The southern Kalahari and the far south Travel Guide
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The vastness of the southern Kalahari and the far south of Namibia is daunting, as is the absence of people: only a fraction of the population lives here. The long, lonely road east out of Windhoek passes through sparse thornveld to the Botswana border, while the road south from the capital stretches for hundreds of kilometres to the South Africa border and the southern Kalahari. But the foray south is well worth the effort. Those who persist with the journey are rewarded with hugely enjoyable canoeing and birdwatching along the Orange River, unrivalled hiking opportunities in the vast Fish River Canyon, and rippling red dunes in the southern Kalahari.
Taking on the main road south from Windhoek promises some of the country’s greatest sights and spectacles. The tarred highway speeds through the unremarkable towns of Rehoboth – home to one of Namibia’s proudest peoples – and Mariental, before dividing at Keetmanshoop, the region’s bustling administrative capital, and a good place to fill up with petrol and stock up with supplies. Northwest of the town, the Brukkaros “false volcano” rewards hikers with wonderful views from the crater rim. And to the northeast of Keetmanshoop, the scenic Quiver Tree Forest is well worth the diversion.
Southern Namibia’s great attraction is the spectacular Fish River Canyon. A 160km-long serpentine ravine, it hosts a challenging five-day hiking trail that ends in the popular hot-springs resort of |Ai-|Ais. The canyon lies within the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park; extending into South Africa, this remote and rugged area has limited infrastructure but boasts extraordinary plant biodiversity. It’s bisected by the scenic Orange River, whose meandering progress towards the Atlantic provides great opportunities for birdwatching and canoeing.
East of the B1, around Mariental, and along the picturesque “back road” from Stampriet to the Mata Mata gate of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the rippling, red dunes that gain in height and colour as you move further inland supply the attractive backdrop to a sprinkling of delightful lodges and campgrounds.
Truth be told, there’s not a great deal to lure visitors to the sparse land beyond the Eros Mountains east of Windhoek, unless they’re heading for the Botswana border or interested in visiting the bat-riddled Arnhem Cave.
After snaking its way through the Eros Mountains east of Windhoek, past the airport – after which the traffic drops off – the B6 straightens and flattens out, heading for Gobabis, Namibia’s last sizeable town of note before the Botswana border some 316km away on the western fringes of the Kalahari. The B6 forms part of the Trans Kalahari Highway, the paved road that continues eastwards across the desert to Gaborone (around 800km), the capital of Botswana, with onward connections to South Africa. It’s a dull slog through dry, dusty and fairly featureless thornveld, unless there’s been some seasonal rain to soften the harsh landscape. The only relief comes from the occasional wildlife sighting: a troop of baboons lolloping over the road, a family of warthogs scuttling away from the wide trimmed verges, or a swooping hornbill heading for a tree. On the way, branching off south of the main road, there is a handful of guestfarms, as well as Namibia’s longest cave system.
One of the most recognizable sights of southern Namibia, the magnificent quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma, or kokerboom in Afrikaans) is not a tree at all, but a giant aloe. It gained its name from the Khoisan, who are said to use the hollowed-out branches as quivers to hold their poison-tipped hunting arrows. Perfectly designed to cope with the hot, arid climate, the quiver tree’s distinctive crown of thick waxy leaves grows high from the ground – some reach 9m in height – in order to escape the worst of the heat and help reduce water evaporation; the pulpy fibrous tissue of its “trunk” allows it to maximize water storage space, while its branches are coated in a thin white powder, to help reflect the sun’s heat; the “scales” on the cracked golden bark are thought to have a cooling effect too when there’s a breeze. A slow developer, the kokerboom does not bloom until 20–30 years of age, but its pretty yellow flowers (June and July) attract numerous nectar-feeders, including eye-catching iridescent sunbirds. The succulent is also a popular host of sociable weavers, which construct their haystack-like communal nest amid the rosettes of spiky blue-green leaves to protect the young from the heat and from predators.
