Kaokoland is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in Southern Africa. It is a world of incredible mountain scenery, a refuge for the rare desert dwelling elephant, black rhino and giraffe and the home of the Himba people. Although it is harsh and offers little respite at midday, the rugged landscape is especially attractive during the early morning and late afternoon when it is transformed into softly glowing pastel shades. The topography in the south of the area is characterised by rugged mountains which are dissected by numerous watercourses, but north of the Hoarusib River the scenery is dominated by table-top koppies. Still further north, the Otjihipa Mountains rise abruptly above the Namib floor to form the eastern boundary of the Marienfluss, while the west of the valley is defined by the Hartmann Mountains. The Marienfluss valley is very scenic and relatively greener than the Hartmann's valley. Hartmann's valley is closer to the Atlantic and yet much more arid. However, it does have a strange atmosphere when the sea mists drift inland.
Kaokoland differs greatly from Damaraland in terms of accessibility and infrastructure. While quite a bit of Damaraland is isolated from the outside world it is really Kaokoland which is the back and beyond, silent, huge and for the most part empty. With 16,000 or so inhabitants, 5,000 of them Himba, Kaokoland has a population density of only one person to every two square kilometers which is about a quarter of the national average.
Kaokoland is bordered on the south the Hoanib River and on the north the Kunene River which also forms Namibia's border with Angola. Mountain ranges near the Kunene River are rugged and impressive with the highest point located at 2039m in the Baynes Mountains. It is an oddity that a river runs through this arid landscape with the only real waterfalls in Namibia along it's course. The Ruacana Falls are 120m high and 700m wide in full flood. Also along the Kunene River you'll find the Epupa falls, about 135km downstream from the Ruacana falls. The name Epupa is a Herero work for the spume created by falling water. Epupa is formed by a series of cascades that drop a total of 60m over a distance of about 1.5km and at one point reaches a total width of 500m. It is a possibility to swim in some of the pools but one has to be wary of crocodiles in doing so.
The area surrounding Epupa Falls has richly coloured rock walls, a variety of trees including the wild fig, baobabs and waving makalani palms. Spectacular sunsets and perennially flowing waters means that the area offers much to see and experience. Bird watching is rewarding, especially for the rare Rufoustailed palm thrush, as well as bee eaters, the African fish eagle and Kingfishers ranging from giant to the tiny Malachite Kingfisher. One of the best places to stay in the Epupa area is the Epupa Camp luxury lodge.
For a bit of adventure try white water rafting and canoeing on the Kunene River. For about twenty years preceding independence the Kunene River was out of bounds because of the bush war, but since the early nineties trekking this far north for river adventures has taken off in a big way. The stretch of river normally traversed is the 120km between Ruacana and Epupa Falls. A highlight of the trip is negotiating the Ondurusa rapids as well as passing through the looming zebra mountains and crossing the section of the river known as the 13 rapids.
Near the hot water spring at Warmquelle is Sesfontein Fort which for many years was a desolate and rapidly disintegrating ruin. Almost a hundred years after it was first built, the historical monument, originally a police outpost, was reconstructed and equipped to accommodate tourists. Sesfontein Fort derives its name from the six fountains which have their source in the vicinity. The palm trees at the fort were planted by the German police officers who manned the fort to combat weapons smuggling and elephant and rhino poaching.
The Himba people who inhabit Kaokoland are the descendants of the earliest Herero's who migrated into this area in the 16th century. Around the middle of the 18th century the pressure of too many people and cattle in this dry, fragile environment led to the migration of the main body of the Herero to the rich pasture lands further south. The Himba are an ancient tribe of semi nomadic pastoralists, many of whom still live and dress according to ancient traditions and live in scattered settlements throughout Kaokoland. They are a slender and statuesque people. The women especially are noted for their unusual sculptural beauty, enhanced by intricate hairstyles and traditional adornments. They rub their bodies with red ochre and fat, a treatment which protects their skins against the harsh desert climate. The homes of the Himba are simple cone shaped structures of saplings bound together with palm leaves and plastered with mud and dung. A family may move from one home to another several times a year to seek grazing for their goats and cattle.
In terms of wildlife Kaokoland is probably most famous for it's desert elephant. The possibility of obtaining a glimpse, however brief, of a herd of desert dwelling elephants is what draws most tourists to the area. Between 1977 and 1982 a crippling drought gripped the area and wiped out large numbers of game. However, the biggest threat came from poachers, and between 1970 and 1983 the number of desert dwelling elephants in the Kaokoveld declined from an estimated 300 to 70. Although the desert dwelling elephants are not a separate sub species they have adapted to their extremely harsh environment, the only other place in Africa where elephants live in such harsh conditions is in Mali on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The secret of their survival in the arid wastelands is an intimate knowledge of their limited food and water resources. During the dry periods they will even dig deep holes to obtain water and in this way also provide other animals with water. Unlike other elephants which drink daily, these ones have been observed going without water for up to four days. The black rhino of Kaokoland suffered a fate similar to that of the elephants and by 1983 the population in the east had been exterminated, while only a few individuals survived in the extreme western parts of Kaokoland which makes them a very rare sight. Nowadays, there are a few organisations doing their best to ensure the continuing existence of these rare and unique animals.
A tented camp on the banks of the Kunene River close to Epupa Falls and Himba settlements
Previously this only provided campsites, but recently added rooms on stilts overlooking the river and falls. A rustic option but closest situated to Epupa Falls
On the border between Kaokoland and Damaraland this fort was built at the same time as the fort of Namutoni in Etosha
On a hill above the Kunene river, the lodge has tremendous views of the surrounding area and looks towards the Epupa Falls
An excellent base from which to explore the Kaokoland area.
An excellent lodge in a remote location on the banks of the Kunene River, for those interesting in birding, relaxing or river rafting this lodge is an absolute must
In the village of Opuwo, this is a basic tented camp
One of the oldest lodges in the Kaokoland area, from here guest can visit Himba villages and other areas of interest in Kaokoland
Near the tiny settlement of Puros, this luxury lodge offers you the ability to search for the desert adapted elephants
On a hillside overlooking the Kunene River this small intimate camp offers accommodation for a maximum of 14 people.
A comfortable tented camp close to the Epupa falls
This is one of the newer lodges in Opuwo - it has beautiful views over Kaokoland -a real desert oasis
Up-market luxury safari camp on the Kunene River - only reachable by light aircraft