Come Back to Namibia

By Karen Rutter • Photography by Mike Snethlage

 

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The river moves fast. I’m floating with one arm hooked round a rock. If I let go, I will be swept into the rapids and flung 60 metres down the falls. For now, though, I’m just worried whether we remembered to cool the Chardonnay. 

It’s been a long and dusty trek. We’re on the way to the Epupa Falls, on the northernmost tip of Namibia. There’s a harsh beauty to be found in the arid contours. It’s tough country. The Kaokoland region, where we are, is a rugged wilderness zone. Small pleasures, such as a swim and a glass of something cold, are more intense in this setting. I find myself plunging into a rock pool beside the falls, before settling down with a well-deserved sundowner. 

Travelling through Namibia often seems to work on this kind of reward system—you push yourself that bit extra, and the payback feels rightfully earned. And there are so many rewards to be claimed…

An Affordable Holiday Option

At a time when the economic crunch is affecting most people, it makes sense to look for more affordable holiday options. Driving over the border into Namibia opens up a whole new vista. Here leisure activities range from game watching and dune boarding to hot-air ballooning and more. Accommodation ranges from basic camping to over-the-top luxury. This allows you to tailor-make your own vacation. 

Two Types of 4x4 Campers

We are a group of five who recently made the trip in two 4x4s. Quite soon into the journey we realise there are two categories of campers in our party. Roy and Helene are the first-class travellers. They are so prepared. Right down to their colour-coded camper beds. Mike, Leila and I are second, maybe even third class. We have forgotten essentials like sleeping bags. Roy and Helene even have a fridge in their Land Rover, with a constant supply of sparkling wine. Our gang usually make do with warm Coke. Unless we can persuade them to cool our Chardonnay for us. But it doesn’t really matter. The sheer scale of the country, the contrasts and the curiosities, humble us alike. 

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Meeting the Locals

At Epupa Falls we are jostled and teased by a group of Himba locals who want to sell us bracelets. The semi-nomadic Himba, who number around 12 000, have lived in this area for around 500 years. They’ve become photographic icons, with their ochre-covered skins and intricately styled hair. As we drive through the region, we see the mud huts that make up their non-permanent ‘villages’. We have big eyes; they merely go about their business.

The night before we found ourselves further down the river, at the delightful Kunene River Lodge. Owners Peter and Hillary Morgan came out from England to visit their daughter, who was working in the area. They fell in love with the lodge and bought it. They love the change of continents, and have transformed the shady riverside venue into a bird watcher’s haven, where you can also go kayaking, fishing and quad biking.

Etosha National Park

Further south is the Etosha National Park, which is a must-see if you are in the country. It’s big. 22 270 square kilometres, to be exact. I’ve seen it many times, and every visit is different. In the middle of winter it’s dry and the bush is skinny. Game practically live at the waterholes. This time, the rains have come and the saltpans are covered in a soft layer of water. The grass is lush, the animals are fat and lazy. Finding them becomes more exciting. We see lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, kudu—and get a special kick out of watching the ground squirrels pop up alongside the road.

There are three camps in Etosha—Namutoni, Halali and Okaukuejo—all with chalet or camping options. The park has recently had an upgrade, and it shows. A big attraction of each camp is its waterhole. Okaukuejo has a massive seating area, which makes the sundowner session a particularly social gathering. We bring drinks, snacks and binoculars, and settle in as the evening show begins and the parade of wildlife makes its entrance. 

Exploring the Caprivi Strip

From Etosha there are quite a few routes to explore. We have come from the Caprivi Strip—a no-go war zone during the 1980s—now open for traffic. Caprivi is in the corner, nestled into the borders with Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We board the Nguni Voyager, a luxury houseboat catering for 10 people maximum, which cruises the Zambezi close to the Chobe National Park in Botswana (although we are officially in Namibian waters). Captain and co-owner Haydn Willans, a keen fly-fisherman from Kwa-Zulu Natal, is our host. He takes delight in our excitement at being on the water, while chef Sabrina Siboleka keeps up a constant stream of gourmet meals—with homemade bread and cakes baked on the boat. While we are gazing up from the rooftop deck one night—clutching mugs of hot coffee and biscotti—a meteorite shower streaks overhead. This is something I’ll never forget.

The Road Back Home

The road back south offers more options. You can stop off Lake Otjikoto, a sinkhole formed by underground water that is green in colour. When my grandparents lived near here, they would say that if you dived below the surface, you would be sucked under and only appear 50km away in Lake Guinas. These two lakes are rumoured to be linked by an underground channel. I don’t know if that’s true. But we don’t try swimming. One fact we do know is that the German forces dumped their tanks and guns in here during the First World War. Some bits still remain. You can also visit the Waterberg Plateau Park. Take a game drive on to the top of the plateau, where black and white rhino roam. The vistas spread to the horizon. 

Windhoek, the capital, is practically in the middle of the country. It’s fine for a pitstop, but if time is pressing, there are far more exciting turns to take. 

The Challenges of a Road Trip

Any road trip is bound to have its challenges. We hit ours on a deserted dirt road. Twice, actually. Without going into details—except mentioning a burned-out clutch and a broken suspension system—we find ourselves being towed by a helpful ranger, Oneman Mumbalu, down to the village of Sesfontein. Short of sleeping in a shepherd’s hut, our alternative is a former German fort, which turns out to be very interesting. From Fort Sesfontein you can do guided drives to find the desert elephants, visit a cultural village, or wallow in the natural thermal spring at Warmquelle.

From here, if you decide to take the dirt roads down south and avoid the main B1, you’ll be blown away by big sky country. There’s Twyfelfontein, which boasts one of the largest collections of rock engravings in Africa. Then there’s Burnt Mountain and the Organ Pipes, two geological features whose names speak for themselves. And enough space to put the most restless mind at peace.

It’s also the kind of territory that lends itself to warm gatherings around a fire, something tasty on the braai, and that cold Chardonnay I mentioned earlier. This is where being a first class traveller with a fridge helps. 

You’re bound to end up at either Walvis Bay or Swakopmund, both on the Skeleton Coast. While swimming may not be an option, eating Black Forest cake in Swakop or going on a bird-watching or desert dune expedition outside Walvis is recommended.

The Long and Winding Road

And then there’s the long and winding road through the Namib-Naukluft Park, where you can stop and hike up a sand dune and take the kind of photographs that will make your friends back home jealous.

If you’re driving to South Africa from here, then a detour to the Fish River Canyon, just before the Orange River border, is compulsory. Stay at the Ais Ais resort or camp at Hobas, then find the viewpoint which pitches you right at the top of this spread—the second-largest canyon in the world—carved out over millennia to create a crusty warren of mountain walls and riverbeds. 

Then it’s a quick hop and skip over the border back home. But it’s guaranteed—you’ll want to come back to explore all the parts you didn’t see the first time.