North West Namibia 2: Kaokoland

Marienfluss Valley,
NW Namibia

After we leave Sesfontein the country side doesn’t change but we have left behind the land of the Damara people and we are now in Kaokoland, the land of the Herero people. We soon reach the dusty settlement of Purros which boasts one general store and some signs offering to sell fuel by ringing a cell number. Presumably it is transported here in drums but we’re not keen to test the quality so we’re glad we filled the tanks at Sesfontein and have a couple of jerry cans each as a back up because we won’t see a service station for quite a while.

From Purros the main track north is reportedly very rough and we are advised to travel up or along side the Hoarusib River then cut across to the Khumib River and follow the track to Orupembe. Paul and Jared decide the river bed of the Hoarusib is the more fun option although Jen and I wonder if the river side track might have been a tad easier. We make it through OK after criss-crossing through sand and mud, making several detours when the track runs out or gets too muddy and going up and down steep exits and entrances. Obviously one of the climbs up a sand wall from the river bed was too sharp for our camper trailer as the back hits harder than it should have and we end up with bent sheet metal and a broken tap on our water tank and, as a result we lose much of our water. Luckily we had arranged to have the tanks in the trailer separated before we left Johannesburg so we still have some of that water left plus 55 litres in the land cruiser. It is slow going and we make an overnight camp in the river bed before completing this section of our trip.

In the morning the Hoarusib takes a turn and enters a gorge, definitely not a place to take the trailers, and we follow a track across country and over a water-shed before descending to the Khumib River. It’s a lovely drive with lots of great views especially looking back down towards the Hoarusib just before we drive over a saddle. We had been warned there were sections of very sharp rocks and Jared gets caught in one which tears the side wall of a trailer tyre. The track is very narrow at this spot but fortunately nobody is going the other way while Jared is changing the tyre, in fact we’ve seen very few other vehicles since we left Purros.

When we reach the Khumib River the track meanders along the edge of the sandy river bed occasionally crossing and as the afternoon progresses we decide to stop in the next suitable shaded spot. Instead the track moves away from the river bed and climbs over some hills alongside the river. We stop at a lookout and the view is fabulous. There’s no shade and it’s blowing a gale but we decide to stay anyway, the photographic opportunities are too good to miss. Luckily the wind eases before we need to light our fire and Paul enjoys taking photos at sunset and sunrise as well a quick stint during the night as the moon is setting.

We reach Ourepembe without further mishap and drive into the village to see what’s there, maybe Jared can get his tyre fixed. We stop at Orupembe Store No. 1 to ask and are told no luck with the tyre as the only other building, apart from huts, is the police station. We drive away wondering why the store was numbered.

Orupembe Shop 1,
NW Namibia

Not far up the track we enter the Otjiha plains which are encircled by hills. It’s good grazing country with lots of cattle and goats as well as some Ostrich and buck. At the north of the plains are the villages of Onjuva and Otmenje. Marble Community Camp is at the northern end of Otmenje and is our destination for the night. What another great camp! We don’t have private ablutions this time but everything is extremely well built while it retains a rustic design and fittings. Once again our one night stay turns into two. On the hill above us are three houses available for rent. Their design and construction along with their fitout are first class, we’d be more than happy to stay in them gazing over the valley below for an extended period. They are being managed by the community for the private owner for three years and then ownership will pass on to the community totally. What a wonderful concept!

The camp manager is a young man named Mister Exit and he arranges a village tour for us. The village consists of a collection of family clusters of round huts made from grasses, small branches, cow manure and mud along with kraals for their goats. The village also has a substantial new clinic and a school. We visit one family and the men, wearing western clothing, are busy making a new hut while the women and young children are sitting waiting for us in their traditional attire. We are in Himba country now, they are one of the tribes of the Herero people but have retained their own unique way of dressing. They use a mixture of ochre butter and herbs to protect their skin and weave animal hair into their own to make long plaits. They wear beautifully tanned animal skin skirts and elaborate jewellery. Paul and Jen take plenty of photos while we are asking questions of them through Mister Exit. Jen has a modern Polaroid camera which can print durable photos which she gives to the women and they are a great hit, something I will definitely look into getting. The women have possibly never had a photo of themselves or the children they have in their laps. We leave them with a gift of food plus some money which they plan to use to visit the clinic.

