Etosha and the far north Travel Guide

The far north of Namibia holds some of the country’s most-visited and least-explored landscapes. In the former category is the vast expanse of Etosha National Park, which receives over two hundred thousand visitors annually, drawn by almost guaranteed sightings of large numbers of big mammals, as well as abundant birdlife. In contrast, the evocative mountainous wilderness of northern Kunene – lacking in decent roads and largely devoid of people – remains inaccessible to most, though it provides an unforgettable experience for those who make it that far.

Centring on a vast salt pan, Etosha National Park is the main reason visitors venture to the north of Namibia, enticed by the prospect of coming face to face with a lion, glimpsing a leopard at dawn, or gazing at herds of zebra and wildebeest sweeping across the savannah. As there is only limited accommodation inside Etosha, many stay in the more comfortable lodges and campgrounds sprinkled just outside the park boundary, often set in private reserves that also offer outstanding wildlife-viewing opportunities. North from Etosha, the predominantly flat, sandy scenery extends to the urban and rural developments in the so-called “Four O’s – the small, but densely populated, regions of Oshikoto, Omusati, Ohangwena and Oshana, home predominantly to the Owambo peoples. Oshakati is the main commercial hub of the chaotic conurbation, a useful pit stop to stock up on supplies, and to witness life outside the tourist bubble. There are a handful of modest cultural attractions in the area, worth taking in if you’re passing through: the traditional royal homestead at Tsandi, a giant baobab in Outapi, or Lake Oponona, a large dusty depression for much of the year, which transforms into an avian wetland paradise after good rains.

Heading west into the sparsely populated northern Kunene region, the landscape alters dramatically as you enter the Kaokoveld, as does the population density – only 1.7 people per square kilometre. From the dramatic waterfalls at Ruacana and Epupa on the Kunene River, striking, reddish-brown stony earth gives way to rugged, mountainous areas, interspersed with desolate valleys at Marienfluss and Hartmann’s. Yet further west, the Wilderness Area of the Skeleton Coast National Park – only accessible by fly-in safari – eventually melts into rippling dune fields before hitting the Atlantic coast. This remote, starkly beautiful region is home to desert-adapted elephant, black rhino and even lion – and to the semi-nomadic Himba, one of Namibia’s most recognizable and resilient indigenous peoples. The small, underdeveloped and isolated regional capital of Opuwo is the place for independent travellers to start their explorations, though it’s not until you spend time in one of their remote settlements that you’ll begin to learn more about the people and their environment.

Etosha National Park

Located in the far northwest of the country, and covering an expanse of around 22,000 square kilometres, ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK is Namibia’s premier wildlife-viewing destination, stuffed to zoo-like proportions with a host of large mammals and some spectacular birdlife. In indigenous languages it is variously known as “great white place”, “place of mirages” or “lake of a mother’s tears”, which all refer to the park’s defining feature, Etosha Pan, a vast saline pan that covers a fifth of its surface area. Around 110km long and more than 50km wide in places, it is Africa’s largest salt pan, and is even visible from space. In the dry season it is a seemingly endless expanse of shimmering white, tinged with olive green, which, in years of exceptional rain, briefly morphs into a shallow lake resembling a giant mirror. This transformation harks back to the pan’s origins, millions of years ago, when it was probably a much larger, deeper inland lake fed by northern rivers – including the Kunene. When tectonic shifts altered the lie of the land, forcing the rivers to change course, the lake dried up.

Brief history

The establishment of Etosha as a “game reserve” by the governor of German South-West Africa in 1907 was as much, if not more, about safeguarding an economic resource for the colony as it was about wildlife conservation. Earlier incursions by European missionaries and traders from the 1950s had opened up trade routes, resulting in a major depletion of wildlife, although after years of conflict, the Owambo chief Nehale Mpingana and his followers had succeeded in driving most settlers away. German troops arrived in 1896, initially to control the rinderpest. Three years later they built a fort at Namutoni, which was attacked and destroyed by the Owambo but rebuilt the following year – and still stands today. A second outpost was added at Okaukuejo in 1901.

