Central-northern Namibia, encompassing large chunks of Otjozondjupa, Erongo and Kunene regions, contains some of the country’s most compelling natural landscapes, where a range of comfortable lodges and campgrounds makes the most of the dramatic scenery. To the west, gravel roads wend their way through an impressive array of striking geological formations, containing some of the finest examples of ancient rock art, towards remote wilderness areas, where desert-adapted elephant and rhino roam. In contrast, Namibia’s main artery, the B1, speeds due north from Windhoek, through more vegetated, flatter terrain. After 250km, on the eastern limit of the Central Highlands, you reach Namibia’s very own table mountain, the majestic sandstone Waterberg Plateau, presiding above the savannah plains, which are prime cheetah country.
Heading north from Namibia’s capital city, the B1 passes through the historically important town of Okahandja, before streaking through endless savannah plains. Several large private reserves in this region contain healthy populations of large mammals, though arguably the biggest attraction, some three hours’ drive north of Windhoek, is the Waterberg Plateau; an impressive sandstone escarpment, and scenic national park, it is a nurturing ground for rare animal species, such as black rhino and sable antelope. The surrounding bush is also cheetah country, with the nearby Cheetah Conservation Fund centre a compulsory detour if you’re interested in these majestic felines. At Otjiwarongo, the regional capital of Otjozondjupa, the road divides: heading northwest along the C38 takes you to the small farming town of Outjo, an increasingly popular staging post for forays into Etosha National Park, whereas the B1 veers northeast towards the former mining centres of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi, otherwise known as the Triangle, which possess a handful of low-key attractions, including the world’s largest extra-terrestrial rock, the Hoba Meteorite, set against the attractive backdrop of the Otavi Mountains.
Northwest of Windhoek, the landscape becomes decidedly drier and harsher as you head into flat semi-desert savannah, out of which rise dramatic granite inselbergs produced through volcanic activity millions of years ago: the domed Erongo Mountains, the distinctive Spitzkoppe, and the vast, brooding Brandberg, which shelters thousands of stunning rock paintings and boasts impressive biodiversity and endemism. All three areas contain fascinating rock formations and superb hiking terrain. Moving further north into southern Kunene, you reach the globally significant collection of San rock engravings at Twyfelfontein, located in a hauntingly beautiful landscape. The scenery continues to impress as the road carves its way through the flat-topped basalt plateaus of northern Damaraland, though visitors are often drawn more by the prospect of encounters with free-roaming elephant and black rhino in the area’s dry river beds.
In western Erongo, flattish semi-desert savannah stretches northwards, the horizon interrupted by the distinctive domed peak of the Spitzkoppe, much favoured by rock climbers. Beyond is the vast massif of the Brandberg, home to the country’s finest collection of San rock paintings. This is the area known as Damaraland – a colonial and apartheid-era term that has seemingly stuck – which comprises some of the country’s most beguiling landscapes, and is still predominantly inhabited by the Damara people, after whom it’s named.
As you cross the ephemeral Ugab River – a linear oasis of luxuriant vegetation and a vital source of nourishment for elusive desert-adapted elephants – into southern Kunene, the undulating landscape becomes hauntingly beautiful. Expansive grasslands are interspersed with colourful escarpments of layered sediment and endless kopjies of burnished granite, embellished by the occasional dazzling white trunk of the five-lobed sterculia tree clinging onto a boulder. In the middle of all this is one of the continent’s largest collections of ancient rock engravings, at Twyfelfontein.
Namibia’s most magnificent massif, the Brandberg, is visible from miles around, towering close on 2km above the surrounding desert plains and shimmering like a pink mirage through the heat haze. Not only a fabulous, and little-explored, hiking destination, the Brandberg is also Namibia’s pre-eminent site for rock art, boasting around nine hundred sites and 43,000 paintings and engravings, many in pristine condition.
Reaching 2573m at one point, the granite massif contains the highest peak in Namibia – Königstein – though its mass is equally impressive; formed from the eroded granite remains of a collapsed magma chamber over 130 million years ago, this almost circular inselberg measures nearly 140km round the base. Deep ravines slice through the rock in several places, where precious water collects and vegetation thrives.
