafts that are likely to be dangled in front of you by Himba keen to sell.
Before the Kunene River empties into the Atlantic on the Skeleton Coast, it fans out across a broad valley, forming numerous channels that skirt round islands and trip, tumble and cascade over a series of cataracts, before plunging into a chasm. This is Epupa Falls – Epupa meaning “falling water” in Otjiherero. The main cataract is a mere 35m and only captures a third of the river’s flow, but the whole scene is truly magical: set against the backdrop of the Baynes Mountains, lofty Makalani palms interspersed with majestic jackalberries and sycamore figs fringe the riverbank, while stout baobabs and silvery moringa trees balance precariously on the rocks above the ravines. Though at their fullest and most impressive in April and May, when the water thunders and the spray obscures your view, the falls are picturesque even in the dry season, when expanses of attractive reddish-brown rock and tiny grassy islets are exposed.
Birdlife is abundant – including the localized endemic Cinderella waxbill and rufous-tailed palm thrush – and a walk upriver from the falls is likely to yield sightings of watchful crocs half submerged in the shallows, or lazing on the riverbanks. One of the most delightful places to camp in all Namibia, Epupa also attracts visitors whose main aim is to interact with the semi-nomadic Himba, one of Africa’s most resilient – and most photographed – indigenous peoples.
Ruacana Falls were once a truly spectacular sight, a 600m wide wall of water, plunging 120m into the gorge below, making it one of the largest falls in Africa. However, a hydroelectric power station and dam built in the late 1970s – Namibia’s main source of power – soon put an end to this natural wonder. On the rare occasions that heavy rains produce too much water, however, the sluice gates are opened upriver in Angola, and the dramatic aquatic show is resumed, albeit only temporarily. However, even in the dry season the bare, sheer rock face and the impressive gorge below are worth the short detour if you’re in the area, provided you ignore the heavily littered viewpoint. Don’t forget to fill up with fuel, 17km away, in the nearby near-deserted town of Ruacana, which only came into being to house workers for the construction of the dam and power station, before hosting an SADF base during the war for independence.
To access the viewpoint you have to temporarily exit Namibia and step into “no-mans land” at the underused Angola border post.