At Namibia’s southernmost limit, the starkly beautiful, mountainous |Ai-|Ais/RICHTERSVELD TRANSFRONTIER PARK – commonly known as the Richtersveld – straddles the border with South Africa, covering an area around four times the size of Greater London. The park’s main attraction is the truly awe-inspiring Fish River Canyon, about half of which lies within the park boundaries. The canyon ends at |Ai-|Ais – meaning “burning water” in Nama – Namibia’s best-known sulphurous hot springs and a popular tourist attraction in itself. While the Fish River rarely flows, the Orange River (!Gariep, in Nama) – which demarcates the border between Namibia and South Africa and bisects the park – is a perennial water source, making it a bird lovers’ paradise and a popular place to indulge in a day or more of gentle canoeing or kayaking.
Importantly, the Richtersveld Park lies within the Succulent Karoo Biome, a biodiversity hotspot that has the greatest variety of succulents on the planet, harbouring a third of the world’s ten thousand species, 33 of which are endemic to the area. They are at their most impressive between June and October, when – provided there has been sufficient rain – their flowers burst forth in a stunning carpet of colour.
The two succulents most associated with the area are the critically endangered giant or bastard quiver tree (Aloe pillansii) – distinguishable from its more common sibling by its towering, pale and statuesque trunk and fewer rosettes – and the more numerous halfmens (meaning “semi-human” in Afrikaans; Pachypodium namaquanum). When outlined against the skyline, the spiny tapering trunk has been likened to a human trudging up the mountain, its head inclined slightly – always northwards, for some inexplicable reason – crowned with a single rosette resembling a mop of hair.
The succulents help nourish the animal life in this otherwise barren environment, including the park’s fifty species of mammal and just under two hundred bird species, most of which inhabit the terrain close to the river. Lizards and snakes abound, but large mammals such as zebra, klipspringer and springbok are also in evidence, while leopards and other cats remain characteristically shy.
Though most of this vast park lies in Namibia, opportunities for wilderness camping and hiking (excluding the Fish River Canyon) and admiring the succulent-rich landscape are better in the South African section, which is also home to a handful of Nama communities, who jointly manage the park south of the border. Here, they still practise their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving their livestock according to the season and living in rush-mat domed huts (|haru om).
A vast, sinuous chasm, the Fish River Canyon is one of Africa’s greatest natural wonders, and vies with the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia for the claim to being the Earth’s second-largest canyon (after the USA’s Grand Canyon). At 160km in length, up to 27km in width and with a depth of 550m in places, its grand scale can best be appreciated by gazing across the canyon rim, or by climbing down the almost sheer rock to the valley floor and undertaking a gruelling five-day hike along the mainly dry river bed.
Local Nama folklore has it that the deep meanders of the canyon were formed by the death throes of a giant snake killed by their warriors because it had been preying on their livestock. Modern science has a less evocative and more prosaic explanation, and one that stretches over millennia, starting when sediment and volcanic rock deposited around 1.8 billion years ago began to metamorphose under pressure. Around 700 million years ago, doleritic magma forced its way through fissures in the ground, forming the black dolerite dykes you can see today streaking the canyon walls. Periods of tectonic upheaval, the formation of a shallow sea, glaciation and erosion followed, creating much of the dramatic gorge visible today.
It was only around fifty million years ago that the Fish River began to flow, further deepening the tortuous ravine. Nowadays, the river only runs for a couple of months a year at the end of the rainy season (assuming sufficient rain); it is soon reduced to a trickle and most months merely consists of pools of water, which feed the occasionally sighted hardy populations of klipspringer, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and kudu, as well as the more ubiquitous baboons and rock hyrax. Some of the pools contain sizeable fish. This precious water source in such an arid region was known to Stone Age peoples, as several archeological sites have been found in the canyon.
The canyon’s main viewpoint is 10km west of the park entrance. From here you can drive or walk northwards a couple of kilometres to Hikers’ Viewpoint, which marks the start of the five-day trail and offers a different perspective on the canyon. The other two viewpoints involve longer drives southwards (signposted off the main access road) and are only possible in 4WD: the first is to Sulphur Springs (6km), and the second is to Eagle’s Rock (another 6km).