Initially, an area of almost 100,000 square kilometres was envisaged for the park, stretching down to the coast. Over the years the controversial boundaries have been altered and the area reduced to its present size, though inevitably large numbers of people – specifically Hai||om San, Herero and Owambo – have been dispossessed of their land in the process.

During German colonial times the nomadic Hai||om San population was allowed to stay in the reserve, provided they continued to hunt with bow and arrow, but in 1954, under the South African regime, most were forcibly removed to work on nearby farms; a small percentage have remained as park employees, but they, and other communities, continue to press government for land and greater benefit from the park’s income.

Flora and fauna

Etosha is a wonderful haven for wildlife, boasting the continent’s largest concentration of black rhino and other large mammals in abundance: elephant, giraffe, lion, leopard, cheetah, wildebeest, kudu, oryx, eland and hartebeest, to name but a few. Round every second corner, you bump into herds of Burchell’s zebra, impala and springbok – the park’s most numerous antelope. The rarer black-faced impala and Hartmann’s mountain zebra are only to be found in the western reaches of the reserve. Birdlife too is prolific: 340 species have been recorded in the park. Large bateleurs and martial eagles wheel above, while ostriches, kori bustards and secretary birds stride across the plains; rollers, bee-eaters, sunbirds and orioles provide brilliant flashes of colour; and others fascinate with their extraordinary appearance. Two such birds are the marabou stork, a huge, seemingly bald character with a particularly pendulous gular pouch, and the southern ground hornbill, a turkey-sized creature with distinctive crimson throat and eye patches, whose unearthly booming call can carry for 3km.

Mopane woodland savannah and grassland predominate in the areas surrounding Etosha Pan, with the occasional clump of elegant makalani palms conferring round some of the water sources. Some 30km west of Okaukuejo, however, the ghostly, contorted forms of moringa trees, dubbed the “fairy-tale forest” – overambitiously, given their depleted numbers – form a striking contrast. In the western section of the park, which until recently was closed to the general public, the landscape is markedly different: hillier terrain is covered with a rich reddish brown earth, peppered with rocky dolomite outcrops and covered with smaller mopane shrub.

Etosha game drives

Etosha is predominantly about wildlife viewing, or game drives. If not in a tour group, you will inevitably spend some time cruising around the park on your own, taking in waterholes and lookout points. Even if you’re driving yourself, however, it is worth considering booking one guided excursion. For a start, the guides are knowledgeable about the animals, though it’s pot luck what you will see, beyond the ubiquitous springbok and zebra. They also have a better idea of what might be spotted in which areas, and NWR guides can go out into the park before sunrise, ensuring an early stakeout at a waterhole – peak viewing time – and a greater likelihood of catching a lion on the prowl. What’s more, the raised seating of the safari vehicles provides better vantage points from which to spot and watch wildlife. Night game drives are a different, almost ghostly, experience, where the animals’ eyes give them away in the vehicle’s search lamps.

Where to stay

The main decision to make when visiting Etosha is whether to stay inside or outside the park – assuming you book early enough to have a choice. Ideally, you should try to spend two or more nights inside the park, then a couple of nights outside. There are various advantages to staying inside the park: you can be at a waterhole just after sunrise and stay until just before sundown. The main three camps (Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni) all overlook waterholes, which attract a host of animals in the dry season, and which are illuminated at night, when they also attract wildlife. These camps also offer night safaris. On the other hand, some of the lodges and campgrounds outside the park offer greater levels of comfort, are more intimate, and provide better catering and service than the three main camps. Those within well-stocked private reserves can also offer comparable wildlife-viewing experiences in terms of variety (if not in numbers), though most lodges also run excursions into the national park.

When to visit Etosha National Park

The best time to visit is during the drier winter months (May–Oct), when more animals are concentrated round the waterholes, predominantly scattered around the southern edges of Etosha Pan. Viewing is easier then because the vegetation is sparser, and the lower temperatures make a stakeout at a waterhole a more pleasurable experience. On the other hand, when the wind gets up, the landscape can become enveloped in clouds of dust. Visitor numbers are inevitably higher in winter, especially in the European and Namibian school holidays, though the park is so large and the waterholes so numerous – 86 in all – that it never gets unbearably busy. In the wetter summer months, however, the lusher vegetation is much easier on the eye, and the water-filled pans attract an abundance of migratory birdlife, especially between November and April. In the rare years when the rains are really heavy (usually Jan or Feb) and the water lingers, Etosha Pan becomes a vast pink-and-white carpet of pelicans and flamingos, which flock here in their hundreds of thousands to breed.

