Lying awake in the middle of a seemingly lifeless desert because you are afraid of being eaten by a fresh water crocodile may seem a little hysterical, but Namibia’s Koakoland region, despite being as dry as a fossil, is full of surprises not least of which is the raging Kunene River.
On either side of this powerful torrent you will find empty deserts and landscapes of bare rocky mountains and vast gravel plains. Angola’s bad lands lie to the North, whilst the aptly named Skeleton coast and Namibia’s thirsty Koakoland abut from the South.
Temperatures in summer are silly; enough to melt tempers, whilst rain can be as rare as carnivorous cows.
But despite the aridity and an overall lack of standing water, Kaokoland supports a large contingent of wildlife; Crocodiles being amongst them.
“Just last week a poor Himba lady got eaten here” said the manager of a camp at Epupa Falls “And our maintenance man lost his brother too” And then he told me that I could take a boat tour upriver to view some of the large and presumably homicidal Crocs that lived on the banks up there.
I glanced at the boat; a small fiberglass thing with flaking paint and a rusty motor and decided against the idea.
“Do they ever come into camp?” I asked with feigned offhandedness
“Oh yes, quite often but you’ll be alright. They’ve never gone into a tent before”
‘Great’ I thought to myself. Just a pity I didn’t have one.
I was on an exploratory tour of some of the more remote areas of Koakoland with Phil Van Wyk, a well known Namibian guide who was of the ‘real men do not sleep in hotel rooms’ clan .
His face was stubbly and a little weather worn, what with his panda sunglass tan. His flip flops were old and scuffed, and his clothing was all khaki and orange dust.
This man obviously lived for (and in) the bush.
“Its great to sleep beneath the stars in Namibia” he had told me that evening as we lay beneath the pallid rainbow of the milky way. The nearby Epupa falls roared in tune to some nearby snoring campers whilst tennis ball sized makalali palm seeds fell periodically all around with disconcerting thuds.
Phil was not concerned about dangerous plant life though. He wasn’t even bothered by crocodiles or mosquitoes or dirty finger nails. He just loved being out there in the fresh air amongst nature.
I ended up sleeping in the bakkie that night.
Anyone who has visited the vast and almost empty regions of Kaokoland will know what it means to feel dry. Much of the landscape is dominated by moonscapes and piled up rocks where strange alien looking plants cling to an obviously difficult existence.
There are scrubby plains and bare granite hills, interspersed with toothy mountains and vast sandy expanses where treacle coloured grasses sway beneath breezes no more cooler than the air from a hair dryer.
From some angles, it can look rather like Mars up there; a place where a NASA rover would look more at home than an African Elephant.
But African elephants do live there. And that’s what I had come to see.
“The wildlife here is predominantly desert adapted” Phil told me as we left the relatively lush and green river banks of the Kunene and drove off road along dusty trails towards the Van Zyls mountain pass and the Marienfluss (a wide and grassy plain on the Angolan border) .
“Many, including the thousands of springbok and oryx we have already seen, never have to drink. They get all their moisture from plants”
But the elephants of Koakoland do need water.
“They can go for up to four days without it, which is unusual for Elephants” Phil told me “But eventually they must drink or they will die.”
Desert adapted elephants where once thought to be a distinct subspecies of the African Elephant because of their ability to go without water for so long. Their legs are shorter than other Elephants and their feet are bigger (presumably to help them whilst walking over soft and powdery sand)
They range far and wide in order to find enough food and moisture to sustain themselves and they are even known to dig their own waterholes in soft and sandy river beds.
But there’s not many of them. There never was. And now, due to human conflict and bad water management, the rare desert elephants of Koakoland are even more scarce than they used to be.
“Luckily for us, much of the fun in exploring Koakoland is to travel along some of the region’s dry river beds” said Phil “And that’s where we are most likely to spot elephants”
Phil had already driven me right up the middle of some of Koakoland’s rivers, including up the Khowarib Schlucht; a canyon through which the Hoanib river sometimes flows. We had also ventured along the wide and sandy bed of the Ombonde that more resembled a seaside beach than a river, and of course, we had seen the mighty Kunene and its beautiful cascades.
