Once you head for Etosha and the Kaokoland in Namibia’s northwest, the landscape becomes increasingly stark, yet it’s surprisingly full of life. This Arid Eden is full of contradictions, amazing geological formations, harsh landscapes and free-ranging animals. Here are our highlights of the past three weeks.
All packed and prepared we headed north from Windhoek to Namibia’s famous Etosha National Park. A three-night stay inside the park ensured plenty of time to capture the unique atmosphere among the wild African wildlife and despite the rain season, it offered plenty of game sightings as we drove slowly along the vast salt pan that constitutes a major part of the park’s environment. As almost all game parks do, Etosha excels mostly during the dry season when huge herds of animals can be seen. However, with the current rain season, the dust settles and the landscape turns green, allowing us to see some of the most startling and photogenic scenery in Africa. Nevertheless, we were able to see about almost every famous African animal, except that elusive leopard. Sitting so high up in that monster truck of ours does have its advantages. We spot a lot more from up there than we would in a regular 4×4.
After we said our farewells to Etosha it was time to head into one of Namibia’s least inhabited areas – The Kaokoland. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. It stretches from the Skeleton Coast in the north-west and rises slowly into a wild and rugged landscape. Vast mountain ranges covered by slow-growing trees and dormant grass seeds which have waited desperately for the fall of the first rain. As we drove deeper into the Kaokoland dramatic black thunderclouds formed above our heads covering the unbearable heat of the sun. With its full tropical ferocity, the rain came down upon us. Since our arrival in Namibia, we have had barely any rain and dust and sand has covered our entire car. The rain worked wonders. I got out of the car just to enjoy the smell of fresh air and the buckets of rain pouring down on us.
Opuwo, which we reached in the early afternoon represented our last chance to stock up on groceries, water, gas and money before executing our plan to drive to Epupa Falls, head east along the river bed of the Kunene River until we reach Rundu and eventually Khaudum Game Reserve. Simultaneously Opuwo marked the beginning of a series of frustrating mechanical and electrical problems within the cabin infrastructure as well as in the engine area. Just as we wanted to leave Opuwo our engine was unable to start. One of our two 12V batteries had died, noticeable by the intense heat that had accumulated within the battery pack. Luckily we were able to replace both batteries for a pair of new ones in town. We were incredibly thankful as this could have happened anywhere and with no spear batteries on board starting the engine would have become a nightmare, if not impossible.
A few days later the alternator for the cabin batteries had come loose. The engine was leaking after miles and miles of rough dirt roads through the bush. The fan-belt had loosened and was able to grind open a neighbouring rubber pipe which supplied our engine with its vital cooling fluid. Fortunately, we noticed the leakage early, fixed the alternator and replaced the rubber pipe with a new one. While these problems might sound fairly obvious they are usually subject to hours of problem-solving and repairs during the intense heat of the African summer. External help is almost always impossible to find and so there is almost that slight anxiety that we could get stuck at any point.
Our adventure and risk-taking, however, has been rewarded plenty of times. Starting with the Epupa Falls one of the highlights of the Kaokoland. Here at Epupa, the Kunene river widens to accommodate a few small islands, before plunging into a deep geological fault. The falls don’t compare with Victoria Falls in scale, but they are all the more beautiful for occurring in such an arid region.
Our long journey through Namibia has been overwhelming and before it had to come to an end we decided to drive through a seldom visited area of dry woodland savannah growing on old stabilised Kalahari sand dunes – the Khaudum Game Reserve. However, the thick vegetation and the deep sand have been everything but easy to drive through and subsequently also narrowed down our hunt for that elusive leopard that I am especially keen to observe. Again, we were unlucky but Khaudum is a beautiful place to visit which we had completely to ourselves. Not once did we see another tourist drive through.
In northern Namibia there are actually two possibilities to cross into Botswana (if you’re not in the Caprivi already), Dobe or Mahembo/Shakawe. We chose Dobe, because it is closer to Khaudum Game Reserve.
The border post at Dobe really is an isolated place … they have about five cars (!) crossing the border there daily … sometimes even less! So, all that customs and police wanted to do on both sides in our case was to chat with us for a while because their job there simply is extremely boring. Very easy! No problems! Passports stamped, carnet stamped … and off we went. It seemed to be the easiest border crossing in Africa!
Shortly after our border-crossing, the real fun began…
The road on the Botswanan side which is marked a simple 4×4 track in our maps turned into horrific dirt road during the rain season with some very muddy stretches. Often, the entire street was completely covered by water. There were now some 100 miles of dirt road between Dobe and the next tarmac road. The road soon disintegrated due to a series of tropical rain showers that have left their mark. We’d be at the brink of getting stuck in deep black cotton mud, at times 2 feet deep. Large stretches of road haven’t seen vehicles for months. Here, farm animals have taken over what used to be called a passable road and turned it into large mood plains. Luckily the free roaming donkeys and cows cared neither about the state of the road nor about the sudatory state of ours. After 4 hours of battling in 2nd and sometimes 1st gear, seeing tar can be absolutely overwhelming. We finally made it. Welcome to Botswana!
Rural Africa, if I am not mistaken, is about three things: animals, landscapes and people. It is not about high culture, haute cuisine or smooth and predictable travel. To explore – for us at least – there is really only one genuine option: If you have the luxury of time on your hands, and are prepared to increase your risk threshold then rent a car or sign up for an overland trip and drive out into the wild. This continent will do all the rest. We are certainly never lost… we continue to explore.