Himba Ladies,
Onjuva Village,
NW Namibia

While we are out we visit the local primary school, on vacation at present, and talk with Mister Exit about local life. His brother is the teacher, and another local person is the nurse. Once children have finished primary school, if they are to get a further education, they have to board at schools in distant towns and once they have finished studying only a few are able to get jobs back here, though according to Mister Exit, they would all like to return home to work.

From Marble Camp we are travelling north to the Kunene River at the top of the Marienfluss Valley and then returning to Marble Camp so rather than tow our trailer up and back we leave it behind at the campground and use the roof top tent. As we are preparing to leave the family camping next to us, Boet and Martie along with their daughter, son in law and grand daughter ask if they can travel with us as it is rugged country and it is always safer to travel with others.

We have a slow start so it’s mid-morning before we begin the journey. The first few kilometres are easy but then we climb into the rocky hills and the track gets steeper, rougher and narrower. As we aren’t towing we take the lead and we cruise up effortlessly. The others are slower but both have very capable vehicles and they pick their way through without mishap. It takes an hour to travel 20km but by then we are through the worst of it. The next section is easier but no faster and it is lunchtime by the time we reach an intersection marked by the Roidrom (Red Drum). We turn right here and the road passes over a saddle, past a village and then descends into the Marienfluss Valley which stretches north and has very rugged and high ranges to the east and west. The only other track leading to this valley is Van Zyl’s Pass which crosses the eastern range and isn’t suitable for those with trailers. It is so narrow and steep that vehicles which use that track travel from east to west and should leave the Marienfluss along the road we used from the south.

The valley is covered in sparse yellow grass and the drive through, which is more than 50km, is delightful. Paul and I agree we’d love to camp here to see the early morning and late evening light on the grass and the mountains but no camping is allowed so we continue to the head of the valley where we reach the Kunene River and the border with Angola. There are two camps here and we stay in the community camp where we set up under the shade of a huge tree and then sit watching the river flow past and the rugged mountains on the other side.

It’s very hot and we are glad of the shade as crocs in the river mean that swimming is not an option but we’ve returned to ‘cricket’ country and they like the shade too so we have to resort to swiping them out of the way with our flip flops again. It’s nearly the end of their season and we certainly won’t miss them when they are gone. We stay two nights with a short drive one day to check out the local shop and to drive along the river as far as we can to a spot in some rapids which the locals use for swimming where it is safe from crocs.

Paul and I make a very early start next morning so we can catch some of the morning light in the valley. It is such a special time of the day and once again we wish we could have stayed out there. After some quick photos we find some shade to have breakfast and enjoy the serenity. When Jared and Jen arrive we retrace our tracks back to Marble Camp. We make a stop at the village near the red drum and ask if we can take photos which they agree to. They probably don’t get asked too often and one of the young girls has fun pulling faces at Paul and laughing with him.

We enjoy a third night at Marble Camp and make an early start in the morning as we have a long drive ahead of us to reach Opuwo. It’s actually only about 200km but with the rugged roads out here we want to allow at least eight hours. It’s another interesting drive and while the roads are rough to begin with they are nowhere near as rugged as the track up to Marienfluss and the further east we travel the better the roads get.