Along the way we had encountered many herds of zebra and oryx and we had even seen some graceful desert adapted giraffe striding through a dune field.
We had also met many, many Himba with their ornate hair and ancient rural customs.
But we hadn’t yet seen an elephant.
Turds yes. Standing desiccated in the unlikely setting of a vast gravel plain. But of the bums that had disgorged them there was nothing to be seen.
However, I wasn’t complaining. Far from it. The wildlife, plant life, scenery and human cultures I had so far experienced in this magical wilderness had been more than enough to send postcards home about.
The Marienfluss was certainly a highlight of the trip, and there amongst mysterious fairy circles (strange disk shaped patches in the sand that science has yet to find an answer for) I met a charming clan of Himba folk.
They lived in mushroom shaped mud huts and tended goats, the men sitting around mostly whilst the women did the chores, raised the kids, fixed the houses and labored on the land. How they ever found time to plaid their wonderful hair was completely beyond me, but find time they did.
I was introduced to their ways and their cultures and found that the women, with their straight backs and alluring smiles were amongst the most beautiful and elegant I had seen anywhere on the continent. It is a good thing that they have such pretty eyes. It gave me something to focus on rather than let my own eyes slip to where no gentleman’s eyes should.
Himba ladies are not big on bras.
For several days more, Phil drove us through a vast area where the human population stands at less than one per two kilometers square. We had followed the Puros Canyon where we found water flowing (albeit only several inches deep) and we had ventured for miles along the sandy road that is the Hoarusib and Hoanib Rivers.
At night, I would lie beneath my sheet and stare up at the beautiful desert stars and worry about scorpions, snakes and split ends and during the day we would drive and hike and take photographs of everything that was beautiful.
Sadly though, our tour eventually came to an end at the aqua blue Sesfontain volcanic pool, where we floated around and made friends with the welcoming leeches that lived there.
Through my trip, I had become quite intimate with the Koakoland desert and had learned that although it appears devoid of water and rain and humidity, there is in fact water ,water everywhere. Its in the shallow rivers, its in the raging torrents, its in the volcanic pools and its just beneath the surface where the largest rivers occasionally flow.
“Shall we take one last drive up the Hoanib?” asked Phil as we pulled ourselves reluctantly out from the refreshing little pool.
And so, for the last time we got back into his landcruiser and slowly made our way up sandy tracks to where we would no doubt be able to see a beautiful sunset to go with our last six pack of beers.
And that’s when Phil suddenly grinned and pointed out through his window.
“You wanted desert elephants?” he said to me “Well there they are”
There was a small family of them busy throwing damp mud onto their backs, framed by towering dunes and sun cooked rocks.
Their feet and tusks were being used to dig holes in the river bed from which they nosily sucked moisture, whilst a big male (who I erroneously at first thought was dead) had created a damp bed of sand for himself onto which he had decided to take a nap.
A baby practiced using his trunk to blow raspberries towards us.
It was a magical sight to see elephants busily doing what they need to do to survive in a place where no elephant should really be.
And it is an image that has now been burned into my memory along with the desert’s white heat, the orange earth and the red Himba of Namibia’s Northern Koakoland.
TRAVEL SIDE BAR
The nature of river driving and the conditions of some of the mountain passes and 4×4 tracks in Koakoland can and usually do lead to vehicle problems. It pays to travel in a convoy so that you can help each other out if things go pear shaped.
If you bypass some of the region’s more rugged routes such as the Van Zyls Pass and resist driving up any dry rivers you can probably explore quite a bit of Koakoland on public roads (although some of them are horribly corrugated)
There are many community and private camp sites set up throughout the whole of Namibia, including Kaokoland. Unfortunately they don’t seem to be listed in one neat and easy to use resource.
Phil Van Wyk is available to guide private safaris throughout the Koakoland area and knows the place like the back of his sunburned hands.
Phil also leads regular scheduled self drive 4×4 tours with Bhejane 4×4 Adventures
Visit www.bhejane.com for more information.
Tracks 4 Africa produce a very detailed travel Map for Namibia that shows routes and road conditions for much of Koakoland (including the more remote areas) as does Mapstudio
Taking along a Garmin GPS with either an up to date Garmin map or Tracks4Africa Africa map is also a good idea