The name Brandberg (“Fire Mountain” in German, and Dâures or “Burning Mountain” in Damara) alludes to the glowing effect of the sun on the rock at sunrise and sunset. In contrast, the Otjiherero name – Omukuruvaro – means “Mountain of the Gods”, and indeed it is believed to have been a site of spiritual importance for the early San, whose art adorns the numerous overhangs, rock faces and even boulders of the massif. Archeological remains also indicate that groups of migrating San often stayed in the Brandberg’s upper reaches, probably drawn by the availability of shelter and water.
Though not a technical ascent – unless you want it to be – climbing the Brandberg is not a light undertaking. The heat is intense, you need to carry food and water, and the constant boulder scrambling gets tiring, but it’s an unforgettable experience; the chance to sleep out under the stars, peer at some stunningly vivid rock art that few people have seen in modern times, and truly feel on top of the world. However, you need to acquire a permit and hire a guide from the Heritage Council in Windhoek – an attempt by government to regulate visitors and protect the rock art and the area’s outstanding biodiversity, which includes a high number of scorpion species. The guiding is generally excellent, undertaken by a member of the highly trained local conservancy guide association. The usual trip starts from Uis and lasts three days, and you’ll need to carry your food – enough for the guide too – as well as water and a sleeping bag. The first day, the most arduous, you hike and scramble up the mountain (6–8hr); the second day is spent exploring rock art sites and soaking up the jaw-dropping views, before descending again on the third. Ascents of Königstein can also be organized. If you want to avoid the organizational hassle, some of the tour operators in Windhoek and Swakop also organize the trip.
One of Namibia’s most recognizable landmarks, and a magnet for rock-climbers, the Spitzkoppe has featured on the cover of many a holiday brochure. Its distinctive pointed peak – which has earned it the nickname, the Matterhorn of Africa – measures 1728m, and towers around 700m above the surrounding desert plains. This granite bornhardt – a bald, rounded and steep-sided inselberg – was formed around 130 million years ago through volcanic activity and shaped over time as its surroundings were eroded away, resulting in fascinating rock formations, including several rock arches. What’s more, its giant granite domes and exfoliating boulders positively glow like burnished gold in the late afternoon or early morning light.
Between the Spitzkoppe and the equally impressive neighbouring Pondoks, a fenced area holds a thinly stocked game reserve – which you can only visit with a guide – a remnant of when the Hollywood flop 10,000 BC was filmed here. Of much greater appeal are the hiking possibilities and the chance to see some fine examples of rock art. Sadly, the most well-known site, Bushman’s Paradise, no longer lives up to its name, having been damaged by over-enthusiastic tourists and vandals; however, there are plenty more pristine rock paintings to discover in less accessible spots if you arrange to hike with a guide from the local Damara conservancy (N$50/person for two hours).
At the head of the shallow Huab Valley in southern Kunene, large sandstone slabs that have broken off the flat-topped escarpment lie in jumbled piles, their smooth surfaces covered with one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of rock engravings. They are collectively referred to as TWYFELFONTEIN, meaning “uncertain spring” in Afrikaans, reflecting a farmer’s fears about the local water source, though the local Damara name |Ui-||Aes – meaning “place among the rocks” – is now also used, in recognition of the earlier nomadic Damara communities that made seasonal use of the land. Many of the petroglyphs date back to six thousand years ago when San hunter-gatherers inhabited the region, drawn by the availability of water. Note that the name Twyfelfontein is also often used to refer to the general area, which encompasses several other geological curiosities; the Organ Pipes and Burnt Mountain are worth a quick detour if you’ve got your own transport and forty minutes to spare.
In all, an estimated 2500–5000 rock carvings were created, as well as a few paintings, though the latter are not for tourist consumption and only a small proportion of the rock engravings can be visited. These predominantly depict humans or animals and animal spoor – including images displaying a mixture of animal and human features – as well as geometric shapes. The choice of imagery and the siting of the petroglyphs and paintings are now thought to relate to the societies’ belief systems, shamanic rituals and the spiritual world that shamans had access to while in a trance, rather than straightforward depictions of the world around them.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rock engravings of Twyfelfontein are firmly on the tourist trail, attracting around fifty thousand visitors annually, so to miss the crowds and the heat, you should aim for early morning (though some of the rocks are in shadow then), or late afternoon, when the light is at its best. Since there’s no shade at the site, avoiding the midday sun, especially in summer, is imperative. To visit, you need to take a guided tour: the generally well-informed guides offer three circuits, involving varying degrees of physical exertion, which last thirty, sixty or eighty minutes. There is also an excellent information centre and a small café.
