The northwestern parts of Namibia are not the typical destination for those who haven’t travelled in Africa before, and normally you would not come across many families travelling here. There are only a small number of lodges in this area and most are more suited to the more affluent clientele who arrive via chartered plane, than for families with a group of children. There are a decent number of campsites and it is not unusual to come across a beautifully-located camp which, from one season to the next, has been destroyed by elephants or has suffered severe water damage. And so a trip to the Kaokoveld requires more logistical planning than for other parts of the country and also the willingness to say a temporary goodbye to the western civilization and the cocoon of safety it bodes.
All in all, it’s a really unique adventure that awaits.
If you have been to southern Africa more than once and travelled as a family in a rental car, and you have an adventurous spirit and can cope with the imponderables of a safari, this beautiful desert region with its friendly inhabitants may be calling your name.
Since remote roads are part of our travelling paths and we plan to set up our tent spontaneously at any nice places we come along, a well organised bulk purchase in Windhoek is important to ensure a self-sufficient 14 days. We refuel in Outjo, Kamanjab and then in Palmwag, to make sure our tanks remain full. I have experienced bottlenecks at all filling stations in the Kunene region in recent years. Kamanjab, Palmwag, Sesfontein, Opuwo and Ruacana…
So as a rule of thumb: Always fill up when fuel is available, so that you don’t have to pitch a tent at a fuel station, waiting for the next delivery.
Our very first stop: Waterberg. The idea is that we do not drive the long distance to Palmwag in a single day. At the Grootbergpass the landscape changes and for us the desert begins behind it. Slowly our Landrover makes its way up the hill, where it rewards us with a beautiful view of the evening sun. Zebras and Kudus show up on the slope opposite us and our four-year-old daughter seems content as she enjoys the first sighting of animals after what has already been a long journey.
The Landrover is well equipped for the trip and specially kitted-out for a family safari. Between the two front seats we installed a Landrover seat and attached a normal child seat to it. So Marlene sits between Andrea and me and can experience it all together with us. She doesn’t need a screen with videos to bridge the gap, because boredom doesn’t arise.
We stay at Palmwag Campsite for a few days to start without any rush into the Kaokoveld. At sunrise we take a drive into the concession area and rest at lunchtime in the shade of the makalani palms or at the pool in the camp. With great pleasure we discover a leopard in the hills, which seems unimpressed by us as he strides past us, in the calmness of the morning. There is a lot to see; besides springbok and oryx antelopes we also meet giraffes and desert elephants.
In the camp, to Marlene’s great delight, an elephant bull visits in the early evening hours. On his steady way through the camp he walks to shake makalani nuts from the surrounding palm trees. With such a wonderful experience, it’s difficult to go to bed. The elephant’s silhouette clearly stands out against the bright night sky and sometimes becomes illuminated by the lighting within the camp. Of course his and our safety is important and so we don’t interfere with his routine.
Patiently we answer all questions from Marlene, who can hear him eating at a safe distance.
The early bird catches the worm: We are at the gate to the concession area by sunrise. The cool morning lends itself to enjoy a part of the ride whilst sitting on the car’s rooftop. Andrea and Marlene are covered in sunscreen, equipped with hats, sunglasses, binoculars and all buckled up. Through the open roof hatch we can communicate and I am informed of all the different animals, which one can observe more easily from above. After a few steep and stony passages, which feel as if I am riding on the back of an elephant, we rest under one of the few trees that provide enough shade.
There are fresh avocadoes and ham sandwiches and additionally we are poured a coffee from the gas stove which we enjoy together with a biscuit. Afterwards we carry on at 15 km/h per hour. It is now too hot for a ride on the rooftop and Marlene falls asleep in her seat. This gives us parents time to plan the next few days in more detail.
In the afternoon we leave the mountainous area and a mirage accompanies us for the next hours as we move towards the cool west, where the Atlantic Ocean determines the desert climate.
Here we come across rhino tracks again and again; the three-toed footprint is easily distinguishable from other animals and runs parallel to our path. After some time the single tracks become fixed paths that run alongside the road and bring us to a permanent watering hole.
We prepare a beef fillet along with gem squash. In the dark night our car draws a fine shadow on the cold rock as the sky is filled with countless stars.
After the wind has stopped and the silence lies softly in our ears, we hear the roar of a lion far away. Two or three times… then silence… and lastly another roar. The sound seems to wander through the mountains, further and further away from our camp. Our daughter is looking forward to searching for the lion’s tracks in the morning. To her disappointment, our next destination, Warmquelle, is in a different direction.
