Expert Reviews – Kaokoland

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An Arid Wilderness
Overall rating

The Kaokaveld of northern Namibia is the very definition of true wilderness. If you want to go on safari and feel like you’re dropping clean off the map, then this is the spot for you. Wildlife ekes out an existence in this arid and unforgiving land, so you stand a chance of seeing desert-adapted elephants, rhinos and occasionally lions, along with antelope attuned to surviving in this dry area. However, most people come here primarily to experience the local culture, appreciate the majestic landscapes, or simply to soak up the wildness vibe of this scenic region. I like that this is an area where you can observe and interact with local people without feeling like they have been corrupted by tourism, or that you are simply participating in a staged show. This makes the traditional Himba villages a real highlight of any visit to the unspoiled wilderness of the Kaokaland.

Exploration of the remote and sparsely-populated extreme northwest of Namibia
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With remote gravel roads and rugged terrain, this region is best known for self/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. We hardly encountered anyone else on our lonely drives – except when we were lucky to meet a community of the beautiful-looking nomadic Himba people on the side of the road. The highlight for me was the lovely cascading Epupa Falls in the far north, where the Kunene River is dotted with small vegetated islands of waving makalani palms, wild figs and precariously placed baobabs trees. Surprisingly for such a remote area, here we saw bee-eaters, fish eagles, the Malachite kingfisher and paradise flycatchers. For those with plenty of time and well-equipped vehicles, Kaokoland can be an adventurous wilderness experience.

Black rhinos, desert elephants and time travel in Kaokaland
Overall rating

Namibia’s entire population is less than 2 million, dispersed across an area roughly four times the size of the UK, which has a population of more than 60 million. Nowhere are these statistics given more grounding than in the wild, remote and ruggedly beautiful northern region of Kaokoland.

The unforgiving terrain means you won’t find great densities of game here, but the diversity of species is actually quite astounding considering the environment. For me, when you do spot big game here it will be well worth the detour from Namibia’s more beaten paths.

The region, also known as Kunene, is said to be home to Africa’s largest population of free-roaming black rhino (though this probably doesn’t take into account the recent scourge of poaching); I’ve also seen desert-dwelling elephants and lions. Easier to spot are Oryx, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, giraffe and other plains game.

Another fascinating aspect of this region is the iconic Himba tribe, whose red ochre-covered skin and distinctive copper jewelry have made them a favourite with photographers. The Himba’s traditional pastoral culture remains largely uninfluenced by Western civilization, and adds another layer of intrigue to a Namibian safari.

The harsh home of the enigmatic Himba
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Remote and arid even by Namibian standards, the part of the far northern interior dubbed the Kaokoveld supports one person every 2 sq km, making it one of the most thinly inhabited places anywhere in Africa. There is some good wildlife viewing here, though the only large mammals we saw regularly are the handsome oryx and endemic Hartmann’s mountain zebra. An odd sight running through the heart of these arid region is the wide Cunene River, which forms the border with Angola, and attracts keen birdwatchers for the opportunity to see rarities such as Dickinson’s kestrel and Cinderella waxbill. But my overwhelming memory of the area is our encounters with the charismatic Himba, a staunchly pastoral people whose ochre-red braided hair, costumes of hides and beads, makeshift huts, and dedicated love of cattle reminds me greatly of the desert dwelling pastoralists of the Ethiopia-Kenya border area.

Overall rating

Namibia’s northwestern corner is one of the country’s gems. It’s a familiar Namibian story here of barren and beautiful rocky mountains, sweeping sand valleys and some iconic local inhabitants. The Himba, one of Africa’s most soulful people, inhabit the Kaokoveld, and an encounter with the Himba is many visitors’ favourite memory of a visit to the country. The desert elephants here also add much soul to this special landscape. Natural wonders include the pretty Epupa Falls and the beguiling Otjinjange and Hartmann’s valleys – both worth the long haul journey to reach. It should already be clear from the above, however, that this is not your typical safari built around wildlife abundance – that being the case, it’s probably not for first-timers. And the going is pretty tough out here – you’ll need a 4WD, plenty of patience and a passion for adventure. But the rewards are significant, not least among them a safari experience of considerable depth and variety.

Life in the desert
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Kaokoland, also called the Kunene Region, feels spectacularly remote – it’s an expanse of rugged semi-desert, tucked away in Namibia’s far northwest, between the empty, windblown Skeleton Coast and the little-explored wilderness of southwest Angola. Some find this raw isolation stimulating – I certainly do. The climate is uncompromisingly hot and dry, so you won’t encounter animals in large numbers here. However, those that do manage to survive these tough conditions are fascinating. They include springboks, oryx, ostriches and geckoes, plus desert-adapted elephants, giraffes and lions. The best place to see desert-adapted big game is in the region’s dry, sandy river gorges, where walls of textured rock make a striking backdrop.

The Kunene region is also rich in cultural interest. It’s home to the Himba and Herero people, whose traditional customs, developed in response to the demands of the desert, continue largely intact. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a little time with community members, finding out about their distinctive way of life first-hand. For this, it’s crucial to find the right guide, with personal connections and a sensitive approach.

The survival of the nomadic Himba people in Kaokoland
Overall rating

Kaokoland must be the wildest area in an already wild country. This tract of arid desert bordering Angola is very undeveloped. Having said that, you don’t need to be an intrepid explorer to venture out here. We flew here and stayed as guests at Serra Cafema Kunene Camp. As with all camps belonging to Wilderness Safaris, luxury and professionalism are the norm and you don’t have to worry about a thing. We did several drives through the dunes taking in the vastness of this rugged terrain. We saw some gemsbok running away from us and maybe a few ostrich, but wildlife is not the attraction here. Incredibly enough, the nomadic Himba people inhabit this inhospitable area and a visit to a temporary camp was a very rewarding experience. Another highlight not to be missed for any adrenaline junky is a quad bike ride in the dunes.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.6/5
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  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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