Spread out across the valley floor, and hemmed in by steep rock, |Ai-|Ais Hot Springs Spa marks the end of the five-day canyon hike. As such, it’s the perfect place to soak your aching limbs, either in the lovely hot outdoor pool, or in the slightly disappointing indoor whirlpools and jacuzzis, where not all the nozzles work. There’s also a massage parlour on site. The outdoor pool, though lacking much shade, is open all night too – a magical place to float on your back as you gaze at the stars. In season, the more energetic can also walk a few kilometres back along the canyon to get a taste of the trail.
For a totally different perspective on this giant chasm in the Earth’s crust, you need to hike into the canyon. The classic route is a four- to five-day, 85km hike, which has the reputation of being one of southern Africa’s most challenging trails. It is not to be embarked upon lightly, as you have to carry all your gear, scramble over boulders, trudge through sand and – at certain times of the year – wade through the river numerous times. Moreover, you only have two emergency exit tracks out of the canyon, once down in the bottom. There are one or two slightly easier ways to experience the valley floor, though none could be classified as a stroll in the park, since even the day-trip hike into the gorge involves a near-sheer descent and ascent, taking several hours, and walking in extreme temperatures for much of the season.
The Fish River Lodgeoffers several day- and multi-day guided excursions into the canyon for 2–10 people. Their guided version of the five-day hike (as well as shorter hiking options) also means your luggage is transported along the way and the cooking is done for you. If you just want a taster of the riverbed, they have 4WD access from the western edge of the rim, so you can be driven down to explore the rock pools on foot. Alternatively, you can hike down (and back if you still have the legs for it) in a day. Gondwana also offers a multi-day hike (mid-April to mid-Sept) along the northern reaches of the canyon (N$2000) covering 32km over three days, with four nights camping, including one at base camp. The advantage of the Gondwana and Fish River Lodge trails, beyond the fact that your gear is carried for you, is that the meals are far more appetizing: a chef’s campfire creations rather than the pot-noodle feasts of the backpacking trail.
It’s a long 500km haul along the B1 between Windhoek, across the Hardap Region to Keetmanshoop, capital of the vast ||Karas Region – the country’s largest – the de facto capital of southern Namibia. Once the B1 has wound its way through the Aus Mountains, and flattened out in the unremarkable yet historically important town of Rehoboth, 100km down the road, there’s little in the way of engaging scenery to keep your attention as you stare across the roadside fences marking off huge commercial farms at the never-ending flat savannah lands that stretch eastwards into the Kalahari. It’s easy to be reduced to ticking off the 10km distance signs as you head towards your destination.
After Rehoboth, the next small town of note is Mariental, 180km further south, and then Keetmanshoop, another two hours’ drive beyond that. To the west, not long after you cross the regional boundary into the ||Karas Region, the impressive massif of the Brukkaros Mountainlooms out of the surrounding plains, dominating the horizon.
There’s little of obvious attraction in KEETMANSHOOP – or Keetmans, as many Namibians call it – but it makes for a convenient break in the long haul up or down the B1, and is a good place to pick up supplies if you’re heading out into the desert to camp. It’s the administrative centre of the vast ||Karas Region, which covers most of southern Namibia, and possesses a population of around 22,000. A former Nama settlement, it was named after Johann Keetman, a German industrialist who donated 1000 gold Marks to construct the first Rhenish Mission Church in 1869. After you’ve made a pit stop and eaten, you might as well swing by the church’s more modern incarnation to check out the museum.
Visible over 80km away, as you speed along the B1 north of Keetmanshoop, the forbidding massif of Brukkaros looms out of the surrounding flat, parched plains, dwarfing the nearby Nama settlement of Berseba (!Autsawises), one of the oldest villages in Namibia. The original name for the mountain was Geitsigubeb, the Khoekhoen word for a leather apron, which they thought it resembled; this led to the Afrikaans combination of “broek” (trousers) and “karos” (leather apron), which resulted in Brukkaros.