Before we sit down to enjoy a relaxed breakfast with eggs and bacon and a magnificent view as a backdrop, the car is packed. Everyone is assigned a particular task when packing and Marlene helps to take down the tent and wash the dishes. A gravel path leads us through the dry tributaries to the Hoanib, which attracts many tourists through its rough idyll. In the meantime, some lodges have been built here and many vehicles have unfortunately left a track in the valley that will not wear away soon. The desert elephants are at home in this area as there is enough water and the large acacias provide enough food for all herbivores.
Since Andrea and I already know the Hoanib area well and we do not necessarily want to meet elephants here, we leave the valley again at Amspoort in the east. The animals here in the valley are sometimes under pressure when many tourists are around, and the animals have nowhere to go. Unfortunately, this has led to unpleasant and even fatal incidents for both animals and tourists, and since we were chased by an elephant bull for more than 25 km in the narrow neighbouring valley of the Hoarusib some years ago, we have no desire to repeat this adventure with Marlene.
Slowly the Landrover works its way through the deep gravel out of the Hoanib and into the mountains. Large, grey expanse stretches to the horizon. The ground is covered with glittering stones, antelope droppings, tracks and various plants. Again and again we step out of the vehicle to explore our surroundings a little. Marlene loves to explore, we look at many things in the magnifying glass available on site, collect stones and break open the various antelope remains to see what they ate. Marlene is continuously amazed that giraffe droppings are merely the size of an olive, whilst springbuck droppings look like cherry pits. Luckily, we have enough bags and containers with us for Marlene to pursue her passion for collecting all kinds of things she finds.
We cross the Hoarusib at an eastern part near the border of the Skeleton Coast Park. The river valley is a highlight as it lies in the middle of the dry desert terrains. A treat for the senses where you are guaranteed to come across various animals and watch as the river there always flows above ground. Against this dramatic, rocky background, many photos and videos are taken of off-road vehicles ploughing through the deep water, vehicles getting stuck in the mud or pushing through the rocky narrowness until the water splashes onto the walls of the rocks.
We leave the valley on the way to the quiet Khumib. Cold wind is blowing towards us, which quickly has us put on our long-sleeved jumpers, as we are only a few kilometres from the sea. We follow the sandy tracks parallel to the chain of rocks that separates us from the sand dunes. A narrow and very steep path leads to a small peak. Hundreds of animal tracks are imprinted on the stony slopes and show us that here an old pass leads into the desert. A strong wind tries to blow us from the summit, the car sways in the gusts. Marlene thinks we could try our kite here. So we get out and Marlene is impressed by the view of the foggy dunes. Our small kite is quickly thrown into the air, but the wind keeps pushing it to the ground. We change drivers and slowly my wife navigates the car while Marlene sits on my lap for the last few kilometres. Rocks formed by wind and the seasons pass by, we roll gently over sand glistening in gold. Large, round holes in the rock look inviting and we pitch our tent nearby and enjoy the view of the Khumib valley, as it is illuminated by the last sunbeams trailing through the fog.
Following a starry night, the cold and grey sky awakes us in the morning. We are surrounded by thick fog, thick drops float in the air and lie like icy pearls on our sleeping bags. Where the drops collect, the water draws a fine line in the dust covering the Landrover. The rising sun makes the clouds melt; the rocks look like freshly washed and display impressive colours when the first rays of sunlight touch them.
The main track takes us further north. Huge valleys, gravel areas formed by the first ice age, table-top mountains and pyramid-like scree mountains shape the surroundings.
We make good progress on the track at an average speed of 40 km/h, every small hump feeling as if we are driving over a piece of corrugated iron. Due to the traffic of two to three vehicles per day, which is a lot for this area, the track has become very uncomfortable for both cars and passengers. At too high a speed from about 50km/h onwards, you easily start to feel as if you are losing control. When driving too slowly however, the car seems to want to break apart. Near Orupembe, we welcome the sight of smaller, less strenuous tracks.
We stop for a short while at Red Drum, the legendary signpost from wartimes. Here we lay down a small, painted stone, as is now customary, and continue further into the Marienfluss valley.