The “Four O’s”

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.

Iishana and Ometale – Northern Namibia’s vital water sources

Central to northern Namibia’s agro-ecology is the existence of the Cuvelei-Etosha Basin, a large water catchment area in the Highlands of Angola, whose perennial rivers filter down across the border into Namibia spreading into 7000 square kilometres of a delta-like network of seasonal watercourses, and shallow pools, known as iishana in Oshiwambo (though the anglicized term “oshanas” is commonly used). The oshana system is critical to the subsistence crop and livestock farming that sustains the rural populations. This flooding or efundja, as it is known, depends on the rainfall in Angola, but occurs most years, and even in seasons when the water inflow is low, local precipitation can fill the iishana. In years of exceptional rainfall, the water can even reach as far south as Etosha Pan. Crops are planted in anticipation of the floodwater’s arrival, or the first rains, either of which can trigger the emergence of aestivating bullfrogs, crustaceans and other invertebrates. In good years, fish too are washed into the pools, adding welcome protein to the local diet. The grasses and reeds that sprout round the edges are used for basketry, including the basket-fishing nets you’ll see women using, as they wade through the shallow pools, alert to trapping the day’s meal. Once the water arrives, the landscape is transformed: dotted with bushy marula trees and haughty makalani palms, the pale, dusty, overgrazed flatlands are replaced by mirror-like lakes, where white lilies burst open and a wealth of wetland birds are drawn to feast on this temporary food source. Though the wet season usually runs from November to April, the wettest months are December to February. Many of the more rural communities dig ometale (earth dams), which are effectively excavated iishana, so that they can retain the water for longer. In good years, despite the high evaporation rates, these communally managed water resources can last much of the dry season, providing a vital lifeline to communities in this challenging environment.

Ondangwa

ONDANGWA is the first sizeable town you encounter after crossing the veterinary cordon fence at Oshivelo, north of Etosha’s Von Lindequist Gate. Slightly less frenetic, and less populated than neighbouring Oshakati – it has a population of about 23,000 – it was established in 1890 as a Finnish mission station at the western edge of the Ondonga Kingdom. Following World War I, the British decided to base their administration here; the South African colonial government then followed suit, and from 1918, Ondangwa became the main assemblage point for labourers being recruited to work in the mines and farms in the Police Zone or in South Africa. Once the apartheid regime established Oshakati as the new capital of Owamboland in the mid-1960s, which then became the regional capital post-independence, Ondangwa’s political importance faded. However, commerce in the town is still growing, and likely to expand further, given Ondangwa’s strong rail and air links, and strategic location on the main transit route between Namibia and Angola – the busy main junction in the town centre sees the B1 turn northwards to Oshikango, Namibia’s main border with Angola 60km away.

Oshakati and Ongwediwa

Established in 1966 by the South African colonial administration as the capital of the newly designated Owamboland, OSHAKATI means “the place where people meet” or “that which is between” in Oshiwambo – perhaps a reference to its deliberately central location, chosen so that the authorities could further their political and commercial interests. Today, with a population of just under 40,000, Oshakati is Namibia’s fourth-largest town; it’s the capital of the north and a major commercial centre and transport hub. Along the main dual carriageway, punctuated by traffic lights, and lined with the occasional pavement, new supermarkets, warehouses and shopping malls gleam in the sunlight; at the same time, rusted old cars still decorate the waste-ground and the odd herd of goats will slow down the traffic, while battered combis slither on and off the road at will, to pick up or drop off passengers.

Just south of Oshakati, but soon to be sucked into the conurbation, lies the quiet, mainly residential town of ONGWEDIWA; established initially to house workers in Oshakati and Ondangwa, the place hosts a faculty of the University of Namibia plus a teachers’ education college; more pertinently, it also offers a couple of pleasant places to stay.