When you’ve climbed, scrambled and sweated your way over endless boulders in the hot afternoon sun and are finally confronted with a crumbling cave wall of barely discernable smudges and shapes, it’s easy to wonder why so much fuss is made about ancient rock art. But when face to face with some of its more vivid depictions, it’s hard not to be moved, especially considering the thousands of years it may have survived the elements.
Of course, being able to interpret the art helps to deepen your appreciation, though theories come and go about what it all means and why it was done. More recent thinking, informed by anthropological work with existing San communities about their beliefs and ritual practices, considers most rock art to be related to San religious cosmology. Thus, what earlier theorists took to be straightforward representations of hunting scenes, interpreted either as narratives of actual hunts or messages to other San groups about where to find food, are now thought to relate to rainmaking rituals, which involved animals, or to the symbolic association of particular beasts. The oft-represented eland, for example, was frequently led to a hilltop and sacrificed in the belief that rain would fall there; a buffalo may in fact be the “Rain Bull”, controller of rain but also of sickness and health and therefore a death deity. A cornerstone of San religious beliefs is the ability of the shaman to enter the spirit world through a trance dance, and many of the figures and scenes suggest their trance visions – understood as symbols and metaphors, rather than literal depictions – which are probably linked to San mythology. The high number of paintings that are half-animal and half-human may relate to the widespread San creation myth that all animals were once human; alternatively, they may embody the physical transformation the shaman undergoes when entering the spirit world.
Rock art falls into two categories that are rarely found together: rock paintings (pictographs), for which the Brandberg is most renowned, and rock engravings (petroglyphs), found in abundance in Twyfelfontein. Increasingly, the context of the art is considered to be significant: many paintings or engravings are located near fissures and crevices in the rock, which would serve as entrances to the spirit world; some paintings are situated in dark caves, where shamans were thought to concentrate their energies.
Not all rock art found in Namibia is of San origin: the Apollo 11 Cave, in the inaccessible Huns Mountains west of the Fish River Canyon – and the most ancient known site in Africa, estimated to be over 25,000 years old – is also thought to contain art by the Khoikhoi. Their art differed from that of the San, generally displaying more handprints, dots and geometric shapes, and drawn with their fingers rather than with brushes.
Turning off south down the D2743, 52km east of Khorixas, takes you into the spectacular scenery of the Ugab Terraces. This broad, flat-bottomed valley, flanked by plateaus rising 160m either side, holds a collection of buttes and mesas – striking, steep-sided, flat-topped pillars of rock, reminiscent of Monument Valley in Arizona; so much so that you half expect John Wayne to appear on horseback at any moment. These harder sandstone conglomerate protrusions have been formed over the last 20 million years or so as the surrounding softer sedimentary deposits of the Ugab River floodplain have gradually been eroded away. While the Vingerklip is as far as most people venture along this valley, it’s worth completing the 68km semicircular detour along the D2743, which wends its way through picturesque mopane woodland.
The best known of the Ugab Terraces is the 35m-high phallus known as the Vingerklip (Finger Rock), whose dramatic presence is enhanced by its location, perched precariously on top of a knoll. The rings on this butte, which has a 44m circumference, tell a geological tale of rising and falling sea levels and the changing force of the Ugab River’s flow that helped carve this natural sculpture.
Only a couple of hours’ drive northwest of Windhoek, the splendid rounded summits of the Erongo Mountains loom out of the landscape, a draw for hikers and those interested in San rock art. The eroded remains of a volcanic magma chamber that collapsed around 110 million years ago, the Erongos comprise vast granite domes – the highest ones in the west topping 2200m – and collections of boulders weathered into fascinating formations, which glow in the late afternoon light. With the Namib Desert to the west, and semi-arid savannah to the east, they lie in an important transition zone and therefore host an impressive diversity of plant and animal life, including almost two hundred bird species. In addition to kudu, mountain zebra, klipspringer, steenbok and dik-dik, keep a look out for the rare black-faced impala and black mongoose as well as the chattering rosy-faced lovebirds or the quieter Rüppell’s parrots. Black rhino have also been reintroduced in recent years.