A great expanse welcomes us, where the golden grass sways peacefully in the afternoon sun. Andrea and Marlene sit on the roof and enjoy the view and the piquant air, which doesn’t seem so dusty here anymore. Slowly we make our way through the lovely valley that is just as impressive as always. Himba huts appear in the distance, people wave at us from far away. Flocks of goats pass by rocks in the distance, led by children, whose skin is aglow in the sun. Our destination is Camp Syncro, run by a Swiss couple (Note: The camp was sold some time ago and the couple and their baby have moved to another part of the world). The warm welcome is accompanied by great joy, similar to how you’d expect old friends to greet another. Marlene runs with the dogs and is surprised to see big trees and a river with water. Unfortunately, no swimming is allowed since crocodiles are already resting on the nearby sandbank. But we are looking forward to the warm shower and the obligatory sundowner surrounded by hundreds of colourful birds. The next day we enjoy the peace and quiet in the camp, scramble up the nearby hills and stroll along the rocky riverbank.
In the evening we cook as usual on an open fire. This time our meal comprises of the last peppers, apples and onions, boiled down in equal parts with white wine, apple juice and spices. This is accompanied by freshly prepared mashed potatoes. Meanwhile three more vehicles have arrived on site and the visitors set up their camp. It seems that the women are setting up, while the men are making fire and distributing Gin and Tonics. We engage in small talk about the distance covered, their Land Cruisers and our little Defender, which with its relatively large 130 wheelbase appears somewhat dwarfish against the higher and wider, beige giants equipped with all imaginable extensions and superstructures. They are South Africans and they seem surprised that vegetables can be a dish on their own and that I don’t feel the need to smoke a cigarette with them and only drink three GTs.
After a noisy night we are happy to make our way out of the camp at sunrise. On one of my favourite hills we take a break and enjoy a relaxed breakfast with bacon and egg, coffee and tea.
The route via Red Drum to Opuwo is doable in one day, but not recommended. We slowly work our way through the steep and narrow rocky terrain. Everything seems to be aglow; no dried blade of grass is to be seen and the ground seems to have been scorched by the heat of the sun. The memories of the last rainy season, when this path resembled a torrent and we had to brace ourselves against wind and weather in order not to be washed away, can hardly be reconciled with this.
Oh yes, the Hartmannstal: a desert dream with sand, fairy circles, gentle dunes, red rocks, a lot of wind, morning fog and antelopes moving through the expanse. It lies parallel to the Marienflusstal and is worth a visit. Even though countless, partly unauthorized prohibition signs adorn the way.
Our next destination is Epupa, and so we drive east to camp at the dry Hoarusib under a huge acacia tree. We arrive rested in the chaos of Opuwo, the capital of the area, on the following day. It always seems chaotic to us when, after almost two weeks of loneliness and vastness, the tarred road and the noisy life has us back, with traffic lights, police, street markets and a crowded fuel station with dubious characters, street vendors, friendly staff, queues at the ATM and children begging. Because some do not consider us and our daughter typical tourists but somewhat as locals, the eager souvenir sellers only target us for a few moments and then proceed to try their luck at the next rental car with a rooftop tent. After refueling we drive to the parking lot in front of the supermarket. We wave to a security guard in a yellow vest who stops a running horde of children before they reach our car. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to get out, as the children gather at the car doors and windows and call for “Empties” – empty water bottles. These are usually used to transport water around the village. When the group has moved on, we give some stragglers, who are not so persistent, our empties and later also some of our apples. Marlene has already met many children in Africa, played with some in their huts, stroked goats or climbed trees together. We often told her about the children in Africa, about different ways of life, traditions and also poverty. But Opuwo is hard to bear for many who see street children for the first time, sniffing glue or picking up cigarette butts and smoking what is left over. We avoid supporting beggars, we don’t give money or sweets that might have to be given to a person that sends the children out to beg. But we try to take some time and talk to a few individuals. Then we eat apples together or share our bread with them.
In the next three and a half hours to Epupa we talk a lot about our impressions, then about how we experienced this route during the rainy season, when after heavy cloudbursts the road partially turned into a lake and only after many kilometres a bump arose in the midst, like an island. This year, the Okongwati, which you cross via a ford, had almost 1.5m deep, rushing water that drove the trees past our waiting convoy. But after a few hours under a cold, grey sky the water level dropped, and the first pick-up let its engine roar and drove briskly with a full load through the streaming brown soup. Slowly the onlookers disappeared and the next day only the thick mud testified to the water masses that had rushed past. Another story that my daughter keeps asking about, which is elaborated on in great detail on long journeys and can be adapted to the audience, is the flooding of the Warm Spring Camp and the destruction of the rock pool. We were trapped down in the valley due to the water and the rumbling noise of the water falling down the rocks from the mountains was impressively terrible. Everywhere scorpions and spiders, mice and birds came out of their hiding places to look for a new place, mostly in vain. Here is a link to it with more information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CT77adQhUNw
Marlene, however, falls asleep in her seat very suddenly, and so the story comes to a quick end today.