Ruacana

On the westernmost limit of the Omusati Region lies the near-deserted town of RUACANA, which came into being to house workers for the construction of the dam and underground power station on the Kunene River in the 1970s, before hosting an SADF base during the war for independence – the dam and power station were bombed by the Cubans in 1988, just as the South Africans were retreating from Angola. Despite its elevation to “town” status in 2010, Ruacana has a population of just three thousand. There’s nothing to detain the visitor here, but since there’s no fuel for miles around you should fill up at the busy petrol station, which also has a well-stocked shop with ATM, though a nearby supermarket offers greater choice. The border post here is underused and suitable for 4WD vehicles only.

The 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 – now Namibia’s main source of power – soon put an end to this natural wonder. Yet, on the rare occasions that heavy rains produce too much water, the sluice gates are opened upriver in Angola (generally Feb–April), 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.

Northern Kunene

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, or the Kaokoveld – designating 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.

Epupa Falls

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.

Activities at Epupa Falls

All four established accommodation options offer much the same activities – sundowners, rafting (when there’s enough water), guided walks to look for crocodiles, and visits to Himba villages. For village visits, prices usually include the guide and transport but do not include the “payment” to the village. Generally food is taken, in agreement with the villagers: sacks of ground maize, cooking oil, sugar and the like, which can be purchased at the village store in Epupa. Before signing up for an excursion, check exactly what is included and what is expected of you.

The importance of appearance in Himba Culture

Himba women in traditional attire have graced many a magazine cover and featured in documentaries galore with their distinctive reddish-brown body “paint” and goatskin “miniskirts”. And while the Himba’s physical appearance often brings out the worst voyeuristic tendencies in tourists, appearance is, nevertheless, very important to Himba culture; women spend several hours on their toilette each day. Their body “paint”otjize – is actually a mix of ground red ochre and animal butter or fat, scented with resin, and used to cover their skin, hair, clothing and jewellery. It has functional, symbolic and aesthetic value, protecting their skin from the burning sun while keeping insects at bay; its reddish-brown hue evokes both the earth and life-giving blood. Since water is scarce, women often have a smoke “bath”, and similarly “wash” their leather clothing by smoking it over incense.

Hair is similarly important: various styles indicate different life stages for both males and females. Toddlers often have shaven heads but as they grow, girls have two plaits, pulled over their face once they hit puberty (to show modesty) while boys maintain one plait at the back, which becomes two at puberty. The style of the plaits indicates the oruzo, or patrilineal descent, of the wearer.

Once married, men bundle their hair into a head-wrap, which is only removed for funerals, or when they are widowed. Puberty for young women entails sporting numerous plaits, smeared with otjize, and once married, women incorporate a tanned sheep or goatskin headpiece, which is replaced by a different headpiece (erembe) after they have been married a year, or given birth to their first child.

Traditionally attired women and men are heavily adorned with a collection of jewellery – necklaces, collars, bracelets and anklets, which also serve as a protection against snakebites. The jewellery is fashioned from metal, shell, beads, leather and woven grass, and sometimes weighs several kilos. Inevitably, as westernization encroaches and traditions become eroded, Himba apparel is becoming more hybrid, or abandoned altogether.

Marienfluss and Hartmann’s Valley

In the far northwestern corner of Kunene, Marienfluss and Hartmann’s Valley constitute one of Namibia’s most remote wilderness landscapes, receiving few visitors beyond the semi-nomadic Himba with their cattle and goats, alongside herds of springbok and oryx. Even fewer tourists make it this far, except for a trickle of determined, hardy 4WD adventurers, or a select few who can afford a fly-in safari. Tracks are sparse, mobile phone coverage non-existent, and the main reference points are painted oil drums. More self-drive visitors stop in Marienfluss, but if you have the time, the fuel and the water – there’s nowhere to replenish stocks en route – then you should try to visit both valleys. Marienfluss is arguably the more beautiful of the two, being lusher – if there’s been rain – coated with flaxen grasses, and home to carpets of fairy circles along its broad flat sandy floor, flanked by the Otjihipa Mountains to the east and Hartmann’s Mountains to the west. What’s more, there’s a gorgeous riverside campsite to reward the dusty drive, though don’t be tempted to jump in the water, as this is prime croc territory. These days there’s even a tiny Himba store selling cold beer. Reaching the end of Hartmann’s Valley is a rougher ride, 70km of more arid conditions that will take you well over two hours, but its moonscapes have a desolate beauty: vast expanses of flecked cream- or rust-coloured sand, interspersed with endless domes of seemingly barren grey rock; as you approach the Kunene, the huge dunes to the west separate you from the Skeleton Coast, some 50km away.