Despite its imposing stature, it is often overlooked by tourists, but is well worth a detour if you like hiking, as it offers commanding views, fascinating rock formations and surprisingly good birding. In the colonial era, the Germans used the crater rim as a heliograph station; then in 1926 the National Geographic Society teamed up with the Smithsonian Institute and ran a solar observatory here for a few years.
For a long time it was assumed to be an extinct volcano, suggested by its squat conical shape and existence of a caldera. Yet it’s now thought to be the result of an enormous gaseous explosion that occurred around 80 million years ago: magma pushing upwards encountered groundwater, which then heated, vaporized and expanded, while pressure from the magma continued to build. When the Earth’s crust, which had been welling up, could no longer take the strain, it exploded, spewing forth rocks that now form the crater rim. Over time, the central area eroded away, leaving a scree-encircled caldera floor some 350m below the rim. Quiver trees are present, hosting the inevitable sociable weavers’ communal nest, and the area generally supports numerous bird species, particularly raptors; look out for black and booted eagles riding the thermals. The mountain also hosts the endemic Brukkaros pygmy rock mouse, though being nocturnal and minute, the chances of spotting one are not high.
After passing under an unlikely gateway announcing your arrival at Brukkaros, the road bends round a hillock to the former lower campsite and car park; most visitors leave their vehicle here, though it is possible to take a 4WD 2km further up the very rocky track to the upper campsite and parking area, but it’s a very bumpy ride. From the upper camping area, a narrow, steep, meandering path takes you up a further 1.5km to the lip of the outflow, marked by a rock waterfall, where you’ll only see cascading water after heavy rains. Here you can choose to explore the vegetated caldera, or make a sharp left turn to scramble a further 500m onto the rim itself, and soak up the breathtaking views. The vertigo-hardened might want to navigate a further 4.5km along an increasingly indistinct path round to the northern side of the rim, and nose around the decaying buildings of the abandoned research station, before taking the same route back.
Don’t hike on your own since there’s no mobile phone coverage and the walk involves a lot of boulder-hopping and rock scrambling, with the real risk of going over on your ankle. Make sure you have robust footwear, plenty of water and protection against the sun, as there’s no shelter along the way.
Access is via the M98, signposted off the B1, 86km north of Keetmanshoop, and just south of Tses, signposted to the village of Berseba (!Autsawises in Nama), which lies 38km down the road, and where there are a couple of basic shops and a fuel station. About a kilometre before the village itself a poorly marked dirt road, the D3904 (accessible in 2WD), leads 10km up to the mountain. Theoretically, a community fee is payable upon entry, but there is rarely anyone there to take the money, as the community enterprise – including maintenance of the two campsites – has all but closed down.
Rather like Rehoboth, to the north, MARIENTAL, the low-key administrative centre for the Hardap region, has little to detain the average tourist beyond the usual supermarkets and petrol stations for replenishing supplies and fuel. Indeed, it resembles a glorified industrial estate. That said, the town has several acceptable places to stay if you’re in need of a bed for the night, though there are lodges and reserves in the red dunes of the Kalahari, only an hour’s drive away that are infinitely more preferable if you’re looking for recreation.
In classic colonial fashion, Mariental, meaning “Marie’s Valley”, was named in honour of the wife of the first white settler, a William Brandt, though the notion of a valley was clearly somewhat fanciful. In contrast, the Nama, who had been around for considerably longer, called the place Zara-gaeiba, meaning “dusty”, aptly nailing the location’s defining characteristic. Indeed, on Sundays, the swirling dust is about the only sign of life in town.
That said, a 15km belt of lush commercial farmland west of Mariental runs parallel to the B1. The Fish River flows through the area from the Hardap Dam northwest of the town, and provides further water for irrigation. The farms focus on sheep, goats, game – especially ostrich – and dairy, as well as the production of alfalfa (more commonly termed lucerne).
