The northwest corner of Namibia is remote and arid even by Namibian standards, it is isolated and desolate, a true wilderness. This part of the far northern interior of Namibia dubbed the Kaokoveld supports one person every 2 sq km, making it one of the most thinly inhabited places anywhere in Africa. With remote gravel roads and rugged terrain, this region is best known for self-drive four-wheel-driving. Most of the roads are challenging, and some of the mountain passes are no more than coarse scree and jagged rocks, but the greatest appeal of Kaokoland is the wonderful sense of space and isolation. If you want to go on safari and feel like you’re dropping clean off the map, then this is the spot for you.
Kaokoland, once part of Game Reserve No 2, so declared in 1907 by the German administrator Theodore Leutwein to protect the abundant game, it was part of the largest national park in the world, covering 93 240 square kilometres. Stretching westward from the existing Etosha National Park boundaries all the way to the coast, and bordered in the north by the Kunene River, and to the south, by the Huarusib River. In 1958, the “Elephant Commission” extended the border southwards to the Hoanib River to allow for migratory game and endangered animals, increasing its surface area to 99 526 square kilometres. It was de- proclaimed in 1964 as a game reserve and reduced by 71 972 square kilometres to serve as one of the ten ethnic areas or homelands. Today, combined with Damaraland, it forms the Kunene Region of Namibia. To put this in perspective Kaokoland is about the same size as Israel, and about double the size of countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium. But although it is no longer a game reserve the local communities (Himba, and in the neighbouring Damaraland, the Damaras) manage the areas in conservancies where people and wildlife co-exist.
Since independence, Kaokoland has become a prime destination for 4×4 travellers. A variety of articles in off-road magazines and route information in guidebooks and maps have popularised the area over the years. Initially a fully equipped 4×4 was essential if you were to travel on the various 4×4 tracks and routes in Kaokoland but over the years various roads in the area have been constructed to allow easy access to most of the ‘highlights’ in Kaokoland. I have seen normal ‘rentals’ (eg Corolla’s, Golf’s etc) pitching up at Epupa. (180km from Opuwo), a route that could have taken more than a day in a ‘hard core’ 4×4 in the early days.
What can I add about Kaokoland that has not been said in the various articles that annually appear in a variety of 4×4 magazines?
From my point of view, firstly, the remote and unspoiled region warrants more than one visit, it is just not possible to explore it all in a hurry. Vast rugged distances and the more scenic route options can not be squeezed into the usual 2 weeks that visitors’ would allocate to visit Kaokoland.
Secondly, Kaokoland is made up, to the west – part Namib, and the central, forming part of the ‘great escarpment’ barrier between the Namib and the Namibian interior. Together these landscapes feature desert, highlands, grasslands, riverbeds and mountain chains. The immense and ageless land proudly boasts unique geological, vegetative and wildlife phenomena, that can only be appreciated when one sees it all and it grabs ones soul.
The most popular season to visit Kaokoland is in the cooler winter months because of the moderate climate; however, Kaokoland after the early spring/summer rains is completely transformed. The dense stands of indigenous and endemic plant life, the almost endless grassy green plains that sustain the communal farming activities of the nomadic Himba tribe and many other rare semi-desert species make for a contrasting seasonal experience.
During a trip in Kaokoland one hardly encounters anyone outside the main town Opuwo and smaller settlements – except when one is lucky enough to meet a community of the beautiful-looking nomadic Himba people near the road. I like to stress that no matter how remote and how isolated, one should always remember to remain respectful of the environment, the people and the privilege of being in this special place.
Highlights of Kaokoland includes the exquisite cascading Epupa Falls in the far north, where the Kunene River banks are dotted with small vegetated islands of waving Makalani palms, Wild figs and precariously placed Baobabs trees. The many hard geological features sometimes mixed with dune sands, the colours ranging from deep purples and blues to soft pinks, bright oranges and shades of green. Van Zyl’s pass obviously is rated as a must for 4×4 enthusiasts, but to me it is totally over rated except for the range of rare rock dwelling trees and shrubs. A friend on a recent trip commented, “Well, the only disappointing part of an awesome trip, from my personal view was Van Zyl’s Pass. Its now in a category of “been there done that.”
The condition of roads nowadays in Kaokoland, leads to my personal conviction that the SUV owner could also experience the ‘best of Kaokoland’ with careful planning. However, regardless of the type of vehicle you are driving, the golden rule remains, ‘Do Not’ venture into this remote area with less than 3 vehicles in a group, preferably more. Careful planning will prove valuable while attempting the tracks on your own could prove to be fatal.
There is spectacular wildlife viewing, amongst the larger mammals you could expect to see Oryx and endemic Hartmann’s mountain zebra, black rhino and of course the desert elephant. An odd sight running through the heart of this arid region is the wide Cunene River, which forms the border with Angola, and is home to rarities like the Dickinson’s kestrel and Cinderella waxbill.
As with most remote Namibian treasures, it takes considerable effort and planning to gain access to these treasure troves. There is no easy way, no short cut, and no expensive lodge nearby. There are still amazing places not mentioned in guide books and 4×4 magazines, tracks that are not mapped and vistas that are rarely seen. You only need to know how to get there. It is this kind of rare beauty, which after all, can only be in the eye of the beholder.