The Namib’s Mysterious Fairy Circles

One of the Namib’s many curious natural phenomena is that of “fairy circles”: from the air they appear like a giant polka-dot pattern across a vast sheet of scorched cloth, along the eastern fringes of the desert. A closer inspection reveals discs of bare earth, fringed with lush grasses, which are higher and healthier than the ones between the circles. Measuring between 2–20m in diameter, the larger circles have an average lifespan of between forty to sixty years, as they appear, mature – growing in some cases – and then fade.

To the Himba, they are simply the footprints of their deity, Mukuru; scientists, needless to say, have been looking for other explanations, though have so far failed to solve the puzzle. Over the years, many theories have been put forward – from ostriches taking dust baths, to poisonous underground gases, rival toxic plants, not to mention the inevitable intervention by aliens – but most ideas have eventually been dismissed. The two most persistent explanations relate to sand termites and grasses competing for scarce natural resources. For a long time the sand-termite theory held sway, the notion that these busy subterranean insects were eating the roots of grasses and therefore killing them; with no remaining plants to suck up the water, it pools below the surface, allowing the termites to survive the dry season and the grasses on the periphery to thrive. But critics point out that, while termite presence is generally high in fairy circles, termites have not been found in all the circles. Moreover, the theory would not seem to explain the regular, almost honeycomb-like spacing of these circles, so clear from aerial surveys, nor the fact that these apparent carpets of bronze coins only occur in a very limited geographical range, in the arid transitional zones between grasslands and true desert.

What really threw the termite theory up into the air was the relatively recent realization among experts that fairy circles, which for years were thought to be unique to Namibia, also exist in the outback of western Australia, in similarly arid conditions, but without the number of termites. This would seem to lend greater weight to the notion of grasses in arid conditions “organizing” themselves to maximize scarce water and nutrients. While an even carpet of plants would be unsustainable in such conditions, the argument is that hardier grasses survive, sucking up the water, leaving their neighbours to die; the gap between the vegetation widens and the barren circle of sandy soil is then too hard to take seed, but rather acts as a repository for any moisture, like an oasis, which further nourishes the stronger and healthier plantlife encircling the bare earth. Further evidence that supports this reasoning lies in the fact that the circles seem to grow after dry years and shrink after wet ones. Self-organization theory – thanks to maths and computer modelling – has been shown to have explanatory potential for other natural phenomena, such as rock crystal growth, or birds’ flocking movements, in which a seemingly unstructured and chaotic group can transform itself into an organized system without any centralized control. The bottom line, however, is that, while this might seem the most plausible theory at the moment, the mystery is far from being unequivocally solved.

Skeleton Coast fly-in safaris

Hemmed in between the wild Atlantic and the rugged Hartmann Mountains, the remote northern section of the Skeleton Coast National Park – the Wilderness Area – is the stuff of National Geographic documentaries. Its few visitors are privileged to experience an immense, desolate beauty of unworldly landscapes: a scalloped sea of huge “roaring” dunes (sound waves thought to be produced by the friction of sand particles); the moonscape and “clay castles” – striking sand formations – of the Hoarusib River Valley; and the endless bleak coastline pounded by surf and sprinkled with bleached whalebones, rusting shipwrecks and scuttling ghost crabs.