The Erongos are rich in San rock paintings; several of the guestfarms and lodges in the area possess examples on their land and offer guided or self-guided walks to view them. As with most other San rock art, figures include animals and humans, seemingly engaged in hunting or rituals related to fertility and community harmony. The most celebrated example is Phillip’s Cave. Located on the land of the Ameib Guesthouse – which welcomes day visitors (N$70) – it is known for its giant white elephant with a superimposed red antelope, among other identifiable animals: ostrich, giraffe, rhino and various human figures. The cave, a thirty-minute hike from the parking area, is an impressive overhang, affording extensive views across the desert plains.
Roaming the weathered mountains, gravel plains and broad, mopane-shaded sandy riverbeds of Namibia’s arid Kunene Region, some of the planet’s most hunted animals are fighting for survival. This inhospitable environment is home to the world’s largest numbers of critically endangered black rhino – distinguishable from the white rhino on account of its hook-shaped upper lip – as well as swelling numbers of desert-adapted elephants and lions. While the elephant and rhino roam inland, the lions more often prowl the dunes of the Skeleton Coast. All three majestic beasts share the ability to go without water for several days – or weeks, in the case of lions – provided they manage a gemsbok or ostrich kill.
They have also all been brought back from the brink of extinction through the combined efforts of dedicated professional conservationists, committed local communities, government support and – more surprisingly – from tourism. Volunteer programmes and sensitive rhino and elephant tracking, often on foot, are being promoted by the various foundations, often in collaboration with private lodges and community conservancies. Community involvement, above all, is critical to conservation success, since they are bearing the brunt of this increase in elephant and lion populations, as they compete for the scarce food and water resources.
For further information contact the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) and Desert Lion Conservation. Wilderness Safaris, a pioneer in this tourism–conservation synergy, offers some of the best tracking experiences in their Desert Rhino, Hoanib Skeleton Coast and Damaraland camps – the last one being almost wholly community-owned and -managed.
Leaving the Huab Valley of Twyfelfontein, the well-graded C39 heads northwards into what is generally referred to as NORTHERN DAMARALAND. The first half of the 82km drive to Palmwag is exceedingly scenic, as the road is framed by flat-topped escarpments, shored up by the odd unexpected sand dune. This striking landscape is part of the Etendeka Plateau, one of the planet’s largest sheets of ancient lava, which extends as far north as the Hoanib River at Sesfontein, and was formed millions of years ago when, following the break-up of Gondwanaland, the South Atlantic opened up and spewed forth volcanic rocks. Different hardness among the basaltic layers has resulted in stepped plateaus, as the surrounding semi-desert plains were eroded down. About halfway to Palmwag, the C39 peels off west to the Skeleton Coast and the C43 takes up the baton. At Palmwag – essentially a road junction in a fairly featureless patch of semi-desert plain but with a crucial petrol station – the road divides; east takes you over the dramatic Grootberg Pass on the C40, towards Kamanjab some 115km away, whereas the C43 crosses the veterinary fence, travelling a similar distance northwards, to the next sizeable settlement at Sesfontein. On the way, you pass through the sparsely populated communities of Khowarib and Warmquelle, which offer a few campsites and one very agreeable lodge between them.
Though lacking the large numbers of Etosha, further east, northern Damaraland nevertheless has plenty of wildlife to seek out. Above all, it is associated with the proudly cited statistic of possessing the world’s largest number of free-roaming black rhino. Several of the lodges offer whole-day excursions to try and track these magnificent beasts, though you should bear in mind that the emphasis is always on rhino conservation, rather than tourist satisfaction: human interference is kept to a minimum, and so, even assuming your guide manages to locate one, you may not get as close to a rhino as you would in a national park or private reserve. Desert-adapted elephant are also sparsely scattered across the area (more visible in the dry season, as they seek out water holes in the dry riverbeds); giraffe are also sighted, and, very rarely, a desert-adapted lion. More commonly, you’ll come across hardy oryx, springbok, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, klipspringer, kudu, steenbok and possibly hyena, though in the eastern fringes, nearer Kamanjab, you should keep your eyes peeled for the near-endemic black-faced impala. Cheetah and leopard are in evidence, but rarely glimpsed, in the uplands further inland. Bird lovers will be keen to spot Monteiro’s hornbill, or Rüppell’s korhaan strutting across the gravel plains, whereas the rockier hillsides and escarpments are prime raptor territory, featuring imperious Verreaux’s (black) eagles.