The extremely dry road to Epupa is monotonous as always and we are glad to see the camp appear under palm trees, as it lies in the shadows of the afternoon sun. A long-awaited destination. We drive through the village to reach our overnight stay at the last bend of the river, where a friendly and warm welcome awaits us.
After quickly pitching the tent, we look forward to the last rays of sunshine, which give the camp along the river a warm glow. A G&T for us and Ginger Ale for Marlene. Then I help her with the fire, whereby we wear our gloves in an exemplary way, because if I forget it, I get reprimanded. Gloves are important because scorpions like to hide in the firewood or sharp splinters and thorns can hinder the smooth handling of the firewood. Scorpions can always be seen here. They love the palm trees and are easy to find with a UV lamp near the water taps. Marlene gets the lamp and goes searching with Andrea while I prepare the food. Then I finally go to the huge outdoor shower, a bathroom with straw walls and without a roof. The palm leaves rustle, the warm water rustles and the stars twinkle high up in the sky. Never have I experienced such an enjoyable shower!
The next morning, we get up early and are excited to meeting the Himbas. We drive with a guide to a village that I have visited very often. 15 years ago, I led a research trip to study the influence of tourism in the region with a group of students. We interviewed the chief, different families, visited villages and spoke to tourists and organizers.
I am looking forward to seeing him again and Andrea and I are curious about the children’s reactions when we arrive there with Marlene.
I will report about our encounter with the Himba, about their way of life and about appropriate behaviour in the Kaokoveld some other time. A small hint: In the Himba village our visit was very exciting for everyone involved.
We enjoy a late lunch break under palm trees in the sand before we set off to the viewing hill to admire the Epupa Falls. Even though there is little water in the Kunene during winter, it is always a peaceful spectacle to see how the river meanders through the valley, splitting up, forming islands with green palms and then comes thundering down into the gorge. From up here you can see the strong contrast between the hot dry rocks and the delicate green band that appears on the riverbank, forming a border to Angola.
Today we will get into our tents early, as the next day will take us as far as Olifantsrus Camp in Etosha. Via Opuwo we drive back and after weeks we are on tarred roads again and can exceed our usual 80 km/h. For our daughter it seems that we are the fastest car in the world. Only after half an hour we are overtaken by a tuned Toyota, but there she is, sleeping again. This time we bought vegetables for the days we spend at Etosha National Park, because we have to go through a meat inspection just before entering the park.
After a thorough inspection and a laborious check-in at Galton Gate we reach Etosha and are happy to welcome the springboks all around us. Since we finally want to arrive at our place after a 10-hour day, we don’t stop at the water points, but swiftly search the surroundings with our binoculars. Marlene has her own binoculars so that we can all enjoy the sighting of animals. Of course, it takes a bit of time until she has learnt how to handle them, but after some practice she can observe the animals quite well.
In two places we see lions and rhinos, and in other places we see fresh tracks, so it is worth to come back the next day with more time.
The Olifantsrus Camp is characterized by its seclusion. It is located in the western part of the park that is visited less frequently. This means that the exciting animal encounters can often be enjoyed alone.
After a few days we move to Okaukuejo. Not because it is particularly quiet or very crowded on either sides of the wall that separates the waterhole from the camp. Also, not because of the friendly staff, but because here our baby radio reaches from the waterhole to one of the Waterhole Chalets. In her small mosquito travel tent, Marlene sleeps safely in the chalet, protected from insects and mice, while Andrea and I can spend the night alone at the waterhole with snacks and good wine. All on our own! Yes, after dinner only few tourists get lost on the benches around the water and the rhinos, elephants, leopards and cheetahs belong to us only. In the case of loud arguments of lions or elephants, we would immediately be with Marlene, should she be frightened, but she sleeps the sleep of the righteous. In fact, we have woken her up at times to watch a particularly beautiful experience together with a group of hyenas.
This highlight unfortunately marks the end of our family trip and with many songs sung together we arrive in good mood at our lodging in Windhoek after the long drive back on tar roads.
If you know Namibia, ask your children if they are in the mood for more adventure and experience the Kaokoveld together. You will learn to understand the country in a new way.
Author: Lambert Heil