In refreshing contrast stands the avian-rich riverine strip along the western Kunene River as it carves its way towards the coast, separating Namibia from Angola. Fly-in safaris to the region – the only way to access this isolated wilderness – are not focused on big game; they’re about marvelling at the vast and varied desert scenery, seeking out smaller creatures and the extraordinary plants that have adapted to the unforgiving arid environment; and learning about indigenous people – from the Himba, who still inhabit some areas, to the early Khoisan beachcombers, whose ancient ruined shelters and rock art give clues to their way of life. That said, you’re still likely to spot the odd loping hyena or black-backed jackal on the scrounge – especially near the Cape Frio seal colony – as well as the perennially hardy oryx, and, with luck, a herd of desert-adapted elephants. Visiting this region is not cheap, but the experience is unforgettable.

Opuwo

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, stock up at the wholesalers, 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, southwest of the T-junction, which manufactures Himba cosmetics made from traditional ingredients, and can offer guided tours with advance notice.

Visiting Himba communities

Activities in Opuwo and northern Kunene generally centre on visiting Himba communities. Your first port of call should be the Kaoko Information Centre, though visits can also be arranged through English-speaking Himba such as Western, the owner of Aamveny Camp, or “Queen Elizabeth”, usually found with the other Himba jewellery sellers close to the OK supermarket. Alternatively, you can arrange a visit through your accommodation or book with a tour operator. Before deciding, make sure that your visit is likely to involve a small group, be culturally sensitive and benefit the community. Whatever you do, avoid giving tobacco, alcohol or sweets to individuals or communities. Establish what the parameters are in advance. When visiting a village, or even meeting Himba on the way, merely handing over money to adults or sweets to kids is not helpful, as it has already encouraged begging, which is growing among some of the populace along the route to Epupa. Similarly, photo-taking is a sensitive issue; obviously permission should be sought before taking a photo, but better than that is to interact with people in an activity, or on a visit with an interpreter, and maybe after spending time together, you might ask to take a photo of you all together, to share among the group. The snap-for-cash culture that has dominated interactions between Himba women and tourists for some time now is not helping to develop intercultural understanding or positive relations.

Kunene Conservancy Safaris are Namibia’s most successful conservancy-based tourism company, with great ethical and environmental credentials, running a range of four- to twelve-day small-group tours led by experts. All profits go to the five conservancies involved, and some tours include staying at Etaambura, the first Himba-owned lodge.

Another recent option for travellers who wish to visit independently is to drop in on the newly established Ovahimba Living Museum, which opened at the end of 2016. It’s next door to the community campsite at Omugunda, 42km along the gravel road towards Epupa. As with the other living museums, each activity is paid for separately in cash. Here you can choose from an hour’s bushwalk or body painting, to a general cultural introduction to the village, or a whole day during which you participate in a whole range of activities with a guide/interpreter on hand.

Puros

Heading south from Orupembe along the D3707 eventually brings you to the mixed Himba and Herero settlement of PUROS, some two and a half hours later. It boasts a magnificent setting at the confluence of the Goatum and Hoarusib rivers, surrounded by dark ripples of striated rock, offset by banks of pale sand. The small settlement is aptly named, being a corruption of the Otjiherero word “omburu”, meaning “fountain”. The impressive Hoarusib River, with its dramatic cliffs and gorges, has permanent springs that ensure pools of water exist year-round. They are fringed by mature vegetation, a magnet for an abundance of wildlife: desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, zebra and a host of varied antelope are regular visitors to these areas, in turn pursued by the less visible cheetah, hyena and leopard. Even the occasional desert-adapted lion frequents the riverbed. Birdwatchers have the chance to spot the likes of near-endemics such as Monteiro’s hornbill, Carp’s back tit, and Rüppell’s korhaan, but the oasis pools sometimes attract more surprising avian visitors such as hamerkops and Egyptian geese.

This is an excellent area to explore for a couple of days, by engaging one of the trained English-speaking community guides who can take you to the permanent springs in the river, twenty minutes from the campsite, where you’re likely to be rewarded by good wildlife sightings in the dry season. The Puros Traditional Village – a conservancy-managed Himba demonstration settlement – is within walking distance of the camp, though you’ll need a guide to interpret and help you learn a little about their culture. Crafts are also for sale. Guides can be arranged at the campsite or the bush lodge.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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