Sited at the crossroads between the C33 – the short cut between Swakopmund and Otjiwarongo on the main road north – and the less frequented C36, which leads to the Brandberg, OMARURU, a small, somnolent town, makes a good stopover. It’s also within easy striking distance of the scenic Erongo Mountains. Established in 1868 by Wilhelm Zeraua, the first Herero White Flag chief, it later became a mission town – the old mission house is now a small, rather uninspiring museum – and was repeatedly the focus of battles between the Nama and Herero, then later the Herero and the German army. The distinctive, cylindrical Franke Tower memorial, which lies across the Omaruru River in a street parallel to the main drag, is a remnant of the latter. Over the weekend closest to October 10, Herero flock to the former township of Ozondje, to mark White Flag Day, in commemoration of those who died fighting colonialism.
These days, Omaruru is garnering a reputation as a centre for arts and crafts – check out the shops on the attractive, shady main street. In particular, don’t miss the Tikoloshe workshop and souvenir store at the western end, where you can watch the Kavango root-carving artists at work, and peruse the craft shop, which sells their work, as well as all kinds of crafts from all over Africa. If you’re in the area towards the end of September, look out for the increasingly popular annual arts and cultural festival, which involves exhibitions and workshops.
As Windhoek continues to expand northwards, the town of Okahandja, 70km away, seems ever nearer, an impression likely to be felt more strongly once the interminable road-widening project between the two urban centres is complete. Once past Okahandja, where the two nearby resorts of Gross Barmen and Von Bach Dam attract Windhoek’s middle classes at weekends, urban life is left behind; the traffic thins out and the land flattens out as the savannah takes over once more. The B1 speeds northwards with scarcely a bend in sight for the next 180km, before eventually arriving at the next main town, and capital of the Otjozondjupa Region, Otjiwarongo. As you driving north, you’ll notice the landscape transitioning into thornbush savannah, with taller shrubs and trees and denser cover than is evident in southern Namibia, due to the relatively higher levels of rainfall and more fertile soil. Termite mounds are visible along this stretch of road too, and families of warthogs are often to be seen at dusk.
A third of the world’s cheetahs – around 3500 – roam the savannah lands of Namibia, predominantly on communal and commercial farms. Africa’s most endangered cat is a protected species in Namibia, but there are ongoing conflicts between these powerful hunters and people when livestock is threatened or killed. Loss of habitat and prey is another problem cheetahs face, as the increase in livestock rearing, and subsequent overgrazing, have resulted in bush encroachment. Recent expansion of game fencing has also affected the availability of food.
At the forefront of conservation efforts in Namibia, and the global leader in cheetah research and education, is the Cheetah Conservation Fund, 44km east of Otjiwarongo, which is well worth a visit; if driving, turn east off the B1, onto the sandy D2440, just north of Otjiwarongo. The entry fee includes an excellent two-hour guided walking tour round the large enclosures, where around fifty rescue cheetahs are kept, though good sightings of these splendid beasts depend on whether they happen to be prowling or lounging close to the perimeter fence. Arriving at feeding time (2pm weekdays, noon at weekends) will increase your chances, as will signing up for the hour-long cheetah drive option (N$480, including entry). You’ll also be taken to see the veterinary clinic and livestock dogs, one of the centre’s most successful programmes, in which Kangal and Anatolian Shepherd dogs are trained to live among livestock and bark to scare off predators, thus safeguarding the farmer’s livelihood, while saving the cheetah from a likely bullet. Around five hundred dogs now live on farms, with impressive results.
Another highlight is the Dancing Goat Creamery – one of several model farms used to help share predator-friendly management practices. Make sure you stock up on some of their superb feta or goat’s cheese; they even produce fudge. Then, after trying to absorb all the information in the new interactive cheetah museum, you’ll probably be ready for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat in the café. If you’ve not had your fill of cheetahs for the day, you can overnight in the luxurious Babson House – another fundraising venture, which can accommodate four in two rooms with four-poster beds, and which overlooks a cheetah pen.
An hour’s drive north of Windhoek, where the main road divides – continuing north as the B1, and veering off west to the coast as the B2 – sits the important historical town of OKAHANDJA. Its 24,000-strong population is rapidly expanding, bolstered by growth in light industry, the relocation here of some government offices, and an improving road link with Windhoek, which is making it a commuter town for the capital.
