WHY TRAVEL HERE?
Kaokoland is also known as the Kaokoveld, and is bordered on the south by the Hoanib River and in the north by the Kunene River (that is the border with Angola). Located in the far north west of Namibia this vast isolated area can literally be described as "out the back of beyond". Known for the superb mountain scenery, this is also home to the rare desert dwelling elephants, black rhino and giraffe.
The Mountains In the north of the Kaokoland the Marienfluss Valley is flanked on the east by the OtjihipaMountains, and on the west by the Hartmann Mountains. Hartmann's Valley is further west and closer to the Atlantic, and yet is much more arid.
This area is probably most famous for the desert elephant - these are not a sub species of elephant but are the African elephants as we know them that have adapted to survive in the desert conditions. The elephants rely on their knowledge of their food and water sources, and in very dry periods will even dig large holes to obtain water thus also providing other animals with the desperately needed water. Most "normal" elephants will drink water every day, the desert elephants have been known to go four days without drinking. Unfortunately the populations of both the desert dwelling elephants and the black rhino of this area were seriously affected by poaching in the 70's and 80's and conservation organizations are doing their best to try and protect them to allow them to multiply.
The Himba are an ancient tribe of semi nomadic pastoralists and are descendants of the earliest Hereropeople who migrated into this area in the 16th century. At the middle of the 18th century the pressure of too many people and cattle resulted in the migration of the main body of the Herero to the rich grazing further south. They are a slender and graceful people and the woman are thought to be particularly beautiful. They enhance their beauty with intricate hairstyles and other traditional adornments, and many of the Himba still live and dress according to ancient traditions, and live in scattered settlements throughout the Kaokoland. A mixture of red ochre and fat is rubbed over their bodies - this treatment protects their skin against the harsh climate of the desert. The simple Himba homes are made of saplings that are bound together by palm leaves and plastered with mud and dung. Searching for grazing for their cattle and goats a family will move from one home to another several times every year. One can visit Himba homes but should, as anywhere in the world, respect their customs.
Until independence this area was dangerous because of the bush war, but since the early nineties people have trekked this far north to venture along the Kunene River. The Ruacana Falls are 120 metres high and 700 metres high in full flood. The Epupa Falls consist of a series of small falls that drop a total height of 60 meters over a distance of 1,5 km, and at one point their width is 500 metres. The area around the EpupaFalls is especially scenic and worth exploring: there are rock walls, many superb trees, and a rich bird life. Both canoeing and white water rafting are on offer on the 135 km stretch of river between the Ruacana and Epupa Falls. The Kunene River also passes over the Ondurusa rapids.
Sesfontein Fort This was originally built as a police outpost and manned by German police officers attempting to eradicate poaching and arms smuggling, but started falling into ruin. A hundred years after it was built the fort was restored and designed to accommodate tourists. Sesfontein means six fountains, which have their sources in the surrounding area.
Opuwo This is the frontier town of the Kaokoland. Opuwo is 54 km on a gravel road from the main Kamanjab-Ruacana road. Spread over a low hillside Opuwo has not been well planned but serves its purpose with shops, a garage, a petrol station, a good bakery, and a school. This is the only fuel north of Sesfontein and west of Ruacana, although sadly this fuel does sometimes run out.
Driving in the Kaokoland
There are no proper roads (only treacherous tracks), petrol stations or any accommodation in this vast area and exploring this area should only be undertaken if able to form a 4x4 expedition and be ready to camp in the wild. The threatening Van Zyl's mountain pass is by far the most difficult in Namibia and even in a strong four wheel drive vehicle with good clearance can one cover the 10 km - usually taking about three hours. It is important to treat this environment, as harsh as it may seem, with respect. Going off road without properly checking that there will be no adverse effect on the plant or animal life can cause long permanent damage to the environment. Vehicle trails made 40 years ago can be seen as the plants and lichens have not recovered.
As appealing as this area is one should be aware of the hidden dangers. Hilly tracks can become mudslides in heavy rains. The desert in the west has harsh conditions to endure if stranded there by vehicle trouble. Dry riverbeds conceal soft sand easy to get stuck in, and even areas of quicksand. The tracks that exist are sometimes dreadful and walking is faster than trying to drive through the rocks - and streams have no bridges to cross on. One should be extremely well equipped and have good navigator, travelling in at least a two-vehicle expedition, and be fully aware that if the worst comes to the worst then one is hundreds of km from help and a few days from the nearest hospital.