Surrounded by acacia woodland, the 30,000-strong town of REHOBOTH, situated just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, is of little interest to the casual visitor, though it is home to the fiercely proud Baster people, whose history is well explained in the local museum. The settlement had already had a couple of names before gaining its current biblical incarnation, thanks to a local missionary in 1844. Drawn by the natural hot springs in the area, a semi-nomadic Damara group that would visit periodically when water was scarce in the Kalahari dubbed the place |Gaollnāus (“Fountain of the Falling Buffalo”). This was later changed to |Anes (“Place of Smoke”), by a group of Nama, making reference to the steam rising from the springs. Even today, there has been an attempt to market Rehoboth as a spa town, though the baths have been closed for some time. Better recreational facilities can be found at the Oanob Dam, 7km outside town.
The Rehoboth Basters are one of a number of groups of mixed heritage which emerged in the Dutch Cape Colony in the eighteenth century and were forced by their non-white status to live on the fringes of white colonial society – they were among the many people who were later designated as “Coloureds” in apartheid South Africa and Namibia. They primarily share a mix of black African and European settler heritage that is reflected in the name they proudly bear (which is a corruption of “bastard”). Originally settled in the Northern Cape, the Basters began their great trek north across the Orange River in 1868, when new laws were introduced preventing Coloureds from owning land. Led by their own “Moses”, the Basters’ first Kaptein, Hermanus van Wyk, some 300 or so Afrikaans-speaking, devoutly Calvinist Basters eventually set up the Free Republic of Rehoboth, 100km south of Windhoek, in 1872.
Initially, the Basters were careful to maintain their neutrality in the simmering conflicts of central and southern Namibia. But in 1884, they became the first group to sign a “Treaty of Friendship and Protection” with the Germans and for the next twenty years they threw their lot in with the newly arrived colonial power, even supplying troops and assisting in the genocide of the Nama and Herero during the Namibian War of Resistance (1904–09). With the outbreak of World War I, the Basters reasserted their neutrality, only agreeing to enlist after having been given assurances that they wouldn’t be asked to fight their South African neighbours. In April 1915, the Germans ordered the Basters to guard some South African prisoners of war and retreat north away from Rehoboth or be disarmed. Around 300 Basters deserted their posts and, with their families, retreated to Sam Khubis, 80km southeast of Rehoboth. The Germans pursued them, and on May 8, 1915 confronted the Basters in the Battle of Sam Khubis. Outgunned all day long, the Basters were left without ammunition by nightfall, but their prayers were answered when the very next day the Germans were ordered to retreat in the face of the advancing South African army. It’s a divine miracle that has been celebrated every year since by the Rehoboth Basters.
With the end of the war, the Basters were keen to re-establish their autonomous republic but were thwarted by the new South African rulers of Namibia. In 1924, the Rehoboth Basters revolted, appointing themselves a new Kaptein – the South African response was brutal, sending in troops, bombing the town into submission and arresting over 400 Basters. From that low point, the Basters have been engaged in a long hard struggle to try and reclaim and hold onto their unique status, applying to the UN for help; they even eventually made a deal with the apartheid regime to create a Rehoboth bantustan in 1979.
After independence, the Namibian government took control of many of the Basters’ communal lands. Since then, they have been fighting an even more desperate rearguard action to try and win back the ancestral land which they originally bought off the local Nama, to preserve their culture – a case which looks likely to fail.
South of Keetmanshoop the relentless B1 skirts the forbidding Great ||Karas Mountains to the east for about 100km, while the sibling Little ||Karas Mountains keep their distance, west of the flat, sandy valley that separates the two ranges. A couple of hours’ drive south, the road divides at GRÜNAU, a small, predominantly Nama and Afrikaner settlement of a few hundred. Of interest to the weary traveller is the roadside petrol station, just north of the junction, which can also provide an injection of caffeine. Despite its seeming insignificance on the ground, Grünau marks an important crossroads: north, the B1 heads towards Windhoek and beyond; west, a gravel road leads to the Fish River Canyon, while south, the B1 continues another 140km to the 24-hour border post with South Africa at Noordoewer, then onwards to Cape Town. Turning west, just before the border, takes you on a very scenic drive along the Orange River – where you can stop off for some gentle kayaking – which meanders a further 250km until it slides into the Atlantic Ocean at Oranjemund.