Okahandja has a long history of trade and strategic importance. The Herero were the first to settle here, around 1800, before it later became an important mission station and trading post, as well as a site of conflict between the Herero and Nama, and later, the Germans. Today the town is still the administrative centre of the Herero people, as well as containing the burial sites of many of their former chiefs, notably Samuel Maharero, who led the uprising against the German colonial forces, and Hosea Kutako, a pivotal figure in the independence movement. These and others are honoured in the annual Herero Day commemoration. Jonker Afrikaner, the Orlaam-Nama leader, is also buried here, but these graves are not open to the general public. Nor is the expensive military museum, which has stood behind iron railings on the main street since 2004, but remains off-limits to the public for reasons that are unclear.
However, what the town lacks in tourist sights it makes up for in its fine craft markets; two occupy either end of the main road into and out of town. Though basketry, painted gourds, gemstones and the like are on display, the markets are predominantly about wood. The array and size of some of the carvings are phenomenal, from beautifully polished masks to sculpted life-size Himba women, giant giraffes and even dugout canoes – not easily stuffed into your luggage. Be prepared to be hassled if the stallholders are short of custom when you arrive.
Less well known to tourists is the town’s reputation for high-quality biltong – not to be missed, provided you’re not vegetarian; head for the Closwa Biltong Factory Shop and Butchery on Vortrekker Street (see The Waterhole). A few kilometres away, two resorts – the hot springs of Gross Barman and the serene Von Bach Dam – have long been favourite weekend getaways for urbanites in need of some R&R.
As you enter OTJIWARONGO, the road broadens into a dual carriageway, punctuated by traffic lights, leading you to expect a town of some size. But blink and you’ll miss the town centre, and find yourself heading back into the bush. That said, Otjiwarongo is the regional capital of the Otjozondjupa Region, and when the jacaranda and flamboyants lining the main street are in bloom, the place exudes a cheery feel.
There are scarcely any attractions in town, though railway buffs should swing by the station to take a look at the splendid retired old German steam locomotive. The only other place that draws visitors is the crocodile ranch, which gives guided tours of what is effectively a battery crocodile farm providing skin for the European and Asian leather markets – something to consider before paying the entry fee.
For tourists bound for Etosha or Caprivi, Otjiwarongo is a natural pit stop, providing a selection of well-stocked supermarkets and several petrol stations. The town is also within striking distance of the Waterberg Plateau, Namibia’s premier cheetah research and education centre and the AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima.
With a small population of about 6000, the ranching town of OUTJO – meaning “little hills” in Otjiherero – sits on the pleasantly undulating fringes of the Fransfontein Mountains, just north of the Ugab River. It’s a surprisingly leafy town, which has recently taken on a new lease of life as a staging post for tourists trekking up to Etosha, a fact exemplified by the transformation of the high-street bakery from a small-town shop into a slick two-storey glass-fronted operation with restaurant, large shop and playground.
Beyond stopping for lunch and wandering down the pleasant main street, which boasts a quasi town square, and several tourist shops, there are a couple of German historical monuments worth a cursory glance before moving on, since Outjo was one of the German colonial army’s most northerly, and shortlived, outposts; it was established initially to control the rinderpest in the areas of white settlement, but then to try and win over the Owambo kings. One of the first structures they built was a water tower to pump and supply water to the soldiers, their horses and the hospital. Though the wooden windmill has long gone, the square stone base can still be seen on the east side of town off the northern end of Sonop Street.
An impressive table mountain popular with hikers and nature lovers, the extensive Waterberg Plateau National Park is located 60km southeast of Otjiwarongo; to the east, it surveys the arid Omaheke Desert – part of the Kalahari – to the west, acacia-covered savannah. The sheer sandstone cliffs that top the plateau glow a glorious deep reddish-orange in the late afternoon sun; they are surrounded by a sloping “skirt” of scree and boulders, with patches of dense vegetation clinging onto the rock face. Water is relatively plentiful, hence the name Waterberg (“water mountain” in Afrikaans). Rain filters through the porous sandstone on top, but upon reaching the impervious lower layers of mudstone and siltstone, it re-emerges as springs through fissures in the southern slopes of the plateau. Unsurprisingly, water, and the resulting abundant wildlife, has attracted human populations for many years. San rock art near one of the plateau’s waterholes testifies to their having passed through the area for thousands of years. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Herero settled in the area with their cattle, and it was here, on August 11, 1904, that the decisive Battle of Omahakari (or Waterberg) was fought between the Herero, who were defying colonial rule, and the German army.