Opuwo is the biggest town we have been in since we left Swakopmund over two weeks ago with two big supermarkets and several small ones so we are looking forward to re-stocking, particularly with fresh fruit and vegetables. It is also our first opportunity to get fuel since Sesfontein. It’s got the first tarred roads we have seen since Swakopmund but the side roads are all dirt and its a dusty and unattractive town. We love it though. The Herero people have many tribes of which the Himba people are one. Unlike the bare-topped Himba women, many of the non Himba traditional older Herero women dress in elaborate multi coloured long dresses with large puffed sleeves and head dresses, often of the same material, shaped like the horns of a cow. Driving or walking along the street we see tribal people dressed in western clothes or in Herero dress or in traditional Himba clothing and others who may be wearing traditional clothing for Southern Angola and everyone seems to mix harmoniously. It all seems slightly chaotic but somehow relaxed and it feels a very friendly town. As usual we have some chores to do and while it seems difficult at first to find out where to go as soon as we ask we are quickly helped out or directed to the right place.

As we were coming in to town, about twenty kilometres out, the land cruiser started losing power at high revs and going up hills. When we got to town our first stop was a tyre shop for Jared and Jen to replace the tyre they had ruined on their trailer. We asked them where we could find a diesel mechanic and one of them ducked across the road and came back with Hennop … a diesel mechanic … who worked from a carport outside the bar we could see. He asked some very specific questions while he had a look under the hood / bonnet and quickly said he could fix it in half an hour. We drove across the road to his outdoor workshop and he quickly removed and cleaned the fuel injector as well as replacing a missing bolt on the starter motor. We met Hennops boss Sam, half Namibian and half South African, who gave us a short run down on the town and the local economy. A quick test drive and we are very pleased to have been able to sort the issue out so quickly and easily.

We are considering a camp site in town which doesn’t look ideal but should be OK for the night or two we are in town when Jen makes contact with a French overlanding family she has been following on the Internet (Les Doudz). They are in town too and along with a couple of French guys they are staying in a bush camp just outside town. We link up in town just as it is getting dark and follow them to the spot they have found. They have come through Africa from the north and it is good to hear where they have been and what it has been like. We have chores the next day as well as some catching up on the Internet and they are visiting a Himba village in the afternoon so we all stay at the same spot the next night as well.

Finally with fridges and stores restocked, laundry done, cars washed (to get the salt from the Skeleton Coast off), a new tyre for Jared and Jen, new flip flops for Paul and me to replace the ones broken or wearing out, a new hat to replace the one I’ve misplaced and a cleaned fuel injector for our car we are ready to head back to the Kunene River. This time we are travelling to Epupa Falls and while the road is dirt again it is in good condition, apart from some corrugations and the odd pothole.

This part of Namibia is still pretty remote but it is far more accessible than Marienfluss and attracts far more tourists and travellers. There are several places offering camping or other accommodation and we choose Omarunga Lodge right on the river which isn’t too crowded and offers large sites, a great pool to cool off in during the heat of the day and a pleasant bar and restaurant. The camp next door has no pool and is very crowded but has a great viewing deck and cheaper beers so it’s our pick for sundowners.

Epupa Falls drop a total of 60m over 1.5km but the greatest single drop is around 37m into a narrow cleft and is a five minute walk away. Our planned one night stop turns to three, there’s something about a comfortable camp, warm days, a swimming pool and a river flowing past which makes it easy to linger.

A track takes us east along the Kunene River to Ruacana. This track used to take days to negotiate but a couple of years ago they graded it and while still rough and steep in places it is easy enough to negotiate. With an early start and a longish day we could make it through in one day but in our normal relaxed mode we break the journey and spend a night at another camp by the river. We reach Ruacana mid morning and attempt to get a clear view of the falls but at present there is not much water coming over the cliff and there are far too many trees in the way.

We could turn north here and cross the border into Angola but we aren’t ready to leave Namibia yet and while we would all like to visit Angola that will come later in our travels through Africa. Instead we turn south, briefly call into the township of Ruacana then head over to the main south road where we leave behind the dirt tracks we have been travelling on for the past three weeks. We’re heading to Etosha National Park from here where we will find lots of animals, lots of tourists and a far more travelled part of the country. We’ve absolutely loved the north west of Namibia, is been truly special and it will certainly remain a highlight of my travelling memories.

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