Eastwards from Grünau, the B3 follows the railway for 177km, through Karasburg, to the other main border post with South Africa (also 24hr), just beyond Ariamsvlei. This busy crossing serves traffic travelling between Namibia and the Johannesburg area. Karasburg, beyond being a useful refuelling pit stop, is the gateway to the important historical settlement of Warmbad, a forty-minute drive south.
On account of Grünau’s strategic location, several hospitable guestfarms lie in the vicinity, providing a convenient stopover for long-distance travellers keen to break their journey, but also worthy of longer stays. Some visitors do a day-trip to the Fish River Canyon (only 100km) from here.
Marking the border with South Africa, the Orange River – sometimes referred to by its Nama name, Gariep – carves its way west through ancient rock to the Atlantic. Just before the border post on the B1, the tarred C13 heads west to Aussenker, 50km downriver. The settlement is surrounded by a vast and ever-expanding emerald carpet of grape farms, which provides a striking contrast to the otherwise desolate but scenic desert hinterland. Many of the reed huts empty at the end of the grape harvest in December, with workers mainly from northern Namibia returning the following June.
In the dry season in particular, it’s easy to be put off by the barren landscape, though the verdant ranks of grapes, butternut and peppers hint at the lush riverine environment that lies beyond. Reed-lined banks hide warblers and fluorescent bishops, while kingfishers, fish eagles, cormorants, darters and herons gorge on the fish-rich waters. On the opposite bank, in South Africa, a metamorphic escarpment overlooking the river provides a picturesque backdrop, making it a perfect spot to enjoy a day or more of birdwatching or canoeing.
Forever in the shadow of the extraordinary Namib, the country’s second desert, the Kalahari, is often neglected. Though technically a semi-desert on account of its greater rainfall – some areas receiving over 280mm per year on average – it’s difficult to conceive of it as anything other than a desert given that any precipitation immediately drains away through the porous sandy soils. Yet the higher levels of rainfall and the numerous ephemeral rivers that streak the Kalahari inevitably allow it to support more vegetation and more varied wildlife than the Namib. In particular, smaller mammals thrive on the shimmering grasses that follow rain and on the greater availability of even smaller prey: aardwolves, porcupines and honey badgers are all possible sightings, so too scurrying groups of meerkats, mongoose and suricates. Birders will be keen to watch out for the many raptors wheeling above: martial and snake eagles, as well as lappet-faced vultures. Inevitably, snakes and scorpions are common denizens of the desert; keep an eye out for the puff adder and Panabuthus raudus – the largest scorpion in southern Africa, which can reach over 12cm, threatening with a particularly impressive tail. Some of the desert’s more surprising inhabitants include tortoises and even frogs.
Yet the Kalahari is as much about the stillness and silence of the desert as it is about wildlife, and – in this southern section – the visually stunning red dunes, made so by the high iron oxide content in the sand. In contrast to the towering dunes in the Namib, these are rippling vegetated linear dunes, running broadly northwest to southeast. They start just east of the B1 between Kalkrand and Mariental, where several private reserves make the most of this picturesque dunescape, and they cover much of the land between the B1 and the eastern border of Namibia, extending into the South African section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The park is attracting increasing numbers of self-drive visitors entering via the Mata Mata gate on the Namibian border, roughly 200km northeast of Keetmanshoop, as the crow flies. Many take the scenic C15 from the agricultural centre of Stampriet, northeast of Mariental, which tracks the relatively lush Auob River valley 230km southeast to the park gate, sometimes stopping of at one of the new campgrounds that are sprouting up along the way.