Waterberg is synonymous with hiking; in particular it’s renowned for its multi-day trails, which ordinarily are booked through the NWR office in Windhoek, but for some time all long hikes have been suspended due to an increase in rhino poaching; the park authorities had stepped up security and, at the time of going to press, were still unsure when or whether the trails would reopen. In the meantime, hikers have to make do with the handful of shorter trails (maximum 3km) leaving from the camping or chalet areas. The forty-minute hike up to the plateau rim for sunset is well worth the effort, while the Fig Tree Walk is a favourite with birders. Since park visitors are not allowed to drive themselves around the park, the only way to get to know the top of the plateau is by signing up for one of the twice-daily game drives, though the ready availability of food and water plus the dense vegetation means that wildlife sightings are often disappointing.
On account of its inaccessibility, the park is used to reintroduce and breed rare species, which are then transferred to other protected areas. These include white and black rhino, eland, tsessebe, roan and sable antelope, and Cape buffalo. They join other large mammals present in the park, such as giraffe, wildebeest and kudu. The birdlife too is impressive, with over two hundred recorded species, including a number of rarities. Namibia’s only breeding colony of Cape vultures inhabits Waterberg’s southwestern cliffs, while other notable avian residents include Verreaux’s (black) eagles and large numbers of peregrine falcon. But wildlife is not just confined to the mixed wood- and grassland of the plateau top; even around the campground, you’ll catch sight of paradise flycatchers flitting around the trees, hoopoes probing the soil and Damara dik-diks picking their way delicately round tents. At dusk, if you’re lucky, you might spot the bulging eyes of a lesser bushbaby. Regular visitors you can’t miss are the baboons; make sure you keep food stowed away, all chalet and car windows closed, and tents zipped up.
Viewed on a map, the roads linking northern towns of Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein form an isosceles triangle enclosing the scenic Otavi Mountains, which provide welcome topographic relief to anyone travelling down from the flatlands of the far north. It’s one of the most prosperous areas of Namibia, rich both in minerals and agriculture – thanks to fertile soils nurtured by annual rainfall that usually tops 500mm; maize cultivation is particularly widespread, resulting in the sobriquet of the Golden or Maize Triangle. Located on the way to Etosha’s eastern gate as well as the lush game reserves in the Zambezi Region, many visitors pass through these small towns. Of the three, Tsumeb is the most attractive and has the best facilities, followed by Grootfontein; both are good places to withdraw money, stock up on supplies and top up your fuel, with Otavi a rather forlorn third. In terms of sights, the museum in Tsumeb, and the Hoba Meteorite – the world’s largest – west of Grootfontein, are worth a brief detour, while a few lodges and guestfarms in the area make the most of their scenic surroundings and offer very pleasant overnight stops.
On a sloping hillside at the northern extreme of Namibia’s central plateau, Grootfontein is really quite attractive in September and October once the jacaranda and flamboyants bloom; even so, it has a slight frontier feel, in part due to the increasing numbers of informal Kavangan street traders in the town centre. Though Grootfontein is set in fertile agricultural land – producing meat, dairy products, sorghum, maize, ground nuts, sunflowers and leather goods – below and to the east stretches the endless Kalahari, while to the north the flat, dry lowlands extend as far as the Okavango River at Rundu, some 250km away. The Otjiherero name for the place, Otjiwandatjongue, meaning “hill of the leopard”, was eschewed by the first white colonizers in favour of the earlier Hai||om and Bergdamara designation, Gei-|ous, meaning “big spring”, giving rise to the Afrikaans name Grootfontein that persists today. There’s little to do in the town, except drop by the old German fort that now houses the museum.
The Dorsland Trekkers were originally granted free land in the area that went on to become Grootfontein by a certain W.W. Jordan, an adventurer and trader, who claimed to have bought a vast tract of land from Ndonga King Kambonde, in exchange for some cash, weaponry and brandy. In 1885, the Dorslanders declared the area the Republic of Upingtonia (later Lydensrust), after the prime minister of the Cape Colony at the time, whom they thought would offer support. None was forthcoming, however, leaving them reliant on protection from the Germans. The republic was doomed from the outset, as the Boers were variously challenged by Herero, San and Owambo groups, who disputed their claim to the land, and when Jordan was killed by Owambo King Nehale in 1887, the republic crumbled and was absorbed into German South-West Africa.
The most popular attraction in the area is the Hoba Meteorite, the planet’s largest single known meteorite; measuring just under 3m square, and around 1m deep, it weighs in at approximately 60 tonnes – almost five times heavier than a laden double-decker bus. Though its age is estimated at anything between 190 million and 410 million years old, it can more accurately be said to have fallen to Earth less than 80,000 years ago. This lump of alien rock is primarily made up of iron (82.3 percent and nickel (16.4 percent), with small amounts of other minerals. It was revealed to the outside world in 1920, by Jacobus Hermanus Brits, a farmer who was out hunting on his land when he noticed a strange, black rocky protrusion that stood out from the surrounding pale limestone. He chiselled a chunk off, and took it for analysis, which confirmed its extra-terrestrial nature. After it became clear that Namibia would lose its “fallen star” altogether to enthusiastic vandals who were keen to chip off their own space souvenir, the meteorite was declared a national monument in 1955. Once you’ve marvelled at the lump, which sits in a sunken stone surround, there’s a pleasant picnic area to enjoy and a kiosk selling souvenirs, information leaflets and cold drinks.
The smallest and most down at heel of the Triangle towns, OTAVI seems a forgotten place. Most of the action happens outside town, at the flagship Total petrol station and major truck stop, complete with ATM, neighbouring bar-restaurant and biltong shop, on the main crossroads east of the centre. Here the B1 divides: heading northwest to the population centres of Oshakati and Ondangwa, or northeast along the B8 towards the Trans Caprivi Highway. Note the heavily irrigated areas along this initial stretch of the B8, where the town’s original springs – long known to nomadic Hai||om and Damara groups – are located.
Dominating the skyline as you drive into the nondescript town are the gleaming grain silos of the maize and millet mill, across the railway track. It was the arrival of the railway from Swakopmund in 1906 that marked the town’s boom period. The German colonial mining company, the Otavi Minen und Eisenbahngesellschaft (OMEG), completed what was the longest narrow-gauge track in the world at the time – on the back of slave or enforced labour – in order to transport the copper being mined at Tsumeb and Kombat down to the coast and onto ships bound for Europe. Once the copper deposits were exhausted, the town’s fortunes slumped. So far, the new gold mine and cement factory in the area do not seem to have had the economic impact on Otavi that its 4000 inhabitants were anticipating, with Otjiwarongo appearing to benefit more from the mine.
A few kilometres north of town, signposted off the B1, stands the unremarkable Khorab Memorial. Of interest only to colonial history buffs, as there’s little to see, it marks the site where in World War I, on June 9, 1915, the Schutztruppen, under the ubiquitous Lieutenant-Colonel (by then) Victor Franke, finally surrendered to Louis Botha’s South African Union troops, signing the Khorab Peace Treaty six days later.
The largest and most populous of the Triangle towns, TSUMEB is also the most attractive, its main roads lined with mature trees, including palms, jacarandas and flamboyants – which provide splashes of lilac and red when in bloom, and brightly coloured bougainvillea hedges. There is even a large leafy park, the town’s fulcrum, overlooked by several of Tsumeb’s main buildings, and off which the high street leads. On the park’s south side stands the excellent museum, next door to the town’s oldest existing building; erected in 1913, the striking Saint Barbara Catholic Church was aptly named since Barbara is the patron saint of miners. Mining, from the outset, has been the town’s raison d’être, though the disused mineshaft that dominates the west end of President’s Avenue is a reminder of its more recent decline. Nevertheless, Tsumeb is a pleasant enough place to spend a night, with a choice of accommodation, which generally serves up decent food. If you’re just passing through en route to Etosha, this is the last stop for groceries, in one of the town’s well-stocked supermarkets. At the end of October, the town parties during the annual Tsumeb Copper Festival, essentially a trade fair centred on the United Nations Park, but also with the usual food and drink stalls, musical and cultural entertainment.